Sunday, May 21, 2017

How I Met Your MUTHUR: “Alien: Covenant” is a Creepy, Contemplative Pre-sequel

It only took two films, the hotly debated and divisive “Prometheus” (I loved it) and what the Golden Globes called the Best Comedy of the Year “TheMartian,” for Ridley Scott to get back into his sci-fi thriller Xenomorph groove. When “Alien” was released in 1979 it set a new standard for horror and science fiction. So many films have understandably copied its success. The series petered out eventually, entering “Jaws the Revenge” levels of mediocrity. Ridley Scott's “Prometheus” was a return to sci-fi form and a nod to his original filmmaking roots. Some people hated it. Some people loved it. But the best movies are always the ones that are endlessly debated. Enter “Alien: Covenant” a sequel to “Prometheus” that also works as a prequel to “Alien” and helps flesh out the things that seemed to frustrate people the most about the film that came before it. It's a taught, well-made thriller. The film doesn't break the mold and doesn't offer the same shocking moments of its predecessors but it further explores the fascinating themes of creationism and artificial intelligence.

The best sci-fi films always offer a little bit more than cool effects and action. Ridley Scott is a pioneer in the genre but too far too long of a break. “Prometheus” and “The Martian” proved he could be successful in the genre again and “Covenant” is no exception. Taking place several years after the events of “Prometheus” the film follows a small crew of a ship carrying thousands of people, and embryos, sent to colonize a new planet. After the ship is damaged and the crew is forced to wake up from cryosleep early, they discover a signal from a nearby habitable planet, still years away from their destination, they decide to check it out in hopes it could be their new home. But it's never that easy is it? Aboard the ship is Daniels (Katherine Waterston) the wife of the ship's captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) the first mate, pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), head of security Lope (Demián Bichir), and a handful of others. Every crew member is with their significant other. Also aboard is a familiar face: a synthetic human named Walter who looks exactly like David from “Prometheus.” He's also played by Michael Fassbender in another standout performance. He's an updated model and the film delves extremely deep into these fascinating android characters. To say much more about the plot or whether familiar characters show up is to ruin the fun.

But let's get to the good stuff. One is going to see “Alien: Covenant” for two main reasons, you just really want your “Prometheus” questions answered and you want to see another awesome “Alien” movie. Rejoice because you get both. Screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper make the most sense out of what “Prometheus” started and have a great script that is heavy on the philosophy but doesn't skimp on the action and suspense. And Scott taking a cue from himself, takes his time here. Anyone waiting to see a Xenomorph onscreen in the first 15 minutes will be sorely disappointed. But the money shots come and they're worth the wait. There is lots of slimy, slithery creature stuff here that I can't give away. I'd say none of it comes close to being as squirm inducing as the “abortion scene” from “Prometheus” or shocking power of the “chestburster scene” from the original “Alien” but there's plenty of good stuff. The computer effects are really well done. The days of practical effects are unfortunately long gone, but what we're given are completely convincing.

“Alien: Covenant” is also a solid achievement as well. Dariusz Wolski's moody and stark cinematography is gorgeous and Jed Kurzel's otherworldly music filled with cues from Jerry Goldsmith's original score is fantastic. Overall, “Covenant” is a resounding success. Waterston is a fine “Ripley stand-in” and is easy to care about, Fassbender gives another fascinating performance, and Ridley finds a great balance of “Prometheus stuff” and “Alien stuff” and bends these worlds together nicely. I would argue that the Alien-inspired “Life” was a much more squirm-inducing experience but “Alien: Covenant” is perfectly fine entertainment considering it's the 8th installment in a franchise that burst onto the scene nearly forty years ago.  GRADE: B+  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

O Mother, Where Art Thou?: Goldie Hawn Makes Her Return in the Decently Funny “Snatched”

I’m pretty confident that Amy Schumer is the female version of Seth Rogen. He’s known for playing the eternal man-child and Schumer is becoming known as playing the eternal woman-child. She was extraordinary in “Trainwreck” and paired nicely with Judd Apatow’s great sense of humor behind the camera and Bill Hader in front of the camera. Amy’s character in “Snatched” is also a trainwreck of sorts. She just wants to go on exotic vacations and drink with her boyfriend. But he dumps her and she decides to take her mother instead. Enter Goldie Hawn, a celebrity of the highest order who’s career took a nosedive with Warren Beatty back in the early 2000s. “Snatched” is about a mother and daughter who get kidnapped while on vacation in South America. It’s sort of a weird hybrid of “Trainwreck,” “Romancing the Stone,” and “Terms of Endearment,” but not as good. It’s stupid and raunchy and whether you laugh or not will probably depend on how much you like Schumer’s shtick; I enjoyed the film even if it runs out of steam by the end of its 90 minute runtime.

“Snatched” is nothing particularly new and when it comes right down to it it's probably offensive to a lot of people. And I'm not talking about the jokes that refer to Amy Schumer's vagina or anything. I'm talking about the whole “white women in kidnapped in South America” thing. However, you don't go to see anything with Ms. Schumer for politically correct stuff so let's move on. Amy plays Emily Middleton who has already booked and paid for a vacation to Equador with her boyfriend but he breaks up with her within ten minutes of the film opening. To the surprise of no one, she can't find anyone to go with. She goes begrudgingly to visit her lonely, overly worrisome, divorced, cat-loving mother Linda (Hawn). Linda is taking care of her agoraphobic adult son Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz, usually a scene stealer but not when he's given somewhat mediocre material). Emily sees a bonding opportunity and somehow thinks it's a good idea to drag her nearly 70-year-old , but former adventurous mother to South America (for the record, Hawn is currently 71). They meet two bizarre American tourists played by Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack. Then Emily meets a handsome local man and before she knows it Linda and Emily are being held captive.

Let's focus on the positives though. Screenwriter Kate Dippold, coming off films like “The Heat” and the controversial-for-no-reason “Ghostbusters” redo, takes very familiar material and makes it somewhat fresh. This script isn't going to win any awards but at least it's not a sequel, remake, or reboot. And there are lots of women in it. And they're funny. Was this the script that was needed to revive Goldie Hawn's career? Not really. But she's still freaking hilarious and it feels great to see her up on that screen again. She hasn't lost anything. She has great chemistry with Schumer and the appearance of Sykes and Cusack in somewhat thankless and somewhat pointless roles are still a highlight. There are better comedies out there and there are far worse ones. Director Jonathan Levine seems to be more interested in broad comedy lately as opposed to the more refined emotion he brought to the likes of "Warm Bodies" and the wonderful "50/50."

I find Amy Schumer's brand of raunchy comedy amusing. And she's actually a good actress. This is still technically a downgrade from the wonderful “Trainwreck” and she's not exactly stretching her legs by any means but she plays this part well. It's fun seeing Goldie and Amy onscreen together and the film has a delightful mean streak and isn't afraid to be un-PC. The film eventually becomes a bit tiresome as it chugs along. But it has it's moments. If seeing Amy Schumer getting caught wiping off her crotch in a bar bathroom is your idea of fun entertainment (hell yeah!) then go see “Snatched.” The title certainly doesn't lie.  GRADE: B

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Suck Zone: Ranking All the Tornados in “Twister”

It’s no secret that “Twister” is my favorite disaster movie of all time (weather-related or otherwise) and one of my favorite and most well-remembered movie-going experiences as a kid. I recall May 10th 1996 so vividly, like it was yesterday. So how could I not celebrate its release every year? Especially since “Twister” officially turns 21 today. And since I love making movie lists just as much as I love watching the movies on said lists I’ve decided to delve deeper into “Twister” than I ever have before. This is the definitive ranking of all of the tornadoes that show up throughout “Twister.” Yes, I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.

1 - Stuck in a Ditch Twister aka “Why Can’t We Spend a Normal Day Together” Twister

This is without a doubt my favorite tornado in “Twister."  This is also the first actual twister we see onscreen. I how much personality it has: it’s skinny shape and those camel sound effects are great. The entire ditch scene is fun and it was a centerpiece of the film’s great advertising campaign. Everyone always remembers their first and since and this was always one of my favorite scenes in the movie because like the first Tyrannosaurus scene in “Jurassic Park” it’s the first time we actually see the villain attack the main characters.

2 - Drive-In Twister aka “It’s Already Here” Twister


This is a great scene because it’s sort of a mix between the unseen twister in the film’s opening and the steady and monstrous one in the finale. And it’s a constant reminder that twisters happen at night and are almost impossible to see. The gang is checking out a double bill of Psycho and The Shining when a twister approaches right when Jack Nicholson is chopping down the bathroom door. It must not be a Kubrick fan. Everyone must take shelter in a garage where cars are flung at them as the movie screen dissolves before our eyes.

3 - Finale F5 Twister aka “It Must Be at Least a Mile Wide” Twister

This is the mother of all twisters, an F5 on the outdated Fuija-scale, only previously witnessed by Jo in the opening scene as a child. This twister also lasts for an unprecdedentd amount of screentime and eats a lot including DOROTHY III,  a tractor trailer, the villainous Cary Elwes, and lots of farm tractors. Though it can’t rip Jo and Bill from the ground because of the superhuman leather belts they found. We get to witness the core of the tornado and are satisfied with the fact that Jo has gotten to experience a twister from the inside. It’s super deep.

4 - Opening Scene Dad-killing Twister aka “I Can’t Hold It Anymore” Twister
Twister Intro
make action GIFs like this at MakeaGif

All the great movies open with a scene in which the monstrous villain attacks but we can’t really see much. Steven Spielberg proved this formula works in “Jaws” and it works here. Little Jo heads to the storm shelter with her parents and Toto-lookalike dog Toby only to witness her father get sucked up through the weakened storm door. It’s a traumatic moment for the character that defines her and it sets the pace for the spectacle that is about to await us.

5 - Double Waterspout Twister aka “We Got Cows” Twister

Probably one of the more well-known twisters from the film are the infamous waterspouts that fling the cow around.  As our heros and the hapless Dr. Melissa Reeves drive over a bridge the tornado follows and splits into two (“We got sisters!”). It’s traumatizing to Melissa but Jo and Bill act as if they just saw the second coming of Christ. It’s a fun sequence but besides being made of water these twin twisters don’t have much going for them and don’t last very long.

6 - Hail & DOROTHY II-Killing Twister aka “That’s No Moon It’s a Space Station” Twister

Speaking of not lasting long, the last twister on this list is sort of pathetic. It shows up long enough to rip some telephone poles down and murder DOROTHY II in the process but other than producing some large chunks of hail it’s over much too quickly. We see the clouds churn like a fresh batch of ice cream only to have a funnel appear for mere seconds. At least Dusty gets to be getting a lot out of it by using his telephoto lens. Melissa, is yet again, not impressed - mostly because this tornado signifies the end of her relationship. Bummer. Welcome to the suck zone indeed.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

The Parent Trap: Marvel’s “Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2” Offers All the Fun of the Original

Guardians of the Galaxy” was a surprise hit in August of 2014. How could a Marvel movie be a “surprise hit” exactly? Because the movie didn’t star a man in an iron suit or a guy with an indestructible red, white, & blue shield or a hulking, angry green monster for that matter. For all intents and purposes “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a practically unknown property to the masses and writer/director James Gunn turned what could have been a confusing mess (like “Green Lantern” or “John Carter”) into one of the best and most unique comic book films in quite some time. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” offers all the great stuff that was featured in the first film including fun, irreverent humor, great chemistry among its top-notch cast, a catchy soundtrack, and spectacular action sequences. Even if a bit of the surprise factor is gone, which is inherent in a sequel, this second chapter delves deeper into the characters and is simply a delight from start to finish.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” feels so fresh because it feels so far removed from the rest of the Marvel cannon. And yet they’re supposed to come together eventually but for now most of the story doesn’t involve anyone related to an Avenger as far as I could tell. This time we learn a lot more about Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord) and his father. We learn in the previous entry that he’s actually only half human. His father was some kind of non-earthling.  In a cheeky bit of genius casting, the father of the charming and hunky Chris Pratt is played by the charming and hunky Kurt Russell. Peter’s dad is none other than Ego, a cosmic being from another planet, but the less known about him the better.

Ego isn’t the only new character to show up in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” You’ll recall at the end of the last film that gigantic tree creature and fan-favorite Groot seemingly sacrificed himself. Rocket replanted him and Baby Groot was born. He appeared briefly dancing in his flower pot, but Baby Groot appears here and he’s cute as ever running around with his trademark “I am Groot” line over and over again. There’s also a lot more going on here which involves the Sovereign race of gold colored super-beings and their leader Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) which involves the Guardians defeating a gigantic, scary monster in the film’s brilliant opening title sequence. Sylvester Stallone shows up as a Ravager leader who has some unfinished business with Michael Rooker’s Yondu. Howard the Duck pops up again and the film’s Awesome Mix soundtrack is as groovy as ever.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” features everything you loved about the first one but turned up to an 11. These characters and their quirks are all simply fantastic. Gamora, Rocket, Drax, Baby Groot, and Star-Lord are some of the greatest characters ever to grace the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Gunn keeps things bright and colorful with great moments of irreverent, biting and sometimes dark humor that pushes the boundaries of what we’re used to in these movies. The film still very vaguely even connects to the other films in this universe but that’s probably for the best the Guardian films can be enjoyed with or without knowledge of the dozen or so Marvel films that have come before. What an enjoyable way to kick off the summer movie season.  GRADE: A-


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rogue One: The Pleasingly Ridiculous “The Fate of the Furious” Offers Total Vehicular Mayhem

Being the last person in the world who gives a crap about cars let along cars that go fast, I'm just as surprised as you are that I've found the recent movies in the “Fast & Furious” franchise to be strangely intoxicating and highly entertaining. “Furious Seven” was probably the highpoint of the series so far (Though “Fast Five” was the real turning point). It featured top-notch direction from “Conjuring” helmer James Wan, spectacularly staged action, and an unexpected emotional draw as a the result of the unfortunate real-life death of star Paul Walker. It was actually a fit ending to the franchise. But this is Hollywood and a million dollar franchise won't die just because one its actors has. So hence we have the most awkwardly titled of the series - “The Fate of the Furious” - and it's a completely fine addition to the series. It's still leaps and bounds better than where this franchise began and offers frenetic mayhem, destruction, and fast cars. Like the others, the movie remains paradoxical to me; it's unabashedly silly and stupid and yet there's something so compelling and fun about it all.

Does anyone really care about the plot of a Fast & Furious film? I didn't think so. For the three of you who do care, it has something to do with Russians and nuclear weapons. Timely right? Oscar winner Charlize Theron is the newly minted franchise villain, and she sports dreadlocks and her best Bea Arthur-approved outfit. And fun fact, Charlize isn't the only Oscar winner to show up but I won't spoil the fun.This time Vin Diesel's Dom apparently turns on his “family” - including the love of his life Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) - for reasons that aren't fully clear until the midpoint. It's been the selling point of the film's marketing. Like it's core audience gives a crap about that. THERE IS A SUBMARINE. Oh and one point cars are hacked and literally come driving out of buildings. It's utterly ridiculous but that's why it's so fun.

The film has a new guy in the theoretical driver's seat: F. Gary Gray, whose last film was the outstanding NWA biopic “Straight Outta Compton. His direction of action is fine and competent. His biggest strength seems to be the upping of humor from Chris Morgan's paint-by-numbers script. Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges and Tyrese Gibson buddy comedy bromance is always a highlight as is scenes featuring Dwayne Johnson's Hobbs and Jason Statham's Deckard (the latest villain who takes a turn towards “the good side”). When is the Hobbs & Deckard spinoff happening?? The film isn't flawless. The film's cast is delightfully diverse but since the absence of Walker is felt the filmmakers felt the need to give Scott Eastwood the role of “generic white guy.” He's as bland and vanilla as they come. Kurt Russell looks more embarrassed acting opposite him than he does actually being in these movies.

“The Fate of the Furious” is loud, crazy, and fun. It's exactly what you expect from these films but they always try to up themselves. What began as story of illegal street racers has become a full fledged James Bond-like globe-trotting action-adventures series. The story features a few fun twists and turns as this franchise usually does and some really over the top action. The ending action scene aboard the airplane with Statham and an unexpected passenger is a perfect example of the mix of ridiculous and balls-to-the-wall fun. As crazy as these movies are they're at least somewhat competently made and generally coherent. Take note Transformers!  GRADE: B+

Friday, March 31, 2017

Lovely Rita: “Power Rangers” Reboot Morphs into Semi-Decent Entertainment

It's not an April Fool's joke. I didn't hate “Power Rangers.” Of course it's not really that great of a movie, but it's far from terrible, and feel just unoffensive enough to make it worth existing. While the trailers promised Transformers-level action and dumbness, it's far better than those eye-roll inducing excuses for entertainment. Those nostalgic for corny entertainment from their childhood will certainly be curious about “Power Rangers.” See it because Elizabeth Banks is in it and hams it up nicely. And stay because it's definitely not the worst thing you'll see in the theater this year. It doesn't focus on endless, repetitive action scenes; character development somewhat exists here if you can believe it and it's probably because an Oscar-nominated screenwriter actually wrote this thing.

Taking a cue from many other superhero, comic, and other big screen reboots, “Power Rangers” is a gritty take on the corny 90s kids show about teenagers who fight weird monsters and aliens in bad rubber suits, morph into bright, colorful uniforms, and ride around in vehicles shaped like dinosaurs. Every single episode followed the same lame formula and kids (myself included) ate it up for some reason. No, “Power Rangers” doesn't need to exist. It's not going to change lives of its audience or win awards. But you can see a modicum of talent bubbling beneath the surface here.

The five young actors (who are supposed to be teenagers but are clearly too old to be in high school) are actually pretty decent and do a good job at making their characters likeable, relateable, or at least have more than one dimension. Newcomer Dacre Montgomery, taking on the role of rebellious good-looking jock whose injury has crushed his football dreams, is quite charismatic in the role of Jason. He'll eventually become the Red Ranger and be the group's leader. There's forlorn cheerleader Kimberly (Naomi Scott) who becomes the Pink Ranger. The nerdy, semi-autistic genius Billy (RJ Cyler) as the Blue Ranger. The mysterious loner Zack (Ludi Lin) who's the Black Ranger. And Trini (Becky G.) the fiery Latina whose parents don't understand her, as the Yellow Ranger. The film certainly takes its time with these kids and it's for the better. Once they actually become Power Rangers all the good character stuff gets traded in for action.

And then of course there's Elizabeth Banks who's in this thing for some reason. I'm guessing she lost a bet. But then how does one explain the appearance of both Bryan Cranston and Bill Hader? It doesn't matter. These actors careers are safe. There's nothing particularly horrible here. Banks hams it up as Rita Repulsa who was actually a ranger back in the day (in the day of the dinosaurs to be exact) and betrays the group killing all the other rangers. And she's somehow revived in modern day. The five teens stumble upon five colored coins that gave the rangers their power. The rest is history. Screenwriter John Gaitins does his best with the silly source material. It's pretty much played straight and works decently enough. Director Dean Israelite is having fun here and you can see he has a fun visual eye. There's even an early scene involving in a long take in a pickup truck that's quite impressive.

“Power Rangers” is really dumb, harmless fun. It's not nearly as bad as some terrible big budget movies and it's not as well-done as the really good ones. The film is perfectly fine fan service. It takes its time focusing on the characters which makes the film sort of feel like The Breakfast Club meets Marvel. I didn't hate it.  GRADE: B-

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Crawl Space: Bring an Extra Pair of Underwear to See “Life”

Can I even write a proper review of the new scif-fi thriller “Life?” I missed 20% of the film: I was so scared I had to look away on several occasions. It takes a lot to scare this cynical horror fan but when you leave the theater ready to hold back tears of fright because of how intense the previous movie-going experience was, you know you've seen a completely successful horror film. “Life,” a sci fi-horor film that works as a cross between “Gravity” and “Alien” is an extremely intense thrill ride. Even if it owes a lot to the great films that came before, its realistic approach makes it an extremely powerful, and suspenseful movie filled with unforgettable moments of gross-out horror and poignant moments of characterization. Fasten your seat belts, because this is one bumpy ride.

“Life” begins by introducing us to a group of scientists aboard the International Space Station on a mission that has to do with studying the possibility of life on Mars. When they discover a single celled organism the crew, and the entire world, are fascinated by the discovery of life outside our planet. But this little guy isn't quite what it seems and it begins to grow exponentially to the point where it does what it wants when it wants to do it. Soon wonder turns to horror as the crew members are picked off one by one. There's medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), quarantine officer Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), engineer Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds), ISS pilot Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), and ISS commander Olga Dihovichnaya (Katerina Golokina). These are the characters and part of the fun of the movie is figuring out who's gonna die next.

The film works so well because of the realistic nature of its setting. It's not set in a distant future with unfamiliar technology like “Alien.” It's set in a real place, the International Space Station. It asks the question, what if an antagonistic life form got on board. So those who thought “Gravity” was missing a rapidly growing alien creature will certainly be please with “Life.” Relatively little known Swedish director Daniel Espinosa directs with stunning precision. DP genius Seamus McGarvey's camera glides around the space station impressively and the film opens with a thrilling, long take sequence that has nothing to do with alien lifeforms. And the script is from the guys who wrote “Deadpool” and “Zombieland” of all things. The film moves along swiftly, though I'd argue the film's third act isn't as strong as what came before, and is not overly complicated with unnecessary exposition; the film is wisely more interested in scaring the audience than confusing it. And even if it's not the most original of sci-fi thrillers, it thankfully doesn't have the most annoying cliche of all: the human villain.

It's safe to say that “Life” was one of the scariest experiences I've ever had in a movie theater. Don't take that statement as hyperbole. It's an extremely intense experience that earns its frights. The visual effects are extremely well done, and don't let the fact that the creature is CGI fool you: it's disgustingly designed and completely terrifying. Those with weak constitutions may need to seek the shelter of a friendlier, nicer film. Let me suggest “Beauty and the Beast.” That film will make you leave the film singing. “Life” will make you leave the theater physically rattled. I wouldn’t have it any other way.  GRADE: A-  

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Working Dead: While Nothing Groundbreaking, “The Belko Experiment” is Disturbing, Exploitative Fun

I've never seen “Battle Royale” so I can't bear witness to its disturbing quality, but as far as films about children murdering each other it must be a pretty messed up experience. The “kill or be killed” premise isn't something brand new. It's even more recently gone mainstream in the form of “The Hunger Games” series in which teenagers and children are forced to murder each other in a post-apocalyptic dystopian society. “The Belko Experiment” takes the “kill or be killed” premise into the office working environment. The film follows the employees of a Bogota, Columbia-based company as they're forced to play a deadly game by an unknown adversary. Cue people being shot, stabbed, and maimed in variously disturbing ways. And it's funny. That's because the guy behind this craziness is James Gunn who can go from horror such as “Dawn of the Dead” to quirky dark comedy like “Super” to populist summer blockbusters like “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

There was an old couple in the theater when I saw “The Belko Experiment” and I always wonder how certain people find their way into certain movies. Perhaps they saw “Spring Awakening” on Broadway and are big fans of Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr. who plays the likable Mike Milch. Perhaps they recall Tony Goldwyn (not cast by accident since his characters always seem to go to dark places) from his turn in the 1990 romantic classic “Ghost.” He plays CEO Barry Norris. Or, turning to television, perhaps they were big fans of “Scrubs,” as character actor John C. McGinley plays Wendell Dukes who constantly and creepily leers at Mike's girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona). There are other cliched characters including the friendly pothead, the friendly chubby lady, and the friendly gay guy. Maybe this couple was big fans of Australian director Greg McLean who gave us the fantastically creepy horror film “Wolf Creek.” I assume this cute elderly couple are just messed up people who enjoy exploitative graphic violence.

And that's exactly what the film is most concerned with. I think there's a point somewhere in Gunn's tight script about the corporate work life and the boring routine of the office workplace. It's an observation of how disturbing human behavior can be when in put in such a dire situation and pushed to the limits of survival. The film threatens to become almost too much to bear; in this current world the image of people being shot in the supposed safety of a work environment is almost too distressing. But the film finds a good balance of humor to balance out the darkness. McLean's film is almost unbearably suspenseful; it's so fantastically paced, there's hardly much room to breathe.

“The Belko Experiment” is fast-paced, violent, disturbing, and shamelessly ridiculous. It also makes you laugh despite the fact that it threatens to become too overwhelmingly dark. It will certainly be not everyone's idea of a good time at the movies. You're really just watching people be violently murdered for an hour and a half. And even if the premise isn't quite the most original, it provides a place for those of us willing to travel to the darkest recesses of the human mind. See it for the disturbing premise, stay for the death by tape dispenser.  GRADE: B+

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Belle of the Ball: Live Action “Beauty & the Beast” is Luscious & Fun, if a Bit Padded

There definitely is something there that wasn't there before. And that's not necessarily the best thing. The groundbreaking 1991 animated musical hit “Beauty & the Beast,” hot off the heels of the equally iconic “The Little Mermaid,” set a new standard not only for Disney but for animated films in general. Clocking in at 84 minutes, the film was swift yet majestic, stunningly animated, and absolutely fun. The film was brilliant and remains so, but there really wasn't all that much substance behind it. 

Enter a new era where classic Disney animated films get the live action treatment because now we have the technology to see dishes sing and dance. But with a new runtime of 129 minutes the glossy new Disney musical threatens to overstay its welcome. Filled with extra somewhat sub-par songs (only in comparison to the superior originals) and mildly unnecessary plot elements disguised as character development, “Beauty & the Beast” is a really fun movie with great performances, dazzling musical moments, and fun bursts of humor; though it might be a bit overstuffed for its own good. It's not quite as garish as the live action “Alice in Wonderland” but not as emotionally rewarding and visually lush as “The Jungle Book.” I have no qualms about recommending “Beauty & the Beast” to every single person who is excited as hell to see it.

We've sort of entered a new era for the movie musical. Directors are more interested in filling out their casts with great actors who can sing decently instead of decent actors who can sing great. And that's fine. Emma Watson, still hot off her longtime run in the Harry Potter films, stars here as Belle. She's the girl whose nose is always stuck in a book and her fellow villagers think she's a freak. Then there's the walking pile of testosterone Gaston (theater-trained Luke Evans who steals the show) who pines for her affection. Belle's father (Kevin Kline) unwittingly ends up locked in the castle of a monstrous Beast (Downton Abby's Dan Stevens), who is actually a handsome asshole prince who was cursed by an enchantress along with the rest of his servants; they're all threatened to stay as inanimate objects for eternity unless the Beast can learn to love and earn someone else's love in return (but we all know that). Belle, being the strong willed woman she is, defiantly replaces her father as the Beast's prisoner and so begins a tale as old as time in which a beautiful book smart townswoman learns to love the hideous hairy beast who's keeping her prisoner. The ick factor is almost more obvious in live action, but I digress.

Ninety-nine percent of the audience going to see “Beauty & the Beast” will already be completely familiar with the film's entire plot line. More importantly, how exactly are the songs? They are good but different. Tempered exceptions are beneficial here. They don't quite sound the same as the animated film and that's completely fine. The actors all have decent voices, they wouldn't have been cast otherwise. But technology isn't just used to make a clock and a candelabra come to life; they also help actors' voices sound better. Watson has a beautiful voice even if it's not that particularly impressive. Stevens doesn't get to do much singing as the Beast (he does get his own original song towards the end) but he's very good as well. The Be Our Guest sequence, like the animated original, is still the showstopping number and Gaston's song is still a really fun sequence as well.

Director Bill Condon knows how to make things familiar and fun and while the recognizable moments are spot on, it's the new elements that fail to conjure much excitement or interest. There's a somewhat boring sequence that finds Belle and Beast in Paris but it's over quickly enough. There's more backstory which is appreciated more than it's actually necessary. The animated film's characters are pretty one-note to begin with so it's obvious screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos tried their darnedest to give these characters three dimensions.

Overall “Beauty &  the Beast's" successes triumph over any failures. It's definitely middle of the road where Disney live action remakes are concerned. The cast is strong and the musical sequences are fun; I imagine many will be wiping away tears. I found myself not all that emotionally invested in the story (The film's two minute trailer is more emotionally rewarding in my opinion) but it was downright fun and entertaining even if it could have used a little bit of tightening up. The visual effects aren't nearly as impressive as last year's Oscar-winning “The Jungle Book” but that's fine; the filmmakers have turned an animated hit into a live action film that seemed like a completely daunting task and it's perfectly fine. Audiences are eating this up and I'm not surprised, it's a culinary cabaret.  GRADE: B

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Ape of Wrath: “Kong: Skull Island” is a Spectacular 70s Style Action Adventure

When I think of “Kong Kong” and the 1970s, the terrible “King Kong” remake with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange comes to mind. Oh my, how far the Eighth Wonder of the World has come. A completely different take on the legendary screen icon King Kong, “Kong: Skull Island” is an exquisitely photographed, superbly thrilling wartime action-adventure. Set in the aftermath of Vietnam, the film finds a group of adventurers and soldiers ready to explore an uncharted island and are completely unaware of the horrors that await them. The film is filled with suspenseful action set pieces, interesting characters, an unabashed sense of fun throughout, and is a darling tribute to 1970s action adventure cinema.

Can it be said enough how much I adore the look of this film? It's so beautifully photographed by DP Larry Fong that I just wanted to lick the screen. The film proves that this guy can shot a film that isn't drenched in grays and blacks (he shot “Watchmen” and “Batman v. Superman:Dawn of Justice"). The film has a stark color palate that evokes the time period in which the film takes place: the early 1970s. The movie finds the mysterious Bill Randa (John Goodman) trying to get funding for an expedition to a mysterious uncharted island in the Pacific. The island is surrounded by raging storm clouds and has somehow miraculous preserved the land in a prehistoric state. A large group head to the island including a team of soldiers led by Prestan Packard (Samual L. Jackson), adventurer James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), wartime photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), among many others. Before the group and its fleet of military helicopters even have a chance to land, a familiar giant ape rips most of them out of the sky leaving a handful of survivors whose goal is to now just to get off the island.

Kong isn't the only beast on the island. There are plenty of other large, exotic, and deadly creatures that take out the rest of the group one by one. In this way, “Kong: Skull Island” works in the vein of many other fun adventure films, like “Jurassic Park” (and the recent and excellent “Godzilla”) in which humans try to survive among large predators hellbent of making them their next meal. There's not much in the way of fascinating plot; this after all a fun monster movie, but the script provided by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, is completely adequate. They create some fun characters and with director Jordan Vogt-Roberts stage some delightfully thrilling action sequences and a surprising amount of fun, comic relief.

Much will be said about this new take on Kong, as it completely differs from the wonderful 2005 version by Peter Jackson. That was a straight up remake of the 1933 classic. “Kong: Skull Island” is very much its own thing. There are recognizable elements including the previously mentioned prehistoric creatures and, of course, a giant man-made wall. The film interestingly set in the aftermath of Vietnam makes for a fascinating setting and Vogt-Roberts gives the film an appropriate look for the time period. Classic rock songs blare on the soundtrack and the visual elements involved are simply scrumptious. And while the film isn't nearly as emotionally wrenching as Jackson's film, the film does find a sweet spot between action and emotion.

“Kong: Skull Island” is a rip-roaring good time. It's visually appealing, terrific special effects, a strong cast, and a delectable sense of style. The evocation of war films like “Apocalypse Now” and its brethren will not be lost on film nerds of a certain age. And the fact that the film will begin a franchise filled with famous cinematic monsters is just the tip of the iceberg; this monster mash is king.  GRADE: A-