Tuesday, July 17, 2018

American Horror Story: “The First Purge” Probably Won’t Be the Last

Horror films are usually a lot smarter than most people give them credit for. And the really good ones reflect the time they were made. If I’ve learned anything from the widely popular Purge franchise, is that this country is seriously messed up. The Purge series get an upgrade in the form of Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei which makes me wonder what bet she lost to end up here. That’s no knock at the “My Cousin Vinny” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” actress– she’s fine here – but she’s not given much to do except glare at computer monitors. Otherwise the generally unknown cast is good; the acting is above average for this genre. The film, like its predecessors, isn’t so much horror as it is some kind of dystopian action thriller with the third act basically functioning as a siege film. The real horror comes from the realization that maybe our country is headed in the direction that these films present.

The Purge films are enjoyable for what they are. The problem is the premise is so goddamned smart but the films aren’t necessarily as smart as they think they are. I believe in writer/director James DeMonaco who serves on as screenwriter on this fourth entry. Stepping into the director’s chair is Gerald McMurray and some fresh blood is welcome. He doesn’t do much different from what DeMonaco has already established and the film’s script is as on-the-nose-political as it ever has been. Everyone by now knows that the annual Purge is basically a way for rich Americans to help get rid of the poor population. Rich people can afford to either barricade themselves indoors or can even afford to buy poor people to murder. 

“The First Purge” gives us a little glimpse into how this controversial, essentially racist American tradition came to be. Though it only really skims the surface and that’s where it’s a tad disappointing. A politician from a new political party not unlike say, the “Tea Party,” is elected president and someone gets the idea to let Americans let out their frustrations for one night during a 12 hour period in which all crime is legal. Staten Island is chosen for the experiment, which at this point, doesn’t actually have a name. Residents are free to leave during the experiment but those who choose to stay will be tracked and given $5,000 as compensation. Overseeing things are New Founding Fathers of America members Dr. May Updale (Tomei) and Chief of Staff Arlo Sabian (Patch Darragh). Meanwhile residents of the city include various minorities and low income individuals including a sister and brother and his drug lord.

While like the other films, the premise is fascinating, the execution leaves something to be desired. It’s hard to care about most of these people since we don’t really know them. Lex Scott Davis is good as the sympathetic Nya and Y’lan Noel is good as Dmitiri the drug lord with the heart of gold. But most of these actors don’t have much to do except run around and look scared. Which leads to the other main problem, the film isn’t very scary. The premise is scarier than anything actually seen on screen. The film sort of won me over in its final act in which Dmitri must rescue those we’ve come to somewhat know in their apartment building.

Who knows where this franchise can really go from here. Except to television of course, which the film features in its closing credits. It makes sense because really these films feel like lost episodes of “Black Mirror” that aren’t executed quite as smoothly. “The First Purge” is fine for fans of the franchise but I don’t know how many new fans will rally behind this fourth entry. It’s fun to see the origins of the Purge but offers little in the way of surprises, suspense, or interesting characters.  GRADE: B-

Sunday, July 08, 2018

A Bug’s Wife: “Ant-Man & the Wasp” Continues the Lighthearted Fun of Its Predecessor

It turns out “Ant-Man” was exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed: an enjoyable lighthearted heaping of fun. It was first MCU film released after “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and it was a refreshing palette cleanser. It turns out, its own sequel “Ant-Man & the Wasp” functions in much the same way after the truly astonishing but intense experience that was “Avengers: Infinity War.” Comedy is always the best medicine and there’s no better proof of that than the hilariously charming antics of Paul Rudd as Ant-Man. Set after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” this sequel finds our hero Scott Lang under house arrest. Of course that won’t stop him from helping rescue Hank Pym’s wife from the “quantum realm.” It’s all lighthearted fun and the perfect antidote to the ten years of MCU films that continue to be entertaining if emotionally draining.

“Ant-Man” was a comedic heist film essentially. “Ant-Man & the Wasp” isn’t quite as cut and dry; I’d more of a rescue mission film but not quite as focused story-wise as its predecessor. Our hapless hero Scott Lang (Rudd) having attempted to leave his life of crime behind him, finds himself with an ankle bracelet for violating the Sokovia Accords in “Civil War.” At least now his daughter and ex-wife have forgiven him so there’s no family drama there. The family drama this time consists of Hank Pym (Michael Douglass) experimenting with the possibility of entering into the subatomic “quantum realm” to rescue his wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) who went subatomic decades earlier and was assumed dead. But since Scott went subatomic and returned unharmed it seems likely that Janet could possibly still be alive. Is it preposterous? Oh my yes. Is it entertaining as hell? You bet.

And let’s not forget Scott’s new partner “The Wasp” played by Evangeline Lilly in one of her most charming performances yet. As Hank’s daughter Hope, Lilly imbues the film with warmth and emotion that has somewhat eluded the actress up to this point. She shares incredible chemistry with Rudd and her onscreen father as well. These people are so likable that their charm really carries the film. And I haven’t even mentioned Michael Peña as Scott’s former prison buddy who has some really great comedic moments here. The comedy works so well in these films because director Peyton Reed made films like “Yes Man” and “Bring It On.” Sure, not exactly comedy treasures, but the guy knows what he’s doing. The action scenes are gripping, the shrinking and growing mechanics are clever, and the humor is funny.

Of course we all know a super hero movie is nothing without a decent villain. Here we get a mysterious figure in a white costume not unlike Lang’s shrinking Ant-Man getup, who is molecularly instable and can walk through objects, including walls. This “Ghost” (played by “Ready Player One’s” Hannah John-Kamen) adds a fun mystery to proceedings and the character’s story arch is unpredictable and interesting. There are other appearances from Laurence Fishburne and Walton Goggins that don’t add too much to the proceedings.

“Ant-Man & the Wasp” feels almost borderline insignificant compared to the other strong MCU efforts this year “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” but it’s no less enjoyable or well-made. You can easily watch the Ant-Man films without the baggage of ten years of films to wade through and be just as entertained. And the whimsical music themes from Christophe Beck is among the MCU’s most memorable. These films really remind me of how fun the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films were to watch when they first came out. Bright, colorful, fun and oozing with charm and humor.  GRADE: B+

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Dino-Snore: “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” Proves the Franchise Should Go Extinct

Well the good news is that “Jurassic Park III” is no longer the worst movie in the franchise. I actually like the third “Jurassic Park.” The latest entry in the “Jurassic Park” series (the fifth overall and second in the “Jurassic World” spin-off; confused yet?) is so utterly ridiculous you can’t help but laugh out of spite. Sure it’s not the first entry to introduce crazy ideas (communicating with raptors, training raptors, etc) but this new film is such a far cry from what made “Jurassic Park” such a phenomenal and believable sci-fi thriller. Nothing in “Fallen Kingdom” makes even a remote lick of sense. The story, which is all over the place, goes completely off the rails and introduces completely bonkers plot elements in a franchise filled with enough bonkers plot elements. I could somewhat buy training raptors; I will, however, not buy the loony bin that is this franchise’s latest excuse for a sequel.

Jurassic World” had the benefit of being about a dinosaur park that actually opened to the public. It worked in a cheesy “Jaws III” disaster flick sort of way. “Fallen Kingdom” is a disaster of a whole other level. You’ll remember Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) the perky, uptight park operator from the last film who rekindled her relationship with hunky raptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt). Well now they’re estranged again and she’s an animal rights activist who sees the dinosaurs –who killed all the guests who died on her watch—as precious, endangered misunderstood creatures. So a rich guy in a suit gives her money to travel back to the island with Owen to rescue the man-eating monsters from the active volcano that threatens to wipe out all the remaining dinosaurs on the abandoned island. How could anything go wrong with that plan?

Since the trailers basically give away a majority of what goes on in the film, it’s no secret that some dinosaurs may or may not find their way to a place that isn’t Isla Nublar. “The Lost World” did it. A T-rex stomping around San Diego was ludicrous in 1997 so the writers had to up the ante in 2018 obviously. Even Steven Spielberg had a hard time really selling that plot point but he made it work well enough. It’s obvious now that writers Derek Connelly and Colin Trevorrow are responsible for the crazy stuff in “Jurassic World” while Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa added a touch of class and humanity to the previous entry. Only Connelly and Trevorrow are credited this time. New to the franchise director J.A. Bayona is a good filmmaker. See “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible” if you don’t believe me. He offers some fine and weird directorial flourishes and there are some decent set pieces here but there’s not much any filmmaker could do with such a bizarre plot that desecrates everything that was simple and streamlined about Spielberg’s 1993 classic.

“Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom” is an unfortunate downgrade for this popular franchise. Everything that made the last film at least fun and charming, like the park itself, are now gone. There’s a serious dearth of interesting characters (Pratt and Dallas Howard are fine but everyone else is forgettable). The filmmakers make too many of the same bad decisions that plagued the other Jurassic Park sequels (like more dinosaurs=good and unnecessarily dark moments). And the ending is literally eye-roll inducing. Despite this, I do believe we’re in another golden age of blockbuster filmmaking. The Marvel films and other big budget franchises have proven that just because you have a big budget and a strong fan base doesn’t mean you can’t make a smart piece of pop culture entertainment. This isn't it. Though I'd take dinosaurs over fighting robots any day of the week. GRADE: C-

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Eight is Enough: The Con is On for the Ladies in “Ocean’s Eight”

Even women can be cool and smooth criminals if they want to be. And in “Ocean’s Eight” they are. In this latest franchise “reboot,” though it’s more of a spin-off, we learn that steely cool con-man Danny Ocean is dead and that con-men run in the family. His sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock) is just being released from a five year prison sentence and has her sights on a prize: The Met Gala. She gets her equally cool gal pal Lou (Cate Blanchett in the “secondhand man” role carved out by Brad Pitt except she isn’t eating something in literally every scene) and a team of women together to rob the expensive jewels off the neck of famous actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway, doing her best diva impression). The entire film is basically following these women as they concoct a completely crazy and unbelievable set of circumstances that will lead to them walking away with millions of dollars worth of priceless jewels. And it is fascinating to watch.

The Ocean’s films have always been about fun. At least the first one was. Watching these guys pull of such crazy cons and a seemingly impossible heist was part of the charm. Steven Soderbergh’s sequels, however, took all the fun out and made things overly complicated and overstuffed with extra characters no on cared about. A reserved cast of eight con women is much more digestible. This time Gary Ross takes the reigns from Soderbergh (who’s still a producer) and injects a tad more diversity to the proceedings. Ross and co-writer Olivia Milch’s script is tight and exciting.

The story is so fun to watch unfold that for the entire film I forgot that there really wasn’t much conflict. In the original film, Danny wants to rob a specific guy, here these ladies just want the money; or at least that what it seems. There is a whole subplot about the reason Debbie was sent to prison after all. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t moments of suspense and tension. One sequence in which Mindy Kaling’s character is close to being caught is squirm-worthy. Speaking of which, every character gets their moment to shine. Helena Bonham Carter easily slips into the roll of a crazy, overwhelmed fashion designer. Sarah Paulson is a suburban mom but hasn’t quite left a life of crime. Rihanna is the genius computer hacker and Awkwafina is the fantastic pickpocket. And some other familiar faces show up as well.

“Ocean’s Eight” is a great success for anyone who thought the previous entries began to lose their sense of fun and focus. Sure this isn’t a perfect film; sometimes things fall a little too neatly into place but you can’t fault the ensemble's strong presence and their likable characterizations. There have been countless heist films and this is just another one that happens to get more right than wrong. Can’t wait for number Nine.  GRADE: B+

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Head of the Family: The Bonkers “Hereditary” is a Disturbing Portrait of Familial Distress

Rosemary’s Baby. The Exorcist. The Shining. The Conjuring. Hereditary. You see where I’m going with this? Supernatural horror fans will absolutely delight in the mounting dread that is the new indie creep fest known as “Hereditary.” The film is all at once utterly realistic and borderline ridiculous - sometimes at the same time - as it follows the downward spiral of a seemingly average American family. “Hereditary” slowly builds with realistic, emotional drama with punctuated moments of pure shock that make the moments of horror all the more impactful. The film is a searing tragedy about the horrors of loss and grief and morphs into horror of a different nature. It’s destined to be a modern genre classic.

The film begins with the death of a family matriarch; she was estranged from her daughter Annie (Toni Collette), her son-in-law Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and her grandkids Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie, who works as a miniature artist, making the creepiest dollhouses known to man, doesn’t seem to be too upset by the loss of her mom and the film takes its time letting you in on the dynamics of the family. Peter is your typical movie teenage boy; he spends his time with friends and getting high. The youngest, Charlie is an odd little child. Too odd. Annie insists that Charlie was the only one her mother Ellen latched onto for reasons seemingly unknown. With Ellen gone, it’s not long before weird things begin to happen. Eventually the rug is pulled out from under us and the characters.

Boy oh boy do things happen. And why would I spoil them for you? A proper analysis of the film isn’t possible without getting into specific plot elements so I’ll just focus on the more generic positives the film offers. And that would be: Toni. Collette. She’s simply sensational here, going through a full range of emotions and being someone we easily identify with. She’s the heart and soul of the film and she’s Oscar-worthy. There’s a moment during an awkward family dinner that is a standout moment; it’s her Oscar nomination reel. The other performances are all top notch, especially a scene-stealing Anne Dowd (when doesn’t she steal every frame of every thing she’s in?).

First time feature director and writer Ari Aster works wonders building almost unbearable dread. When THAT THING happens, without warning, I was altogether numbed, shocked, and drawn in further. His script is as twisted as it is twisty. You’ll never be able to see where exactly the film’s headed. The shocking imagery he presents us is, in word, unforgettable. “Hereditary” is filled with the sights and sounds nightmares are made of including pristine camerawork and a fantastic, dread-inducing store from Colin Stetson.

“Hereditary” might be called “boring” or “slow” by some. In fact, those are the words I’d use to describe “The Witch.” This film is not dissimilar to that other slow burn of a film except the modern setting and story here are way more relatable and emotionally engaging. And more happens. The film feels more satisfying and unsettling and will certainly be worthy of repeat viewings; I can’t wait to see what this filmmaker does next. “Hereditary” will creep up on you and then creep you out.  GRADE: A

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Howard’s End: “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is Star Wars Lite but Fun Otherwise

We all know where Han Solo ends up, but where did he come from? Some people want to know and others could care less. But Disney is giving us his story and it’s probably as good a film that could have come from such a concept. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a film no one asked for but it exists anyways and it works. The cast is well realized and it looks and feels like the other Star Wars films. It’s a fun, light adventure that will satisfy fans anxiously awaiting Episode IX.

I always wonder what could have been with directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord initially at the helm, but Disney didn’t see eye to eye and they were replaced by the extremely vanilla Ron Howard. Howard is a fine director though he hardly takes many risks and offers little in the way of visual wonder (though I’ve been particularly impressed with some of his recent offerings like “Rush”). Howard is the safe choice and “Solo” certainly is safe movie. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but it won’t win any new fans. You pretty much know what you’re getting and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The film, taking place in the years between Episode III and Episode IV, the film follows a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) a smuggler who works in and around the criminal underworld. He’s a tad more optimistic than his older self (we know that because he says things like “I’ve got a GOOD feeling about this”). Emilia Clarke, making her way through nerdy properties (ie Game of Thrones, Terminator), appears as Han’s love interest Qi’ra. After an event that leads to her capture, Solo trains with the Imperial army and eventually leads a daring heist that involves a highly sought after fuel called Coaxium. Woody Harrelson shows up as Han’s mentor Tobias Beckett, and we meet familiar faces along the way including Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). Paul Bettany is fine as the film’s villainous crime lord Dryden Vos.

Howard directs the film with an assured hand. The action scenes are well-shot and suspenseful. The actors are fantastic in their roles. The visual effects work and the cinematography from Bradford Young (“Arrival”) has an appropriately dark and grungy look. John Powell’s score, which uses lots of John Williams cues, is fantastic and uplifting. The film functions, much like “Rogue One,” as a fun heist film. It’s obvious the film was made for fans even if they never really wanted it.

I get what Disney is trying to do. They could potentially have a million Star Wars-related films made. They just need to make the really great ones. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a completely fine movie. I just really want to see a great one.  GRADE: B

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Cable Guy: The Hilariously Irreverent “Deadpool 2” is Another Marvelous Meta Romp

It seems like only yesterday I was complaining about “superhero fatigue.” Actually it was about 7 years ago when I wrote this in my “Captain America: The First Avenger” review: “I myself have found myself going through superhero fatigue.” What the hell was I thinking? That was way back when these comic book adaptations were sort of by the numbers and the MCU was still in its infancy. “The Dark Knight” and "Iron Man" were considered the epitome of comic book quality but they really just set the stage for what was to come. It’s now 2018 and not only are comic book films released nearly every other week, we finally have a sequel to the delightfully derisive “Deadpool.” While it certainly wasn’t the first graphically violent but comedic, kids-shouldn’t-be-watching-this, subversive super hero flick (there was “Kick-Ass” and “Super” to name a few but they weren't entirely successful) it was finally the first one released by a major studio to not take itself so seriously. “Deadpool” was somewhat of a surprise hit and I’m glad to report that “Deadpool 2” is arguably even funnier and meta-ier with so many funny gags and pop culture references you’ll either be giddy or completely sick of it by the end. I was giddy.

“Deadpool 2” ups the ante in terms of literally everything. More characters. More fun. More jokes. More violence. And so many great song choices. No seriously, this thing has an amazing soundtrack. Don’t even look up the soundtrack album before you see the film, you’ll want to be surprised (I’ll just describe it as super fabulous). And let’s just say there’s an Oscar-worthy original song performed by a popular French Canadian superstar. Enough hints.

Does anyone really care about the plot of “Deadpool 2?” I couldn’t really piece anything together from the trailers but there is actually a story unfolding here. Wade Wilson (easily Ryan Reynolds’ most iconic role), if you remember from the first film, is now a super-healing mutant covered with scars from head to toe. His alter ego is the wise-cracking, mercenary Deadpool and he’s living it up with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin); but after a series of unfortunate events, Wade ends up at the X-Men’s mansion and back with old frenemies Colossus (voiced by Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). Eventually he forms a team with a gender neutral name (X-Force) which involves some of the films biggest laughs and cleverest bits (including standout turns from Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgard, and Rob Delaney). Meanwhile, a time-traveling cybernetic soldier shows up, no not that one; his name is Cable (played by Thanos himself Josh Brolin) and he wants to assassinate a teenage mutant named Russell (Julian Dennison). Wait, is this a Terminator film or what?

Ok enough plot stuff. This movie is just hilarious. The script is as meta as ever thanks to writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who also worked wonders on the first film) with Reynolds getting a credit this time around. I can’t even count the number of ingenious references. There’s everything from “The Passion of the Christ” to “Frozen.” And the film has a really fun time making fun of itself, and Reynolds himself, and the fact that we’re watching a comic book film. There are plenty of fun cameos too good to spoil here as well. Did I mention the soundtrack full of gay hits (seriously; Dolly, Cher, etc)?

I expected “Deadpool 2” to be great. But I didn’t expect it to be this great. A sequel is almost never as good as the first film because most sequels by their nature lack the element of surprise. But the filmmakers have improved upon the fantastic first film in so many great ways. The film feels fresh, has dramatic weight, and earns every fun twist and turn in the plot. The actors really sell the material and it feels like they’re having as much fun as the audience. The film is well-paced and offers plenty of fun action thanks to new to the franchise director David Leitch. 2018 is turning out to be a great year for superheroes. And no fatigue in sight.  GRADE: A-  

Saturday, April 28, 2018

To Infinity and Beyond: The Mindbogglingly Ambitious “Avengers: Infinity War” Doesn't Disappoint

Ten years. It took ten years, but “Avengers: Infinity War” is everything Marvel fans have been waiting for. And it’s an altogether successful hodge-podge of the best things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo took the daunting task of merging so many different characters and their worlds into one cohesive (for those who have been following along at least) saga and are pretty much completely successful. There’s not too much to offer viewers who are unfamiliar with the MCU; but that’s beside the point. “Avengers: Infinity War” works because of the decade-long foundation of great character building, creative storytelling, and compelling drama filtered through a geeky comic book sensibility. What we’re left with is a culmination of heart-pounding action, witty comedy, moving drama and, for the first time in the whole series, an actual feeling of consequence and finality for these characters we’ve come to love so much. Even 19 films in, there hasn’t been anything quite like it.

Recently in the last few years many of the Marvel movies have taken on their own specific identity. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was a political thriller; “Ant-Man” was a comedic heist film; “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was a John Hughes-inspired teen movie; “Thor:Ragnarok” was a campy, retro-styled gladiator epic; “Black Panther” was Shakespearean sci-fi drama. “Avengers: Infinity War” doesn’t quite have any specific distinction and that’s because it’s somewhat of a combination of multiple styles and genres. In fact, the entire film is essentially a setup to a disaster flick of galactic proportions. We’ve heard the name Thanos thrown around a lot for nearly ten years and even glimpsed him a few times here and there but finally he’s front and center and his mission is clear. Collect the six powerful “infinity stones,” that have driven the plots of many previous films, so that he can rule the entire galaxy.

Sure, the plot of the film is essentially watch big creature gather glowing CGI rocks, but it’s compelling stuff I promise. That’s because for the first time in the franchise’s history, it feels like there is some real weight and consequence to the actions of Thanos and his evil followers. It’s no surprise that not everyone will make it to the of the film alive; there are some truly heartbreaking moments here. Be prepared. But big character deaths are the only things driving the drama of “Infinity War.” Thanos who is the “father” of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) is the real star here. A complete CGI creation brought to live with verve by Josh Brolin, the film follows this villain as he comes face to face with our favorite super heroes.

The film is like watching a fine balance act that just doesn’t quit. At one moment the film has the warmth and humor of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the next we’re back to the bizarre wizardry of “Doctor Strange.” The film puts Earthbound characters like Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) into space as they all work together to attempt to stop Thanos from completing his colorful rock collection. There is scene after scene of either rollicking action, balanced humor, and moments of shock and awe as our favorite heroes face the one villain that actually feels unstoppable.

Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFreely wondrously weave together dozens of characters and never manage to shortchange of them. It truly is remarkable big budget filmmaking of the most refined kind. As refined as this sort of Hollywood filmmaking can be. “Avengers: Infinity War” is the magnum opus of the MCU; a real accomplishment from all involved. The film flies circles around the previous "Avengers" flicks; it's operating on a complete different plane that would make Doctor Strange proud. It’s a rewarding piece of pop culture entertainment that also functions as a sign of things to come.  "Infinity War" certainly is not all wrapped up in a perfect bow at the end; only the naïve would think so, but I sat wide-eyed (and teary-eyed) and I eagerly await the next ten years and beyond.  GRADE: A

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Silence is Golden: John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” is a Tension-Soaked Masterpiece

If you can learn anything from “A Quiet Place” it’s that getting pregnant in a monster-riddled, post-apocalyptic world is just a flat-out terrible idea. But I guess sometimes you just can’t help yourself. An attractive, but weathered young couple must protect themselves and their young kids from terrifying creatures that prey on anything that makes noise. The couple is played by real-life crouple John Krasinski and Emily Blunt. The gorgeous pair is a direct contrast to the ugly landscape their characters are now living in. And the monsters are extremely scary. In fact, “A Quiet Place” completely drips with dread from beginning to end, taking the viewer on a roller coaster thrill ride that includes scene after scene of almost unbearable tension. It’s a remarkable genre turn for director/star John Krasinski and a complete detour from his charming work on “The Office.” Michael Scott would absolutely love this flick.

“A Quiet Place” wisely doesn’t spend much time on exposition. Anything that’s important is told through the dialogue (most of which is spoken through sign language). The script from newcomers Bryan Woods & Scott Beck (and Krasinski) drops the viewer into a not-too-distant future in which giant creatures hunt by sound forcing people to live completely silently. Krasinski and Blunt are Lee and Evelyn and they’ve got a routine. They walk around barefoot, walk outside on trails of sand, use giant lettuce leafs for plates, and use felt pieces when playing Monopoly. They’ve got young children to look after including Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Regan (Millicent Simmonds) who is deaf. The family mostly communicates through sign language. Which means for a majority of the time, you’re essentially watching a silent film. But they’re human after all and accidents happen. And that’s when THEY show up. The nightmare-inducing monsters are brought to life through fantastic special effects.

Krasinski directs with an assured hand. It’s not his first time at the rodeo, having directed a couple other small features and a few episodes of “The Office” but he’s never made anything quite like “A Quiet Place.” Sure it shares similarities with other films in the genre (it’s sort of feels like “The Road” meets “Jurassic Park”) but the film doesn’t feel like anything you’ve seen before. The film is a masterclass in genre filmmaking. The sound design is impeccable. Just try snacking on popcorn or nachos while watching this flick, I dare you. The silence is practically deafening until the roars of vicious creatures fill the auditorium. And the music. Marco Beltrami’s monster mash score is brilliantly used and creates excruciating tension. The family has all relatively smart, resourceful people, but at one point all hell breaks loose as they must battle obstacle after obstacle as their home becomes a target of the menacing monsters. Don’t forget to breathe.

“A Quiet Place” is easily a new masterclass in horror filmmaking. It’s a tense thriller that hits all the right notes and has fun playing with your senses. The small cast is uniformly excellent, with impressive child performances and two truly likable lead actors; Krasinski’s direction is impressive, especially the way he's able to build tension with silence and little dialogue. And as if that isn’t enough, there is a strong emotional undercurrent which resonates in a strong way. It’s a film that easily stands among the best of the genre including classics like “Alien,” “The Descent,” and “Jurassic Park.” You heard it here first.  GRADE: A

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Game On: Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is a Wild Ride Down Memory Lane

I was a whirlwind of emotions while watching “Ready Player One” but the main one I felt was relief. I was relieved Steven Spielberg, one of the most successful and entertaining directors in movie history, hasn’t lost his touch. I was beginning to worry. He’s made some very fine films in the past few years. But none of them were overwhelmingly fun. Even though I don’t hate his fourth attempt at an Indiana Jones movie, I’d say his last truly great action or adventure film is easily “War of the Worlds” and before that “Minority Report.” But that’s only two great, flat-out entertaining adventures in fifteen years. That’s not quite an impressive recent track record for one of the best directors in town. I’m ecstatic to report that “Ready Player One” is Spielberg’s most entertaining movie in over a decade and still shows that the brilliant septuagenarian hasn’t lost his magic touch for creating charming worlds, heart-stopping set pieces, and a fascinating sense of wonder. It’s Spielberg at his most Spielbergian.

Let’s be honest. Did anyone actually think that it was possible to get so emotionally invested in characters who spend a majority of a movie’s runtime in a virtual reality world? I mean what are the stakes of a video game really? The film does a tremendous job setting up the story and why I felt so connected to a world that was so obviously disconnected from each other. In “Ready Player One” it is 2045 and the world is a desolate place with slum-like major cities. Most people “escape” their harsh reality by slipping into the OASIS, a crazy powerful virtual reality world created by an eccentric Steve Jobs/Bill Gates guy named James Halliday (Mark Rylance). The guy has passed away and in true Willy Wonka form has hidden an “Easter egg” and the player who finds it will win complete control of the OASIS. If that plotline sounds sort of Goonies-ish you’re not crazy.

Our protagonist is teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheriden). He lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio and teams up with a few others to help find the hidden egg. It turns out that Halliday programmed three challenges in the OASIS and which would in turn lead the winners closer to the hidden egg. Watts, spending most of his time controlling his OASIS avatar Parzival, meets Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) whose also trying to find the egg. They team up with a few others to find the egg before the evil Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) CEO of the Innovate Online Industries corporation and his enslaved minions can find it. Sure the plot is somewhat deceptively simple: good guys must find the treasure before the bad guys do, but it’s an incredibly tense and fun adventure.

Steven Spielberg has tried the CGI animation world with “The Adventures of Tintin” with mixed results. It just never felt like Spielberg adventure and the film was bogged down in the ‘uncanny valley’ where everything seems real but looks super fake at the same time. Spielberg sort of takes an “Avatar” approach with “Ready Player One.” Literally. The live action actors appear in animated form in the completely CGI virtual reality world and it really works. This world is colorful and hyper-kinetic. It contrasts perfectly with the dull harshness of the “real world.” Janusz Kaminski gives the film the look and feel of Spielberg’s other futuristic films like “AI” and “Minority Report.”

But really, I’m burying the lead. You know what’s so great about “Ready Player One?” It’s a love letter to all things nostalgia. We’re talking pop culture overload here. Movies, video games, you name it. Wade drives around in the OASIS in a DeLorean time machine for crying out loud. The first challenge involves a driving race and you could go cross-eyed trying to identify all the different recognizable vehicles. There’s even an entire scene that takes place inside an entirely different movie. It’s a jaw-dropping sequence and a major treat for cinema nerds. Sure the film caters to those of us who grew up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but I’m pretty sure 95% of anyone excited for a Spielberg film is someone who lived through those decades. It’s not so much a movie about the love of nostalgia itself, it’s a movie about the love art and entertainment.

All this nerdy stuff is great and is a strength of the film, even if nostalgia seems to be on overload as of late, but the film is genuinely great from beginning to end. Composer Alan Silvestri, filling in for Spielberg’s faithful music man John Williams, adds another memorable score and even a few musical nods to “Back to the Future.” Even if half the movie is taking place in a reality that doesn’t really exist Spielberg found a way to make it emotionally engaging. The film has a tight script from Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (who wrote the book). And all the actors are fine in their roles. The film is a visual wonder with fantastic special effects, imaginative production design, and a sense of wonder that has been missing from the director’s recent oeuvre. Spielberg is back and better than ever.  GRADE: A

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Monsters, Stink: “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is a Bland and Generic Sequel

One can only take so many giant robots fighting each other. If you want to watch giant robots fighting each other you should definitely see “Pacific Rim: Uprising.” Don’t see it if you actually thought the 2013 film “Pacific Rim” was really great and you're expecting more of the same. This somewhat long-delayed sequel certainly isn’t worth the wait, and everything that worked the first time just doesn’t work this second time around. The fun, colorful look of Guillermo del Toro’s film are gone, replaced by drab hues; the exciting battles of monster vs machine are replaced with generic fights of machine vs machine; and some of the interesting characters we got to know and love are replaced by ill-advised character turns or replaced altogether. Which basically means that this is an incredibly inferior follow-up.

“Pacific Rim: Uprising” takes place about a decade after the events of the first film. If you remember, giant alien monsters were transporting themselves from another dimension through a rift in the Pacific Ocean. Humans built gigantic, two person piloted mechanic robots called “Jaegers” to fight the devastating creatures. And at the end of the film the rift was successfully blown to bits, making these giant “Kaijus” unable to attempt to destroy Earth. This time, the troubled son of Idris Elba’s character from the first film and former Jaeger pilot Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) is arrested and forced to trade is time for returning to help train bland, new Jaeger pilots. A orpaned teenage girl named Amara (Cailee Spaeny) also figures into the plot but she feels somewhat shoehorned in. Rinko Kikuchi returns as Jake’s adopted sister who also works for Pan Pacific Defense Corps. The Jaeger trainees are forced to suit up when a corporation’s Jaeger drone program takes off and the drones begin to go rogue. Yawn. It’s Always Sunny’s Charlie Day shows up again as the comic relief but his character is used for a different purpose this time and it just doesn’t work. And playing the role of handsome, generic white guy is Scott Eastwood. Hollywood, stop trying to make Scott Eastwood happen. It’s not gonna happen. And finally Kaijus show up in the third act and yet again threaten to destroy the entire planet.

There was a something really great about “Pacific Rim” that worked. Maybe it was the lack of expectation? It was a highly stylized action film inspired by Japanese monster movies. Del Toro, who recently won an Oscar for directing “The Shape of Water” has a visual eye rarely seen in big budget blockbuster films. His movies look great and sort of… weird. Everything is “normalized” in “Pacific Rim: Uprising” thanks Steven S. DeKnight who makes his directorial debut. The cinematography is fine but unremarkable. There’s not real distinct “look.” The performances from the admittedly diverse cast are fine for a genre film but the characters are unmemorable. Even the music score isn’t all that catchy until Ramin Djawadi’s theme from the first film finally kicks in at one point. The final battle scene is well staged and somewhat exciting, but everything leading up to it is hardly remarkable.

You know what? “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is fine. There will be people who really enjoy. That’s fine. Let them have a good time. But this film feels very generic compared to the first film and in an age where the blockbuster film is in a new renaissance, “Pacific Rim: Uprising” feels like any other “Transformer” sequel. Bummer.  GRADE: C

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Just One of the Gays: 10 Things I Love About “Love, Simon”

The equally sweet and cheesy “Love, Simon” is not only influenced by 80s and 90s teen films but it’s actually three great films in one. One is a story about a teenager struggling with coming out of the closet. One is a romantic comedy about blossoming teen love that feels universal. And one is actually a pretty fun mystery. Here are ten things I don’t hate about “Love, Simon.”

A coming of age story from a new perspective. “Love Simon” follows a teenager named Simon who seemingly has the perfect life (read: huge house, car, hot parents) But life isn’t always as perfect as it appears on the surface. Simon happens to struggle with a big secret. He’s gay and hasn’t told anyone. He begins a penpal-like relationship with a fellow student named “Blue” who comes out anonymously on their school’s blog site and Simon becomes obsessed with figuring out who this mystery guy is as he begins to fall for him.

A strong message about inclusion and representation in a mainstream Hollywood film. Sure there are small films like Brokeback Mountain and recent Oscar winner Call Me By Your Name that sometime breakout into the mainstream but they often are serious dramas with stories that end in either tragedy or heart break. “Love, Simon” thankfully has no such ending. The film isn’t political whatsoever; there’s no agenda, that’s not the point.

An impressive lead performance. All the performances here are truly great. However, Nick Robinson (somewhat channeling a young Matthew Broderick) who many probably recognize from “Jurassic World” gives a particularly impressive lead performance as the confused Simon. His struggles are palpable and the emotional roller coaster he invites us on is hard to forget.

The directing. The film is directed by Greg Berlanti. It’s a name few probably know but many will be familiar with. He’s responsible for the DC-universe on TV’s The CW. Yeah, he developed “Arrow” and “The Flash” and got his start writing for “Dawson’s Creek.” Berlanti’s film is bright and colorful and even if there’s nothing too flashy in how the film itself looks, he offers plenty of fun touches including a mid-film fantasy musical number that had be beaming from ear to ear. Sure “Love Simon” is a little sappy and cheesy at times, but what do you expect from the writers of “This is Us.”

The writing. That’s right, the film was written by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker who work on the delightfully soapy hit NBC drama. This is easily the type of film that could have wound up as a made-for-tv event but the fact that it got green-lit for the big screen is almost miraculous. The script is witty and offers up a fun mystery in regards to Simon’s quest to figure out who “Blue” is. The screenwriters obviously had a strong foundation as the often comedic film is based on Becky Albertalli’s award winning young adult novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.”

Moviedom’s nicest, coolest, and most understanding parents. Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel play power couple/Simon’s parents and even if they’re not necessarily given all that much to do they each have their moment to truly shine. After Simon’s coming out each parent has a really sweet moment with their teenage son. Bring tissues.

The best friends. Thankfully the casting directors were able to find actors who actually looked, sounded, and acted like teenagers. Robinson is 22 sure but he looks young. Simon’s friends are all likable, appealing young actors and you feel like you’re watching real people. Of course the film isn’t afraid to have these people do unlikable things that have important effects on the plot which keeps things interesting.

A fun soundtrack. Besides the film’s subplot involving a school production of “Cabaret,” the film is loaded with great (mostly modern) tunes, most of which come from the band “Bleachers.” The songs are fun and recognizable and the movie even throws in a few classics into the mix. Which means Rob Simonsen’s fantastic, electronic score fits perfectly with the 80s teen movie aesthetic the filmmakers were going for. Which brings me to…

Nostalgia. Nostalgia. Nostalgia. Teen movies were a big deal back in the day thanks to John Hughes and all the other filmmakers inspired by him. All of those films are great, but you’d never see a gay character portrayed in such a non-stereotypical/offensive way let alone in a story from their perspective. The film really feels more like the teen movie genre’s 90s counterpart that featured everything from “Clueless” to “Ten Things I Hate About You” and “Never Been Kissed” all the way up to the more recent “Easy A.” This one just so happens to be about a lead male character who isn’t into girls. Which is why anyone who was either a) ever a teenager or b) ever enjoyed movies about teenagers should find “Love, Simon” rather enjoyable.

Teen movie cliches. Yes they exist. I’m talking about the goofy comic relief vice-principle (Tony Hale) who tries too hard to relate to his students (Natasha Rothwell). The pissed-off teacher who tells it like it is. And most ridiculous of all, the sheer amount of time that students in these movies have in the morning before class. Simon is able blow off breakfast with his already awake and showered family, pick up three of his friends, stop for iced coffee, find a parking space right in front of the building, and get to class on time. Right.

If those aren’t good enough reasons to see “Love, Simon” I don’t know what are. GRADE: A-

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Maul in the Family: “The Strangers: Prey at Night” Offers Some Nostalgic Slasher Fun But Not Much Else

Wow these guys REALLY want to find Tamara huh? “The Strangers: Prey at Night” conjures mixed feelings. The horror nerd inside me wants to declare it a slasher-tastic, raucous good time. While the snobby film critic in me wants to complain about the many reasons why it’s a pretty terrible film. It is a pretty terrible film. But you know what? It’s sort of fun… It’s “fun” in a way that the superior original is not. The 2008 film “The Strangers” was nihilistic, depressing, but utterly terrifying. The film brimmed with suspense and tension. It was like “Halloween” turned up to an eleven. “Halloween” never offered much hope, but at least the main protagonist survived. There’s no such reassurance in “The Strangers.” The film’s long delayed sequel “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is way less cynical and is even arguably amusing in a way the original just wasn’t; but it really lacks the unbearable tension that made the first film so powerful. The 2008 film functions as a gritty 70s torture drama with no real hope or catharsis; while the belated sequel finds pleasure in an 80s chase and slash aesthetic in which the audience is practically encouraged to groan, shout, and cheer at the appropriate moments. At least the enthusiastic audience members did when I saw it.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way so we can get to the good stuff. The acting. No one is winning an Oscar for a slasher film let’s be honest. The performances don’t need to be transcendent; they just need to be passable. Are they passable here? Barely. Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”) and Martin Henderson (“The Ring”) are the parents of the troubled Kinsey (Bailee Madison) who’s being sent away to boarding school. You can tell she’s rebellious because she wears a Ramones shirt and smokes cigarettes; I didn’t buy it. Then there’s her jock-geek older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman). Madison feels like she was plucked from the Disney Channel casting pool and it shows; she doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off Final Girl duties. That’s a bummer. Pullman is likable. It’s probably because he’s Bill Pullman’s son. Hendricks and Henderson are serviceable as the disposable parents but they’re frankly not given much to do. They’re all we have to root for which is kind of sad really. Then there’s the three masked maniacs who spend a late night stalking and killing off this dysfunctional family as the clan settles into an off-season mobile home park.

There’s no plot. Here’s a family. Here are the killers. The killers want to murder the family. That’s pretty much all we’re given. And that’s fine because we know this ain’t Shakespeare. It works in the original film because what the film lacked in plot or character development was made up with tremendous suspense and dread. It was quite effective. There’s not quite as much tension here but you can tell director Johannes Roberts (who also made last year’s disappointing shark flick “47 Meters Down”) is trying to accomplish. There is certainly a strong sense of mood and 70s/80s nostalgia flowing through the film’s brief 85 minute runtime. The film is loaded with wide shots and zooms with the killers creepily lingering in the corners of the frame. Nods to everything from John Carpenter, Steven King, and even a bit of Texas Chain Saw Massacre are nice. The film has a fun retro soundtrack featuring a fun electronic score from Adrian Johnston. Roberts obviously had a vision; from the retro title card to the 80s pop tunes blaring on the soundtrack (he initially wanted to score the entire film with 80s songs) and the fun camerawork. The film however looks and feels somewhat cheap, as if it was all rushed into production.

For those of us awaiting the return of the three masked strangers there’s very little connective tissue from this film to its 2008 counterpart. The first film was a disturbing home invasion thriller; this second entry expands it slightly and feels more like a traditional chase and slasher flick. The fun retro-vibe is really appealing though I don’t know if the film works as well as the filmmakers think it does. To be honest, I’m torn. The film is somewhat shoddy and the characters are pretty bland and the actors don’t help much and the Final Girl is completely unworthy. But there are so many fun moments in the ridiculous third act that annoyed the critic in me but delighted the horror nerd in me. It’s certainly a must-see for those horror fanatics who have been waiting an entire decade for the triumphant return of Dollface, Pin-Up Girl, and the Man in the Mask. It’s not the sequel I was necessarily expecting but that’s not always such a bad thing.  GRADE: B-

Monday, March 05, 2018

Good Grief: “Wake” is a Smart and Observant Dramedy

Is there anything more awkward in life than death? Probably not. In the short film “Wake” death sets the scene as a young woman returns to her hometown for the funeral of her estranged best friend. Taking a cue from observant films about death in the presence of life such as “Garden State” and “The Big Chill” the film finds itself dealing with grief in a really keen way. A short film doesn’t always give filmmakers much time for truly in-depth character development but “Wake” makes great use of its 25 minutes. Even for its low budget the film features standout performances from its unknown cast and some really funny humor that smartly breaks much of the dramatic tension. The film really gets human nature and I found myself intoxicated by these people and their story.

“Wake” follows a young professional woman named Michelle. She’s played very well by Liz Noth who has the likable charm and charisma of a younger Natalie Portman. Michelle returns to her small hometown to attend the funeral of her friend Jess. We’ve never met Jess and we never do. And initially all we know is that these two friends had previously had a falling out and Michelle can’t even bring herself to actually show up at the wake, stopping short of Jess’ house and deciding to return to her vehicle. Later that evening, she attends a party being thrown by another former classmate and other 20-something friends who are celebrating Jess’ life. And here is where things begin to get awkward, tense, and surprisingly funny. We slowly learn more about the people that used to be in Michelle’s life and how she and Jess came to be estranged.

The film’s attentive script from writer and co-star Jake Smith is tight and true-to-life. One can easily project their own life and experiences on these characters and situation. And Darin Guerrasio, who also shows up in a small role, directs with an assured hand. The two balance serious drama and humor rather well and slowly peel back the layers on these characters as more and more is revealed about them and their past. After all, in life nobody’s perfect.

The small, intimate film looks pretty nice. With a budget of $12,000 according to IMDb, the production value impresses. There’s nothing particularly flashy about the camerawork but that’s not necessary; the film is a reflection of the human experience and it beautifully captures it simply with truth and grace. “Wake,” with its bouts of perfectly timed humor, moments of quiet sadness, and some impressive burgeoning talent, reflects an undeniable truth about life whether you’re a millennial or not: that grief comes with the human experience and everyone deals with it in different ways.  GRADE: A-

“Wake” has screened at several film festivals including the Golden Door International Film Festival and the Big Apple Film Festival and will be showing at the Pasadena International Film Festival (March 7-15th) and the New Haven International Film Festival in May.  

Wake (Short Film) - Official Trailer from Jake The Myth Smith on Vimeo.