Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Saturday, September 09, 2017

The Fears of a Clown: Moviegoers Will Never Forget the Truly Fantastic “It”

In the 80s the Stephen King adaptation was practically its own genre. There were over a dozen Stephen King films stuffed into one decade ranging from diverse titles like “The Shining” and “Christine” to “Stand by Me” and “Pet Sematary.” And I’m not even including all those TV movies like 1990’s “It.” But like all fads they eventually fade. There have been some here and there like the utterly miscalculated “Dreamcatcher” and some bright spots like “The Mist” and “1408.” And now we have the extremely popular “It;” its first time being adapted for the big screen. With the popularity of nostalgic successes like Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and a surprise recent surge in quality studio horror films, the new big screen “It” improves immensely on the well-respected but sluggish 90s TV mini-series. The filmmakers aren’t clowning around; it’s an intense flick and features appealing characters brought to life by charming kid actors, imaginative direction, and an amusingly wicked performance at its center.

Clowns. They're terrifying. Or at least a certain segment of the population thinks so. That's probably why so many people remember the 1990 TV adaption of Stephen King's popular novel “It” as being particularly frightening. Let's all admit the truth. The film is somewhat of a slog and most people probably just remember the 20 or so creepy minutes Tim Curry appears on screen as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Now, finally, director Andy Muschietti has brought Pennywise to the big screen where he deserves to be. And what a fun roller coaster ride the film is.

This epic horror flick follows a group of prepubescent friends as they deal with typical teenage things like bullies and an evil being that takes the form of their worst fears, which is mostly a creepy clown. It is Pennywise and here he's played with charming, horrific glee by Bill Skarsgård. The story centers around young Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) after his younger brother Georgie goes missing. Apparently the small town of Derry, Maine has a terrible history of tragedy and death, which includes lots of missing children. All of Bill's friends have been seeing a creepy clown and other frightening manifestations. There's Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard as the smart-mouthed Richie, portly new kid on the block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), home-schooled outcast Mike (Chosen Jacobs), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), the Jewish kid Wyatt (Stanley Uris), and the girl of the group Beverly (Sophia Lillis).

Every one of these young actors bring their fully formed characters to life. Truly outstanding performances all around. You're instantly are on their side and are easy to identify with. Focusing solely on the kids' traumatic experiences dealing with this scary monster sort of makes the film feel like a creepy (and profane) version of “The Goonies.” The film's witty script (from True Detective's Cary Fukunaga, Annabelle's Gary Dauberman, and Chase Palmer) focuses just as much on humor and heart as it does on frights. Humor and fear has always gone together hand and hand and Muschietti finds a surprisingly successful balance. The film goes to some truly dark places, but you'll laugh just as much as you'll jump. The frights are brought to the screen with fantastic effects and some truly creepy imagery. The R-rated film also has enough tense moments to give the most seasoned horror fans a jolt (my favorite being the tense Nightmare on Elm Street-like sequence involving hair, a sink drain, and lots of blood). It helps that you really like these kids and watching them in peril is a stressful experience.

You wouldn't know it from the clever marketing (or even opening titles) but “It” is actually technically “It: Chapter One;” which appears onscreen during the film's closing credits. I'm sure producers were waiting to see how this film turned out. I'm happy to report that Chapter Two (which would most likely focus on these characters as adults) can't be far away. And rightfully so; “It” is a sheer delight from beginning to end. It's not often that a horror film is described as a delight but there you go. It's funny, it's scary, it's nostalgic without going overboard. The film feels like a strange mix of “Stand By Me” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” It hits all the right emotional buttons, I was hooked instantly and you're practically guaranteed to see a bit of yourself in these kids. “It” is sure to frighten a whole new generation of kids who are probably too young to be seeing it and piss off anyone who makes a living as a circus clown. If films this good only came around every 27 years it'd certainly be worth the wait.  GRADE: A

Monday, August 14, 2017

Agonize & Dolls: The Creepy “Annabelle: Creation” is a Welcomed Addition to the “Conjuring-verse”

Almost every movie series is a “universe” nowadays. It's not always superheroes. Sometimes it's a shared universe revolving around... paranormal investigators from Connecticut? Is the “Conjuring-verse” really a thing? I guess so. Kicking things off in 2013, “The Conjuring” told the true story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren from Monroe, CT. Locals know them well and the rest of the world got to know them as a somewhat fictionalized versions of themselves that got transported to the big screen. The movie was a deservedly massive hit and, best of all, it was scary. The film is a new classic of the horror genre. It wasn't going to end there. A spinoff followed called “Annabelle;” it was appropriately critically reviled as it felt somewhat neutered compared to “The Conjuring.” It was completely fine if somewhat cliché-ridden. “The Conjuring 2” turned things back in the right direction because you realized how fantastic Ed and Lorraine are as characters. And actors Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga embodied them so well. Now we're back to Annabelle, the real-life Chucky, in a prequel to a prequel that no one really asked for but here it is. And it's thankfully nowhere near terrible. “Annabelle: Creation” has decent characterizations, doesn't follow the formula, and offers enough fun thrills to make it worth your time.

“Annabelle: Creation” is successful most likely due to director David F. Sandberg's who conjured up his own feature length debut with last year's clever horror flick “Lights Out.” He brings the same ingenuity here and it shows. Set years before the events of “Annabelle” the film follows a small group of orphan girls who seek refuge in the home of a couple who years prior lost their own little girl in a car accident. Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) is the guy who created the creepy Annabelle dolls, whom he had named after his daughter. His wife Esther (Miranda Otto) is bedridden and hides behind a mask for initially unknown reasons. The girls are accompanied by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) who is one of the stronger horror characters of recent memory. But the real stars here are the young girls who dominate the film's story. Janice (Talitha Bateman) is a girl with polio who after some exploring finds the Annabelle doll locked away in a room she shouldn't be going into. Linda is her friend whom she quickly forms a sisterly bond with. (Linda is played by Lulu Wilson who is sort of the Jamie Lee Curtis of child actors having previously appeared in last year's “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and 2014's “Deliver Us From Evil”). All hell breaks loose after that. Things begin to go bump in the night and it becomes obvious that the Mullins are holding a terrible secret and the doll might be the vessel for something extremely sinister.

“Annabelle: Creation” doesn't quite feel like it's predecessor. Even if it has some haunted house movie elements, it feels somewhat fresh. If anything the film has a Foreign gothic horror vibe and reminds me more of something like “The Orphanage” or “The Devil's Backbone.” The film earns it's scares and even if I didn't find anything outright too scary, the look of the sinister being – as first seen in the first “Annabelle- is perfectly designed and completely terrifying. The performances here are also extraordinarily above average for this type of film which is amazing considering a majority of the cast are children and young teens. Screenwriter Gary Dauberman wisely takes a different approach from the first film. I really like the period setting; it's refreshing to not see characters relying on smart phones with no service or other means of “this isn't working at the moment” technology that riddles most modern horror films. The story is also almost completely set in the Mullins' home. You'd think the same location would eventually get dull, but Sandberg is always keeping things interesting. Like other films in this universe, the film doesn't rely on graphic violence, which is surprising given all four film's R ratings. The films are definitely disturbing. “Saw” they are not.

“Annabelle: Creation” is a completely fine addition to the ever expanding “Conjuring-verse.” “The Nun” is already in production and this film even hints at it. The “Annabelle” films aren't as good as “The Conjuring” or it's fantastic sequel, but considering the genre's penchant for diminishing returns I'm happy to report that the latest trip to the Conjuring-verse is a creepy trip worth taking.  GRADE: B+

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Blonde Ambition: The Highly Stylized “Atomic Blonde” is More Style than Substance

Gunplay. Chases. Double agents. Communism. A fetching Charlize Theron. We’ve all seen it before. “Atomic Blonde” doesn’t really add anything new to the spy thriller genre, but what it does right it does really well. It’s completely style over substance- it’s difficult to care much about anyone onscreen- but it features a few standout sequences which make it worth checking out. And the story is somewhat confusing in a way that makes it way too easy to want to tune out. Theron gives another great performance and the action scenes are directed flawlessly. But cool camerawork will only take a view so far after all.

How does one explain the plot of “Atomic Blonde” without droning on and on? Charlize Theron is Lorraine Broughton a British MI6 agent tasked with tracking down a list of Soviet agents hidden in a wrist watch that was initially in the hands of a murdered colleague. She’s sent to Berlin during the Cold War and the entire film is set during the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In fact, every time clips of real Berlin Wall footage was shown on TV screens I sort of wish I was watching a documentary about the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. This isn’t that movie. There’s lots of guns and fights and rather graphic deaths. Oh and Theron’s character is a lesbian – or is at least part of her cover- so let be that worth to you whatever it may be.

At some point my eyes began to glaze over as I was bombarded with stylish action scenes and heavy dialogue that just made the plot more muddled. I found myself not really caring about these people. There’s also James McAvoy as a British agent – he’s great in the role – but like most of the characters we don’t get to know much about them so it’s hard to root for anyone. The soundtrack is awesome and filled with delightful 80s pop tunes that match the beautiful neon-drenched scenery. But the real showstopper is a glorious long take action sequence which begins as a fight scene in a stairwell and ends with a car chase. Savvy viewers will spot the hidden edits but it’s no less impressively staged.

“Atomic Blond” is based on a graphic novel (“The Coldest City”) and that’s obvious. We’ve seen so many graphic novel adaptations it’s hard to keep track. They all sort of tend to feel the same after a while. The direction from David Leitch is impressive; he doesn’t always just follow the formula. And Kurt Johnstad’s script, even if it’s a big convoluted, offers a few decent twists and turns, though the flashback framing device has been done before and feels stale. I enjoyed the setting and the soundtrack. Theron is good as always.  Overall what we have here is a mixed bag and a film that prefers style over substance. I’m not completely surprised.  GRADE: B-


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Allied Evasion: The Impressive “Dunkirk” is an Immersive, Fragmented Wartime Thriller

“Dunkirk” is an anomaly. Nothing like it truly exists and the war film has been a genre that's existed since the beginning of cinema. “Dunkirk” is a big-budget Hollywood experimental war film, released in the summer of all times, that doesn't rely on the American point-of-view (since the US hadn't entered the war yet), has little to no backstory or exposition, and it's all under two hours. It's one of the most thrilling, intense movie-going experiences I've had in my entire life. Christopher Nolan, once again making perfect use of IMAX cameras (much more so than "The Dark Knight Rises" or "Interstellar"), has crafted an immersive theater going experience (without distracting 3D) that puts you in the action of World War II that is a complete assault on your senses in the best way possible. He takes you to the air, the sea, and beach in a way never really seen before; it demands to be witnessed on the largest screen you can find.

Somehow “Dunkirk” is Christopher Nolan's simplest film and yet his most complex. It's simple in that it's short on runtime and doesn't take it's time give you any context or backstory. He drops you right into the action. Told from three points of view- the air, the sea, and the land- from various characters, the film plays its narrative by taking place over different periods of time. All the stuff on the land and beach follows a young, inexperienced soldier named Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead) as he's chased by enemy fire to the beach in Dunkirk where thousands of other cornered soldiers are awaiting evacuation. Tommy's repeated attempts to get to a ship to get out of France keep failing as enemy fire makes evacuation more difficult. We then head to the sea where an elder civilian Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and boathand George (Barry Keoghan) head out by naval order to help rescue stranded soldiers. They pickup a shell-shocked soldier played by Cillian Murphy. Meanwhile, Tom Hardy and his small group of spitfire pilots are in the sky fighting off the enemy in the air. Because nothing is quite so simple in a Christopher Nolan film, the film's narrative is purposefully non-linear, with each segment taking place at different times. It creates confusion to be sure, and requires the viewer to make sense of what they're seeing and how things fit together.

Anyone not seeing the film on the big screen is doing themselves a grave injustice. This is a film that was made to be seen on large format (preferably IMAX) movie screens. “Dunkirk” is not a film focused on dialogue or character development, those things are mostly irrelevant here on purpose. The film drops you into the chaos of World War II in a way most movies have before. Imagine the intense opening battle of “Saving Private Ryan” stretched to feature length on giant IMAX screens. Nolan's film doesn't focus so much on actual combat – and there is little to no actual onscreen violence – but the film is one of the most intense and visceral war films you're likely to ever see. The direction relies on sound and visuals (and little to no CGI) to tell its story and is very Hitchcockian in that regard. The film functions as a suspense thriller without ever being exploitative or misrepresenting the actual real life story. Most of the few characters we get to know have no real life counterparts so that the film doesn't get bogged down in historical accuracy though it's one of the most realistic war films of recent memory. Almost everything is practical from the thousands of extras to the planes, warships, and explosions. Nothing looks digital or fake because nothing really is. DP Hoyte Van Hoytema attached IMAX cameras were attached to real WWII airplanes giving the film an authenticity that has been unmatched. The cinematography is jaw-dropping. Functioning like a silent film, the sound design and music score are an integral part. Hans Zimmer's loud, mechanical equally-experimental driving score is bombastic and employs ticking sounds that help set the theme of time and place. The suspense is almost unbearable.

“Dunkirk” is unlike anything you'll see and may ever see in a movie theater. It's like the simple yet intense theatrical experience of “Gravity” with the unconventional, playful narrative of “Memento” or “Inception.” I can't stress enough how important it is to see on a huge screen. Christopher Nolan is the rare Hollywood filmmaker who truly believes in the theatrical experience. He remembers why we go to the movies in the first place. You have to admire a guy who makes a big budget experimental summer blockbuster. This isn't a regular war movie. There are no cliches. He takes you on a unique ride and it's 106 minutes of non-stop bombardment, chaos, and suspense. It's amazing that this film even exists in this digital world but I'm so glad it does; it's breathtaking.  GRADE: A

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Hail, Caesar! “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a Thrilling Sci-Fi Spectacle

If your friends are constantly bitching about how movies use too much CGI then point them to “War for the Planet of the Apes.” It has some of the most impressive CGI work in a film to date. I still can’t believe I sat there for over two hours watching computer generated apes and laughed, cried, and had an unbelievably thrilling time. One part revenge thriller, one part POW drama, “War for the Planet of the Apes” is a thrilling spectacle for the eyes and ears. The final (?) entry in this “Planet of the Apes” prequel series ends on a total high note and, like the apes onscreen, has evolved into an intelligent and fascinating allegory about the dangers of technology all wrapped in summer blockbuster fun.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a terrific jumping off point for this trilogy and set the pace for what has become such a fascinating series to see evolve. In that film we see how Caesar, a chimp that has gained massive intelligence to the point where he can actually speak, lead various apes on a quest to take over the world (or at least initially San Francisco). The series took a darker, more depressing turn with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” a perfectly fine film that to me felt less engaging than the first entry. It was with this hesitancy that I entered this third film but was completely blown away.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” finds Caesar in hiding as a group of human soldiers are hot on his trail. While Caesar is ready to end the fighting he’s drawn back into the conflict after a special team infiltrates the apes’ home killing several members of Caesar’s family. Hell-bent on revenge Caesar sends the surviving clan of apes ahead to a safe location while he tries to locate the head of the human army. That would be “the Colonel” played by Woody Harrelson. Along the way Caesar and his close group find an orphan human girl who can’t speak, who they take along. Eventually when they find the Colonel’s base they find a prison filled with apes being put to manual labor. It soon becomes one of the most thrilling prison escape movies since “The Great Escape” or at least “Chicken Run.”

First things first, the special effects here are mind-blowingly amazing. As has always been the case in this series. All the apes are CGI and they looks completely realistic. Especially the orangutan Maurice who I refuse to believe was created on a computer. The actors who brought the apes to life are fantastic as well and really add to the realism. Andy Serkis is great as Caesar or course and the other standout was Steve Zahn as “Bad Ape” who completely stole the film. Second, the script from Mark Bomback and co-writer Matt Reeves (who also directed) is sensational. The story was completely fascinating this time around and Reeves’ direction is impeccable. Third, I finally found a Michael Giacchino score to be engaging and memorable. A lot of the percussion recalled the original Jerry Goldsmith score to the original “Planet of the Apes.”

Enough good things cannot be said about “War for the Planet of the Apes.” Even with a run-time well over two hours I was completely hooked to the screen. I couldn’t believe the emotional connection I felt to these pixelated characters. I’ve really enjoyed watching this franchise develop and it’s been a completely rewarding experience every with every new film.  GRADE: A-

Friday, July 14, 2017

While You Were Sleeping: “The Big Sick” is a Modern Romantic Comedy Classic

The romantic comedy has been a Hollywood staple since the invention of film. The genre has changed forms as much as it has just played by the rules. For every five or ten that are cliched-ridden messes, there's one that really tries to change the game. “The Big Sick,” which is semi-autobiographical, tells a fantastic American story and fundamentally human: it's about a Pakistani standup comedian who defies his traditional family (who are into the whole arranged marriage thing) by falling for a white woman. But certain events threaten to tear them apparent in ways they're completely unprepared for. Written by “Silicon Valley” star Kumail Nanjiani and his real-life wife Emily V. Gordon and directed by “Wet Hot American Summer” alum Michael Showalter, “The Big Sick” is a constantly engaging romantic comedy that takes its viewers through all the appropriate emotions; you'll laugh, you'll cry. I haven't been this emotionally invested in movie characters and their story in quite some time.

Kumail Nanjiani plays a version of him in “The Big Sick.” He's a somewhat struggling standup comedian who also works as an Uber driver in Chicago. Him and his fellow standup friends are ready to breakout and make a real living in the comedy world. Enter audience member Emily (Zoe Kazan) who catches Kumail's eye one night and they start a little fling even though Emily is busy with grad school and says she's not interesting in a relationship. Sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants. And they want each other. The problem is Kumail comes from a very traditional Muslim Pakistani family who is constantly setting him up with single, eligible Pakistani women. Think of it like “My Big Fat Pakistani Wedding.” Did I mention that Emily is a white girl and Kumail doesn't mention to his family that he's dating her. Meanwhile, Emily is psyched to have her parents meet Kumail. This is a complicated relationship and a sudden medical episode threatens to tear these lovebirds apart.

It's no spoiler that Emily ends up in a serious coma. The name of the movie is “The Big Sick.” So what could possibly happen in a romantic comedy when the leading lady ends up comatose for a majority of the run-time? Enter Emily's parents played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Hunter is particularly outstanding- giving an Oscar worthy performance as more than just a grieving mother. The film takes a sudden turn when Kumail begins bonding with Emily's parents. Somehow you end up feeling like you're right there with Kumail, a part of Emily's family. The film functions by telling to amazing stories: one involves the stresses of dealing with a suddenly sick loved one, and the other is a story about a man at odds with the traditions of his well-meaning family. It's almost heartbreaking to see what Kumail is going through and it's extremely relatable no matter your race or religion.

But the film isn't quite the emotional drag I make it out to be. It's also brutally funny. Finding humor in the darkest of moments. Isn't that just how life is sometimes? The movie isn't afraid to push the envelope. Of course there are references to terrorism, ISIS, and 9/11. These are the times we're living in and filmmakers would be foolish to pretend this stuff doesn't exist. Showalter directs with assured precision and helps you feel connected to the characters. The script is witty and delightful and reflects the best of the genre, and has a lot to say about the current world we're living in. This Judd Apatow-produced dramedy is of Woody Allen level quality and, like the recent Amy Schumer hit “Trainwreck,” is another shining example of a big new star on the rise.  GRADE: A 

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Web Sight: The Fun “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a Different Take on the Familiar Wall Crawler

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” has what is probably my favorite ending moment of any movie in quite some time. If you're laughing with delight as the ending credit sequence rolls then you need to check your pulse. The funny final moment represents the picture as a whole, because “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is pure fun and humor throughout it's entire runtime. While surprise and awe here isn't quite as powerful considering this is the sixth Spider-Man feature film (though watching Spider-Man soar through the air is an image I'll never tire of, but I can say it's not quite as breathtaking as it first was fifteen years ago), the film features everything you could really want in a Spider-Man film: witty dialogue, fun action scenes, and super powers as a metaphor for adolescence and teen angst. Even if this is already the third cinematic iteration of the character, the filmmakers are obviously striving to give us something we haven't quite seen before.

Gone are images of the Daily Bugle, the love interest Mary Jane Watson, and best friend Harry Osbourne. We don't get even get to see how Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man because there's only so much you can do with that iconic origin. Working a sort of sequel/spin-off of “Captain America: Civil War” we get Peter Parker (Tom Holland) as a kid just learning the ropes of being the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler. He's good at busting simple thieves but strives to be something more, like most teenagers do. Peter Parker wants to be everything all at once, he wants to be Spider-Man and an Avenger. Tony Stark has made Peter a fancy Spider suit with fancy technology and so many different types of web shooters it borders on excessive.

Director John Watts and the gaggle of writers have brought a more teen-film focus to the story of Peter Parker. Peter attends a science-focuses high school with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), his mortal enemy Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) and his love interest Liz (Laura Harrier). A majority of the film feels like a John Hughes teen comedy and rightfully so. The original Toby Maguire series didn't quite feel that way, though the unresolved “Amazing Spider-Man” series was more on that track seeing as though director Mark Webb had previous helmed romantic comedy fave “(500) Days of Summer.” Meanwhile, Michael Keaton returning to the world of superheroes even after a mild detour into the somewhat meta “Birdman” portrays working class Adrian Toomes who becomes an arms dealer with an interest in the alien technology left over from the Battle of New York from the first “Avengers” film. He will become the villain Vulture and the humanity in the character is a rare return to form in the Marvel universe where most villains are God-like or crazy mutants. It's a perfect balance to the humanity and realism the film tries to focus on. Only the film's score fails to deliver a memorable theme though it's no real fault of composer Miachael Giacchino; most of the Marvel scores aren't very memorable (however, a killer soundtrack more than makes up for it).

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is the rare summer blockbuster that focuses on characters and writing rather than special effects. Sure there's plenty of eye candy here and some standout action set pieces (a fun detour in Washington D.C. and a thrilling ferry ride) but you can really get the sense that the writers are focusing on really creating memorable characters. The chemistry between Holland and his co-stars (especially Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Jon Favreau as “Happy”) is really on point and the dialogue is extremely funny. The performances from the rather diverse cast are solid throughout. Marisa Tomei is fine in the somewhat thankless role of Aunt May but she delivers one of the best moments of the film. Remember when I said the ending moment is great? You nailed it Marisa, you nailed it.  GRADE: A-

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Heist Anxiety: “Baby Driver” is a High-Octane, Genre-Bending Thriller

You know a movie isn't remotely realistic when the postal worker is portrayed as extremely friendly and helpful. It also doesn't matter that everything that happens in “Baby Driver” is preposterous and over-the-top; it's a sheer delight from beginning to end. A fast-paced heist thriller with cool car chases set to a whirlwind music score, “Baby Driver” takes a familiar premise and makes it wholly unique. The film almost functions as a musical version of a “Fast & Furious” film. It's a feast for the eyes and ears – everything a movie should be – and cranks it up past eleven.

When we're first introduced to the film's hero, who goes by 'Baby' (Ansel Elgort), he seems almost too perfect and annoyingly cool to be real or even likable. This young guy, with his hip shades covering his prepubescent face, walks around with earbuds in his ears, the other end attached to a practically defunct iPod. There has to be a reason right? Of course there is because Edgar Write has a crafted a fully formed character here and it becomes quickly clear how the troubled Baby functions when he's not being an outstanding getaway driver. It turns out he owes a debt to heist mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey) and the kid is the perfect driver for his rotating batch of thugs, robbers, and murderers. Baby cranks up the tunes as he's driving the criminals to safety and is pretty anal about the timing. At one point he has to rewind when the group is forced to steal a different getaway vehicle.

Baby only has “one more job” and then he's out. It's never that easy right? Things get complicated when he meets a pretty diner waitress named Deborah played by Lily James. Like most characters in these situations he wants to run away with her and flee his criminal life. Nothing in these plot descriptions can be read as all that original and yet the film is one of the most fascinatingly unique movies you're bound to see this summer. And that's due to the brilliance of the directing, editing, and sound. Each heist scene has a rhythm and is directed like a musical number complete with well-choreographed sound effects like some kind of weird action scene ballet.

“Baby Driver” is an almost perfectly executed piece of genre filmmaking. It's almost utterly suspenseful and pulls at the heartstrings at all the right times. You really get inside Baby's head and understand him in and out. The fact that he's so young and has to look after his own deaf foster father is a testament to the old soul living behind that baby face. Not caring about Baby is impossible, even if he seems too cool to even be a real person. Wright has crafted a realistic fantasy world, one in which car chases are set to music but there are no magical creatures. The film, even with it's initial lighthearted tone, reaches darkness by the end but it never feels pessimistic, depressing, or cynical.

Car chase movies aren't anything new in these summer months. But “Baby Driver” brings something completely unique to the table. It's precision is almost unparalleled. The action is sure to make your jaw drop. The music is catchy. I don't recall the last time I was tapping my foot to a car chase. And it's sometimes pitch perfectly funny. The performances fit perfectly into the heightened world Wright has created. In another summer full of sequels, retreats, and reboots, it's nice we have something that feels familiar and yet something you've never quite seen before.  GRADE: A

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Grate White Shark: “47 Meters Down” Isn't Even So Bad It's Good

As someone who watches the “Jaws” films on a regular basis – yes, all of them, including the steaming pile of delicious guilty pleasure garbage that is “Jaws the Revenge” – I can honestly say that “47 Meters Down” is undeniably terrible. Yeah it makes last years “The Shallows” seem like “Citizen Kane” in comparison and yes it probably should have been sent straight to bargain bin hell like it was supposed to. But sometimes you just have to see it for yourself. “47 Meters Down,” even though it clocks in under 90 minutes, is a tedious exercise in tensionless boredom and sub-par filmmaking. Think of all the standard aspects of brilliant filmmaking and then think of the complete opposite and there sits this horrible film.

Mandy Moore isn't a terrible actress. I would defend her until the cows come home. Just turn on your TV and try not to be charmed by her on “This is Us.” She played a deliciously catty and religious bitch in 2004's “Saved!” and even lent her voice to Disney's “Tangled.” However, beyond that, her filmography hasn't done her many favors and neither does this film. Here she plays a young woman named Lisa on vacation with her sister Kate (Claire Holt) in Mexico. It's one of those sisterly bonding vacations that you only see in movies. Kate's the adventurous one, Lisa's the boring one. What better way than to show up Lisa's bored boyfriend than by going swimming with great white sharks?! Kate and Lisa jump into a shark cage and before they know it the rig breaks and they plummet 47 meters down to the bottom of the ocean. There they sit trapped and there we sit trapped watching them try to survive with little air left in their tanks and poorly lit cinematography.

Usually films about characters trapped in bizarre, extreme situations are fascinating. Take a look at “127 Hours” a film about a guy who gets caught under a rock for days and yet it's completely riveting from beginning to end. Not to mention last year's previously mentioned “The Shallows” which did wonders for a movie about a woman stuck on a rock. Director Johannes Roberts, who co-wrote the film with Ernest Riera (and even shamelessly has his name above the title), doesn't do much to help keep our attention. They annoying telegraph every twist in advance. Matthew Modine, who plays the seedy but knowledgeable boat captain, mentions to the girls that they may hallucinate from switching oxygen tanks. Gee, do you think they'll hallucinate at some point?

If you're scared of the water or sharks, sure “47 Meters Down” may give you the willies based on it's completely terrifying premise but beyond a few hokey jump scares here and there nothing on screen is very convincing. You don't care about the characters. They're not complete morons but they're just not very interesting. The dialogue is laughable. At one point in the film after narrowly dodging one of the great whites Lisa exclaims, “The shark almost got me!” to which the audience promptly burst out into awkward laughter. It's too bad he didn't.  GRADE: D

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Amazon Prime: “Wonder Woman” is a Wonderful Female-Fronted Comic Book Adventure

Most people will make a big deal about how “Wonder Woman” is finally a critically successful film in the “DC Extended Universe.” What's more important, however, is that it's just a great film, period. The film won't do much for those suffering from “superhero fatigue” but the fact that it's a fun, female-driven movie, with not only a strong woman in front of the camera but also a strong woman behind it as well. The movie is helmed by Patty Jenkins who directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar win for 2003's “Monster.” “Wonder Woman” is another comic book origin story, something we've seen countless times, but we finally get to see a different point-of-view. It also helps that the story is interesting because the characters are so well-drawn, their motivations make sense, and its World War I setting is a refreshing change of pace from the futuristic style of the current superhero cycle; the film sort of functions like a female-centered cross between “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Thor.”

Attempting to describe the plot of “Wonder Woman,” which not confusing or overly complicated, will make me sound like a middle-aged woman trying to describe the plot of “The Matrix” so I'll leave it at this. Diana (the perfect Gal Gadot) is an Amazonian, allegedly made of clay and brought to life, who grows up amongst other women an island paradise. She dreams of being a warrior. The island is protected by a magical shield but one day World War I pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into the realm, she rescues him, and he tells her about the Great War happening all over the world. She insists on leaving with him to help fight, as she sees this to be the work of the evil god Ares who is known to have corrupted all of mankind. The film does go from a great introduction of strong women to a strong woman not used to being in a man's world. And the script has fun playing with gender tropes. It's a fun take on the “fish out of water” trope that has been used a million times. Diana and Steve are fascinating characters and they grow closer as the film progresses.

A superhero film would be nothing without a great villain. “Wonder Woman” doesn't overwhelmingly succeed too much in this arena but that's not necessarily the worst thing. I won't give much away but the true villain isn't really revealed until the final act. We do get Doctor Poison Elena Anaya played by in a creepy partial face mask that makes her look like some female mad scientist version of the Phantom of the Opera. She's got an interesting, distinct look which I enjoyed.

“Wonder Woman” has a visual pallet that is very different from what we're used to in the Marvel universe. It's a little darker and gritter like the other DC films but not so washed out to be severely depressing. In fact it has way more color than either of the previous Superman films. And it thankfully has a lot more humor. The darker tone and humor is balanced nicely. It's no wonder the script is a tad lighter than we're used to in this “universe” since the screenwriter is Allan Heinberg who worked on The OC and Grey's Anatomy among other popular television series. Jenkins who is no stranger to drama and even comedy (she directed an episode of TV's Arrested Development) strikes a great balance. There's emotional beats when needed (I may have even shed a tear by the time the credits rolled) and comic relief when necessary. Sure one of the only other female characters in the “real world” is a secretary but Lucy Davis is a hoot in the role. It really took a woman's touch to make us feel something about these characters.

Too much will be made about comparing Marvel and DC and how DC finally has a “good” movie under its belt. That's trivial stuff. There's good things to find in these DC movies if you're willing to look for them. “Wonder Woman” is great even when not compared to the DC films that came before. It's just as well made as anything coming from Marvel if the comparison is necessary. Kids finally have a tough, cool female hero to look up to. And it only took four films to do it (Three if you count the fact that Diana actually showed up in “Batman v Superman.”) After fifteen films, Marvel has yet to even give us a film with a solo female hero, though they have some pretty kick-ass ladies in there. “Wonder Woman” is the film her fans, and even the rest of us, have been waiting for.  GRADE: A-

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.