Sunday, July 28, 2019

La La Land: Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood” is an Exquisite Ode to Tinseltown

At one point in the classic 70s comedy “Annie Hall” the eternally neurotic Woody Allen character Alvy Singer notes that one of the reasons he hates Los Angeles is because of “ritual religious-cult murders.” Fifty years after the Manson “family” committed several horrific, notorious murders and other crimes, the country is still obsessed with those terrible crimes. And in a way, so is Quentin Tarantino. But he wasn't interested in making a traditional movie about the Manson murders. Tarantino has made a fairy tale set in 1969 Hollywood that’s an ode to changing times in America that fuses real life characters and events with fictional characters in a tribute to Hollywood that is truly the pinnacle of his decades-long career. “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” is a fascinating mix of drama, comedy, crime, and nostalgia that is completely compelling and brims with tension for its thoroughly well-paced runtime. The film is truly a masterpiece which is saying something considering there aren't many duds in his filmography.

It seems that every time Quentin Tarantino releases a film it’s his new classic. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is his new classic. There I said it. Tarantino is the ultimate film nerd. He could wipe the floor with anyone would try to challenge him. And he really proves it in his latest film which is a gorgeous ode to Hollywood and movies. It truly feels as if all the roads he’s traveled down has been leading up to this brilliant piece of work. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor named Rick Dalton, who is famous for staring in a TV western but his stardom is quickly fading. His former stunt man and friend Cliff (Brad Pitt) works as his personal driver. The two are great friends and are actually very reliant on each other, more so than they truly realize. Rick lives next door to filmmaker Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate and he dreams of meeting them one day in the hopes of reigniting his career. 

The film follows Rick as he tries to jump-start his career by taking bit parts in shows while refusing to an offer to star in some Spaghetti Westerns in Italy from his agent Marvin Schwartz (Al Pacino). Meanwhile, we get to see Cliff’s rather mundane life as he drives around alone and spends time in his trailer with his well-trained pitbull Brandy. He picks up a hippie girl who’s hitchhiking and ends up at a deserted movie ranch where the Manson family lives. And as the film progresses we get to see what rising movie star Sharon Tate is up to. She spends an afternoon at a movie theater watching her own film completely compelled by the magic of watching herself onscreen.

The film not only functions as a character piece about the trials and tribulations of a fading TV actor and his best friend, but also as a document of the end of the 1960s and and the introduction of the harsh reality of the 1970s. At someone who wasn’t yet alive, the film feels pretty authentic; everything from the costumes, to the set design, to the cinematography (by longtime Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson) everything here just looks right. And you can really see how much Tarantino has grown as a screenwriter, director and as a storyteller. Even if the narrative isn’t always “normal” it’s arguably his most sophisticated film. There’s no need for chapter titles or any of that gimmicky stuff, but all the other trademark Tarantinoisms are there. Lots of dialogue-driven scenes, fun twists in the narrative, mentions of obscure movies you’ve never heard of, a soundtrack filled with equally obscure and familiar tunes, humor in places you’re not expecting, and of course spouts of graphic violence that are…. well the less spoiled about that the better.

“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is a movie for people who love and appreciate movies. But it’s also so much more. Tarantino isn’t new to revising historical events in his films (ie Inglorious Basterds) so it may not take a genius to figure out that things don’t necessarily play out very historically accurate here and that’s all for the better. The film is a wild ride and a glorious genre-bending piece of celluloid that will be remembered for years to come; it features fantastic performances from its very famous and charming leads (not to mention a laundry list of celebrity bit parts and cameos) and one of the most memorable and whacked out final acts I’ve seen in quite some time. As the title suggests it’s really a Tarantino fairy tale and it just may be the most Tarantinoy film that ever Tarantinoed. GRADE: A

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Aristocats: “The Lion King” is Fine But It Whimpers When It Should Roar

About 2 minutes into the “live-action” version of “The Lion King” I muttered, “I feel like I’m watching the Psycho remake.” Ahh, the Psycho remake, Gus Van Sant’s $60 million ill-advised experiment that continues to fascinate me to this day. That movie was the result of “What if we shot Psycho in practically the exact same way but in color instead of black and white?” And twenty years later we got the same question, “What if we took the global phenomenon ‘The Lion King’ but instead of having lush, colorful animation we made it with photo-realistic CGI animal characters whose faces can’t fully emote because they’re supposed to be ‘realistic’ so it just looks like they’ve all had botched face-lifts?” And here we have “The Lion King,” a ‘live-action’ remake of a traditionally animated film that feels inferior in almost every possible way (with the possible exception of the depiction of Timon and Pumbaa). Here’s the deal: if you liked “The Lion King” you’ll probably like the new version because it’s essentially the same thing. But there are alterations that make you wonder why they even bothered in the first place. Like the “Psycho” remake, we’re left with what is essentially an expensive experiment that’s actually an inferior version of a film that didn’t need updating in the first place.

Generally speaking, remakes don’t really bother me the way they do some people. Making a photo-realistic version of “The Lion King” was something I saw coming years ago. “The Jungle Book” and its Oscar-winning effects made that pretty obvious. I don’t hold “The Lion King” up to some pinnacle of animation standards by any means, but there is something special about it. That something special feels a little harder to find in Jon Favreau’s CGI extravaganza. The opening sequence – with various animals traveling the African landscape to the tune of “Circle of Life” – is pretty much a shot-for-shot redo of the animated version. It’s impressive what the computer animation wizards have been able to accomplish here. And then the story follows the young lion cub Simba (voiced by JD McCrary) as he learns about the circle of life from his father King Mufasa (voiced yet again by James Earl Jones). Meanwhile, Mufasa’s jealous and evil brother Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plots his death and plans on ruling the African Pride Lands himself.

You know the story. It’s simple but effective and there’s a reason why it worked so well so many years ago and still does. Loosely based on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the film has a dramatic heft that a lot of other animated films have attempted to replicate. Watching “The Lion King” made today, it feels more of an allegory for the rise of the evil Trump Administration more than anything. Scar is a classic Disney villain and like all the good ones was perfectly evil and flamboyant. This newly rendered Scar is purely evil and sorely lacking in the not-so-subtle queerness that permeated the original character. Here, he doesn’t even really get a fully realized heinous villain musical number. Things improve greatly once Simba is exiled and meets up with the meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen) who can easily be read as an outcast gay couple banished from the conservatism of Pride Rock. IT’S FREAKING CALLED PRIDE ROCK THOUGH. But I digress. The less said about the “photo-realistic” animals’ lack of genitalia the better. But back to Timon and Pumbaa. They are hilarious! Timon’s updated dialogue is fantastic and has that perfect Billy Eichner touch. I laughed out loud several times while the jokes mostly went over the rest of the audience’s heads. I’ll credit Jeff Nathanson’s script for that good stuff.

Odds are you know if you’re going to like “The Lion King” or not. Generally speaking. I enjoyed it actually; the songs are still good and the story still entertains decades on. Does this movie need to exist? Of course not. The CGI is pretty impressive but the character’s facial expressions are never quite as expressive as in the original film. The new iteration is almost practically devoid of bright colors which is why scenes like “Can’t Just Wait to Be King” sort of fall flat here. Overall this is actually one of the more successful remakes of the Disney animated classics. Bonus points for having actual people of color voice African characters and the fact that Pumbaa actually gets to say the word “farted.” This new “Lion King” is PG after all. GRADE: B-

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Chomp & Circumstance: “Crawl” is a Disaster Film Thriller With Bite

The utterly absurd “Crawl” is two great films in one: it’s an animal attack movie and it’s a disaster movie. In other words, it’s right up my alley. Set in one location, “Crawl” is an intimate, quick-paced thriller about a young woman who gets trapped in the crawl space under her dad’s house, during a hurricane with rising waters, with menacing alligators. If that doesn’t make you want to see “Crawl” nothing will. With a welcome return to form by horror director Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D), “Crawl” is a fun, efficient disaster film punctuated by graphic alligator attacks. But it’s also a character piece about an estranged father and daughter with just enough sappiness to make the entire endeavor (which is sort of “Cujo” in a crawl space with alligators) one of the more ridiculous – and flat out intense and entertaining – movies in this underwhelming summer.

The setup in “Crawl” is thankfully quite simple. Haley (Kaya Scodelario) is a college swimmer in Florida and an intense hurricane is quickly approaching. Her sister Beth hasn’t heard from their newly single father Dave (a grizzled Barry Pepper) and asks Haley to check on him as the storm approaches even though people are being told to evacuate. At first, as Haley’s search is futile, I began thinking, this guy obviously doesn’t want to be found. Who doesn’t answer their phone? Who abandons their dog during a storm? This guy is dead weight. And then she finds him in the crawl space of his house and he’s been ATTACKED BY A FRIGGIN’ ALLIGATOR. And that’s the premise: watching this father-daughter duo try to escape the crawl space of a house as the rain water rises as a disgruntled alligator wades around. They were likable that I rooted for them to live, but I prayed for their dog.

Alexander Aja who is known for some of his over-the-top gore moments in his horror films, piles on the vicious animal attacks in “Crawl.” He wisely focuses mostly on suspense – this is an intense ride – but the brutality really shows how powerful and scary alligators can be. Of course they’re just trying to survive; they’re not necessarily presented as horrible monsters but I’m no gator expert. The visual effects are convincing enough; I don’t imagine this is a hugely budgeted film but I think the final product ends up working remarkably well.

The fact that this film literally comes to us nearly 20 years to the day of another reptilian animal attack movie – the much maligned horror-comedy “Lake Placid” - is sort of beautiful cinematic kismet. I’ve never been shy about proclaiming my affinity for killer animal movies whether they’re good ones like “Jaws,” “The Birds,” or “Piranha” (both of them) or guilty pleasures like “Deep Blue Sea” and “Lake Placid.” “Crawl” isn’t particularly new or groundbreaking material but it’s a ridiculous premise that works and was fully funded by a major studio (good ol’ Paramount) and if that means more killer animal movies then I’m so ready.  GRADE: B+

Friday, July 05, 2019

Here Comes the Sun: The Disturbing and Gorgeous “Midsommar” is a Cult Above the Rest

Halfway through Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” I thought I’d never be able to watch it again. I found it that disturbing, troubling, and creepy. As it turns out, it’s a hell of a horror film and has tremendous replay value once you know its secrets. Featuring an Oscar-worthy Toni Collette, it marked one of the most auspicious horror film debuts in quite some time. And now we have “Midsommar,” Aster’s incredible followup. Folks, he’s two for two. This sun-drenched ode to folk horror films like “The Wicker Man” is a distressing piece of art that, even at a runtime of 147 minutes, flies by because it gets its hooks in you in the film’s shocking opening sequence and never lets go. Essentially a drama about the dissolution of a relationship, “Midsommar” offers gorgeous, colorful cinematography, strong performances, and a story that is creepy and gross because you know exactly where it’s going and it’s one scary trip.

The film begins with a terrible tragedy during the cold winter months which easily establishes director Ari Aster as a grief horror master. Our heroine Dani (Florence Pugh) is the one dealing with shocking events that involve some immediate family members which is not helping her already strained relationship with her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). To help get her mind off things, he reluctantly invites her along with his male friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) to visit Sweden. They have plans to do one of worst-sounding things in horror movie history. They’re going with their Swedish friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to visit the Swedish commune his grew up on to witness a nine day long summer festival that only occurs every 90 days. If that doesn’t scream murderous cult I don’t know what does.

The rest of the film is a downward spiral of drug hallucinations (oh college kids!) and more and more disturbing behavior as these young people realize that the nice pale people even with their flowing white frocks and sunny, friendly dispositions are actually pretty darn insane. None of this is actually surprising, as the walls of the building in which our American heroes are bunking actually depict a lot of the crazy activities the audience will witness from these Swedish meatballs. Of course the less you know about the film going into it the more “fun” it’ll all be. But prepare yourself from some really shocking imagery whether it be graphic violence or graphic sexuality.

To be fair, “Midsommar” is certainly not a film for everyone. If you could handle “Hereditary” you could easily handle this. Think of “Midsommar” as brighter-looking version of “Hereditary” but without all the supernatural stuff. All great horror films have a centered piece of drama in which to hang the horror elements on and both of these brilliant films are the epitome of that. Aster has created yet another beautiful, trippy film set in a place where it never gets dark which means there’s never anywhere to hid. The film will not shock you with jump scares, but will slowly try to make you go insane, and what is scarier or more fun than that?  GRADE: A

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Marvel’s European Vacation: “Spider-Man Far From Home” is a Humorous, Emotional Joy

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” is two movies in one. It's a sequel to “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which was Spider-Man's first solo outing within the MCU. But it also functions as a sequel to “Avengers: Endgame.” And this is where it really shines. The film must deal with the borderline traumatic events that unfolded in the biggest and most consequential film in the MCU universe so far. Sure, coming off the heels of “Endgame” is a lot of heavy lifting, but the film and its makers are up for the challenge and they succeed admirably. "Spider-Man: Far From Home" is a funny and action-packed spectacle that also happens to be a fun trip around Europe. Offering a really fantastic sense of humor, a lot of heart, and charismatic performances from its stars, “Far From Home” is easily one of the best Spider-Man films of all time.

Perfectly timed for Independence Day in the United States, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” spends its time abroad and I can’t think of anything more opportune then getting out of this place. We learn a little more about life after the reverse snap, now referred to as “The Blip,” and how those who were erased from existence have not aged while five years has passed for everyone else. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is still reeling from the death of Tony Stark but it’s time for a school trip to Europe. And what could possibly go wrong? While there, these monsters that take the shape of the elements (ie, water, fire) begin wrecking havoc and a mysterious caped crusader shows up to stop the terror. This guy is dubbed by the Italian press as “Mysterio.” Oh look it’s Jake Gyllanhaal! Welcome to the MCU Jake. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) want to welcome this new hero to the world – as he’s actually from another of many multiverses, of which his version of Earth was destroyed. Though there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark, we’ll soon find out (and it's not their cheese).

“Spider-Man: Far From Home” continues the teen flick fun of “Homecoming” by focusing on a small group of Parker’s classmates thanks to Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’ witty script. This includes his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his new girlfriend Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) who spend their entire European vacation being that annoying couple with matching outfits and terms of endearment. And then there’s MJ (Zendaya) who Peter longs for and she may even have some feelings in return. All of the teen drama is set against this increasing global threat and has Peter in a pickle… I mean where’s Iron Man when you need him. Luckily, Tony Stark’s loyal assistant Happy (Jon Faverau) is there as a sort of reluctant mentor to Peter and their scenes are extremely touching and effective. Not to mention a possible romance with Peter’s Aunt May (Maris Tomei).

This latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is another pop art comic masterpiece. It’s truly amazing how much sheer fun the film is and how emotional invested one can get in a film series that has been going strong for over ten years. Jon Watts’ film is a visual treat with fantastic action set pieces, a great score from Michael Giacchino, and solid performances from everyone involved. No one really knows where the MCU is going from this point, but it’ll be hard to top everything up to this point. I can’t wait.  GRADE: A

Monday, July 01, 2019

Hello, Dolly! The Jump Scares are in Full Force in “Annabelle Comes Home”

Talking and/or killer toys are having a bumper crop at American theaters this summer huh? “Toy Story 4” and “Child’s Play” both opened on the same day (major props to the “Child’s Play” marketing people by the way) and now we get the third installment of the Annabelle series which itself is a spinoff of the far superior fright flick “The Conjuring.” I greatly admire Warner Brothers’ Conjuring universe not only because it’s arguably better handled than their DC universe but there hasn’t been such a fun group of shared horror films since the days of the Universal Studios monsters. That being said, the “Annabelle” films pale in comparison to the main Conjuring films but this third entry is certainly a noble effort (as was the superior second installment “Annabelle: Creation”). What is essentially a single setting haunted house flick with things that go bump in the night, the film is fine entertainment for those seeking fun jump scares, but hardened horror fans with iron constitutions will find most of “Annabelle Comes Home” to be little more than silly smoke and mirrors that add very little to the genre; except for a handful of other fun possible Conjuring universe spin-offs. At the end of the day, I’m okay with that because there’s nothing particularly horrible about this entry, it’s just not overly outstanding.

The Warrens show up in “Annabelle Comes Home” and is set mostly in their home and that is certainly a bold and wise choice from the filmmakers. The presence of Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson easily elevates this otherwise generic haunted house movie. This is literally the fourth time that we’ve been made aware of the evil doll Annabelle and we finally get to see what happens when the Warrens place her in her permanent home in their creepy artifact room IN THEIR HOME. Of course during one weekend away from home, the Warrens’ hire a teenager to babysitt their young daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace). The sweet teen left in charge, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) hesitantly lets her friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) over and before they know it they’ve awoken Annabelle and all the other evil spirits locked away in the room in what is essentially a cabin in the woods storyline.

So basically what we have here is “The Conjuring” meets “The Evil Dead.” Which sounds fine on paper except that in this film I never really felt that these girls were in any real danger. I was pretty certain they would all end up fine. If you watch the first “Conjuring,” which is better written and features more fleshed out characterizations, film you never feel like that family is going to make it out alive. “Annabelle Comes Home” has a lot of boo/gotcha moments which is fine, but that’s really all it has. It has not real unique visual identity and I don’t even remember the music score. The young actors are fine but it was hard to get invested or care about them, especially Daniela who is the one who unwittingly unleashes the demons when all she could of done is just as Lorraine to contact her recently deceased close family member.

As a horror fan, and lifetime resident of Connecticut, I’m so thrilled that these films exist. These Conjuring universe films are fine – they’re all starting to feel and look the same – but I’m glad these films are around to scare the pants off of kids whose parents probably shouldn’t be bringing them to see them. Though these films aren’t loaded with profanity, violence, or sex which is extremely rare for an R rated horror film. It means the films care a stricter rating because they are just scary; of course your mileage may vary. As far as I’m concerned these films only exists to cleans the palate between the main Conjuring films and my appetite is certainly whetted. GRADE: B-