Wednesday, March 29, 2017

March Film Babble: LIFE & THE LAST WORD

I’ve been too busy working on a book project (more on that later) to babble much these days about movies, but here’s a few films I’ve seen recently that I’ll weigh in on:

LIFE (Dir. Daniel Espinosa, 2017)

It’s often been said that ALIEN, is a “haunted house in space” movie, and that’s certainly the case with this movie which takes Ridley Scott’s 1980 sci-fi classic, and mixes it with Alfonso CuarĂ³n’s GRAVITY.

LIFE concerns a crew made up of Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya returning from a mission to Mars on the International Space Station with a soil sample that contains a single-celled organism.

The organism, which is named Calvin by schoolchildren in a Times Square ceremony back on earth, quickly grows into a multi-celled Flubber-like creature that starts killing the crew members one by one.

That’s basically it for the plot, as it’s all about the familiar fight for survival tropes that keep trapping the remaining cast members at every turn. There is some genuine suspense, and some stellar effects, but I found a great deal of tedium to be in orbit with these one-note characters.

I will give kudos to the dark, twisted ending, despite the fact that it could easily set up a sequel as the idea of a LIFE franchise makes me cringe. But since this film flopped at the box office, it doesn’t look like that’s something I have to worry about.

THE LAST WORD (Dir. Mark Pellington, 2017)

If you didn’t get enough of Shirley MacLaine as a controlling, crotchety old woman that everyone in town hates in Richard Linklater’s BERNIE, then this is the movie for you.

MacLaine plays Harriett Lauler, a wealthy, retired divorcee who wants to shape her legacy by getting newspaper obituary writer Amanda Seyfried to craft her eulogy before she’s dead.

This leads to all kinds of cutesy-ness, with MacLaine’s Harriett mentoring an underprivileged black 9-year-old (AnnJewel Lee Dixon), becoming a DJ at a college indie rock radio station, and sticking it to the suits at the advertising agency that screwed her over.

It’s one of those movies where everybody appears to be a familiar face.

There’s Gedde Watanabe, best known as Long Duck Dong in SIXTEEN CANDLES (don’t expect a gong here), as Harriett’s gardener; there’s Tom Everett Scott from THAT THING YOU DO! As Seyfried’s editor, Joel Murray (Bill’s brother of many credits, but you may know him best from Mad Men) as Harriett’s former colleague, Thomas Sadoski from The Newsroom as Harriett’s radio station manager, Phillip Baker Hall as Harriett’s ex-husband, who has one of the film’s better scenes; and, yes, that’s Anne Heche as Harriett’s estranged daughter, who has one of the film’s worst scenes.

The script by first time screenwriter does have ambition at times so there are moments of wit and honesty, but more often it feels like TV melodrama sprinkled with hot or miss one-liners.

The irony in this movie about a woman wanting to be fondly remembered when she’s gone, is that MacLaine should have no such worry. She has an impressive filmography including a few of my favorite films, like THE APARTMENT and BEING THERE, so a lightweight piece of cheese like this won’t hurt her legacy at all.

More later...

Friday, March 10, 2017

Another KING KONG Reboot, Anyone?

Opening today at a big ass multiplex near us all:


(Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017)

When I was a kid forty years ago, the winter of 1977, my favorite movie was the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis produced remake of KING KONG. I had seen it when it was released the previous Christmas, and it was probably still in theaters around this time that year. I definitely still had it in my mind when STAR WARS came out that summer, as I wrote about before in this space.

I didn’t see the 1933 original for a few years yet, so the ‘70s one with Jessica Lange, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, and the mechanical ape that climbed up the side of the World Trade Center towers was my only KONG. It’s a pretty silly looking movie now, despite that it won an Oscar for visual effects, but still has a place in my movie loving heart.

Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, which also won for visual effects, wasn’t bad, but when it came to the idea of yet another update, I can’t say I was thrilled. Especially with the news that it’s part of Legendary Picture’s MonsterVerse (that’s right), which kicked off with the GODZILLA reboot of a few years back.

But, dangit, KONG: SKULL ISLAND ain’t half bad. A lot of critics have been saying that it’s got an APOCALYPSE NOW vibe to it, with its Vietnam era setting, helicopters outfitted with speakers blaring music while dropping bombs, and even a variation on the crazy Dennis Hopper character, and, yeah, that does fit.

But if the message of APOCALYPSE NOW is that war is hell, the message of KONG: SKULL ISLAND seems to be: warring with King Kong is hell.

This variation of the 84-year old tale has John Goodman as a government agent Bill Randa recruiting Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad, a former British Special Air Service Captain; and a helicopter squadron led by Samuel L. Jackson as Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard, to explore an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean known as “Skull Island.”

Also along for the ride is Brie Larson, with great looking curly, full bodied ‘70s hair, in the part of the blonde that Kong falls for, but this time the character is a photojournalist and peace activist named Mason Weaver.

The expedition wakes up the gigantic gorilla with their pesky explosives and in the eye-popping spectacle of chaotic CGI, the angry ape destroys most of their helicopters, leaving many casualties of Kong. Split into two groups, the team travel the island to get to the other end where they’ll be met by a resupply team in three days.

Hiddleston’s Conrad and Larson’s Weaver, and their group discover John C. Reilly as an American pilot who’s been stranded on the island since World War II. That’s the variation on the crazy Dennis Hopper part, and Reilly’s Hank Marlow is a hoot, stealing every scene he’s in.

Reilly’s Marlow tells Conrad and Weaver about terrifying creatures that live underground that Kong keeps at bay, and tells them that they are called “Skullcrawlers.” Not getting the response to this that he wanted, Marlow backpedals: “that’s the first time I said that out loud, and it sounds stupid, you can call them anything you want.”

Samuel L. Jackson playing the Samuel L. Jackson role (he even says “hang on to your butts”) steals scenes too with his intensity with wanting revenge for his dead men, while we basically just wait to see how the corrupt Goodman character is killed off.  

KONG: SKULL ISLAND is no masterpiece, but it’s a perfectly serviceable piece of action sci-fi popcorn cinema. It’s a lot stronger than Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA, and it’s more satisfying than Jackson’s KING KONG redux. It ticks off all the expected boxes (can’t have a Vietnam theme without Creedence’s “Run through the Jungle”), and it possesses a lot of visual power. Mostly though, it’s simply a fun monster movie.

But when seeing the stinger at the end after the credits (following the Marvel business model to a t), and getting the sense of the larger franchise they’re planning, I’m not sure I’m game for a endless series of KONG adventures. 

I should just grin and bear it though. I’ve got to accept that these remakes, reboots, and re-imaginings do great business, and as a hardcore fan and follower of film, I’ve got to remember the words of Hyman Roth, as played by the late, great Lee Strasberg, in one of the best sequels ever: “This is the business we’ve chosen.”

More later...

Monday, March 06, 2017

Jordan Peele's GET OUT: The First Great Film Of 2017

Now playing at a multiplex near us all:

GET OUT (Dir. Jordan Peele, 2017)

GET OUT, The directorial debut of Jordan Peele, best known as half of the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele, is the first great movie of 2017.

I mean I adored THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE, but this is some next level shit.

The premise of this film, which has been described by many critics, and its creator, as GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER meets THE STEPFORD WIVES, concerns a 20something black man named Chris (Daniel Kuluuya) who travels with his white girlfriend Rose (Girls’ Allison Williams) to visit her family at their rural estate.

While packing, Chris asks Rose if her parents know that he’s black. She says she hasn’t told them, but that they are liberal and will have no problem with it. Rose even predicts that her father will boast that he would’ve voted for Obama for a third term.

Sure enough, shortly after being welcomed with hugs, Rose’s wealthy surgeon dad Dean (The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford) indeed says: “I would’ve voted for Obama a third time if I could; hands down the best President in my lifetime.”

But despite Rose’s parents, Dean and Missy (Catherine Keener), being so friendly, there is a black handyman Walter (Marcus Henderson) and a black housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) who are acting very odd. As Missy is a hypnotherapist it’s hard not to suspect that these people were put under a spell that turned them into this family’s slaves.

Chris’s friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), a TSA agent who’s taking care of Chris’s dog back home, certainly thinks so, blurting into the phone: “White people love making people sex slaves and shit!”

Chris tries to avoid Missy’s offer to put him under hypnosis to help him quit smoking, but finally succumbs and through a risky visual he finds himself helpless and trapped in a black void that she calls “the sunken place.” He wakes up shaken the next morning, but Rose reassures him and it’s on to a big backyard party sequence full of upscale white people who praise Chris and say things like “black is in fashion.”

Every other added character brings more creepiness: Rose’s obnoxious brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), Stephen Root as blind art expert Jim Hunter (who’s well aware of the irony of being a blind art expert, thank you!), and the dapper, docile Logan (LaKeith Stanfield), the only black person at her parents’ party.

Chris thinks he’s met Logan before, but can’t place him. He takes a picture of Logan, during an awkward conversation about race, and the flash makes him freeze, have a nosebleed, then come flailing at Chris yelling several times: “get out!”

That’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot. GET OUT keeps you guessing up to the end, and it’s a fantastic ending. Peele makes great choices all along the way, and it all adds up to a funny, thrilling, ride that makes some wonderfully timely points.

It’s a terrific social satire, but its surreal tinges, i.e. “the sunken place,” are what really give GET OUT its edge. Peele, who wrote the screenplay, has constructed a woke suspenseful scenario that delightfully toys with its protagonist as much as it does its audience.

The underlying message, or one of them anyway, in GET OUT is that the intents of well meaning and well off, liberal white people can be just as dangerous as hardcore cross-burning redneck racists.

This movie, currently #1 at the box office, was %100 on the Rotten Tomatometer until a certain critic, the infamous Armond White of the National Review had to go and ruin that perfect score with his pan (“Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ a Trite Get-Whitey Movie”).

Don’t listen to him. GET OUT is a must see, even if you aren’t a fan of scary films. It transcends that genre and then some. In an interview with Business Insider, Peele said he wants to make more movies about “social demons,” with premises about how “these innately human monsters that are woven into the fabric of how we think and how we interact.”

Well, he’s certainly off to a stellar start.

More later...