KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

March 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. I enjoy creature movies. Even as a kid I enjoyed creature movies (as distinguished from monster movies, which I’m also fond of). From the classics to the (very) low budget ones on late night TV to the fear-mongering from Japan … I enjoy them all. Of course the most fascinating of the bunch is King Kong, and this version arrives 84 years after the still magnificent 1933 version from Merian C Cooper and featuring Fay Wray.

This time there is no shootout on The Empire State Building, and the connection between Kong and the girl is limited to a few knowing glances. Most of the film takes place on Kong’s island … one he shares with some other creatures (not rodents) of unusual size. Unlike Spielberg in Jaws, who teased us for half the movie before finally revealing the shark, we get a glimpse of the imposing Kong very early on.

The cast is the best yet for a creature feature. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins play scientists/conspiracy theorists; Tom Hiddleston plays the world’s only mercenary with perfect hair and skin; Brie Larson is a self-described anti-war photographer; while Samuel L Jackson, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Toby Kebbell play military men on their last mission at the end of the Vietnam War. The most colorful character is played by John C Riley – an eccentric WWII survivor who has been living on the island since 1944.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs this version, and his resume of The Kings of Summer and mostly TV work begs the question of how the heck did he get this gig? Fortunately he has cinematographer Larry Fong alongside, and his significant big action picture experience is obvious in the breath-taking helicopter scene (as well as many others). It’s impossible not to notice the extreme love shown to Apocalypse Now and even Jurassic Park. Some of the shots and tone seem as if pulled directly from those films … even moreso than the original King Kong. We even get Samuel L Jackson recycling his “hold onto your butts” line.

There is plenty here to satisfy us lovers of creature features, though this version certainly lacks the emotional impact of Fay Wray and Naomi Watts connecting with Kong … not much Beauty, but plenty of Beast. It’s certainly recommended that you stay for the post-credits scene that sets the stage for 2020.

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T2 TRAINSPOTTING (2017)

March 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sequels are big business in Hollywood these days. In fact, it’s not unusual for sequels to be announced even before the premiere of the first! At the other end of the spectrum we have cult films which carry the added pressure of not disappointing (or worse) their rabid fan base. Such is the case with Trainspotting from 1996. So the big question is … can the much anticipated follow up generate the frenetic pace and enjoyable discomfort of the first?

Director Danny Boyle (and his Oscar from Slumdog Millionaire) is back at the helm, and re-joining him is writer John Hodge who is once again working with the main characters from Irvine Welsh’s source novels. Of course what has the fans excited is the reunion of Ewan McGregor as Mark Renton, Ewen Bremner as Spud, Jonny Lee Miller as Sick Boy Simon, and Robert Carlyle as Begbie. Despite high expectations and fear of disappointment, it’s difficult to imagine the fans not having a blast with this second go round. Sure, the boys are a bit older – but to say they are much wiser, would be stretching things farther than these off-kilter blokes already do.

For reasons never really made clear, Mark returns to face the fellows he left high and dry some twenty years ago. Perhaps it’s guilt and he accepts that he deserves a good ass-kicking, or perhaps he simply realized he didn’t belong anywhere else. Simon has an attractive new partner named Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), who seems to be the one generating whatever income the couple has. Spud is still struggling mightily with his addiction, while Begbie is planning a quite painful escape from prison.

The reunions happen separately and slowly throughout the film, and each carries its own awkwardness. These guys are all similar to the guys we know, yet nobody’s quite the same. It’s not until near the end when all four share a scene. However, getting to that point involves everything we could hope for: flashbacks, quirky camera angles, flash-cut edits, familiar music blasting, and exaggerated sound effects … in other words, all of the style from the original (only with a higher budget).

Also making return appearances are Kelly McDonald as Diane (only one scene), novelist Irvine Welsh (this time buying stolen goods from Begbie), and the always great Shirley Henderson as Gail, whose single line of dialogue is pitch perfect. It’s nice that Ewen Bremner gets such an interesting and unexpected path in this sequel, and we can’t help but smile at director Boyle’s tributes to David Bowie, Stanley Kubrick, and of course, his original Trainspotting. You may ask why and in what form, but it’s clear all four main characters have decided to “choose life”. The next cult favorite up for sequel treatment is 1982’s Blade Runner, which likely faces an even more challenging journey to satisfy fans from 35 years ago.

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CHIPS (2017)

March 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. In a Hollywood self-congratulatory world that considers sequels, reboots and remakes as creative projects; and imitation as the most sincere form of flattery … not to mention the safest hedged bet … it’s not in the least surprising that we now have a film version of “CHiPs”, a lightweight and popular TV show that ran from 1977 through 1983. What should be surprising is that a studio entrusted Dax Shepard with the ultimate slash role of Director/Writer/Producer/Actor for this contemporary version.

Of course, as with film versions of “21 Jump Street” and “Starsky and Hutch”, the target audience isn’t really those who watched the original TV series, but rather the group of big-spending millennials who seem to thrive on raunchy humor, while placing minimal value on a coherent or interesting story. Buddy cop films that blend tense drama, wise-cracking partners and eye-widening action have long been popular, with the jewel of the genre being Lethal Weapon. This latest entry does nothing to threaten the now 30 year reign of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

Dax Shepard stars in his own film as Jon Baker, now reinvented as a former X-games motorcycle champ who is attempting to save his long-fizzled marriage by becoming a cop. The rookie’s partner is undercover FBI Agent Frank “Ponch” Poncherello played by Michael Pena. Each has their own personal issues: Jon is addicted to prescription painkillers, and Ponch struggles to control certain urges … and unfortunately for viewers, the two spend an inordinate amount of time discussing these issues.

The crime wave they are attempting to bust involves a corrupt cop. Seeing that Vincent D’Onofrio is in the cast immediately takes away any mystery about the bad guy’s identity, but were there any doubt, the film exposes him in the first action sequence. After that comes the onslaught of verbal sparring, explosions, gunplay and one especially gory moment.

With Dax Shepard at the helm, we understand going in that the raunchy humor faucet will be fully open. Topics covered in one-liners, gags and recurring themes include: homophobia, sexting, masturbating, bowel movements, marriage therapy, d**k jokes, prescription drugs, paparazzi, and yoga pants. But seriously, how many “eating a**” jokes does one movie need? It’s a topic that goes from uncomfortable to unnecessary pretty quickly.

Cars and bikes are vital here, though it seems that the motorcycle stunts could have been jazzed up a bit, and we certainly expected more cameos than the mandatory one near the end. The original series thrived on being ‘tongue in cheek’, and Mr. Shepard’s version brings new meaning to the phrase. The opening credits state “The California Highway Patrol does not endorse this film. At all.” It’s an understandable stance.

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I, OLGA HEPNAROVA (2017)

March 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most youngsters have executed a perfect eye roll on at least one occasion after receiving a dose of parental advice that seemed irrelevant to them at the time. An early scene in this biopic finds teenage Olga listening as her mother says, “To commit suicide you need a strong will, my child. Something you certainly don’t have. Accept it.” This is a warning shot fired at the audience to be cautious when judging the actions of the last woman executed in Czechoslovakia.

Co-directors Petr Kazda and Tomas Weinred seem to believe that most viewers will be familiar with Olga’s story, and presume the film’s austere look, lack of flow, and structure of seemingly unrelated scenes will provide a sense of the choppiness and isolation that might explain her otherwise inexplicable actions. Based on Olga’s true story and the book from Roman Cilek, the film will have you questioning whether her behavior was the result of horrible parenting, or more closely related to her psychological issues – perhaps even schizophrenia.

Michalina Olszamska (The Lure) delivers a committed performance as Olga, the 22 year old woman who in 1972 drove a truck into a group of people in Prague, killing 8 (all between the ages of 60 and 79). A year later she was hanged, becoming the last woman executed in Czechoslovachia.

The movie focuses on the various elements and key moments of her life – father’s abuse, mother’s iciness, attempted suicide, treatment in asylum, rejection by a lover – that led to her isolation and feelings of alienation. We sense her internal rage building over time, and her inability to cope or even connect with others; though at times we question whether her troubles are by choice or a result of her treatment … it’s kind of a twist on the nature vs. nurture debate.

There have been other fine movies that have dealt with a similar theme: There’s Something About Kevin, The Omen, The Bad Seed. Each of these deal with the whole good vs evil idea … are some kids born “bad” or are they pushed that way? Either way, it’s a parent’s worst nightmare. This black and white presentation allows us to keep our emotional distance from Olga, and the no frills approach provides a quite chilling reenactment of how Olga ended up sending a letter to the local newspaper announcing her intention to seek “revenge” for the hatred that society had heaped upon her for years.

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THE SENSE OF AN ENDING (2017)

March 16, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. In 1967 Cat Stevens wrote “The First Cut is the Deepest” and the song has since been recorded by many artists (including Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crowe). The song’s title is also an apt description of director Ritesh Batra’s film version of the popular 2011 novel from Julian Barnes. It’s one man’s look back at the impact of his impulsive actions more than 50 years ago.

When we are young, we want emotions to be like what we read in books”. So says the narrator and lead character Tony Webster (as played by Jim Broadbent). Tony runs a tiny second hand camera store (specializing in Leica models) while leading a mostly benign life – rising daily at 7:00am, coffee with his ex-wife, and periodic errands for his pregnant daughter. One day a certified letter arrives notifying him that he has been named in the Last Will and Testament of the mother of a girl he dated while at University. And so begins the trek back through Tony’s history and memories.

Of course, a film version can never quite cut as deeply as a novel, but this preeminent cast works wonders in less than two hours. Curmudgeonly Tony is accessible and somewhat sympathetic thanks to the stellar work of Mr. Broadbent, who always seems to find the real person within his characters. Harriet Walther (“The Crown”) turns in a tremendous performance as Margaret, Tony’s most patient and quite wise ex-wife. Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”) is their pregnant 36 year old daughter Susie, and just these three characters could have provided a most interesting story. The film’s best scenes feature the comfort and familiarity of a once-married couple, as Tony and Harriet talk through previously never mentioned topics. However, there is so much more to explore here as Tony’s thoughts bring the past splashing right smack dab into the present.

Billy Howle does a nice job as young Tony, an aspiring poet, who falls hard for the enigmatic Veronica (Freya Mavor). Complications arise when Tony spends a weekend with Veronica at her parents’ estate. It’s here that Emily Mortimer energizes things (and clouds thoughts) with minimal screen time as Veronica’s mother. It’s also around this time where new student Adrian Finn (played by Joe Alwyn of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) captures Tony’s imagination and a friendship bond is formed … only to be later shattered in a most painful manner.

There is so much going on that director Batra’s (The Lunchbox, 2013) low-key approach is often misleading. Looking back on one’s life can lead to the twisted version that our mind has edited/revised in order to make things seem better or worse – definitely more colorful – than they likely were at the time. Tony’s distorted view of history crumbles when documented proof of his actions is presented at his first face to face meeting with Veronica (the great Charlotte Rampling) in five decades. It’s at this point that regret and guilt rise up, and the only question remaining is whether this elderly man can overcome his repressed emotions and self-centeredness in order to make the best of what time he has left. Each of us has a life journey, and though few of us ever actually tell the story, there are undoubtedly numerous lessons to be had with an honest look back.

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BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

March 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. An entire generation still enjoys their childhood animated movie memories thanks to Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). We are now a quarter-century later and Disney is looking to re-create the magic (and hopefully cash in) with Live Action versions of all three …as it did with Cinderella (2015) and last year’s The Jungle Book (sensing a trend?). Up now is director Bill Condon’s mixture of live action, CGI and music for Beauty and the Beast.

The 18th century story (1740) by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was re-written and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont after Barbot’s death. Director Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French film version looks to have been a key influence for this updated ‘Beast’, while the 2014 version with Vincent Cassel will probably now be rendered forgotten. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) team with Oscar winner Condon, whose musical movie resume includes Chicago and Dreamgirls, to inject some contemporary aspects to Belle’s personality, as well as a bit more backstory for quite a few characters … all while staying true to the 1991 version.

Emma Watson proves a nice choice for Belle as she has what it takes to be nice yet tough, while still being an oddball within her own community. Belle is a bookworm who dares to help other girls to read, while also being the brains behind her father’s (Kevin Kline) work. She realizes her neighbors view her as a curiosity – and there is even a song to prove it! Ms. Watson brings strength, independence, and courage to the role. These traits and others are on full display even before her first encounter with the beast.

Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is the beneficiary of an extended backstory for the Prince, which includes a large dance and musical production at the castle, leading to his being cursed for having no love in his heart. Most of the scenes with Beast utilize CGI for the face and head. This effect worked for me as I found the look fascinating and able to fulfill the necessary emotions, though the non-beast Prince would be considered the weakest link in this fairy tale chain.

Since the comparisons to the 1991 version are inevitable, and certainly a matter of personal opinion, Luke Evans made a wonderfully pompous Gaston, while Josh Gad was quite humorous as LeFou, Gaston’s loyal sidekick who is also the center of the misplaced controversy (not worthy of discussion here). The staff – both live versions and special effects – includes Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette. Each bring their own touch to the roles, with Ms. McDonald being a particular standout, and Ms. Thompson having the most thankless job as replacement for Angela Lansbury.

While I found this version quite enjoyable and well done, it’s a bit confusing why the decision was made to go so dark and foreboding. It’s not young kid friendly at all, and seems as if the target audience is millennials who were raised on the 1991 version. This was done at the expense of inviting a new generation to explore the story and characters. Parents should probably avoid taking any kids under age 10 or 11, and the film easily could have received a PG-13 rating.

8-time Oscar winner Alan Menken returns to score the film (he did the 1991 version as well), plus he wrote new songs with Tim Rice and there are some original lyrics by Howard Ashman. With only one viewing, it’s doubtful any of the new songs will be instant classics, but “Be Our Guest” is a definite crowd-pleaser (again).

Of course, it’s an impossible task to please everyone when you mess with the classics, but overall, it’s a nice twist for fans of the 1991 animated version. Likely a missed opportunity to bring new youngsters into the fantastical BATB world, it does show that the animated to live action transformation can be well done … and that’s a relief with The Lion King and The Little Mermaid on the way. Dear Disney – don’t mess ‘em up!

Be our guest … watch the trailer:

 


PERSONAL SHOPPER (2017)

March 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is quite probably the first ghost story where the most suspenseful moments center on the texts popping up on a smart phone screen. From writer/director Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria), this one is more than a ghost story – it’s also a story of grief, a search for identity, and yes, that desire or need to connect with the afterlife.

It’s important to note that the film kicks off not with Maureen (Kristen Stewart) carrying out her duties as described in the title, but rather by being dropped off at a once grand country home, now abandoned and the source of some terrific sound mixing. Creaking floorboards, squeaking doors and groaning walls all serenade Maureen as she spends the night in search of the spirit world. We soon learn she was actually hoping to connect with her recently deceased brother Lewis … a twin with whom she had a pact that whomever passed first (they shared a heart “malformation”) would make contact with the other from beyond.

Maureen then returns to her day job as personal shopper and all-around go-fer to her egotistical celebrity boss Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten), a high profile fashion model whose snooty ways have Maureen spewing hatred of her job during Skype sessions with her long-distance boyfriend Gary (Ty Olwin). With incessantly slumped shoulders, Maureen zips around Paris on her scooter toting shopping bags filled with expensive dresses, jewelry and shoes. She’s on the outskirts of wealth and celebrity, but the to-do notes and lack of personal interaction with Kyra epitomize how far outside the circle Maureen really sits.

There are moments of acting support from Sigrid Bouaziz as Lewis’ girlfriend, and Lars Eidinger as a suspiciously low-key creep, but it’s Kristen Stewart who carries the full weight of the film, and continues her streak of very interesting work. She does so in a manner not shy about showing her body, but also with the authentic body language of someone whose frustration grows with each successive text from “unknown”. As a modern twist to the traditional thriller, the film also ties in the past with such touches as Swedish mystic Hilma of Klint and amateur spirit hunter Victor Hugo. It’s understandable how Mr. Assaya’s film received both boos AND a standing ovation at Cannes … no one is really sure how to react to the first texting ghost story!

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