FREE FIRE (2017)

April 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Searching back through more than a decade of film reviews, I can confirm that the phrase “slapstick shootout” has not previously been part of my movie lexicon … which is a relief since it could never be more accurately placed than in description of this latest from the husband and wife filmmaking team of director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump (prior works include High-Rise, Kill List and a few others). The zingers are plentiful – both in bullets and dialogue. It’s unlikely you’ve ever laughed as much during such a violent/gory/graphic assault on the senses (especially auditory).

Set in 1978 Boston, which allows for added humor via music, attire, hairstyles and vehicles, the basic premise is a meet-up for the deal between an IRA faction and a gun-dealer, with the brokers and “muscle” of each side along for the ride. When cases of AR70’s are presented instead of the ordered M16’s, the deal gets a bit shaky until cooler heads prevail. That is until one of the gun-runners recognizes an IRA guy as the one who disrespected his 17 year old cousin the night before. It’s at this point that the film cranks to a frenzy that would make the Mayhem commercial guy proud. It’s the visual definition of a cluster.

A stand-off and shootout occurs (with side deals and betrayals) over the next hour and yet the early comical dialogue somehow becomes next level great despite bullets whizzing through a terrific setting in an abandoned umbrella warehouse. Unlike in some movies, these bullets inflict pain (and the subsequent cries and wails). The characters continue to banter and threaten one another, all while dragging their lead-induced injuries across the dusty floor between various forms of protective shields strewn about the warehouse.

Normally I would concentrate on the major characters, but most everyone involved in the deal-gone-bad has at least a couple of memorable lines and moments. The gun-runners are led by Sharlto Copley as Vernon, a cocky, mouthy South African whose dialect sounds an awful like New Zealander Murray in the classic TV gem “Flight of the Conchords”. In a movie that seems impossible to steal, Copley comes the closest and his Vernon would make a perfect Halloween costume and annoying party guest. His cohorts are Marion (Babou Cesay), Gordan (Noah Taylor, Max 2002) and Harry (Jack Reynor, Sing Street, 2016). The IRA group is led by uptight Chris (Cillian Murphy), Stevo (a hilarious Sam Riley, Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), Frank (Michael Smiley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). The two deal brokers are the ultra-debonair Ord (Armie Hammer) and the lone female Justine (Brie Larson). It’s a terrific cast having a ridiculously good time with a creative and rollicking script.

Know going in that the film is a very hard R-rating for violence, drug use (in the middle of the shootout), and a bounty of flowing F-words. It’s neither for the faint of heart nor those who take their standoffs too seriously. Director Wheatley employs a vast array of unusual camera angles to ensure the action never looks boring, and his use of secondary and tertiary sound (especially with dialogue) is expert and dizzying at times. Don’t expect too many layers or sub-plots. It’s simply a shoot ‘em up romp capitalizing on black comedy to the nth degree. John Denver might not have approved of the use of his song, and just remember, “We can’t all be nice girls”.

CAUTION: this is the RED BAND trailer and is NSFW or Kids:

 

 


DIFF 2017: Day Eight

April 9, 2017

The Dallas International Film Festival runs March 31 – April 9, 2017

 It’s the second Friday of DIFF which means a high profile new release in the prime time slot. This year it’s The Lost City of Z. The epic and historical tale hit theatres nationally next week, so it’s nice to get an early peek. Below is a recap of the 2-and-a-half films I watched on Friday April 7:

 

THE LOST CITY OF Z

We aren’t likely to watch a more beautiful or expertly photographed film this year. Director James Gray’s project looks and feels like a throwback to days of epic filmmaking, and cinematographer Darius Khandji’s (Se7en, Evita, The Immigrant) fills the screen with green and gold hues that deliver both a sense of realism and a touch of romanticism. The quibble here is with the emphasis on the biographical rather than the more interesting and compelling and adventuresome expeditions to the “new” world.

Our hero (and the film’s portrayal provides no other description) is military man and explorer Percy Fawcett played by Charlie Hunnam. Based on the book by David Grann, the film divides focus into three areas: the stuffy, poorly lit backrooms of London power moguls; the 1916 WWI front line where Fawcett proves his mettle; the jungles of Amazonia wherein lies Fawcett’s hope for glory and redemption. It’s the latter of these that are by far the most engaging, and also the segments that leave us wishing for more detail.

The three Fawcett expeditions form the structure for the quite long run time (2 hours, 21 minutes). In 1906 the Royal Geographic Society enlisted Fawcett for a “mapping” journey to distinguish boundaries around Bolivia in what had become a commercially important area due to the black gold known as rubber. Fawcett was not just a manly-man, he was also obsessed with overcoming his “poor choice in ancestors” and gaining a position of status within society. Using his military training and personal mission, that first expedition (with help from a powerful character played by the great Franco Nero) was enough to light Fawcett’s lifelong fixation on proving the existence of Z (Zed) and the earlier advanced society.

Back home, Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller) shows flashes of turn-of-the-century feminism, though lacking in judgment when she suggests a ridealong with her husband on his next expedition. Though the couple spends little time together, given the years-long trips, they do manage to produce a hefty brood of kids, the eldest played by Tom Holland (the new Spider-Man).

1912 brings the second Amazonia expedition, the one in which renowned Antarctic explorer James Murray (a snarly Angus Macfayden) joins Fawcett and his by now loyal and expert travel companion Henry Costin (a terrific Robert Pattison). The trip proceeds as one might expect when an ego-driven, unqualified yet wealthy passenger is along for only the glory. Murray’s history is well documented and here receives the treatment he earned.

It’s the third trip in 1925 that Fawcett makes with his son that will be his last, and the one that dealt the unanswered questions inspiring Mr. Grann to research and write his book. It’s also the segment of the film that leaves us wanting more details … more time in the jungle. With the overabundance of information and data available to us these days, the staggering courage and spirit of those willing to jump in a wooden canoe on unchartered waters and trek through lands with no known back story, offer more than enough foundation for compelling filmmaking. It’s this possibility of historical discovery that is the real story, not one man’s lust for medals and confirmation. More jungle could have elevated this from very good to monumental filmmaking.

 

CHEER UP (documentary)

Well I was due for my first major disappointment, and it came courtesy of a documentary with an interesting synopsis. The leader of Finland’s “worst” cheerleading squad travels to Texas to gain tips and training ideas to improve her squad’s performance. I only lasted 40 minutes of the listed 86 minute run time, and I’m still not sure if this is director Christy Garland’s final version of the film, or if this was simply a rough cut rushed for a festival screening. And that’s where I will leave my comments

 

SKY ON FIRE (Chongtiang Huo)

A late night screening of an action movie from China/Hong Kong has a responsibility to the genre to check certain boxes, none of which included thought-provoking or socially conscious issues. Instead, success depends on a visual onslaught of explosions, car chases, helicopter flights, sleek and modern tall building sets, loud and massive gun battles, and confined area martial arts duels.

Writer/director Ringo Lam and his cast (Daniel Wu, Hsiao-chuan Chang, Amber Kuo) subject themselves to all of the violent perils listed above, and even toss in cancer and the battle for revolutionary healing drugs to ensure there is never a moment of peace and quiet during the film.

The “ex-stem cells” are the McGuffin that creates the good guys vs bad guys scen ario. Will this medical breakthrough be used to cure cancer and other diseases, or will they be weaponized for power? So while that’s the question asked in the film, my movie-buddy JJ asked the real question … has Michael Bay already begun work on an Americanized version? Surely that mammoth skyscraper explosion is already on his Bay-splosion radar.


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.

watch the trailer:

 


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.

watch the trailer:

 


HACKSAW RIDGE (2016)

November 3, 2016

hacksaw-ridge Greetings again from the darkness. Why doesn’t every high school student learn about Desmond Doss in History class? Beyond that, why isn’t Desmond Doss profiled in every Psychology and Philosophy class? It’s inexplicable that more Americans aren’t familiar with his story, much less failing to honor his legacy with a well deserved tribute. Fortunately director Mel Gibson (Braveheart) and screenwriters Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner) and Robert Schenkkan (“The Pacific”) bring us a spirited look at this underappreciated American war hero.

Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) plays Desmond Doss and perfectly embodies the conviction and dedication of this extraordinary (not hyperbole in this case) man. See, Desmond Doss was one of the first conscientious objectors in the U.S. Army. His religious beliefs (Seventh Day Adventist) prohibited him from using a weapon or killing another person … two things that don’t go over well with fellow soldiers or commanding officers. Yet, Doss was committed to serving his country as a medic and saving lives, rather than taking them.

Unbelievable may be the best description even though his story is absolutely true. Credited with saving the lives of at least 75 wounded soldiers, Doss and his fellow soldiers are depicted in the film fighting the Battle of Okinawa at Hacksaw Ridge … a topographical challenge punctuated by the need to climb a rope wall in order to scale the face of the cliff. Their reward was facing thousands of Japanese hiding in tunnels and bunkers, waiting patiently to kill in mass. There will be no spoilers here on the courageous actions of Doss … you should see for yourself.

The early part of the film features a heart-warming first love story involving Desmond Doss and Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer, The Choice). Watching young love bloom is precious and provides a stark contrast to the battle scenes. The two make a lovely couple and we can’t help but root for them. Once Doss hits basic training, we find Vince Vaughn in the role of Sergeant Howell, Sam Worthington (failing to hide his Aussie accent) as Captain Glover, and Luke Bracey (Point Break, 2015) as Smitty, one of the soldiers who initially has no interest in serving with Doss. The Army Psychologist is played by Richard Roxburgh, whom movies lovers will recognize as The Duke from Moulin Rouge! (2001).

Some of the best scenes involve Desmond’s parents played by screen vets Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths. Both are excellent in roles requiring very different and extreme emotional moments. It’s a credit to Gibson’s filmmaking expertise that he is able to add depth to all aspects – family turmoil, a classic love story, the brutality of war, and the deep religious convictions. There are a few moments of “artistic license” and some of the CGI is inconsistent and even over-produced at times, but the intensity of the battle scenes rival that of Saving Private Ryan and the landing at Omaha Beach. It’s a passionate piece of filmmaking centered on a most passionate man. You may disagree with much of what Mel Gibson has said and done in his personal life (and I hope you do), but as a film director he has earned much respect. And speaking of respect … Desmond Doss. Enough said.

watch the trailer:

 


KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES (2016)

October 20, 2016

keeping-up-with-the-joneses Greetings again from the darkness. Dozens of movies through the years make up the Spy Action-Comedy segment. Most of these lean heavily on either action (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Red, Knight and Day) or comedy (Austin Powers, Get Smart, Date Night). The latest entry from director Greg Mottola and writer Michael LeSieur offers a more balanced approach while being somewhat grounded in familiar suburbia. Perfect casting certainly helps.

Comedies are the toughest genre to review because the only thing that matters … does it cause you to laugh? … depends on the sense of humor of each viewer and even their frame of mind while watching. So what I can report is that the full theatre at my screening was filled with enthusiastic laughter multiple times, along with a pretty steady stream of chuckles and giggling. This will undoubtedly vary from the accounts of uppity film critics who will discount the basic plot and obvious laughs (which is the whole point).

A James Bond-type opening credit sequence sets the tone as we abruptly shift to watching Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) sending off their two sons to summer camp before returning home to their idealistic cul-de-sac suburban home. Things pick up when the new neighbors, Tim and Natalie Jones, arrive … a seemingly perfect couple played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot. They are the type of couple who are beautiful to look at, stylishly dressed, and even show up with a blown-glass sculpture as a gift for their new neighbors.

Of course, this perfect couple is really married spies seeking information from the military weapons contractor where Jeff works as a Human Resources associate. It’s Karen who senses something is off about the perfect couple, which leads to her stalking Natalie all the way to a dressing room where she is comically intimidated by Wonder Woman in black lingerie. On a side note, Ms. Fisher does have a later sequence where she proves to be anything but a homely housewife, despite how that dressing room scene is presented.

The men head off for some male bonding – at a highly unusual specialty restaurant, leading to one of the more manic sequences in the movie. The four leads are all excellent, but it’s Gal Gadot who is the real surprise … and her scenes with Ms. Fisher are the film’s best. Both are allowed to shine, while the men are a bit more one dimensional. Galifianakis is the all-trusting good guy just happy to have some excitement in his life, while Hamm is the super cool spy (who wishes he wasn’t). Both men seem to enjoy the chance to make friends, while the women are a bit more focused on tasks at hand.

Director Mottola is known for his films Adventureland and Superbad, and writer LeSieur is best known for Me, You and Dupree. The impressive thing about this latest is that the comedy mostly derives from character and situational interactions, and the expected steady stream of punchlines never materializes. There is even some insight into marriages that have become a bit too predictable, and the challenges of making new friends when all available energy is devoted to parenting and making ends meet.

In addition to the four leads, there are some funny moments for Maribeth Monroe, Matt Walsh and Kevin Dunn. The brilliant Patton Oswalt is cast as the self-nicknamed villain, and is responsible for one of the film’s biggest laughs.

Of course, this is not subtle or high-brow humor, and the story line is predictable throughout. The laughs stem from the contrast of a subdued, comfy suburban life versus the sophisticated, over-accomplished jet-setting couple … laughs clearly enhanced by the talented leads. So while this seems like the kind of movie I would usually ignore, perhaps it arrives at a time when laughing is simply preferable to the daily grind of an embarrassing and humiliating Presidential race. So go ahead and give laughter a chance … it works even better than a stress ball.

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE NICE GUYS (2016)

May 29, 2016

nice guys Greetings again from the darkness. Shane Black sold his first screenplay at a very early age which led him to become something of a phenom with the success of that film, Lethal Weapon (1987). Later, he disappeared from Hollywood for about 10 years before resurfacing in 2005 by directing his own terrific script with the immensely entertaining Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (my favorite movie of that year), and then hitting big-budget time with his script for Iron Man 3. This time, Mr. Black (directing and co-writing with Anthony Bagarozzi) returns to the detective-farcical-comedy-mystery-action genre and even adds an element of being a 1970’s period piece.

Black’s rapid-fire wise-cracks were perfect fits for Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr, and for this project he’s working with Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe … both fine actors, though neither known for their comedic work. What’s clear from the beginning of the film is that both Gosling and Crowe are fully committed to the material and their respective characters. Gosling plays a boozy Private Detective and single dad who just can’t quite get things right, while Crowe plays a hired-hand bruise type – think of his Bud White in L.A. Confidential (1997), only with an extra 50 pounds (or did he borrow Eddie Murphy’s Norbit fat suit?) and a lot of miles. These two damaged boys play off each other very well, and with Black’s dialogue and visual gags, the film provides a good number of laugh out loud moments … more silly than the sophomoric humor that’s so pervasive at multiplexes these days.

Of course for comedy to really click, there needs to be some type of story to follow. In the opening scene a young boy (Ty Simpkins) watches as a car slams through his house, culminating with a “model/actress” named Misty Mountains meeting a not-so-pleasant ending. We then learn that Gosling’s Holland has been hired to find Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ms. Mountains – with two significant exceptions. Simultaneously, Amelia has hired Crowe’s Jackson to convince Holland to stop searching for her. Soon enough, Holland and Jackson are working together on the “case” that mixes in the Auto industry (Big 3), Porn industry, Justice Department (government conspiracies), environmental protestors, Killer Bees, LA parties, LA smog, The Waltons (John Boy), The Rockford Files, Detroit, and Richard Nixon … all hot topics in this 1977 era.

As much as the story is needed, it really doesn’t much matter. This is a movie of moments … some of them featuring funny words, while others focus on pretty astute physical comedy. Gosling (and his stunt double) provides some pretty impressive gags as he is bounced and slammed around for most of the run time. The surprising heart of the film … and moral core … is Holland’s daughter Holly played by Angourie Rice. Despite the title, she is really the only “nice guy” in the whole film, and her good-hearted nature keeps us rooting for Gosling and Crowe, despite their flaws.

Other support work comes from Matt Bomer as a “John Boy” hit man, Keith David, Lois Smith, Yaya DaCosta (quick, name another Yaya), Beau Knapp (as the toothy Blueface), Jack Kilmer (Val’s son as a “projectionalist”), and Kim Basinger (re-teaming with her LA Confidential co-star, Crowe). Also playing a significant role are the mid-to-late 1970’s vehicles, the period music and houses and décor that puts us right in the moment, and the clothes and hairstyles that are sure to inspire a chuckle or two.

Fans of Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will surely find plenty of laughter here … despite one of the worst trailers in recent memory and even if the film is lacking the one thing it advertises – nice guys.

watch the trailer: