Wednesday, January 31, 2018

An Unusual but Fantastical Love Story

Guadalajara native Guillermo del Toro may not be a particularly prolific director, but I made it a point to see every one of his new releases in the theater since ‘Blade II’ back in 2002.  For the most part he has not disappointed, and I found that I like his unique style of fantasy-horror with gothic (and some baroque) flourishes.  His latest directorial feature, ‘The Shape of Water,’ is a veritable masterpiece, garnering 13 Academy Award nominations to lead the pack in a crowded field this year.
TSOW is a “Frankenstein” love story set in 1962 during the height of the Cold War.  Quiet and mousy Elisa (played by the Olive Oyl-ish Sarah Hawkins in a bravura performance) works as a cleaning lady at a top secret government facility.  When a “what the heck is that?” amphibious creature looking like a cross between the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and Abe Sapien in Hellboy becomes the subject of a scientific study to gain advantage in the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union, she finds herself oddly and increasingly attracted to the monster referred to as “Amphibian Man” and hatches a plan to save him from the designs of the ruthless Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon).

I fell in love with this movie.  While we can see influences from such films as ‘Swamp Thing,’ ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon,’ TSOW is no less an engrossing, richly detailed and poignant dark fairy tale in which to lose ourselves for two hours and a “love letter” to vintage Hollywood cinema to boot.  IMHO TSOW surpassed even ‘Pan's Labyrinth’ as del Toro’s best movie yet and, barring an upset of ‘La La Land’ proportions, should get its due as the Best Picture of 2017 at the Oscars on March 4.

Grade: A+
Wonder what their kids would look like....

Charge of the 12 Horsemen

The latest post-9/11 “war on terror” movie to hit theaters is ’12 Strong,’ the true story of the not-so-dirty dozen warriors of Task Force Dagger, one of the first special operations teams sent to Afghanistan in response to the infamous September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Chris Hemsworth, who proved his manliness in ‘Thor,’ leads a team of CIA paramilitary types and Army Green Berets (who aren’t actually wearing berets, this isn’t John Wayne in Vietnam), to the rugged mountains of northern Afghanistan to dish out some payback to the Taliban for messing with Uncle Sam.
Tasked with rendezvousing with one of the key leaders of the anti-Taliban “Northern Alliance” before going after those who provide safe harbor to OBL, these boys got their work cut out for them as they discover that the so-called Northern Alliance isn’t so much an alliance but three fractious militias who would be at each other’s throats if they’re not directed at a common enemy like the Taliban.  Remember how the US had to keep the various factions fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria apart so that they don’t kill each other? That’s the way of the lawless Middle East I guess.  Not to be deterred even when they had to be split up due to a shortage of horses, the “12 Strong” eventually accomplishes its mission against all odds.  I’m saying “all odds” because, other than the odd B-52 strike from high altitude, they’re the outgunned and outmanned underdogs fighting against a motivated and well-supplied Taliban army equipped not only with RPG’s and “Technicals” but tanks and BM-21 truck-mounted rocket launchers (the modern “Katyushas”).
Despite the abundant heroism and bravery on display, there’s a certain perfunctory formality to the whole exercise.  While it’s not a bad war movie on a strictly technical standpoint, it doesn’t bring anything new to the table that we haven’t seen before in better films like ‘American Sniper’ or ‘Lone Survivor.’  Or maybe it had something to do with this movie’s silly notion that modern soldiers (even elite ones) can charge through automatic rifle and machine-gun fire on horseback without so much of a scratch like they did in those old war movies.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Commuting Hell

65-year old veteran actor and Irishman Liam Neeson has been defying Hollywood trend for years taking on the roles of a leading man action-hero in such films as ‘Taken’ (plus its sequels) and  ‘A Walk Among the Tombstones.’  He did it yet again in his latest movie ‘The Commuter,’ which marks his fourth collaboration with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra following ‘Unknown’ (2011), ‘Non-Stop’ (2014) and ‘Run All Night’ (2015).
Billed as a spine-tingling psychological suspense thriller in the grand Alfred Hitchcock tradition, the movie’s poster was even inspired by that of the Hitchcock masterpiece ‘Vertigo.’  ‘The Commuter’ is the credibility-stretching (okay, shattering) story of long-time train commuter Michael MacCauley, a 60-year old life insurance salesman in New York who suddenly found himself out of a job when he got laid off.  With a mortgage to pay off and a son going off to college, he was contemplating his next move on the train ride home when he was accosted by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who offered him an outrageous and head-scratching proposition: $100,000.00 can be his if he accomplishes the “simple” task of locating and pointing out another commuter on the train who has something he/she shouldn’t have.
I admit I was intrigued by the film’s mysterious and juicy premise in the beginning, but as the story unfolds and each development in the film proved to be more unbelievable than the last, my suspension of disbelief was stretched beyond even its substantial limits and the film lost me completely.  I really should have known better, since this had happened before with two of the above-mentioned films, ‘Unknown’ and ‘Non-Stop,’ so ultimately I only have myself to blame.
Grade: C

Circus Musical

The origin story of “The Greatest Show on Earth” is told through contemporary pop-infused song and dance numbers in ‘The Greatest Showman’ starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum as well as other colorful characters played by Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson and Michelle Williams.  While Jackman perhaps will never shake his image as the rough-and-tumble and ruggedly handsome Aussie actor who portrayed the badass mutant Wolverine in the 'X-Men' and 'Wolverine' franchises, he’s also an accomplished Broadway star and acting/singing/dancing “triple-threat” who starred in the 2012 remake of ‘Les Misérables’ and won a Tony Award in 2004 for his role in ‘The Boy from Oz.’
TGS tells the rags-to-riches story of Phineas Taylor Barnum through his life and various struggles to create a new form of entertainment accessible to everyone (i.e. the “common-folk”) at a time when such diversion was the sole domain of the upper-class bourgeoisie.  Born a “penniless urchin” in the Dickensian tradition, P.T. dared to dream big and strived to reach them in the spirit of a true American entrepreneur.  Even when he finally realized his success, his brand of sensational “low brow” entertainment featuring freaks and animals was looked down upon by elite society and maligned by critics until he was able to slowly earn a measure of respectability and acceptance for it.  Far from denigrating the freaks and outcasts starring in his shows, he gave them a chance to fit in society and make a living at it (okay, he did “exploit” them a little bit as a businessman too).
While TGS is without question an entertaining, fluffy and light musical that can be enjoyed by the whole family (it’s rated PG, a rarity these days), it’s also hampered by a certain shallow artificiality that cannot be denied.  Whatever heart and soul TGS had are somehow overshadowed by all the aural pop and visual pizzazz.  Or maybe it had something to do with the movie’s modern pop sensibility and the fact that, while all the songs in the film are pleasant enough “in the moment,” they are as soon forgotten when we walk out of the theater.
Grade: B

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Defying Nixon

It’s no big secret in Hollywood that some actors gravitate towards certain directors because they collaborate well together and have great synergy: Robert De Niro/Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp/Tim Burton, Samuel L. Jackson/Quentin Tarantino and Sharlto Copley/Neill Blomkamp just to name a few.  Over the decades Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have quietly developed a rapport that puts them in the same category even if their individual filmographies are impressive on their own by any standard.  The latest Spielberg release, ‘The Post,’ marks the fifth film directed by Spielberg starring Tom Hanks in a major role and proved once again that Hanks/Spielberg is a powerful combo in Tinseltown.
Like their previous collaborations ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Bridge of Spies,’ ‘The Post’ is informed by our past, as much a lesson steeped in American history as an exercise in cinematic entertainment.  The subject this time is the leak and subsequent publication of the “Pentagon Papers” that put the final nail in the coffin of the unpopular Vietnam War.  For the uninitiated, the “Pentagon Papers” is a 1967 RAND think tank study commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara which concluded that the Vietnam War is ultimately futile and unwinnable.  Long before the era of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, a patriot (or traitor whistle-blower depending on your political leaning) and former RAND staffer named Daniel Ellsberg managed to smuggle volumes of the study out from under the very noses of his unwitting employers.   ‘The Post’ tells the story of how the New York Times first broke the story but fumbled the ball under intense White House and Justice Department pressure, only for the Washington Post to pick it up and score the winning touchdown.  Okay, enough football analogies already.
Anchored by multiple Oscar winners Hanks, Spielberg and Meryl Streep (nine statues among them in case you're wondering), ‘The Post’ certainly has a lot going in its favor.  And it did not disappoint.  The movie gives us much food for thought, such as Freedom of the Press and the First Amendment, the power and responsibility of the “Fourth Estate,” and the perils of the “Imperial Presidency.”  Beyond all the politics, however, this highly competent and well-crafted film also gives us solid and humane characterizations in Hanks’s publisher Ben Bradlee and Streep’s newspaper heiress Kay Graham.  If you thought publishing the “Pentagon Papers” was an easy decision to make that didn’t require much consideration and hand-wringing, think again.
Grade: A

The Poker Princess

The rise-and-fall true story of Olympic freestyle skier-turned-poker club hostess Molly Bloom is brought to life in ‘Molly’s Game,’ acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut featuring Jessica Chastain, hands down the finest looking redhead working in Hollywood today.  Adapted from the memoirs by the same title, ‘Molly’s Game’ provides us with a fascinating -- if not entirely scandalous -- glimpse into the world of high‑stakes underground poker for the rich, famous and spoiled (that last description is reserved for "Player X" aka Tobey Maguire as portrayed by Michael Cera in this film by the way).
Even as the real Molly Bloom is raven-haired and might be better played by, say, Olivia Munn resemblance-wise, Chastain’s portrayal is at once compelling and mesmerizing, imparting a depth and complexity to Molly in a performance that’s truly Oscar-worthy.  And "good golly miss molly!" was she drop-dead gorgeous in this movie, exuding a sheer come-hither sexiness that oddly reminds me of the “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way” cartoon character Jessica Rabbit from the 1988 animated/live-action film ‘Who framed Roger Rabbit?’  It’s undoubtedly part of the reason (other than her brains and business savvy of course) how Molly became so successful running the “world’s most exclusive and decadent man-cave,” as she so eloquently put it.  Idris Elba also delivered one of his better dramatic performances as Molly’s attorney after she found herself a pawn in the government’s attempt to force her to tell all and surrender the secrets of her “little black book” so-to-speak.
Propulsive, smart and (oh, did I also mention?) sexy, ‘Molly’s Game’ is as intoxicating as the addictive game of chance and bluff it depicts, a guilty pleasure of the highest order.  In some ways this film is similar to other real life tales as ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ ‘War Dogs’ and ‘American Made,’ proving once again that, in spite of the usual Hollywood embellishments and overblown exaggerations, screenplays mined from real life stories can be just as interesting as fictional ones.
Grade: A

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Demon with the Skeleton Key

‘Insidious: The Last Key’ is the fourth and perhaps final installment of the horror franchise that had made over $370 million dollars at the worldwide box office on a combined budget of just $18 million in the first three films.  Conceived by director James Wan and writer/producer/actor Leigh Whannell, who are no strangers to low-budget horror (they also gave us the ‘Saw’ franchise), TLK is virtually guaranteed to turn a healthy profit for its producers with its modest $10 million budget even as the franchise runs out of steam and falls victim to diminishing returns.
Like the much maligned ‘Insidious: Chapter 3,’ TLK is a prequel rather than a sequel.  With main stars Patrick Wilson (now one-half of the even more successful ‘The Conjuring’ franchise along with Vera Farmiga) and Rose Byrne out, TLK focuses on the paranormal psychologist/demonologist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) and the comic-relief “ghost-hunting” duo of Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) as they return to Elise’s childhood home to exorcise a malevolent supernatural entity and in the process rescue her pretty young niece from the demon’s spindly clutches in the ghostly dimension known as “The Further” (I guess “The Beyond” sounds too cliché).
TLK isn’t really all that scary or compelling for that matter, but that had more to do with a more-of-the-sameness in this latest offering than anything else.  While the franchise had arguably run its course with ‘Insidious: Chapter 3,’ we can’t deny that there’s still an appetite for this type of movies (a mixture of traditional western haunted house flicks and oriental J-horror) and can hardly fault the producers for not turning down such easy money.
Grade: C