Thursday, April 12, 2018

On Earth, They Better Not Hear You Scream....

As a jaded horror aficionado who’s practically seen it all, few scary movies really “wow” me anymore.  While I was really impressed with Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ from last year, that was the rare exception rather than the general rule.  So imagine my pleasant surprise after walking out of ‘A Quiet Place,’ a quietly subtle but poignantly powerful post-apocalyptic (or is it apocalyptic?) creature feature starring real life celebrity couple John Krasinski (best known for his role in the American version of the sitcom ‘The Office’) and Emily Blunt (a much more accomplished movie star than her hubby) as two parents trying to protect their kids and survive day-to-day in a dangerous world.
If you’ve seen the trailer (who hasn’t?), you would already have gathered as much that this little family of four (it started out with 5) has to live a life of enforced quietude because there are unseen, horrifying monsters out there that prey on humans by the slightest sound.  With this brutally simple premise, the movie is really creative in depicting a world that’s believable yet utterly terrifying.  And from the opening scene, the movie engrosses us in its living hell and never lets go, as we really come to empathize with and care for the family at the center of it.  When we stop asking obvious questions like “How did we get to this point in the first place?” and just let the movie take us along for the ride at face value, its mission is accomplished.
Visceral, suspenseful and devastating, ‘A Quiet Place’ may be the best pure “Creature Feature” since Ridley Scott’s original ‘Alien.’  That’s high praise indeed.  This film is so good that I didn’t want it to end and, while the film did not tie up neatly at the end, leaving the fate of the survivors unknown, there is a glimmer of hope amidst the sea of despair.  And wow, oh wow, what a movie of sheer brilliance it is over the course of its all-too-short 95 minutes.  I know there are still over eight months to go, but we have a bonafide (96 percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes) contender here for best movie of the year, folks.
Grade: A+


VR Treasure Hunter

Ever since I first heard that Steven Spielberg had taken on the task of adapting Ernest Cline’s best-selling novel and geektastic homage to ‘80s pop-culture, ‘Ready Player One,’ onto the big screen, I can’t help but feel a strange mixture of joyous excitement and wary apprehension at the same time.  I loved the novel, which is ambitious and sprawling in its scope, packed with so much obvious and not so obvious references to ‘80s geek chic culture that made even this child of the ‘80’s head spin.  "How is Spielberg, as legendary and talented as he is, going to pull it off?" I wondered.  Tamping down my expectations but remaining cautiously optimistic, I decided to find out (as if that’s ever in doubt).
RP1 is the story of Wade Watts, a teenager from a near-future America who, like most others in this technologically-driven dystopia, finds the ultimate escape in a virtual reality world called the OASIS.  The creator/programmer of this truly global MMO (massively multi-player online game) environment, whose corporeal form no longer exists, had left “Easter Eggs” in his creation for people to find (and solve).  The ultimate prize?  His entire fortune, which is an insane amount of moola.  Of course, finding all the eggs (called “keys”) and divining the clues they provide is not easy, and to make things more interesting, they’re pitted against an evil soul-less tech conglomerate with bottomless resources that will do anything and stoop to any level in order to win.
Steven Spielberg managed to pull it off admirably.  The book is simply too detailed and had too many things going on in it to fit in a standard two-hour movie.  So Ernest Cline and screenwriter Zak Penn did what was necessary: keeping the bare bones of the plot and characters in the book, discarding most of the non-essential details and minutiae from the book, and redressing it with pop culture elements and things that a younger audience can appreciate.  Out are old-school D&D and obscure video game references.  ‘Blade Runner’ is replaced by ‘The Shining’ and Mobile Suit Gundam takes over for Ultraman in the battle against Mechagodzilla.  Even with these compromises, the movie is entertaining and enjoyable throughout its brisk two hours and 20 minute running time, so who am I to complain?
Grade: A-

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Welcome to the Nuthouse

Indie auteur Steven Soderbergh’s latest film is a ground-breaking experiment in method, tone and sheer minimalism.  While ‘Unsane’ may not the first film shot entirely with an iPhone, it is the first to garner a nationwide (albeit limited) release and much media attention thanks to the reputation and prestige of its director. Now there’s probably going to be legions of wannabe film-makers with smartphones thinking they’re the next Spielberg.  God help us.
On the surface, ‘Unsane’ is the story of a young woman named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) whose visit to a psychiatrist turns into her worst (non-Kaiju, that is) nightmare as she found herself institutionalized against her will.  Haven’t we seen all this before in films like ‘Shutter Island’ and ‘A Cure for Wellness,’ you ask?  Well, not quite.  Like other Soderbergh movies, nothing is quite as it seems on the surface and the answers as to whether Ms. Valentini’s fears are real or was she simply imagining things (all in her head) are only revealed slowly as the tale unfolds.
The strength of ‘Unsane’ isn’t the story itself, which is simplistic and formulaic, reminiscent of the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King and even Brian De Palma.  What made ‘Unsane’ work and even effective is the execution and mastery in setting tone and atmosphere, which made this throwback '70s style thriller an exercise in slow-building tension and suspense.  This is even more remarkable for the fact that Foy’s character, whom she portrayed superbly in an intense and focused performance, is a singularly unlikeable and unsympathetic protagonist.

Grade: A-

Robots versus Monsters: Second Round

Although Guillermo del Toro’s Japanese-flavored 2013 giant robots-versus-monsters movie ‘Pacific Rim’ was considered a mild disappointment at the domestic box office, it performed well enough overseas to warrant a sequel.  So four years, eight months and 11 days later, ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ hits theatres in most major markets (including China).  With a similar budget and scope/ambition, PR:U promises even more Mecha versus Kaiju (not “robot vs. monster”) mayhem that would break down the defenses of any Ultraman or Godzilla-loving fanboy or girl like myself.
PR:U is set 10 years after the cataclysmic event which nearly wiped out mankind, the inter-dimensional breach beneath the ocean floor which unleashed our worst nightmares with nicknames like Knifehead, Leatherback and Otachi.  After narrowly “canceling the Apocalypse” thanks to the efforts and sacrifice of an international coalition of Jaeger pilots, the survivors are still picking up the pieces while being wary of another breach that could occur at any time.  This is the story of a new generation of Jaeger pilots led by Star Wars’ Finn (John Boyega), Clint Eastwood’s son Scott and unknown newcomer Cailee Spaeny as a spunky teenage girl who built her own mini-Jaeger out of scavenged scrap parts.
With its young and hip cast, PR:U comes across as a Disney-fied or Nickelodeon-ized, even more accessible film than its predecessor.  It is also aimed more at the Asian market than the US, as evidenced by its generous Asian cast and the Chinese megacorporation featured prominently in the film.  Regardless, PR:U suffers from a weak script and overabundance of “busy” action that whizzes by lightning-fast to an extent that’s mind-numbing and exhausting (except maybe to the ADHD-addled), in the same way all those Michael Bay ‘Transformers’ movies did.  And I was never a fan of the Jaeger and Kaiju designs of PR in the first place.  The former’s style is too similar to HALO Spartan armor and the latter look just plain silly.

Grade: C


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Funny Masks

Horror movies without sequels are like dogs without fleas.  And why not?  Of all the popular genres in cinema, scary movies are among the easiest and cheapest to produce and have a ready-made, built-in audience.  Hence, even though 2008’s ‘The Strangers’ (starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) wasn’t a particularly good movie according to most metrics,  it was only a matter of time (in this case about 10 years) before we see the inevitable follow-up.
‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ follows a family of four including two teenagers forced to stay overnight at a trailer park on their way to a boarding school, at which the youngest rebellious daughter is involuntarily enrolled.  Over the course of the night, they are terrorized and victimized by three masked homicidal maniacs, two females and one male, nicknamed “Dollface,” ‘Pin-Up Girl” and the axe-wielding “The Man in the (Burlap Sack) Mask” according to the cartoony masks they wore.  As in the original movie, or any other slasher movies from the ‘80s worth their salt, these sadistic psychopaths require neither rhyme nor reason to do what they do despite their innocent victims’ tendency to vainly ask them the ridiculous question: “Why are you doing this???!!!”  And one of them actually answered it with another question. “Why not?” she replied, before meeting her maker courtesy of a point blank 12-gauge shotgun blast by the aforementioned rebellious teenage girl.  A good question deserves a good answer.
Given that ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ is an unapologetic throwback and homage of sorts to the beloved ‘80s slashers from my childhood, I simply couldn’t resist the temptation.  The movie shamelessly stole the creepy musical score of ‘Halloween’ and features a liberal selection of memorable ‘80’s pop hits in its soundtrack, including favorites such as Bonnie Tyler’s’ “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.”  But for all its good intentions, the movie is not scary and the people (including the victims) are not likeable, so it was ultimately unable to be anything more than a tedious exercise in clinical slaughter, utterly disposable and forgettable.

Grade: C

Red Sparrow of the Kremlin

Jennifer Lawrence’s latest starrer is the Cold War-esque (because we all know that the Cold War is over, don’t we?) spy thriller ‘Red Sparrow,’ code-name for the pretty little agents provocateur trained in the fine art of seduction to compromise prospective assets.  In our current political climate of suspected Russian meddling in our democratic process and collusion at the highest level of government, ‘Red Sparrow’ is timely and resonates with some of us if nothing else.
In RS JLaw portrays Dominika, an accomplished dancer of the famed Bolshoi Ballet whose career is cut short by a tragic “accident.”  Needing to care for her cancer-stricken and bed-ridden mom, her vulnerability was exploited and she was unwittingly recruited by her uncle, who happens to be the deputy director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor of the infamous KGB.  Unwillingly enrolled in the “Charm School” (or “Whore School” as she called it) for spies, she soon displayed a singular aptitude and talent for spycraft, not because she’d grown to enjoy it but because it’s simply a matter of kill-or-be-killed survival.  And as she’s proven in her breakthrough film, the depressing and somewhat difficult to watch ‘Winter’s Bone,’ not to mention the ‘Hunger Games’ quadrilogy, that one’s a true survivor.
Based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, ‘Red Sparrow’ is a good old fashioned Cold War espionage yarn in the tradition of ‘The Cardinal of the Kremlin’ and John le Carré novels.  Not having read the book, I admit I was expecting another fast-paced action-packed take-no-prisoners “La Femme Nikita” style killing spree of a movie similar to  Angelina Jolie’s ‘Salt’ or Charlize Theron’s ‘Atomic Blonde,’ but I was pleasantly surprised that it's more of a slowly unfolding character-driven story with only occasional scenes of extreme violence even as I foresaw the movie’s twist of a final act.

Grade: B


Blood Red Sea

When it comes to war movies, I can be a discriminating critic.  In fact, I haven’t seen a truly memorable one since ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and maybe ‘Black Hawk Down.’  But what about ‘Dunkirk,’ you ask?  While ‘Dunkirk’ wasn’t bad, I found its uneven pace and non-linear story structure disorienting.  And while the recent spate of post-9/11 contemporary “War on Terror” films such as ‘Lone Survivor,’ ‘American Sniper,’ ’13 Hours’ and ’12 Strong’ were competently made for the most part and had their moments, they can also be quite a bore.
So I wasn’t exactly expecting very much when I decided to see ‘Operation Red Sea’ on a whim.  As the Dragon rises in the east and China becomes a regional military power, a steady stream of war movies has been enjoying great success at the Chinese box office, such as ‘Wolf Warrior 2’ (think “Chinese Rambo”) and ‘Sky Hunter’ (think “Chinese Top Gun”).  ‘Operation Red Sea,’ loosely (by which I mean very loosely) based on the evacuation of Chinese and other foreigners from Yemen back in 2015, is perhaps best characterized as a “Chinese Navy SEAL’s” movie akin to Chuck Norris’s ‘The Delta Force’ and ‘Missing in Action’ film franchises from back in the ‘80’s.
Directed by Hong Kong "Gun-Fu" veteran and John Woo protégé Dante Lam (‘Operation Mekong’), ORS is a robust, adrenalized and realistic war movie that holds no punches and takes no prisoners.  Over the course of its bladder-stretching two hours and nineteen minutes running time, the film is jam-packed with fast and furious firefights and explosions galore that would make even ‘Black Hawk Down’ blush.  But it's much more than just another mindless bloodbath of a movie with a high body count; ORS gives us a brutal,  uncompromising, and often thrilling look at modern squad-level combat that doesn’t shy away from the gory details. 

Grade: A