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

Max and Annie's Big Adventure

Okay, I have a confession to make.  I’m a bit of a sucker for R-rated comedies, not so much the raunchy ‘American Pie’/’Hangover’ variety as the violent ‘Pineapple Express’/’Spy’ kind.  So when I saw the trailer of the new Jason Bateman movie ‘Game Night,’ about an average Joe party game enthusiast whose night of innocuous fun takes an unexpected and deadly turn, I was immediately intrigued.  And to top it off, its certified “fresh” rating of 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes didn’t hurt either.
GN is the story of Max (Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), who share a fondness and ultra-competitiveness for game night activities such as “Trivial Pursuit" and "Charades."  The couple hosts a weekly game night and invites their like-minded friends, except the creepy cop neighbor with all the personality of a wooden 2-by-4 who wanted to join in the festivities.    When Max’s successful Wall Street tycoon brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), whom he has an inferiority complex towards, visits and invites the couple and their friends to a game night to remember, a live-action role-playing “murder mystery” party, Max and Annie discovered to their chagrin that they may have bitten off more than they could chew.

Scathingly funny, sharply witty and a bit bloody, GN is an immensely entertaining and deeply satisfying dark comedy about all the ways an innocent night of fun and games can go wrong, so very wrong.  Bateman’s Max and McAdams’s Annie have great chemistry, and it's great watching them cope with the numerous obstacles and life-threatening situations they face throughout the movie.  And I dare say McAdams has never looked cuter.  I first saw her as the snotty “Queen Bee” in the 2004 film ‘Mean Girls.’  Never would I have imagined in a thousand years at the time that she would develop into a versatile actress and enjoy the success she’s having now while “good girl” Lindsay Lohan is the one to self-destruct.  Fate can be a fickle mistress indeed.

Grade: A

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Shimmering

Book one of Jeff VanderMeer’s best-selling ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy gets adapted to the big screen in ‘Annihilation.’  When I first saw the mysterious trailer of this movie I knew I have to see it no matter what.  Not having read the books, I figured the chances of disappointment are low as my mind is untainted by any preconceptions or spoilers (I was disappointed with Spielberg’s ‘Jurassic Park’ because I read the Crichton novel right before I saw the movie).
‘Annihilation’ is one of those daringly bold and weirdly disturbing films that’s best left to the viewers to individually experience.  Suffice it to say that (and this is nothing you won’t already have surmised from its trailer) the movie is about a small group of women who venture into a strange place characterized by “unnatural” phenomena.  I want to simplify and say this movie is like ‘The X-Files’ meets ‘Lost’ meets ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ meets ‘Altered States’ meets ‘Arrival’ meets ‘Under the Dome’ and whatever else ‘Annihilation’ brings to mind at one time or another throughout its many head-scratching WTF moments, but that wouldn’t be fair or do justice to it because it’s rather unique and unlike anything we’ve seen before.  Unconventional and anti-mainstream to the core, this film is bound to provoke reactions and make us ponder its implications and significance.
‘Annihilation’ is only Alex Garland’s second feature as director following his excellent and thought-provoking ‘Ex Machina,’ but you can’t tell from watching the movie which only attests to his singular talent.  Natalie Portman also delivered a quiet and subtle performance as the main protagonist in the tale, a biology professor who needed every ounce of toughness borne out of her military experience while exploring the mysterious, spooky and unforgiving region known as “Area X.” 

Grade: A


Black Panther Movement

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest release is ‘Black Panther,’ right in time for Black History Month.  To be honest, I was a bit concerned that BP would splutter at the box office not because of the character’s skin color but because, let’s face it, BP just isn’t one of Marvel’s better known superheroes.  It turns out that my fears are unfounded since BP has raked in over $700 million worldwide ($354 million domestic) after just two weekends, breaking not only the color barrier but also setting all kinds of box office records.  Part of the reason for this is that the film has drawn moviegoers who don’t typically go to superhero movies.  Why do I think that?  Because at the showing I went to most of the people left the auditorium before the final credits have rolled, missing out on the mid- and post-credit sequences.
Chadwick Boseman first appeared as BP in ‘Captain America: Civil War’ on the right side as part of Team Captain America against Iron Man’s crew.  As you’ll recall his father (then king of Wakanda) perished in a terrorist attack in that movie.  BP picks up where CA:CW left off as Boseman’s T’Challa picked up his father T’Chaka’s mantle as the new King of Wakanda after proving himself in ritual combat.  However, his authority is further challenged by none other than N’Jadaka aka Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, after a brief stint as the FF’s Human Torch), who wants to use Wakanda’s heretofore hidden advanced technology to empower oppressed colored people around the world in an armed uprising a la’ Malcolm X to oppose T’Challa’s MLK.
Timely and socially relevant, BP is not just another typical superhero tent-pole movie, even though it has all the markings of one.  Anchored by the charismatic Boseman and Michael B. Jordan and helmed by one of Hollywood’s finest young directors, Ryan Coogler (‘Fruitvale Station,’ ‘Creed’), BP proved once again that Disney and Marvel can make tons of money on movies about almost anybody even if they safely tread familiar territory.

Grade: A-


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....