Friday, March 24, 2017

3 for 1 Special

It's been a long time since I posted one of these short-but-sweet triple headers.  Since I'll be on vacation out of the country for the next two weeks cinema-free, I thought I'd get a quick one in while I can.
Life on Mars: A team of astronauts on the ISS recover a dormant and seemingly innocuous living organism from Mars and got themselves into a world of hurt (especially Ryan Reynolds).  While 'Life' is but the latest incarnation of the creature feature in space (or other claustrophobic environments) like 'Alien,' 'DeepStar Six' and 'Leviathan,' it is a suspenseful, tightly plotted and frightening flick made all the more believable by its contemporary setting and strong individual performances.  The tentacled starfish-like alien in 'Life' may not be a  seven-foot tall xenomorph encased in hardened carapace with sharp teeth and razor-like claws, but it is no less deadly for its survival imperative.  Curiosity kills not only cats and in space, no one can hear you say "we're fucked."
Grade: A-
Powerless: The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers were all the rage in the 1990's.  This team of five teenage superheroes in color-coded costumes with chop-socky karate moves and cool transformer-like toys was one of the great Japanese pop cultural imports, spawning a hugely successful TV franchise and two feature films, not to mention all those action figures.  Like those pesky Ninja Turtles, now we get a reboot in Saban's 'Power Rangers.'  If you've already decided to see this movie because it brings back fond memories of your bygone childhood, I can't stop you, but if you're on the fence I can save you the trouble (and time and money) by telling you to just stay away.  Go see 'Life' instead.  This latest movie in the PR franchise may be glossy and packed with the cool visuals one would expect considering its $100 million budget, but it is so languid and boring that I was on the verge of falling asleep.  The five "chosen" teenagers are a clich├ęd bunch of misunderstood and angst-ridden rejects out of 'The Breakfast Club,' and although she isn't a bad actress by any measure, Elizabeth Banks had the misfortune of being miscast as one of the worst movie villains in cinematic history.
Grade: C-
Office Slays: In the tradition of 'Battle Royale,' 'Would You Rather?' and 'Saw,' the latest "people forced to do unspeakable things to other people by unknown people who play god" movie is 'The Belko Experiment,' a low budget B-horror movie about a group of office workers in Colombia who suddenly and inexplicably find themselves to be the guinea pigs of a sadistic and bloody "social experiment."  The devilish premise is deceptively simple and requires us to suspend our disbelief in no small degree, but once you sign on for this Fangoria and Bloody Disgusting gory ride you may find it to be a rather enjoyable guilty pleasure, even if its ending is a bit predictable.
Grade: B

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Island of the Ape

It can be said that the latest Hollywood treatment of King Kong, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ ‘Kong: Skull Island,’ would not have been possible without the success of ‘Godzilla 2014’ (reviewed here: link),  Gareth Edwards’ reboot of our beloved Japanese big lizard franchise which went on to gross over $500 million worldwide.  So confident was Legendary Pictures in the popularity of its newly minted “Monsterverse,” scheduled to culminate in the battle royale between the ape and lizard (what a marquee matchup, eh?) in 2020, it shelled out a production budget of $185 million for ‘Skull Island,’ plus another $130 million in ancillary marketing/advertising costs making it that much harder to turn a profit. 
‘Kong: Skull Island’ takes place in 1973 (as the Vietnam War winds down) on Kong’s mythical homeworld, a primeval “lost world” somewhere in the South Pacific.  Members of a shady government program dubbed “Monarch” (John Goodman and some black dude) organize an expedition onto Skull Island in search of god-knows-what.  With a Huey air cavalry squadron led by brash and gung-ho Samuel L. Jackson providing muscle, former SAS man-turned-mercenary Tom Hiddleston as tracker/guide and photojournalist Brie Larson tagging along to record the momentous event for posterity, our hapless explorers find more than they bargained for in this most unforgiving of hostile environments.
With nods to ‘Apocalypse Now’ (cue breathtaking sunset backdrop and “Rise of the Valkyries” formation flying before being punched out of the air by you-know-who) and ‘Jurassic Park’ (yes, people got devoured by giant reptiles), ‘Skull Island’ can hardly be called original.  Yet despite all that it is an exceedingly entertaining popcorn B-movie that even the most cynical of viewers will find difficult not to enjoy.  The action comes hard and fast, the cinematography and visuals are simply gorgeous, and the Great Ape had never seemed so… human and humane.  Whether or not ‘Kong: Skull Island’ ultimately recoups its insanely high budget, it maintained the tradition of King Kong movie excellence and whetted our appetites for Kong’s highly anticipated smack-down against the giant radioactive-spawned reptile currently slated for May 29, 2020 (after said reptile's sequel due out on March 22, 2019, that is).

Grade: A


Monday, March 6, 2017

Logan's Run

Since I first saw the trailer of ‘Logan’ set to the mournful melodies and lyrics of Johnny Cash’s "Hurt," I’ve been impatiently waiting to see it.  The Wolverine trilogy comes to a fitting if somewhat sappy end as director James Mangold (‘Walk the Line,’ no wonder his choice of song) followed up on his pretty good second installment (‘The Wolverine’ reviewed here: link) with this even better, and certainly more memorable, effort that made us all but forget the mess that was ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ and redeemed the rough-and-tumble Canuck X-Man whom we all love.  Hugh Jackman, in reprising the feral and animalistic character who can rip you to shreds for the last time over a span of 17 years, put in what may well be his best performance to date.  Well done, bub.
Loosely based on ‘Kick-Ass’ creator Mark Millar’s alternate universe graphic novel ‘Old Man Logan,’ the film takes place in the bleak dystopian future of 2029, one in which Logan and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) are among the last of a dying breed (as in mutant-kind).  Reduced to a shell of a man eking out a pitiful existence as a drunkard and limo driver, Logan – and the bedridden and even more pitiable former Professor X whom he’s taking care of like an ailing father – suddenly find one last worthy purpose in their meaningless lives to nobly fulfill when a young Mexican girl-experimental subject named Laura (Dafne Keen) needed their help.
Raw, primal, complex and unexpectedly dark, ‘Logan’ is the most deeply personal Wolverine movie ever committed to celluloid.  James Howlett never seemed so flawed, tortured and grappling with his inner demons as he did in this film, and Hugh Jackman had a lot to do with that.  Tonally and stylistically, ‘Logan’ is a different film from anything we’ve seen in the Marvel milieu, even for one that falls well beyond the official MCU.  It is ‘Wolverine’ by way of a dusty Sam Peckinpah western combined with a Mad Max chase thriller, a brutal R-rated bloodbath reveling in its nihilistic excess.  Ditching glossy CGI visuals and epic-ness of scope for a low-fi naturalistic feel, ‘Logan’ is a welcome departure in a genre that’s become somewhat predictable and stale in its very sameness.

Grade: A 


Friday, March 3, 2017

Meet the Parents

Jordan Peele, MAD TV alum and one half of the comedic duo from Comedy Central’s ‘Key & Peele,’ is also one heck of a screenwriter, producer and director.  His debut feature (as writer/producer/director), the low budget horror flick ‘Get Out,’ had garnered universal acclaim (an unbelievable 99% "fresh" rating on RT, so take that 'Moonlight' and 'La La Land'!) and generated a lot of buzz since its release last weekend, not to mention exceeding expectations and earning the number one spot with $33 million at the box office.  Being the jaded horror aficionado that I am and having been disappointed more often than not by recent efforts in the genre, I just had to see for myself if ‘Get Out’ truly lives up to its high billing.
The story is simplicity itself.  Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a young African-American whose relationship with his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) has reached a steadiness that warranted finally meeting her family, the outwardly nice Fockers.... I mean Armitages.  Concerned that Rose hadn’t yet told them she's dating a black man, his reservations were soon put to rest after the warm reception from the loving family.  But things are not as they initially appear of course.  Strange behavior from the family and the two black servants as well as other guests gradually led Chris to believe that things are very, very wrong and that he is slowly sinking into a living nightmare from which he must "get out."  Just what in tarnation is going on here???!!!
With no expectations of what the movie’s about but high expectations from all the hype surrounding it, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by what turned out to be an intelligent, funny and genuinely scary movie which also serves as social satire.  I am not exaggerating here in saying that ‘Get Out’ is a masterwork of steadily building suspense and creeping paranoia the likes of which we haven’t seen in quite awhile.  Thanks to this movie, you will never hear the simple sound of a silver spoon stirring in a China teacup quite the same way again.  And like all great horror movies, it has a doozie of a twist near the end that hits us like a pile of bricks.  There are shades of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (the 1956 original and the 1978 remake), ‘The Stepford Wives’ (the original, not the remake) and 'Rosemary's Baby.'  That, my friends, is high praise indeed.

Grade: A+