Saturday, July 24, 2021

Old

 


You know the routine by now. If we are getting a horror thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, there will be a slow build up, a series of crisis moments, and then a twist reveal to finish things off. Sometimes it works great, and other times it is a disaster. This one falls a little bit in the middle of the bottom half of his work. The twist you can see coming from ten minutes in, so there is not really a great surprise, the part of the movie that works is the emotional component, not the shocks and horror. 

At a luxury resort, several guests find themselves on a secluded private beach that they cannot escape from and that seems to be aging them at a rapid pace. Now if you are paying attention in that first ten minutes, you will notice something about the guests, and that is where the twist gets spoiled. Shyamalan has been better at hiding the reveal in plain sight in the past but this one is not subtle enough to escape our attention. By the end of the film, everything will be revealed and suddenly you will have a lot more questions. 

The characters in the movie are fine. Those of you who worry about stories focusing on kids in movies, don't fret. The children here are not annoying, in fact we get just enough of them to appreciate them as people before the horror elements start. Obviously, the location produces the opposite of a fountain of youth. Accelerated aging creates conundrums for the group of people on the beach, most of which will become clear as time marches on. Being on the short side of sixty, I was most frightened by the impact that the process had on a persons mental capacity. Children turning into adults over the course of a few hours is disturbing, but watching someone lose themselves and any sense of control was another. Rufus Sewell spends half the film trying to remember the name of a movie. OMG how may times have I struggled with something like that in the last couple of years? That is scary. 

One thing I do appreciate about M.Night and his movies is that he does not overdo the gore element. There is death, and it is not pretty in any way, but we are spared witnessing up close, the deaths that might be the most physically traumatic. There is one sequence near the end where that is not the case, and it was likely done for shock effect because in a horror film, most people are not going to be satisfied watching someone lay down and simply not get up again. Gael García Bernal is a little stiff as the father of the main family. Perhaps it is because he is acting in a language that is not his first. That would be the case with others in the film as well but they come across a lot more naturally in the end. Vicki Krieps is his wife and although her part is written in a self conscious manner, she never comes across that way, unlike Nikki Amuka-Bird, who is written as a parody of her profession. The kids , since they go through the greatest physical changes, are played by four actors each and the casting team did a good job matching up looks and other physical characteristics. 

So, the film is an extended episode of "The Twilight Zone", but instead of it being filled out with special effects and gore, we get psychobabble and make up. If you are looking for a heartwarming horror movie, this might be your cup of tea. Apparently nothing addresses martial discord like having to face your own mortality. I think the rules of the story are a little inconsistent and that we get some scenes that are probably not necessary. The characters don't seem to act the way you might expect them to, and maybe that is a good thing. Ken Leung's character does an exposition dump every time he is on screen, but the real weakness of the storytelling is the Deus ex Machina conclusion of the film. The little touches that connect earlier parts of the movie to the exit are fine, but the resolution for some of the characters does seem a little arbitrary. If "the Happening" and "Lady in the Water" are Shyamalan's worst, then this is closer to "The Village". It is an interesting premise that doesn't go very far in the direction of horror, or any other dramatic destination either. You can think about it, but don't spend too much time doing so, the time you lose is probably move valuable elsewhere. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Dune 2021 Trailer Preview Screening

 


Tonight I was lucky enough to see a special preview of the new Dune trailer. Tickets were reserved through the Facebook site for the Dune movie. We went down an hour early and we were glad that we did because there was a long line when we got there. Having followed the directions I knew that I was not supposed to bring in any electronic devices. It turns out that they weren't collecting them after all so well other people around me took some pictures posted on Facebook, Instagram, and assorted other sites I sat on my hands patiently waiting for the show to start.


Everybody was surprised to discover that in addition to the trailer, which would be shown at the end of the presentation, we were going to get a chance to see the first 10 minutes of the movie. There was an audible gasp from the audience and people seemed quite excited. Once the film started excitement grew, this movie is going to be incredible. Last year when the trailer dropped for the film that was supposed to open in November, I was generally pleased but I was not inspired by what I saw. That first trailer seem to emphasize characters and a little bit of the action. You saw a little bit of the planet and that was it. This this material covered the first 10 minutes of the movie and then a 5 to 10 minutes segments that will probably be about Midway, that features the worm attack on a spice harvester. So we saw 2 long sequences that featured some spectacular special effects, amazing costumes, and unbelievable visuals and some solid acting.

The director Denis Villeneuve spoke on screen about his enthusiasm for the project and he introduced and spoke with composer Hans Zimmer, who talked about inventing instruments for the score to suggest an alien environment. The sounds that we heard we're pretty amazing and they definitely are distinctive and different from other kinds of Science Fiction films. So this 30-minute presentation included the first 10 minutes of the film a long sequence that's filled with action and special effects, and while they were talking about the music we saw several clips from other segments of the movie. This film is simply going to rock. You will be overwhelmed with a creativity that the director and other filmmakers have brought to this project.

I have high hopes for the movie success because the enthusiastic response of the audience and the number of people who showed up for this. We arrived an hour early and there were a hundred people in line in front of us, by the time they let us end they were another hundred people behind us. That's not for a screening of the movie folks that's for a screening of the trailer and some promo material. At the conclusion of the film as the audience was filing out we were all offered a miniature version of the IMAX movie poster. This was an AMC IMAX theater that we saw the preview in. The size of the screen is impressive although it is one of those IMAX presentations it is not really seven stories tall. Anyone who sees this movie for the first time streaming on their home television is crazy. You will want to see this with an audience, you will want to be part of an experience, you will miss the size of the screen no matter how big your home theater is. 


Saturday, July 10, 2021

Black Widow

 


Here is my take on this long delayed film, I will try to explain why but I am not sure I can articulate it as clearly as I would want. Black Widow is an entertaining, mid-level MCU film. It left me unmoved by the events but I can live the action scenes and over all story. There is very little connecting it to the Avengers, except the presence of Natasha, Scarlett Johansson, and the fact that she is an Avenger. All of the other characters are new to us and although there is an attempt to develop character for all of them, some of it is a bit rushed.

For those of you dying to know, this takes place between "Civil War" and "Infinity War". While hiding out after thwarting Secretary Ross's attempt to arrest her, the Black Widow is lead by to her origins by a mysterious package that shows up in her effects. Several chase scenes and hand to hand combat sequences later, we get a clearer explanation of what is going on. The totality of the Budapest story that she and Clint made reference to back in "The Avengers", is not revealed, but there is enough detail to understand why she has regrets and feels that there is so much "red" on her ledger. 

Maybe the reason I had difficulty connecting to this emotionally is that the secondary characters are all new. There is one, a fixer that Agent Romanoff has used before, who is treated as a longtime ally and associate. This is the first time in any of the films he has been referred to. He is not really given a backstory but the character is represented to us as one we should appreciate without knowing anything more, and that does not quite work for me. The movie starts with a flashback story to 1995 and we see a family coming together for dinner and suddenly taking flight from pursuing dark forces. Maybe the fact that we are being asked to sympathize with a Soviet Sleeper Cell, operating in Ohio, which is killing pursuing FBI agents, just does not sit well with me. This is a Post Cold War world, but those of us who lived through that war may have a hard time deleting the suspicions that we have. The character of the Red Guardian is slipped into this segment only vaguely, and when he returns to the story, we have to build another relationship.

The one new relationship that works well is that of Natasha to her supposed sister Yelena, played by Florence Pugh. The combat ready reunion was a bit much but it does establish the creds for this character as well as the other Black Widow zombies that the villain is creating. Pugh does great with her action sequences and is a believable female badass who can get the job done and stand toe to toe with Natasha. I enjoyed their banter a great deal, and they need more time together to make this the key relationship of the story. Unfortunately, there is a Mother Figure, Father Figure and villain who also need time with the main hero and that makes the plot points feel a little repetitive and it sucks up a lot of time. 

Look, I know this is a comic book movie, and maybe I'm overthinking it a bit, but it needs some explanation. How did this Soviet Era Program continue, go private, and remain hidden? How was it funded? There is technology here that the Avengers would be envious of, but there is no Tony Stark or Russian version of S.H.I.E.L.D. visible. It feels like a 1970s Bond film with a secret lair that would be impossible to keep a secret. Maybe that's why the movie that gets interrupted on Natasha's TV is "Moonraker". It's a subtle attempt to nudge us more toward the fantasy world that exists outside of the MCU and use that to justify some shortcuts.

Hawkeye and Black Widow are master assassins, and they took on a job twenty years prior to this story. How is it that they could botch up their mission so much as to leave their actual target alive, much less the collateral damage that goes along with it. There is no explanation of why that happened, even after we have witnessed an explosion that is immense and would have killed any other character in this universe, except for those from space. It feels like lazy writing. There are three screenwriters credited, one was at least partially responsible for Thor Ragnarok, but also episodes of WandaVision and Agent Carter. Maybe the styles just don't mesh well or the fertilizer is showing and too much of what we are getting is set up for future projects. 

David Harbour and Rachel Weisz are able to play both young and older versions of themselves with only slight assistance from CGI. Harbour is doing comic riffs with a Russian accent and that is funny. The Prison escape is fun to look at but it does little to advance the plot, it was merely an obstacle that gives the two women a chance to run an elaborate action sequence and have some comic relief along the way. I like Ray Winstone as an actor but his part in this is underwritten and it consists almost entirely of monologuing with the heroine. 

I was happy to see the film finally open. I was thrilled to see that the theater was sold out and that people are going out to the movies. I was surprised by the number of people who have already forgotten that MCU films tend to have stingers at the end of the credits and lot of folks left before the last scene. I was just not blown away by the film. I will certainly see it again, but if you are looking for a ranking in the MCU, put this at the top of the bottom quarter of the films. I liked them all but let's keep some perspective, they can't all be the greatest thing since Ironman. 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

F9 The Fast Saga

 


I have been a sometimes fan of the series. I have never seen 2,3, or4 and only half of 5. 6,7, and 8 as well as Hobbs and Shaw are in my back pocket. Frankly, there is nothing to say about this except it is stupid, but I enjoyed watching the stupidity. 

The substitution of Jon Cena for Dwayne Johnson allows Vin Diesel to be the focus of the film, and that's fine. There are a couple dozen secondary characters that some people seem to like but all seem to me to be replaceable at any time. OK, maybe Tyrece Gibson as the main comic relief would be a little tough to replace, but otherwise, they are cardboard cutouts being moved around the set pieces.

Most of the film is made up of one outlandish chase, race, or fistfight punctuated with some flashbacks that explain most of what is happening. Don't worry about following that, just keep your eyes on the screen for the next impossible stunt, physics defying escape or miraculous moment of self awareness. This film goes full meta, acknowledging  how silly it is and even nearly saying "we are a movie". 

There is no sense in analyzing any of it, or critiquing the story. this series jumped the shark years ago, it's now just a question  of what the next shark is. I may be in spoiler territory here, but don't worry, it was going to come out somewhere anyway, this is the "Moonraker" of the series. They make a bunch of corny jokes, and go to space. I'm only surprised that Roger Moore did not show up with his laser equipped Space Shuttle to help out. 

F9 was the subject of this week's Lambcast, and we spent an hour just laughing at all the idiotic coincidences, resurrections, and tropes these films wallow in. I will post a link here when the podcast is live, I will credit Mark Hofmeyer, for coming up with my favorite title for a movie next time. "Fast Ten Your Seatbelts".  That's better writing than anything in this pile of stuff that is instantly disposable, but fun while you are disposing of it. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

The Sparks Brothers

 


So, I've seen the new Edgar Wright film, have you? No, I'm not talking "Last Night in Soho", that comes out in October and it looks to be scary fun. This film is a documentary about the eccentric band "Sparks" and the two brothers that are the heart and soul of musical integrity. Someone once said that rock and roll and comedy don't really mix well, but that person had never heard Sparks, or maybe that's why they never heard them because their offbeat sense of humor keeps the pop market from fully embracing their music. 

This was a father's Day activity for me. My daughter, who barely had any inkling of this band, found the subject  delightful and fascinating. I was slightly better off than her in approaching this, I knew of Sparks during their second phase, and I enjoyed their music, owned a couple of albums and even went to see them once live at the same amusement park that they filmed a movie appearance in. I was a casual fan, who lost track of them, and now I wish I was the kind of person who had all of their albums and had been following them for fifty years. 

Well there is an abundance of Talking Heads in the documentary [the interview style not the band], there are also performance clips, news footage, chat show appearances, and intriguing music videos to bring us all up to speed. Ron and Russell Mael are not British, though many might think so since much of their breakthrough work was first successful in the United Kingdom. They are in fact Southern California boys who unfortunately went to UCLA, but do not seem to have been permanently harmed by that experience. The older brother Ron, is the Principle songwriter and keyboardist for the band and his younger brother is the lead singer/frontman of the band. They have had various other musicians, in and out of the band over a fifty year time span, and many of them appear in this film as do a legion of their admirers. 

In movies, there are several uses of "Sparks" music. One of my late wife's favorite films was the 1983 film "Valley Girl" and there were two Sparks songs on that soundtrack, "Eaten By The Monster of Love" and "Angst in My Pants". My favorite film of 2010 was "Kick Ass" and it features a moment with their first big hit "This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us". In the documentary, there is a discussion of the era of KROQ radio station in Los Angeles and how influential it was in getting New Wave acts played on the air, Sparks, while not a New Wave band per se did get covered on that station. In the years 1980 to 1983, my radio was always on that station number and that's how I heard about Sparks appearance at Magic Mountain for a Halloween show. The band made a brief musical moment in the movie "Rollercoaster"  in 1977 at the same park, but in the Halloween show, they played the same stage where the Puppet show headlined and "Spinal Tap" got second billing. It's also the stage featured in "Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park", and coincidentally, my Father played that stage in 1971 right after the park had opened, I worked with him for two weeks at the holiday period. 

The band is prolific and continues to be eccentric. This film was two hours and fifteen minutes, and we saw it at an Alamo Drafthouse with a thirty minute lead in hosted by director Edgar Wright, so the whole experience was even longer. It still felt short, especially in comparison to "In the Heights" which we had jus seen a couple of days earlier. If you are a fan of the band and their music, you really should get out to a theater to see this. If you are not a fan, you should go see it and become one. 

In the Heights

 


The Tony Award Winning Best Musical, from the creator of "Hamilton", is finally a movie after several starts and stops in the production process. It was due out last year and the pandemic delayed it like a lot of other films. That might be doubly unfortunate because sometimes timing can make a difference in a movies fortunes and I think this one may have missed the mark. The world is an angrier place than it was a year ago, and the generally upbeat tone of this film seems at odds with the cultural climate of the diversity issues that are being discussed now. Rioting and looting to musical numbers is just not the same. 

I will admit upfront that this movie and the play were probably not made for me. Hip Hop music can be invigorating but the frequent absence of melody and the near conversational lyrics, don't pull me in the same way a traditional Broadway showtune does. It feels to me like there is no hook, and the chorus in most of the songs is not memorable enough to be catchy either. That doesn't make it bad, it just makes it far different from what I expect in a musical and that diminished my enthusiasm for this film. 


Another problem I had with the movie is the overproduction in every musical sequence. That sounds like an oxymoron but the film feels like it is trying to top the last sequence every time a new moment occurs.  So it is often a bigger crowd, a more elaborate environment, wilder dance moves and bigger emotional bullet points. It gets exhausting. One of my on-line friends quoted a critic who suggested it was like watching a film length Coke commercial. Everything is gracefully shot, swiftly choreographed, but ultimately a bit shallow. The colors and the lighting pop, but not in a stylized way, just in the cheerful way you might try to sell soda with.  Director Jon Chu has a talented eye but could use a little restraint at times. The film feels like the writer and the director want every song moment to be a show stopper, and that puts the characters in the background of their own story. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda is certainly a talent that can create something compelling. He managed to make the founding fathers hip, and bring attention to American History in a contemporary way.  His love story here is a bit problematic., in part because it is so overstuffed. Usnavi loves Vanessa, Benny loves Nina, and Usnavi and Benny both love their neighborhood and want everyone else to do the same. If the story stuck to those characters it might work better, but we have a story about Usnavi's adopted Grandmother Figure, his cousin, Nina's Father, Vanessa's dream, the women at the hair salon, the closing of the car service, the dream of opening a beachfront bar, the kids in the neighborhood, Usnavi's role as story teller, it just gets exhausting, and it does so over a period of two and a half hours. I don't want to sound like Emperor Joseph II from "Amadeus", but "there are just too many notes."                                                                                                              The movie is well made and performed. Anthony Ramos as the lead is fine, he appears to be experienced with Lin-Manuel Miranda having performed in "Hamilton", although I first noticed him as the more sympathetic of the two crooked FBI guys in Honest Thief" last year. Except for Jimmy Smits, everyone else in the show was new to me, but they all seem talented, but don't get as much opportunity to shine as is necessary to make the characters engaging. I liked the movie but not enough. 

Monday, June 14, 2021

Cruella




Cruella is the next in a long line of Disney films designed to exploit their previous properties and put a reboot Twist on them. So although there are Dalmatians in this film the movie is not really about the dogs. This is an attempt to reimagine Cruella de Vil as a sympathetic character gone wrong. In the long run not much is going to change on the main stories except our perceptions of these characters as they appear early on and then return in their original form.

I didn't expect a great deal from this movie and I was pleasantly surprised and how much I enjoyed it. Much of the credit goes to the production design team who's amazing designs for the mansion, the workshop the cars, and all of the technical things that get used in the film are a lot of fun. In addition special notes should be given to the craftspeople who designed the clothes that were worn by the various characters but especially those made for star Emma Stone. She wears these outfits and commands the screen simply by looking outlandish and confident while doing so.

The plot of this film imagines Cruella from her earliest age until just before the events that makeup  101 Dalmatians. Cruella appears to be the orphaned child of a former acquaintance of a fashion designer, The Baroness. Of course appearances always turn out to be slightly skewed in a movie like this and there will be plot turns that confound us, amuse us, and in the long run make a little bit more sense then they probably should. I like the use of characters that are referred to in the previous films and they also have been given revised backstories. Jasper and Horace, who are Cruella's henchman in this version of the story, turn out to be orphans that are similarly abandoned and are using petty crime as a way to survive. The movie really get started when characters get together and start plotting for Cruella to get into the fashion industry that she is always dreamed of being apart of.

There is a long sequence where Cruella is poorly used as an entry-level member of the Baroness' Empire. The idea that she ends up scrubbing floors and being ignored despite her good ideas is maybe a little trite but it's played for good comic effect. Emma Thompson provides great opposition as the heartless and manipulative fashion maven that Cruella is up against. The best parts of the movie are the three or four dramatic moments when Cruella's designs upstage the Baroness at key moments, typically a fashion show. These are usually presented as clever tricks or reversals of the Baroness own plans. They are also very well designed and have a great visual flair to them. That flair makes it feel as if the Fashion World could operate in these sorts of ways. The Cruella character becomes the Banksy of the Fashion World, a renegade artist with a sense a panache. Of course the more she is blocked by the Baroness the more fantastic her revenge scenarios become.

If you were thinking of taking your children to see this film, think again, because one of the major plot points involves the murder of a woman. That death is followed up by another plot to murder another woman. Then we are given a situation where there might be even more murder involved. And there is plenty of cruelty to go along with the plotting. There are Dalmatians in the film and in the early part of the movie they are villainous. Two other dogs are the charming heroes, if you can call criminals heroes. The fact that in the end the Dalmatians become a more important part of the plot, really has nothing to do with the original movies. This is not a kids movie with dogs, it's a movie made for adults based on characters from a kids movie. It would not do you well to confuse the two because your kids could very well end up traumatized by some of the things that take place in the plot.

It's a little schizophrenic that sometimes we see Cruella as a victim and other times see her as the perpetrator of something evil. Admittedly the character is evil but actress Emma Stone holds back on making Cruella completely irredeemable but only stopping short to keep a PG-13 rating. I found the movie very entertaining and funnier than I expected. Worth a watch for adults, but beware bad dogs.