Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Fool's Views (3/1 – 3/31)

Greetings, my friends!

Well, March came and went and while I didn’t spend a ton of time consistently watching the flickers (trying to memorize lines for my next stage endeavor, a production of The Woman in Black out at Artists Ensemble), I apparently managed to put together enough short, controlled bursts of viewing to add up to a pretty decent tally. A day at the multiplex yielded some winners, among them the Jason Bateman vehicle Game Night, which prompted me to raid the Chicago Public Library’s stash to catch up on other flicks of his I had missed.

It was also funny to see two of this year’s “projects” – actor Richard Pryor and director Herbert Ross – had actually collaborated on 1978’s California Suite. Gotta love the two birds with one stone.

As always, feel free to leave your two cents worth – we’ll make sure you get some change back.



Annihilation (2018) d. Garland, Alex (UK/USA) (1st viewing)

Written and directed by the fellow who helmed the terrific Ex Machina two years back and provided the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine, this is another solid entry, although one that doesn’t resonate with quite the same emotional weight as the aforementioned efforts. It’s absolutely worth celebrating the fact that this is a full-blooded and heady sci-fi/horror featuring a cast of primarily female performers (headlined by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh), especially because of the fact that these characters (at least from my male gaze standpoint, skewed as it undeniably is) actually seem to behave like women. I found myself often imagining what the film would be like if the genders had been switched, i.e. “traditional” and it would not have looked like this. The conflicts within the group would have probably been handled differently (more chest-thumping machismo), and I imagine the relationships would have been more isolated as opposed to the connectedness on display here.

All that said, I found myself appreciating it more intellectually than viscerally or emotionally, and I’d like to say that I have been able to connect with Bechtel-test material in the past, so it’s not that I wasn’t engaged due to gender. I just think it thought that it was smarter than it actually was, and the vagueness of the hows and whys seemed just that.

Colossal (2016) d. Vigalondo, Nacho (Canada/US/Spain) (1st viewing)

Anne Hathaway is wonderful as a drunk socialite who so completely self-sabotages her career and relationships that she is forced to return to her childhood small-town burg to live in her parents’ abandoned home because no one else will have her. Rekindling a tenuous childhood friendship with the local tavern owner Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) seems to be a step in the right direction, which is just about the time an enormous monster randomly appears in Seoul, Korea, and it soon becomes clear that our heroine’s fate is undeniably connected with the rampaging beast.

At first, I was on the fence as to whether to include this as a horror offering, despite the fact that its entire premise revolves around giant kaiju threatening an Asian populace. But by the end, as things grow less fanciful and darker and more serious, such concerns melted away. Monsters appear in human form as well as the gigantic and bizarre, and – as is so often the way – they are the more chilling. The performers completely ground the outlandish premise, yet it’s writer/director Vigalondo’s (Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial) curious blend of comedy and genuine human emotion that somehow keep it from fully taking flight, perhaps because it takes itself TOO seriously, particularly regarding Oscar’s third-act arc. (That said, it all feels true to his character, so who knows?) I only know that I came away wanting to love it and could only admit to liking it, for whatever that’s worth.

Happy Death Day (2017) d. Landon, Christopher (USA) (1st viewing)

Calling this “Groundhog Day meets Scream” might seem too blunt a summarization, but considering it treats both ends of its inspiration with deep respect, delivering smarts, scares, gasps, and guffaws in equal measure, it’s actually an accurate description and an intended compliment. Much of the success is due to Jessica Rothe’s winning star turn, doing a marvelous job tracking the transformation from self-absorbed stuck-up sorority sister to genuine stand-up-and-cheer-for-her Final Girl, all within the same set of given circumstances. She’s surrounded by a solid ensemble of players, and director Landon and writer Scott Lobdell keep the plates spinning and the jump scares flying nimbly enough to keep the potentially repetitious premise fresh and fun from start to finish.

Spring (2014) d. Benson, Justin / Moorhead, Aaron (USA) (1st viewing)

Continuing the theme of odd bedfellows, this sophomore effort from the Resolution team of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead begs favorable comparisons to Before Sunrise and An American Werewolf in London. Following a barroom fight shortly after his mother’s death, disillusioned and grieving twenty-something Lou Taylor Pucci (2013’s Evil Dead remake) finds himself pursued by both the police and his revenge-seeking combatant and impulsively leaves for Italy, despite the facts that he knows neither a soul nor the local tongue. As fate would have it, he meets beautiful and mysterious lass (an extraordinary Nadia Hilker) and falls for her, and the two dance a familiar dance, even as we slowly come to understand that the distance she maintains is no coy mating ritual, but rather a desperate act of salvation, an ongoing wrestling match between human desires and supernatural destinies. As with Richard Linklater’s romantic ramblefests, viewers’ interest will likely depend on their investment in the couple’s happiness and ultimate fate, since there’s a lot of talk talk talk talk talk, ranging from the occasionally profound to the exceedingly banal. Me, I liked it well enough.

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018) d. Roberts, Johannes (USA) (1st viewing)

Bryan Bertino’s surprise 2008 home invasion hit, wherein three masked psychopaths terrorize a young couple in an out-of-the-way cabin – celebrates its 10th anniversary with a new Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory, but who would have guessed that the same year would yield a sequel/redux of sorts, one that takes the basic premise of the original (which some maintain borrowed its premise from the 2007 French thrill-killer Ils aka Them) and then spins it out into a fairly standard if successful Cerberus-headed slasher.

Roberts follows his predecessor’s mean-spirited atmosphere of merciless, cold-blooded slayings, but adds a flair of goofy/heightened energy by underscoring them with Jim Steinmann-penned power ballads (Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”), which makes them memorable, though whether it’s for the right reasons will likely be a subject of debate among horror fans for years to come. (I’m ambivalent at this stage of the game.) Christina Hendricks (Mad Men, Drive) is the only real “name” in the cast, and while I’m sure she was happy for the paycheck, the producers could have saved their money because this isn’t the kind of movie that rises or falls on star power.


Black Panther (2018) d. Coogler, Ryan (USA) (1st viewing)

The best Marvel movie ever? Sure, why not? It’s a slamdunk origin story and the social significance due to/following its box office success will likely (hopefully) go down as one of the great turning points in multicultural Hollywood history. Not to mention the impressive fight sequences and strong female characters throughout. Can’t think of a single thing they got wrong and am doubly impressed by all the things they got right.

California Suite (1978) d. Ross, Herbert (USA) (1st viewing)

Neil Simon’s crackling dialogue and recognizable if heightened characters are showcased within this quartet of interwoven playlets involving a divorced couple (Alan Alda, Jane Fonda) hashing out the future of their daughter, a vacationing businessman (Water Matthau) who wakes up with a young prostitute passed out in his bed, an aging British starlet (Maggie Smith) in town for the Oscars with her bemused husband (Michael Caine), and a pair of rival doctors (and in-laws) (Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor) who take their competitive instincts to insane lengths. All maintain a welcome core of dramatic weight amidst the snappy banter, with the exception of the Cosby/Pryor segment which is played strictly – and heavy-handedly – for slapstick. Elaine May is a standout as Matthau’s wife who shows up unannounced.

Fierce Creatures (1997) d. Young, Robert / Schepsi, Fred (UK) (1st viewing)

Getting the proverbial band from A Fish Called Wanda back together seems like a novel idea on paper, but minus the nimble hand of director Charles Crichton and a plot more preoccupied with wacky hijinks than character-based interactions, it possesses barely a shadow of its predecessor’s charm. The notion of a fatuous multimillionaire (Kevin Kline, under heavy makeup and sporting an Austrawwwwwwlian accent) demanding that his recently acquired zoo in England turn a significant profit, which in turn inspires head company man (John Cleese) to concoct the wild scheme of having only “Dangerous Animals” as the main attractions, has potential, but never feels grounded enough for anything beyond sophomoric laughs . Jamie Lee Curtis is the brightest spot as the sexy, savvy businesswoman saddled with the moneybags’ simpering offspring (Kline again), though Michael Palin is given a lot to say and not much to propel the story as a yammering know-it-all animal expert.

Trivia: director Robert Young made his directing debut in 1972 with the enjoyably bonkers Hammer horror Vampire Circus!

Hail, Caesar! (2016) d. Coen, Joel / Coen, Ethan (USA) (1st viewing)

While there’s no denying the affection shown toward Classic Hollywood by the sibling duo, showcasing everything from Esther Williams-type water ballet extravaganzas to shoot-em-up singin’ cowboy Westerns to cast-of-thousands Biblical epics, the weakness lies in the underlying narrative following a kidnapped movie star (George Clooney) and the blackmailed production chief (Josh Brolin) attempting to get him back before a pair of rival gossip columnists (Cate Blanchett, playing twins) get wind of the story. What should have been a wonderful breakneck caper turns muddy and lifeless in between the wannabe glorious production numbers. Everyone seems to be having a grand time, which helps, especially Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-esque song-and-dance man.

Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (2015) d. Cone, Stephen (USA) (1st viewing)

Earnest, well-executed indie drama that charts a day in the life of a Christian family and their friends, exposing the many struggles and hypocrisies among the righteous. Homosexuality, alcoholism, adultery, suicide, and premarital sex are among the many taboo subjects explored by a sharp ensemble cast of Chicago actors that includes Pat Healy (Cheap Thrills), Elizabeth Laidlaw, Hanna Dworkin, Fran Guinan, Cole Doman as our titular lad, and a pre-Stranger Things Joe Keery.

Kate Plays Christine (2016) d. Greene, Robert (USA) (1st viewing)

Christine Chubbuck was a small-time local Saratoga newswoman who experienced a brief (posthumous) moment of fame when she committed suicide on-air in 1974. Aspiring actress Kate Lynn Sheil lands the lead in a biopic about the doomed journalist, but as she starts to research the role, she quickly learns that there is not much to be found about her subject in life or death. What follows is an intriguing if not altogether cohesive documentary that bounces back and forth between the “creative process” – complete with scenes from the narrative feature that Sheil is starring in (which we slowly come to realize are purely for the sake of the documentary itself, i.e. there is no “real” movie being made) – and the legitimate mystery of Chubbuck outside of the one fatal moment that came to define her. The final scene, presumably meant to shock with its spontaneity and realism, sadly rings false and premeditated.

Sully (2017) d. Eastwood, Clint (USA) (1st viewing)

Efficient, no-frills dramatization of the “Hero on the Potomac” Captain Chelsy Sullivan who managed to land his 737 (US Airways Flight 1549) on the river after both wing engines failed (without a single fatality), and the subsequent investigation by the airline’s insurance company asserting that a safe return to the airport was, in fact, possible and the passenger risk and property damage was unnecessary. Tom Hanks is solid in the title role, as is Aaron Eckhart as his loyal co-pilot. Laura Linney, however, is wasted in a do-nothing role as Sully’s wife.

Thoroughbreds (2017) d. Finley, Cory (USA) (1st viewing)

Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, The VVitch) are fantastic as a pair of disaffected teens thrown together by fate (and their moneyed, absent parents) who bring out the worst in each other up to and including contemplations of murder. Cool and cruel throughout, with Anton Yelchin (Green Room, Star Trek) in his final screen role as a charmingly clueless small-time drug dealer/would-be gangsta .


The Change-Up (2011) d. Dobkin, David (USA) (1st viewing)

R-rated Freaky Friday body-switch comedy is bawdy and unabashedly lowbrow, highlighted by its two stars doing spot-on impersonations of one another in both naughty and nice incarnations. Leslie Mann (a national treasure who is somehow still not a household name) very nearly steals the show as Bateman’s long-suffering soul-mate, while Olivia Wilde does her thang as his sexy co-worker.

Couples Retreat (2009) d. Billingsley, Peter (USA) (1st viewing)

Labored and clunky ensemble comedy that somehow manages to waste everyone’s talents, despite the fact that everyone is talented enough to somehow make it watchable. I blame Vince Vaughn (who also produced) because why not blame Vince Vaughn, although Billingsley (yes, Ralphie from A Christmas Story!) probably has to share some of the blame.

The Family Fang (2015) d. Bateman, Jason (USA) (1st viewing)

Bateman-as-director follows the acid-dipped genius of Bad Words with this overtly quirky and sentimental sophomore effort, based on the novel by Kevin Wilson, following two grown-up children (Nicole Kidman, Bateman) trying to shake the shadow of their “live scenario artists” parents (Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett). While managing to hold our attention, it never really takes flight, which is disappointing considering the talent on board.

Game Night (2018) d. Daley, John Francis / Goldstein, Jonathan (USA) (1st viewing)

A so-so premise (couples gather for monthly game nights) spirals wonderfully upward into the stratosphere thanks to a fantastic, increasingly outlandish yet buyable script by Mark Perez and the quicksilver comic chemistry between Bateman and Rachel McAdams as our stars. As if that weren’t enough (which it would be, by the way), they are surrounded by a pitch-perfect ensemble (Kyle Chandler, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, and Billy Magnussen, who kills with every dim damn dumb single line he’s given) that takes every moment to the next level. Recommended big time.

The Kingdom (2007) d. Berg, Peter (USA) (1st viewing)

Bateman gets a chance to play it serious as part of a CIA operative team sent to Saudi Arabia to track down the perpetrators of a terrorist attack on a U.S. community of politicians and business advisors. Berg does his usual top-notch work bringing suspense and realism (unlike Patriots Day and Deepwater Horizon, this is NOT based on a true story, though it certainly feels like it could be), with solid, unshowy work from his cast of players (Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jeremy Piven, and particularly Ashraf Barhom as the team’s Saudi law enforcement counterpart).

2017 Totals to date: 76 films, 57 1st time views, 27 horror, 13 cinema


No comments:

Post a Comment