Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review: Collide

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
When it's not blatantly pilfering ideas from Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" or providing absurd dialogue for the likes of Anthony Hopkins and Ben Kingsley, "Collide" is a fairly generic thriller that mostly requires its lead, Nicholas Hoult, to look frazzled as he finds himself involved in numerous car pile-ups on the Autobahn or being shot at or beaten by German thugs.

In the film, Hoult's Casey Stein is an American who is spending some time in Germany for nebulous reasons that have something to do with his stealing cars. There, he meets a young woman named Juliette (Felicity Jones) - whose name is such so that Shakespeare can be quoted at one point and is also abroad under vague circumstances - and the two of them fall in love.

Casey departs his life of crime but, as Al Pacino, once put it, they keep pulling him back in - they, in this case, being a big businessman known as Hagen Kahl (Hopkins) and a Turkish criminal named Geran (Kingsley) who are sort of at war. Geran wants Casey and a pal of his to steal a shipment of cocaine that is being transported by Kahl after the two fail to come to a business agreement.

Much of "Collide" is a series of car chases in which Casey somehow remarkably walks away with only a few scratches after smashing the various vehicles he steals on the Autobahn. He is pursued by Kahl's bearded right-hand-henchman and numerous men with automatic weapons. Since this film's aim appears to take the most obvious paths, Juliette is, naturally, snatched by Kahl and held ransom until Casey returns the drugs he stole.

Hopkins and Kingsley appear to be having the most fun here as both of the great actors are allowed to ham it up. Hopkins delivers soliloquies that feel entirely inappropriate to a silly action film of this sort, while Kingsley walks around barely robed, surrounded by skimpily clad women, taking drugs, dancing awkwardly to European house music and, in the film's most inspired and bizarre sequence, watching and praising the 1985 aerobics film "Plenty" starring John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis.

As the film winds down, it really begins to wear its influences on its sleeve. When Casey and Juliette walk in slow motion down a hall corridor, they are accompanied by an electronic score that sounds not so subtly like College's "A Real Hero," which you might recognize from "Drive," a film from which "Collide" often pilfers. The picture is an amalgamation of scenes and characters that were better handled in the superior films from which this one frequently borrows.

Review: Get Out

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
If Gore Verbinski's recent "A Cure for Wellness" was one of the strangest films to be released by a major movie studio in some years, then Jordan Peele's "Get Out," another horror film, is one of the most inspired and gutsiest of that genre to come along in some time.

Both genuinely creepy and prescient, the picture features its share of unsettling moments, several of which are of the type you'd typically expect to find in a low budget horror movie and several more are due to the director's deft handling of issues pertaining to race in America.

As the film opens, a young black man walks alone on a suburban street at night on the phone, telling whoever he is talking to that he doesn't think it's such a good idea that he is roaming the streets of this particular neighborhood. Sure enough, a car pulls up behind him and starts following him, instantly bringing to mind George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.

Elsewhere, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is preparing to spend a weekend with his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), who is going to introduce him to her parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener), who live in suburbia somewhere within driving distance from New York City. Chris is not pleased when Rose tells him that she had not mentioned that her boyfriend is black. She doesn't see what the big deal is, but Chris's weekend gets off to an uncomfortable start that, needless to say, only gets worse.

On the drive to Rose's parent's home, the couple hits a deer crossing the road and when a police officer arrives on the scene, he asks to see Chris's license, despite the fact that Rose was driving. She becomes incensed and curses at the cop, but Chris is all too aware of scenes like these and tries to dispel the tension.

Upon arriving at the home of Missy (Keener) and Dean (Whitford) Armitage, a psychotherapist and surgeon, respectively, Chris finds that something is off. And it goes way beyond the obvious discomfort that Rose's parents are trying to hide via Dean's eye-roll inducing attempts to make Chris feel comfortable by discussing President Barack Obama, Jesse Owens and using words - thang, for example - that he clearly doesn't use in other company.

But the most unsettling aspect of Chris's arrival is the way in which the Armitage's black help - Georgina (Betty Gabriel), a maid with a zoned out look in her eye, and Walter (Marcus Henderson), a handyman whose cheery behavior holds a certain menace in reserve - behaves. Chris tries to appeal to them when things begin to take a turn for the strange, but Georgina and Walter appear all too happy to cater to the Armitages' every whim.

Early in the film, Missy puts Chris in a trance in an attempt to get him to quit smoking and he falls deep into a place where can see those looking down on him, but feels trapped and floating in space. It's a creepy sequence that we later learn isn't quite so innocent - at least, Missy's purpose in it - as it first appears.

Some levity amid all this tension is in the form of Rod (LilRel Howery), a TSA worker and pal of Chris's who begins sleuthing on his friend's behalf after he doesn't return home on time and a call to Rose makes him even further suspicious. And in the film's finale, "Get Out" goes from eerie to gory as Chris attempts to free himself from his captors.

Although I won't give away the reason why Chris has been lured to the Armitages' house, suffice it to say that his comment that he feels uncomfortable around large groups of white people is, certainly in the context of this picture, justified. Peele, whose previous comedic work is with Keegan-Michael Key, has delivered a horror movie that is frightening, funny and thematically relevant, especially considering our current political climate. It's a movie with brains that very effectively utilizes horror tropes and satire to comment on the very unstable state of race relations in our country today.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Review: The Great Wall

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Zhang Yimou is a great filmmaker and Matt Damon is a fine actor, but neither have one of their finer moments with "The Great Wall," which attempts to marry the historical epic genre with blockbuster effects and an alien invasion plot and, ultimately, provides diminishing returns.

In the film, Damon plays a thief named William who, along with his pal Tovar (Pedro Pascal), are searching for black powder in ancient China when they stumbled upon the titular structure, where a Chinese army is preparing to fend off attacks from a race of creatures who were sent down from the stars to punish the nation after a former ruler had been overcome with greed.

Damon is, unfortunately, saddled with one of the strangest accents I've come across in recent movies. He sounds vaguely Irish, although his sidekick appears to be a Spaniard, and his inflections seem off. His character quickly becomes infatuated with a female warrior named Lin Mae (Tian Jing), who takes over command after the region's general is killed by one of the monsters, which are known as Tei Tao and apparently attack the wall every 60 years.

The film is often visually impressive, especially Yimou's use of color as the various armies of Chinese warriors, cloaked in bright reds and blues, line up along the wall, bang the drums of war and leap off the wall - while harnessed in with ropes - to attack the Tei Tao. The monsters themselves, on the other hand, are merely digital blips that move en masse, much like the battle scenes in the "Lord of the Rings" films that have been mimicked to the point of exhaustion.

Randomly, I watched Yimou's 1994 picture "To Live" this weekend and it was a reminder of how subtle and visually stunning the Chinese master's movies tend to be. "The Great Wall" is more in line with some of his later wuxia films, such as "House of Flying Daggers," only this latest entry is significantly sillier.

Ultimately, "The Great Wall" is a reminder that it's difficult to adequately blend history with fantasy in a satisfying manner. Anybody remember "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," for example? Although the film has some strong camerawork, it's ultimately in service of a film that is a misfire for both its talented director and star.

Review: A Cure For Wellness

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Gore Verbinski's return to the horror genre marks one of the strangest wide releases by a major Hollywood studio in recent memory. With visual cues and references paying homage to everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Wojciech Has and sequences that are, for lack of a better phrase, batshit crazy, "A Cure for Wellness" certainly gets points for originality.

As the picture opens, a smarmy Wall Street type known as Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), who has just secured a major account for his bosses, is told that he must travel to the Swiss Alps to recover a partner from the firm who traveled to the spot to attend a famed spa and never returned. To blackmail the reluctant Lockhart into going, the partners refer to nebulous behavior on the anti-hero's part that should, perhaps, have been better drawn out.

Regardless, Lockhart ends up at the spa, where he is instantly regaled with creepy tales of yore regarding a baron who lived at the locale 200 years ago and how his house was burned down. Even creepier is the spa's lead doctor, Volmer (Jason Isaacs), who constantly insists that Lockhart has the place all wrong and that the man, Pembroke (Harry Groener), whom he has come to retrieve is not being held against his will. Despite the doctor's attempts at good natured banter, something seems off about the guy.

And, indeed, it turns out that Lockhart's vibe about the joint isn't far off. I won't give away the film's various twists, but suffice it to say that the history surrounding the spa comes into play and there are some creepy goings-on happening around every corner, albeit a few of them never very well explained (what's with the deer in the sauna?).

One of the picture's finest attributes is that it looks amazing. Nearly every shot is gorgeously composed and there are some truly memorable images in "A Cure for Wellness" - for example, an angle of a train wrapping round a mountain, a car driving on a deserted mountain road (that obviously pays homage to "The Shining," from which this picture takes many cues), a group of people dancing as the world burns around them, a gorgeously eerie image of Manhattan buildings by night and a shot of a young girl walking around a sunlit fountain.

My biggest complaint about the film is that it's too long by at least 30 minutes. Much like "The Shining," Verbinski is aiming here to create a horror epic and the picture takes a long time too get where it's going. As I said, in my opinion, too long. One scene that I could have done without is the obvious sequence during which Lockhart believes that he is convincing the spa's other guests that they are not getting better at the place, but worse, only to find that they don't agree with him.

The film's final 30 minutes are completely nuts, almost anarchic, especially considering that this is a Hollywood film. I'll give Verbinski this: "A Cure for Wellness" is a genre movie with cajones. It's often gloriously weird, occasionally kinky, sometimes outright inappropriate and literally all over the place. It's not a great movie, but it has some great scenes and incredible scenery. You may or may not like the film, but I doubt you'll forget it.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Review: John Wick: Chapter Two

Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
Those searching for a bit of the old ultraviolence, as Malcolm McDowell once put it, could do much worse than "John Wick: Chapter Two," an orgiastic bloodbath that is low on plot and high on bullets penetrating skulls. It's also skillfully made, willing to crack jokes at its own expense and, oddly enough, visually gorgeous - at least, during its unforgettable set piece finale.

In the first picture, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) was a retired hitman who had been left devastated by the death of his wife. After some punks - who happened to have gangster relatives - broke into Wick's house and killed his beloved dog, the barely emoting killing machine finds himself back in action, wiping out approximately 10 men every five minutes.

As for plot, "Chapter Two" is even more scarce. At the film's beginning, Wick steals back his car and returns home, where he lives with a new pup. But his doorbell rings one night and the son of an Italian mobster is there with a mission for Wick to assassinate a sister who is threatening his place in the criminal underworld.

After he refuses, Wick's house is burnt to the ground and he - having sworn an oath never to turn down a mission, or something like that - agrees to whack the mobster's sister during a music festival in Rome. This, of course, leads to an orgy of violence, where Wick crosses paths with numerous faceless men, who end up with bullets to the head, pencils in the neck and arms snapped over shoulders.

A bevy of villains - a fellow hitman played by rapper Common, a mute woman with a penchant for vicious behavior, a killer who looks like a Sumo wrestler, etc. - join in the hunt for Wick, which ultimately leads him to Laurence Fishburne, who has an army of homeless killers and a roof full of doves. I'll let you process that for a moment.

The film sets up the possibility of a third - and, in all likelihood, even gorier - entry into the series. If the story is wafer thin, then it is the nonstop action that nearly makes up for it. It's an overused expression when referring to action movies, but the numerous shootouts and fight scenes to be found in "John Wick: Chapter Two" almost feel like a ballet - that is to say that they are beautifully and impressively choreographed.

And the picture includes a whopper of an ending during which Wick and a number of villains fight it out in a museum exhibit full of optical illusions, mirrors and rooms of various colors. The film overemphasizes style at the expense of virtually everything else, but it does it so well that it's easy to forgive such shortcomings. For a film of this type, "John Wick: Chapter Two" gets the job done.

Review: Fifty Shades Darker

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Either operating on a level of high camp or completely oblivious to how preposterous and absurd it is, "Fifty Shades Darker" is at once slightly better and more ridiculous than its predecessor. Based on the novel by E.L. James, this sequel to "Fifty Shades of Grey" mostly just fills up space between the first and third novel/film adaptations.

In other words, there's a fair amount of filler, but what filler it is. We have a psycho-stalker plot, a helicopter crash, soft core sex scenes timed at approximately every 20 minutes, a cameo (Kim Basinger), sexual harassment in the workplace and lots of real estate porn. This is a movie based on a book that is about kinky sex, but when mentioning a money shot in "Fifty Shades," one is more likely referring to capital and all that it buys.

As the film opens, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is waffling on whether to stick it out - a phrase, perhaps, I should use with caution under the circumstances - with Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), the S&M-obsessed billionaire founder of a social media empire that we never glimpse. Seriously, does the man ever work or does he just mope all day waiting to deliver the next spanking?

This is a movie of many meanwhiles, the first of which involves one of Christian's former lovers, a mousy girl who seems to always be lurking just out of focus, that is, until she approaches Christian and Anastasia to threaten physical violence. Her plot strand is resolved fairly easily. But the film's real villain ends up being - wait for it - Anastasia's book editor at her new gig, whose inappropriate workplace behavior towards his underling makes "Disclosure" look quaint. The film hilariously ends with said editor leering on top of a hill as he watches Christian, Grey's family and Anastasia taking part in a celebration.

In the first picture, Grey wanted to be a dominator and demanded that Anastasia submit to his every whim, while in this second film - since the plot requires it - he's always lingering wherever Anastasia turns and appears willing to give up everything that he previously espoused.

There's also a smaller plot strand involving Basinger as the older woman who seduced Christian as a young man that ends in possibly the best example of tossing wine in a face and the slapping of a character in recent memory.

Needless to say that there's not much in the way of suspense in the picture. Whenever there is a problem, Christian uses his money to get out of it. There's a scene in which Grey has been in a helicopter crash and everyone ponders his fate - and he literally walks into an apartment filled with grieving loved ones, bearing only a few minor scratches. In fact, the film's biggest plot twist is during a minor scene in which Christian and Anastasia are out on Grey's boat and pass a house that she finds beautiful - and he neither owns it already nor buys it for her.

For those hoping to watch something sexy for Valentine's Day, well, "Fifty Shades Darker" is on par with "Girls Gone Wild" and naked charity calendars. But if you're searching for something outrageously ridiculous - think "Showgirls" - then this "Fifty Shades" sequel could be your cup of tea.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review: Rings

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Hipsters or no hipsters, the idea that the evil spirit at the center of "Rings" could spread virally through video tapes in 2017 is worth a good laugh. Then again, this attempt to revive a horror franchise that went stale more than a decade ago doesn't put much effort into laying out its narrative in a thoughtful fashion.

There are twists galore in this third "Ring" entry, during which the creepy Samara once again climbs out of that well and into your living room, albeit this time through TVs, laptops and even iPhones. But you can see where the picture is going at virtually every step as it piles cliche upon cliche.

As the picture opens, Julia (Matilda Lutz) is parting from her boyfriend Holt (Alex Roe) as they head off to separate colleges. Just shortly after school has begun, Julia senses something strange is afoot and heads to Holt's campus to investigate. Once there, she stumbles upon an absurd college science project led by professor Gabriel (Johnny Galecki), in which a group of students have been exposed to the Samara tape - I'll assume readers know the rules of said tape, so I won't have to explain them - and now have seven days to either pass on her curse or bite the big one.

For starters, that Gabriel and these students could be carrying on this project, which results in at least one student's death, semi-openly is ludicrous. Also, I'll mention it again, the project is mostly carried out via a video tape (in 2017!), although some students have uploaded it to their computers, so you just know there will be that moment when it goes viral for all web users to witness.

"Rings" steals the storyline from one of the earlier films in the franchise as Julia and Holt attempt to locate Samara's corpse and destroy it, so that she can be set free. During their journey, they run across a creepy priest (Vincent D'Onofrio, who else?) who may or may not have something to do with Samara's untimely demise. As always, the picture's best moment is a recycled one as we witness the eerie black and white video from the previous films shown again and again, albeit with some freshly updated images.

I actually enjoyed Gore Verbinski's 2002 version of "The Ring" - in fact, I'm among the few who prefer it to the Japanese original - but its sequel was a bore and, as a result, the franchise came to a screeching halt. That is, until now.

"Rings" is less likely to revive the series, rather than provide a reminder as to why it fizzled in the first place. The picture's concept is creepy - although a little difficult to swallow, even in the realm of horror movies - but it's of the type that works effectively only once. As a result, "Rings" doesn't resonate - I doubt you'll recall much of it seven days after you've seen it.

Review: I Am Not Your Negro

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Paired with Ezra Edelman's remarkable "O.J. Made in America" and Ava DuVernay's powerful "13th," Raoul Peck's "I Am Not Your Negro" makes for the third part of an essential trio of recent documentaries that explore race relations in the United States.

Although the film focuses on the great writer James Baldwin - whose unfinished book, "Remember This House," provides the lens through which the images we see are filtered - the picture digs much deeper, exploring how Baldwin's take on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s parallels issues facing our nation today. It also provides proof for the concept that the more things change, well, the more they stay the same.

The film provides biographical details of Baldwin's life - his teenage years in Harlem, the author's love of movies, his time spent in Paris and, much later, the friendships he formed with civil rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. But while Baldwin has been dead for more than 30 years - he'd only begun work on "Remember This House," which focused on the three aforementioned civil rights leaders - his words resonate in a profound way for our current American life.

As the film opens, Buddy Guy's "Damn Right, I've Got the Blues" plays as images of civil rights marchers are assailed and black men and women of all ages are brutalized by the police during the 1950s and 1960s, but these are coupled with shots from recent landmark events, such as the protests following Michael Brown's death in Ferguson and Black Lives Matter marches. Later in the picture, images of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Brown and many other young men who lost their lives at the hands of overzealous police act as reminders that the struggles of yesterday have never been resolved.

Peck's film also provides some terrific interviews with Baldwin that are interlaced throughout the course of the picture, most notably an appearance on "The Dick Cavett Show," where he tangles with a Yale professor who doesn't understand why Baldwin focuses so much of his writing through the lens of race.

In one of the picture's most powerful and truthful moments, the writer points out that black people know white people much better than the opposite, since our national culture has historically always been viewed from the vantage point of white lives and families, whereas most whites are likely ignorant to the way most black lives are led. At the film's end, he expounds on why the six-letter racial slur that is an extension of a word in the film's title came to exist and it's a particularly powerful way to close this documentary.

One need only to take a quick glance around our current political and social landscape to realize why a film such as "I Am Not Your Negro" - and, for that matter, "O.J." and "13th," but also "Moonlight" and even "Hidden Figures" - are so urgent for the moment. The phrase "speaking truth to power" is overused but, in this case, Peck's riveting documentary provides arguments that those in power, should they choose to view the film, would have difficulty denying. It's a movie that reflects on the past but, at the same time, is about right now, this very minute.