April Blindspot: Metropolis (1927)

Release: Sunday, March 13, 1927

[Netflix]

Written by: Thea von Harbou

Directed by: Fritz Lang

Austrian-German filmmaker Fritz Lang’s critique of capitalism and class structure in his classic silent epic Metropolis is a sight to behold, even if it is far from graceful. He imagines a dystopian city in the year 2026, a self-contained universe starkly divided between the weak and the powerful, the have’s and the have-not’s. When the son of the city’s visionary planner crosses the threshold into the world of the machine workers after being lured there by a beautiful woman, he learns the terrible truth about the city and his position within it and seeks to change the status quo.

Despite universal praise for its technical prowess, most notably a sprawling and immersive visual aesthetic, Metropolis was far from being embraced as an instant classic upon its release, some 90 years ago. The now famous line “The Mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart!” was a particular bone of contention for critics of the late 1920s and early ’30s who viewed the sentiment as an oversimplification of existent tensions between the working class proletariat and the privileged bourgeoisie.

The very idea that such disparate groups could ever find common ground was deemed unrealistic, even naïve. Among the most notable dissenters was English writer H.G. Wells, who dismissed it as “quite the silliest film.” But the most damning criticisms were lodged against the film’s alleged pro-fascist stance, the thrust of the narrative seemingly drawing parallels between the revolt against the aforementioned visionary Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Before diving into all of that, an interrogation of the narrative itself might be helpful. The story concerns itself primarily with the relationship between the good-hearted but privileged Feder (Gustav Fröhlich in his breakout role) and the poor prophet Maria (Brigitte Helm), who find themselves caught up in a bitter revolt inspired by a robot built in the likeness of the latter — the result of a scientific experiment carried out by the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). The robot, originally designed to replicate his beloved, is brought to life after Maria falls into Rotwang’s clutches at the behest of Joh, who senses growing unrest in the subterranean realm.

Of course, Joh is unaware of the inventor’s ulterior motives, as he actually plans to use the replicated Maria to destroy Metropolis. He plans to have her lead the workers in a violent uprising that will see the destruction of many machines, including The Heart Machine, which . . . well, you can probably guess why it’s important. In the heat of passion, the outraged leave their children behind in the wreckage for Feder and Maria to save before the city floods in the ensuing chaos.

Throughout the two-and-a-half hour running time (Metropolis manifests as one of cinema’s earliest full-length features and is indeed sizable even by today’s standards) we are bombarded with Biblical references and homages to Mary Shelley’s seminal science fiction Frankenstein. This seemingly incongruous mixture of elements, as set against the backdrop of the German expressionist movement, combines to form a uniquely visual tapestry that tends to obscure, rather than enhance, the beating heart of humanity at the film’s core.

Given this, Metropolis can hardly be deemed a film of subtlety. In fact it’s massively unsubtle. Lang’s suggestion of the apocalypse is a prime example. Feder’s vision of Maria riding a seven-headed beast confesses to the unfettered nature of period expressionism, and provides Lang’s most solid alibi for taking the film to so many different extremes. It’s altogether too much clutter. In a film where so many other dynamics are to be considered, heavy-handed interpretations of scripture seem, at best, superfluous.

I don’t view Metropolis as being overtly one thing or another. It’s a veritable amalgam of thematic material and visual spectacle. It’s about communism. No, it’s not — it’s about fascists. No it’s not, it’s about artificial intelligence. No wait, it’s about sinning and the second coming of Christ. I can’t fathom having to process all of this in a time where film reviews could only be found in the paper. At a time when the mobilization of the Nazis was an event taking place in the present. And while we’re on the subject, I also don’t subscribe to the notion that Metropolis supports Nazism. Perhaps there’s a reading here that the inevitable uprising in the lower ranks is a metaphor for the eventual birth and spread of fascism in Europe, but I don’t want to give that too much credit.

The fact that the film fails to shift its emotional weight convincingly proved most problematic for me. I was never convinced by Joh’s sudden concern for his son when violence took hold of society. Remorse for his oppressive leadership was never palpable during the hand-shake — the mediation, as it were, between the head of the city and its tired hands, here represented by the foreman of the Heart Machine, Grot (Heinrich George). Because Joh remained a fundamentally unchanged man come the end, I wasn’t able to buy the denouement as anything other than a physical commitment to honor the film’s thematic contract: Show that love can conquer all. (Even the most bitter ideological divides like class warfare.)

In the end, I liken Lang’s optimism to John Lennon’s insistence that all you need is love. In the context of the world in which we live, their idealism does seem naïve but for whatever reason it almost seems in poor taste to describe visionaries like them in such a way.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Feder, holding down the fort. For now.

Recommendation: Mightily ambitious and to a fault, Metropolis I find a film with much to praise and almost as much to criticize. And yet, considering the times in which it was released, I can’t do anything but admire it. A rare silent film viewing experience for me, one I’m glad I have finally had. Do I really need to recommend this movie to anyone . . . ?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 148 mins.

What the hell: Unemployment and inflation were so bad in Germany at the time that the producers had no trouble finding 500 malnourished children to film the flooding sequences.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Going in Style

Release: Friday, April 7, 2017 

[Theater]

Written by: Theodore Melfi

Directed by: Zach Braff

Geriatric crime comedy starring three Academy Award winners and directed by former Scrubs star Zach Braff is a bit of an underachiever. Even that might be giving this, a remake of Martin Brest’s 1979 caper of the same name, too much credit because I’m unconvinced this movie achieves anything other than wasting a ton of potential.

The 2017 film updates the plot for a post-Great Recession America, using the unlikely robbery at the heart of the story as a commentary on the outrage felt by the majority of middle-class Americans burned by the 2008/’09 economic crisis. The likes of Alan Arkin, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman replace Art Carney, George Burns and Lee Strasberg as Al, Joe and Willie respectively — lifelong coworkers and friends who decide to rob a bank after learning that, on top of losing their jobs, their retirement funds have been repurposed by their former employer to settle its own substantial debts.

They say that one of the first rules of bank robbery is to never rob your own bank. Well, Joe ain’t having any of that shit. Not when his own bank is complicit. Not when, after having witnessed a heist first-hand, he realizes that it isn’t rocket science; that a trio of 70-something-year-olds could pull it off. Plus, he reasons, it’s not like what they’re planning to do is inherently wrong. This is a righteous act of reclamation, a Robin Hood-esque performance in which they’ll steal from the corrupt and give back to . . . uh, themselves.

Going in Style is, to put it nicely, not very good. It goes, but it doesn’t have any style. It’s hard to believe this is a movie written by the guy who directed Hidden Figures, though to be fair, while powerfully moving, that film, which was nominated for three Oscars this year, wasn’t without its cliches and awkward moments. But Theodore Melfi’s script here smacks of laziness and conventionality. Great actors can overcome a lousy script but there are of course limits. Not even Christopher Lloyd in an over-the-top supporting part comes out unscathed. You believe them as lifelong friends but as robbers, eh. This appears to be one of those movies where you have to kind of accept the people on screen are having more fun than you. If it weren’t for these names, I’m sure I’d be more upset.

Recommendation: Uninspired comedy fails to capitalize on its star power and takes viewers on a predictable and not-as-fun-as-it-could-have-been ride through Clichetown. Going in Style comes very unenthusiastically recommended by me if you just HAVE to see everything that any of these actors have been in. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “These banks practically destroyed this country. They crushed a lot of people’s dreams, and nothing ever happened to them. We three old guys, we hit a bank. We get away with it, we retire in dignity. Worst comes to the worst, we get caught, we get a bed, three meals a day, and better health care than we got now.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Free Fire

Release: Friday, April 21, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Amy Jump; Ben Wheatley

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Free Fire is 85 minutes of pure farce, and it’s kind of awesome. It’s also great news for those who have been wondering if they would ever see a pre-Madonna Guy Ritchie film again. Of course, this isn’t his film; he’s off doing that King Arthur flick with Jude Law or whatever. While it’s onwards and upwards for him, it’s hard not to look at something like Free Fire and wonder what might have been had he ever taken his particular brand of foul-mouthed farcical crime comedy to the American shore.

Cowritten by fellow Brit Ben Wheatley and his wife Amy Jump, Free Fire may not be as nuanced or as shamelessly vulgar as Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch but the schadenfreude is uncanny. As is the element of criminal ineptitude, here demonstrated by the majority as two gangs converge in an abandoned Boston warehouse to negotiate an illegal arms deal circa the late ’70s, only to have it go hopelessly (and hilariously) awry.

Brie Larson’s Justine and Armie Hammer’s mutton-chopped Ord are here to broker the exchange of M-16s (not AR-70s) between the IRA, led by Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), and a gun runner from South Africa named Vernon, played gleefully over-the-top by Sharlto Copley. Each party leader comes flanked by their associates, each of varying degrees of unscrupulous — the IRA have Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) and Stevo (Sam Riley), while Vernon’s muscle comes in the form of Martin (Babou Ceesay), Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor).

That’s a lot of bad dudes to keep track of, even in these limited confines. And Free Fire knows it, sparing 15 minutes in the beginning to clue you in just enough as to what actor is playing which character and dropping enough hints to lead you to assume nothing good can come of their being together in the same room for any amount of time. That’s so Ritchie.

But perhaps more importantly Wheatley establishes tonality in these early moments. A particularly stand-offish Frank is cheesed off that their back-up haven’t been punctual. Meanwhile Armie Hammer is a calming presence, seemingly insult-proof. It must be those ridiculous sideburns. This inauspicious start merely serves as the primer for the particularly intense acrimony shared between the slimy Stevo and the hippie-looking Harry. After the former’s indiscretion from the other night is revealed, what little professional courtesy there has been goes out the window and bullets start flying.

For a film whose plot is literally “get the money, get the guns and get out,” it’s impressive how Wheatley manufactures this much entertainment out of that which verges on tedium. Even as the movie comes literally to a crawl around the half-hour mark, it only gets more interesting. Performances are generally caustic — Larson is certainly an interesting choice here, and I’m not sure she works entirely — but they’re more effective physically as the entire ensemble, when not punching each other in the face with their hurtful words, spend their remaining time alive crawling around on the ground looking all shitty.

Imperfect by design, Free Fire offers dark escapist thrills aplenty and unapologetically.

Recommendation: Free Fire is quite different than Ben Wheatley’s previous offerings. It’s more accessible, to a certain extent. If you subscribe to the notion that Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels is awesome, this is  going to offer a lot more to enjoy. It’s undeniably slight and verges on being pointless, but who needs Shakespeare when you have Sharlto Copley shouting obscenities in a South African twang whilst on fire? 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins.

Quoted: “Ugh, men.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Under the Shadow

Release: Friday, October 7, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Babak Anvari

Directed by: Babak Anvari

For the better part of the 1980s tension between Iran and Iraq had been escalating into large-scale armed conflict, an eight-year period of violence recognized today as the Iran-Iraq War. Then-president Saddam Hussein, hoping to pounce on Iran in post-Islamic Revolution turmoil, invaded without warning in September of 1980. Cut to four years in: Iraqi forces, at best at a stalemate on the ground and increasingly on the defensive, began strategically targeting Iranian cities and civilians in a series of concentrated air strikes, but not without opposition.

This ensuing chaos, dubbed ‘The War of the Cities,’ serves as the backdrop against which Babak Anvari sets his directorial debut Under the Shadow, a quietly disturbing horror film that tells of a mother and her daughter defending themselves against malicious spirits in their apartment as the outside world crumbles around them. The film takes place in war-torn Tehran, the Iranian capital and one of the heaviest-hit areas during the conflict. This nightmarish reality meshes with aspects of ancient Arabian mythology to form a uniquely chilly, claustrophobic atmosphere.

The film opens with Shideh (Narges Rashidi) being denied an opportunity to resume her medical studies given her pre-war affiliation with politically active students. This is devastating news for her, especially since her recently deceased mother had been so supportive and had given her books to study. She returns home to an unsympathetic husband (Bobby Naderi) who bluntly tells her to get over it. Being a doctor himself, he is soon called away by the military, and advises Shideh to leave the city with their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) for his parents’ house in a safer part of the country.

Embittered by her husband’s reaction, Shideh of course doesn’t take the advice. She’d prefer to weather the storm in the comfort of their home, often taking to the building’s makeshift bomb shelter along with several other terrified tenants. After a particularly close encounter with an undetonated missile that lodges itself in the upper part of the building, the exodus begins in earnest. But Shideh and her daughter are still hanging back when young Dorsa’s favorite doll, the thing that is supposed to keep her feeling safe, goes missing.

Once Anvari guts the film of its extraneous parts he allows the true horror to settle in. A sudden ghost town turns into a breeding ground for the menacing “djinn” — supernatural creatures of Islamic theology believed to have the same capacity for good and evil as man, though in this context it’s plain to see what kind we are dealing with. Especially as their presence begins to have adverse effects on both mother and child. Nightmares, visions, inexplicable behavior — many of the hallmarks of the classic American supernatural thriller Poltergeist are on display here.

All throughout Anvari’s approach treads a fine line between being economic and becoming tedious. Under the Shadow is an understated horror that will likely frustrate viewers who demand more stimuli. Regrettably, Anvari seems unwilling to, maybe even incapable of committing to his high-concept vision all the way through, resorting to the Rule Book far more often in the waning moments. It’s not enough to completely undo what the rest of the film manages to accomplish, and yet it’s enough to make Under the Shadow just that much more forgettable.

Recommendation: A lot of buildup for minimal payoff makes Under the Shadow a little underwhelming. That said, the combination of social/political commentary with supernatural elements compels me to suggest this to anyone looking for a horror film that’s just a little different. (The version available on Netflix is an English-language overdub, which I need to mention because the incongruity of the character’s mouths with the words being spoken also considerably impacted my experience.) 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 84 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Fate of the Furious

Release: Friday, April 14, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Morgan

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

Sometimes I find myself asking how we have managed to get to the point where women and children are being threatened by cyber terrorists in a franchise built around car racing. I find myself wondering if things have gotten a little too out-of-hand. Of course, with each passing installment it has become increasingly clear this isn’t car porn anymore. Sadly, the narrative can no longer concern itself with the thawing of a once bitter rivalry between a street racer and an undercover cop either.

Out of necessity The Fast and the Furious have had to evolve, and though they have definitely become less furious they haven’t become any less fun to watch as each new chapter has placed them in some situation more ridiculously physics-defying than the last. And The Fate of the Furious is absolutely the most far-fetched demonstration of their newfound collective purpose yet. I suppose how we have arrived here isn’t that much of a mystery. They say formulaic writing can only get you so far, but it actually has netted Universal at least eight films and well over $5 billion.

The — let’s call it natural, even though that’s stretching the term — evolution of the family and Dom Toretto in particular finds us wading into legitimately dramatic territory in The Fate of the Furious. F. Gary Gray’s first time behind the wheel steers the story in an altogether more somber direction, pitting the star with a type of gasoline as a last name against his loyal compadres after being manipulated by cunning cyber terrorist Cipher, played with true menace by Charlize Theron.

For better and for worse, Chris Morgan’s screenplay remains as knowingly outrageous (and clunky) as those he has penned before. That this ragtag bunch of car enthusiasts could be the difference between World War III happening or not happening is pushing it, even for this franchise. Though Dom’s relatively unique trajectory is going to generate most of the post-viewing discussion, the specifics of the plot are as reliant as ever upon his crew’s mutually beneficial relationship with Kurt Russell‘s government agent Mr. Nobody. (And on that note, can someone please enlighten me as to why we needed Scott Eastwood’s Little Nobody? Also: how someone born of Eastwood blood can be so bad at acting.)

Fate succeeds in cementing its familial themes by way of finding redemption for characters hitherto on the periphery. In the wake of Dom’s theft of an EMP device at the behest of Cipher, Special Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) finds himself having to set aside past differences with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) as they work to take down a common enemy. After what happened to his brother, Deckard is eager to settle the score, even if that means working alongside a team who had once pooled their resources into eliminating him.

Gray’s film finds plenty of surprises along the way, like Dame Helen Mirren making a brief appearance as matriarch Magdalene Shaw, clad in leather jacket and brass knuckles (well, those are more or less implied). The character may be more plot device than person but Mirren’s quietly simmering intensity doesn’t allow her to be quite as dispensable as the script would like her to be. There’s also something vaguely amusing about seeing an actor of her stature in a film like this. (Ditto that the first time Kurt Russell appeared.)

With the integration of more Shaw’s into the narrative, you can think of Fate as one big, bullet-riddled family reunion. With nuclear submarines and Game of Thrones-sized enemies thrown in for good measure. Given the situation, you would think forgiveness would be a particularly high virtue to which these characters aspire, especially in a movie where the bonds of family are being “tested as never before.” It’s disappointing that that aspect is more convincingly framed through Hobbs’ and Deckard’s banter than it is through the evolution of Dom and Letty’s relationship.

While it’s heartwarming to see former enemies arrive at a place of mutual respect — after all, maturity is one of those tenets this multi-billion-dollar franchise has been built on — the lack of weight attached to the final, obligatorily dinner-table-set scene proves a major step backward for a film that otherwise was able to convince me that this was indeed the most serious situation our exonerated heroes have yet faced.

Recommendation: The Fate of the Furious offers more of the same. A lot more. Two-plus-hours more. In the absence of Paul Walker, it’s a testament to the comfort we have with the others that not much feels “different,” although certainly his absence is noted. Fate succeeds far more in elevating the action stakes than the emotional ones. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “. . .it’s neon orange. The International Space Station will see it coming.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Your Name.

Release: Friday, April 7, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Makoto Shinkai

Directed by: Makoto Shinkai

To say Makoto Shinkai’s massively acclaimed anime is ambitious would be an understatement. Your Name. seems to be an opus on everything from teen awkwardness to the relationship between time and memory to astrology. At its core it’s a grand romantic tale but fastened to that are numerous other bells and whistles that make the prospect of caring more of an ordeal than it ought to be.

Your Name. tells of a country girl named Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) who’s grown tired of her adolescent life in the hills and yearns to live the life of a handsome city boy, perhaps someone like Taki (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) who lives in Tokyo. One morning Mitsuha awakens to find she has body-swapped with this boy and he with her. Dismissing the phenomenon initially as a dream, both are soon corrected with reminders from their own friends of how strange they have been acting recently.

That they seemingly can’t control when this happens, or even explain why it’s happening, is disconcerting to say the least. But as they experience the switches over and again the pair learn to establish “ground rules” so as to not leave too much of a footprint in one another’s daily lives. The opening third of the film is spent playing in this esoteric sandbox, approaching concepts like astral projection (or something like) pragmatically so that all of this, merely the set-up for the film proper, can feel both whimsical and “believable.”

Indeed, Your Name. doesn’t really get going until the body swapping stops and the perspective switches to that of Taki, who has once more become fidgety in his mundane existence. Determined to find a way to actually, finally meet this mystery girl, Taki begins exploring all his options. Understandably, his friends become concerned over his obsession. Armed with only a drawing and his rapidly fading memories, Taki makes the trek out to the fictional town of Itomori, only to find it destroyed in the aftermath of a comet that fragmented and collided with earth three years ago. For Taki, distance seems to be no object to finding true happiness. But traveling through time, well that’s another prospect entirely. Will they ever find a way to reunite?

More importantly, will anyone care by the time they do? I still haven’t really addressed the proper, metaphysical significance of that cosmic event, but at this point I’m starting to mimic Shinkai’s worst habits, I’d be stuffing more …. stuff into an already exposition-heavy review. Not that a more complete examination of the plot would rob potential viewers of the surprises in store, because quite frankly there are too many twists and turns to remember, much less ruin. Perhaps this is me not doing my due diligence here, but there’s so much about the film that I just don’t understand and have come to accept as that which I never will. Like how we make the leap from Mitsuha wanting to BE Taki to her actually falling in love with him. Or how each can forget the other’s name seconds after learning what it is.

The mental gymnastics that are required to keep up with everything ultimately make this romantic epic a chore to sit through. And it’s not enough to have a labyrinthian plot to sort through; we have to try to make sense of it alongside two prototypically “annoying” and angsty characters. It is all a little too precious and pretentious. But, to damn with faint praise here, at least the photorealistic animation makes all that mental taxation somewhat worthwhile.

Recommendation: I’ve often described my reactions to anime as something like binary code: there are ones and zeroes. I either love these films — like, really, really love them — or feel totally turned off by them. Alienated. If you are anything like me in that regard, you might do some research on the film before you buy a ticket. Shop around for similar films, maybe things you’ve seen before and make an informed decision. There’s a ton of stuff to absorb here. I can’t even say Your Name. is a “bad movie;” it’s just a little overwhelming, especially for those of us who aren’t devotees. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.goldposter.com; http://www.imdb.com 

King Jack

Release: Friday, June 10, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Felix Thompson

Directed by: Felix Thompson

Writer-director Felix Thompson’s first feature King Jack is a prickly little 81-minute production that shuffles through a nameless, shambling suburban block somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Rather than offering anything in the way of a traditional narrative, it provides a window into the life of a young boy who must contend with neighborhood bullies, summer school and his annoying younger cousin.

Low-key, meditative drama ponders the nature of fate and consequence in small-town America, swamps of socioeconomic stagnation that give rise to trouble-seeking behavior and juvenile delinquency. Thompson’s fascinated in this teen with idle hands named Jack (Charlie Plummer), first seen spraying graffiti on a neighbor’s garage. His home life is far from ideal, what with an absentee father, an oblivious mother (Erin Davie), and an older brother Tom (Christian Madsen) who calls him ‘Scab.’

It’s not just at home where Jack faces conflict. Because his brother was something of a jock back in his high school days, nicknames like ‘Scab’ and ‘King Jack’ have become a part of the language throughout a community where high schoolers never really move on. Thugs like Shane (Danny Flaherty) are intent on perpetuating that tradition. It’s their rite of passage, an inheritance of “duty” not that dissimilar to what you see in popular gangster movies. With Tom having moved on, and now floundering in the real world as a mechanic with a gambling problem, the baton has been passed.

An element of survivalism pervades and is underpinned by gritty solemnity, a toughness that helps King Jack divorce from other troubled teen-centric indies. Events take place over the course of only one weekend, and yet a large chunk of the story finds its beleaguered protagonist wandering the streets rather than hanging around at home. Jack is something of a curiosity. He tries, like most sane people, to avoid confrontation but unlike the majority he also doesn’t do many things to endear himself to others — the way he treats his cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) as a prime example.

King Jack may be slight but its realism is potent. If you find the film speaking to memories of where you grew up it may even be poignant. Flaherty’s performance in particular is outstanding, a damning indictment of the futility of resorting to violence in order to deal with your own internal pain. But it’s Plummer toward whom I was constantly drawn, a solid young actor who plays both the victim and the instigator — often to heartbreaking effect.

Recommendation: King Jack probably won’t do much for those who seek closure and finality in their movies but it’s a solid little coming-of-age drama whose events are effectively and often provocatively depicted. King Jack also operates as a powerful anti-bullying PSA and I’d actually recommend it more strongly on that basis rather than on the merits of its cast and up-and-coming writer/director. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 81 mins.

Quoted: “Leave me alone. You’re not my friend. So don’t try to act like it.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Train to Busan

Release: Friday, July 22, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Yeon Sang-ho

Directed by: Yeon Sang-ho

Train to Busan is a breathless and brutal South Korean zombie flick that broke a number of records last year, becoming the first Korean feature to breach the $1 million mark at the Singaporean box office. Over the past several months it has taken the world by storm, becoming one of the most commercially and critically successful zombie apocalypses ever.

Yeon Sang-ho’s first live-action feature does for zombies what James Wan’s The Conjuring did for haunted houses. It’s a superlative genre film of uncommon intelligence, exuding all the elements that characterize such films as uniquely entertaining and disturbing, while never really making an attempt to “be different.” Simply put, movies like Train to Busan and The Conjuring prove that tropes are tropes for a reason; they can be powerfully affecting if nurtured properly. It also helps the cause when your actors are this good at selling them.

Train to Busan improves its stock by investing more in human relationships as opposed to obsessing over how many zombies it can overload the frame with. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a divorced hedge fund manager who doesn’t have the time to pay attention to his young daughter, Soo-an (a marvelous Kim Soo-an), evidenced by the fact he has bought her for her upcoming birthday yet another gaming console, identical to the one currently sitting on her TV stand in her bedroom — the one he got her as a recent Children’s Day gift. All she wants is to go stay with her mother in Busan, and she’s determined to go alone so that she doesn’t hassle daddy. But when Soo-an shows him a video of her recent singing recital, which she was unable to finish due to his absence, Seok becomes racked with guilt and decides he will in fact accompany her on the nearly 300-mile train ride.

The next day they board the KTX in Seoul, along with a number of passengers we will become familiar with over the course of this harrowing journey. There’s the surly, working-class Sang-hwa (Dong-seok Ma) and his pregnant wife Seong-kyeong (Yu-mi Jung), a pair of elderly sisters In-gil (Ye Soo-jung) and Jong-gil (Park Myung-sin), a homeless man (Gwi-hwa Choi) whose strange behavior and thoroughly unkempt appearance nearly gets him thrown off, a group of high school baseball players and, last but absolutely not least, the COO of a major corporation, Yon-suk (Kim Eui-sung). While these supporting parts don’t necessarily go beyond archetypes, they’re ably performed and, more crucially, give the story depth.

Joining these travelers as well is a visibly distressed young woman who just manages to board the KTX before it departs the station. Her leg is severely bleeding and something about her just seems off. Writer-director Sang-ho, waiting patiently for just the right time to release his finger from the pin of the grenade, brilliantly sets us on a collision course with chaos as the deadly consequences of an apparent biohazard disaster inadvertently make their way aboard one of the world’s fastest trains. (Achieving speeds upwards of 200 miles an hour, the KTX redefines the excitement of traveling. As does the action forthcoming.)

Train to Busan hurtles along at a breakneck pace with hard-hitting action that can be difficult to watch. I’ve always responded more strongly to those zombie flicks that actually make you dread The Turn — or films like Maggie that focus almost entirely on that transition and use it as an allegory for real people succumbing to real diseases in the real world. Sang-ho’s careful consideration of what it means to become one of the undead invokes the seminal 28 Days Later, if not in terms of atmosphere then in the way hope is slowly stripped away from the living like flesh from the bone.

Sang-ho’s decision to (mostly) isolate the drama within the confines of a moving train exacerbates the terror of being in proximity to the zombie. Mass hysteria combines with claustrophobic tension to form the ideal conditions for the uninfected to begin losing their humanity in other ways. Meanwhile cameras are often found sitting at eye-level with the young and impressionable Soo-an as she bears witness to the atrocities committed. This perspective, of a child trying to understand why people treat each other the way they do, brilliantly reflects Sang-ho’s own despair.

Word is that Train to Busan finds the Korean director tempering his anger a little bit (his previous animated efforts apparently offer the kind of acrimony and villainy that make the vile COO and his wildly selfish acts throughout this film seem innocent by comparison). But the injustices he has experienced, if not directly then through simple observation, manifest themselves in some brutal ways in a film that, historically, has no compulsion to offer anything more profound than icky special and/or practical effects and inventive kills. Train to Busan can sometimes overwhelm with the sense of hopelessness it provides. It’s dark and dangerous and deadly, and it’s just so damn good. Especially for a zombie movie.

Recommendation: Powerful and surprisingly hard-hitting, Train to Busan announces itself as a modern classic. It’s a film with something for everyone — the zombie purists and those who just want to have their nerves rattled for a solid two hours. Be sure you check this out on Netflix, unless of course movies about the undead are completely dead to you. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 118 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Kong: Skull Island

Release: Friday, March 10, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Dan Gilroy; Max Borenstein; Derek Connolly

Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts becomes the latest to cash in on the recent trend of indie directors gone Hollywood, going from The Kings of Summer to a blockbuster that reimagines the king of the apes in all its primal glory in Kong: Skull Island, a fun throwback to creature features of the 1960s and 70s.

In it, a group of intrepid explorers comprised of government agents, Vietnam vets and various other useful experts travel to a remote island in the Pacific on a surveying expedition. The mission runs into a bit of a snag when they encounter the 100-foot-tall hulking ape known as Kong, whose territory they have begun bombing in an attempt to “learn about the landscape.” His retaliatory action lays waste to a fleet of choppers, killing several of the hapless tourists in the process and scattering the rest across the prehistoric jungle.

Kong: Skull Island proves antithetical of its Monsterverse sister Godzilla in almost every way. The focus is on more beast, more noise, more general mayhem. Less on those little threads of humanity that made each encounter with the nuclear lizard back in 2014 that much more interesting. The characters here merely serve to get us closer to the action, which is appropriate considering what the artists over at Industrial Light & Magic have accomplished. Kong: Skull Island is a visual effects delight and it should be allowed to show off a little. Did you see the number of names listed in the Visual Effects column in the end credits?

The biggest mystery surrounding this movie involves budgetary allocations rather than Kong himself. This monster movie’s cast is monstrously huge and yet only a triumvirate seems required. John Goodman plays Monarch agent Bill Randa, a man just crazy enough to get Senator Richard Jenkins to help fund his monster-hunting habit. Goodman’s a pro and makes his part enjoyable. Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson as Lieutenant Colonel Packard who has been tapped with providing Randa and some of his friends aerial support to the island. Packard’s function is to be the overbearing alpha male who wants to drop Kong himself after that initial attack cost him some of his men. Turns out, Packard has left Vietnam but only in a physical sense.

John C. Reilly is the only other significant role player here. He’s arguably the only one that really matters. He plays a World War II pilot who has been stranded on the unforgiving island and has ingratiated himself with the native tribe that also happens to be hiding out there. Luckily, it’s John C. Reilly who is given a role that ends up carving out significant space within the narrative. In the manner that SLJ plays SLJ and Goodman does a great Goodman impression, Reilly is reliably himself. Collectively the three have enough acting chops to take on Kong themselves and make it a rollicking good time.

But then there are talents like Tom Hiddleston and Oscar-winner Brie Larson stuck in acting purgatory, filling supporting roles that could have gone to anyone. The former plays a British tracker and ex-military man here to say “You can’t bomb this island” and Larson’s pacifist photographer succeeds in annoying more than just the fiery Packard. Meanwhile, Toby Kebbell gets a slightly more robust part but the actors who played Dr. Dre and Easy-E in Straight Outta Compton are totally expendable. And apparently Thomas Mann had a part, too. Who else did I miss, Kevin Bacon?

Fantastical, formulaic and occasionally frustrating, Kong: Skull Island isn’t an adventure epic that’s built to withstand the test of time or particularly intense scrutiny but what it offers is good old-fashioned, smash-mouth entertainment. Buy the biggest bucket of popcorn you can — you’re going to need it.

Kong SMASH!!! +500 pts

Recommendation: Kong: Skull Island is a bonafide crowd pleaser with its big special effects, trumped-up 3D marketing campaign and a list of famous actors longer than your arm. It’s all a bit over-the-top but then again this IS a movie featuring a 100-foot-tall gorilla. And for those who lamented the way Gareth Edwards handled his monster movie, maybe Jordan Vogt-Roberts will be your new best friend.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “I’m going to stab you by the end of the night.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.posterspy.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Month in Review: March ’17

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

March has found me pretty distracted with basketball. And that’s kind of a shame because I really wish I could have spent more time sitting through more naff movies in empty theaters. To remedy the situation I have been hunting through Netflix and finding quite a few indie titles I have been meaning to watch for sometime, so that’s been nice.

But between the NCAA tournament coming down to the wire (congrats to Coach Frank Martin and the South Carolina Gamecocks for their first Final Four appearance) and stressing out about whether we’ll see LeBron James and Steph Curry squaring off in the NBA Finals for a record-breaking third straight year, I haven’t been around on the blogs much. I apologize. Nonetheless, here’s a rundown of what’s been going on around here in the last month.


New Posts

Reviews: Logan; Get Out; The White Helmets; Table 19; I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.; Trash Fire; The Belko Experiment; I Am Not a Serial Killer; Life (2017) 

Blindspot Selection: Trainspotting (1996)

Other posts: #OscarsQuiteUnpredictable

Movie News

I’m basically going ape over the brand new War for the Planet of the Apes trailer. So have a lot of people. Because what it advertises looks freaking awesome. Bring on July 14!

It looks as though Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson are reuniting for an upcoming fashion drama, “set in the couture world of 1950s London. The story illuminates the life behind the curtain of an uncompromising dressmaker commissioned by royalty and high society.” I’m not particularly interested in the subject matter, I have to say, but when PTA and DDL are involved, chances are I’ll become invested. Somehow. The still untitled project is slated for a Christmas 2017 release.

Blogging News

Since it is now April, I think now is as good a time as any to remind everyone that we are roughly a month away from the third annual Decades Blogathon, an event hosted by myself and Mark from Three Rows Back. We have hosted the event every May, so there’s some time to go still but this is just to remind you that that’s still on the horizon and if you are interested in participating, please let either one of us know as soon as possible. Remember, we take 18 entries (plus the two provided by us) so the spots can go quickly.