Sunday, February 18, 2018

Alien (1979) ***

I know this is sacrilege, but I have some problems with the movie “Alien”. I hadn't watched it in years, and I remembered it as an absolute classic. RE-watching it now, though, there are some issues. While the movie still shines for its sets and cinematography, the plot and characters leave something to be desired.

Sigourney Weaver plays Ripley, First Mate on a spaceship that is headed home to earth when it gets sidetracked by an automated radio signal. The crew assume it's a distress signal, but Ripley eventually decodes enough of it to figure out it is some kind of warning. It's too late for a warning, though. One of the crew members who went to investigate has been attacked by some kind of alien creature, which has attached itself to his face. They bring the injured crewman back to the ship, where the alien eventually menaces the entire crew.

Out of respect for the 2 people in the entire Free World who haven't seen the film, I will try not to spoil all the surprises. What surprised ME, watching it now in 2018, is how poorly the film has aged. It isn't even really science-fiction. “Alien” is straight up horror, with the typical jump-scares and asinine, wandering-off-alone behavior on the part of the characters that typifies the worst of the genre.

Characters in “Alien” don't do things because they make sense in the context of the story; they do them because the plot demands it. Thus, Ash (Ian Holm), the science officer, lets the landing party, including the guy with the alien on his face, back into the ship without any kind of quarantine or protective measures. They repeatedly enter the infirmary to examine him with no masks or gloves. When the alien falls off his face and he seems to be alright, they don't keep him in the infirmary for observation; they invite him to a meal in the chow hall. This sets up an iconic scene, but it makes no sense. Later, when the suddenly-massive creature is hunting the crew, they repeatedly do the stupidest things possible, the space equivalent of “going down into the basement.”

To be fair, “Alien” is still fun to watch, and scary as hell. It just doesn't qualify as a classic when I compare it to films that came before, like 1975's “Jaws”, or what came after, like 1982's "The Thing". The movie does get credit for introducing a fascinating, new monster and a new hero (Ripley), setting up what I consider to be a superior movie, 1986's “Aliens.”

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Logan (2017) ****

I had read that the Wolverine spinoff movies from the X-Men universe, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “The Wolverine” weren't very good, so I haven't seen them. Then “Logan” came along and started getting great reviews. I was pleased at the excuse to watch it, because, really, who doesn't like Wolverine? Turns out the reviews were right. “Logan” is excellent. It's also the most atypical comic book movie I've ever seen.

The story picks up in 2029, a near-future in which mutations have stopped happening, and almost all of the existing mutants have died off. Wolverine, aka Logan (Hugh Jackman), is a physical and mental wreck, arthritic and alcoholic. He survives as a limo driver, and secretly has an aged, demented Professor Xavier hidden away down in Mexico. Logan and an albino, photophobic mutant named Caliban care for Xavier, whose condition is even more heartbreaking than Logan's. Xavier often fails to recognize Logan and is wracked by epileptic seizures during which his psychic powers radiate out uncontrollably. We eventually learn that the first of these seizures killed several civilians and most of the remaining mutants in New York, which is why Logan keeps the Professor out in the middle of nowhere.

It has been years since any mutants were born, or so everyone thinks. Xavier, as befuddled as he is, has made telepathic contact with a child mutant who has a lot in common with Logan. Reluctantly, Logan is drawn into an effort to help this little girl and get her somewhere safe.

“Logan” is the grittiest, saddest, and most real comic-book movie I have ever seen. Logan, the aging warrior, no longer seems the least bit invincible. Based on his fast-healing genetics, Logan seemed potentially immortal, but we see that that is not the case. It took him longer to age, but age he did, and now he faces the fight of his life, with a body that he doesn't recognize. Xavier, of course, is in even worse shape, which puts the remarkable Logan in a very unremarkable position: dealing with his own loss of health while caring for a decrepit parental figure. This is sober stuff for a comic-book movie. It takes the concept of depicting superheroes as real people to a whole new level.

The fight scenes are better, too. Most superhero fights look like carefully choreographed martial-arts katas, and with the outcome never in doubt, the spectacle just becomes numbing. Wolverine is still a badass, but when he fights in “Logan”, it looks real and it looks like he could lose.

“Logan” isn't perfect. The plot is fairly thin, and the story only obliquely explains how the characters wound up in this disorienting, mutant-free world. Still, it's a step or two above the usual comic-book film, and in its depiction of a broken-down warrior, it reminds me of John Wayne's epic final film, "The Shootist".

In depicting a post-X-men future, the film begs the question of whether any of that superhero stuff was worth it, a similar theme to that of 2009's "Watchmen". While the film doesn't tackle this head-on, there is some deep, existentialist food for thought here. The X-men formed, they fought evil, and now they are gone and evil still exists. Perhaps Wolverine, who starts the film wondering what the point is, comes to learn that victory lies not in defeating evil, but in fighting it.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Big Sick (2017) ****

Kumail Nanjiani is best known for his work on the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley.” He and his wife, writer Emily V. Gordon have created this movie about how they got together, and it's surprisingly good. There is some fictionalization of the story, so I'll describe it as the movie presents it.

Kumail meets Emily at one of his stand-up comedy shows. They hook up and become a couple, but eventually break up when Emily learns that Kumail has been hiding her from his parents, who want him to marry a Pakistani girl. Soon afterwards, Emily becomes ill, and Kumail winds up keeping vigil with his ex-girlfriend’s parents for days on end while she is in a medically-induced coma.

Sounds like a blast, right? Well, believe it or not, it is! Despite the seemingly dark subject, “The Big Sick” is hilarious and fun to watch. It helps that you know that the real Emily survived to become Kumail's wife and co-writer. It also helps that the film has a crackin' cast, including Zoe Kazan as Emily, and Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as her parents. Hunter and Romano especially light up the screen. We get treated to some of Kumail's standup work, but the funniest line in the movie is a joke about 9/11.

Despite featuring stars like Romano and Hunter, “The Big Sick” has an amateur feel to it, which actually works for the film. The movie somehow manages your expectations and then exceeds them, which I attribute to the charm of Nanjiani and Kazan. It's the perfect date movie, and one of the best films of 2017.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Death Race (2008) ***1/2

Sometimes I like to work out by riding a spin bike while watching a movie. For those occasions, the film doesn't really need much in the way of plot or character development: just enough to be tolerable. The important things are fast action and upbeat music. “Death Race” is a perfect work-out movie!

Jason Statham plays Jensen, a factory worker who gets framed for murder. The private, maximum-security prison he is sent to makes money by pitting the inmates against each other in deadly car-races. Driving souped-up, armored vehicles fitted with machine-guns, smoke, oil slicks – basically all the weapons from the old Spy Hunter video game – the inmates race for the chance to win their freedom, and the audience laps it up. Jensen, a former race-car driver, is offered a chance to race, which gets him thinking about what a coincidence it is that an ex-racer would get framed for murder. With help from his pit crew (including Ian McShane, from “American Gods”), Jensen wins a series of races, while figuring out how to get revenge on those who framed him.

As basic as the plot is, “Death Race” actually manages to slip in a few surprises. The cast is also reasonably good. Statham does his normal, Jason Statham, thing. Ian McShane is actually kind of awesome. Joan Allen is a bit too mustache-twirly as the evil warden, but Natalie Martinez is fairly charming as the standard-issue, vaguely-latina hottie-in-a-crop-top. You don't watch “Death Race” for the performances, though, nor for the plot twists. You watch it for high-speed car crashes and gatlin guns, basically racing and death, and the movie delivers both in spades.

If you start googling “Death Race,” you'll find that there are a bunch of these movies. The original 1975 film, “Death Race 2000” is a cult classic. 2008's “Death Race” revived the concept, and there have been a few sequels since.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Fast and the Furious (2001) ***1/2

On one level, asking whether “The Fast and the Furious” is good is like debating the flavor profile of a malt liquor. It misses the point. This film is about fast-car action, which it delivers in spades.

Paul Walker (who is only famous for making these Fast and Furious movies) plays Brian, an undercover cop trying to infiltrate L.A.'s underground, street-racing scene. His purpose is to figure out who is carrying out high-speed, precision-driving hijackings of 18-wheelers. Brian falls in with Dom and his team of racers and mechanics. He also falls for Dom's sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster). As Brian learns who is doing what in this shady world, he is forced to choose between his law enforcement career and his new family.

While it's fair to call “The Fast and the Furious” a classic of the action genre, I don't want to praise it too highly. This should not be considered a good movie. Vin Diesel is magnetic, but isn't much on dramatic range, and the rest of the cast is worse than he is. With his surfer looks and wooden acting, Paul Walker reminds me a lot of Hayden Christensen, who stunk up theaters in Star Wars: Episodes II and III. Even setting aside the bad acting, the plot barely holds together.

You gotta just put all that aside and enjoy the ride, because when it comes to action, “The Fast and the Furious” is as good a fast-car movie as I've seen. I haven't seen the sequels, but I've read that they devolved into a lot of ridiculous stunts like cars jumping over helicopters. This first film doesn't have anything like that; it's just good, basic, fast driving that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Now, before I praise the film too much, I want to point out that there are plenty of action-packed films out there that don't suffer the liabilities of terrible acting and meaningless plotlines. Think “Die Hard,” “Aliens,” or most of the James Bond films. If it's driving action you are looking for, 2011's "Drive" is a better film, as are the Mad Max movies, especially 2015's "Mad Max: Fury Road".  Like good, craft beers, these films offer complexity and satisfying flavor. “The Fast and the Furious” is the 40 ounces of malt liquor that gets you drunk at a good price. Sometimes that's exactly what you are looking for.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) ****

It isn't often that I like a sequel better than the original movie, but this is one case where I did. I found the original "Guardians of the Galaxy" film to be funny and action-packed, but weighed down by treacle in the third act. The sequel manages to replace most of that sentimentality with genuine emotion, allowing for some believable character development, while retaining all the action and humor.

Starlord (Chris Pratt), Gamorra (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (the raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper), and a tiny, adorable Groot (with his “I am groot”s still voiced by Vin Diesel) are still together, not so much guarding the galaxy as doing mercenary work. In the opening sequence, they battle a giant, multidimensional, Lovecraftian octopus monster, while Groot dances to Electric Light Orchestra's “Mr. Blue Sky.” (This frenetic, goofily-funny scene perfectly sets the tone for the movie, and you can reliably decide whether or not to keep watching based on your response to it.) The Guardian's payment for defeating the Cthulhu-beast for the genetically-engineered Sovereign is Gamorra's blue sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), with whom she had the epic swordfight in the first film. It looks like a fair exchange until Rocket sweetens the deal by stealing a few of the Sovereign's priceless batteries, a theft that Rocket considers hilarious, but which quickly puts the vengeful Sovereign hot on the Guardian's trail.

The Guardians seem doomed until they are saved by a god named Ego (Kurt Russell), who just happens to be, get ready for it---Starlord's father. Ego has his own planet, not to mention a great head of hair, and it's a lovely family reunion at first. As Starlord gets to know his dad, though, he discovers that the old man has some very unsavory plans for the galaxy.

For me, “Vol. 2” is the movie that the original “Guardians” was trying to be. In the first film, the writers couldn't seem to cook up a believable motivation for all these renegades to team up, so they filled the void with some sappy crap about “friendship.” This time around, writer/director James Gunn seems to have figured out how to do character development without nearly as much groan-inducing syrup. The characters deliver action, laughs, and occasionally some genuine emotion, and the story makes just enough sense to keep you tuned in.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Only Living Boy in New York (2017) **1/2

Callum Turner plays Thomas, a young man adrift in New York City, on hiatus from college and stuck in the friend zone with his crush Mimi (Kiersey Clemons). Thomas bounces from art gallery to bookstore to his parent's artsy dinner parties, wasting his intellect dropping aphorisms like, “The most vibrant neighborhood in New York is Philadelphia.” Thomas is sick of being clever and sick of himself, when a fresh wind blows into his life in the form of new neighbor W.F. (Jeff Bridges). W.F. counsels Thomas that to get Mimi,he needs to let life happen, and soon enough, it does.

Thomas discovers that his dad (Pierce Brosnan) is having an affair. Thomas stalks the mistress, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), and winds up having an affair of his own with her. In its own time, this situation blows up, leading Thomas to discover some deep family secrets and to find his own inspiration.

Will you enjoy “The Only Living Boy in New York”? Well, despite the Simon & Garfunkel song, it's no "The Graduate". It's a serviceable enough coming-of-age tale, but rather forgettable. The excellent cast mostly cover for the limited storytelling and general lack of very much happening. Keep in mind that this is a talky movie about a bunch of New York intellectuals. If you like that sort of thing, and don't feel like re-watching something by Woody Allen or Whit Stillman, then you won't hate yourself for watching this.

Available on Amazon Prime.

2.5 stars out of 5

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Watchmen (2009) ****

I first saw this film a few years ago, and honestly, I had forgotten how good it is. The film takes place in a 1980's where superheroes exist, but they haven't made much difference. They helped America win in Vietnam, but all that did was get Nixon another term. The cold war still rages, worse than ever, and the world edges closer and closer to nuclear war.

Meanwhile, the superheroes, who call themselves “Masks”, have become personae non grata. Outlawed by congress, they live quiet lives, their costumes and gadgets gathering dust. Despite following the rules and laying low, the retired Masks find themselves being hunted. Someone is working their way down a kill list of Masks, someone with access to their secret identities.

Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a vigilante who refuses to retire, sets out to find this killer. He enlists Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), but they can't seem to interest Dr.Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the blue, glowing, godlike superman who can see the future and manipulate time, space, and matter. They also can't get much of a rise out of Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the lightning-fast super-genius, so the three set off with the resources they have, to track down a killer. In doing so, they discover a massive, worldwide conspiracy that threatens the lives of millions.

“Watchmen” is a cross between a noir film and a comic-book movie, heavy on the noir. The look is dark, filmed at night, preferably in the rain, and the outlook is very noir. The characters have dark pasts, and seem to have dark futures. Dr. Manhattan, for example, can see the past, present, and future, and can manipulate matter at will, but he is losing the ability to connect with other humans. “Watchmen” presents these characters in their full complexity. The Comedian was a heavy-drinking womanizer and misogynist, but he had a certain charm, and the original Silk Spectre, now an alcoholic herself, still carries a torch for him.

In a sense, “Watchmen” is an anti-comic-book movie. The story declares that superheroes may be able to catch a few criminals, but they have no impact on the societal forces that create rampant crime. They can rescue a few individuals here and there, but they aren't able to stop nations from sliding towards nuclear annihilation. The message is that humanity can't wait around for a superhuman savior. We have to solve our problems with the regular humans we have.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Signal (2014) **

There's something about seeing a movie at a film festival. Excitement is high, but expectations are moderated. There's a sense of community among the audience, and everyone is rooting for the filmmaker. This energy makes movies seem better than they really are.

“The Signal” is a case in point. The movie debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and had I seen this low-budget, sci-fi thriller there, I probably would have loved it. The plot holes, cheap gotchas based on spelling and arithmetical gimmicks, and general lack of originality would have been swept away by the thrill of seeing something so beautifully-filmed, not to mention the Question-and Answer session at the end, where the director would have charmed us all. But I didn't see it at Sundance. On HBO, the movie has to stand on its own, and it just barely limps along to a slightly annoying conclusion.

Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Jonah (Beau Knapp), and Haley (Olivia Cooke) are college friends on a road trip, moving Haley cross-country. The big move is putting a strain on Nic and Haley's romantic relationship, as is the unnamed degenerative disease that requires Nic to use crutches. On the trip, they are taunted by a computer hacker who previously hacked them and their school. Nic and Jonah use their own skills to figure out where the hacker, who calls himself Nomad, is logging in from, and they decide to take a detour to track him down and expose his identity. The trail leads to a shack out in the desert, which the guys explore in a scene straight out of “The Blair Witch Project.”

Then all hell breaks loose, and the next thing he knows, Nic is waking up in some sort of hospital facility, where all the staff are wearing hazmat suits. He meets Damon (Laurence Fishburne), apparently some kind of doctor, who reveals that Nic may have come in contact with aliens. Damon won't explain much, and he wants to run all kinds of tests on Nic. Meanwhile, Nic learns that his two friends are also in the facility, and he hatches plans to get them out. The questions of where they are, what happened to them, and whether Damon can be trusted all get answered in time, in sort-of surprising ways.

Writer/director William Eubank more or less succeeds in keeping you glued to the screen, living this disorienting experience through Nic's eyes. The pace of the film is a bit too slow, though, especially given the limited payoff at the end. Eubank could have skipped a lot of the flashbacks to Nic's running days, and really, the story would have been better served up as a 1-hour Black Mirror episode. (Although it still would have been the weakest episode in that series.) As long as the film feels (it's actually only 1h 37m), there are still major plot points that are poorly explained. Meanwhile, the explanations that are finally delivered tend to be lame and/or derivative. The acting is a strong point, both from the young stars and from Laurence Fishburne, who lends the film an air of gravitas, and they all do the best they can with the script they are given. Overall, “The Signal” doesn't look bad for a $4 million independent film, but it serves less as a fully-realized film and more as a demo tape from a promising, young writer/director who still needs to iron out some wrinkles in his craft.

2 stars out of 5

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Al Final del Tunel (At the End of the Tunnel, 2016, Spanish) **1/2

Joaquin is a physically and emotionally crippled computer expert, mourning his dead family and living alone in a house that he is unable to afford. To stave off foreclosure, he rents out a room to a hot, single mom. Berta (Clara Lago) and her daughter Betty upset Joaquin's quiet life, an invasion he initially resents but eventually accepts, as he and his aged dog come to like the newcomers.

Meanwhile, something is going on downstairs, in the adjoining building. Joaquin hears strange conversations through his basement wall, sometimes mentioning him. He discovers a criminal gang burrowing a tunnel under his house to the bank on the other side. Using his electronics skills, the wheelchair-bound Joaquin learns the gang's plan and hatches his own scheme to get the money for himself.

Argentinean writer/director Rodrigo Grande has created a tense, claustrophobic thriller that is full of plot holes. The character's actions make little sense, and Clara Lago is too much a poor-man's version of a dark, Spanish movie star to be really compelling. Fortunately, the two male leads, Leonardo Sbaraglia as Joaquin and Pablo Echarri as the gang-leader, carry the movie. Federico Luppi also makes a sinisterly convincing appearance as a shady policeman. Grande does a good job putting you in Joaquin's place as he overcomes his paraplegia to pull off his scheme, and the scenes in the tunnel are cool. Unfortunately, the plot falls victim to lazy writing, and no amount of good acting or cinematography can overcome that.

2.5 stars out of 5