Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Top Ten Films from 2016

Here's a list of my top ten favorite films from 2016.  While 2016 was not as strong as 2015, especially the summer releases, the year rebounded in the fall with some stellar films.

10.Keanu (Dir. Peter Atencio)

9. Hacksaw Ridge (Dir. Mel Gibson)

8. Cafe Society (Dir. Woody Allen)

7. Free State of Jones (Dir. Gary Ross)

6. The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers)

5. Sully (Dir. Clint Eastwood)

4. 10 Cloverfield  Lane (Dir. Dan Trachtenberg)

3. The Nice Guys (Dir. Shane Black)

2. Fences (Dir. Denzel Washington)

1. Manchester by the Sea (Dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Tribute: Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)

The year 2016 continues to take so many beloved cultural figures away from us.  The news of Carrie Fisher's passing earlier this afternoon continued the melancholy trend of this infamous year.

The daughter of Hollywood stars Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Carrie grew up an introverted child who preferred the world of books.  As a teenager she followed her mother's footsteps and pursued acting, making her screen debut in the Warren Beatty film Shampoo.  

After the overwhelming success of Star Wars Fisher became known to the entire world as Princess Leia. When casting for Star Wars the director George Lucas narrowed the field down to trios of actors and eventually decided on Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, and Fisher as Leia.  In a special effects heavy film, their three performances added humor and humanity.  Fisher did an amazing job of portraying a strong and brave heroine. 

In the next two episodes The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi she continued to add depth to the role.  Fisher consistently lamented giving her likeness away for merchandising purposes, but always kept a sense of humor about it.  And she was never one to dismiss Star Wars as childish entertainment, but always treated fans and the material with respect.

Outside of Star Wars, Fisher made many more memorable appearances in film and television. She hosted a classic episode of Saturday Night Live, and had notable roles in The Blues BrothersThe Burbs, and When Harry Met Sally. In 2015 she returned as Princess Leia in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Fisher also established herself as a talented writer in the 1980s with her excellent autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge.  She was also a much sought out "script doctor" for several movies including Hook and Sister Act.

It's impossible to imagine the original Star Wars films without her, Fisher contributed a special spark and charm to those movies that will be remembered and loved for decades to come.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rouge One: A Star Wars Story ** (2016)

The first of the spin off films to the Star Wars franchise is a dreary and occasionally entertaining entry into the series.  Set before the events of the 1977 original film, Rogue One follows the group of rebels who stole the plans to the Death Star, the plot point that drove the original film.  For starters, these characters simply aren't that memorable, they are fighters and warriors and most of their dialogue simply advances the plot.  Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, the orphan leader of the band, completely lacks personality and dimension. Action takes precedent over character development much to the film's detriment. The jokey charm of the George Lucas films is almost totally absent.  I understand that the creators are trying to expand the universe and add more depth to Star Wars, but for the most part Rogue One plays as above average fan fiction. It was well publicized that Disney ordered re-shoots and that's never a good sign. The editing gets rather jerky as they hop from planet to planet.  There are a couple memorable moments, but those are references to the previous films.  Darth Vader appears and has one great scene, but the rest is mediocre Star Wars.  

Manchester by the Sea **** (2016)

There's a quiet emotional stream running through Manchester by the Sea that stays with you long after watching the film.  Starring Casey Affleck as Lee, a handy man in a working class town, who withdrew from life for reasons that become apparent as the story unfolds. After Lee's older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) succumbs to heart disease he's named the guardian of Joe's teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a popular hockey athlete at the high school. Through flashbacks it's revealed that Joe was the more responsible brother and was well respected by the community, while Lee went into exile.  Michelle Williams co-stars as Lee's damaged ex-wife, but only appears in a few scenes. Quite simply, Manchester by the Sea is a film that must be experienced. Realistic and emotionally complex.  As we get to know the characters we see their dignity and flaws. The acting, especially by Casey Affleck, is about as good as you'll ever see. Relationships evolve and life goes on.The music of Lesley Barber contributes a spiritual component.  Kenneth Lonergan's writing and direction are a series of small moments that add up to something powerful - and meaningful.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Rules Don't Apply ** (2016)

Warren Beatty's return to the big screen stops and starts up until the very last reel.  Rules Don't Apply is never boring, but never takes off either.  Well paced scenes are followed by short confusing ones.  Set in the early 1960s, Beatty stars as the legendary aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, who was also famous for being a recluse and has been the subject of several movies.  So, do we really need another film about Howard Hughes?  Especially after Martin Scorsese's 2004 epic The Aviator did such a fantastic job with Hughes as played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Beatty even retreads some of the scenes from Scorsese's picture, such as the Spruce Goose flight and Hughes's well documented OCD tendencies. 

The "main" plot follows aspiring actress Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and Hughes's driver Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich  Their on and off again romance centers around their views on religion, although the religion angle oddly disappears after the story takes an unfortunate turn. 

Rules Don't Apply revels too much in nostalgia, evidence being the generic soundtrack of rock standards heard in countless other movies.  

Beatty's still got it and manages to make the film hum along, yet those moments are fleeting.  He's the last of a generation of actor/directors who shaped American cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, yet most moviegoers probably have no idea and don't care. 

Rules Don't Apply feels like that last trip in your old beat up car before you retire it. Bittersweet. I hope Beatty takes on some more acting roles to introduce him to a new generation, with the right script and subject he could reach a younger audience. 

Hacksaw Ridge *** (2016)

Mel Gibson's new film Hacksaw Ridge never shrinks from the horrors of war nor does it necessarily condemn war itself.  The film stars Andrew Garfield, in perhaps his best acting to date, as the real life pacifist/hero Desmond T. Doss who saved the lives of 75 men at the Battle of Okinawa. The first hour of the film explores Desmond's life before the war in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia.  His alcoholic father played Hugo Weaving is haunted by memories of the First World War and urges Desmond not to enlist. These early scenes are reminiscent of the 1941 film Sergeant York starring Gary Cooper, a Tennessee pacifist who won the Medal of Honor for his heroics on the Western Front.  Desmond eventually enlists as a medic with the intention of saving lives instead of taking them. At first other members of Desmond's unit resent him for being a conscientious objector, specifically his refusal to carry a gun. Vince Vaughn does fine work as the drill instructor(another war movie cliche) who comes to respect Desmond.  Once the film gets to Okinawa, the battle sequences are intense and graphic, recalling Saving Private Ryan.  Desmond's heroics are juxtaposed with Gibson's penchant for filming brutality, even including a few references to his controversial film The Passion of the Christ.  While some of the conventions of the war film are unavoidable, Hacksaw Ridge is a powerful piece of cinema about standing by your principles in face of incredible peer pressure and moral chaos.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Doctor Strange ** (2016)

In the latest from the Marvel Factory we are introduced to the mysterious Doctor Strange. Played ably by Benedict Cumberbatch, the first half of the film is engaging. Cumberbatch does a great job with the origins story, playing a brilliant neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident and then searches the ends of the earth for a cure.  One of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's creations from the 1960s, the character was a unique fixture in the Marvel Universe, one who used magic and sorcery to protect Earth from mystical threats.  Being a Marvel film, the second half collapses into a pointless CGI extravaganza. That's not to say all the visuals were boring, there's a colorful journey into another dimension that channels the star chamber of 2001: A Space Odyssey. As the 14th Marvel movie, the question is raised: Can the cinematic experience replicate that of the comic book? I suppose so, but the recent slate of these movies offer little but diminishing returns. As mere escapism, Dr. Strange will suffice. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

31 Days of Halloween #11 Prince of Darkness **1/2 (1987)

A minor entry in John Carpenter's canon, a deep cut if you will, Prince of Darkness combines quantum physics with some arcane Thomas Aquinas theology in a film that's both fascinating and baffling. A theoretical physicist is invited by a priest, played by a confused Donald Pleasance, who belongs to a "secret order" of the Catholic Church. Together they must stop what could be the coming of the Anti-Christ, be sure to emphasize the word "Anti." So a group of graduate students gather in a church basement to confront the evil that exists in a . . . . liquid gel. Your read me right.  Prince of Darkness is the sort of movie that gets wackier the more you think about it.  The cast of unknowns come straight out of a 1950s b-movie (I suspect this was intentional) offers little in the way of character development. What made Carpenter's early horror movies work were the compelling characters whether it be Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween or Kurt Russell in Escape From New York and The Thing. The lackluster performances make Prince of Darkness a slog to sit through at times. The second half degenerates into a "body snatchers" tale replete with gaudy special effects and grotesque makeup. Maybe Stanley Kubrick could've made a movie that lived up to such an ambitious premise. Nevertheless, Prince of Darkness works as a goofy supernatural horror film with a sly subtext. A creepy soundtrack and a great opening credit sequence add to the moody atmosphere.

31 Days of Horror #10 The Serpent and the Rainbow *1/2 (1987)

One of horror master Wes Craven's lesser efforts, The Serpent and the Rainbow is more travelogue than horror. Set in 1970s Haiti, the story follows a Harvard anthropologist played by Bill Pullman who investigates a potion used for Voodoo rituals that can induce someone into a death like state. American pharmaceutical companies take an interest. Everything is muddled, especially the performances.  The political subplot never gets off the ground as if the script lost interest.  As usual Craven includes some ghoulish imagery that's memorable, but the entire movie meanders from one dead end to another.  A dour and muddled affair in need of a tighter script - and dare I say more focused direction. The trailer and movie poster imply a far more terrifying film.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

31 Days of Horror #9 White Zombie *** (1932)

The moody and atmospheric White Zombie is often credited as one of the first zombie films. Set in the Voodoo milieu of post-colonial Haiti where the residual effects of slavery and imperialism are heavy in the subtext, the film imagines an army of zombies controlled by the witch doctor Legendre portrayed by the eternally creepy Bela Lugosi. The zombies, in a metaphor for slavery, work at the sugar plantation. When newlyweds arrive for their honeymoon, the owner of the plantation Beaumont falls in love with the bride and enlists Legendre to turn her into a zombie so she will be his slave. So we enter into a surreal world of magic and servitude of all varieties. The zombies are not of The Walking Dead variety either, they wander around like ghosts from the past- unsettling.  A unique cinematic experience that feels as if it emanates from a completely different time and place subversive to our modern sensibility. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

31 Days of Horror #8: The Tingler (1959) **

Directed by the showman William Castle and starring horror legend Vincent Price, The Tingler is relentlessly silly, but always entertaining.  Price plays a pathologist who discovers fear actually triggers the growth of a parasite on people's spines and then undergoes an LSD trip, one of the first acted out on film - so it might be worth watching for that. Gimmicks aside, The Tingler makes little sense, with goofy subplots and Price playing it all with a straight face. Castle had nurses on call during screenings and installed buzzers in the seats, a charming showmanship Joe Dante payed tribute to in his 1993 film Matinee.  Not "gory" by any means, simply horror as amusing diversion, nothing more and nothing less. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

31 Days of Horror #7: Dementia 13 **1/2 (1963)

Dementia 13 holds interest for one reason: It was first official film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who went on to make films like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. You gotta start somewhere.  Set in Ireland, the screenplay's a Psycho ripoff about an ax murderer on the loose. Coppola staged some excellent sequences and displayed a talent for striking visuals, creating a claustrophobic feeling throughout. Gothic themes are emphasized: sins of the past, castles, murders, tragic/forbidden romance. Although the story gets confusing at times, the cheap thrills and emotional exuberance are enough to sustain the running time.  Reviews at the time expressed shock at the gore, which is rather tame by today's standards.  Produced by Roger Corman's American International Pictures, Coppola later cast Corman as a Senator in The Godfather Part II, even though they clashed during post-production on Dementia 13 -  Corman hired another director to do some re-shoots. Coppola later gained a reputation as a screenwriter in the 1960s, his screenplay for Patton earned an Oscar.  Although not a masterpiece, Dementia 13 is a triumph of style over substance. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

31 Days of Horror #6 House on Haunted Hill *** (1959)

Vincent Price is clearly having fun in William Castle's House on Haunted Hill, the campy story of a mischievous millionaire's challenge to five strangers: they must survive a night in a locked haunted house to win $10,000. His guests include test pilot Lance (Richard Long), gossip columnist Ruth (Julie Mitchum), psychiatrist Dr. Trent (Alan Marshall), typist Nora (Carolyn Craig), and the skittish owner Watson (Elisha Cook). 

Price is throwing the party for his fourth wife, although the reasons for it are never clear. Her birthday or a wedding anniversary? They have an interesting relationship, one based on suspicion and deception, "What husband has never thought of murdering his wife?" he playfully asks the camera.   

Price offers all his guests loaded guns as party gifts - and everybody plays it straight! Intrigue ensues as the scares pile up.

Director Castle may have invented the jump scare in this film, check out this clip. 

Castle wanted to make the movie going experience interactive to counter the threat posed by television, so movies like House on Haunted Hill were made to pack theaters, including shaking seats, people in costumes, even some pyrotechnics.  Many horror films still copy the camera style of fast and slow zooms.

Elements of horror aside, Robb White's script parodies Agatha Christie's And Then There Was None.  As each twist in the story gets more ridiculous, riding the the fine line between comedy and horror, the movie only gets better. 

Unfortunately the Horror genre has no Vincent Price today, few modern actors can switch from charming to menacing with such ease.

So sit back, make some popcorn, and enjoy some antiquated entertainment with House on Haunted Hill.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

31 Days of Horror #5: Atom Age Vampire * (1960)

Some films are destined for immortality and some are destined for the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. Think of all the people that work on a movie, put their heart and soul into it, and it ends up becoming an afterthought purchase at some big box store. I suppose there are worse fates. Atom Age Vampire, an Italian import from 1960, belongs in the bargain bin. At the very least the sound people did a great job with the English dubbing. More of a melodrama than a horror movie: no vampires appear and the "atom age" element is overplayed in the movie's poster. A beautiful woman's face gets disfigured in an accident so she seeks help from a scientist who invented a radioactive serum.  The scientist falls in love with her and learns the serum has some violent side effects, despite its healing power. I'm not sure if he morphs into a werewolf or a mutant.  The film's glacial pace and predictable plot points don't help either, although the black and white cinematography adds a little to the atmosphere, but the scares are few and far between. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

31 Days of Horror #4 Carnival of Souls ***1/2 (1962)

If Ingmar Bergman had grown up in Kansas I could see him making a film like Carnival of Souls. Filmed in grainy black and white, Carnival of Souls is one greatest Midwestern Gothics ever made (it was mostly filmed in Lawrence, Kansas). The film tells the story of a young woman trying to make sense of reality after she's the unfortunate passenger in a tragic drag race.  

After the car crashes off the river bridge, a scene Tim Burton duplicated in Beetlejuice, young Mary arrives in a new town and lands a church organist job.  She gets a room in a boarding house with a nosy landlady, while trying to fend off the advances of her crude neighbor, meanwhile a sinister looking old man keeps appearing at random.  

I admire how the film gradually moves from the realistic to the surreal, common everyday activities like shopping and going on a walk take on a sinister quality.  Eventually Mary comes to realize she may no longer be among the living.  

We're also in the Kansas of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Mary's interactions with creepily bland locals ramps up the sense of foreboding. The minister, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, tries to offer Mary some spiritual guidance to no avail.  She also sees the local psychiatrist who advises her to get a boyfriend. All the men come up short in this film.  As Mary grows increasingly vulnerable, her innocence adds to the sense of dread. 

Carnival of Souls is a must see cult classic, the artistry of the cinematography and skillful use of local setting are expressionistic and haunting. These images really stick with you.  The look and feel of the film anticipated George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, David Lynch's weird America aesthetic, Tim Burton's playful creepiness, even Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  

Herk Harvey never directed another feature film, but left a real gem for movie fans everywhere. Watch it for free.

Monday, October 3, 2016

31 Days of Horror #3 The Fog (1980) ***1/2

John Carpenter's The Fog gets better with viewing, don't ask me why, it's just one of those movies.  Released in 1980, two years after Carpenter's low budget hit Halloween invented the modern slasher film, The Fog was viewed as an underwhelming follow up. Instead, Carpenter crafted an atmospheric ghost story inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe.  

Set in idyllic Antonio Bay, the acting and direction feel organic. We meet a menagerie of characters who live on the island, many played by actors who appeared in Halloween, including the sultry late night DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis), local fisherman (Tom Atkins), and town historian (Janet Leigh).  Carpenter's decision to not to focus on a protagonist gives the film an amorphous point of view that totally works in its favor, few movies have more effectively used a radio station to drive the story.

The first ten minutes do a brilliant job in setting the tone with John Houseman relating a ghost story to a group of boy scouts and then cuts to various scenes throughout the town where everything goes haywire (Carpenter himself appears as a janitor). Electric lights flicker as the fog rolls in.  Father Malone discovers an old letter written by his grandfather and learns the prosperity and rich history of Antonio Bay rests on an ugly crime.

Vengeful spirits arriving to exact justice for the sins of the past is a theme straight out of the Gothic tradition.  Carpenter sets a unique tone that's rich with striking visuals and a subtle use of music that adds to the nocturnal look. The blending of reality with the fantastic never comes off as hokey, there's a smooth hypnotic quality.  Like in Halloween, we get a slice of American life encased in darkness.

So The Fog is a spine tingling campfire story.  A unique horror movie in look and tone with many memorable images and moments.  

Sunday, October 2, 2016

31 Days of Horror #2 The Bat (1959) *1/2

Vincent Price got top billing but only appears in a few scenes in the 1959 film The Bat, which is really more of a whodunit than a horror film.  Based on a popular play by Mary Roberts Rinehart, the story involves a mysterious mansion that's the target of a murderer known as "the bat."  Agnes Moorehead plays a mystery writer who moves into the house, after which strange things begin to happen as she and her maid are terrorized by a burglar who wears a mask and gloves with sharp claws - and also releases real bats into the house.  Millions of embezzled cash are hidden somewhere in the mansion so everyone in town takes an interest.  It's obvious the The Bat was based on a play, it's mostly dialogue with a few cheesy scares. I suppose there's a Scooby-Doo charm to it.  Beyond that, there's little more to say about the The Bat other than it's a dated period piece. Price is at his best when playing the suave villain, unfortunately he just goes through the motions as a mildly eccentric scientist who adds little to the story.  If interested, you can watch The Bat for free on youtube!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

31 Days of Horror #1 --- The Visitor (1979) **

What a way to kick off Halloween 2016 with the whacked out 1979 film The Visitor.  Be warned the movie makes no sense, it's a baffling mixture of The Omen, The Birds, and Close Encounters.  But, who cares?  You get an out of this world cast including Lance Hendricksen, John Huston, Glenn Ford, Mel Ferrer, Shelley Winters, and Sam Peckinpah!  The story involves an evil child being manipulated by aliens, while some good aliens try to stop her.  Filmed in Atlanta and directed by an all Italian crew, there are some jaw dropping sequences.  Prepare for multiple hawk attacks, a zany soundtrack, the worse birthday party ever, baffling dialogue, astrological warfare, ice skating, and even a cameo by Jesus himself. If that doesn't sell it, I don't know what will. The Visitor must be seen to be believed.  The DVD has some great extras, including an off the wall interview with Hendricksen.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Sully *** (2016)

Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks teamed up to make a fitting ode to Captain Chelsey "Sully" Sullenberger, the airline pilot who landed his plane in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009 after a flock of birds took out both engines.  The script tells a fractured narrative of what happened before, during, and after incident.  Hanks plays the reluctant hero as only he can do, never hiting a false note.  Aaron Eckhart co-stars as his co-pilot and Laura Linney as his who only appears during telephone conversations.  A wintry New York City is another major character, I suspect Eastwood's tribute to the city with memories of 9/11 still fresh in its mind.  The recreation of the actual landing and the frantic aftermath to get everyone off the plane are well filmed, never flashy or over the top, much like its hero.  At 95 minutes, Sully is a hour and a half of escapism with gratifying moments of dignity and pride.  An all around solid effort.  

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Cable Guy (1996) ***1/2

One of the most underrated comedy of the 1990s, The Cable Guy dared to gaze into the dark psyche of Generation X.  A commercial disappointment in the summer of 1996, Carrey's fans felt jilted by his dark turn. The movie also introduced a whole range of comedic stars in early roles including Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Leslie Mann, and Andy Dick.

Matthew Broderick plays nice guy Steven Kovacs.  When getting cable installed for his new apartment the eccentric cable guy makes awkward attempts to bond with him.  He offers Steven some free cable but there are strings attached - they must hang out once in a while.  At first Chip seems like a kindred spirit until his behavior grows increasingly strange and intrusive, in the vein of Play Misty for Me or Single White Female.

The Cable Guy came out just as the "information superhighway" entered the language as the internet was about to conquer the world.  No one talks about TV rotting people's brain anymore, internet addictions get more attention, adding another layer of odd nostalgia.

Did Generation X watch so much TV it distorted view of reality? That's the sardonic question The Cable Guy poses. The notion recalls the scene in the 1976 film Network: old TV veteran William Holden scolds the younger TV executive played by Faye Dunaway, accusing her of seeing real life as identical to episodic television. An accusation not just at her, but all TV maniacs.

Ben Stiller's direction emphasized pop culture references.  His 1994 film Reality Bites revived interest in The Knack's "My Sharona" and Schoolhouse Rock. The Cable Guy took a more obscure approach with nods to the Star Trek episode "Amok Time" and other ephemera from 1970s pop culture, including a hilarious send up of the 90s culture of celebrity trials with a parody of Court TV obsessives.  Also, don't miss the cinematic references to The Poseidon Adventure and Rosemary's Baby!

One of the last true "Gen X" films until the late 20th century kids reached apotheosis with Fight Club, The Cable Guy throws a wicked gut punch at television's abstract influence on everything it touches, even more so than the overrated Carrey film The Truman Show.

Jason Bourne * 1/2 (2016)

Leaving the theater for Jason Bourne I was thinking, I'm not sure what that was supposed to be. After a trilogy of first rate action films that redefined the genre in the 2000s, Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass decision to revisit the material added some legitimacy to the project. But instead of building upon the character's mythology, the script recycles the past three films.  Long chase sequences are punctuated by climatic smashing of fast machines, including a high speed pursuit in Las Vegas that conjures odd visions of the Blues Brothers cruising through a shopping mall. Twisted metal everywhere.  Damon's co-star Alicia Vikander has little to do except stare intensely at computer screens, her AI character in Ex Machina had way more personality.  And Tommy Lee Jones as the CIA head looks like a figure in a wax museum, not helped by Greengrass's penchant for rapid fire cuts and extreme close ups. A humorless and cold genre film.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Hell or High Water *** (2016)

Watching Hell or High Water it's hard not to think of other great films set in Texas like No Country For Old Men or Blood Simple.  The landscape makes for the perfect backdrop for a neo-noir grappling history, family, and crime drama into an entertaining film.  Two brothers the soft spoken Toby (Chris Pine) and tough guy Tanner (Ben Foster) go on a bank robbing spree to pay off some debts.  Aging Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) is on their trail in his last case (a cliche situation but it works), while spending most of the time sparring with his Native American partner Gil (Alberto Parker). Many reviews have alluded to the sub theme of a fading white working class left with little options in rural America.  As Toby and Tanner drive through the desolate landscape all the businesses are closed and billboards promise debt relief.  The rise of casinos is like the last gasp of civilization. One cannot think of Bonnie and Clyde as well, the idea of existentialists set on exacting revenge on the banks. Pine, known for playing for Captain Kirk in the Star Trek films, delivers a star making performance as a reluctant criminal.  Bridges could probably plan an old law man in his sleep, chewing up the scenery like an old pro.  A somber film with a beating heart, Hell and High Water takes its rightful place within an excellent tradition Texas movies. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Don't Breathe *** (2016)

Exuberant reviews aside, Don't Breathe is an exceptional horror film with some pointed social commentary.  Set in economically depressed Detroit, the film follows three teenage thieves who survive by robbing the rich.  These working class kids make for a somewhat unorthodox team: the hothead "Money", safe cracker Rocky, and the intelligent Alex.  

After discovering a news story about an Iraq war vet (Stephen Lang) who won a huge legal settlement in a wrongful death suit the trio decide to rob him and get out of town.

What the band of thieves fail to consider is the man they are ripping off is a demented psychopath. So what they thought would be an easy job turns into a nightmare.  It's a reverse of Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, the blind "victim" turns the table on the thieves.

When the horror begins the movie turns into a cat and mouse game, and a violent one at that.  Of course the house is full of crawl spaces, spacious basements, and lots of glass. Stephen Lang steals the film as "The Blind Man" in a menacing performance, a seemingly indestructible force of nature reminiscent of the original Michael Myers from Halloween.

Don't Breathe supposes a town of hungry thieves and psychotic war vets breeds horror upon horror.  With everyone disenfranchised and democratic institutions losing their relevance - only the brutal and amoral will survive. This ain't the Ocean's Eleven ending with "Clair de Lune" playing in the background. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Invitation (2016) **

A group of 30 somethings gather together for a mysterious dinner party and strange events ensue.  They are all connected in some way and have experienced some form of loss.  The Invitation feels like a humorless version of the The Big Chill with an Agatha Christie premise added to the mix.  At first everyone is all politeness and smiles, until the hosts introduce their guests to the fascinating "group" (not a cult) they discovered in Mexico. And there's no cell phone service either at the house (of course).  While the film builds up the tension well enough, it's hard not to miss where it's all going.  Logan-Marshall Green as the lead gives deadpan performance, epitomizing the banal dialogue and cliche plot points that carry a slight charm. Above all, these people are soap opera cut outs.  The Invitation works as an above average TV movie and that's where it would belong in another decade.  

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in his Own Words *** (2016)

Eat That Question looks back at the career of Frank Zappa (1940-1993) through skillful use of archival footage, consisting mostly of interviews and excerpts from his live performances. Zappa was known more for his personality and battles with censors instead of his music (which rarely got radio play.)  Classically trained, Zappa's ability compose music put him way ahead of his contemporaries. His music combined elements of classical, jazz, fusion, doo wop, and noise rock - releasing over 80 albums of original material.

With his band The Mothers of Invention, Zappa made performance art a major part of his act.  His music was loaded with social commentary on all sorts of topics, breaking all sorts of barriers.  

Zappa's full of surprises. Despite his outlandish appearance and unconventional music he never drank alcohol or abused drugs (more of a cigarettes and coffee guy). When touring he would dismiss band members who took drugs.  Often grouped with the counterculture, Zappa actually despised hippies, viewing them as conformists. In the 1980s, Zappa led the fight against Tipper Gore's attempt to censor rock and rap albums.

Later in life Zappa got actively involved in politics.  In Czechoslovakia he served as a cultural ambassador and in 1992 he planned a run for the presidency until a cancer diagnosis sidetracked him.

Zappa passed away way too early at age 52, God Knows what he would make of America at the current moment, but voices more like him are desperately needed. Eat the Question is an excellent introduction to his work.  Don't miss his appearance on the CNN show Crossfire.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Midnight Special (2016) **1/2

The Midnight Special, a film compared to Spielberg classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. upon its release, feels more like a slightly above average X-Files episode. The film is about a boy with psychic gifts who is on the run with his father (Michael Shannon) and his highway patrolman friend/guardian angel (Joel Edgerton). A religious sect believes the boy transmits messages from God. Meanwhile, the government is also interested in the boy (for drone warfare or something).  Director Jeff Nichols tried to compensate for the cliche elements of the script with iconic performances from Shannon and Edgerton, but both are more opaque than memorable. Shannon and Edgerton kept their characters too remote for there to be any emotional resonance.  Even when Kirsten Dunst appears as the mother the film never quite hits the right note. Adam Driver also appears as a sympathetic NSA analyst. Spielberg's great strength was establishing an emotional connection with the audience while dazzling them with special effects, a style few of his disciples have perfected.  Unfortunately, the conclusion felt routine and underwhelming. In saying that, The Midnight Special is not a bad film, there's a modicum of suspense to sustain the narrative - along with some exceptional cinematography. 

Cafe Society (2016) ***

Woody Allen's Cafe Society makes for a perfect escape from the August heat, a dreamy period piece set in 1930s Hollywood and New York City. Jesse Eisenberg stars as a young man on the make in Hollywood trying to get a job through his "big time" agent uncle played by Steve Carrel.  He strikes a friendship and romance with his uncle's striking secretary played by Kristen Stewart. As the characters get entangled in Romantic intrigue and unrequited love, questions are raised on the idea of fate and free will. Many will consider the plot a bit trite, but watching these actors work together is the best part of Cafe Society.  There's also hints of F.Scott Fitzgerald and Casablanca, themes of being in love and making difficult choices. The cinematography is beautiful, a welcome alternative to the current crop of blockbusters. 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Star Trek: Beyond (2016) ***

Star Trek: Beyond, third film in the reboot series, does a great job of honoring the tradition of the long running series with engaging characters, idealistic themes, and exciting action.  The members of the new cast have grown comfortably into their roles, keeping the franchise vibrant and relevant.

The film opens with the U.S.S. Enterprise in the third year of its mission, with Kirk and his crew getting restless, even bored, in their travels through space.  Spock is considering leaving Starfleet to devote his life to rebuilding Vulcan culture.  Meanwhile, Kirk considers taking a desk job.  Desperate for a challenging mission, the crew answers a distress call coming from a distant part of the galaxy where they discover a dangerous threat to the Federation.

Idris Elba, in heavy makeup as the villain Krall, may not be the most memorable Star Trek antagonist of all time, but his compelling backstory warranted more screen time.

Gene Roddenberry's original concept imagined the United Federation of Planets as an alliance dedicated to exploration and promoting peace, envisioning a future where humanity had overcome its violent tendencies, although those tendencies never completely disappeared, a conflict that always defined Star Trek

The search for purpose and meaning adds a timely philosophical component to Star Trek: Beyond.  At the current moment, the United States is searching for purpose in an acrimonious election year, agonizing over two differing ideas of how the country should proceed into the future. 

In the film Kirk and crew, by sticking to their basic principles and staying dedicated to each other's well being, all learn something about themselves and what to do with their futures. 

Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script, gave all the cast members substantial roles. Chris Pine's a natural as Kirk and Quinto's tragic version of Spock builds upon the work by Leonard Nimoy.  

Director Justin Lin, a newcomer to the series, did a great job of balancing character and story development.  Unlike the J.J. Abrams directed films Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), there was less of a need to directly homage previous Star Trek.

With Star Trek celebrating its 50th Anniversary and a new TV show set to debut in January, Star Trek: Beyond is a worthy edition to one of the pillars of modern Science Fiction.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ghostbusters *1/2 (2016)

The new Ghostbusters movie epitomizes the problem with so many Hollywood movies in 2016:  the entire enterprise gets lost between trying to stay loyal to the original film , while attempting to deliver a new twist to a moldy franchise. A fail on both counts. Shoddy CGI effects + a milquetoast script = forgettable.

The all female recasting of the Ghostbusters seemed a fresh starting point for a remake, a great way to re-imagine the 1984 classic. The new cast of Krtisten Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones are all talented, but have no chemistry whatsoever. Everyone's doing their own shtick. How many times must Kristen Wiig get slimed?  How many food jokes at the expense of McCarthy?  

As for the plot, there isn't much of one.  Each scene plays more like a prolonged SNL sketch rather than a cinematic film.  Wiig is a Physics professor close to getting tenure until her supervisors discover she once wrote a book on paranormal studies with former colleague McCarthy, who works at a lesser college in New York City along with Holtzman (McKinnon) as her research assistant.

I'm not sure what to make of McKinnon's character: Is she simply eccentric?  Or does she have a personality disorder? Are we supposed to laugh at her because she is socially awkward? It's never clear.  

In fact the tone of the whole movie feels like audiences are supposed to laugh at the female Ghostbusters because they see the world differently and are therefore "weird," instead of laughing with them as hip outsiders with unique world views. 

They are joined by Patty (Jones), a New York subway worker, a character reduced to delivering sitcom ready one liners. She's rarely a part of the action, just comments on it.

Cameos from the original cast fall flat as well.  Why did Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson not reprise their old characters?  Why no changing of the guard scene? Their token appearances feel forced, like pleasantries you would exchange with remote relatives.  And that's never a good time.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

30 for 30: Believeland 2016 **** (for Cleveland Fans)

The victory of the 2015-2016 Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA finals marked the end of a long drought for Cleveland fans everywhere. The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Believeland recently aired with a new epilogue following the Cavalier victory. The long history of glorious defeats in Cleveland history, defeats that paralleled the economic decline of the city by the lake, are all covered in their painful detail.

For the first half of the 20th Century, Cleveland personified American industrialism and prosperity. In 1964 the Browns won the NFL championship 27-0 over the Baltimore Colts with legendary Jim Brown leading the way, a dynasty appeared in the making. However, Brown retired to pursue a film career and the Browns stepped aside to watch their arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers rule the 70s.

I imagine living in Cleveland during the 1970s to be a sometimes frightening and often surreal trip, a post- industrial metropolis on the brink of some new kind of reality. Stranger Than Paradise, the 1984 Jim Jarmusch captured the bleak mood. The American Splendor comics of Harvey Pekar told the story of an everyman trying to survive in Cleveland.  In the midst financial breakdown, the city's music scene thrived, playing a leading role in the birth of punk. Such music could only come from places like Cleveland.

Meanwhile, the sports teams languished in mediocrity.

Believeland benefits from off the wall interviews, Clevelanders putting all their feelings on the table. Former players also share their memories. 

As the big freeze of the 70s gave way to the 80s, the Browns regained their footing only to lose the big game in dramatic fashion time and time again. Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble. Those phrases conjure tragic images for Cleveland fans.  Growing up I remember watching VHS tapes of these games over and over and hoping for a different outcome, revisiting the moment of trauma.

By the 90s the city underwent a renaissance with a new baseball stadium and the Indians became a winning team.  The 1995 squad won 100 games and the AL pennant behind a potent offense.  In 1997 they came within two outs of winning the World Series, only to blow it once again in grand Cleveland style. Many started to lose their faith.

Then the Browns left town in 1995, in perhaps the most cruel blow of all to Cleveland fans. When the Browns were revived in 1999, a comedy of errors ensued.

But there's a happy ending.

The Cavaliers won the 2003 NBA draft lottery and acquired Lebron James of Akron, already declared the chosen one by Sports Illustrated. And James did not disappoint, quickly rising to superstardom and taking the Cavs to the NBA finals in 2007.  Yet fans felt betrayed again in 2010 when Lebron left Cleveland for the Miami Heat, leading them to two world championships.

After sustaining a barrage of criticism from Clevelanders, James returned to his hometown in 2014 to make things right.  

Believeland does a great job of capturing the spirit of a city. Amazing archival footage adds an authenticity to the film.  Could the Cavalier championship mean a change of fortune? Who knows, but for many people, after June 19, 2016 the future suddenly looked much brighter.  

Monday, July 11, 2016

The BFG **1/2 (2016)

The BFG, the summer release of 2016 everyone is talking about and no one is going to see. 

Based on Roald Dahl's book and a script by E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison, The BFG will be remembered as a minor entry is Spielberg's canon. I'm sure Spielberg fanatics will watch The BFG and conclude he went back to the well, a redux of E.T. and Hook.  I would agree.

The story follows Sophie, an orphan girl abducted by a "Big Friendly Giant" into his magical land. Played by Mark Rylance, who won a best supporting Oscar for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies last year, manages to capture some humanity in a CGI performance. Sophie helps the BFG get the courage to stand up for himself.  Big bully giants give him a hard time. Their friendship is the crux of the film, but it never quite hits the right emotional note. They never become soul mates like Elliot and ET, it's more of an imaginary friend type dynamic.

And the story takes some odd turns. First we are introduced to the BFG's world and the ogre giants who inhabit it. The middle section just meanders into some false conclusions. Then the last act shifts to straight up slapstick comedy, even some unfortunate scatological humor. 

In saying that, I should keep in mind Spielberg made the movie for children. The kids in the theater seemed to have a good time with The BFG.  And after watching such drivel as Independence Day: Resurgence, I appreciate a movie made with the care and vision of a true artist. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Free State of Jones *** (2016)

Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, an ex-confederate soldier who led an anti-southern army of insurgents in Mississippi during and after the Civil War. Newton's army waged class warfare on the plantation landowners, who they blamed for the costly war and the ingrained racism plaguing the country. Way too many historical films go to great lengths to dumb down the past, but The Free State of Jones offers something rare- complexity.

The opening battle sequence illustrates the horror of Civil War battle. Serving as a nurse, Newton is a witness to the carnage and must part in barbaric amputation operations. After suffering a personal loss Newton deserts the army and returns to Jones County Mississippi where he must live in hiding (desertion entailed the death penalty).

In time a community coalesces around escaped slaves and former confederates. They wage war on the plantation owners and take over the county, Robin Hoods of the Civil War I suppose. They come to realize their shared humanity and overcome the barriers that separate them. Of course, the Southern land owners had a strong stake in keeping poor whites at odds with African-American slaves.

The Free State of Jones makes for a strong counterpoint to Gone With the Wind, a film invested in the "Lost Cause" narrative, the idea the Southern fight was honorable in the face of Northern aggression. Slaves were treated well and content with their station, Southern culture was superior to the North etc . . .

In saying that, The Free State of Jones is a bit overlong, especially during a plodding middle section. But it does maintain a compelling tone, a combination of tragedy and hope.

McConaughey delivers an outstanding performance as usual. Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw give poignant supporting performances as African-Americans struggling for their freedom after the war. 

As NY Times critic A.O. Scott pointed out, there's a much welcome anti-authoritarian message the film. In contrast to superhero movies where Captain America or Batman takes it upon themselves to protect the helpless masses. Here the people come together in community to effect change. No one waits for a hero to show up - they take action on their own terms.

The Free State of Jones may not be the summer fare audiences expect, but it does offer depth and a perceptive look at American history.