Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Eleven year-old Bonita Granville autographs the Warner Brothers jalopy in 1933, a studio tradition at that time. Bonita played teen detective Nancy Drew in four Warner movies, 1938-39. Her co-star was Frankie Thomas (later TV's Tom Corbett, Space Cadet). Over coffee with Frankie several years ago, he shared a story about Granville as Nancy Drew: "Bonita was forced to literally tape down her breasts to be Nancy Drew, even though Bonita was only 15 years old when the series began in 1938. Otherwise it would've added 10 years to her appearance." Call it a restraining order.
By the way, Bonita Granville was Oscar nominated for These Three in 1936.
Friday, March 10, 2017
Stereotypical in many ways, Kong: Skull Island is great fun to watch, thanks to a literate, savvy script, fine acting, and visuals that should please the most discriminating monster movie fan. Prepare for gigantic thrills, literally.
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer), this take on King Kong employs the basic template of Kong films since 1933’s King Kong. For example, there is the expected First Act set-up, covering the organization of an expedition to a remote South Pacific island, here called Skull Island—as in the ’33 version.
Adding a diverse mix of explorers is part of the typical story scheme. In Kong: Skull Island, we get three scientists, Bill Randa (a slimmed down John Goodman), Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins of TV's 24: Legacy) and San Lin (Jing Tian). There also has to be a heroic adventurer type, here played by Tom Hiddleston. In a King Kong movie, a beautiful young lady is also required, but in this case it is not Ann Darrow, but Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) who fits the mold as a photojournalist, peacenik, and naturalist of sorts. All three attributes come in handy when dealing closeup with Kong as well as the terra firma and waterways of the island.
As with many (most?) giant monster movies, there is a military element that sometimes clashes with the accompanying scientists. The soldiers want to immediately blast Kong and his fellow monsters to oblivion while the civilians would prefer to shoot only in self defense. Unique to K: SI is that the time setting is 1973, just as the Vietnam War is winding down. Samuel L. Jackson’s Lt. Col. Preston Packard is assigned to lead a squadron of grunts to escort the exploratory team.
About the “fellow monsters” mentioned, there are realistic, jarring battles with humongous spiders, birds and octopi. Check out the huge walking stick insect that more aptly resembles a large walking log. Then there are the vicious baddies that give Kong himself a run for island dominance: the lizard-alligator big boys called Skullcrawlers. They are featured, along with Kong, in the bloody Third Act. (Kong and his antics essentially dominate the Second Act.)
Not only is the Vietnam era angle a fresh approach, but there is also a tie-in to WWII via John C. Reilly as stranded American pilot Hank Marlow, discovered on Skull after living there with local natives (yes, there are live humans amongst) for nearly 30 years. A preamble to the main story sets up that backstory.
Incidentally, the Marlow character provides K: SI with at least minimal comedy relief, a much needed ingredient for a film of this intensity.
Vogt-Roberts and screen scribes Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Sevak Anakhasyan have purposely laced Kong: Skull Island with numerous classic movie references. For one, there are both pop music and a a gunboat-cruising-down-the-river sequence from Apocalypse Now (1979). Add to that John Goodman’s wardrobe, a duplicate of what the Carl Denham character wore in 1933’s King Kong. Bits of 1987’s Platoon and 1964’s Dr. Strangelove are also woven into the storyline.
Stick around for the tag following the film’s end credits. You will learn that this isn’t the end of King Kong movies.
Or Godzilla movies.
GRADE on an A-F Scale: B+
Friday, March 3, 2017
Hollywood has come a long way in its portrayal of children. From the silents to early sound films, kids were treated cautiously, depicted as total innocents to be sheltered on-screen. Things gradually began to change over the decades. (I could write a thesis detailing such.) Now we have the action crammed Logan, featuring an 11 year-old girl who is essentially a killing machine. Combining these two blade runners, working side by side, is a recipe for stunts, special effects, and big box office.
In keeping with the very dark script by Scott Frank, director James Mangold and Michael Green, there is a tragic finale. (I am trying so hard to avoid giving away the multiple spoilers.) Fans of X-Men and Wolverine should be pleased, tearfully so. The action includes some of the best stunt work since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road.
Hugh Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine character is definitely among the darkest in the Marvel Comics universe. But he is truly psychologically and physically down as the story opens in 2029 Texas. By this time, mutants have been outcast and mostly eliminated from USA society. No new mutants have been born for 20 years. Professor Xavier’s mansion school is long gone, and he is in hiding and poor health. Logan and mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant) continue to shelter the bedfast Prof. X (Patrick Stewart) in an abandoned warehouse. The two are essentially nursemaids. Logan works as a limo driver to make enough money for food and Xavier’s medications. Incidentally, Logan looks worn, acts gruff, and coughs a lot. His drinking problem does not help.
Two events occur that change the trio’s fate. First, their hideout is discovered by the Reavers, a violent, anti-mutant organization headed by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). He’s the one with a robotic right arm and hand. About the same time, Logan is saddled with an 11 year-old girl, Laura Kinney (a stunning and charismatic Dafne Keen). Laura is aka X-23 because she is a DNA lab-created mutant. And guess whose DNA was used? Hint: Long blades protrude from her knuckles when she is angered. Go figure.
The chase begins with four on the run for their mutated lives—with Xavier popping sedative meds to avoid his highly dangerous seismic seizures. All this is enough to make a stressed out Wolverine ever so weary. But now he has a preteen ward who is a holy terror.
Director James Mangold has said that several classic movies influenced the making of Logan, including George Stevens’ Shane. That referencing should help clarify the scene featuring our central heroes on the lam in a motel room, watching Shane on TV.
By end credits, heads have rolled—literally, thanks to both the old and young Wolverine duo. The Wolverine movies have always been filled with slicing and dicing, but Logan is double-blade lethal, resembling a Freddy Krueger slasher movie extravaganza. No wonder this is the first Wolverine film to warrant an “R” rating.
Logan is the third and reportedly last Wolverine film, even though there are rumors Hugh Jackman might be featured in an upcoming Deadpool sequel.
Keep those blades sharpened.
GRADE on an A-F Scale: B
Friday, December 16, 2016
Compelling and literally action-jammed from the get-go, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story can be appreciated as a stand alone sci-fi adventure. That translates to anyone who has not seen the other seven Star Wars movies should enjoy Rogue One. However, diehard fans will enjoy Rogue at least 10 times more. Director Gareth Edwards’ faithful telling makes this film so satisfyingly successful.
Although part of its title is A Star Wars Story, Rogue One is more aptly Stars Wars Part III.5. Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay (based on a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta) involves a mission to steal plans for the evil Empire’s Death Star, which is directly linked to the premise of Star Wars: Part IV - A New Hope. And which is the very first Star Wars movie released back in 1977.
Yes, we’ve gone from Parts IV, V and VI to I, II and III. And then to Part VII. And now this one, sandwiched between III and IV. Never have such Roman Numerals meant so much to so many…fans.
Whew. That all said, there are plenty of stylistic touches and new characters to make Rogue One seem fresh, which also invigorates the ongoing franchise. Considering other Star Wars movies are set to be released on a yearly basis until who knows when, this is more than just a newly hopeful development.
The major fresh ingredient here is having a female lead, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who is much in the spirit of Luke Skywalker. In a preface we learn she was separated from her parents, who were doomed on their home planet by Galactic Empire storm troopers. Sounds a bit like Luke’s tragic experience regarding his aunt and uncle, eh?
Fifteen years later, Jyn joins the Rebel Alliance and teams with a variety of beings, some human, some not. Again, there is a similarity to the Skywalker/Han Solo crew. This time, however, we get Cassian Andor (Diego Luno), as a Rebel officer; Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind, Samurai-type warrior; and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Reluctantly joining the team is ex-Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Forest Whitaker has a featured part as Saw Gerrera, a Clone Wars veteran. There is also the movie’s heroic comic relief droid K-2SO, in the metallic vein of C-3PO, voiced by Alan Tukyk. The 7’ 1” K-2SO was originally part of the Imperial force, but has been reprogrammed as a Rebel soldier.
Together, they seek out the technical specs on how to destroy the planet-obliterating weapon, The Death Star. Remember that in A New Hope the plot involves using those plans to actually destroy the Death Star. See how all this neatly ties together? The blend truly is seamless.
By the time this is published, when the film opens, most of the spoilers will be known, including returning Star Wars characters. Therefore, I won’t detail their cameos, but look for R2-D2 and C-3PO, Darth Vader (again voiced by James Earl Jones), Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), and Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa. Then there is also a bit with a certain Princess Leia, featuring a CGI’d Carrie Fisher.
Two returnees who have major speaking roles are Darth Vader (again voiced by James Earl Jones), and (the late) Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, Death Star head honcho. Cushing died 22 years ago, but through the brilliance of CGI effects + an unnamed voice artist, he lives again. It is incredible.
Rogue One moves along for a zapping, breakneck 133 minutes.
GRADE on an A-F Scale: A-
Friday, November 18, 2016
The joyful absurdities and frightful images peppering the self-described Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are reason enough to see this fun flick. There is also an engaging performance by Eddie Redmayne, who has had a run of Oscar worthy turns over the past couple of years. In 2014, he won the Best Actor for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.
His role as central character Newt Scamander is not much of an acting stretch, however, since he is repeatedly prone to display wonderment and slight reserve. But that is OK, since the role demands such and little more. Fantastic Beasts, after all, is from the Harry Potter school of actors who have learned to act and react against blue screen for effects that will be added later.
Speaking of Master Potter, J. K. Rowling wrote the Fantastic Beasts screenplay as well as the book it is based upon. Need I remind anyone she is also the author of all the Harry Potter books? This is her first attempt at adapting one of her works for the screen, and she does a good job, despite stretches of dialogue—and silence—that could have been tightened. Movie pacing is different from book pacing.
So what we get with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a sort of prequel to the Harry Potter series, even though there is no Harry himself depicted or referenced. But there is mention of Hogwarts, Potter’s wizard academy, as well as talk of a few familiar Potter characters. The story opens in 1926 New York City, as Redmayne’s Newt arrives by ship and goes through customs. He is carrying one medium-sized suitcase, but what a suitcase it is. It moves like there is something inside. There is. (Spoiler alert.) Magically past security, Newt wanders into NYC, and soon the first of many creatures is accidentally unleashed.
Be aware that what follows is an outbreak of unique animals and insects that are either terrorizing or burglarizing Big Apple citizenry. Thank goodness for 21st Century digital effects, which make the impossible seem so real. The “beasts” are indeed “fantastic.” I have to mention my favorite, the first to escape Newt’s grasp. He/She/It is a Niffler, a platypus-looking cutie driven to steal jewelry and coins via pickpocketing and outright store and bank break-ins. This comedy relief creature should be a merchandizing goldmine since it’s already being sold as a toy this Christmas season.
Turns out that there is a literally underground witch and wizard society in NYC, and when they get wind of Newt’s arrival, he is under severe scrutiny. He is particularly targeted by the most evil among them, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). There is also a Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) that seeks to track and control the wizard/witch population. So enters Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter), who is assigned to accompany Newt and monitor his activities during his visit as a rep of the Ministry of Magic.
Integral to the likability of Fantastic Beasts is the totally human character, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who crosses paths with Newt by accidentally switching suitcases with him.
A dozen-plus characters of various degrees of humanity and outer worldliness round out the fantasy tale. Look for Jon Voight (a powerful magnate), Ron Perlman (Gnarlack the goblin gangster), and…a secret already disclosed publicly…Johnny Depp as Gellert Grinedelwald, a dark wizard. Depp is slated to have a much larger part in the next Newt Scamander film, out in two years.
Bets are on that this will be a mega-hit since four sequels are planned with release dates of two years apart. Director David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter movies, is slated to handle all of Newt’s adventures. Whether or not Rowling plans to write future screenplays in the series is unknown.
GRADE on an A-F Scale: B
Friday, September 30, 2016
Although my favorite Tim Burton-directed film remains Big Fish, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is particularly appealing…and worthwhile entertainment. It is a visual delight, which is no surprise due to Burton’s unique genius, ranking alongside 1990’s Edward Scissorhands in terms of bizarre story as well as empathetic characters. In Scissorhands there was one otherworldly being; in Peregrine’s there are multiple strange ones. And I mean very strange.
Based upon Ransom Rigg’s 2011 novel of the same title, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has been aptly described as a “dark fantasy film.” The story involves time travel, relationships, wildly gifted characters, and (supplying the film’s central conflict) evil forces. It has a PG-13 rating that should be called “a strong PG-13” due to violent and gross sequences that include eyeball eating. How’s that for a teaser?
Like the book, Jane Goldman’s screenplay centers on 16 year-old Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) whose close relationship with his storytelling grandfather Abraham Portman (Terence Stamp) prompts Jake’s journey to a remote island. There he finds the basis for his grandfather’s fairytales. All those childhood fantasies about a home for “peculiar” children are actually true, shockingly so.
The children, aka “Peculiars,” are housed in an old mansion on the island, and supervised by protective headmistress Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine (Eva Green). Her wards are children ranging in age from 7-16. Each has specific abilities.
For example, Ella Purnell portrays Emma Bloom, a Peculiar who wears leaded boots to prevent her from floating away. Emma can also control weather and create giant liquid oxygen bubbles. That’s a handy plus for underwater activity.
Ella Purnell listens to directions from Tim Burton during filming.
Another Peculiar is Millard Nullings, an invisible boy. Then there is the girl Claire with an extra mouth in back of her head…and the large mouth is filled with razor sharp teeth. Yum. Not to mention the boy Hugh whose stomach is swarming with bees, and the preteen Fiona who controls plant growth. Super strength, pyrokinesis, and death resurrection are possessed by the other kiddos. Even Miss Peregrine has a couple of special abilities: time control + transforming into a falcon.
The Peregrine “family” is in constant fear of being annihilated by the Nazis, the Wights, and the Hollows—the latter two led by Samuel L. Jackson’s determined Mr. Barron. To make matters worse for Peregrine, the literally empty-eyed Barron can transform himself into any other being.
Nazis? Again, the story involves time travel. So there is shifting from the present to 1943 WWII.
Besides being overlong (2 hours, 7 minutes) and having a slapdash ending, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a sensory treat. Imaginative set design, makeup, sound, and digital effects are superb. See it in 3D if possible.
Burton has utilized stop motion photography in previous films, notably The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and he effectively uses it again here in a great sequence of skeletons coming alive and even sword fighting. It is obviously a homage to Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton army scene in Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
GRADE on an A-F Scale: B
Friday, September 9, 2016
Haven’t Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks already had their share of Oscar nominations? Regardless, it is likely they will receive another each for Sully. What a stunning, heroic story it is. The fact that Sully opens two days before the 15th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks is undoubtedly no coincidence since this historically based story is all about human values and principles. And New York City is the backdrop.
Based upon the non-fiction best seller Highest Duty, by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, Sully (Sullenberger’s nickname) recounts the near tragic US Airways Flight 1549 flight of January 15, 2009—including its forced ditching in NYC’s Hudson River and the intensive investigation that followed. Not only have I never read the book, but knowing what happened following the incident escaped my knowledge. So I brought little to the proverbial plate as a member of the audience. That said, I know now—and you will too. Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki have done a superb job in covering the true story’s waterfront, wordplay intended.
Director Clint Eastwood and his star, Tom Hanks, confer off camera during filming.
Plot spoilers do not apply much here, since a great deal of the story involves information generally known. For example, on that cold January day seven years ago, US Airways veteran pilots Captain “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) boarded at LaGuardia Airport. The 155 passengers and crew, a full plane, buckled up for what everyone thought was a routine flight. About three minutes after takeoff, the plane encountered a large flock of birds that hit them head-on, knocking out both engines.
Too far away from LaGuardia to return for landing, Sullenberger has 208 seconds to make a decision, choosing to set down on, and hopefully not under, the Hudson. Following the desperate call, a LaGuardia air traffic controller remarks to his fellow controller, “People don’t survive water landings.”
The recreation of the rocky landing that occurs about an hour into the film, including the water rescue by combined military and NYC squads, is a spectacular site to behold. The intensity and terror of those minutes aboard the plane overwhelms. I found myself sobbing at one point, and that is a credit to Eastwood, the actors (particularly Hanks), Blu Murray’s effective editing, and CGI effects. Among the passengers is a baby with her parents, which would put any viewer over the emotional edge. And it all occurs in real time, abruptly and rapidly. Anyone who has ever flown undoubtedly has thought about a similar nightmare scenario. This is the most jarring sequence of an airplane emergency ever filmed. Seeing it on the IMAX screen heightens the experience.
The final fourth of the film involves the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into Sullenberger’s decision to water land, since computerized recreations indicate the plane could have returned to LaGuardia without any problem. Sully and Skiles hold firm on the Hudson River decision.
Incidentally, the first part of the film focuses on Scully’s anxieties about the trial, which (hint) makes the incident itself a flashback. We also get to know his character better, including interactions with his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) and various scenes of Scully’s history with airplanes as a young man.
But it is the totally engrossing in-flight sequence that dominates Sully. Prepare your adrenaline.
GRADE on an A-F Scale:A