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by Tony Johnson 09.29.2015 7 days ago
at 04:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: The Green Inferno

Whether or not you like The Green Inferno probably depends on whether or not you can put up with the guy at parties who says, “I don’t want to be that guy, but…” and then suggests something inconvenient (usually they want your food). This gore-fest of a horror film knows it’s being “that guy.” But does acknowledging one’s faults make them automatically forgivable?

Director Eli Roth’s latest effort to gross us out is propped up against the backdrop of the Amazon rainforest. Like many of his films before (Cabin Fever, Hostel), it focuses on a naïve protagonist venturing to unfamiliar territory. When Justine (Lorenza Izzo) finds herself teaming up with a social activism group at college aiming to end the destruction of the rainforests inhabited by indigenous tribes, she doesn’t just sign up to hold a rally at a capitol building or egg a corporation’s headquarters. She signs up to go into the jungle, which is currently a warzone between industry and indigenous tribes. Justine ignores the risks because she thinks the leader of the student activists is really, really hot. One of their planes eventually crash-lands, leaving them in the middle of the jungle with no sense of direction and no GPS. In a turn of events soaked with irony, the students who are attempting to save the indigenous people from neocolonial expansion are mistaken for workers of the aggressive enterprisers and are brought in as prisoners by the unnamed tribe. Once the students are locked in a cell, we quickly learn that the students are not so much captives as they are cattle. The tribe is cannibalistic, and it seems that the only thing they revel in more than eating human flesh is the ceremonial torturing of it.

The Green Inferno knows exactly how wrong it is, and Eli Roth is laughing all the way. It is a campy, tongue-in-cheek, refreshing throwback to the likes of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although its premise does directly call back to Cannibal Holocaust, even if the film at hand doesn’t match up to either of the two grindhouse horror classics. Roth wastes no time trying to get us to genuinely care for any of the characters, most of whom cannot help but exude privilege even in the most typical of conversations. Rather than try to get us to root for the survival of a group of heroes, he gets us to pity Justine along the way. Roth hopes that we become overwhelmed not only by the buckets of blood spurting from victims’ severed limbs or heads, but also by the insurmountable misfortune that Justine attracts. She serves as a sort of doppelganger to the unsuspecting moviegoer that unwittingly finds themself in a showing of The Green Inferno. Way in over her head, constantly shocked by the brutality of her apparent fate and always trying to plot ways to escape when she isn’t trying to contribute to another prisoner’s plan, Justine may represent that weak-stomached tag-along in the group of friends who shouldn’t have come to this movie. And I am warning you: Any popcorn you eat is coming right back up if you aren’t ready for Roth’s demented exposé. Better yet, Justine might be seen as the squeamish piece in all of us that we can’t help but hear in the back of our minds saying, “Get me out of this theater.” And that’s where The Green Inferno really burns brightest — in its ability to make us cringe, make us looks away from the screen for brief moments, make us wish were brave enough to keep watching.

It differs in an essential manner from the all-out seriousness of last month’s similarly plotted No Escape. But while the Owen Wilson-led action flick felt heavy-handed and unapologetic in its possibly xenophobic premise, The Green Inferno is packed with enough despicable victims that it doesn’t feel like the American college students are helpless against foreign customs. It just feels like they’re getting what’s coming to them. They are a carefully crafted crew of stereotypical archetypes with foul mouths and insensitive opinions. Some are homophobic. Some seem racist. One smokes pot, one plays guitar and two of them are partially along for the trip to the Amazon in an attempt to eventually get laid. Before our characters get captured, tortured and perhaps killed, we are given ample reason to wish it upon them.

Despite any of the premise’s inherent faults, Roth understands that if we want to celebrate the relentless cannibalistic carnage that he so desperately loves, the deaths must not be tragic, but a release. That’s where the unlikable characters become so useful. I caught myself grimacing as much at what the characters said as when I witnessed their respective dooms, but I also caught myself occasionally laughing at the grotesque images of severed limbs, gauged eye sockets and impaled skulls. There’s no getting around the uncomfortable dull-mindedness of its protagonists, but for all of its bumps and bruises, The Green Inferno mostly slashes, burns and bleeds its way to a good time. And it’s not in spite of how unlikable the characters are. It’s because of how unlikable they are.

But just because I mostly had a good time doesn’t mean I was mostly impressed. The Green Inferno delivers where it should and comes up short where you might expect. The dialogue serves its purpose but drags its feet, and I’m not sure that the attempted commentary on globalism hits its mark. None of the actors shine — although to be fair, this is an Eli Roth film, where acting is but a mechanism to eventually get your head chopped off. The most troubling conceptual piece of the movie comes with its script’s big “reveal” moment. Underlying hidden motivations for their trip are eventually unveiled to the students upon their capturing and it absolutely reeks of a “ghost in the machine.” Even though the twist tries to serve as an anti-neocolonial statement, it comes across as just a hollow plot device that could have been solved somehow else.

Still, the point isn’t to be impressed with a social commentary, stellar acting or a remarkable plot when you walk in the theater for a cannibal horror flick. The point is that the subtext, performances and story amplify the fear of intense physical pain, the fear of a slow tortuous death and the fear that the worst things can happen to people who believe that they are working to create a better world. In that regard, The Green Inferno is definitely worth a viewing for horror enthusiasts despite its missteps and it is also a must-avoid for the weak of stomach. If it were any bloodier, you would have to bring a bib. If it were any better, you would have to see it to believe it. Grade: C

by Tony Johnson 09.24.2015 12 days ago
at 02:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: Mistress America

I thought I was going to see Sicario, the border crime drama starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro on Sunday night. I originally didn’t think it was in town yet, so when I Googled the movie and a lone show time for 7:30 p.m. popped up, I immediately headed out to catch it. I had been under the impression that Sicario wasn’t expanding from select venues for at least another week, but I did not hesitate to trust Google. Turns out I should have. Sicario still had not hit Cincinnati. But I was in the mood for a movie, so I caught a showing of Mistress America instead.

Mistress America is a sweet-hearted comedy with something to say about itself. The 86-minute romp is warm and witty and cozy, too. Writer/director Noah Baumbach is known for keeping it real with considerations of generational conflict and coming-of-age, and this time Baumbach is willing to push his story template into the realm of the absurd. The script is packed with dialogue that flies rapidly out of the mouths of leading ladies Lola Kirke and Greta Gerwig.

The story is preposterous and the delivery is silly, but the film is kept grounded with an overarching observation of art and honesty. The story follows college freshman and loner Tracy (Kirke) as she begins to discover New York City as an accomplice to Brooke (Gerwig) on frivolous adventures after they meet due to an eventual family wedding that will make the pair sisters. Things get real when Tracy uses her experiences with Brooke as an inspiration for a short story that might gain her entrance into a campus literature group. But things get zany when Brooke begins to actively pursue her dream of opening a restaurant and the lead investors back out. When Brooke and Tracy visit Brooke’s psychic for counsel, they conclude that Brooke must face her ex-fiancé and ex-best friend, who are now married and wealthy in Greenwich, Conn., and fully capable of funding Brooke’s entrepreneurial venture. So the two girls set off to “Greenwich grossville” to get the money that Brooke desperately needs.

Along the way we discover that Brooke’s former best friend, Mamie-Claire, stole Brooke’s T-shirt design and made a company and decent profit out of it. Meanwhile, Brooke’s current best friend, Tracy, is feeding off of Brooke’s life for writing material. The parallels and paradoxes begin to mount, and eventually culminate in a modest but meaningful conclusion.

Mistress America never sacrifices its message for laughs and doesn’t have to sacrifice dignity for them, either. It is new but familiar territory for Noah Baumbach, whose off-the-screen partnership with Gerwig hopefully reflects the chemistry evident on set of production. Gerwig is an absolute star that can make us feel as young and optimistic as her characters often feel. And Baumbach knows exactly what to do with her on screen.

Baumbach’s most recent movie is brief but bold enough to satisfy. It makes no apologies for its rat-a-tat pace and brings us along for a youthful rush that ends with a smile. Baumbach’s talent is on full display here — this comedy is a fun, clever and endearing look at what it means to grow up, what it means to be a friend and what it means to be an artist. Sometimes, as Mistress America maybe helps us understand, there’s more to art than art. There are months of maturation and countless random encounters that develop the crafter and, in turn, their craft. There are broken promises and broken dreams and fresh starts and lucky breaks. Overall, Mistress America is mostly somewhere in between fresh and lucky, with only a few pieces that could use some fixing. Grade: B

by Tony Johnson 09.22.2015 14 days ago
at 02:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
black mass

Spoonful of Cinema: Black Mass

My movie weekend started at 7 p.m. Friday night, when I went and saw Black Mass, the true-crime expose of the Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger. The picture stars Johnny Depp as the murderous, opportunistic kingpin, while Joel Edgerton portrays fellow South-Bostonian and conspirator, FBI agent John Connolly. It’s a somewhat typical, mostly entertaining look at one of America’s most notorious most-wanted criminals of the time.

Black Mass has a few things going for it. First of all, Depp is in good form as “Whitey” Bulger. He commits cold-blooded murder to solve any inconvenience along the way to ruling Boston’s scummy criminal underworld. Depp’s Bulger is a methodical, cunning and careful small-time mobster who takes every opportunity granted to propel himself to the big leagues of the black market. We get a particularly riveting piece of the character’s psyche when he explains the ethics of punching people in the face to his elementary school-aged son. “It’s not what you do”, he tells the boy. “It’s when and where you do it and who you do it to or with. If nobody sees it,” Bulger reassures his son, “didn’t happen.”

Along the way, we get solid work from an impressive cast. Supporters Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Jesse Plemons, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll all come along to fight the fight that sees the eventual downfall of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang. It’s a tense cat-and-mouse game throughout, but we only get short glimpses of the damage done.

The crime drama covers roughly seven years in just over two hours, and director Scott Cooper takes on the difficult task of packing such a long period into 122 minutes. It’s a movie with fundamental flaws in its nature. A highly calculated, brutal and bloody war unfolds on the streets of Boston. But it all happens so fast, and some moments and spaces that Agent Connolly, “Whitey” Bulger and their respective peers occupy feel more intriguing than others. It left me wishing that the story had something to say about itself, and didn’t just serve as a series of glimpses into the acts of a real-life villain.

Interestingly enough, the real James “Whitey” Bulger has denounced what he’s heard of Black Mass and Depp’s portrayal of him. Former member of the Winter Hill Gang Kevin Weeks claims that what we have on our hands is pure “fantasy.” It seems strange that the makers of a true crime story about “Whitey” Bulger would veer from the facts and into the realm of exaggeration when a movie already exists that does just that. I’m talking about Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Not even 10 years old, the Academy Award-winning movie was a loose interpretation of “Whitey” Bulger’s eventual end. Perhaps if The Departed had not been released, Black Mass would be more worthwhile. But the new, supposedly more genuine representation felt hesitant, as if trying to straddle the line between fact and fiction while propelling us a month-per-minute through the timeline.

Essentially, Black Mass is a shadow to both Bulger’s true story and The Departed’s artistic falsehoods. It feels aimless despite its grit, its guts and its star, and I think that to some degree there is a good movie hiding somewhere within this Mass. Grade: C-

by Tony Johnson 09.16.2015 20 days ago
at 02:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
universal pictures

Spoonful of Cinema: The Visit

The Visit is a change-up for M. Night Shyamalan. Kind of. The man notorious for refusing to make a movie that doesn’t have a massive twist, usually in the final few moments of the film, has brought us Academy Award-nominated The Sixth Sense, but he has also brought us Razzie-nominated films like The Happening and (gulp) After Earth. So when he decided to try to get back to his roots of suspense and horror and away from his misadventures in big budget nonsense, I decided I would take a flier.

The premise surrounding The Visit is as straightforward and crisp as vintage Shaymalan could get. Two grandchildren, Becca and Tyler, armed with digital cameras, go to visit their never-met grandparents and things get a little… spooky. Grandpa is wildly paranoid. Grandma wanders around at night, sometimes on all fours, sometimes scratching the wall the way a housecat would a scratching post. Grandma gets a kick out of having Becca climb in the oven — “all the way in” — to clean it.

Of course with Shyamalan, it can’t be all that simple. That would be too fun to watch. There’s a Shyamalan-trademark family drama needlessly bubbling underneath the otherwise self-explanatory event. Becca and Tyler’s mother, played by Kathryn Hahn, eloped against her parents’ will only to be ditched by her husband once Tyler, the younger of the siblings, was born. It feels like a cheap way to get us to fear for the kids’ fates, and feels even more like a waste of my time in the theater. Shyamalan really lays the family-love on thick throughout, doing his damnedest to get us to pray to whatever we believe in that the grandparents are only very strange, somewhat sick elderly folk and not the perhaps murderous plotters looking to claim vengeance on their daughter’s rebellious days that we can’t help but suspect.

Speaking of trying to get us to like the characters, I really have to wonder what in the world I was supposed to like about Tyler, the tween-ish boy counterpart to his much more likable older sister, Becca. Tyler is annoying. I don’t like his voice, I don’t like how clever he thinks he is and I don’t like that he raps about cake. He drives me nuts. I really can’t understate how obnoxious this freaking kid is, and I remember thinking to myself very honestly, “Please, if only one of these kids makes it out of the visit alive, take Tyler.”

While I imagine Shyamalan was trying to make the kids a sort of duality in the sense that one is female and modest while the other is male and blurts whatever is on his immature mind, M. Night really just makes one kid seem like an angel and the other seem like that accumulation of snot you get in your nose (sometimes only one nostril, now that’s the worst) overnight when you have the flu. To all you Louis C.K. fans out there, Tyler is essentially my Jizanthapus. He’s a kid, and I shouldn’t despise him, but… I totally despise and I won’t lose a second of sleep over it. For all I know, young Australian actor Ed Oxenbould — unfortunate enough to be cast as Tyler — has a bright career ahead of him. If he does, this performance will be that embarrassing moment he doesn’t want brought up in interviews. The worst part is, this isn’t his fault. Shyamalan really went to great lengths to create one of the lamest characters of the year, and perhaps of his career (and that is really saying something).

But after we get past the fact that the movie is split three-quarters the way of solid horror flick, one-quarter sappy family drama and after we put up with Tyler’s painful inclination to rap about nonsense off-beat in random moments, we are still forced to come to grips with the found-footage direction style of the film. No longer a fresh way to frame a horror flick, the found-footage approach is honestly executed with a surprising volume of youthful energy from the veteran filmmaker behind the cameras (all two of them). The Blair Witch Project may have popularized (and perhaps immediately perfected) the style for scare-tactics all the way back in 1999 (ironically the same year Shyamalan popularized himself with The Sixth Sense) but the method seems to still have something to offer the world of horror films.

The “jump scares” are tastefully sparse and truly give audiences the surprised shouts we crave heading into a theater for a scary movie like The Visit. I tend to be more impressed with the “slow-burn” scares that push horror films into the realm of classics, and while The Visit offers enough paranoia to keep us in the theater, it also falls flat on its face often enough to be make us raise an eyebrow. I found myself laughing every three or four times I was supposed to be shaking in my seat. That’s not a good formula for a good horror film. While I’m on the subject, let me just be clear: This is not a good any-kind-of film, and it basically derails its own formula.

When a film has one half of a protagonist duo of grandkids that is utterly unlikable and one half of an antagonistic duo of grandparents makes you chuckle when you know you’re supposed to be screaming, the movie doesn’t come out on top. It comes out low (but not the lowest) on the Shayamalan scale, but with a much more bitter taste than most of his failures. There’s a good movie somewhere in The Visit. Perhaps this one is on the editor, but I’ve been too disappointed too many times by M. Night to believe anyone but the writer/director deserves most of my negative feelings toward the horror flick. While The Happening and After Earth were downright disastrous implosions, The Visit has just enough redeeming qualities to keep us generally on board, somewhat intrigued and mostly entertained. But that’s not what Shyamalan wants us to feel. It’s not what I want either, but it’s what we got. If you’ve been holding out for a Shyamalan comeback, this may not be the trip you want to take a chance on. 

Grade: D

by Tony Johnson 09.10.2015 26 days ago
at 11:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
black mass

Spoonful of Cinema: Fall Movie Preview

Autumn 2015 looks unusually strong. Perhaps I’m optimistic, but there seems to be several upcoming titles on the release schedule in the months leading up to the holidays that I find myself looking forward to as much as any fall I can remember. It just comes down to whether you trust the cast and crew around the individual film release or if you trust that the movie studios will stick to the script and deliver the best quality films when they intend to. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.

Hollywood justifies its existence with its accomplishments. We get bombarded annually with loads of nonsensical big-budget franchise flops — we also get our minds blown when the picture is right, when it all comes together. Here’s to hoping that, this fall, we experience enough excellence to forgive and forget the never-shrinking studio batch of goofy big-budget embarrassment we are sometimes forced to sift through as moviegoers.

September has a lot of movies on the schedule that I wouldn’t raise my hopes for, but a few strike me as intriguing. I would say that M. Night Shyamalan won’t be making another good movie any time soon — The Happening is a great ironic viewing — but sometimes a director has to take a turn for the worse to make an eventual turn for the better. The perhaps too-often-mocked director behind The Sixth Sense and Signs returns to horror with The Visit, set for wide release from Universal on Sept. 11. The premise is as frightening as it is vintage Shyamalan. In the PG-13 “original thriller” (so says the trailer), two kids visit a pair of grandparents who strictly enforce bedtime. Over the course of The Visit, the kids notice strange noises after bedtime, and their grandparents begin to behave strangely the next day. I would say that the idea of a total Shyamalan comeback is outlandish, but Universal seems to be releasing nothing but insanely popular movies this year. I’m not getting excited for The Visit, which seems to feature a heavy found-footage-style dosage of screen time, but I’d be lying if I denied that I typically root for any horror film to scare the living snot out of me.

On Sept.18, Warner Brothers will distribute Black Mass for wide release. The true-crime drama will feature Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Depp in what looks like a good old-fashioned gangster film. Depp is already being hailed for a sort of comeback in TV spots and reviews. It’s good to know that he at least decided to play a character that isn’t some sort of mystical being or peculiar sad man. The hype for Depp portraying Boston crime legend James “Whitey” Bulger is astronomically high, and I can only hope that he reaches the performance level that most critics seem to believe he has delivered.

October is when things will get pretty exciting. The first weekend of the month will see the wide release of Ridely Scott’s The Martian, a limited release of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk in IMAX, and a double helping of Tom Hardy in Brian Helgeland’s Legend. The Martian has a bold ensemble cast led by Matt Damon, but its merit will be accomplished or missed behind the camera. I like to liken Ridley Scott to a power hitter in Major League Baseball — sure, he strikes out more than most, but when he gets ahold of something good, he really makes it count. There is a good level of hype for The Martian — some seem to hope that this could be Scott’s finest film since American Gangster, but it could be as disappointing as Scott’s similarly hyped (albeit very different subject matter in) The Counselor, which turned out to be an uncomfortable sitting for movie fans hoping for the best out of a Cormac McCarthy script. The Walk is based on the true story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 attempt to walk a wire connecting the two towers of the World Trade Center. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and is directed by Robert Zemeckis, the guy behind Back to the Future, Forrest Gump and Flight. The movie should at least be worth seeing in IMAX, and Zemeckis’ films always have an outside shot to be awards-season surprises. Zemeckis’ constant attempt to walk the fine line between broad appeal and powerful visual skills won him an Oscar and massive box office success, but The Walk’s story seems as risky as its protagonist’s goal.

In limited release, Legend seems sure to satisfy the best of the Tom Hardy fan in everyone. We all know that the only thing better than Tom Hardy starring in a movie is Tom Hardy starring with Tom Hardy in the same movie. He’ll be portraying real-life London crook icons, the twin Kray brothers. One is the brain. One is the brawn. The colorful biopic has already garnered mostly mixed but positive-leaning reviews. We are about to discover if Hardy may be ready to prove that he can carry a film at the box office for any studio. The film will not have an initial wide release, but it will be interesting to see if Hardy — practically the entire selling point of the movie based on its trailer — can pull Americans to smaller movie houses for a mobster flick about British criminals. Legend will be another Universal release. If Universal’s box office mojo continues into the fall, Legend will probably surpass expectations.

And that’s only the first weekend of October.  On Oct. 9, we get to watch one of the best actors around — Michael Fassbender — portray one of the most monumental, impossible-to-ignore public figures of our time in Steve Jobs. Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) will be directing, and Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network) has penned the script. It’s worth noting that Sorkin has now written two big-time portrayals of tech industry tycoons; but if it works, why not do it again? If the picture shows as well as its producers seem to expect, we could very well see Fassbender at the Globes and Oscars in early 2016. Much of Steve Jobs weight will rest on his shoulders. Keep an eye on this one.

The week after we watch Fassbender take on Jobs, we get two auteurs’ latest releases on the same wide release date. Bridge of Spies will be the newest movie from Steven Spielberg. The legendary filmmaker is teaming up with Tom Hanks to take on a story loosely based on Cold War espionage. It seems a little bland from the trailers, but this is Steven Spielberg, so I’m definitely more optimistic than not for Bridge of Spies. The other half of the awesome Oct. 16 weekend is Guillermo Del Toro’s gothic horror extravaganza Crimson Peak. The trailer footage is stunning, and Del Toro should be capable of scaring us in more ways than we might imagine. The Mexican master of the supernatural has brought us the Hellboy movies, the chilling Pan’s Labyrinth and the outrageous Pacific Rim. His ability to visually stun us with his creations is only matched by his ability to compel us with his mysterious plots and scheming villains.

by Tony Johnson 09.01.2015 35 days ago
at 03:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: No Escape

No Escape is fine, I guess. It’s surprisingly better than I would have suspected, but I’m not recommending it. The action is tense but the story is flat. Its story is wildly boring and its perspective is probably xenophobic. Giving the filmmaking Dowdle brothers the benefit of the doubt as far as the xenophobic possibilities go, there’s still something wrong with this picture.

Star actor Owen Wilson isn’t the problem. Neither is star actress Lake Bell. Neither is star support Pierce Brosnan. Neither is the directing team of Drew and John Erick Dowdle. What’s wrong with No Escape is the uninspired writing team of Drew and John Erick Dowdle.

Unfortunately for the 40-something brothers out of St. Paul, Minn., their combined efforts behind the keyboard are far more tragic than the events we witness on camera. The filmmaking duo brings us Wilson as Jack Dwyer, a newly transferred employee of a large corporation. The international company has something to do with the water supply in an unnamed, apparently irrelevant Asian nation. And guess what? The native inhabitants of whatever country Jack is in don’t like the fact that a big, bad business is taking their water because things have apparently gotten worse since Americans began controlling the supply.

The well-armed revolt puts the Dwyer family in an unexpected scenario. The locals are violently rebellious, and they want American blood. Despite the film’s title, Jack and his wife Annie (Lake Bell) do everything in their power to bring themselves and their children to escape from the lethally unfortunate situation they have found themselves in.

The route of escape takes us from the inside of a hotel building to the top of a hotel building to the top of another building and down and through the unnamed city to the U.S. Embassy and to the Vietnam border. Along the way, British Intelligence Agent Hammond (Brosnan) assists the Dwyers. Hammond alludes to the fact that Western military intelligence operations are responsible for the mess in whatever country the Dwyers are escaping from. He helps the Dwyers and puts his life on the line out of some sense of guilt. It all adds up to a script that feels like its main mission is to apologize for its lack of any sort of brains and then shove us into a somewhat suspenseful moment.

But the cameras do the trick. Whether I like it or not, I found myself occasionally impressed with the stylistic delivery with which the Dowdle brothers prop up their mundane screenplay. It is a directorial display that gives heavy hints to their roots in horror films, from the pacing to the music to the title screen. The dialogue is mostly fluff, but the suspense is mostly well executed and even somewhat gripping. But it didn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable with myself every time I caught myself enjoying a near-death experience of one of our on-screen protagonists. Just like the script seems to apologize for its non-story, I felt like I had to apologize to my brain for having some sort of fun watching it play out.

No Escape seems to be entirely the Dowdle Brothers’ creation, and with the paltry substance that they provide themselves to work with, they manage to satisfy us in some very basic ways. We don’t know if any of the Dwyers will make it or not until the very end. We don’t feel as though any of them are safe throughout, but we are also unsure of why we would really care if a main character were to bite the bullet. Of course, some level of tragedy is implied when we watch a anyone get shot or beat to death, but building up a struggling family with a weak script to serve as their infrastructure doesn’t do the Dowdles any favors.

The body count in No Escape is probably the most impressive thing about the movie. It echoes part of the appeal and much of the nonsensical aspects of 2008’s Taken. But instead of a man’s daughter being taken by foreign assailants, No Escape paints us a picture of a man who obliviously marches his family right into Hell’s gates, which are seemingly always located overseas. The fact that Jack’s ineptness in planning so sharply contrasts his ability to think on the fly in emergency scenarios is troubling. There’s no way someone — particularly someone so bright as the inventor Jack Dwyer — would relocate their family via global megacorporation job placement without looking into the company’s social standing in the impoverished, politically unstable region it inhabits. Right?

What we have here is not so much a disaster movie as it is a disastrous movie. No Escape is a fitting title for this predictably unexceptional, relatively low-budget Weinstein Company flick. Owen Wilson seems to have no escape from bad movies, despite his obvious talent exhibited in films like Bottle Rocket and Midnight In Paris. Lake Bell seems to have no escape from taking bland roles as “the-wife-of-so-and-so,” despite her directorial and creative talents. The Dowdle Brothers’ directorial talents galore have no escape from the toxic script that they penned themselves. And we the audience had no escape from No Escape. In the end, whether the Dwyers survive or not, everyone leaves the theater a loser.

Grade: D+

by Tony Johnson 08.24.2015 43 days ago
at 03:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: Straight Outta Compton (Review)

When N.W.A. first arrived, the group was a revelation — a musical explosion of aggressive lyrics and explicit subject matter. When its legendary record Straight Outta Compton dropped 27 years ago, it may very well have marked the inclusion of gangsta rap in the mainstream conscious of pop culture for the first time. The rap group, comprised of Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella, became the voice of a pissed off generation of street kids who had been subjected to and paid witness to the worst of the War on Drugs, police harassment and brutality and Reaganomics.

So here we are, more than a quarter of a century later, and the story that N.W.A. was telling in 1988 sounds all too similar to the domestic issues we face as a nation today. While Straight Outta Compton the album was current, Straight Outta Compton the film is characterized by a triple balancing act of paying tribute to the godfathers of gangsta, the biopic-necessity of gritty truth-telling and exuding modern relevance.

The film begins before the group comes to exist. Before they become pieces of the world’s most dangerous Hip Hop group, Eazy-E is pocketing stacks of cash (or not, when he gets stiffed) from dope deals and ducking from the police. Ice Cube is venting mightily with a pen and pad, and doing his best not to get beat by local gangsters. Dr. Dre is begrudgingly DJing for an L.A. club that distances its image from what the club owner calls “that gangster bullshit.” Ren is just a small-time MC, and DJ Yella works the club discs with Dre. Eazy wonders how long he could survive in the drug game, Cube is full of rhymes targeted at everything he has to deal with and Dre is escaping into his G-funk production dream world at his mother’s strong disapproval.

As we watch the stories unfold — which primarily revolve around the trio of Eazy, Cube and Dre — we also witness the blossoming of three exceptional young and relatively unknown actors.  Jason Mitchell nails the loose-canon, true gangster attitude of Eazy-E and adds touches of guilt and tinges of pain. O’Shea Jackson Jr., the son of Ice Cube, is surprisingly superb in his first significant acting performance as his father. The resemblance is astoundingly striking — from Jackson Jr.’s appearance to his laugh, voice and smile, there could not have been a better or less conventional choice as to who could play Ice Cube. Corey Hawkins portrays Dr. Dre. It’s a tight race amongst the three to determine which star shines the brightest — not in dissimilar fashion to the icons they emulate — but perhaps Hawkins is the most impressive, if not the most qualified. Hawkins’ experience ranges from playing Shakespeare’s vital Tybalt role in a Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet to being recently named as the actor to take on Heath in The Walking Dead, and his experience and natural talent are both are on full display in Straight Outta Compton. If Hollywood has its head on straight, these three actors can help to close the cringe-worthy diversity gap in the movie industry.

The actors and director F. Gary Gray carry an expansive, sometimes sprawling collaborative script to impressive places in Hip Hop history that were all sparked by N.W.A. From their initial, practically overnight explosion of popularity to the subsequent contract dissatisfaction and departures of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre from the group, the movie becomes something that it may not have intended to be but is rewarding to witness — it serves as a re-telling of West Coast Hip Hop’s rise through the spectrum of N.W.A.

We get a taste of early Hip Hop dis-tracks when Ice Cube leaves for New York City to start his own rap label, Lench Mob. We witness bad contracts from Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) and violent intimidation from Suge Knight, which serve as opposite sides to the same coin of Eazy-E’s tragic fall from rap stardom. We watch Dre work out production kinks with Snoop Dogg, the D.O.C. and Tupac.

Straight Outta Compton is a treat for Hip Hop fans, and as a huge fan of N.W.A., Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, I can say that my expectations were easily satisfied and my highest hopes exceeded.  It’s a strange formula for a blockbuster hit. Think about it — a picture produced by the artists (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, the Eazy-E estate) with the most to gain monetarily from its success shouldn’t be good. It should be a two-hour commercial. But it is good, even though the cast is essentially a collection of unknowns with the insertion of the producer’s son as a lead. But it does work, and it works brilliantly, and I can only hope that Ice Cube’s Cube Vision video production studios aim to make more Hip Hop and street pictures.  

The film works brilliantly on two levels. The first level is at face value — we get to re-witness one of the most —if not the most — exciting moments in Hip Hop. The second level is revealed when you peel back the layers and ask yourself why the story of these kids from Compton in the late ’80s is just as relevant as it was then. The things that they were saying on record, the journalistic qualities unique to Hip Hop (and perhaps Folk music) that showed what life was really like — I don’t think the film is trying to keep those ideas and frustrations bottled up in the era of Reagan and Bush 1. Instead, the film is really about what we face today, how things haven’t changed enough and that if artists don’t feel the responsibility to shine a light on unfortunate circumstances the way that Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren and DJ Yella did, then maybe things never will change. The film is as much a message to the future as it is a reflection of the past. And it’s a whole hell of a lot of fun, too.

Grade: A-

by Tony Johnson 08.19.2015 48 days ago
at 12:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spoonful of Cinema: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Review)

I went and saw Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation twice in the last week and a half. It was an absolute blast the first time around and the second opportunity was too hard to turn down when I found myself at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., last Wednesday afternoon. It is a doozy of a cinema house, and if you find yourself in the land of make-believe (that is, Hollywood), I do recommend an escape to the famous theater for a tour and a showing in their IMAX auditorium.

But back to Mission: Impossible 5. The high-octane action flick is a blast to the very past of its origins. The first Mission: Impossible arrived nearly 20 years ago. Ethan Hunt, the uncannily able, righteously insubordinate agent of the IMF (that’s the Impossible Missions Force) is as heroic as ever in huge thanks to none other than Tom Cruise. Cruise is his usual self — sharp as they come, quipping one-liners and putting his ass on the line for the old-fashioned Hollywood thrill of watching someone do drastically dangerous things as we watch from the comfort of a cushioned theater seat, throw popcorn at our faces and slurp on our sodas.

But Hunt is not without his team, and his team is a well-rounded crew both in what they contribute to Hunt and what the respective actors contribute to the chemistry. Simon Pegg gives us the silly, sarcastic surveillance wiz Benji Dunn. Jeremy Renner gives us the seriously stressed IMF Field Operations Director William Brandt. Rebecca Ferguson is the mysterious secret ally to Hunt, who holds the key between the IMF and their most dangerous enemies, known only as the Syndicate.

Together the team works from Washington, London, Paris, Vienna and Casablanca in their desperate attempts to thwart what seems like an unstoppable force of cruel international intentions. Along the way, we get Ethan Hunt and Co. in their finest form. They race through tunnels and alleys and mountainsides by foot and by car and by motorcycle. They infiltrate high-security premises with masks and soft steps and deep-water diving. They keep us laughing, on the edge of our seats and constantly wondering, “How can they get out of this mess?”

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation lies in its star, the Undeniable One, Mr. Cruise. But perhaps the most important piece of M:I–RO’s meticulously crafted Hollywood formula is its story, script and direction, all of which were crafted and brought to life by Christopher McQuarrie, with story assistance from Drew Pearce (set to write the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot).

McQuarrie’s expertise at the typewriter is as evident now as it was when he penned the Bryan Singer-directed, Academy Award-winning screenplay for 1995’s The Usual Suspects. No line is wasted. When viewers aren’t chuckling, we’re learning about the Syndicate — who they are, what they want, how Hunt might be able to stop them. Above all, McQuarrie knows how to paint Cruise as a charming lead. McQuarrie has written three other scripts (Valkyrie, Jack Reacher, Edge of Tomorrow) that have featured Cruise as the lead man.

And the charm is what drives the film at the end of the day. Because we’ve all seen Mission: Impossible before. We’ve all seen Tom Cruise save the day (practically every time we see him, actually). We’ve all seen explosions and motorcycle races and we’ve all heard big resounding chords played on horn sections as high-flying stunts are performed on-screen. So what makes this time around so special, perhaps the best Mission Hunt has seen in his five-installment, 20-year span?  It’s something difficult to describe.

What sets M:I 5 apart from so many other stupid Hollywood blockbusters is its ability to keep us constantly on our toes, unsure of whether we might be laughing at a surprise punch-line or gawking at a dangerous stunt or discovering some top-secret information. Rogue Nation accomplishes that rare, perhaps unprecedented feat of taking a Hollywood franchise beyond its own limits without uprooting its foundation in its fifth installment. Like the Fast & Furious franchise, the Mission: Impossible universe seems to only get more and more fun as each installment finds its way from studio back-lots and extravagant shooting locations to the cinema houses. It is a brilliantly young-at-heart balancing act that buoys the end result upwards toward Hollywood awesomeness in a silver-screen summer that has been sorely lacking in good old-fashioned fun.

Grade: B+

by John Hamilton 05.04.2015
at 12:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reel Redux: The Revenant

The most recent recipient of the Best Director Oscar, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman), will have a new film for 2015 —The Revenant. This movie tells the true story of early-19th entury frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was mauled by a bear during a trapping expedition and is left for dead by his hunting partners (Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson). But it turns out that he’s alive and is now on a quest for revenge.

Some of you are probably tilting your head and wondering why I’m talking about this film instead of something like the new string of Disney live action adaptations that are coming up. The reason is because this is essentially a remake of a 1971 Richard Harris (the original Dumbledore) movie called Man in the Wilderness. It’s a similar story but with names changed, more characters added and the main character, Zachary Bass, is only targeting one person, Captain Henry (John Huston).

I think Man in the Wilderness is an underrated gem from the ‘70s about a man’s struggle for survival and what motivates him to continue his quest. But even though this is a film that I like a lot, I don’t have a problem with it being remade.

First of all, it is trying something a bit different with the story and style. For one thing, Iñárritu seems to be sticking closer to what actually happened. He’s keeping it to just about Glass and his three hunting companions, which I’m sure will be very engaging. In the original film it just kept the drama between the relationship with Bass and Henry all the while trying to juggle more than a dozen members of the expedition; with this small group of characters we get a chance to get engaged with all of them.

One interesting aspect that Iñárritu is doing is that apparently he is filming in natural light — no studio lighting, no artificial lighting or anything. This could add a really nice flavor to the movie. This could help emphasize the survival aspect especially given the fact that it’s in the summer time in a rather untamed part of the country.

Now, as for the casting choices, I’m mixed when it comes to the choice of Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass. I mean, there’s nothing really about him that screams mountain man or frontiersman. But then again this could a very good role for him; it’s very different from his usual parts where he typically plays an overly confident one-percenter type or a wide eyed dreamer. It could be right up there with his performance as Calvin Candy in Django Unchained as something different and surprisingly suiting. Though I still would have preferred the original casting choice — Christian Bale.

As of right now, this is a film I’m really looking forward to seeing. Yes, I do recommend the original Harris film, but this new retelling may inspire those in the future and may bring in a whole new audience. Remakes/retellings are not always a bad thing, people, it’s best to keep an open mind. 

by John Hamilton 04.23.2015
at 01:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Forgotten Classics: Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier

Reviewing lesser-known films that stand the test of time

We all have that one Disney movie that we love dearly. The one film that, despite whatever age we are, we can watch and enjoy. For me there are several that meet that criteria: The Three Caballeros (1945), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and countless others. But the one film that takes the No. 1 spot on my list is Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, Disney’s take on the adventures of famed frontiersman and one-time congressman. The movie’s plot ranges from his time in the Creek Wars to his congress years to his final stand at the Alamo.

If I may get personal for a moment: I was obsessed with this movie when I was kid. I couldn’t get enough Crockett related stuff. I even dressed up as Crockett for Halloween one year. I was heartbroken when the film’s lead actor, Fess Parker, passed away in 2010. So, yes, this movie meant a lot to me. In a way, it set me on the path to my love of films and shaped me in a lot of ways.

I’m sure to some people the biggest flaw with the movie is that the plot is a rather romanticized telling of Crockett’s adventures. There’s very rarely a moment where he isn’t an upstanding guy, but to me that kind of works for the film. Walt Disney had no pretentions about this film (originally a mini-series) — he wasn’t planning on making this a super deep movie with complex characters and themes. What Disney wanted to do was take an iconic American folk hero and give the intended audience a person to look up to and root for. To me, you couldn’t anyone more perfect than actor and future wine maker Fess Parker.

Now as I stated before, Crockett’s portrayal in the film is a romanticized, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some powerful moments — outside of the heroic times — with him. For me, one of the best emotional moments in the film is when Crockett receives word about his wife’s death. His sidekick throughout the film Georgie Russell (Buddy Ebsen) reads a letter delivering the unfortunate news and you can see the news slowly sinking into him. Russell consoles him and asks him if there’s something he can do, and all Crockett says is, “Just give me some time to think.” He then slowly and quietly walks into the woods to try and figure out what to do without his other half. Without any dialogue or music playing, we get a true sense how deeply this has affected him.

The film doesn’t shy away from all the historical facts; the most obvious example is that in the end he and his comrades die at the Alamo. Granted, they don’t show Crockett’s death onscreen but, then again, given how nobody knows how Crockett actually died it makes sense that we don’t see it. The movie ends with him swinging his rifle like a club at the overwhelming forces without a hint of fear.

Like a lot of classic Disney films, it features many great qualities: It has a memorable soundtrack that will have you humming its songs for hours on end; a great sense of adventure and excitement; and a terrific cavalcade of characters performed by great character actors. I mentioned earlier Parker and Ebsen who have amazing chemistry together. There’s also stunt-man Nick Cravat as the mute Comanche Indian named Busted Luck who shows that not only does he have bravery but he's also very witty and smart. There’s a great scene where he foils a trickster’s attempt at swindling him out of food. Speaking of which, there’s the dandy riverboat gambler Thimblerig played by Hans Conried who is a delight in every scene. Some of you know him best as the voice of Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) and as Thorin in Rankin/Bass’ version of The Hobbit (1977).

If you haven’t seen this Disney gem, do yourself a favor and check it out, especially if you have youngsters. Then check out the prequel Davy Crockett and the River Pirates featuring the fun and bombastic character actor Jeff York as Mike Fink, King of the River.