Nate Hill and I talk spoilers from The Secret History of Twin Peaks, welcome fellow PTS blogger and TP superfan Kyle Jonathan to the fold, and look at the phenomenal cast for Season 3!
Nate Hill and I talk spoilers from The Secret History of Twin Peaks, welcome fellow PTS blogger and TP superfan Kyle Jonathan to the fold, and look at the phenomenal cast for Season 3!
Remakes and monster movies continue to be reviled in many corners of the filmgoing public, which is surprising considering both are practically as old as the form itself. King Kong debuted on the silver screen not long after silver screens themselves took their initial bow, so the royal title remains apt to this day. The creature’s climb up the Empire State Building remains iconic, not only for the audacity of the image but the promise of the fantastic that cinema itself offered newly minted movie fans—the very idea that walking into a theater would take you away from reality and show you things you’d never see anywhere else. Clearly the great ape was built to last, as he’s turned up in one form or another over the years, most recently in Peter Jackson’s 2005 laborious love letter to the original. Fast forward 12 years and Time Warner, fresh off the relatively successful Godzilla reboot, is looking to craft its own interconnected series of blockbuster films just like all the other remaining major studios, hence Kong: Skull Island is set to be released (somewhat tentatively in March instead of tent pole-y in May). Is it a successful undertaking? The short answer is yes and no, and a somewhat longer answer follows.
First of all, you’re not going to get the coy buildup towards monster mayhem that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla offered, although you do get a credit sequence similar enough to that films’ that you’ll pick up on the universe building intentions right off the bat. Once Kong arrives, he’s in full view and he’s rampaging just the way you want him to, smacking down uninvited guests on the titular island and throwing down with its fellow oversized inhabitants on the regular. This all commences after fifteen minutes of highly perfunctory character introduction and motivation establishment. At times the dialogue and reasoning feels like it’s being generated by a scripting software app, but at least Kong: Skull Island assembles a relentlessly charming cast, from handsome Tom Hiddlesworth to Oscar winner Brie Larson to affable John Goodman and badass Samuel L. Jackson. A lesser group would have probably sunk the proceedings, as several of them—especially the purported leads, Hiddlesworth and Larson—are so underwritten it’s safe to say the film could have marched through its explosions without their presence. Fortunately Goodman and Jackson are given a bit more to do, the former harboring a belief in the fantastic that’s not explained right off the bat and the latter adopting the warmongering swagger of Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore by way of Melville’s Captain Ahab. They each have what the film comes closest to offering as far as character arcs go, and Jackson especially stands out. The best story and performance hiding in between the flying bullets and crashing helicopters belongs to John C. Reilly, a punchy World War 2 veteran looking to return to civilization with our band of heroes. He gets the strongest lines from a script that struggles to find any rhythm outside of the genre tropes we all expect.
On the plus side, Kong and his monstrous neighbors are lovingly (and of course digitally) rendered, and Larry Fong’s camera guides us around location sets ranging from Hawaii to northern Vietnam with grace and awe. Once director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (an interesting choice given the indie film and television comedy background he brings to the table) stumbles through the early expositional scenes, he does a fine job staging the carnage, chases and explosions, of which there are many. And Kong himself, in keeping with the typical incarnations of the character, really is just a hero in screaming ape’s clothing, there to provide deus ex machina services when the other creatures get too problematic. There are enough tributes, visual and otherwise, to make fans of the previous films feel right at home on Skull Island as well. In short, this is a fine action setpiece delivery system if that’s what you’re in the mood for. A perfectly fine if not transcendent slice of fantastic escapism, with the inevitable promise of more to come if enough tickets are sold.
The journey of the gun bobs and weaves through Hollywood history with expected gusto; from Westerns to Hitchcock thrillers to Eastwood and Bronson, time and again they’ve helped define heroes, create villains, and put bloody ends to countless fictional conflicts. Growing up watching Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone and a horde of wannabe toughs shoot their way through a two hour narrative I figured they’d define heroics onscreen forever, but a funny thing happened—as Sly himself pointed out not long ago, Michael Keaton showed up with that damn cape in 1989, and the comic book revolution was on. It took another decade for the effects to catch up to the ideas, but by the time X-Men came out in 2000 it was clear that the multiplexes were undergoing a sea change. Not that the guns have disappeared, but they tend to get incinerated by laser beams from Iron Man’s hand before they can do much damage. Two years ago, a scrappy Keanu Reeves vehicle steeped in 70s and 80s tough guy cinema and decidedly against the superhero grain called John Wick became a surprise hit, and this past week saw the inevitable sequel roll out. No capes to be found in either of these movies. To quote RoboCop baddie favorite Clarence J Boddicker, we get plenty of guns, guns, guns.
First, a spoiler alert: No animals are harmed onscreen in John Wick Chapter 2, unlike with the PETA revenge porn story of the original. John has a new dog who briefly provides companionship, not drama, this time around. Unlike the slow and occasionally mystifying burn of the opening of the first movie, JW2 kicks off with several bangs and crashes as a loose end you may have forgotten gets tied up, then we get down to the business of once again dragging the noble hitman out of retirement to vanquish small armies of men in black suits sporting walkie talkie earpieces and large rifles. The contrivances by which this takes place are more or less effectively laid out, delivered by a deft confluence of new baddies and old friends from the original. To go into details wouldn’t necessarily spoil the fun, but it would also be beside the point. We’re here to see Reeves run around kicking, punching, stabbing and oh yes, shooting his way through Europe and New York City, everyone knows it, and the filmmakers provide it in spades. The cheeky alternative universe of crime and very special hotel rules is on full display, with several fun new layers and, by the end, an easy to adopt idea that in the Wickverse, Uber and Lyft side gigs have been replaced by the occasional assassin job.
Perhaps the unintentional strength of a film charged with delivering over the top murderous mayhem is that, this time around, we don’t get the puppy excuse. In fact, in a key scene involving John’s return to work as well as the film’s denoument (which yes, fans, doesn’t just leave the door wide open for a third chapter, it demands it) both pause to remind you that Wick isn’t a hero, he’s a devil. From the very beginning of John Wick Chapter 2, we see the lead try to once again exit his life of crime by employing the one thing he’s good at, murderous ultra violence. The clear contradiction is an honest one and the filmmakers don’t flinch from it; John’s a bad man, and he doesn’t get the happily ever after that the first movie briefly tricked us into thinking he’s due. I don’t want to make it sound as if Chapter 2 is a leaden antihero slog, because the primary goal remains action packed entertainment, and we get plenty of it (some of it quite funny, in keeping with the original’s often glib meta tone). But living in an age where gun violence has gone from a gleeful gallop across the movie screen to horrid true crime stories on the nightly news, it wouldn’t quite sit right to have John get to have his cake and it eat too, and one gets the sense from this latest installment, not to mention the direction it’s heading, that director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad understand this as well.
As we approach the 80th anniversary of The Caped Crusader joining the public consciousness, his popularity couldn’t be stronger. We’ve seen two unique and highly successful cinematic versions played by Michael Keaton and Christian Bale in the last 30 years, countless animated versions, a new live action take introduced last year featuring Ben Affleck, and of course the comics themselves. Tough to put a finger on just what it is about Batman that appeals to so many, since spending time with a brooding, dark vigilante doesn’t exactly scream four quadrant appeal. That said, many incarnations of the character over the years have been lighter, and perhaps none more so than the Lego style crime fighter voiced by comedian Will Arnett two years ago. The overly husky bravado of his voice welds perfectly with a self aware and decidedly friendlier take on Batman, balancing tribute and parody expertly throughout The Lego Movie. Time Warner knows a winner when they own one, so a solo outing for him was inevitable. Ironically, the genuinely strong The Lego Batman is all about giving up the brooding loner status the character’s been cast with in recent iterations and embracing what we all know Bruce Wayne lost as a child: Family.
A triumphant, unstoppable and broadly loved Batman comes tearing in to thwart yet another Joker scheme in the opening reel, but we’re quickly shown no amount of lobster thermidor and screenings of rom coms in Wayne Manor can quite fill the hole left by his departed parents. Dutiful butler Alfred is there to do his part as always, Jim Gordon’s retirement gives way to daughter Barbara taking the reigns, and a plucky orphan named Dick Grayson (Dick: “My name’s Richard but everyone at the orphanage calls me Dick.” Bruce: “Yeah, kids can be cruel”) soon winds up in the picture with ceaseless optimism and a desire to help. Barbara wants Batman to work with the police, Robin is clearly up for being the most obedient sidekick in sidekick history, and even The Joker himself schemes a huge plot of mayhem just so Batman will admit that their twisted bromance is, in fact, a thing. As you can imagine, the story and players seesaw between disconnection and coming together like a group of kids playing with the namesake toys themselves; I’ll skip the spoilers but based on the rating and target audience you can assume this adventure doesn’t end with anything approaching the cynicism that punctuated Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
The voice cast can’t be celebrated enough; they bring the plucky script to life and even feature a familiar face or two in the credits (here’s looking at you, Billy Dee Williams). Arnett’s windbag of a superhero delights at every turn, careening from piloting an endless stream of increasingly radical vehicles to composing his infamous brooding metal anthems, and Michael Cera is perfect as the wide eyed orphan who has his back. Rosario Dawson brings Barbara Gordon to life as smart, tough, capable and caring, while Zach Galifianakis’ Joker is decidedly more Cesar Romero than Heath Ledger. It’s all highly appropriate for a kid’s film that bathes the black-clad hero in a full palette of bright colors instead of the gun metal gray we’ve grown used to. As you can imagine, the action is nonstop and the stakes are always more fun than high (any eruption of gunfire is soundtracked with “pew pew pew!”), culminating in an appropriately ridiculous, over the top final battle (or two). At the end of the day, a healthy dose of self satire combined with a thorough understanding of the character’s history and legacy come together to recapture a degree of childhood fun that has been lost as the scowl in the cowl has headed closer and closer to an R rating at the multiplex. Here’s to another 80 years, Batman, and may those who play in your cinematic sandbox continue to celebrate all of your aspects, including the silly ones as The Lego Batman Movie faithfully does.
Countless clickbait headlines roam around the internet on the back of Marvel Studios and their 14 blockbuster films, begging readers to enjoy conjecture, rumor, even falsehoods about their upcoming properties. It seems people can’t get enough of producer Kevin Feige’s massive comic book to screen empire. They are the undeniable box office champions of the cosmos in 2016, with no sign of slowing down assuming they can gracefully age their current stars and add new ones to an expansive interlocking series of hero and villain yarns the likes of which has never been seen elsewhere (so far, that includes from their primary competition over at DC/Warners). After the expansive and somewhat tedious Captain America: Civil War, which along with the preceding Avengers sequel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice tried, as if on a dare, to cram as many superheroes together in one bloated cinematic run time as possible, Marvel now has given its fans a more traditional, fleet origin story for one of its prized properties, the Sorceror Supreme himself, Doctor Strange. Steven Ditko’s creation for Marvel Comics back in the 1960s introduced a psychedelic element to the printed kingdom that is almost the exact opposite of the technology-rooted Iron Man that launched the movie universe. The result is a fun ride with a new ensemble to enjoy, as always loaded with recognizable Hollywood faces and now spiked with visuals that put to shame even the most cosmic exercises they’ve already attempted.
Benedict Cumberbatch puts on his best American accent (which, to be fair, is probably not THE best American accent you’ll ever catch a Brit on screen passing off on us, but it ceases to be a distraction quickly which is a victory in itself) and introduces us to Steven Strange, superstar surgeon and arrogant citizen of the galaxy. A surprisingly common modern danger sends him literally off the rails in his sportscar, and before we’ve barely gotten to know him his hands are useless in an operating theater. Modern medicine fails him, of course, and the action switches to Nepal, where he’s tipped off there may be a solution outside of the Western world. Chewitel Ejiofor’s Mordo and Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One take him under their wing after a false start or two, and we’re on the way towards the once proud doctor becoming a mighty magical warrior. They are of course in need of more soldiers in helping to protect Earth from mystical foes, and said foes (led by the ever icy Mads Mikkelsen) are of course rallying to bring death and mayhem to all, justified by the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s standard villainous logic of bringing about some form of twisted golden age through allowing evil to take the reins.
If this all sounds a bit familiar for those of us who’ve been consuming comic books on celluloid for years now, it is. However, Doctor Strange has many things going for it that help override the familiarity of yet another “promising miscreant called up to greatness” starter story for a new character. First is Cumberbatch, who may hold several copyrights on charming snarkiness, and he manages to make a potentially unlikable protagonist fit right in alongside the likes of Tony Stark and Peter Quill. The rest of the cast do their characters credit too, from Ejiofor’s steadfast moralist to Swinton’s playful master magician harboring a secret or two. Rachel McAdams has a somewhat thankless role as a former love interest of Strange’s, but their easy chemistry and her humorous annoyance with the mystical goings on that the Doctor brings into her hospital make every scene she’s in a fun one to watch. So as usual, Marvel remembers that character counts, and give you just enough to care as threats increase. Above and beyond this, director Scott Derrickson delivers what is easily the best looking Marvel film to date, with Inception-style world bending taken several levels above what anyone’s put on screen before. This also feels like one of the more action packed entries into the MCU; once the story really gets going, we’re treated to a grand mashup of martial arts and supernatural powers slamming characters around in high combat style. And unlike many other entries in the genre, a clever path to victory is well developed and used to save the day instead of One Last Big Fight. With a quick runtime of 115 minutes, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome while adding the standard Marvel post credit teasers to prepare audiences for what’s coming next with these heroes and more. Finally, Derrickson and his co-writers Robert Cargill and John Spaihts show an understanding of and love for the source material that represents the true bedrock of this studio’s success. All in all, another entertaining ride from the Marvel Movie Machine, giving us the equal parts familiarity and newness that the brand promises and delivers like clockwork.
Few could have predicted the ‘broadcast yourself’ era, and fewer realize it was predicted by a no-budget indie smash film that cruised across pop culture like a steamroller before most people had personal phones, much less YouTube accounts. Back in 1999 The Blair Witch Project was sold to audiences with a desperate selfie video of an aspiring documentary filmmaker who was about to die a horrible death, apologizing for her actions and begging forgiveness. It was gripping stuff that launched a thousand copycats—a whole genre unto itself of microbudget ‘found footage’ frights—and never really had any true challengers to its first jolt to the zeitgeist. Fast forward your camcorder to 2016, where indie cinema of the nineties has given way to studio tentpoles and remakes, wherein we of course get a return to Burkittsville (sorry, only one way tickets) helmed by the talented filmmaking duo of Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett. Responsible for the successful indie thrillers You’re Next and The Guest, not to mention a sneaky brilliant anti-marketing campaign that harkened back to the clever promotion of the original, thus raising expectations (the film was publicly titled The Woods until a San Diego Comic Con reveal earlier this year), the pair have lovingly crafted Blair Witch as a direct sequel to the 17 year old horror classic. Unfortunately love and talent don’t trump genuine creativity, and the new film embodies most criticisms you’ll hear these days about slavish fan service and the attempts to create a franchise out of every successful movie ever made.
Not to say we get poor effort here. Wingard and Barrett know thrills, pacing and how to entertain, and they definitely know their source material. Gushing in fandom during a live Q&A session after the screening, they discussed everything from the deep mythology to their clever Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout (keep an eye open for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from the original camera itself, supposedly one of the most expensive props on the production), so believe me when I say there truly is a lot of love up on the screen throughout Blair Witch. We’re introduced to a larger group of players led by the kid brother of Heather, the first filmmaker to fall victim in the Maryland woods. Despite huge search parties, no remains or house were ever found after the last collection of footage went viral, so James (James Allen McCune) harbors hope that his sister is still out there, and as luck would have it his new friend/love interest Lisa (Callie Hernandez) is an aspiring documentary director! Together they will assemble friends and bravely repeat every mistake the other doomed crew made, and then some. Modern technology enables all filmmakers involved to capture multiple angles in a much richer fashion than the single camera of The Blair Witch Project, and thanks to years of self obsessed iPhone footage littering the internet the audience doesn’t even stop to throw out the loudest criticism of the genre—why would anyone still be filming this as the situation goes to hell? In 2016, of course they would.
Sadly all of these ingredients don’t add up to the original magic. A small group of non-actors allowed to improvise almost every scene in the first film is now replaced by a large ensemble of professionals clearly following a script. Additions of digital quality sound jolts and lighting end up subtracting from the immersive experience that cast a spell on audiences back in the day. And in trying to amp up the third act, Wingard and Barret commit an unforgivable sin that undermines every suggestive horrific joy we all loved the first time around—they show us the monster. Amp up that third act they do, but instead of achieving thrills with new terrors, they simply continue to ape the exact three act structure of The Blair Witch Project, which is ultimately Blair Witch’s downfall. Figuring out a creative way to get a different group of people fiddling with their smartphones into peril and not slavishly repeating most of the beats that were much fresher in The Blair Witch Project would have served the movie well, but safe choices are made through the film, leaving the viewer stewing in a musty brew of nostalgia and disappointment.
Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster opus Goodfellas ushered in a modern cinematic genre tweak I’ll call the American Scoundrel Biopic. A true story of American Exceptionalism gone wrong, narrated in cheeky, self-congratulatory tones, cut through with flashy montages documenting quick rises in fortune and immense falls from grace set to a rock and roll soundtrack filled with familiar hits, it’s a form that Scorsese has revisited to more or less successful effect several times throughout his career. Others have jumped in as well, from Ted Demme’s Blow to Adam McCay’s The Big Short we’ve been treated to brisk, glib takes on what it means to job the system and pay the price—it’s a familiar enough form that we’ve even gotten comedic satires of it like McCay’s Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy. Director Todd Philips, best known for his Hangover comedies, offers up War Dogs as his ASB entry, and I’m glad to report it’s a very solid one, with strong central performances and the sadly ever-relevant issues of war profiteering and global malfeasance on its mind. The style may be as familiar as a favorite old pair of jeans, but Philips and his performers make you glad to slip into them one more time.
We are introduced (in montage, with voiceover, natch) to David, played affably by Miles Teller, a Jewish kid trying to make good in the world but not blessed with the greatest business sense—his plot to make millions by reselling high end bedsheets to retirement homes doesn’t have an interested market base to peddle to, and his personal massage services do little aside from goosing his desire for a successful materialistic life. News of his wife’s impending pregnancy only heightens this instinct, and fate steps in to deposit childhood friend and professional shoulder devil Efraim back into David’s world. Efraim, portrayed with gusto by the ever surprisingly charismatic Jonah Hill, has figured out how to weasel his way into the middle of arms deals and is looking for a partner. David is quickly drawn in by a few wins, and we’re off to the races. The exceedingly murky morality behind their chosen field of work—supplying guns and ammo to war zones in the Middle East—swirls around the proceedings with a sense of impending doom, as the pair’s brazen strategies are half thought out at best and their luck in evading violence or exposure as hucksters simply can’t last forever. It doesn’t in real life, and it certainly doesn’t in ASB films.
If all of this sounds familiar, well, much of it is, but Philips has a few tricks up his sleeve that insure War Dogs sits towards the top of the pile in this particular genre. First and foremost, the filmmaker’s comedic chops are on full display throughout the film, it’s a damn funny ride, moreso than any of its brethren that come to mind. Even though the story actually happened a decade back, its resonance is strong as the West continues to be embroiled in military actions across miserable deserts half a world away. In the tale of David and Ephraim, taken from a Rolling Stone article on their exploits, Philips has also found a razor sharp metaphor for US interventions abroad: Occasionally well meaning, often misguided and ultimately leaving blood on many sets of hands. Finally, he’s coaxed a career defining performance out of Hill, whose Ephriam is Zelig-like in his chameleonic charming of everyone in his life and Patrick Batemen-esque in his sociopathic reduction of said people to pawns being moved around on his personal chessboard. Teller’s David is a sympathetic straight man who the viewer rides shotgun with, but Ephriam is the cackling black hole we find ourselves sucked into whenever he’s on screen. War Dogs is a smart, funny story of greed and guns, delivered with all the trimmings of American Scoundrel Biopics.