Movie Review – “Get Out” (2017)

 

Get Out” is one of the best theater experiences I’ve had in quite some time and is a film everyone should check out. It is the perfect modern thriller that keeps you on your toes from start to finish while keeping up the uncomfortable tension and never misses an opportunity to be funny. The film offers a social and cultural experience that is terrifying, respectful and fun, without ever going over the top on the satire.

This is one movie I don’t want to spoil or ruin for those who haven’t seen it, so if you see only one movie in the first quarter of 2017, do yourself a favor and experience “Get Out” with a large audience, and watch the crowd shift widely between screams, horrifyed silence and laughter.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Mrs. Miniver” (1942)

 

 

Perhaps the title of this film is a lie. Nowadays, you go into a film named after a particular character expecting it to be about that person. But “Mrs. Miniver” is less about its protagonist and more of how the British home front dealt with the German invasion at the beginning of World War II. While we see a large portion of this war from Greer Garson’s perspective, we see how this fight effects everyone around her, including her American husband (Walter Pidgeon), their Oxford-grad son who goes off into the war, the girl he ends up falling in love with (Teresa Wright) and many of the townsfolk like the smug old rich Lady Beldon and the quiet yet kind bell-ringer who names a flower after Mrs. Miniver.

Our protagonist mostly ends up being a witness to many of the selfless acts these characters take for the sake of the war and for each other. There’s a large scene in the middle when the men in the town get together, led by Mr. Miniver, and send every boat they have to head out to Dunkirk. The scene has nothing to do with Greer Garson’s character, but shows the comradery and bravery of these men who would risk everything to protect their fellow man. And while Garson handles her role with pride and a suave demeanor, she is left with little to do outside of showing the resolve of the British people.

 

 

Her one true moment to shine comes when she finds a wounded Nazi-pilot in a bush near her house. The pilot looks like her son, so she is unsure if she should turn him in or help him. But it is clear that she is terrified, especially when he points a gun at her and begins making demands.

“Mrs. Miniver” is, for lack of a better term, effective propaganda. Made in 1942 for mostly American audiences, the film was made to show the rest of the world how the British were struggling against the Nazis and to show what the rest of the world was fighting for. It was created as a way to push those who were unsure about the war into helping in any way possible. And in this regard “Mrs. Miniver” excels in presenting Americans with a great example of why we fight to protect our way of life, and show that it is a life worth fighting for.

Overall, “Mrs. Miniver” does a fine job as a wartime melodrama. It gives a much larger picture of how Britain was affected by the German invasion and the constant fear that plagued the people. The true strength of the film comes from how these people react to that fear.

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Review – “Spartacus” (1960)

Just watching this to say I’ve nearly seen every Stanley Kubrick film. Nothing to see here.

Well okay, there is an interesting history to “Spartacus.” This film came about when actor Kirk Douglas was turned down to play the lead role in “Ben-Hur” which went to Charlton Heston. Douglas wanted to prove that he could play that same role better than Heston ever could and set out to make the best Roman epic Hollywood could make. Douglas ended up being the executive producer on “Spartacus” and wanted Anthony Mann to direct, but had many creative differences with Mann and instead went to Stanley Kubrick, who had worked with Douglas previously on “Paths of Glory.”

“Spartacus” is also one of the films to basically end the “Blacklist”-era of Hollywood by openly showcasing Dalton Trumbo’s name as the screenwriter even though he was a blacklisted writer. Douglas openly admitted that Trumbo wrote the script and “Spartacus” went on to be one of the highest grossing films of 1960, showing that Hollywood needed Dalton Trumbo.

 

So while the film started out as a petty way for Kirk Douglas to get back at the executives that turned him down for a role, it did end up saving the careers of hundreds blacklisted writers, directors, actors and filmmakers. A true showcase of selfishness becoming selflessness.

That being said, “Spartacus” is about as average of a Roman epic as you can get. We see the slave uprising, the evil greed of the Roman Empire and their need to suppress everyone around them, the leader of the slaves being very stoic and showing his men kindness instead of the hatred the Romans showed, and so on. Outside of the now famous “I’m Spartacus!” scene, I have a hard time remembering most of the plot.

I find the story of how “Spartacus” was made more interesting than the movie itself.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “Nashville” (1975)

 

 

The best way for a film to lose my interest is by not having any sense of progression. Instead of one scene leading into the next and actions repeatedly build on top of the last leading to a climax where everything comes together, the film meanders from scene to scene and will often make audience wonder why they’re watching it if there is no meaning.

It’s like going to the store to buy milk, but you end up staring at the frozen pizzas for ten minutes and leave the store having bought nothing. What was accomplished? What train of thought did that follow? What was the point? Is it deep? Maybe, but it ultimately doesn’t add up to anything so it feels like time was wasted.

“Nashville” had promise at the beginning but quickly fell into this postion by focusing on so many characters that we don’t get proper resolution with most. This Robert Altman film has one of the largest number of network-narrative characters, boasting an impressive 24 main characters, as they all attend, organize and play in a country music festival while a presidential candidate is in town spreading his views on politics and the world. The cast includes Keith Carradine as the lead vocalist of a three-person folk rock band, Ned Beatty has a man struggling in his marriage, Lily Tomlin as a gospel singer who seems a little tired of her life, Geraldine Chaplin as a nosey-BBC reporter and Gwen Welles as an aspiring country singer with little talent and has to resort to unsavory technics to succeed.

 

 

At the beginning, I liked what I thought “Nashville” was going for. It introduces us to its many colorful characters through simple conversations, all while country music and political beliefs are being blasted at us. Through these small bits of dialogue, we learn so much about who these people are by what the talk about, like how Lily Tomlin’s character spends so much time talking about this girl she knows and how her neck was severely hurt in a car accident, or this elderly widow who mostly talks about her deceased husband and his religious beliefs. On top of that, the country singers mostly give us original music, filled to the brim with how they either love their parents or hated the way there were raised.

I truly got a worldwide view from the earlier parts of “Nashville” through all these differing points of view.

However, around the hour-and-a-half mark, the film takes a dive when so many differing plots are introduced that I lost track of who was who and what they were doing. I feel like I need a flowchart to explain what everyone was trying to accomplish. Because there are so many different things going on, both bigger events are smaller tasks, most of them don’t go anywhere or add up to much. Geraldine Chaplin’s character, while giving a different type of insight, fades into the background by the final scenes.

For half of these 24 characters, it feels like there is no sense of closure or resolution, like their story didn’t go anywhere or add up to anything. Maybe that was Robert Altman’s point, but that doesn’t make for a fascinating experience when we follow these people for nearly three hours and we don’t get any sort of climax with most.

It also doesn’t help that the majority of the last hour is country music, focusing solely on the actors singing, like watching a live performance in a middle of “Network.” In fact, I got a similar feeling between “Network” and “Nashville” – both with large casts that love to talk a bit too much and find ways to sneak the director/writer’s world views onto the audience, some a bit more subtle than others.

But overall, I would put “Nashville” over “Network” because I found the first hour to be strangely enjoyable in how simple and laid-back everything felt. Watching the introductions to all these characters and learning so much about them through the way the talk was pleasant. But as the film went on, I lost more and more interest especially when it focused more on the music and unresolved plots.

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Review – “Kong: Skull Island” (2017)

 

 

Do you ever get the feeling that a movie is tailor-made for you? And isn’t that one of the best feelings in the world?

“Kong: Skull Island” feels like Legendary Pictures scanned my brain and took everything I love about movies, and compiled it with the biggest budget they could get and the largest number of big-name actors they could find.

I would describe “Kong: Skull Island” as if “Apocalypse Now” met up with giant monsters. In other words, my favorite movie of all time meets my favorite genre of all time. And they make it even better with subtle references to the 2014 “Godzilla” film, and a catchy teaser at the end of the credits that you should stay for. Let’s just say that I had a perpetual smile on my face throughout this film.

At the end of the Vietnam War, scientists Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) have recovered satellite footage of an uncharted island in the Indian Ocean, believing that it could hold some mysterious powers. They contact a U.S. senator who begrudgingly signs off on their mission and gives them a military escort to the island, led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Bill and Houston also hire former British SAS Captain Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) as a tracker, and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) begs to be apart of the mission.

Once they’re on the island, the military begins dropping bombs and scientific equipment to study the landscape. But as soon as the fires start, helicopters are taken out of the air by flying trees and a very angry giant ape.

 

 

In case you missed it, I recently did a book-length retrospective on the history of King Kong, which you can find at Toho Kingdom. And during the research for that piece, one thought kept going through my head – All these King Kong movies have the same story. With only miniute differences, the plots of the 1933 Kong, the 1976 remake and the 2005 Peter Jackson version are virtually the same – Carl Denham wants to make the greatest movie of all time, he goes to Skull Island to film it, they all find King Kong who falls in love with Ann Dawson, and they take Kong back to New York where he runs amok. Even most of the Kong scenes in “King Kong vs. Godzilla” tell the same story.

This is why “Kong: Skull Island” is the most important Kong film since the 1933 version. It strays as much as possible from the format we’ve seen in many other Kong movies, while still being loyal to the character. There is no filmmaker character, no tale of beauty and beast, no attempt to capture Kong and New York City is never mentioned.

Instead, we get a stylized look at Kong through the eyes of the 1970s and the Vietnam War. Admittedly, the Vietnam War is captured in the same way “Apocalypse Now” did it, but that is far from a bad thing. Some of the more memorable shots of the film involve the orange sunsets, as a horde of helicopters charge the massive Kong, or our titular character looking up at the vast night sky after a long day of defending his island.

Through visuals and storytelling, “Kong: Skull Island” is the most unique monster movie in recent memory.

 

 

But even with the an ongoing war between man and nature, the film finds the time to settle down and have many relaxing scenes. One of my favorites is when Kong is alone, nursing his wounds and drinking some water, when he finds a giant octopus in the water and decides to make that his next meal. It’s not only a reference to “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” but was a quieter moment that let us get to see a day-in-the-life of Kong; that he isn’t just some creature only looking for destruction and mayhem.

If there’s one complaint I have with “Kong: Skull Island” it would be the acting, which has some great performances from John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly as a WWII fighter-pilot stranded on the island for 25 years, but everyone else seems wasted, especially Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson. These two don’t get many opportunities to show their acting abilities here, mostly resorting to action-hero clich├ęs, being skeptical of the military’s agenda, and saying one-liners like, “We’re going to save Kong!”

That being said, Samuel L. Jackson steals the show with his always captivating intensity. People had said his character is akin to Captain Ahab, especially with his need to bring down Kong, but continuing the “Apocalypse Now” theme, I find that he’s more like Colonel Kurtz – A man who has seen the horrors of the world, both natural and man-made, and wants to show that he can conquer that horror. He believes that man is the dominant force on this planet and should remain that way, despite being faced with an intelligent giant ape. Jackson’s madness never feels like it goes over-the-top, yet he lets his rage explode all over the screen; a job no actor can do any better than Sam Jackson.

 

 

John Goodman and John C. Reilly turn in quieter performances, but also ones that show their emotional sides. Goodman plays a scientist who doesn’t want to tell everyone on the mission what is really going on, because he knows they wouldn’t believe him. His role is similar to his performance in “10 Cloverfield Lane,” as a man who wants to help but is untrustworthy and could back-stab you if it would help him.

Reilly, on the other hand, gives the film his usual comedic touch, while continually showing the strain that comes with being trapped on island for 25 years. When he talks about missing a hot dog and a cold beer while watching a Cubs game, he pauses for a moment, looking at his imaginary food with longing and sadness.

Of course, with all these actors, plots and quieter moments, it means there is a lot going on “Kong: Skull Island,” with at least ten major characters, while also trying to build Legendary Pictures’ Monster Universe. The film builds off of the events of “Godzilla,” by showing the creation of the government organization Monarch, which deals with supernatural threats like ones on Skull Island. This movie has as much going on as one of the Avengers movies, so be prepared to keep up with lots of plots and characters.

 

 

Overall, “Kong: Skull Island” was a blast. I found this to be more enjoyable than “Godzilla,” since Kong never took itself too seriously, always finding some way to poke fun at the ridiculous situations. It was visually exciting to behold and had some great fight sequences where humans stand a chance against a giant monster. Some of the acting is great, but others pretty generic. But if you’re looking for a fun action-packed monster movie that is surprisingly different from other monster-fests, this is a great change of pace.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Poltergeist” (1982)

 

“Poltergeist” works as a horror film for the same reason “The Exorcist” works – Both movies toy with the unknown, as we watch a family torn apart by supernatural forces. They focus on the the parents, in “Poltergeist”‘s case Steven and Diane Freeling (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams), as they are helpless to stop beings from another plain of existence from stealing their children away from them.

The difference between the two films is that “The Exorcist” slowly built up the horror, as we watched Reagan deteariorate overtime as she was lost to the devil. The scares came from the tension and concept of a little girl being swallowed by the hell.

“Poltergeist” on the other hand executes its frights visually, leaving very little to the imagination. We see first hand what these ghosts are capable of, including bringing inanimate objects to life, from something as small as a toy clown to as big as a tree, manipulating people into thinking there are maggots in their food, to physically taking people into their realm.

“The Exorcist” makes you think about what this demon is capable of, while “Poltergiest” shows you exactly what they can do.

Neither approach is worse than the other, especially since both movies execute it so well. “Poltergiest” doesn’t take itself as seriously as “The Exorcist,” taking some time to crack jokes and have a bit of fun with the supernatural elements, but it works for the suburban environment and how desensitized the kids are to violence. One of my favorite little moments is when their daughter, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke), is staring at a fuzzy television, and Diane says she shouldn’t be watching that and turns the channel to a violent movie. She doesn’t care what her daughter watches, as long as it’s not “bad” for her.

 

 

Pop culture tainted by first viewing of “Poltergeist” a bit, since I knew most of the scenes before watching the film. Famous moments like the “They’re here” scene, or the fight against the tree, have been referenced in so many other movies and television shows that you feel like you’ve watched the film before you see it. As such, I didn’t find “Poltergeist” as scary as others might have. But that doesn’t deny how effective the scares are.

Overall, “Poltergeist” feels like “E.T.” crossed with “The Exorcist.” The scares come naturally and stick with you long after watching the film, but there’s a child-friendly atmosphere that makes it accessible to people of all ages. As such, this is a horror film that even people who don’t like scary movies can enjoy.

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “Deliverance” (1972)

 

It is interesting that the only thing I’ve ever heard about “Deliverance” before seeing the film are the more unsavory scenes. Unlike other movies, “Deliverance” doesn’t beat around the bush and goes into explicit details about what these four businessmen from Atlanta are going through while stuck in the back woods, surrounded by rednecks and take advantage of their isolation.

Yet, there is only one shocking scene of this caliber that comes about halfway through the movie. It goes on for a while, but afterwards the tone of “Deliverance” has shifted to one of survival. The main theme of this film is civilized men having to make difficult choices that would make them feel primitive or uncivilized.

So why is it that this one scene is the only thing that gets talked about in “Deliverance”? Especially when it feels so at odds with the main theme? Perhaps it is because that scene is so shocking, and unlike anything movie-goers had seen in cinemas before. Because the rest of the movie is about survival-horror, the biggest element of that horror constantly remains in our minds.

 

 

But my problem with “Deliverance” is that this unsavory moment and the ensuing scenes don’t amount to anything. The film wants to show its realistic side, by saying we all have this barbaric desire to outlast other evil men, but it does so in the most dramatic and violent way possible, turning our little unsuspecting rafting trip into a battle through fires of hell.

By the end, “Deliverance” is just as much of a fantasy as “The Terminator.”

While I appreciate the atmosphere and pacing of “Deliverance,” especially as a survival-horror film, it cannot make up its mind on whether it wants to be realistic with its themes of civilized vs. primitive or over-the-top violent. If you’re not squeamish after reading this, and want to know about the movie changed peoples’ perspectives on the South, there is certainly enough escapism in “Deliverance” to enjoy it.

Final Grade: C+