Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Wind River -- a review

Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olson are probably best known for their roles in the Marvel superhero movies as Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch, respectively. But they team up again in Wind River to play more down to earth characters in an earnest drama that’s set in the wintry mid-west--and it turns out to be a riveting thriller, as well. Renner plays Corey Lambert, a veteran tracker with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Whenever a wolf, a bear, or any kind of predator gets too close for comfort with human society, it’s Corey’s job to track it down and kill it. This is what he’s doing in the mountainous, snowy terrain of Wyoming when he comes across the body of a young Native American woman.

When he calls the authorities, they call in Jane Banner (Olsen), a rookie FBI agent who’s normally stationed in Las Vegas. The victim turns out to be a teenager whom Corey knows, a girl named Natalie who was the best friend of his deceased daughter. The autopsy shows that Natalie had been sexually assaulted, but that it was the elements that had actually killed her. This stymies Jane, who is unable to call in a proper FBI team to handle the investigation since the girl was not technically murdered. Determined to solve the case, Jane asks Corey if he would work with her, since he knows the area extremely well.

Renner and Olsen are both fantastic here as they play an unlikely but sympathetic team who launch their own investigation into Natalie’s murder. Wind River is not only a superb mystery, but it also effectively chronicles Native American life in a desolate, wintry hellhole where the icy weather can literally kill you if you are not prepared for it. The great cast also features Graham Greene, Hugh Dillon, and even a surprise appearance from Jon Bernthal in a pivotal role. The acting is on point from everyone, even from actors in small roles.

Writer/director Taylor Sheridan directs this with a strong hand, giving us a great feel for the cold, unforgiving landscape that his characters inhabit, a bone-freezing place where it can be sunny one minute and a full-on blizzard the next (and it’s spring, to boot). The suspense also gets ratcheted up the more Jane and Corey peel back each layer of this mystery, and it’s done through good old fashioned detective (and tracking) work. If you’re looking for a gripping murder mystery that’s also a superb drama with substance, then you should pay a visit to Wind River. --SF

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Valerian -- a review

Twenty years after the release of his The Fifth Element, director Luc Besson regales us with another imaginative science fiction film. But where The Fifth Element was from his own fertile imagination, Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets is based on a French comic book series that’s been running for half a century, now, making it older than Star Wars, and almost as old as Star Trek. Valerian was a big bomb when it was released this past August--but unlike most big-budget tent pole films that underperform at the box office, Valerian didn’t deserve to be ignored by audiences.

Starring Dane DeHaan and Carla Delevingne as a pair of interstellar space agents, Valerian is visual eye candy in the best sense of the word. Opening on the beaches of an alien planet, with a fully realized alien civilization lounging by the ocean until a cataclysmic event ruins their day, the viewer is immersed in this imaginative science fiction universe that’s just as vividly created as the Star Wars or Star Trek universes. The main plot takes place on the City of a Thousand Planets, a super massive space station that’s home to several million humans and aliens.

If this sounds like Babylon 5, or Deep Space Nine, bear in mind that this specific Valerian space station storyline had originally been published in France back in the late 1960s. It could be argued that a lot of the storylines and/or production design of many science fiction films of the last fifty years could have been borrowed, or inspired by, the original Valerian books. But as far as the Valerian film is concerned, it’s a fun, entertaining romp through a highly imaginative world that’s filled with aliens of all shapes and sizes. Besson even manages to slip in a sly jab at both consumerism and tourism during the ’big market’ section of the film, utilizing science fiction as it was originally intended for, to comment on our current society and mores.

The only downside is that the script tends to favor humor over story logic, such as when Delevingne’s Sgt. Laureline gets abducted despite wearing an armored suit that could have allowed her to fight her way out of any situation. But this also leads to a very funny confrontation later between Laureline and a female alien who’s trying to dress her up for a meeting with the king. The film’s ample charms--along with its magnificent scenery and effects--outweigh any plot holes and other quibbles. If you’re a science fiction fan looking for a fun popcorn film, look no further than Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. --SF

Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Cure For Wellness -- a review

I have to admit that A Cure For Wellness slipped right under my radar when it was first released earlier this year. Mainly because the movie didn’t do very well, and quickly slinked out of theaters due to the bad box office. When I discovered that it had been directed by Gore Verbinski, I didn’t want to see it because I wasn’t a big fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean films that he made (granted, the first Pirates film was an enjoyable piece of fluff, but its countless sequels are a real slog to get through). But I was reminded that Verbinski also directed The Lone Ranger reboot, which I really liked (and I’m probably one of five people who do so), and he also helmed the superb remake of The Ring, starring Naomi Watts and a really scary videotape.

A Cure For Wellness recalls The Ring in that it’s a horror movie with a burning mystery at its center. Verbinski pulls you in slowly, showing an office worker keeling over from a heart attack while working late one night. It turns out that this deceased fellow was Morris, a close confidante to Pembroke, the owner and CEO of a financial company that is just about to undergo a merger that will make everybody rich. But there are problems with the Wall Street watchdog group, the SEC, which might derail this merger (not to mention also put everybody in jail). With Morris dead, Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), an up and coming executive with the company, is chosen to bring Pembroke back from his stay at a health spa in Switzerland so Pembroke can be framed for the ruckus.

DeHaan is one of these interesting actors who shines very well here. His Lockhart is a cold-hearted bastard, a businessman with a ’kill-or-be-killed’ attitude who normally wouldn’t care about Pembroke--but he’s forced into looking for him at a reclusive spa because Lockhart has been threatened with being thrown to the wolves by the even more heartless board members. Once he arrives at the spa, which is run by the always good Jason Issacs as the enigmatic Volmer, A Cure For Wellness starts to recall the best of Dario Argento’s work as Lockhart discovers there’s something very strange about this place.

Much like how Argento’s protagonists are always risking their lives to solve a mystery, Cure also has stark cinematography that evokes Argento--as well as a haunting, child-like theme (“la-la-la”) that really makes this film feel like it was directed by the Italian master of Giallo films. Mia Goth sings the song, as well as plays Hannah, a waif-like resident of the spa who’s a big part of the mystery. Verbinski has outdone himself in delivering a strange, chilling horror movie that has creepy atmosphere to spare. I can see why it failed at the box office--it’s unflinching in its gory scenes; it's rated 'R' for good reason, and the film may be difficult to follow if you don’t give it your full attention--but horror fans should enjoy this truly original film that provides a fresh change of pace from the usual slasher flicks. --SF

Monday, November 13, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express -- a review

I first saw the original Murder On The Orient Express back in the late seventies, maybe early eighties, on the then nascent cable TV, which was still pretty much unknown and struggling for viewers. My mother was an early subscriber, having been lured in with the idea of watching movies uncut, uninterrupted--and usually very late at night, which was when the cable channels would air the more racy, adult-themed stuff. Watching Murder On The Orient Express back then was my introduction not only to its hero, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, but to his creator, Agatha Christie. And the movie imbued in me a deep fascination with the character that led me to seek out the Poirot books.

The new film, which stars Kenneth Branagh as Poirot (and was directed by him as well), is extremely faithful to the original story--which meant that I knew going in who the killer would be. But that did not bother me; I was never one of these people who gets overly bent out of shape over spoilers. Because, the way I see it, it’s all about the journey, not the destination. Besides, I wanted to see how Branagh, who I always thought was a skilled director (with Henry V and Thor being among my favorites of his films), would handle this material.

And he did not disappoint.

His take on Poirot is slightly more warmer and charming than Albert Finney’s Belgian detective in the original. While Finney was a bit more stern and offbeat (although no less fascinating to me) Branagh’s Poirot becomes more and more human as he peels away each layer of the mysterious case of the Murder On The Orient Express, although he still maintains his analytical mind. And while the original film, well-directed by Sydney Lumet, treated its case with cold captivation, Branagh’s film becomes more profound as it also reveals the high cost of murder.

Much like the original, the remake has an impressive cast that features Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, William Dafoe, Olivia Coleman and Penélope Cruz. All of whom are very good in their parts. If you’ve never seen the original film and are looking for a good mystery this holiday season, you can’t go wrong with the new Murder On The Orient Express. But even murder mystery fans who know the story might enjoy this refreshed, vibrant take on Christie’s classic tale. I’m actually hoping to see Branagh tackle another case as Piorot in the future. --SF

Monday, November 6, 2017

Thor Ragnarok -- a review

Thor Ragnarok is the third in the Thor series of superhero movies. Thor, the God of Thunder, was always a strange idea for a superhero. But director Kenneth Branaugh (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing) did a great job at humanizing this character and making him relatable in the first Thor movie, by pumping up the Shakespearean aspects of the character. And while the second Thor film has its detractors (and understandably so) I still enjoyed it--despite the fact that it lacked the charm of the first film. For the third Thor flick, director Taika Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows) was brought in to bring a different take to the end film in this trilogy. And he did this in spades.

He made a comedy.

Thor: Ragnarok refers to the end of the world--namely the legend which refers to the end of the enchanted land of Asgard, Thor’s home, which falls under the domination of Hela, the goddess of death who is very well played by Cate Blanchett. Clad in a creepy/cool outfit that sprouts antlers from her head whenever she goes into battle, Hela easily takes over Asgard while Thor is off tying to find his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) with a little help from Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in a sequence that made me wish we could have stayed with the good Doctor a little longer. Strange’s scene here reminded me of another Marvel superhero movie that I enjoyed far more than I did this one.

I really don’t mind comedy, nor do I mind if a film has a more lighter tone than its predecessors. But the Lethal Weapon films are funny while still being true to their action film storylines. That’s not the case with Thor: Ragnarok. Waititi is so hell-bent at bringing on the humor that he throws characters and entire situations under the bus just to get a laugh. Characters from the first two films (who are already reduced to cameo appearances) are dispatched here with a joke--and even a dire situation which should be properly solemn is ruined by a quip from a secondary character. It’s almost as if Waititi is desperate for his audience to keep having happy thoughts, no matter what.

And while Hela is the first truly impressive villain in a Marvel superhero flick, her potential is ruined because she disappears in the mid section of the film, where Thor winds up on a casino-like world that’s run by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, who’s more funny than threatening). The Grandmaster pits Thor in a gladiatorial fight against the Hulk, which is admittedly pretty cool to watch but offers nothing to advance the main plot. Hela should have remained the focus of the movie, instead of getting stuck in this gladiator world, a place so gaudy and glitzy that it feels more like an idea for the next Disney theme park. At least Thor Ragnarok is visually impressive, as well as being loaded with laughs. But if the filmmakers are not going to take their own story seriously, then why should I? --SF

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Blackcoat's Daughter -- a review

The description for The Blackcoat’s Daughter on Amazon states that it’s a mystery thriller about two young students who must deal with the supernatural while staying over at their empty boarding school during the winter break. It sort of makes it sound like Nancy Drew meets Scooby Doo, and I wasn't too sure about seeing this. Imagine my pleasant surprise when, instead of a family-friendly mystery that Disney would have aired on its Sunday night show way back in the day, I receive a truly scary horror film about demonic possession that’s directed by the son of Norman Bates himself.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter--which was originally called February, because that was when the story takes place--is the directorial debut of Oz Perkins (credited in the film as Osgood Perkins), one of the sons of the late Anthony Perkins, who was best known for his role in Hitchcock’s dark masterpiece Psycho. Oz Perkins has fashioned a genuinely creepy tale here about two students at an all-girls boarding school who get left behind when their parents seemingly blow off parents’ day--after which they should have been taken home for the winter break.

Set in Upstate New York against a chillingly snowy landscape, the bleak wintry atmosphere--even during the bright daytime--only adds to the film’s creepy factor. It starts out as a slow-burn thriller as it builds up its story through the eyes of three characters, Kat (Kiernan Shipka), Rose (Lucy Boynton) and Joan (Emma Roberts). It may feel like it’s taking its sweet time in getting set up at first, but stick with it. Perkins is building up the back story, as well as the characters, so that when the weird stuff begins, you care about what happens because he makes you care about these characters. And all of the actors in this (including the always great James Remar) are marvelous.

So many horror film makers go for the gut--often times literally, thinking the best way to scare the viewer is with blood and guts. It’s the rare horror movie--and The Blackcoat’s Daughter is one of them--that scares you through a well-earned build up of dread. The horror elements in this film are subdued, which make them all the more frightening--there are some chilling visual imagery here that really scared me. The gore is suggested with a blood splatter here and there, and having the carnage take place largely off screen is what makes The Blackcoat’s Daughter so effective, and unnerving. If you’re looking for a genuinely scary horror movie this Halloween that’s not stomach-churning, give The Blackcoat’s Daughter a try. Just keep the lights on while you watch it. --SF

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Saturday the 14th -- a review

Way back in 1981, when dinosaurs still walked the earth and only the birds tweeted, my father and I went to the movies as sort of a father and son type of bonding experience. The film we saw was Saturday the 14th, starring the husband and wife acting team of Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, who play a couple with kids who inherit a creepy old mansion that just happens to be cursed. In short, the movie was awful--it was an ineptly made film that tried to be a spoof of the horror movie genre that had just exploded at that time, with Friday the 13th (from which Saturday got its title) being chief among them.

Recently we observed a Friday the 13th, and it was while viewing all of the customary Friday the 13th memes online that I was reminded of this film, and decided to watch it the next day. While there’s an inspired moment, when Prentiss is attacked by bats in the same manner as the classic scene that took place in Hitchcock’s The Birds, watching Saturday the 14th on Saturday the 14th offered no real thrills for me, other than reinforcing the fact that this movie really sucks hard, and that it sucks in a bad way, not in the ’it’s-so-bad-it’s-good’ way. I mean, I understand that it was actually meant to be a comedy. But Saturday the 14th isn’t any more funny than it was supposed to be scary. Saturday the 14th just lays there in its sheer lameness of being a really rotten movie.

The only pleasant takeaway that I have, viewing the film thirty six years later, is the cast. Severn Darden co-stars as Van Helsing, an exterminator who also fights the children of the night on the side. Darden is fondly known to me for his role as Kolp in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, as well as for his part of Apploy on the memorable The Return of Bigfoot crossover on The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman.

Jeffery Tambor also starred in Saturday as a goofy vampire who tries to steal the house out from under the family. Tambor is best known today for his role on Amazon’s Transparent, as well as for The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development, Archer, and a host of other series and movies.

Paula Prentiss has always been a busy actor, starring in a slew of comedies in the 1960s, as well as the Parallax View and the The Stepford Wives in the 1970s. She most recently appeared in 2016’s I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House.

Richard Benjamin will always be Quark to me. Not the alien bartender on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but as the intergalactic garbage man on the short-lived series of the same name from the late 1970s. He was also very memorable to me as a kid from his role in the original Westworld. One year after Saturday the 14th would see the release of My Favorite Year, which was Benjamin’s directorial debut (and was a far better movie than Saturday). He would be an actor/director (and very good at both jobs) from this point on.

In doing research for this film, I came across many reviews for it where the reviewer (many who are younger than me) gives a gushing appraisal for Saturday the 14th strictly for nostalgic reasons. They also realize the film isn’t great, but having seen it first at a young age, it still offers sentimental value for them. I first saw this film with my father at the age of 16, and do not share their nostalgic love for it--however, I remember my dad and I having a good laugh over how bad the movie was during our dinner out afterwards, so in that sense I have Saturday the 14th to thank for creating a fond memory of me with my father. --SF