Thursday, July 21, 2016

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: GHOSTBUSTERS

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on GHOSTBUSTERS (2016, 116 minutes, PG-13)

The Quick of It -
My earlier life can partially be defined by the movie GHOSTBUSTERS (1984).  You have the mixing of humor and geekness with the flair of the 80’s era (meaning the better parts… not large hair, glam rock, and the Cold War).  The cast included the top comedic stars of the time - Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Harold Ramos.  The effects were impressionable to a young mind (ghosts could be just as cool as scary) and the jokes kept you rolling. 

And now to the present…

The announcement of a new GHOSTBUSTERS was a thrilling prospect.  Then all went spiraling when it was said that it would be an all-female cast.  The rollercoaster continued in a twisted spin as Paul Feig (SPY, BRIDES MAIDS, THE HEAT) was set to direct, which he has shown to do well with female lead roles, but we need strong personalities held together with strong writing.  An added advantage was his working with Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy on previous projects, a chemistry must have been present to sign on to a high profile title like this.  The fans did not seem hopeful.  And the die was finally cast…

In this new GHOSTBUSTERS, Wigg plays the uptight Professor Erin Gilbert who gets pulled into the paranormal world by her old friend Abby Yates (McCarthy).  Erin is up for tenure at Columbia when she discovers a book she wrote with Abbey, one on the topic of paranormal activity, has been republished and could ruin her chances.  Let the shenanigans begin.

The movie had its moments.  Wigg and McCarthy are joined by Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, more “Saturday Night Live” cast members, to fill out the new team.  They worked well together and did not seem to overshadow one-another.  I think since the studio went for a milder rating, to reach a larger audience, it made for a duller edge in comedic wit.  There was one surprising feature to the movie.  I will say that the funniest moments did seem to include Chris Hemsworth, as Kevin.  I never thought I would say that… ever.  But here we are, cats and dogs living together... mass hysteria!  He was the shining comedic star.

The special effects were on par with the current CGI technology.  They were rich and vibrant, making for a visual centerpiece to this film.  The shots for the epic ghastly finale were twisted enough to make you remember ghosts should be scary, even though I would have been running up and down the streets trying to see everything.  I thought the one weakness was the lack of a powerful antagonist.  Neil Casey (Rowan North) plays his part well but there just isn’t that sense of impending doom you want from a GHOSTBUSTERS film. 

Dan Aykroyd said it best, that this film is a tribute to the first.  There were plenty of parallels, quick nods, and never once did I think they were trying to outshine the original.  I will say that I feel even though there were parts that could have been improved upon, I found this movie to not be the disaster everyone was expecting.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

'Blu-ray or Bust' - GREEN ROOM

'Blu-ray or Bust'
GREEN ROOM (2016, R, 95 minutes, A24/BROAD GREEN PICTURES)

Recently, the world lost a true talent, one which shone in many of the roles he played.

Anton Yelchin (of the STAR TREK reboots, and, one of my favorites of his, CHARLIE BARTLETT) died tragically young. Besides the occasional turd of a movie (BURYING THE EX, ODD THOMAS), he was at his best when he had artists of equal caliber in the project.

With GREEN ROOM, a tight and taunt thriller about a metal band that gets caught in the wrong place at the absolute worse time. Yelchin is more human, more honest, than anyone deserves. Playing “Pat”, the leader and band’s guitarist, he has a presence that all of us immediately turn to for answers. His is the questionable conscience of this film, and one we are drawn back to over and again.

This brutal, sometimes thought provoking juggernaut of doom, is effective not just due to the tight storytelling of writer/director Jeremy Saulnier (BLUE RUIN, a terribly under-appreciated film—it’s on Netflix, so go watch it, you unappreciative bastards), but also because of the careful eyes of cinematographer Sean Porter. The moments and images he captures, while horrifyingly realistic at times, lend a quiet beauty to this film that should not be missed. If you watched THE FOREST (if you haven’t, please, DON’T), you’ll recall that the first eight minutes of that film was a visual and mental feast. Not only does Saulnier trust Porter enough to establish the mood and the artistic quality of what could have been a casual crime thriller, but he trusts him enough to work his magic throughout the entire film. FOREST forgot it was trying to be different the minute the lead character went into the frigging forest. Here, you become mesmerized not just by the unfolding of events before you, but by the way it is shown to you.

Yelchin was fully capable of carrying this film by himself, but he didn’t need to. The mark of a truly great performer is that he can capture your attention, but not steal it from the rest of the cast. Every person on display here is their own story, their own flawed representation of every facet of humanity, and none overpowers the other. Which makes Patrick Stewart’s (STAR TREK: TNG, “Professor X” from multiple X-MEN films) performance that much better. He chews the hell out of the scenery, but in a subtle, gnawing kind of way. Like a mental termite hell-bent on leaving a trail behind in your brain. It is refreshing to see him playing the “bad guy”—especially one that doesn’t think he’s bad.

The other beautiful and wonderfully absurd touch to this film is the ending. I’ll not spoil it for you, but it is, by far, one of the best final twenty seconds of anything I’ve seen in a good, long while.

There is only one special feature on the disc, but you don’t really need any more than that. The movie is the only voice you need, believe it or not. Deleted scenes and gag reels probably would have just distracted from the finished product, and the one special feature is good enough to reinforce the scope of the loss of such a talented actor.

There are at least five more films Yelchin was involved with that have yet-to-be released. I’m not sure that any of them have the opportunity to show his true talent and power as ROOM does, but that does not mean I won’t be watching them. Yes, me makes a wonderful Pavel Chekov in the TREK films, but give the man some credit for what he’s done here.

Grade: A
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Most Definitely

-- T.S. Kummelman

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

“80’s References and The Guy From That Wrestling Movie: What You Might Be Missing on NETFLIX”

“80’s References and The Guy From That Wrestling Movie: What You Might Be Missing on NETFLIX”


Having hit puberty in the eighties, I tend to remember most of it. Not that I want to, mind you; puberty still sucks, and that era of big hair, rebellious punk rock, and John Carpenter movies on Cinemax is decades past.

Hell, thirty years from now, the decade we are in now will be marked with completely different things, like, uh, Donald Trump, Arctic Monkeys…okay, yeah, still big hair and English punk rock. And, The Sweet Baby Hey-Zeus save us, PokemanGo. (And yes, I totally believe that there is a rare one hiding atop Trump’s head, and I’ll give ten bucks to the first person that finds it.)

Thankfully, we have Netflix to keep us in check. “Stranger Things” is ALL THINGS EIGHTIES. Even the lettering used in the credits is lifted straight from TV shows from that bygone time, and the title itself borrows the same style of many of the Stephen King books that came out at the time. The story centers on a small town (yes, there are numerous King references in this show) in which odd occurrences begin—namely, the disappearance of a boy. His friends, all Dungeons and Dragons nerds, do their utmost to help search for him, as does his distraught mother and the town sheriff. Little does anyone know, the government facility on the outskirts of town, which is run by a mysterious doctor, may have something to do with the strange events taking place.

The show itself is entertaining enough, although at times the references to that long-dead era can seem overwhelming. I know it takes place back then, but STOP REMINDING ME EVERY OTHER SCENE, I FREAKING GET IT ALREADY. What creators/directors Matt and Ross Duffer decided to do was hire famous actors from the eighties to play two of their adult leads. Winona Ryder plays the missing Will’s mother, and Mattthew Modine plays the “evil” doctor. These additional “throwbacks” to the eighties could have been overkill, but the actors themselves are perfectly cast. Ryder occasionally gets a tad over-the-top with the sudden manic spiral of a mother searching desperately for her son, and it isn’t until the fourth episode when you finally see her start taking charge. Modine’s performance is the exact opposite, and the slightly better of the two. His Dr. Brenner is quiet and reserved, making his subtle performance an interesting contrast to Ryder’s over-bearing presence. She is good here; there are moments of genuine feeling from her that nearly break your heart.

But with this show, the adults, like in every eighties’ Spielberg or Dante film, just kind of get in the way (the exception to this rule is the Chief of Police, played with a great amount of care and focus by David Harbour). This story belongs to the kids, and the storytelling misses not a beat when it is focused on its younger stars. The show takes about four episodes to really hit its stride, and the clunky adult storylines converge and become more cohesive as the season draws to a close. The child actors, especially young Millie Bobby Brown (“Intruders”) as “Eleven”, do wonderfully in their roles. They sell the time period, the story, and most importantly, their friendship with one another in a way that is more honest than the adult groups around them.

While this is not the best series Netflix has released, the service is proving itself to be a dependable provider of programming that is fresh and well produced. Sometimes the effects aren’t up to the Hollywood blockbuster standard, but they don’t distract from the flow of the story. No second season has been announced yet, but I would be disappointed if there wasn’t one. The dynamic that the Brothers Duffer have created, while not original, expands upon a time and place/space of Hollywood history when the friendship between kids was a genre all unto itself. They do not waste much of the eight hours given to them to tell their tale—which may feel a bit short at times, but it is just enough to not overdo it.

And hell, if “Hemlock Grove” got three seasons…seriously…

Series Grade: B+

-- T.S.Kummelman

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR (2016, 105 minutes, R)

"This is your Emergency Broadcast System announcing the commencement of the annual Purge.  At the siren all crime, including murder, will be legal for twelve hours.  All emergency services will be suspended.  Your government thanks you for your participation."

ELECTION YEAR has come and gone.  The true problem is this fictional election year seems more authentic and grounded than the current US predicament.  The story continues for Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo, from THE PURGE: ANARCHY, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, THE GREY, and WARRIOR) as he is now head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell, from the TV show 'Lost' and FREQUENCY.  Senator Roan is determined to end the Purge by running for the presidency, as she lost her family on a previous Purge night.  The New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) see this as a threat and use this year's Purge to rid themselves of her aggressive agenda.

I have always been a fan of this horrific concept.  It does seem telling of my darker side, but we won't go there...  The potential is always there for some great Purge scenes, and this movie delivers some creepy and demented ones.  They show the Capitol marred with the night's reckoning.  A crowded hanging tree.  A body-refuse pickup service circling the neighborhoods.  To add to the chaos, they briefly bring in the concept of 'purge tourism', people from other countries flying in to purge with the rest.  One strength of this film was the music (Nathan Whitehead) and the accompanying sound mixing.  It set the visceral tone and heightened the Purge experience. 

But, for me, this one was not living up to my internal hype.  The style harkened back to the 90's, with inserted pieces of levity that seems forced, over-the-top debauchery when not really needed, and a moral compass that pushes the plotline forward.  It felt like this could have been a campaign stop gone horribly wrong at one point for the Senator.  I think director/writer James DeMonaco could have put a little more time in the plot and dialogue to make this a much stronger final product.  I also spotted a number of editing goofs or poor choices in cuts.  I will say this does not discourage me from wanting more sequels, though.

Grade: C+

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

'Blu-ray or Bust' - THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY

'Blu-ray or Bust'

Watch this movie. I’m telling you this right off the bat, because many people do not care for Sasha Baron Cohen all that much, despite the range of his talent. So, go watch this film.

Unless you have a fear of being raped by an elephant—then, by all means, steer clear of THE BROTHERS GRIMSBY.

Most people associate Cohen with BORAT, or, even worse, BRUNO. But you have to watch for his smaller roles to truly understand the talent this man exudes. From the Station Inspector in Steven Spielberg’s HUGO, to Thénardier in LES MISERABLES, he seems to shine best when his screen time is limited. Until now.

GRIMSBY is, quite possibly, the grossest, foulest, and funniest comedy of the last several years. Seriously. The smartly written (co-written by Cohen, of course) film combines gross-out humor and witty banter like none other, all the while serving it up with a heavy dose of action and a giant smirky-nod to every serious spy movie ever made. Cohen plays 'Nobbie', a poor English family man who loves his family almost as much as he loves soccer. His estranged brother Sebastian, whom Nobbie has searched for for years, turns up—and turns out to work for the British government. As Sebastian, Mark Strong is smart, violent, and efficient at his job. His long lost brother Nobbie is a complete dumbass.

Suddenly finding themselves on the run together sets up this odd couple pairing for a wild, and sometimes seriously gross, departure from the spy genre. It does so in a gleeful majesty that borders on spontaneous insanity. While predictable at times, it also manages to be genuinely funny at others. Just when you think a joke is over (see: ELEPHANT), director Louis Leterrier (THE TRANSPORTER, NOW YOU SEE ME) pushes you way past the breaking point. Ridiculousness turns into hilarity, and over-the-top leaves you wanting even more.

Keep in mind, this is Sasha Baron Cohen—at times, it is bound to get weird. But it is the reactions of those around him which illicit the biggest laughs. Strong is superbly cast as his brother, playing the straight man to Cohen’s idiotic brilliance. His reputation in British cinema is spotless (don’t see: ELEPHANT SCENE), and here he is given the opportunity to reflect the audience’s own looks of wide-eyed befuddlement of whatever situation Nobbie has suddenly thrust (honestly, freaking ELEPHANT) them into.

The special features are almost as funny as the film itself. To see the work that everyone, and most especially Leterrier, put into this gooey mess is a wonder to behold. And you get the feeling that the deleted scenes had to go not due to time, but because it was the only way to get the film past the ratings board. I’m honestly surprised at the fact that this one walked away with the rating it did, considering the effort of, well…ELEPHANT.

The movie is not just a comedy—it is also an action film, so you kind of need this one on Blu-ray. Between Leterrier’s camera work, the soundtrack, and the set-pieces (I could honestly put another pachyderm reference here, but, really, what’s the point anymore?) demand the clarity of the format.

Hopefully, Cohen is done with the baser elements of his comedy—he tends to stick with a character for a while, and although Nobbie is fun, it is more entertaining to see him interacting with actors of a more serious nature. This film should usher in a new phase of his place in the world of cinema (he says, with a half grin, thinking ELEPHANT the entire time…)

Grade: B+
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Most Definitely
-- T.S. Kummelman

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN

The 'Not-So-Critical' Critic: 
on THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016, 110 minutes, PG-13)

The Quick of It -
The idea of reimagining a major classic is always a risk.  The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs are no exception.  People have been introduced a number of times to Tarzan and his legacy.  Disney did a cartoon production and was quite successful.  The top recent live-action is a little dated, GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, in 1988.  Now Dark Horse Entertainment has their version in the mix.  What they did right was the depth of the storybuilding and the research to back it up.  They tell the tale set during the late 1800’s as Tarzan must return from his time in England to the Congo to investigate possible atrocities, and his earlier years shown through flashbacks as this is taking place.  And I am please to say that they didn’t do much wrong.

Director David Yates, of Harry Potter fame, does a fair job, but I believe there were greater standouts with this production.  I think since this was under the scrutiny of producers and studio wishing TARZAN to be viewable by a larger audience, his hands were tied.  The music by Rupert Gregson-Williams (OVER THE HEDGE, BEE MOVIE, HOTEL RWANDA, and a strong collection of comedies) set the tone and filled the wilds with some context.  Cinematographer Henry Braham (THE GOLDEN COMPASS, FLYBOYS, and the future GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2) did a wonderful job in creating unique environments for each setting.  In concert, these three crucial players made the film a ‘safe bet’.  You could almost sense the tribute given to Burroughs and his work.

For the cast, there were both strong and weak elements.  Alexander Skarsgard was an ok Tarzan.  He didn’t hurt the image but seemed less imposing on the screen.  With the style of the storytelling, this issue may not be his fault.  They kept to a plausible plotline rather than going overboard with superhuman type powers, which was the case from the original works.  He was a humble person who was uncorrupted by ‘civilized men’ (as the time period would support).  Margot Robbie (Jane Clayton) did bring the fire to her role, which was needed to balance the continuous calm of Tarzan’s demeanor.  I love Samuel L. Jackson (as George Washington Williams), who I call ‘Sammy’ on weekends, but this role was more for comedic relief.  I appreciate that but his levity was a little forced in the writing, and his character was not quite balanced.  But the one who shined above all was Christoph Waltz.  This role could easily been written with him in mind.  There was not one moment when Leon Rom was on the screen when your skin did not crawl, and still you could not look away.

The one thing I must bring to the forefront is the supporting cast.  I was not comfortable with the portrayal of life in Africa.  Seemed a little old school and less gritty and true to how it really was.  The actors and extras really did a wonderful job of creating the illusion, but I wonder how much was stereotyped. 

Overall, this new vision was a great break from the rush of superhero movies.  I am always a fan of the classics when a production listens to the original author’s voice and intent, adding a piece to history and showing the new generations that the classics should be respected for their subtle grandeur.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

'Blu-ray or Bust' - MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

'Blu-ray or Bust'

This quietly effective science fiction tale starts off by throwing you right into the mix of things. We see, on a hotel television, a local television newscaster reading an Amber Alert. Then we see the focus of the alert in the hotel room, with his accused abductor:  his father.

What happens from there is a story that doesn’t leave you guessing much. It unfolds not in flashbacks, but through the investigation of the FBI, and information provided by the innocents involved. It seems the boy was rescued from a local cult by his father, a cult that worshiped the boy and his abilities. It seems that young Alton (Jaedon Lieberher, ST VINCENT) has the tendency to shoot blinding light out of his eyes; what this light does, and what it means to Alton, and those in his life, is just part of the mystery.

His dad Roy (Michael Shannon, who shines in every dramatic role he plays) has joined forces with an old high school friend (the intense Joel Edgerton, from WARRIOR and ZERO DARK THIRTY) to get Alton to a certain place at a certain time where something is supposed to happen. The cult believes it is the end of days, and everyone else…well, no one really knows. But that isn’t the whole point of the story, either. The cast is rounded out by Adam Driver, doing a wonderfully curious and serious Jeff Goldblum-style character, and a nearly unrecognizable and totally un-annoying Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s estranged mommy.

The effects, when they are necessary, are spectacularly subtle. You can see writer/director’s Jeff Nichols’ (MUD, TAKE SHELTER) love of 80’s sci-fi; there are nods to STARMAN, E.T., and THE EXPLORERS, just to name a few. But it is the characters which drive this film, and the physicality of how they communicate. It is one of the few films in which you never hear a parent say that they love their child, but the cast is more than capable in being able to convey that love not just through their actions, but with the intensity of their looks. The way they talk with one another, the heart-wrenching expressions on their faces…they don’t need to vocalize it, because they (and the viewer) already know.

The special features don’t offer much by way of the filmmaking process; you get breakdowns of all the characters, and a short doc on what Jeff Nichols was trying to—and did—do. It is not quite enough to get excited about (I’m speaking to the inner geek, here…), but at least lets you appreciate the efforts of the storytellers themselves a bit more. Of course, the film is entirely necessary on Blu-ray. For the tone of the film, and to appreciate the grand scope of Adam Stone’s (part of Nichols’s crew, as they have worked together on almost every occasion) wonderful camera work, you have to see this in as rich a format as possible.

It is a pleasure to see some of the more subtle sci-films that have been produced over the last few years. MIDNIGHT, in particular, is a wonderful example of how you can tell an effective story without having to blow up national monuments, or have ginormous alien ships invading the planet. Hollywood should take note.

Film Grade: A
Special Features: B-
Blu-ray Necessary: Most definitely

-- T.S. Kummelman