Ryan Beltram

Film Fanatic: ‘Cold Pursuit’ Review

/////

There’s a high body count in Cold Pursuit. Then again, there always is in Liam Neeson movies post Taken. It’s been quite the career pivot for an actor in his late 60s. Whether it’s rescuing his daughter in Europe, preventing the hijacking of a plane or the derailment of a train, he’s your guy. Don’t travel with this man.

But Cold Pursuit attempts to offer something different. There’s been a level of humor lacking in Neeson’s action films and his newest vehicle attempts to use brevity under horrific circumstances in a Fargo sort of way. Key word being “attempts.”

Neeson plays Nels Coxman (One of many memorable names in this movie), an ordinary man whose job is to plow a certain stretch of snowy road in a small town in the Rocky Mountains. He has a wife and son and the town names him “Citizen of the year.” But he gives an eloquent movie speech talking about the road not taken and how he picked a good road. A bit on the nose, but kind of eloquent.

But his normal life is upended when his son dies of a drug overdose. “Kyle wasn’t a druggy,” he says to the coroner. This sets in motion a revenge plot to find his son’s killer. In doing so, he creates a war between two rival drug gangs.

Don’t mess with Coxman. | (Summit)

Cold Pursuit’s major flaw is its screenplay. Where writers such as the Coen Brothers, the McDonagh Brothers or Quentin Tarantino excel at writing characters and dialogue within the world of gangsters and murderers, first-time screenwriter Frank Baldwin can’t juggle multiple storylines with enough compelling material.

Neeson is the star, but the film constantly pushes him aside to showcase the rival gangs and their daily struggle with running an illegal operation. I mean how can you manage a drug trafficking business while also monitoring your young son’s allergies and food intake?

There’s a couple of clever scenes, like the boy having a conversation about fantasy football with one of his bodyguards or one henchman telling another about his success rate in sleeping with hotel maids, but there’s not enough to keep the pace moving.

You can see Baldwin trying to tell a story about fathers and sons, but he can’t balance it all. So instead of Cold Pursuit being a pulpy revenge film, it’s just a second-rate black comedy.

The film has a weird relationship with death in general. Director Hans Petter Moland acknowledges every death on screen, which is something you don’t often see. But he does it for laughs. It goes from being clever to tedious real quick.

The root of the story and the motivating factor for Coxman should be the relationship he has with his son. But they share maybe one scene together. Coxman’s killing spree then feels more like pent-up rage from living an ordinary life rather than justice for his son. Why did the son have to die in the first place? That’s still confusing.

Laura Dern plays the wife and before completely disappearing from the movie; never to be seen again, she quite literally pokes holes in the screenplay by calling out Coxman for not really knowing his son. Neither do we.

There isn’t a single memorable female character to be found. Emmy Rossum plays an idealistic young cop looking to make a difference, but she’s constantly in the dark about what’s really going on. And she has to use sex as a tool to further her investigation. Original.

Cold Pursuit tries so hard to be different and yet it ends up being a soulless comedy thriller with rough draft dialogue and a forgettable performance from Neeson. Remember those copycat Tarantino movies from the mid-’90s trying to be kitschy and macabre? This feels like one of those. Only 25 years later.

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ Review

/////

There’s a moment early on in Velvet Buzzsaw, the new film from writer/director Dan Gilroy, when Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) is justifying his negative thoughts on a piece of art.

“A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity,” he says to two women. His point being that taking risks is still better and more memorable than being conventional. I thought about this quote after seeing Velvet Buzzsaw. Is the movie good? Not particularly. But is it unique? Most certainly.

The film follows a group of ostentatious people in the contemporary art scene with names like Damrish, Piers and Cloudio. Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) is trying to find the next great collection for her gallery. But when her assistant, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), comes across a massive collection from an unknown artist who recently died, everyone is clamoring to get a piece of it. What they don’t know is that this discovery unleashes a supernatural force that enacts revenge on those who have allowed their greed to get in the way of art. In this case, almost everyone.

Gilroy is exploring the idea that commerce and greed exploits great art and creativity. Using these themes, he has created a satirical horror film. It’s an interesting idea, but if you mash up different genres, you risk muddling the storytelling from a tonal standpoint.

Velvet Buzzsaw certainly has some fun moments and Gyllenhaal in particular is having a great time. Whether it’s the bowl cut hair, his very subtle pretentious fake British accent or his constant diatribes, Gyllenhaal shows his versatility as an actor. One very funny scene has him admonishing the color choice of a casket at a funeral.

The art of death. | (Netflix)

But the problem is, Gilroy doesn’t go far enough in either the satirical side or the horror side. The opening scene presents these characters as people who no longer care about or appreciate art and simply see it as a way to make money. But once the supernatural element is introduced, the movie ceases to be about the value of art and instead becomes a series of creative ways to pick off characters one by one.

And the death scenes are creative in a Final Destination sort of way. One scene has a character being literally swallowed up by the bleeding colors of a few paintings. Another character dies by way of a hobo robot. That’s right. A hobo robot. The movie can be very silly at times.

A movie like American Psycho perfectly balances satire and horror because there’s a central character, Patrick Bateman, who is the audience’s guide. Even Gilroy’s previous film, Nightcrawler, works because it focuses on one man’s ambition to make it in America through the lens of seedy voyeurism and exploitation.

You strangely root for characters like Patrick Bateman and Lou Bloom even though they are doing horrible things. I didn’t care about anyone in Velvet Buzzsaw and Gilroy doesn’t really want us to after he criticizes all of them in the opening scene. Gyllenhaal at least knows what kind of movie he’s in, but even his arc goes nowhere.

The irony is that the film just isn’t very compelling on a visual level. Nightcrawler is so memorable, besides Gyllenhaal’s performance, because of the way Gilroy shoots Los Angeles at night. It’s one of the best visual representations of a city ever put to film.

Velvet Buzzsaw is mostly people talking in rooms and unless you’re David Fincher, it’s usually not going to be captivating. This movie should have urgency and momentum and yet it just ends up feeling like the rough draft of an interesting idea for a story.

What is art and how do we value it? Gilroy comments on this multiple times in the film. A so-called expert mistakes a pile of trash for art. A group of people walk through a dead body mistaking it as being part of the instillation. A piece is worth six figures to one person and $5 from another. These are interesting ideas to explore.

But Gilroy’s vision for Velvet Buzzsaw is to be a slasher movie with something to say. That we should appreciate art for art’s sake rather than it be something we buy and sell. You have to admire him for trying something different, but the execution is ultimately unsatisfying.

Velvet Buzzsaw is available on Netflix.

 

 

 

 

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Glass’ Review

/////

Following the release of Unbreakable in 2000, M. Night Shyamalan had plans to make two more films in the series. But while Unbreakable was a modest success, it didn’t shatter (Sorry) box office records the way The Sixth Sense did. So Shyamalan moved on for better (Signs) and for far worse (Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth).

This brings us to Split, an unlikely follow up to Unbreakable that was a success both critically and financially. Shyamalan was officially back and fans were eager to see him complete his grounded superhero trilogy.

A common theme in both Unbreakable and Split is trauma. More specifically, that trauma is possibly the source of these character’s heightened abilities. David Dunn’s (Bruce Willis) near drowning as a boy somehow prevents him from ever getting hurt or sick again as well giving him superhuman strength and reverse clairvoyance (Seeing people’s sins of the past).

In Split, Kevin Wendell Crumb’s (James McAvoy) abuse by his mother as a child creates 23 different personalities. Including one where he literally transforms into a beast. The beast finds “pure” women to act as sacrifices to fuel the beast and somehow ease Kevin’s painful past.

Mr. Glass doesn’t have much to do in his own movie. | (Universal)

These are interesting ideas from Shyamalan, particularly in the case of Unbreakable, because it’s arrival in theaters marked the beginning of the superhero boom we currently reside in. He could get away with having Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) expound upon the importance of superheroes and comic books without it coming off as too pretentious because we didn’t have nearly 20 years worth of comic book movies under our belt yet.

But with the release of Glass, Shyamalan attempts to bury the mythology he built in the two previous films by having Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson) convince Dunn, Crumb and Price that they are suffering under a delusion of being superheroes and that her work needs to free them of this delusion.

Using psychology as a through-line with these three characters is an intriguing angle in terms of possibly leading us down an uncertain path (Maybe they don’t really have super powers). But it goes nowhere fast. Although, you’d expect it to; considering the amount of time spent inside the institution.

The problem is, Shyamalan saps any momentum the movie has once we arrive at the institution and the film turns into a series of scenes where characters, particularly Dr. Staple, talk again and again about the tropes and conventions of comic books as if we haven’t been to a movie theater in the past 20 years.

There’s very little character development because it’s the third film in a series and Shyamalan is relying on the audience to have seen the previous films. So Dr. Staple becomes sort of the main character for a large chunk of the film which is a mistake.

We’re not sure who’s movie this is and it’s certainly not all three. After an entertaining opening 20 minutes revealing where Dunn and his son, Joseph, (Spencer Treat Clark) have been all these years, Dunn becomes second (or third) fiddle while at the asylum.

Crumb is then the focus and McAvoy once again shines. His ability to switch personalities on a dime, many in one shot, are staggering. He can be funny, vulnerable and terrifying all in one scene.

The first two films match the tone of their main character. Unbreakable is an idiosyncratic and somber superhero movie about realizing one’s potential. Split is a manic and disturbing horror movie about overcoming trauma.

With the title being Glass, you’d expect Price to be the focus. But he literally doesn’t speak for half of the movie. When he does, it’s all part of his master plan to escape and reveal to the world that people with special abilities do exist. Jackson is certainly having fun once he has something to do. But he’s nothing more than a mustache-twirling villain. Glass should have been about Price finding his purpose in life. He believes he was a mistake from the beginning due to his brittle bone disease.

Shyamalan simply doesn’t trust his audience. He has to step outside the narrative to tell you about the narrative. And Staple and Price are the main culprits. It’s clunky and saps the film from any momentum it builds. He’s known for having twist endings too. In this, there are three! This drains the film from feeling like the conclusion of a trilogy and instead attempts to expand the universe. By then, we’ve had enough of this franchise.

 

 

 

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Free Solo’ Review

/////

There’s a moment in Free Solo, the new documentary about free solo climber Alex Honnold, when fellow professional climber, Tommy Caldwell, compares free climbing to an Olympic sport. If you succeed, you win gold. The big difference is that if you don’t, you die. These are the stakes at play for Honnold.

He’s attempting to do what no one has done before; free solo climb (climbing without safety harnesses) up Yosemite’s 3,000-foot high El Capitan wall. But while everyone around him, including his girlfriend; Sanni, worry for his safety, Honnold expresses calmness and excitement that would beguile the average person.

Free Solo works best when directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi focus on the climbing and Honnold’s methodical approach to ascending El Cap. Honnold performs several practice runs up the massive slab of granite and the filmmakers document his assessment of the challenge as if he’s a dancer working out the choreography. Whether it’s certain hand movements, feet placement or specific areas of the pitch on a climb, Honnold lights up when discussing the process.

But there is also a psychological aspect to the story the filmmakers have to analyze. Why would someone risk their life doing this? This is where the film falters somewhat. Honnold isn’t exactly a captivating figure when he’s not hanging off the side of a cliff. The doey-eyed free-spirit comes off as aloof and a little selfish.

A self-proclaimed loner, Honnold admits to getting into free solo climbing because he didn’t know anyone to climb with and didn’t want to talk to anyone. In the course of one year, he went from being a nobody to one of the most well-known free climbers in the world. And El Cap is the final (Or next) challenge he has yet to accomplish.

If you like staying on the ground, maybe avoid this one. | (National Geographic)

There’s an attempt to delve into his childhood and his relationship with his father, but Honnold is an empty book when it comes to his reasoning behind such a dangerous and harrowing feat. They literally give him an MRI scan in the middle of the film in an attempt to solve this puzzle. But it simply concludes he requires more stimulus than most people. I’ll say.

Perhaps if the film focused more on his obsession with greatness rather than the danger of it, the scenes on the ground would have been more interesting.

However, some of the best documentaries are ones that go down an unexpected path. Free Solo gets increasingly interesting when interrogating the ethics of filming Honnold on his climbs.

“I’ve always been conflicted about shooting free soloing just because it’s so dangerous,” says Chin. “It’s hard to not imagine your friend falling through the frame to his death.”

The film features multiple cameramen within reach of him as well as drones to capture impossible angles. Honnold is apprehensive about all the attention he’s getting to the point where he quits.

Of course the entire film is leading to his eventual ascent up El Cap. It’s equal parts thrilling and terrifying. And yet Honnold works his way up the treacherous mountain with ease. He’s even grinning at a few points. The scene intertcuts between Honnold and the cameramen on the ground afraid to watch. It affects the tension somewhat, but it’s understandable considering they don’t want to get too close.

As a document to one of the most incredible athletic feats in history, Free Solo is mesmerizing. The photography, scale and queasy voyeurism make it captivating for thrill seekers and scary for anyone afraid of heights. The film drags a bit when psychologizing, but in the end, Free Solo is as thrilling as any blockbuster you’ll see.

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Escape Room’ Review

////

Escape rooms became a thing a few years ago. The basic definition is, a physical adventure game in which players solve a series of riddles and puzzles using clues, hints and strategy to complete the ultimate objective which is to escape the room.

It was only a matter of time until such a concept became a horror movie and thus, we have Escape Room.

The film follows six strangers who are all given an invitation to an escape room where, if they escape, they win $10,000. Unbeknownst to them, each room (There’s more than one) is a death trap and they must solve the puzzle of escaping each room or else they die.

But despite being strangers to one another, the six contestants all share one common bond. This is a neat little trick by director Adam Robitel and the screenwriters. It forces us as the audience to solve not only the puzzles in each room, but figure out the past of each character. It also makes us attempt to care and sympathize with each of them as the film progresses. Some more than others.

Not everything is as it seems in ‘Escape Room.’ | (Sony Pictures)

Not enough attention is paid to their backstories. Each room has specific triggers for each character flashing back to their past. But if the filmmakers had relied a little more on their commonality and the psychology of it, the film could have been a little more substantive and compelling.

At its core, Escape Room is a mashup of Saw, Final Destination and Cube, a little horror movie from 1997. How can we come up with even more fun and creative ways to kill off each character?

The difference here is that Escape Room is PG-13. At first glance, this might disappoint horror fans who look forward to the gory pay-off. But by keeping it PG-13, Robitel finds inventive ways of scaring the audience by having each room not only unique, but a ticking clock that must be solved or else. The rooms are the star of the film, not the actors.

Another comparable film is The Cabin in the Woods. But that film embraces its clever concept by injecting humor throughout the story. Escape Room has virtually no humor which is a missed opportunity.

When it’s  just about trying to solve puzzles to survive, the film works. One room in particular is upside down with a floor that slowly collapses. It’s an entertaining and visually interesting scene with Robitel moving the camera in creative ways to mess with our depth perception.

But as the film progresses and the bigger reveal becomes more clear, Escape Room becomes less and less inventive and unique and more like the other movies I mentioned. The final 30 minutes are utterly preposterous and you can practically see the studio proclaiming, HERE’S YOUR NEXT FRANCHISE!

Escape Room works best when it’s ambiguous and tightly wound. But then it literally traps itself into setting up future installments and feeling like every other franchise in the genre.

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Review

/////

With great power comes… okay forget it. You know the rest. And the filmmakers behind Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse know that you know the rest. Since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was released in May of 2002 breaking box office records, there have been five more films.

That’s six Spider-Man movies in a 16-year span. On average, that means we get a Spider-Man movie every 2 ½ years. Add in the fact that there have now been three different iterations of the character in that time with three different actors portraying the wall crawler and I’d say Spider-Man fatigue is a real thing. And we’re getting another one next summer so buckle up!

But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is different. The first observation is that it’s the first animated Spider-Man movie. But it’s also a fresh and unique take on the character thanks to its outlandish story, specific visual style and energetic sense of humor.

‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ isn’t your typical Spider-Man story. | (Sony Pictures)

The story takes place in a multiverse where teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is bitten by a radioactive spider. Before he has time to even develop these sudden powers, his dimension’s Spider-Man is killed shutting down a collider that opens the multiverse (Multiple universes for the uninitiated).

The original Spider-Man is successful, but not before a number of Spider-People enter Miles’ dimension. Now Miles must get them back to their dimensions while also living up to these newfound expectations.

And ultimately, the film is not about responsibility, but expectations. Before becoming a reluctant superhero, Miles is trying his best to flunk out of his new prep school and go back to school in Brooklyn. He doesn’t know what kind of person he wants to be to himself or his parents.

One of the Spider-People, Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), is also wrestling with expectations. Despite being a mentor to Miles, Peter struggles with whether he wants to be a father or not. Both characters bond as the film progresses and they learn to handle greater challenges life brings them. But the emotional stakes aren’t the only unique thing to this film.

Live-action superhero movies, for the most part, steer clear of recreating the pages of the comics on a literal level. There have been exceptions. Ang Lee’s Hulk and the first Thor movie feature many “dutch” angle shots where the filmmakers attempt to make the panels in the comics come to life. Even Zack Snyder’s Watchmen features shots taken directly from the graphic novel.

But while fans of the comics appreciate that level of detail and recognition to the source material, they don’t necessarily want it. Comic books and movies are different mediums.

In animation however, there’s more room for creativity on a visual level. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has a millennial/punk/cotton candy aesthetic. It’s not that the animation is better than a Pixar or Disney Animation film. Spider-Verse is just distinct in its Banksyesque color palette. The street artist even gets a mention in the film. The way the characters are illustrated and highlighted in the foreground while the background is sort of blurry may be jarring at first, but it’s visually dynamic.

The animation is visually dynamic and unique. | (Sony Pictures)

The set pieces also illustrate the wonderful animation. When Miles first learns to web sling (Wearing his Air Jordans), he does it through fall trees that are acid-drip orange juxtaposed with pillowy white snow on the ground. In one of the more comedic sequences, an elevated subway train drags Miles and Peter B. through the streets of New York. As they crash into cars, buildings and the train, word balloons pop up on the screen with words like “Honk,” “Crash” and “Bang.” It’s a great nod to the comics. To describe the visuals would be akin to jumping in a gumball machine.

Speaking of the comedy.This is by far the funniest Spider-man movie and one of the best comedies of the year. Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The duo behind The LEGO Movie) act as a writer and producer respectively. They bring their wonderfully self-aware humor to the story. The film acknowledges past movies, including a terrible scene in Spider-Man 3 and they throw in easter eggs and plenty of terrific voice-over work from the likes of Kathryn Hahn, Hailee Steinfeld, Nicolas Cage and Liev Schreiber. And the voice-over bench is much deeper than that. I won’t spoil who else shows up.

It’s also a wonderfully diverse movie featuring a main character who is of African-American and Puerto Rican descent and multiple female characters including a female Spider-Man (Spider-Gwen).

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse takes that static feeling of flipping through the pages of a comic book and brings them to life thanks to a breezy and confident plot that subvertes the origin story we’ve seen countless times. The animation is eye-popping and the meta humor is delightful. It’s also the best animated movie of the year.

Film Fanatic: ‘Blindspotting’ Review

/////

Collin (Daveed Diggs) is on edge. With three days left on his probation, Collin is trying his best to stay out of trouble. But when he witnesses a cop shoot an unarmed black man in the streets, he questions not only his place as a black man in a city like Oakland, but also his lifelong friendship with troublemaker Miles (Rafael Casal).

Collin and Miles work as movers. They go from place to place moving people out of homes they can no longer afford. It’s a perfect plot device by director Carlos Lopez Estrada. It not only showcases the great chemistry and friendship between Collin and Miles, but as a love letter to Oakland and its evolution.

Blindspotting is one of the smartest independent films to come along in quite some time. Written by Diggs and Casal, the film tackles everything from racism, social media and police brutality to start-up culture and the justice system.

But it presents these themes organically through the decisions the characters make as well as the environment they’ve already grown up into. Blindspotting sounds like a heavy film, and it is at times, but it’s also one of the funniest films of the year.

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal shine in ‘Blindspotting.’ | (Lionsgate)

With shades of both Friday and the apex years of Spike Lee, the film tackles heady topics in an entertaining way while never coming off as preachy. The incident that lands Collin in jail best encapsulates this. While working as a doorman at a bar, Collin gets into an altercation with a white hipster type. Miles, who is there with him, escalates the situation which leads to Collin being arrested, a man in the hospital, and Miles getting off scot free.

The scene is presented as a flashback through the eyes of a witness who was there and it had me laughing out loud several times due to the smart writing. But then the scene flips on a dime and becomes the elephant in the room for Collin and Miles.

Collin is smart and articulate. He’s also black with braids in his hair. Miles is white but he wears a grill in his mouth and talks like he’s Eminem. They’ve been best friends for years and have seen Oakland as both an urban and diverse community slowly succumbing to gentrification.

The color of their skin has never been a problem until Collin’s arrest highlights not only Collin’s constant fear and insecurities as a black man in 2018, but also his friendship with Miles who wears his “thug” persona as a badge of honor.

As the feature film debut for Estrada as well as being Diggs and Casal’s first screenplay, Blindspotting is as impressive as it gets. Estrada directs with confidence. The colors pop, the camera moves and the environments are rich and lived-in.

Diggs is a compelling lead who can manage both the humor and serious aspects to the story. Casal is a revelation. The trailer presents him as a horrible friend who Collin should have left behind years ago. But when you watch the film, he’s a loving father and husband who can talk his way out of any situation (For better or worse) and provide for his family. He certainly can drag Collin down at times, but he’s loyal which makes him endearing.

Blindspotting surprised the hell out of me. It’s a film of its time that tackles serious issues with urgency and confidence. But also manages to entertain and inform thanks to Estrada’s direction, a colorful and woke screenplay from Diggs and Casal and breakout performances from the two leads.

Blindspotting is available to rent on Amazon for $2.99.

 

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Halloween’ Review

/////

The genius of the original Halloween is its minimalism. Style over substance is often the criticism directors receive when making films. But in the case of Halloween, director John Carpenter made the decision to strip away plot and character development. His focus was mood and tone.

The result was a chilling horror film about a murderous rampage on Halloween night. But it was also different. This was a story that took place in suburban any-town USA. Where simple white-picket fences and locks weren’t enough to save you from the boogeyman.

The boogeyman of this story, Michael Myers, isn’t so much a man, but a manifestation of evil. The who and why of Myers is irrelevant. He’s an indestructible force whose only purpose is death.

Halloween was released in October, 1978 to rave reviews. Made in 20 days on a shoestring budget of $300,000, Halloween would go on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. It also spawned countless sequels and created a sub-genre within horror known as the Slasher film.

‘The Shape’ returns in yet another iteration of ‘Halloween.’ | (Universal)

But forget about the nine sequels or re-imaginings that have been released since Halloween. The new film, directed by David Gordon Green, ignores everything that came after the original.

Jamie Lee Curtis returns as Laurie Strode, the woman who barely survived Myers’ killing spree four decades ago. But Strode has no intention of ever being a victim again. She’s spent decades preparing and training for Myers eventual return. But at what cost?

That fateful night defines her life resulting in her estrangement from her daughter and granddaughter. Strode is now a recluse waiting for something that may never happen.

But she’ll get her chance. While being transferred to a new facility (Never a good idea in horror movies), Myers escapes with the intention of finally killing Laurie Strode.

The new Halloween exists because of nostalgia. It may also exist as a makeup for all of those awful sequels. Is it better than those films? Yes. But it still didn’t need to be made.

The minimalism and ambiguity is what makes the original work. It was revolutionary in its storytelling because it didn’t have grand ideas or underlining social commentary. It literally cut through what a traditional horror film looked like up to that point.

Ambiguity goes out the window with sequels. Now we get to know Laurie Strode and what’s happened to her since that night 40 years ago. Although I would argue we don’t really get to know her. Green only hints at ideas of trauma, PTSD and the MeToo movement. Curtis isn’t given the opportunity to explore these aspects to her character because Green’s focus is moving on from the space in between to get to the blood and guts.

Green is known more for his independent dramas and despite his inexperience in the horror genre, he manages to do a decent job of crafting tension and suspense. The highlight being a scene in a bathroom that is both brutal and terrifying. The scene ends with Myers finally putting on the iconic mask. The way Green reveals this had the hair on the back of my neck standing up.

Jamie Lee Curtis is no longer playing the victim in these movies. | (Universal)

He also pays homage to the original with a long tracking shot of Myers walking toward a shed to grab a hammer and into a woman’s home to murder her. The murder is off camera and left to the imagination. Although he does include horrifying sound effects to amp up the scene.

But there isn’t enough of this. The original relied not only on first-person perspective, but also long and lingering Steadicam shots. That type of slow movement created a sense of a ghostly voyeur stalking its prey. Carpenter’s ability to fill the frame with empty space and blend it with his eery musical score created an atmosphere that was palpable.

Green co-wrote the film with Danny McBride and they do inject some much-needed humor that was lacking in the original. One scene in particular involving a babysitter and a little boy is hilarious. But Green and McBride also have completely random scenes of humor that undercut tension at the worst moments. Do we really need a scene where police officers are talking about what they brought for lunch?

The entire film builds to an ending that is kind of disappointing. Strode has created a Home Alone-like (Or Saw for the horror fans) fortress filled with booby traps and a panic room. But Green doesn’t really know how to pull off this final scene in an inventive way. The panic room also proves to be irrelevant when characters make dumb decisions.

In the end Halloween seems to act more as an apology to those thankless sequels rather than something to stand on its own. There’s suspense here and there, but it’s mostly a forgettable slasher film to please the fanboys of the original.

 

 

 

Film Fanatic: ‘Venom’ Review

////

Venom feels like it was made in the mid-’00s. Back in those days, superhero movies were a little goofier, shorter and unironic. They had directors like Rob Bowman, Mark Steven Johnson and some guy by the name of Pitof. And shout out to Tim Story who managed to get two Fantastic Four movies released.

This was a time period when studios were desperate to buy up superhero properties and get them into theaters regardless of quality. Sure, we had Spider-Man and X-Men, but they were made by capable filmmakers (Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer) who put an emphasis on character and story above set pieces. But even they had their moments of over-the-top scenes to remind audiences that they were still watching a comic book movie. Go back and watch Raimi’s Spider-Man movies and they will almost feel dated when compared to today’s crop of superhero IP.

That’s because superhero movies have become far more sophisticated. They’re deeper, longer and meta. They’re made by filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, James Gunn and Taika Waititi. Ryan Coogler is another name to mention as his film, Black Panther, has a legitimate shot of not only being nominated for Best Picture at next year’s Academy Awards, but actually winning it.

Venom is something else entirely. It’s an outlier in today’s superhero landscape and it’s because of this that I don’t really know how to react to it. It’s not nearly as bad as the critics are making it out to be, but it’s also not particularly good. It might be the definition of a “so bad it’s good” movie.

Venom finally gets his own movie. | (Sony Pictures)

Tom Hardy stars as Eddie Brock, a Vice-like reporter exposing corruption in San Francisco. He’s an on-camera reporter too which doesn’t really make much sense considering it’s…you know, Tom Hardy.

But The Eddie Brock Show is successful. Which is why he can land a beautiful lawyer girlfriend like Anne (Michelle Williams). They’re engaged and share not only an expensive-looking apartment, but a cat named Mister Belvedere.

Everything in Brock’s life is going great until he sticks his nose in Carlton Drake’s (Riz Ahmed) business. Drake is the founder of the Life Foundation. Rather than preserving life however, Drake concerns himself with perfecting it by sacrificing human life with an alien parasite known as a symbiote. Brock breaks into Drake’s lab and exposes himself to the symbiote which latches onto him. This bond leads Brock to possess superhuman strength and power in the form of a creature known as Venom.

It takes what feels like an hour before Brock becomes Venom and this is when the film embraces the silliness. Hardy, who’s not known for comedy, goes all in on the physical gags of something commandeering his body. Brock tears his apartment apart munching on frozen tater tots and half-eaten chicken wings from the trash. He even goes so far as to jump in a tank full of lobsters and begins eating them in front of an entire restaurant full of customers. Hardy is having a blast in these scenes and they are reminiscent of Jim Carrey in The Mask or Upgrade from earlier this year.

But we haven’t bought a ticket to see Hardy be Robin Williams. We want Venom and when he finally arrives, the movie is a whole lot of fun. A Keystone Cops apartment fight scene followed by a terrific motorcycle chase through the streets of San Francisco (Obvious Bullitt homage) act as Venom’s introduction. But what makes these scenes memorable isn’t so much the action, but Venom and Brock’s back-and-forth.

The duality of Venom and Eddie Brock is the best part of ‘Venom.’ | (Sony Pictures)

Brock is obviously reluctant to have his body turned into a wrecking ball, but the bromance going on between Brock and Venom is fun and their dynamic lifts the film from being an ordinary anti-hero origin story.

It’s certainly better than whatever is going on between Brock and Anne. Hardy and Williams have zero chemistry. Williams doesn’t seem to know how to navigate her way through a popcorn movie. She’s here for the paycheck.

Drake is your standard moustache-twirling villain. He’s just a guy in a suit who has power and wants more of it. The villains are always the weakest element in superhero movies, but this is one of the worst.

The inevitable third-act CGI-fight scene (Deadpool 2 called it) is unmemorable for the most part and director Ruben Fleischer commits a common superhero sin by having the villain inherit the same powers as the hero in a matter of minutes without the same difficulty as the hero (See: Iron Man, Ant-Man and Black Panther).

But despite Fleischer’s unremarkable direction and an awkward first act, Venom kind of grew on me. It’s so different from the superhero movies of today and that makes it kind of charming in a weird way. Hardy fully embraces both Brock and Venom and that’s what puts it over the top. For better or worse.

 

Film Fanatic: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Review

////

Here’s the synopsis for BlacKkKlansman, the new film from Spike Lee:

Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer from Colorado, successfully manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan over the phone with the help of a fellow white police officer, who eventually becomes head of the local branch.

That sounds like a too-good-to-be-true story. But it actually happened and who better to tell such a story than Lee, a director known for pushing boundaries on race and politics in his films. Despite a seemingly perfect fit however, Lee manages to mishandle this story on a number of levels resulting in a film that feels like a wasted opportunity.

Let’s start with the characters. John David Washington (Son of Denzel) portrays Stallworth with an odd mix of charm and ignorance. He literally walks in off the street to become the first black police officer in Colorado Springs and within fifteen minutes of screentime, he goes from rookie in the records room to a detective leading an investigation. He is not given any room to grow because the plot needs to move forward. But he’s “ambitious” according to the screenplay so it’s fine.

Adam Driver and John David Washington have great scenes together. There just isn’t enough of them. | (Focus Features)

Adam Driver is Flip Zimmerman, the white officer posing as Stallworth. Driver is great as always and his scenes with Washington are the best in the film. But he’s just a Jew pretending to be a Neo-Nazi and nothing more.

There’s so much to explore there and instead Lee wastes Driver’s talent with scene after scene of Zimmerman going to Klan meetings and proving his worth to their cause. It reminds me of a much better film involving a cop infiltrating a Neo-Nazi group, Imperium. That film tackles the cost of going against everything you believe in to get the job done. I don’t know what Zimmerman believes in because we don’t get to know him.

A love interest in the form of Patrice (Laura Harrier) begins with Stallworth after his first undercover assignment involves attending a civil rights rally. She’s a student activist leader unaware that he’s a cop. They talk about black culture, white power, civil rights and police brutality. That last subject would make for an interesting dynamic between the two, but instead it acts as another fleeting subplot that goes nowhere.

Besides the one-note characters, the film is all over the place on a tonal level. BlacKkKlansman has four screenwriters (including Lee) credited on the film and you really feel it. Scenes bounce back and forth from downright goofy to super serious. In one odd scene near the end, Stallworth, Zimmerman and Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) perform a sting operation to out one of their fellow officers who is a corrupt racist. This entire scene feels misplaced and tacked on just to give the audience some form of gratification. Everyone is high-fiving at the end and this is immediately followed by a scene where Bridges tells the entire team to drop their investigation into the Ku Klux Klan due to “budget cuts.” What? He also tells them to destroy their findings. Why?

The story also doesn’t evolve organically. One character acts as a bodyguard for David Duke (Topher Grace) and it makes absolutely no sense. It only happens so that that character can discover something. And the way he obtains this information is also ridiculous.

Topher Grace as David Duke in a nice change-of-pace role. | (Focus Features)

Lee is attempting satire or blaxploitation or something and it gets in the way of telling a compelling true story. Lee also can’t help but interject current events into the screenplay that are absurdly unsubtle. One shot lingers on a poster of Richard Nixon. Another scene blatantly turns into “this is where we indirectly talk about Donald Trump without actually talking about him.”

There’s great individual scenes in BlacKkKlansman. Perhaps the best intercuts between a KKK ceremony and activist Harry Belafonte reminiscing about a young black man whose savage murder was presented as entertainment for a white audience in the early 20th Century. It’s powerful.

There’s also clever comedic moments like Stallworth having to apply for a membership in the KKK like he’s signing up for a new credit card. Even the KKK has hidden fees in the application. You want a white hood and robe? You’ll have to pay a little extra for that.

But Lee can’t decide which movie he wants to make and the screenplay isn’t sophisticated enough to balance both. There’s a great buddy cop movie in there somewhere. When was the last time we had a great buddy cop movie? If Lee had made that the main plot with all of these prescient ideas surrounding it, BlacKkKlansman could have been great.

Instead we get what feels like the outline of a potentially great movie that tackles relevant topics that were as important in the ‘70s as they are today. The ending is a gut-punch. But it doesn’t feel earned based on everything that comes before it.

The fact that BlacKkKlansman exists in 2018 is a win. Is it timely? Sure. Is it polemic? Absolutely. But Lee is capable of so much better.

 

1 2 3 54