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Thoroughbreds (2018)

Thoroughbreds is a dishy, tart little treat that kept me squirming, laughing, and gleefully entertained. Olivia Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) and Ana Taylor-Joy (Split) are outstanding as privileged teenagers trying to resuscitate their former friendship through collaborative murder. Cooke plays Amanda, a sociopath who cannot feel anything, who is incurably honest, and has stopped caring what others think. Taylor-Joy plays Lily, a self-involved young lady that feels overwhelmed by life and is skilled at dissembling. Together, the girls scheme to kill Lily’s boorish stepfather and enlist the aid of a hapless small-time dealer with big plans (Anton Yelchin, in his final performance) through blackmail. The story from writer/director Cory Finley is immediately engaging with how it naturally reveals the complicated histories between Amanda and Lily as well as what makes each questionable. These are two very interesting people and just watching their probing push-and-pull was entertaining enough, especially with such strong performances. The characterization of a sociopath without a heavy moral condemnation was refreshing. We assume Amanda will be the bad influence but it really becomes the other way around, with Lily faking for her own purposes. Thoroughbreds is more dread-filled and unsettling than conventional thriller, and while there are some gallows humor to be had from the abnormal characters, this is less a dark comedy. There are drawn out tracking shots and methodical push-in camera movements meant to build audience anticipation, and they’re mostly effective. The first half is a bit more engaging than what it ultimately delivers as a climax. It’s still satisfying and well handled, but Finley throws in some misdirects that don’t add a rising sense of stakes. The stakes are really more personal, which works since the crux is on the relationship between the girls and whether they are being honest or manipulative with one another. By the end, I thought I could argue either way who was manipulative and when. Small irony: the last scene you see of Yelchin is him as a valet parking other people’s cars.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Star Trek Beyond (2016)

star-trek-beyond-poster-internationalWith J. J. Abrams’ departure from the franchise for the greener space pastures of Star Wars, there was a creative void to fill, and in stepped director Justin Lin (Fast and Furious series) and co-writer/star Simon Pegg, acclimating to the established new movie universe and providing a Trek movie that proves to be the most “recognizably Trek” in the series thus far. The crew of the Enterprise is stranded on an alien world after being attacked by a hive-like armada of ships. It’s a somewhat familiar formula, a distress call that ends up being a trap, from an unknown entity that is harboring vengeance against the Federation. This allows for several dispirit storylines to explore the surroundings but also the enjoyable character dynamics of the crew; the casting department hit the jackpot with this franchise, and it’s just satisfying to watch the actors deliver solid, satisfying character moments. The new character Jaylah (Kingmen’s blade-legged Sofia Boutella) is interesting, kickass, and a source of deadpan comedy conflicts with others. There’s a genuine sense of discovery that’s patiently paced, not so much the set-piece-every-ten-minutes of the Abrams films. Idris Elba (The Jungle Book) makes for an intimidating villain and I’m happy to report he doesn’t get lost under gobs of makeup. He becomes more Elba as it goes, and he’s given a credible motivation and back-story to explain his actions. The action is a bit less exciting than I was hoping for from Lin, whose special blend of crazy has been somewhat dampened as he adopts the house visual style of the franchise. Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung have steered the franchise into safer territory but also put the focus on the crew and their bonds, which is the secret weapon of Trek. You sense that Pegg and Jung are fans, and they even provide greater context and justification for the new Trek elements that drew earlier complaints, like the use of the Beastie Boys song which now becomes a fun moment of fist-pumping triumph. Star Trek Beyond (no colons necessary, apparently) doesn’t quite hit the same highs as the previous two films, but it’s a solid movie overall and might be the best movie for the most ardent fans of classic Trek. My last piece of advice: go into space construction in the future. The way they go through starships, you’ll always have a job.

Nate’s Grade: B

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

J.J. Abrams’StarTrekIntoDarknessEnterprisePoster return to the final frontier had me extremely excited for what the sequel to 2009’s smash Star Trek would be. It’s a different sort of Trek, a more rough-and-tumble, popcorn entertainment with the recognizable flavor of that other famous space opera that Abrams is steering into theaters come 2015. Having seen Star Trek Into Darkness twice, certain things became very clear to me. First, this is about everything you could ask for in a summer popcorn action movie. The set pieces are thrilling (my fave may be a human bullet shoot through a field of debris), there’s something new and dangerous going on just about every fifteen minutes, the stakes are constantly changing, and there are a bevy of well plotted character arcs for a deep and well acted ensemble. It’s about everything you’d want in a Star Trek movie… if you were a big fan of the 2009 film. If you’re a lifelong fan, you may have some reservations, notably the inclusion of a famous villain that shouldn’t be too hard to guess. The second half references to Trek cannon, especially Star Trek 2, feel weird for a film that broke away into a parallel universe so that it could chart its own course rather than relive the old stories. There’s homage and then there’s just subservience. Still, there are plenty of resonant themes, like friendship, sacrifice, and family, that are given adequate attention, amidst all the big-budget escapist thrills. There are even some surprisingly poignant moments that the actors ace. Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s Sherlock) is incredible as the villain, a terrorist with a menacing, velvety voice that I could listen to all day. The vast majority of Into Darkness is tremendously entertaining, with a great pulse and sense of scene construction. The Abrams team knows how to make blockbusters in the old Spielberg variety, spectacle with humanity and humor and sweep. If this is what he can do with the Trek universe, just wait until Episode VII people.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Like Crazy (2011)

The prevailing thought I kept having while watching the twee indie romance (?) Like Crazy was that this is like stupid. I spend fifteen minutes with the young happy couple, Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones), and then there’s already trouble. Rather than have to wait two and a half months to see one another again (a.k.a. eternity), Anna decides to overstay her visa because it’s not like that would be taken seriously in a post-9/11 world. Naturally, there are repercussions and Anna is banned from reentering the U.S., effectively putting a hitch in her romance. It’s such a short-sighted, impulsive, boneheaded decision, and it’s one that completely made me lose all sympathy for a couple that couldn’t bother to be apart for a mere two and a half months. Jacob and Anna try and hold it together but the constant starting and stopping, as well as the comforts of people closer, provide major roadblocks. I’m not a hardhearted person; I’m a sucker for a good romance. Many of my favorite movies of the past few years have strong romantic elements (Eternal Sunshine, Once, Moulin Rouge, WALL-E), but I felt next to nothing for this whiny, pitiful couple. First off, they’re only together for fifteen minutes before being ripped apart, which doesn’t exactly allow me enough time to emotionally engage. And then there’s the fact that these “crazy kids” have absolutely no passion between them, no spark, no nothing that would compel them to be together against all odds. You don’t feel anything approaching romance. And to top it off, Jacob has a perfectly lovely, charming, and available alternative played by the lovely and charming Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games). She even makes this doofus breakfast in bed. This movie felt like an entire montage of small moments that never accumulated into anything believable or compelling. I’ll take Lawrence and breakfast in bed and be grateful.

Nate’s Grade: C

Fright Night (2011)

Horror is a genre that’s been notoriously cannibalistic, especially as of late. I don’t mean flesh-eating, I mean the glut of remakes that has polluted the horror market in recent years. After remakes of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the Thirteenth, The Hills Have Eyes, House of Wax, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, The Amityville Horror, The Fog, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, Sorority Row, Dawn of the Dead, The Crazies, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, The Thing, and scads more, you’d be forgiven for believing that the remake of 1985’s Fright Night would be another soulless cash grab. It turns out that it’s way better than even the original and quite an entertaining movie that got lost in the shuffle.

In a quiet little suburb outside Las Vegas, students are going missing. Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) suspects that there is a vampire in town. Ed’s former friend, Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin), dismisses this idea, especially since the would-be vampire in question is his new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), a home construction worker who seems to work at night mostly. But lo and behold, after Ed goes missing, Charley concludes that his old friend was right all along. Jerry has his eyes set on Charley’s single realtor mom, Jane (Toni Colette), and maybe even Charlie’s sprightly girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots). The only ally Charley can muster is a drunken Vegas magician in the Criss Angel tradition. Peter Vincent (David Tennant) has been studying vampires for years due to his tragic personal connection to vampires, notably Jerry.

Fright Night finds that horror sweet spot, equal parts scary and funny. Credit screenwriter Marti Noxon who cut her teeth on TV’s seminal show (yeah, I said it) Buffy the Vampire Slayer; there’s even a reference to a “Scooby gang” for we Buffy fans. Noxon does a terrific job of establishing a suspenseful situation and then developing it nicely, teasing it out. There’s a sequence where Charley is trying to rescue a neighbor lady that just involves a series of hiding places but uses a simple setup of ducking around corners so well. When our plucky protagonist checks in with Vincent for some assistance, we’re introduced to an array of exotic vampire-hunting weapons and artifacts that the Vegas magician has under glass. With a setup like that, you better believe we’re going to be using those weapons later, and how. The character development is richer than most teens-battle-monster genre films. The relationship between Charley and Ed, and the awkwardness and resentment of two friends growing apart, feels rather believable even dropped into the middle of a vampire adventure. The standard girlfriend role is given a bit more weight, as she’s the one who feels confidant and aggressive. She knows what she wants, and as played by the adorably named Imogen Poots (Solitary Man), you want to be what she wants. Seriously, this actress is striking in her Grecian features and I like a woman who knows how to handle a mace. There are also small touches that I really enjoyed that helped round out the movie. At one moment, a woman is being fed on by Jerry and she spots Charley hiding behind a door. Rather than cry out for help, she carefully draws a shaking finger to her mouth, wishing him to keep quiet and not to save her. The resolution of this rescue attempt is shocking in all the right ways. It’s a surprise that feels completely within reason, and organic twists and turns are always the most satisfying.

Noxon’s script continually surprises even when it starts to follow a by-the-numbers plot. Instead of an axe lopping off a vampire’s head, it just goes about halfway through thanks to the rigidity of bone. That’s a nice touch, but then when that same vampire tries to bite our hero and can’t move his fairly severed neck closer, then that’s when Noxon has capitalized on her cleverness. And she capitalizes often enough for Fright Night to be a real step above most vampire action flicks. Noxon also finds clever spins on vampire mythos; to get around the whole can’t-enter-without-an-invitation rule, Jerry just attempts to blow up the Brewster’s home to drive them out (“Don’t need an invitation if there’s no house”). There’s a particularly ingenious method to light a vampire on fire. And the entire character of Peter Vincent, played brilliantly by Dr. Who actor David Tennant, is a hoot and a great addition. He’s a riot as a cynical, profane, and selfish stage performer.  His character is such an enjoyably comic foil, and Tennant plays him with aplomb, that you almost wish for a Peter Vincent spinoff movie.

Director Craig Gillespie shows that he is shocking adept when it comes to staging a horror film. I would not have expected this level of competency from the director of Lars and the Real Girl. It embraces its R-rating and the bloodshed is plentiful though the gore is restrained. Gillespie draws out scenes with judicious editing, letting the dread build steadily. The tension of something simple like Jerry standing in a doorway, waiting for any verbal slipup to come inside, can be terrific. Gillespie also has some nifty visual tricks up his sleeve to complement Noxon’s crafty screenplay. There’s one scene where Jerry walks into a hotel lobby and is confronted by a security guard. The camera pans over a series of security monitors that do not pick up Jerry. Then in the background we see Jerry hurl the guard to the ground to bite him and in the foreground we see the security footage minus Jerry. There’s an ongoing tracking shot inside a fleeing minivan that’s not exactly Children of Men but still a good way to feel the fever of panic. The final showdown between Charley and Vincent versus Jerry is suitably climactic and rewarding, nicely tying back elements that were introduced earlier and giving Poots an opportunity to vamp out, literally and figuratively.

Farrell (Horrible Bosses) is a charming, sexy, alluring menace as Jerry, which is exactly what you’d want in a vampire (sorry Twilight fans). Vampires are supposed to be seductive; they’re inherently sexual, what with all that biting and sucking and sharing of body fluids. If Jerry is going to be dangerous, he also has to be seductive, and Farrell is exactly that. With his swaggering walk, with his pose-worthy stances, with his grins, he’s a great ambassador for vampire kind. But this guy does more than preen; he’s also a credible threat. He’s the bad boy that is actually quite bad. Farrell’s enjoyment of his villainous role is noticeable. Jerry taunts Vincent: “You have your mother’s eyes.” He shoots and misses the big bad vamp. “And your father’s aim,” he add, chillingly. Having a strong villain can do wonders for an action movie, and Jerry is a formidable foe played with great relish by Farrell.

Not everything goes off without a hitch. The special effects can be dodgy at times, especially when Jerry goes into full CGI vampire face. The vampires tend to look like shark people, with long exaggerated jaws and rows of gnarly teeth. It’s not a particularly good look. While Noxon’s script excels in most areas, there is still enough dangling plot threads. Charley’s mother is really never a figure of significance. Her potential romance of her neighbor/vampire is a storyline that is never capitalized upon, oddly enough. That seems like the kind of storyline you’d build a whole movie around. She’s written out of the movie in hasty fashion, immediately going from a sequence of driving to being unconscious in a hospital bed. How did that happen exactly? After the Brewster house explodes, nobody seems to make a big deal out of this, like it’s just some regular neighborhood occurrence. What kind of neighborhood watch is this?

Fright Night is just a fun night out at the movies. It’s got plenty of laughs thanks to Noxon’s clever script, plenty of scares thanks to Gillespie, and plenty of sex appeal oozing from Farrell (though “sex appeal” and “oozing” don’t sound like an advisable linguistic match). It’s not much more than a vampire action flick but it’s a really good vampire action flick, clearly a cut above the dreck that usually just relies on its audience’s understanding of genre convention to cover up for its shortcomings. There’s no reason you cannot be a good movie with this genre, and Fright Night is proof of that. Convincingly acted, cleverly staged, and surprisingly well-executed, this is one genre movie that hits the right vein.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Beaver (2011)

Eerily mirroring his real-life public breakdown, Mel Gibson stars in The Beaver as Walter Black, a man crippled by depression who finds a therapeutic outlet via animal puppet. The beaver is a puppet that Walter chooses to speak through, albeit in a cockney Brit accent that sounds faintly like Ray Winstone (The Departed). Given this twee premise, you’d expect plenty of laughs, but under the prosaic direction of Jodie Foster, also starring as Black’s anguished wife, the movie comes off like a stupefying heart-tugger, a sub-American Beauty style in suburban mawkishness. The comedy and drama elements don’t gel at all, and The Beaver is too tonally disjointed to settle down. Gibson gives a strong performance as a man battling his demons, and the subject matter of mental illness is thankfully treated with respect despite the fantastical premise. It’s the extraneous moments outside the beaver that help to detract and distract. The story of Walter’s son (Anton Yelchin) worrying that he’s already showing signs of mental illness, doomed to end up like the father he hates, is a palpable storyline. But writer Kyle Killen sums up this dilemma with clumsy brevity, having the son jot down post-it notes of behavior he has in common with dad, behavior to be eliminated. The entire subplot involving the son romancing the school Valedictorian (Jennifer Lawrence, sunny and beautiful as always), a pretty gal troubled with grief, never feels authentic. That’s the problem with The Beaver; too much feels inauthentic to be dramatic and it’s too subdued and brusque to be dark comedy. It’s like the strangest public therapy session ever for a fading star.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Terminator Salvation (2009)

The fourth Terminator movie ultimately comes across as a lifeless enterprise. It’s set during the war between man and machine, which means John Conner (Christian Bale) is leading the human resistance, as was prophesied. He must stop those crafty machines from finding and killing Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), who is destined to be sent back in time and become Conner’s father. The storyline focuses a lot more attention on the mysterious man Marcus (Sam Worthington), who isn’t so mysterious because they give away in minutes that he’s a machine. But he’s a thinking machine that reclaims his humanity, or whatever. The point of this movie is to make some cool action sequences and not step on the toes of the previous movies. Director McG (Charlie’s Angels) has a few nifty visual tricks up his sleeve, but this is one soulless machine just going through the Action Blockbuster subroutine. The character development is nil, the story is muddled, the machines are dumb, and Bale forgoes any normal kind of speaking voice in favor of growls and hissing. The throwbacks to the other movies can be fun (a 1984-aged Arnold!) or agonizingly lame (shoehorning in famous quotes like, “I’ll be back”). The movie is competent and has one or two exciting chase sequences, but that is simply not good enough coming from this storied action franchise. Terminator Salvation plays out more like Transformers, where the robots are big and bad and loud and sort of dumb. I guess that sums up the movie pretty well.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek has a hold on geek culture like no other franchise. It’s lasted over forty years, sustained five television series, and ten feature films (about four of them good), and let’s not forget the plethora of fanatical merchandise that includes everything from Trek cologne to Trek coffins. Star Wars has all the box office clout, but Trek has followers so devoted that they will create and learn a separate language, Klingon, that almost assuredly will never be spoken by anyone else outside of the festival circuit (you will never see a written Klingon exam that asks you “Where the library is?”). The Star Trek fans have been a foundation of geek culture for over four decades. People take this stuff very seriously. Trek has always been a headier brand of sci-fi, more devoted to ideas and moral dilemmas than shoot-outs and space chases, though Captain Kirk did teach the universe how to love, one green-skinned buxom alien babe at a time. 2002’s abominable Star Trek: Nemesis was meant to open up the franchise to a wider audience, but the film was the low-point for a franchise that also included William Shatner writing and directing the fifth flick (Nemesis also broke the odd/even movie curse).

When director J.J. Abrams approached Star Trek with the purpose of reinvigorating the flagging film series, you would think the man would wade into such a storied franchise with trepidation. Nope. He openly said he was making a “Star Trek movie for people who weren’t fans of Star Trek.” He was even going to change Trek canon. I imagine Trekkies (and no, I will never use the preferred nomenclature “Trekkers”) were nervous about an outsider, the author of the cinematic classic Gone Fishin’, meddling with hallowed ground. As I suspected, these fears were unfounded. The newest Star Trek does more than put a new coat of paint on an old franchise. This movie boldly goes where none of the Trek movies have gone before — turning reverent geek culture into a grand populist entertainment smash.

This new incarnation looks backwards, explaining how the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise came together. The movie shows the path of Jim Kirk (Chris Pine), from troubled youth to eventual starship captain. Kirk’s father captained a starship for about 10 minutes, but he managed to save 800 lives under attack, including the birth of his son. Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) recruits Kirk to Starfleet Academy with the promise of doing something more with life. We also witness the boyhood of Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is teased for being half-Vulcan and half-human. His human mother (Winona Ryder) encouraged Spock to embrace his human emotions instead of cutting them off, Vulcan-style. Kirk and Spock clash at the Academy, and then an emergency requires all the recruits to saddle up for their first mission in space. Nero (Eric Bana) is a dastardly Romulan who has traveled back in time. In the future, he blames an older Spock (Leonard Nimoy) for the destruction of his home planet and the deaths of billions of Romulans. To ensure this does not happen, Nero is going to eradicate Starfleet home planets, starting with Vulcan and then Earth.

J.J. Abrams is a geek’s best friend. He understands geek culture, and yet the man is able to take genre concepts and make them easily accessible to the unconverted while still making a finished product that is respectful, playful, and awesome. Abrams is an expert on the pop culture catalogue, and he knows how to make genuinely entertaining productions that succeed on brains as well as brawn. He brought tired spy conventions into the twenty-first century with the cool, twisty Alias and Mission: Impossible III, which was really an extravagant two-hour episode of Alias, and I mean this in the best way. He has an innate understanding of action sequences and knows well enough that an audience needs to be engaged emotionally, so he makes the action as character-based as much as possible. Abrams has a terrific imagination behind the camera, and he reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg in his ability to marry artistic integrity with big-budget crowd pleasers. Abrams and his screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Transformers, TV’s Fringe) have crafted a stellar Trek that will appeal to die-hards and those who couldn’t tell a Romulan from a Vulcan (I fall somewhere in between).

The time travel storyline could have used more juice, however, it serves its purpose by establishing a parallel Trek universe to work with. Beforehand, Trek had established so many previous stories that it hamstrung writing new stories because they had to be extensively researched to make sure they did not conflict with 40 years of canon. Abrams and company wrestled free from the grip of the established history and can now play around unencumbered to a degree. I mean, fans don’t want to see something radically inauthentic, but Uhura and Spock as a couple? Sure, why not? The fan favorite character catch-phrases (“She’s givin’ it all she’s got,” “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor?,” etc.) are organically worked into the story so that they don’t become falling anvils.

Star Trek‘s pacing can be whiplash inducing. It speeds through two hours of action and setup while still maintaining an emotional connection to the characters involved. The movie has a boyish enthusiasm for adventure and it’s fun watching well-known characters assemble and amble into new and interesting directions. The action is routinely thrilling and I enjoyed Abram’s small touches, like watching a crew member get sucked out into space and cutting all sound to illustrate the cold, empty vacuum. The amount of humor injected into the movie can be distracting at times, not because it isn’t funny but because of the brisk tone breaking. One second it’s a life-or-death scenario and the next Kirk is running around with giant goofy hands. Still, it’s good to see some humor in the Trek universe that isn’t related to alien culture clashes.

The young ensemble is amazingly well cast. I didn’t think a younger generation of actors would be able to step right in and play such lived-in characters, but they pull it off. The hardest shoes to fill are unquestionably Kirk’s, and Pine (Smokin’ Aces, Just My Luck) carries that same cocksure bravado without stooping to a stilted Shatner impersonation. His performance feels at times like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker rolled into one, and he’s an appealing presence that captures the essence of a dashing and rebellious scrapper. This Kirk is still an adventure-seeking, skirt-chasing 1960s kid at play. Quinto (TV’s Heroes) is blessed to look remarkably similar to Nimoy, but the actor also gets to explore the human side of Spock. He feels compelled to harness emotion, like all Vulcans, yet it’s intriguing when certain emotions slip out and build a bigger picture about what’s going inside the mind of a being dominated by logic. Quinto has less to work with by design and yet the man finds interesting ways to ensure Spock can be recognizable. Each of the supporting actors has their moment, but my biggest surprise was Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Urban has mostly been confined to lame action movies as of late, like Doom and Pathfinder. But he’s really funny and his performance captures DeForest Kelly’s mannerisms down without turning into a caricature.

If there is a main weakness to Abrams’ Trek outing it’s that it feels far more like the opening act of a larger movie. Nero is a fairly weak villain, though Bana gives him a nicely polished glower. The villain is really just a tie-in for the time travel storyline, which is also a narrative quirk to secure an open field for further stories. Meaning, that much of the movie can be seen as assembling the pieces to simply move forward on their own. It’s an expensive set-up movie, and Abrams makes sure that the audience sees every dollar of the splashy visuals onscreen. Personally, I was also getting tired of the cinematography decision to fill the screen with as many light flares as possible. It seemed like every other moment had a blast of light beam in from some direction. After a while it sort of felt like an eye exam where the optometrist shines a flashlight back and forth. And it takes far too long for Scotty (Simon Pegg) to appear in the movie.

J.J. Abrams does more than hit the restart button. He has made a Star Trek that manages to be respectfully reverent but at the same time plays along to the mainstream visual sensibilities of modern cinema. It’s fun without being campy, reverent without being slavish, and this Trek never forgets to entertain from the opening assault on a starship to the Michale Giacchino’s closing credits score. This is an enjoyable rush of sci-fi escapism. The Star Trek series was always deeply hopeful and humanistic, believing in the best for humanity and that man, in cooperation, could achieve greatness. I think further escapades with this cast and Abrams at the helm could reach greatness. For now, I’ll be happy with this rollicking first entry into a franchise that seemed adrift in space. Bring on more of the green-skinned women.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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