Going Ape For Kong

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Maybe it was just me but I wasn’t completely psyched for a new Kong movie. Large CGI mammals whether they are singing jazz in Jungle Book or surviving ship wrecks in Life of Pi look either too fake or too cheesy. I’m always hyper aware that they’re not real and I’d prefer filmmakers to use an actual tiger. Now there’s no 100-foot ape Warner Brothers could have pulled as a practical Kong but the key phrase in the title Kong:Skull Island would be the latter half. While Kong is the center piece of this lost island in the South Pacific, there’s so much more there than the titular ape. The military and science expedition that arrive may have been welcomed by a fierce swipe of Kong’s hand wiping out most of the team but there are far worse species lurking in the jungle that they must worry about and that’s where the fun begins.

It’s hard not to notice the huge push to distance this adaptation from Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong. Jackson’s goal was to remake the film from his childhood and make it a rightful epic. It’s truthful to the 30’s setting but has the edition of all creatures on the island namely dinosaurs as Kong’s adversary at least until man proves to be the real foe. There’s the odd woman/ape romance with the blonde heroine which elongates the plot into this 3 hour plus narrative. Skull Island first move is to scrap the time period that character is so entrenched in. It’s 1974 and Vietnam is wrapping up. It’s blatant that the filmmakers are going full Apocalypse Now with the visual imagery of the rising sun, helicopters dropping bombs and Samuel L Jackson’s war hungry Colonel Packard is a clear Kurtz parallel. Besides being the breath of fresh air by including the new decade that has funky ties and classic rock, Kong is a perfect allegory for Vietnam as this expedition, well intentioned or not is ill-prepared and unable to stop the force of the ape. This is also a movie that moves at a clip. They deliver a tight 2-hour action movie that wastes no time, giving you visual confirmation of Kong in the first five minutes. It’s a welcomed decision in my opinion because I don’t need a drawn out story. It’s an island with monsters, most of these people won’t make it out alive and I’m here to see their fight for survival. The downside of cramming in all these set pieces as well as characters (if you’ve seen the amount of actors’ names they fit on the poster you know), any emotional growth is thrown to the wayside or when attempted, doesn’t work. The few times to breathe and allow these character moments between the hired tracker Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and anti-war photographer Weaver (Brie Larson) comes off as pointless. The ones who come out best are the biggest swaths of performance like Jackson or John Goodman who plays the crackpot scientist Randa who initiates this mission.

I may be saying the writing is a bit hollow but that’s not why you go see a blockbuster such as this. You’re there for the spectacle and Skull Island definitely delivers. With DP Larry Fong who is the real star here, creates breathtaking 360 battle sequences like Kong taking down helicopters, giant bamboo spiders that squash unsuspecting soldiers and the Skullcrawler attack in the elephant graveyard. The pristine special effects make the action such an immersive experience, something I can’t wait to see again and oggle. I, of course, am drawn to all the bizarre creatures designed to inhabit the island. While I can take or leave a mammal, I love me a CGI reptile because dinosaurs are forever. Moving away from the traditional T-Rex look Jackson went for, here it’s a Cloverfield, skeletal beast that charges at people on its two legs. Weird as hell but fascinating to behold. Even when not in the trenches the neon lighting choices of Vietnam, accentuating the cool British ruggedness of Hiddleston are much appreciated. From costumes to production design to special effects, all beautifully recreates both a specific time as well as a whole new place that time forgot. I’d hope you’d get something this good with such a massive budget.

This is a studio movie through and through. It moves and sounds like one with its protest rock soundtrack and obvious build up to a sequel/Marvel-esque world building. It has the pitfalls of film by comity, lacking a distinctive directorial drive but goddamnit if it isn’t a hell of a lot of fun to watch. We got the auteur Kong already and while you can feel the ambition, it’s still a slog. I’ll sacrifice a romantic storyline for well-shot explosions and beast battles. The anti-war, pro-environmental message come through naturally without the grand statements. The setting and scenario are strong even if there are too many characters to rightfully establish a lead. The movie knows how to have a good time. It’s comedic, it’s dark and it promises me more Godzilla in my future which is all I’m asking from any movie. I could care less about superheroes, this is the cinematic universe I’ve been asking for.

The New Stepford: The Influences of Get Out

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Brainwashing, body snatching, experimental procedures, what have you, there’s a lot to fear from the power of affluent white people. That may sound crazy but science fiction ulterior motives are almost more comforting to believe in than a grand evil scheme concocted by white upper class than age-old racism and sexism. Get Out has made a huge splash as being one of the most woke horror movies ever made. It brings the subtext of oppression and otherness that past genre films have alluded to and made it literal text. The story of a black man Chris (Daniel Kaluyaa) going on a weekend vacation to visit his white girlfriend’s parents devolves into a conspiracy of modern day slavery and exaggerated cultural appropriation. Sure it is a heightened scenario of a white community luring black people to be used as body surrogates since they are superior physical, artistic and intellectual beings but there are many other smaller interactions that director Jordan Peele tackles of modern day racism such as a black man being followed by a car in the suburbs or the excessive need for the white people Chris meets in this upstate neighborhood to prove they’re not racist by stating how much they like Tiger Woods. Get Out couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for America where the conversation on race has come to the forefront. Now being a white person, I’m not the right person to talk about the importance of Get Out or the black experience in any way but Peele has expressed that his inspiration for the movie came from 1975’s The Stepford Wives, that premise being a similar affluent suburb of Connecticut has men turning their wives into subservient robots. The female experience being something I’m more familiar with, I decided to double feature the 70’s horror film as well as it’s 2004 comedy remake to see where Peele drew his influence and how I can tangentially talk about Get Out.

I’m first inclined to believe that Peele derived from both incarnations of Ira Levin’s novel. Obviously tonally he’s going for the thriller elements of the 1975 Wives which was also a slow burn build up as Joanna (Katharine Ross) and her husband Walter (Peter Masterson) move to the town of Stepford from the big city and during her four months stay, she notices the abnormal perfections that are the women of the prim and proper suburb. Yet Frank Oz’s Stepford Wives is a richer satire as well as being a broad comedy which has some time to shine in Get Out which supporting actor LilRel Howery brings in the third act. The thesis statement in those films is that the modern woman is becoming too independent and free-thinking so their boilerplate, vanilla husbands invent a way to replace their partners with identical looking fembots whose only desire is to please whether that be sexual or dedicating their time to a clean house and home cooked meals. This obviously derives from the 50’s idyllic homemaker which is more pronounced in the remake. Not subtly shown in the opening credits montage are vintage household appliance commercials being modeled by ecstatic women then once actually in the town, everyone is made up in the dresses and hair dos presented in the aforementioned ads. The real biting satire comes from the fact that all the transformed Stepford wives were career women, CEOs and novelists whose husbands were left inferior and therefore compelled to “upgrade” their women into big breasted cyborgs. The motivations in the ’75 version are much less warranted where our lead Joanna is not the creative director for a television network but a stay at home mom with a budding photography interesting. The fact that her schlub of a lawyer husband Walter feels the need to change her because they sometimes argue is way more disturbing.

Stepford Wives is examining the gender gap of “boys will be boys” and “women belong in the kitchen” stereotypes which in Get Out translates to the gap between the long-standing racial divide in America. Both have a storied history in these McMansion neighborhoods. Peele is examining how going back to slavery, blacks were viewed as either the help, seen at the Armitage estate with the housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Walter (Marcus Henderson) or as sexual beings like former Brooklynite Andre (Keith Stanfield) standing as arm candy for a much older woman. Chris and Joanna are witnessing these reductive molds being forced on their peers and know that no one does this willingly. Just as Joanna sees her slobbish, eccentric friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss and Bette Midler respectively) transform into trophy wives, Chris similarly sees the phony exterior of Andre and the haywire mechanism triggered by either a camera flash or slight trauma proves that their humanity is somehow vacant. All films are tales of humans using advanced technology to simplify one’s identity, the funniest instance is that of in ’75’s Wives it’s an ex-Disney Imagineer who is the proprietor of the Mr. Lincoln-esque fembots. It’s the paradox of no matter how far we improve in science and technology, there’s the need to hold on or revert to the past, in this situation the oppressive former ways of life.

Peele gleans a mix of small details (the heroes being photographers because they have the eye to see the truth) and the larger arcs (rich white people shouldn’t be trusted) to make a more relevant version of Ira Levin’s work but with the less often shown perspective. As a white person, even watching the 2004 Stepford Wives I couldn’t help but be taken aback at how upper class and removed that environment feels. It’s a prerecession America and all those husbands now are the 1% who have a hard-on for Paul Ryan and his tax cuts. The film doesn’t even address the lack of diversity, their chosen statement of inclusion is a gay couple and an obviously self-loathing one at that (Roger’s partner apparently hates his flamboyant nature). At least the 1975 version addresses the fact that the neighborhood has been strictly caucasian until the local busybody giddily informs Joanna and Bobbie that a black family is moving in and that Stepford is the “most liberal town around.” In Get Out whether you’re black or not you relate to the uncomfortableness of the opulent lifestyle. Millenials distrust of old money and those wealthy people that placed us in our current political and economical predicament informs the tension of the film, even if they say they would have voted for Obama a third term. They probably didn’t vote for Hilary! I digress, all this is to praise Peele for making a more identifiable movie for my generation. Just as Moonlight was the movie that needed to win Best Picture, Get Out is the horror movie needed to start off this year. When the world turns sour, in response, the best art is born.
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For brief reviews of Get Out, The Stepford Wives (1975) and The Stepford Wives (2004) here.

Revisiting and Reanimating Pet Sematary Two

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This year alone, I’ve been taking on the pointless and often unfulfilling task of watching 80’s horror movie sequels. My consumption has included the surreal weirdness that is the Phantasm series which incarnations span decades and the Friday the 13th saga which is the same movie over and over again except the original work is objectively awful and the only halfway decent entries are the campy ones. All this is prelude to say watching Pet Sematary Two made for a more fascinating experience than any other sequel I’ve slogged through. While I can’t find proof that the follow up script to the wildly successful Stephen King adaptation was a repurposed one, Two deviates greatly in style and ambition. It’s more surreal, gory and exploitative surprising considering it’s Mary Lambert returning to direct.

This may be a case of making a sequel no longer beholden to a stringent source material, the filmmakers were allowed to run a little wild. The film begins at a Tim Burton-esque gothic castle where a red headed woman in a white slip cautiously walks down some narrow stairs, just as she begins to reach for something, skeleton arms pop up from the ground and the director yells “cut!” This opening prologue sets up the death of Renee (Darlanne Fluegel), actress/ mother of 13-year-old Jeff (Edward Furlong)/ ex-wife of veterinarian Chase (Anthony Edwards) which forces the boys to return to the small town of Ludlow, Maine for a fresh start. The structure of escalation is similar to the original film, first an animal death this time Jeff’s friend Drew has his dog shot by his abusive stepdad Gus (Clancy Brown). The boys bury the large K-9, Zowie, at the Indian burial ground and after it returns and eventually attacks Gus on Halloween when he is wailing on his stepson, the boys repeat the burial ritual and then they have an undead Frankenstein of a stepdad on their hands. Yes, this is level of crazy this movie is functioning on. Gone are the days of baby Gage cutting Achilles’ tendons of old man Fred Gwynne, now it’s a motorbike tire to the face.

What is most troubling to this film that it takes the road less traveled and opts for maximum amount of violence towards animals. As proven time and time again the sanctity of animals and our emotional response when cute furry beings are under threat is very strong. We all know the horror cliche of the villain killing the family pet and then intensifying. The animal body count of Pet Sematary 2 is three kittens, a dog and at least a dozen rabbits. Not to mention the egregious scene of Chase calling a fellow vet and that guy is operating on the skull of a dog. Not pleasant! Sure, pull on our heartstrings but no one wants to see that much animal cruelty.

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While those horror attempts are a bit misguided the dreamlike instances are what make this a stand out sequel. The influence may have come from the mangled patient that haunts Louis Creed in the original work, the visions here manage to be more nightmarish as the hybrid dead mom-head of dog combo visits both father and son (for dad it’s in an unsettling sexual context). Most of the scenes are given some sort of unnatural lighting to dissociate from reality but it becomes muddled as we embark on the finale with the narrative going off the rails with Gus making his own undead army that includes Renee so he can “fuck her”. Her reincarnation seems more for Jeff’s benefit as Furlong’s performance becomes Oedipus meets The Omen that made me question if I’d missed the scene indicating this lascivious and malicious change in character. Of course, I didn’t, this movie is coo-coo bananas but it keeps winning me back with melting faces and heads exploding.

Pet Sematary Two is everything you want from an unnecessary sequel. It has just enough budget to make decent effects but 90’s enough to give it that straight to video quality. The quality of the actors is most impressive especially after all the Friday the 13th movies which is real no names amateur hour. Furlong was hot off of T:2 and Edwards and Brown are terrific character actors. My reason for seeking this movie out was on a recommendation by Andrea Subissati on The Faculty of Horror and while I thought it a weird choice, my tastes tend to align with her’s (except when it comes to Buffy). This doesn’t hold a candle to the original but you can’t expect it to. You have to view it through a lens of studio capitalism that demanded the churning out of a sequel to squeeze money from a profitable name. In that light, it’s way better than it has any right to be and a sufficient late night curiosity viewing with a friend. There are worse ways you could spend a Monday night.

Where My Eels At?: A Cure For Wellness Review

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Gore Verbinski is one of the best kept secrets in Hollywood. He’s often underappreciated and rarely brought into the conversation when discussing visionary directors often because he’s become associated with adapting big budget properties. While the first Pirates of the Carribean blew audiences away in 2003, its sequels sullied the memory of Black Pearl and the inflated disaster of Lone Ranger didn’t help (even though I find that movie bizarrely entertaining). But with 2011’s Rango, he showed promised of what he’s capable of when given a blank check. The mental hospital thriller, A Cure For Wellness does not need to be a big budget feature but when you’ve got Verbinski and a studio that is still willing to entrust him with lots of money, you get a visually alluring piece with an original concept that goes all the wild places that Verbinski’s mind can take it.

This is a movie that never relaxes. From the Matrix green opening where you watch an unnamed man have a heart attack to being transported to a train winding through the Swiss Alps, the tone is constantly unnerving. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent on a type of rescue mission as he’s sent to a high profile Wellness spa to retrieve a fellow stock broker who has lost his sanity. The young Dehaan who looks like a child pretending to be a businessman but as dickish as his superiors, is rightly skeptical of the secluded, Hogwart-esque center. We know something is not right and after a car accident lands Lockhart in the institution with a broken leg, we’re strapped in to piece together the mystery that lies beneath and within the castle. The film’s angst and unease work because it never toys with idea that maybe it’s all in Lockhart’s head which is a thriller red herring I despise. Starting with the warning of his chauffeur to the pristine and robotic front desk attendant, the characters, the setting and everything around Lockhart is questionable and you’re dying to know all the answers.

What makes me appreciate Cure For Wellness so much is its ambition and extreme choices. While Verbinski can make everything look pretty, there’s an ugliness in the narrative to go along with that. As I’m currently watching a fair amount of New French Extremity myself, Wellness is of the same ilk, pushing the boundaries of body horror and taboo subject matter. The dark and disgusting nature of certain scenes is quite unexpected from a primarily Disney director. I’m always happy to see a big budget film go for a hard R and it very much earns it as the third act goes heavily off the rails. An extended run time (2 hours and 25 minutes) allows a lot of story to unfold and any time it started to lose me with foreboding child drawings or uncomfortable gender politics, it pulled me back with its lambasted crazy agenda that I can’t believe Verbinski was allowed to make.

In the genre of “Hospital Horror” Wellness towers over other entries such as Shutter Island and Suckerpunch. Verbinski has a knack for tension, utilizing the immobility of Lockhart’s handicap and accentuating the creaking sound of his crutches is one of the many touches that heightens the anxiety which is the defining trait of this genre. While you can see the influences of B- monster movies and the cruelty of Marathon Man, this is a film all its own. Filled with unpredictability and constantly wanting to one ups its own bonkersness, I foresee this one staying with me to the end of 2017. Glad movies this good coming out at the start of the year, we could use some hope.

Taking Woodstock

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Ang Lee may be reprimanding me for not seeing the Woodstock documentary but he sure is doing an amazing job replicating the epic hippie explosion that is the iconic 1969 concert. Taking Woodstock is one of the most authentic period pieces I’ve encountered as Lee scans the backed up country road of Volkswagons and drugged out dancing girls I actually had to question if I was watching actual archival footage. The environment that is the sleepy town of White Lake before then and during the festival is what makes this movie so intriguing. You watch in wonder at how these events all fell in place. Lee exquisitely expresses the serendipity of one family’s need to save their failing motel and the entire counterculture movement coming together for something magical.

In the middle of this unexpected backdrop is Elliot (Demitri Martin), the closeted son of the motel owners and the acting president of White Lake’s Chamber of Commerce that bends the rules to have his permit applicable to Woodstock. He is the audience surrogate to experience the wonderment without ever seeing a band play. It’s also about coming into his sexuality in this suddenly accepting environment while under the watchful eye of his Russian immigrant parents (played by Imelda Staunton and Henry Goodman). Martin is quite an odd casting choice due to his meager acting experience at the time. He may not be at the level of the stacked cast surrounding him including Jonathan Groff, Liev Schreiber, Emile Hirsch and my personal favorite Dan Fogler but his awestricken innocence is what the role calls for. Even if he doesn’t have all the acting chops, the colorful cast is what makes the film really pop as the film’s focus is the behind the scenes talent and not the musicians on stage. The parents who accommodate the youthful hippies as well as assimilate into their lifestyle plus the entourage of Michael Lang’s (Groff) concert coordinators are the hardworking backbone of the event and bring anecdotal life to the setting.

In 2017 the movie goes down somewhat bittersweet. You watch this narrative of peace and love prevailing and yet where we are now, it feels like the grumping old white men who didn’t want the concert to happen still won out. There’s a scene where Elliot is at the town bar and amidst a dance party, is kissed by the guy he’s been crushing on and the whole crowd cheers. It feels like such a progressive moment in a movie set in 1969 but the LGBT community is still fighting for their rights nearly fifty years later. Lee is aware of the depressing beauty of this situation as one of the concert organizers played by Mamie Gummer says “Perspective shuts out the universe, it keeps the love out.” Individual bias and selfishness creates the most roadblocks. At a moment where we are witnessing a majority of our government in favor of tax cuts and money more than human rights, it’s a reminder of our inability to move forward due to greed and personal gain. Lee is inviting you to appreciate this concert that stood for freedom and solidarity but gives some perspective on its impact or lack thereof. I watch this and would love to believe that the half a million twentysomethings in attendance remained progressive people of change throughout the decades but probably some of them voted for Trump. The world is pretty cruel but at least there are instances of bliss to show us the magnificence we are capable of if we act in harmony.

The Vintage Revisits: Singin’ In The Rain

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Goddamnit this movie is delightful. Revisiting Singin’ In the Rain, a movie I’ve only experienced in passing, sitting down for the full viewing was truly amazing as you realize you’re watching the pique of MGM musicals. While made 1952, it encapsulates the energy and wonder of the Golden Age of Hollywood probably because it’s paying homage to that such time. Any lover of film either then or now is mesmerized by this story that’s recounting the silent to talkie transition in the late 1920’s but colorizes it (in glorious technicolor) with the humor and pizzazz of the 1950’s. It’s taking all these forgotten songs from MGM musicals like Babes In Arms and multiple Broadway Melody pictures and repackaging them into hits, not too different from how nostalgia works today. With such liveliness and the triple threats of the actor/singer/dancer leads, this movie jumps off the screen 60 years later.

The trio of Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Conner as the leading man, the love interest and the comic relief are what sell this film. Kelly and O’Conner as Don Lockwood and Cosmo Brown have the loyalty and candor of childhood friends which we enjoyably get to see with a “humble beginnings” montage as Don recounts their fictitious past that brought them (or at least him) to stardom. Reynold’s Kathy Selden seamlessly assimilates with the duo as the timid ingenue looking to make her big break preferably with Don’s help. Their late night rendition of “Good Morning” sums up everything that works about them. They have the report, the grace that makes you wish you could be there with them but feel honored just to watch. Everyone gets their moment to shine though, Cosmo with “Make “Em Laugh” which contains the most astounding slapstick vaudeville routine that is definitive proof that no one works as hard as they used to. Kathy has the more low key “Would You” and while I would have loved to see more from her I realize Reynolds was the greenest of the actors. Don gets to have his own mini movie as the film side tracks for this gangster musical pitch he gives the head of Monumental Picture. It’s a real Broadway number with painted sets and hyper-fantasy but is a bit too peacocky of Kelly who wants to show off his dance moves. Wish they could have found a way to incorporate Cosmo and Kathy into the sequence, but I get it, this is Gene Kelly’s movie.

It’s fascinating to watching Singin’ amidst both the hype and backlash of La La Land. The arguments I’ve heard from those who don’t like the Oscar front-runner often describes it as a subpar rip off of the musicals that came before it. I agree the songs and choreography may not be as iconic as musicals in their heyday but it is as much as an homage as Singin’ was to the musicals of the 1930’s. They’re both movies in love with the magic Hollywood and filmmaking, they’re just both products of different times. Singin’ is over the top showboating on brightly colored sets inter-spliced with snappy banter. La La Land is the down to earth, realistic storytelling we’re more accustomed to in the 21st century but peppered with fantastical elements. Gosling and Stone have nothing on Kelly and Reynolds but they’re approaching it from different acting styles, different backgrounds. La La wows me more with it’s plot and emotion while Singin’ is an unmatched spectacle of talent.

Did I mean to turn this into a defense of La La Land? No but I love both these movies and sometimes you gotta gush about something good. The world is falling apart remember?

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter: How Did We Let It Go On This Long?

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Way to go out on a whimper. You may be aware but I’ve been championing this franchise for years. I’m mindful of its stupidity and simplicity as a horror video game adaptation which means plots are mission based, characters are one dimensional and its full of gun play and roundhouse kicks. I’ve found their self-seriousness enjoyable for all these years as Milla Jovovich continually proves she’s a capable and charismatic action star as she carries the weight of the series on her shoulders. In each film, there’s always been a set piece to enjoy scored with intensity to make you feel like you’re watching something amazing. I uphold the belief that the films have improved with technology and increased budgets as Afterlife and Retribution are the most cohesive with Anderson back at the directing helm and visually stunning thanks to improved special effects. Yet Final Chapter crashes and burns as it retcons so much set up from the past five films making this nearly stand-alone installment that is also one of the most poorly directed and edited films I’ve ever experienced.

Where most Resident Evil films kick off with your old pal Alice recapping the loose arc of the previous movies including the zombie outbreak and the maniacal Umbrella corporation, Final Chapter adds this backstory to the Red Queen, the child hologram antagonist of the first film. Her lengthy setup plus random zombie attack on a snow mountain vacation leads us to present day Alice, alone, in the ruins of Washington DC. This was the first red flag as Retribution’s grand finale was a blockade of characters from the video games who’ve weaved themselves into the franchise (Claire Redfield, Albert Wesker, Ada Wong, Leon Kennedy) all about to have this epic last stand against a legion of zombies and flying dragon monsters. We are not privy to whatever occurred immediately after the credits rolled except for Alice’s passing mention that Wesker betrayed her in Washington. So first we’re robbed of the most exciting of cliff hangers. I had not yet closed the door that this movie could win me back. I had seen the trailer and at least knew there was a pay off on the aforementioned dragons but as Alice’s opening fight scene kicks off, it was all downhill.

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