Category Archives: Film

Film: Bad Milo!

bad-milo-posterHave plenty of saltines and ginger ale on hand if you watch Bad Milo! (2013), a shameless horror-comedy that leans heavily into its core scatology. It’s the tragic tale of Duncan (Ken Marino), a down-on-his-luck accountant whose job and family life have his nerves on edge. And oh yeah, he also has a disturbing gastrointestinal issue — a terrifying, deadly creature that lives in his digestive tract, emerging only to brutally kill whatever is stressing Duncan out.

This is an utterly silly and horrible idea for a movie, but Marino’s hilarious performance manages to elevate it: he shines, playing every ludicrous scenario brilliantly straight. Accomplished deadpan support from Gillian Jacobs, Patrick Warburton, Mary Kay Place, Kumail Nanjiani, Toby Huss, and Peter Stormare contributes greatly to what laughs there are — and there are a fair number of them. Still, this Gremlins-esque spoof only clears the bar by holding it so very, very low. Recommended primarily for Marino fans and connoisseurs of lowbrow culture.

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Film: Survivor

survivorNo, not the inexplicably immortal reality series, nor the inflictors of “Eye of the Tiger” — Survivor (2015) is a paint-by-numbers thriller that plays out like watered-down, post-9/11 Hitchcock. In London, ace security office Kate Abbott (Milla Jovovich) is in charge of vetting suspicious visa candidates preparing travel to the United States. Just as she’s sniffing out a suspicious pattern, though, her entire team is killed. By chance she survives the attack, but she’s mistaken for the primary suspect, and targeted both by the terrorists who tried to kill her and the authorities trying to clean up the mess. Only Kate can stop the next phase of the threat, but only if she can avoid her own people, and the chilly mercenary Nash (Pierce Brosnan) whose assassination attempt she survived.

Aside from a reasonably elegant structure and a game performance by the underrated Jovovich, there’s not much to recommend Survivor, a bland wrong-woman thriller with uninspired dialogue and prefab characters. Among the principle performers only Jovovich comes across at all lifelike, but her supposedly top-notch agent doesn’t live up to her billing. The rest of the cast — which includes the usually reliable Angela Bassett, James D’Arcy, and Robert Forster — comes off robotically, saddled with lifeless, cliché-filled dialogue. Ultimately, reasonable execution can’t save a shallow, derivative script.

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Film: Bridge of Spies

bosI’m more or less contractually obligated to watch a film titled Bridge of Spies (2015). The product of an unlikely collaboration between Steven Spielberg and the Coen Brothers, this one is certainly good enough to climb onto the lower ranks of a hypothetically revised Spy 100 list, but make no mistake: it’s a Spielberg movie first, a spy movie second, and a Coen Brothers script at a distant third.

In 1957, when the FBI apprehends Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), the government needs a competent defense attorney to legitimize their show trial. This no-win task falls to Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), a slick but principled insurance lawyer, who does almost too good a job defending Abel before the guilty verdict — a foregone conclusion — lands. He’s so tenacious, though, that when the pilot of an American spy plane is shot down over Soviet soil, both sides want him to negotiate a clandestine prisoner exchange: the American pilot for Abel. This sends Donovan to a hostile, newly divided Berlin, an amateur spy in enemy territory, trying to keep everyone alive — including himself.

Based on actual events, Bridge of Spies is a gripping enough tale of intrigue, and like most Spielberg product it’s finely rendered. The Cold War backdrop is vivid and convincing, particularly when the action shifts to Berlin, where the desperation of an ideologically divided world is writ large. It’s classic spy fare, and the plot has plenty of murky motives and requisite twists of fate. Hanks holds the stage adeptly, in a familiar noble scoundrel role, and Rylance brings a dry, winning touch to his supporting role.

Alas, the Spielberg-Coen flavors interact weirdly. The script only winks at the quirky, dark genius of the Coens, which is anyway at cross purposes with Spielberg’s broad-appeal patriotism and emotional manipulation . The result is off-balance: the subject matter’s naturally cynical foundation built high with obvious Hollywood hero worship.  This isn’t to say the film is unsatisfying; indeed, Spielberg’s sensibility provides a varied tone in a genre that often feels repetitive. But it does feel overly finessed, its physical realism and historic verisimilitude undercut by a veneer of emotional falseness.

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Film: Young Frankenstein

I’ve seen so many fragments of Young Frankenstein (1974) over the years that I think I just assumed I’d watched it. Even worse, because it’s a Mel Brooks film, I think I even assumed I didn’t like it much. But wow, based on last night’s screening, I’ve either never seen it, or I just wasn’t paying attention. It’s brilliantly funny.

Gene Wilder stars as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, an intense young scientist living in the shadow of his famously deranged grandfather, whose experiments terrorized the countryside. When Frankenstein inherits the family’s Transylvania estate, he journeys to the property only to find himself — along with buxom young lab assistant Ilsa (Teri Garr) and bizarre manservant Igor (Marty Feldman) — drawn inexorably, and hilariously, into his family’s horrific legacy.

Brooks’ sense of humor is often too on-the-nose for my tastes, but Young Frankenstein distills the style to perfection. This is a fantastic creature-feature parody that craftily mimics classic film-making tropes, and soars on the strength of its superb performances. Wilder is a comic genius, but the support is also perfect, with the scene-stealing Feldman standing out, but also great performances from Garr, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Kenneth Mars, and especially Peter Boyle (whose performance gets funnier the more I think about it). Highly recommended.

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Film: The Martian

The-Martian-Launch-One-SheetBased on Andy Weir’s bestselling novel, The Martian (2015) proves that with some Hollywood blockbusters, even when you have no expectations you’ll get exactly what you expect. Which isn’t to say it’s a failure: on the contrary, it’s a skillfully made entertainment with a refreshing agenda. But there’s something highly conventional and unsurprising about it.

Botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is peacefully collecting samples during a scientific expedition on Mars when a massive duststorm threatens his team. Struck by debris, Watney is knocked out and left for dead. When he wakes up, his team has evacuated, and he comes up against the cold equations of his plight: that, in all likelihood, he will die on Mars before a rescue mission can save him…unless scientific ingenuity and perserverance can save him.

With Damon’s charisma, Ridley Scott’s sure directorial hand, and Drew Goddard’s amusing script leading the way, The Martian delivers a thoroughly engaging story full of stirring moments, sly wit, high drama, and riveting disasters. Watney’s dire situation on Mars eventually alternates with the efforts of the NASA team, and others, to save him. While this second thread overuses Jeff Daniels and underuses Donald Glover and Kristen Wiig, it generally provides an entertaining counterpoint to Watney’s lonely scenario. And between the two threads the film’s refreshingly pro-science, pro-cooperation message plays out. It’s a rare science fiction film without a villain, while its many heroes display a winning mix of courage, resourcefulness, and tenacity.

Why then did I leave the theater feeling…flat? Perhaps the film’s survival-story arc doesn’t leave enough room for the unpredictable. On a broad, structural level it’s so similar to Gravity that I felt I had already seen it. And while the story’s message is uplifting, it also plays into Hollywood convention so neatly that I felt I was watching rigorously screen-tested and approved product.

By and large, it’s an enjoyable viewing experience, especially for its sweeping Martian vistas, rousing teamwork, cleverly detailed plot conundrums, and pro-science themes. But for me it just lacked that certain something.

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Film: Child 44

Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace team up again in Child 44 (2014), a grim historical mystery that brings Soviet-era Russia to chilling life. In mid-fifties Moscow, Leo Demidov (Hardy) is a war hero whose exploits have elevated him to the higher ranks of the Soviet military police. With his beautiful wife Raisa (Rapace) and a position of power and privilege, Leo has it all until a grudge from an old rival strips away the flimsy façade to reveal the lies and corruption underlying his success. Exiled to a remote outpost, Leo, with Raisa’s help, undertakes a mission of redemption: solving a series of connected child murders along the vast Russian railway system.

With its rich period detail and dark, brutal setting, Child 44 is a polished production full of solid acting, especially from Hardy, whose range continues to impress. The film has a peculiar structure, front-loading its running time with world-building and rushing its ending; the focus seems less on the specifics of the mystery, and more on the officiousness of the Soviet backdrop. How do you solve a murder in a police state where the very bureaucracy claims that murder doesn’t exist? In a way, the movie is more successful in embodying such a setting than in telling a compelling story within it. But for fans of Hardy, Rapace, and the chameleonic Gary Oldman, it’s worth a watch, especially if the viewer possesses an added interest in the geopolitical history.

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Film: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

A quirky premise and Rinko Kikuchi aren’t enough to rescue Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), a somber, distancing snore. Kumiko (Kikuchi) is a 29-year-old secretary, moldering in the dismal patriarchy of corporate Tokyo. An outcast suffering under a horrible boss and the stultifying expectations of her mother, Kumiko dreams of a life-changing quest, which develops into a deeply peculiar obsession: locating the money hidden by Steve Buscemi’s character in the movie Fargo, which she thinks is real.

While Kikuchi is good and there’s a certain visual grace to the film, there isn’t much else to recommend Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a plodding feminist allegory that makes its point effectively, but not particularly interestingly. The execution is sluggish and predictable, mitigating the impact of an earnest message.  An intriguing idea, but ultimately its lack of energy and surprise was fatal to my interest.

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Film: Spring

springEvery now and then an independent film like Spring (2014) comes along and make me nostalgic for the edgy, anything-goes filmmaking of the 1970s. This one is all over the map, and not entirely successful, but it’s wonderfully unpredictable in a way that Hollywood, with its ruthlessly finessed and screen-tested products, never manages any more.

When Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) loses his mother to cancer, and then his job, he uses inheritance money on an impulsive holiday to Italy. His travels land him in an idyllic, seaside resort town where he spontaneously pursues work as a farmhand. He also meets Louise (Nadia Hilker), a beautiful young scientist who may well be the love of his life – but who also harbors an astonishing, terrifying secret.

Spring is several different movies, playing out in jagged sequence; fortunately, most of them are compellingly executed. Evan’s story starts as a tale of Southern California slacker aimlessness, then morphs into a pictureseque European travelogue, before landing in an entirely unexpected zone of science fictional horror. These contextual left turns consistently shift the narrative into new gears, leading to more than one WTF revelation. Alas, once the creepy mystery is explained, the story veers into a final act that’s just as unexpected and interesting, but not quite as gripping, which leads to a somewhat anticlimactic ending.

Even so, Spring has a lot to recommend it, especially for fans of weird cinema  in the vein of Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch, or Under the Skin. Pucci and Hilker’s easy chemistry, stunning Italian scenery, and a refreshing structural restlessness make it a rewarding watch for fans of surreal horror and authentic, indie cinema.

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Film: Coherence

The quality of Coherence (2013) vacillates wildly throughout, but ultimately it’s a worthwhile watch. This low-budget, independent SF film gets off to a rocky start before building its mystique, then stepping on that mystique, and then finishing strong.

On the night that a comet streaks past the Earth, eight friends gather for a dinner party at the home of Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and Lee (Lorene Scafaria). The affair begins innocently enough, but then strange phenomena start to occur – shattered smartphones, power outages, and inexplicable mysteries surrounding a spooky house up the street. As the night turns freakishly weird, the group works to analyze what’s going on – led by Em (Emily Foxler), the first to put to the pieces together. But for all their brainstorming, their lives may never be the same again.

The first twenty minutes of Coherence is clumsy, a semi-improvisational stretch of shaky cam, quasi-found footage as it introduces its characters and sets the scene. As this Twilight Zone bottle show progresses, however, the mystery builds and a nicely chilly atmosphere develops. The acting isn’t spectacular – Foxler, Maury Sterling, and at times Brendon stand out in an otherwise merely adequate group. And there are times when their bickering attempts to solve the piece’s “what’s going on?” premise grow tiresome. But in the end the deployed clues fit together cleverly , and the understated climax is truly eerie and effective. It’s several significant flaws short of greatness, but in light of its limited means it’s an earnest and interesting effort.

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Film: The Drop

The latest Dennis Lehane adaptation to cross my path is The Drop (2014), a taut, compact mystery fueled by a Tom Hardy’s immersive starring performance. Hardy plays Bob Saginowski, a low-key, rather dim bartender who’s spent his life working for his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini). Marv’s a has-been wiseguy who boosts his income by doing favors for the Chechen mob. When Bob rescues a pit bull from the garbage can of Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a sweet, mild-mannered romance blooms – that also puts Bob at odds with Nadia’s abusive ex Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts). A hold-up at the bar threatens Marv’s tenuous relationship with the mob just as Bob and Deeds’ rivalry slowly starts to develop, leading to tangled complications that threaten to turn simmering tension into an explosive conflict.

Taut with suspense and well engineered menace, The Drop is an atmospheric and confidently performed mystery. It’s a small, engrossing mystery, thanks largely to Hardy’s weirdly likable turn as an inscrutable average joe. His unconventional chemistry with Rapace is charming, and the script generates steady tension by subtly jeopardizing their relationship throughout. The intricate weave of story elements leads to a finely crafted climax, and an intriguing, loaded denouement. A solid, well crafted little thriller.

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