Monday, September 26, 2016

Casting the 2016 Election

Once in a while I like to entertain myself by playing a mental casting game for biographical movies that will certainly never make it to the silver screen in any way, shape, or form. Prior to the announcement of the ill-fated Freddie Mercury biopic, I had actually become obsessed with imagining which actor could convincingly portray such a larger than life personality like the legendary Queen frontman. One day it hit me out of the blue that the ideal, and honestly, only candidate was comedic genius Sacha Baron Cohen. In a rare instance of one of my delusions becoming a (near) reality, it was eventually announced that Baron Cohen was set to play the legendary singer in a big budget movie to be produced by Queen guitarist Brian May. Sadly, SBC left the project due to those pesky creative differences and (sing it with me) another one bit the dust.
Which brings us to tonight's first national debate between Hillary "Pantsuits Magee" Clinton and Donald "D-Bag" Trump that, thanks to one of the candidate's class and well-honed expertise in such matters, was far from being the full-on shitshow many had anticipated but still had plenty of, shall we say, unpresidential behavior from the opposition. The controversies and scandals plaguing both campaigns have made the 2016 election the ugliest political contest of the modern era which, naturally, makes it prime fodder for a feature-length theatrical film or an HBO original movie. After all, truth is stranger than fiction, but regarding this election, strange is an understatement.
As cinema history can attest, casting an iconic president, senator, or first lady is a tricky balancing act. Typically casting directors don't hire lookalikes per se but rather a performer (generally an already recognizable one) whose own features are somewhat similar to that of the historic figure they are portraying. If we look solely at recent casting choices for biopics or movies that detailed or satirized real-life political figures, John Travolta seemed a bizarre choice to play good ol' boy turned President and (hopefully) future First Dude Bill Clinton in Mike Nichols' PRIMARY COLORS, yet with a touch of gray in his hair and a southern accent replacing his characteristic Brooklyn dialect, he was actually pretty convincing. Same with Josh Brolin in Oliver Stone's overtly biased but still hilarious W. who nailed George W. Bush's awkward mannerisms and no-quite-presidential demeanor. Ditto Kevin Spacey who, in ELVIS MEETS NIXON, the film festival hit now streaming on Amazon, proves that the man can not only play the murderous President Underwood in Netflix's superb series "House of Cards" but can also deliver a solid and surprisingly subtle turn as Richard M. Nixon.
This year's presidential candidates have both been given the full-on "Saturday Night Live" treatment as hysterically accurate caricatures by gifted comedians such as Amy Poehler, Kate McKinnon, and Darrell Hammond, surprise cameo appearances, or in the case of Trump, actual hosts. Both contenders have been funny and likable when given good material to work with. On their own, not so much. When it came to casting Hillary opposite Travolta in PRIMARY COLORS, no one would have ever thought British actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson, who is also very funny herself, could play the First Lady much less look like her, she was a great match for Travolta's confident, cocksure, Clinton. The events featured in Nichols' adaptation of the infamous book detailing Slick Willy's rocky but successful bid for the presidency seem like a medley of GREASE numbers compared that of Ms. Clinton's second attempt at becoming the U.S.'s first ever woman president, a potential milestone that continually gets lost amidst all the fingerpointing and hate speech.
Here are my choices for who should play the two candidates. Ladies first.
Annette Bening would make a great Hillary. She exudes class, intelligence, maternal strength, inner fortitude, and she has stolen the spotlight from many of her male co-stars. Name one movie she was bad in. Exactly. Note to the Academy: give her an Oscar already. Like Mrs. Clinton herself, she is long overdue.
Trump is a much more difficult role to cast in that he is such a cartoon-like character that is one part egomaniacal real estate tycoon and the other an Archie Bunker-esque brute with a hairpiece that defies the immutable laws of gravity as well as a shade of orange that has never once been associated with an upright mammal capable of walking without dragging its knuckles.
Like Trump, Alec Baldwin is also a New Yorker, he has a bit of Zoolander's Blue Steel pout that has served him quite well through his eclectic career, and his multiple Emmy wins for his performance as Jack Donaghy on "30 Rock" proved he can be powerful, self-aggrandizing, and an all-around doofus at the same time. Plus his iconic monologue from his single scene in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS could be dubbed over any of Trump's bombastic speeches and have the same ruthless, bullying, effect. So start mainlining Trump steaks and break out the orange hairspray, Mr. Baldwin. Your performance would be huuuuuuge.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Streaming For Vengeance: NARCOS (2015)

A column dedicated to the must-see original movies and binge-worthy series currently streaming on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other channels .
Netflix's extraordinary original series "Narcos" chronicles the violent exploits of Pablo Escobar and the agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency's painstaking attempts to capture the notorious Colombian drug lord and bring him to justice. If the premise sounds like something you've seen in various other movies on small and big screens alike (Steven Soderbergh's excellent TRAFFIC for one) think again. "Narcos" gives equal time to both sides of the bloody chess game that is the world of drug trafficking cartels. This is not SCARFACE redux by any means rather it is a deliberately paced and suspenseful (sometimes agonizingly so) procedural detailing not just the headline-grabbing events of the horrifying events during Escobar's reign in Medillan but also the red herrings and cold trails the DEA agents endured during the turbulent years spent hunting him down.
The series, whose second season recently premiered, is narrated by Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrooks from GONE GIRL and MILK) the real-life DEA agent who, working alongside his partner Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal from "Game of Thrones,") is stationed in a dreary sub-level government office located right smack in Bogota, Colombia. He recounts the events with a wizened and sometimes even sarcastic tone as he brings viewers behind the scenes into the baffling maze of grueling detective work done amidst the infuriating bureaucratic red tape that hurled roadblocks in the agents' path as they zeroed closer and closer to the diabolically elusive Escobar (the excellent Brazilian actor Wagner Moura from ELYSIUM.) Though the actual Steve Murphy presented in photographs during the opening credits sequence was a very bland looking fellow, Holbrooks is an extremely charismatic actor reminiscent of Brad Pitt before he became an A List movie star. Besides the dull and harrowing nature of his occupation, Murphy also has his own personal drama to contend with as his own life is at risk on a nearly daily basis evading gunfire and car bombs while he is thousands of miles away from his wife and newborn daughter. His partner Javier is more of lone wolf operative whose Mexican heritage allows him to cross the boundaries between agents and cartel thugs more stealthily though his dogged determination places him literally in the crosshairs on more than one occasion.
Though he is clearly the villain, Escobar (known by his henchmen and allies as El Patron) is the true central character of "Narcos" and Moura, along with the series'creators Carlos Bernard, Chris Brancato, and Doug Miro, has created a multidimensional figure of a man who is nowhere near the scheming, cocaine-snorting, crime lord that we've all seen a thousand timesover. Rather, this Escobar is a man whose very nature is very complex and contradictory as he goes from poor migrant worker to multi-billionaire yet even at the peak of his reign as Colombia's cartel czar he dresses as if he shops at a Ross Dress For Less. Wearing his trademark short-sleeved business shirts and drab polyester pants, Escobar uses his vast wealth to provide a luxurious lifestyle for his devoted wife Tata and adoring two children and even his mother Hermilda who refuses to see the devil's horns hiding underneath the halo her angelic son wears. Though he has a brief dalliance with a glamorous local news reporter, Escobar's main vice is fame and the inherent delusions of grandeur as he begins to see himself as more than just a dreuglord but someone who could represent the best interests of his adoring public and beloved hometown of Medillin, and perhaps even be elected as president of Colombia. Like a certain U.S. presidential candidate who has cast himself as the true voice of the American people, Escobar's noble ambitions are overshadowed by his gargantuan ego and narcissistic tendencies. Moura's personification is enhanced by his baby-faced visage as Escobar never stops being the boy who will always need more toys to play with.
While the first season of "Narcos" ends with a real cliffhanger, Season Two is more of a satisfying and conclusive. Just like the real war on drug cartels that tragically rages on, however, there are plenty more bad guys for Murphy and Pena to catch and Netlfix's announcement of a third season is great news for fans of high quality television that continues to outshine its big screen competition.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Redbox Diaries 9.8.16

A bi-monthly roundup of flicks currently available at The Box that may or may not be worth your time.
KEANU (2016) - The genius stars of Comedy Central's "Key & Peele" kick off what is sure to be a very successful movie career for its stars Michael Keegan-Key and Jordan Peele with this hilarious action-comedy about two mild-mannered dudes who try to pass themselves off as notorious gangsta thugs when their cat Keanu is stolen by a nefarious crime lord. Just like the duo's high-rated sketch show the actors play multiple characters as they spoof urban stereotypes and 80s-style action-movie tropes. With any luck we'll eventually get to see cinematic incarnations of Peele's bad cop ventriloguist dummy Lil' Homie and Key's phonetically-challenged substitute teacher.
THE BOSS - Melissa McCarthy hits bottom, and I mean rock bottom, with this jaw-droppingly unfunny comedy about Michelle Darnell, an egocentric Martha Stewart-esque mogul whose net worth goes kerplunk after an insider trading scandal brings her empire crashing down. When she gets out of the slammer Darnell is forced to adjust to living on limited means but discovers a chance to rebuild her brand via a hostile takeover of a local Girl Scout cookie operation. The set-up has lots of potential for MCarthy's trademark schtick but it's attempts to mix broad comedy and syrupy sweetness crumble like a stale Thin Mint.
THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE - The biggest surprise about this animated adaptation of the massively popular (and addicting) app is that it's actually pretty funny. You don't necessarily need to have ever played any of the endless incarnations of the game that pits the projectile poultry against evil egg-coveting green piggies but if the idea of fat colorful birds catapulting themselves towards various porcine-populated dwellings is your thing then there are far worse ways to burn 90 minutes of unproductive leisure time.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Summer Movie Blues: 2016 vs 1986

It's official: summer is gone, baby, gone. With Labor Day weekend mere days away, students and adults alike are relishing the memories of tropical vacations and languid afternoons spent poolside over the past three months and are already counting the days until the next extended holiday break.
Those fond memories most likely do not include that other popular summer activity: seeing big blockbuster movies at the neighborhood moviehouse. The summer movie season of 2016 is sure to go down as one of the worst in recent memory. With the exception of two megahits (CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and FINDING DORY) that were predestined to be cash cows long before their actual release dates, the remainder of this summer's offering were disappointing either in terms of content (SUICIDE SQUAD, JASON BOURNE, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, the female-centric GHOSTBUSTERS reboot) or box office (ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, THE BFG, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, STAR TREK BEYOND) and on several dubious occasions, both (see INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE, or rather, don't.) There were a few gems to be found in this box of rocks but the year's normally bounteous season of theatrical event flicks turned up a lackluster pile of fool's gold.
Upon realizing that this summer also marked the 30th anniversary of two all-time movie classics: the guiltiest of all guilty pleasure movies TOP GUN and James Cameron's spectacular sequel game-changer ALIENS, I decided to compare 2016's paltry summer slate to that of 1986 and the results could not be more depressing. To quote ALIENS' own Corporal Hudson (Bill Paxton) "We just got our asses kicked."
Summer Movies released in 2016 (listed in order of release from May through August)
Note: CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR opened on April 12th so technically it counts as a spring release as was THE JUNGLE BOOK which also played well into the summer.
The Angry Birds Movie
X-Men: Apocalypse
Alice Through the Looking Glass
Café Society
The Darkness
Money Monster
The Nice Guys
Maggie's Plan
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
The Neon Demon
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
Me Before You
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
Now You See Me 2
The Conjuring 2
Central Intelligence
Free State of Jones
Finding Dory
Independence Day: Resurgence
The Shallows
The Legend of Tarzan
The Purge: Election Year
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
The Secret Life of Pets
The Infiltrator
Ice Age: Collision Course
Lights Out
Star Trek Beyond
Bad Moms
Jason Bourne
Nine Lives
Suicide Squad
Pete's Dragon
Sausage Party
Kubo and the Two Strings
War Dogs
Don't Breathe
Hands of Stone
Mechanic: Resurrection
Talk about diminishing returns. By my count the only film on that list could be considered a smash hit was FINDING DORY while other sequels such as X-MEN:APOCALYPSE and STAR TREK BEYOND opened big then sputtered out fairly quickly. Not that the non-tentpole movies didn't make any money - CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE scored surprisingly well as did THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS and SAUSAGE PARTY which goes to show that comedies and animated films are generally safe bets during the summer months (sorry ICE AGE 4. Now please become extinct already.)
However we're discussing quality more than profitability and the only ones that stood out for this popcorn consumer were THE NICE GUYS, THE CONJURING 2, THE BFG, STAR TREK BEYOND, THE SHALLOWS and SUICIDE SQUAD though only two of them are contenders for my Best of 2016 list (think bumbling 70s era detectives and a very large fellow with a penchant for flatulence.)
Summer Movies released in 1986
Short Circuit
Top Gun
Poltergeist II: The Other Side
Invaders from Mars
Raw Deal
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Back to School
The Manhattan Project
Mona Lisa
Never Too Young to Die
Legal Eagles
The Karate Kid, Part II
My Little Pony: The Movie
American Anthem
Running Scared
Ruthless People
About Last Night
Big Trouble in Little China
Psycho III
The Great Mouse Detective
Under the Cherry Moon
Club Paradise
Echo Park
Haunted Honeymoon
Maximum Overdrive
Nothing in Common
Flight of the Navigator
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives
Howard the Duck
One Crazy Summer
She's Gotta Have It
Stand by Me
The Transformers: The Movie
Half Moon Street
Armed and Dangerous
The Fly
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
Shanghai Surprise
Ok so any list that includes both HOWARD THE DUCK and SHANGHAI SURPRISE is already a tough sell but friggin' FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF, people. But wait there's more! BACK TO SCHOOL, LABYRINTH, RUNNING SCARED, RUTHLESS PEOPLE, ABOUT LAST NIGHT, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, STAND BY ME, THE FLY, and MANHUNTER are all classics in their own right and still appear on most movie fans' all time best lists. Sure 1986 had plenty of dreck as well - POLTERGEIST II, AMERICAN ANTHEM, UNDER THE CHERRY MOON, VAMP, and HAUNTED HONEYMOON were all notoriously terrible. HOWARD THE DUCK at least had Lea Thompson and Tim Robbins even though you spent most of the movie feeling sorry for them. COBRA, RAW DEAL, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI, ONE CRAZY SUMMER, and even TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 were B movies to be sure but also goofy fun. SHORT CIRCUIT still has its admirers as does FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR. The adult-oriented dramas STAND BY ME, NOTHING IN COMMON, and SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT gave parents something to enjoy while the kids were seeing SPACECAMP, however, it is interesting to note that animated films were yet to become the blockbusters of tomorrow as evident in the tepid response to THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE, TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE, and the feature length movie of the unkillable MY LITTLE PONY franchise. And lest we forget the thrilling aerodynamic (and homoerotic) adventures of Maverick, Ghostrider, Iceman, and Goose in Jerry Bruckheimer's pre-PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN box office phenomenon that took us all into the danger zone.
Still, it all comes back to that all-time high summer movie watermark ALIENS. What could have been another forgettable sequel in a summer filled with them (PSYCHO III anyone?) instead gave audiences exactly what summer blockbusters are meant to provide: unforgettable out-of-body experiences with memorable, iconic, characters, eternally quotable dialogue ("Game over, man. Game over!") to stratospheric crescendos of spontaneous cheers. Who could forget the first time they saw the movie in a packed theater and the collective eruption that ensued at the movie's climax when Ripley shouted at the alien queen "Get away from her you bitch!!"
My personal favorite moment from the summer movie season of 1986 actually occurred offscreen at a suburban Chicago cinemaplex when, at my behest, my dad went to see ALIENS while myself and some friends saw TOP GUN a second time. I was waiting in the lobby when my father emerged from the theater clearly exhausted but laughing as he wiped tears from his beet-red face like a kid who just came off the greatest rollercoaster ride of his life.
That's the kind of experience we all look for when we go to movies in the summertime. As theatergoers we are much like the flyboys in TOP GUN. We have a need. A need for speed.
This summer, sadly, all the big rides were closed for repairs.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

It's All About The Group: DON'T THINK TWICE (2016)

"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."
That's a saying among actors, writers, stand up comedians, and that even more rarified subculture, improv performers. Anyone who has taken a comedy improv class can attest that it takes a certain kind of talent to be able to perform in front of a audience without any pre-planned scenes, much less a script. Most improv shows involve the group onstage, often known as a troupe, taking suggestions from the audience for a setting or occupation which the performers will use as a starting off point to create a (hopefully) funny scenario right off the top of their heads. Though improvisation is almost always associated with comedy, the talent required to keep a scene going even when the audience is looking on in stony silence is serious business. There are rules to this particular craft and to break them is not only a disservice to the task at hand but also disrespectful of the group as a whole.
Comedian and writer Mike Birbiglia's new film DON'T THINK TWICE is a fictional, but very funny and knowing glimpse into the subculture of these daredevil performers who are hoping to become the next Melissa McCarthy or Will Ferrell. Prior to introducing a fledgling troupe called The Commune who perform every week in their tiny theater in the comedy metropolis that is New York City, Birbiglia sets a very reverent tone of this unique subculture by beginning the film with a brief history of the creation of improvisational comedy from the 1950s to today using actual clips of performers from the pre-Second City and Saturday Night Live years. He also sets up the draconian rules of improv: 1. Always say yes in a scene. 2. Don't think, just act and 3. It's all about the group.
We first see The Commune players backstage as they prepare for the evening's performance. Everyone has the jitters but as they engage in their pre-show warm-up games it's clear that they are also a tight-knit group of friends who, as their group mantra dictates, has each other's backs. As is the case with many troupes, The Commune exudes a very familial vibe albeit a dysfunctional one. The group consists of the pretty and seemingly fearless Samantha ("Community's" Gillian Jacobs) her showboating boyfriend Jack (Keegan Michael Key) nerdy aspiring cartoonist Allison (Kate Micucci) nerdy but unpredictable goofball Bill (Chris Gethard) pot-smoking trust fund baby Lindsay (Tami Sagher) and their brilliant but jaded leader Miles (Birbiglia.) Being New York comedy performers, the group members all share the same goal - to get cast on "Weekend Live," the film's fictional stand-in for "SNL."
For most of the players getting to audition for the show is a mere fantasy while for starry-eyed Jack and the weary improv veteran Miles, who whiffed an earlier audition for the show, it's an outright obsession. When word leaks backstage that some people from "Weekend Live" are in the audience that night, the actors all know this is their shot at the brass ring. However only two of them get the call to audition for "WL" and from there on the group's dynamic begins to shift and their bond slowly begins to falter. Think of what the other members of Destiny's Child must have felt while watching their bandmate Beyonce take off into the stratosphere.
Birbiglia plainly has genuine insight into this world though the goings on behind the scenes "Weekend Live" doesn't paint the comedy institution it is modeled after in a very favorable light. Whether this is meant as an editorial for the writer-director is unclear but it's the only aspect of "Don't Think Twice" that feels contrived. There are countless films, from "All About Eve" to "Showgirls," that equate success in show biz with having to compromise one's integrity and for a movie that is so knowledgeable about the world it is shedding light upon, its unflattering depiction of "SNL" just feels kind of obvious. "SNL" creator Lorne Michaels would no doubt not be very amused by the portrayal of the fictional show's executive producer Timothy (Seth Barrish) who speaks in a similar clipped, Canadian-inflected, monotone to Michaels. Then again, both Mike Meyers and The Kids In The Hall (all Canadian by the way) have lampooned Michael's notoriously odd idiosyncracies and Machiavellian demeanor in their own films so maybe Birbiglia is just calling it as he sees it.
Still however, the movie is very funny and even poignant at times. Though Miles is the captain of the ship, Samantha's haphazard journey is the real centerpiece of the film and Jacobs' performance is both very grounded and real. The teacher and guru Del Close, who in the movie and in real life is regarded as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of improv comedy, defined the craft as "portraying truth under extraordinary circumstances," and DON'T THINK TWICE provides a fascinating peek behind the curtain of this world of dreamers and potential superstars who thrive on walking the tightrope hand in hand, night after night, without a net or the crippling fear of going down in flames, because no matter what, the group will always have one another to fall on.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A reimagined dragon: PETE'S DRAGON (2016)

It's never easy to remain unbiased when seeing a remake of a beloved movie from one's childhood but in this era of remake-happy studios continually dusting off familiar titles and hiring directors to give them a shiny new coat in the hopes of duplicating - oh, who am I kidding - triplicating the film's earlier success at the box office, it's become de rigeur to experience cinematic deja vu. Nowadays, however, the word "remake" has become as verboten as an NC-17 rating and has been replaced with less offensive labels such as "reimagining" or "reboot," the latter having a curiously dated connection to the malfunctioning Commodore 64s or Apple II computers of yore.
So once again Walt Disney Studios, purveyor of reimagined classics like THE JUNGLE BOOK and the upcoming BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has reached into their cavernous goldmine and pulled out PETE'S DRAGON, which was not quite a runaway smash back in 1977 but memorable enough to be given a 21st century makeover. Unlike the aforementioned animated movies, PETE'S DRAGON was a precursor to 1988's WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT in that live action characters interacted with an animated, and very lovable, green-scaled dragon named Elliot, who also possessed limited fire-breathing skills. Aren't all the central characters of Disney movies misfits in some manner?
In this new version, Elliot is a full-on CGI creation and an impressive one at that. Instead of the standard issue scaly dragon flesh, Elliot 2.0 is covered with green fur which is so finely detailed you wonder if the animators at Weta (the effect house that brought THE LORD OF THE RINGS to vibrant life) were intent on making their jobs even more grueling. Replacing the quaint seaside village of the original film is a mountain community where timber milling seems to be the main industry. The title character is once again a young boy who is tragically orphaned in the film's opening and becomes something of a Mowgli himself as he survives in the deep forest albeit with the help of Elliot who has become a surrogate caretaker for Pete.
It's only a matter of time before the bad adult characters get wise to both Pete and Elliot's hermetic existence and have to ruin all the fun although one of the town's residents Meachem (Robert Redford) has spent decades regaling neighborhood kids with his fantastic tale of coming face to face with a dragon bearing a strong resemblance to Pete's best friend and pet. Bryce Dallas Howard's nonbelieving park ranger Grace and Wes Bentley's stoic sawmill supervisor Jack play a married couple who take Pete in as an honorary member of their own family while Jack's brother Gavin (STAR TREK's Karl Urban) is a scheming mill worker who sees a wholly different kind of green after Elliot reveals himself during he and his coworkers' hunting party.
Besides flying and, yes, fire-breathing with confidence, Elliot can also camoflauge himself against most natural environments, making him invisible to his pursuers and extremely hard to catch. His large puppy-dog eyes somewhat resemble Falcore's from THE NEVERENDING STORY and though he can only make cute growling noises, Elliot seems to have no trouble understanding English.
The rest of the story is pretty much what is to be expected in a E.T.-esque type of movie but director David Lowery (AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS) keeps the Disney-fied trappings from feeling too much like a prepackaged product straight off the Hollywood assembly line and imbues the film with a sincere warmth and subtle sense of childhood wonder. None of the actors are at the top of their game, particularly Redford who can do this type of thing in his sleep, but it's Pete and Elliot's movie and together they make a fairly magical pair.
Note to the filmmakers: if you're going to fill a movie with wall-to-wall alt-acoustic songs, why not do a cover of "Candle On The Water," the sweetly stirring tune from the original PETE'S DRAGON that was actually nominated for the Best Song Oscar?

Monday, August 15, 2016


GREEN ROOM is a claustrophobic, nihilistic, thriller about a punk rock band whose impromptu gig in a warehouse turned music venue somewhere in the middle of nowhere U.S.A turns into a blood-soaked nightmare. To call the club seedy is actually an understatement - a casual observer might mistake it for one of Jigsaw’s booby-trapped dungeons in the SAW movie series.
After getting stiffed by an amateur talent booker, the nomadic and woefully naive quartet of twentysomething punks dubbed The Ain’t Rights accept a last-minute gig following a poorly attended show during their makeshift tour across America’s Heartland. As the group takes the stage at the dreary ramshackle club where the ensuing events of the film take place, lead singer Pat (the late Anton Yelchin) rather impetuously decides to change their standard opening song to a cover of The Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Skinheads Must Die” - an extremely bold choice given that several members of the modest-sized audience are clearly representatives of the Aryan Nation. A small riot erupts leading the band to have no choice other than stop the show and run for their lives. Unfortunately the group is forced to barricade themselves in the venue’s green room and within a matter a minutes a bloodied corpse is lying on the dingy shag carpet.
The panicked club promoter inside the room that is now a crime scene convinces the band to stay until the police arrive but Pat and his doomed cohorts correctly sense that this isn’t the type of establishment where any law enforcement would be called to. The person who is called to the scene is the diminutive but menacing club owner Darcy (the always great Patrick Stewart who is more Magneto here than Professor X.) Given that Darcy is literally skinheaded himself is another ginormous clue that something, well, ain’t right.
What follows is a tense game of cat-and-mouse in which the mice are already trapped but must use their collective wits in order to escape an extremely relentless predator lest the band gets turned into a solo act. The at times unbearably suspenseful action veers extremely close to that of a horror movie as bloody mayhem culminates in a final stand against seemingly invincible killer.
In what sadly turned out to be one of his final roles, Yelchin stands out (as he often did) as the dimwitted but courageous pack leader forced to make some extremely difficult split-second decisions as the band fights for survival. Stewart does a 180 as his typically heroic and noble onscreen persona is nowhere to be found in the despicable and soulless Darcy who regards the dead bodies left in his wake as a mere annoyance. For him it’s just another day staying off the grid and maintaining order in a subculture that thrives on chaos and anarchy.
On one hand director Jeremy Saulnier’s follow up to his terrific 2013 debut BLUE RUIN is an unqualified success as the film’s grimy mise en scene nearly oozes off the screen and the filmmaker keeps the tension building scene after scene. Despite GREEN ROOM’s varied strengths, however, I can’t really say that I enjoyed it. Everything that occurs onscreen is so relentlessly unpleasant that I wanted to get out of the theater as much as the band wanted to escape the hell hole they’re trapped in. I look forward to Saulnier’s next film (a remake of PURPLE RAIN perhaps if the color theme continues? I keed, I keed) with great anticipation but his sophomore effort plays more like a cover song rather than the classic tune it aspires to be.

Thursday, January 7, 2016


Note: This is a review of the "roadshow" version currently being shown in select theaters in 70mm (read: ultra-widescreen.)
At the very beginning of THE HATEFUL EIGHT, before a single frame of actually filmed footage appears onscreen, you can feel the pure, unadulterated, love that director Quentin Tarantino has not only for old-school westerns of yore but for movies in general. The logo for Cinerama, the widescreen format popularized in the 50s and 60s as a way to get audience members away from their TV screens and into moviehouses, is emblazoned across the screen. The title card implies that not only is Tarantino paying homage to great westerns such as ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST but that he is also transporting us back to that era during which movies were epic events and their glorious, expansive, vistas were projected on massive screens the size of your average office building.
The film begins with an overture accompanied by a beautiful, haunting, score by Ennio Morricone's (another nod to fans of classic westerns) and then a static master shot of a covered wagon traveling ever so slowly towards us from the background. The scene plays out and the opening credits begin. Those familiar with Tarantino's work might recognize the credits' font (think PULP FICTION) and when the obligatory sequence ends and the words "Chapter One" come onscreen, the audience now knows that they are in Tarantinoland and like the best of his work, you know you're going to see something that is original, exciting, and unlike anything else playing at the local cinemas.
To be perfectly honest, when this reviewer realized the movie was going to be divided into chapters, I was a little chagrined as I just wanted to see a good old fashioned western. It was after only a matter of minutes when the director's trademark dialogue was spoken by his latest creation of memorable, expertly cast, characters that I remembered that Tarantino doesn't traffic in old fashioned the way most filmmakers might. Whether his movies are crime dramas (RESERVOIR DOGS, PULP FICTION) or semi-historical adventure yarns (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, DJANGO UNCHAINED) they are never quite what anyone expects them to be. And that is the director's true gift.
THE HATEFUL EIGHT has a fairly standard Western-centric plotline: gruff bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) attempts to bring wanted criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) across hundreds of miles of pure frozen earth to hang for her crimes but is soon thwarted by a motley trove of murderous ne'er do wells who may or may not be incahoots. However, after several scenes of grim snowy-white vistas being splattered with crimson red blood, the majority of the story moves indoors to an isolated locale affectionately known as Minnie's Habadashery. The fact that Minnie is nowhere to be found is one of many clues that former Civil War soldier Marquis Warren (Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson) takes as a sign that something or rather someone isn't quite right.
What plays out is part mystery, part suspense thriller (think Agatha Christie meets the cast of RESERVOIR DOGS) but 100% pure Tarantino which is great news for fans of his distinguished and ever growing filmography (THE HATEFUL EIGHT is, as the credits announce, the filmmaker's eight film - ah, synergy) but not so good for those expecting UNFORGIVEN or even (shudder) YOUNG GUNS. Suffice it to say that anyone who is paying to see a three hour western - complete with intermission - from the director of PULP FICTION should know what they're getting into.
Would the film play just as well without the 70mm bells and whistles? I say yes, as great characters and dialogue play just as well on regular screens as they do on large format ones. Still, if you are a fan of the western genre but don't mind that the characters talk more than they shoot guns, then you absolutely owe it to yourself to catch the roadshow version of this terrifically entertaining film during its limited engagement. Like the majority of Tarantino's work, THE HATEFUL EIGHT stands head and shoulders above most films released this past year and is not to be missed.