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.