The Hateful Eight (regular & extended) (2015/2019)

The Hateful Eight (regular & extended) (2015/2019)

  • Score: 4/5
  • Genre: 4/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Very much so.
  • Did it move me: Yes.
  • Rewatch:  Without a doubt.
  • Art/Pop: Both, baby!
  • Noteworthy/Significant: The Tarantino Western.

Some directors have such a distinctive and strong hand, the joy of being brought into their world can overshadow the individual faults of any particular trip. The Hateful Eight is not a perfect movie, but it is oh-so-fun to watch, with a wonderful collection of actors interacting in what is functionally a play.

I say that because despite some beautiful scenes shot in Colorado, the whole film (barring one or two quick scenes) takes place either inside a stage coach or in the main location: “Minnie’s Haberdashery,” a one-giant-room trading post. This is a film that could easily be staged in a theatre. The focus remaining squarely on the tension of the character interactions and the unraveling of the mystery, the hallmark of this kind of approach, was a wonderful change from most of the recent films I have seen. 

A bunch of dark individuals on seemingly separate paths end up stranded in a Rocky Mountain retreat (the aforementioned Haberdashery) by a blizzard in what appears to be the late 1800s (post Civil War). Weird coincidences, unexpected connections, and hidden plot machinations abound as they interact. It is, in a way, Tarantino’s version of Deathtrap, or Murder on the Orient Express, by way of Sergio Leone, with extra blood and violence, bien sûr!

Kurt Russell chews up lots of scenery in what appears to be a partial, twisted-but-loving homage to the Duke. And what can one say about Jennifer Jason Leigh, who deserved to end up a superstar actress but never quite broke through into that sphere, yet is markedly more talented than so many of her peers who did? She’s a joy. Period. (If you have never seen Ms. Parker and the Vicious Circle, make it next on your viewing list and thank me later). I can’t even judge Samuel L Jackson anymore, because he is so familiar, dependable, and easy to watch.

In fact, everyone does a great job, and they even don’t all sound like Quentin Tarantino for once! That, of course, is one of my biggest pet peeves about Tarantino: there are too many scenes in too many movies where you can actually hear his voice in the delivery of the actors, as if they’ve been coached to the point where they are (unconsciously, probably) emulating his cadence. Not that that actually happens (the coaching), perhaps it is just unavoidably implicit in the dialog itself. Who knows. But here, that negative is almost unseen, with rich individual voices for so many of the characters.

Yes, it is violent – his films always are, but this one is mostly tame except for everyone taking a shot at Jason Leigh’s character at one point or another, and then the final lots-of-people-getting-killed-at-the-end, which is Episode 4 in the Extended edition.

Speaking of which, I honestly could not spot what specifically was added: there were no cut subplots that I could detect (I did not watch them back to back). It felt like there were just extensions on many of the scenes, particularly in the beginning. Yes, there are diminishing returns on that extra slice of pie, but if it is good pie, who can resist?

If you hate Tarantino, this will not sway you over, but it is definitely on the more accessible side of the spectrum for his films, with less of the hyper violence that so many have. It’s a lame way to end a review, but simply put: Damn, I really liked it.

Review Date: 05/22/2019

The Wandering Earth (2019)

The Wandering Earth (2019)

  • Score: 3/5
  • Genre: 3/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Mostly.
  • Did it move me: Mildly.
  • Rewatch:  Probably once, eventually, but I am not calendaring it in.
  • Art/Pop: Pop
  • Noteworthy/Significant: Chinese Sci Fi.

The Wandering Earth is a big budget Chinese Sci Fi spectacle. Based loosely on a story by a young, well-regarded (Hugo award winning) Chinese science fiction author, it tells the story of a planet facing extinction by an unexpectedly early transformation of our sun into a red giant, which will result in the Earth and most of the solar system being destroyed. Given about a century’s warning, the Earth bands together around a crazy plan to turn the entire planet into a generation ship by circling the planet with giant engines that will push it out of the solar system and all the way to a nearby star, arriving over a hundred generations later, while the surviving population hunkers down in underground cities.

The overall production and effects are top notch and the equal of a top line Hollywood production, so plenty of kudos to the Chinese film industry. This film moved me in ways that were not directly tied to its actual content, and this was one of them: that this film was made at this level of production quality promises hope for a new source of action-adventure-sci fi films. While on one hand they were clearly using Hollywood as a blueprint for the film, there are definitely shades of difference in outlook and approach of the characters and the point of view that were welcome and fun to observe. For example, about 3/4s of the way through the film I contemplated something especially dark happening, that I would have never even considered a possibility in a mainstream Hollywood film. It didn’t, but damn, it was fun while it lasted. 

Still. Still. It was good, but other than scope of production I did not find it particularly above average. It was not as smooth as it could be. It was not clear at all times where they were going and for what purpose. Some of the characters reminded me of stereotypical characters you would find in a Japanese Anime. I watched it dubbed, which was fine. I usually prefer subtitles, but I am more accepting of dubbing with Chinese because the fundamental nature of the differences between Chinese languages and European, primarily, intonation being a key dynamic of primary meaning generation; this means that it is more difficult to pick up the emotional quality of the speakers like you can as a native English speaker with a related romantic or germanic language (with exceptions: I always watch Ang Lee’s gorgeous Eat Drink Man Woman subtitled). The dubbing was pretty good, though, especially with several of the main characters, so I was not significantly distracted by it. 

I think this a must-watch for serious genre fans as I think it is a noteworthy, even important, movie for what it signifies, but it lacks the type of engaging characterizations and interpersonal struggles that gives films like Interstellar greater depth and universal appeal, so it will be a tough sale for average viewers.

Review Date: 05/19/2019

Ocean’s 8 (2018)

Ocean’s 8 (2018)

  • Score: 3/5
  • Genre: 3/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Mostly.
  • Did it move me: Not really.
  • Rewatch:  Unlikely, but it wouldn’t hurt me.
  • Art/Pop: Pop.
  • Noteworthy/Significant: Not much.

Ocean’s 8’s attempted fresh take on the heist genre, having a group of women instead a group of men (or primarily men), mostly succeeds. Sandra Bullock, while lacking the inspiring fire of her best performances, such as in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, is nevertheless her eminently watchable and dependable self, playing the recently-released-from-prison sister of George Clooney’s Danny Ocean from the earlier films. 

While the entire cast does well, Cate Blanchet really shines as Bullock’s primary old friend/co-conspirator who helps build the team around them to accomplish the heist goal of stealing a famous and ultra valuable Cartier necklace during a huge media-swamped annual Gala in  NYC. Perhaps its unfair, but I simply expect a great performance from Helena Bonham Carter, truly a traditional, old fashioned, hard-core, do-anything actress; on the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by pop singer Rihanna, whose turn as a street hacker I didn’t realize was as convincing as it was (some technical hacker issues aside, which has nothing to do with her performance but the script) until she appears suddenly in fancy dress at one point toward the end of the film and I was surprised by the transformation. Of course, it raises the question of how a young street hacker could so effectively pull off the swagger of a diva, but we’ll let that pass.

This is an easy to watch film, and one that I would generally recommend to anyone who likes the genre (and it is family friendly to boot). That said, despite its budget and talent,  it’s only average at best for a heist movie. I never felt any sense of tension in the build up and execution, despite the perfunctory handful of unexpected challenges or twists. While it is a rare heist film that does not end in the heist succeeding, the art of filmmaking is creating tension despite that fact, which Ocean’s 8 fails at. It also needed more character exploration, something that it seems could have been done without impact on the film’s pacing, and maybe even added some more tension.

Review Date: 05/16/2019

The Predator (2018)

The Predator (2018)

  • Score: 2/5
  • Genre: 2/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Mildly.
  • Did it move me: No.
  • Rewatch:  Unlikely
  • Art/Pop: I’d like to say neither! (Pop)

Yeah, no.

The Predator tries hard to adopt a hyper-saturated comic-book approach to the beleaguered franchise (which began with the pulp-erifficly classic first film by John McTiernan with Arnold Schwarzenegger & Carl Weathers, followed by two mediocre sequels). The attempted mix of action, drama, and comedy just doesn’t pull together. Director Shane Black, who has done some work I have enjoyed, tries but fails to channel that Marvel magic he got to flirt with in Iron Man 3. 

It’s a shame, too, because there is some good raw material here. There were several unexpected surprises in the casting zone, including an underused Yvonne Strahovski as the protagonist’s wife and Thomas Jane, who did such stellar work recently in the series The Expanse, as a mentally disabled soldier. In fact, I don’t think I have fault with any of the actors: I am convinced that to the extent their performances turn cheesy and eye-rolling, it is as a result of script and directing.

The effects are mostly fine, but some CGI impalements and blood are at best TV level. The pacing is, if anything, too non-stop. One of the hallmarks of the original film was extended tension punctuated by quick intense bursts of action. At the end of the day, the problem with The Predator is that it is trying to do too much and be too clever. It wants to wink at you, yet be somewhat serious. This can be done, but if you miss, you get alien attack dogs who somehow become insta-pets after being shot in the head. Really. ‘Nuff said.

Review Date: 05/07/2019

A Little Bit of Heaven (2012)

A Little Bit of Heaven (2012)

  • Score: 3/5
  • Genre: 3/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Mildly.
  • Did it move me: Mildly.
  • Rewatch:  Unlikely
  • Art/Pop: Emo pop

So, this is an odd movie. I am not sure why I watched it, except for the cast: Kate Hudson, Kathy Bates, Whoopie Goldberg, Treat Williams, Peter Dinklage, and even Steven Weber, an actor from one of my favorite 1990s sitcoms, Wings. I figured how bad could it be?

If I followed the critical consensus, which I saw with a bit of surprise was a crazily low 4% on Rotten Tomatoes, the answer would be Pretty Fucking Bad! But I think I followed instead the popular consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, which put it at 52% liked.

A Little Bit of Heaven is odd because it pulls from several genres and tropes, part drama, part comedy (I hate the term dramedy), and even the “I spoke with God” thing a la Heaven Can Wait and a billion other films. 

Kate Hudson is a career oriented late-30 something who refuses to have a serious relationship, claiming it is unnecessary, but really because of her parents’ cold marriage. She receives some startling news which causes her to rethink her life. She has the homemaker friend, whose child she babysits, the unattached friend, the gay black neighbor-friend, and host of other character and plot tropes to exist and play with.

It’s like a soup made from leftovers, but it is not horrible. I rarely comment on professional ratings, and almost never check them before I write my reviews, but I am kind of stunned by the 4% Rotten Tomatoes ratings. It’s only a somewhat by-the-numbers romcom tear-jerker (despite its clear desire to be a bit funky), but it is definitely not horrible. Believe the audience, not the critics, on this one, unless you are solely an elitist film snob: A Little Bit of Heaven is solidly mediocre, and while genre fans won’t be adding it to their all time favorites list, they will certainly not regret watching it.

Review Date: 05/04/2019

The Lobster (2012)

The Lobster (2012)

  • Score: 4/5
  • Genre: 4/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Yes.
  • Did it move me: Mildly.
  • Rewatch:  Likely, but not right away.
  • Art/Pop: Definitely Art

Funky, arty, brooding and atmospheric, The Lobster is a slow-building meditative reflection on life, love and the crushing weight of authoritarianism in all its forms, from the far right to the far left, from government to the oppression of social mores, even self-imposed.

In a dystopian world where people must be coupled or else (and coupled with a person with whom they share some sort of explicit defining trait, like a physical disability, a hobby, or a strong personality quirk), those without partners, even those for whom their partner died, are sent to a special “hotel”, which is essentially a prison, where they must find an acceptably suitable partner within a short period of time (45 days, extensible if they aid authorities in hunting and killing independent “loners” who live beyond the law in the forest on the edge of the city the story takes place in). If they do not find a willing match, they are transformed, by some science-magic machine, into an animal of their choice, and sent into the wild to live out their lives.

A little more than halfway through the film, the story travels into the world of those hunted “loners,” where, rather than the freedom-loving outsiders living in exile that we expect, a la the “book people” of Fahrenheit 451, we find instead yet another system of harsh rules and expectations, with harsh punishments for those who buck the established order.

The main characters struggle within these competing worlds of chains to find the space to make self-interested choices as individuals who merely want to live and love free of the imposed directives of others. Do they succeed? Can they succeed? Watch and find out.

Review Date: 04/27/2019

The Avengers (2012)

The Avengers (2012)

  • Score: 3/5
  • Genre: 4/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Yes.
  • Did it move me: Mildly.
  • Rewatch:  Likely (already have)
  • Art/Pop: Pop

Some movies are relatively easy to review in retrospect, some are more difficult. While not really challenging, The Avengers edges to the more difficult side because so many strong films in this genre have been produced in the seven years since (I am looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy & Thor: Ragnorak).

Watching The Avengers again was a lot of fun. I am not sure I had seen it since seeing it in the theatre at release, so while I clearly remembered the overall story arc, I had forgotten tons of the little scenes and details that comprise the trip.

You can see the seeds of the Marvel formulae of action, suspense, and humor melding and taking root, but still a touch rough around the edges. I particularly liked the subtle, yet to be developed but still present, chemistry between Mark Ruffalo & Scarlet Johansen’s characters, and Tom Hiddleston, as ever, is chewing up and spitting out the scenery with his joyously human comic book villain Loki.

Still, at the end of the day, and despite the hype, this is a heavy genre movie: an alien we know as a Norse god leads an alien invasion to conquer humanity and the Earth, and a bunch of comic book heroes gathered by a super secret (and apparently incredibly well financed) spy organization blow up most of midtown Manhattan to stop them. The fights are pretty, the humor not bad and most everyone seems to be having fun: good popcorn, not much depth, and eventually to be surpassed.

Absolutely watch if somehow you haven’t and if you have any inclination toward the genre (or give it another shot if it has been years, it is worth rewatching).

Review Date: 04/25/2019

The Beach (2000)

The Beach (2000)

  • Score: 4/5
  • Genre: 4/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Yes.
  • Did it move me: Yes.
  • Rewatch:  Likely, but not in a rush.
  • Art/Pop: Arty Pop.

I never saw the Beach when it came out, or for years after. You get those movies that somehow you just never get around to, despite being reasonably big films released while you are an adult (as opposed to big classics, that you usually have to seek out and aren’t in theaters or promoted on cable or streaming).  Poking around HBO one night I saw it and was like “Hmmm, old Leonardo DiCaprio movie supposed to be halfway decent.” I clicked on more info and immediately noted it had Tilda Swinton, and was directed by Danny Boyle with music by Angelo Badalamenti. Sold!

The Beach is fun, despite starting with dark overtones and ending in suspense. Danny Boyle is going all in, and so are the cast. Robert Carlyle, who I always enjoy watching, plays a crazy (literally) Scottish guy (his favorite typecast role) who hands DiCaprio’s “Richard” (a wayward, bored GenX’er on Walkabout in Thailand) a map to a supposedly super secret and incredibly idyllic island. Richard convinces two young French travelers to take up the quest, and we are off.

An early scene, where a disenchanted Richard looks down from a balcony upon young fellow travelers in his hotel watching Apocalypse Now on a small screen is hugely foreshadowing on many levels to what is to come, including Boyle’s loving allusions to classic scenes and themes from Apocalypse Now and other western Asian-Pacific themed films and tropes.

The island, of course, ends up being both idyllic and potentially deadly, and Richard’s interactions with the people there, both fellow ex-pat and local, give rise to the dramatic action and suspense. Another nod, to British character actor Paterson Joseph, who it was a pleasant surprise to discover was one of the main characters on the island. Tilda Swinton can be so powerful in an otherworldly way. I really need to go back and re-watch her captivating take on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, as should you.

The balancing act between allegorical fantasy and realistic depiction is surprisingly well handled by Boyle, and although the Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies allusions are not always quite as there as he would like, the beautiful scenery and playful direction make The Beach a tasty summer holiday.

Review Date: 04/13/2019

The Silence (2019)

The Silence (2019)

  • Score: 2/5
  • Genre: 2/5
  • Did I enjoy it: It had a few good moments. A few.
  • Did it move me: Negatively.
  • Rewatch:  Unlikely.
  • Art/Pop: Pop.

Wow, that was disappointing. I like Stanley Tucci. I like Miranda Otto. I even kind of like the girl from Mad Men. I like sci fi and suspense and even the occasional horror. I love post apocalypse movies, and I have since growing up with the early Mad Max and living dead films (not to mention the lost Japanese classic Virus). I had high hopes.

This is the kind of film where 30 minutes in you go “well, girl from Mad Men I get, she has that new Netflix series Sabrina, is trying to make the brutal jump from child actor to adult, I am sure anything Netflix asks her to do she’ll say yes to, but Stan & Miranda, do you guys need a new car that bad? Could you really both have kids in college at the same time?” At least, that’s what it made me say. Out loud, I think.

So it’s zombie/vampire apocalypse in the form of bats (they look like bats, but the film makes some odd reference to wasps) that have been trapped deep underground for millions of years evolving and mutating. Fine. I mean it feels like lowish budget SyFy Channel in-house movie, but whatever. The production quality was reasonably high, and the talent (except for the writing staff) is there (i.e., sound, costuming, etc.).

To paraphrase Slick Willy: It’s the stupidity, stupid. The give-me-a-break moments in this film are high, and just get higher as the movie moves to its climax. Without over spoiling (most will have heard or will quickly notice that this is a knock off of A Quiet Place), it turns out that girl from Mad Men’s character is deaf so the whole family knows how to sign, a remarkably convenient coincidence in an apocalypse film where you need to be quiet. I wish the writing was phoned in – it feels instead like it was radio-telescoped from Mars. Actually, that cheap derogatory description is cooler than the screenwriters of The Silence deserve.

And it doesn’t have the indulgent cheesy factor of a good B film, which can make it endearing despite its limitations, because it takes itself far too seriously. Only watch this film if you love the genre, and even then be prepared to be underwhelmed.

Review Date: 04/13/2019

The Highwaymen (2019)

The Highwaymen (2019)

  • Score: 3/5
  • Genre: 4/5
  • Did I enjoy it: Yes.
  • Did it move me: Mildly.
  • Rewatch:  Not in the near future.
  • Art/Pop: Mostly Pop, but the narrative point of view control is subtle.

This made for Netflix film based on a true story from the 1930s about two former Texas Rangers hired by the Texas government as Plan B wildcards to independently track down and deal with Bonnie & Clyde (while the regular state police, etc., pursued a more traditional manhunt) was a really nice Saturday night viewing experience. 

Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing truly innovative or exciting, and many of the scenes, while competent enough,  felt like checking boxes: 

  • Young, smart-alecky state and federal cops laugh at the past-their-prime, creaky retired Rangers, and try to demean and push them to the back of the bus – check! 
  • Follow up scene of our heroes showing up those same young arrogant whipper-snappers by analyzing a crime scene better than them using their old cop wisdom and skills – check!  
  • Sad story about how years of killing along the border has left them with pre-PTSD PTSD – check! 
  • Etc.

Still, in a weird sort of old man echo to the stunning first season of True Detective, seeing Woody Harrelson and Kevin Costner bounce around the screen for two hours as cranky reunited buddy cops was enjoyable. With overall good pacing, the film embraces a narrative point of view that tries to restrict the world to their perspective:  for example, you don’t even see the faces of Bonnie & Clyde until the last scenes when they are shot; you see first-hand examples of their horrible crimes, but only distantly hear about the Robin Hood-like bank robbing that made them bizarre folk heroes. 

That disciplined concentration on the story being told, which is not the story of Bonnie & Clyde, is what makes this work overall, and why it got a 4/5 in the genre score: it is rare to see a director tackle such a well known and easy to exploit topic and hold strong to a perspective that skirts and does not indulge in the easy cha-ching of retelling the core story one more time. 

The Highwaymen won’t change your life, but I am glad I clicked play.

Review Date: 04/11/2019