REVIEW: “Halloween” (2018)

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David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” is yet another entry into the four-decade-long slasher franchise sure to drive continuity hounds insane. If you’re into chronology finding a link through every Halloween movie is all but impossible.

Case in point: If you’re loyal to the original order you have “Halloween” 1-6. Maybe you choose the two “H2O” movies which followed the original “Halloween” and “Halloween 2” but nothing after. Then you had Rob Zombie’s completely unconnected reboots simply titled “Halloween” and “Halloween 2”. Now we have a new line that embraces the 1978 original but dismisses everything else. So with it you have “Halloween” followed by “Halloween”. Confused yet?

For many people none of that stuff matters much. It’s weird and messy but ultimately it all comes back to the masked butcher-knife wielding antagonist Michael Myers. Green’s “Halloween” aims to bring back the original conflict between Michael and Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode. And what better time to do it than the 40 year anniversary of the ’78 John Carpenter classic.

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Green was an unusual choice for a “Halloween” movie especially considering some of his raunchy swing-and-misses (“Pineapple Express”, “Your Highness” and “The Sitter”). But since those films he has shown a more intriguing side to his filmmaking (“Prince Avalanche”, “Joe”, and “Stronger”). So having him head a big slasher-horror franchise was intriguing.

In Green’s telling, Michael Myers was captured shortly after the murderous events of the first film (seems like something the audience should get to see but be that as it may). For 40 years since, Michael has been in an institution for the criminally insane under the care of Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer), a former student of Donald Pleasance’s Dr. Loomis with the fascination for Michael’s psychology.

During this same time, Laurie Strode has closed herself off both literally and figuratively. She is a self-described basket case with two failed marriages and a strained relationship with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). The mental trauma and understandable paranoia has driven Laurie into seclusion on the outskirts of Haddonfield, barricaded in a fortified farmhouse full of booby-traps and firearms.

The institution schedules to transfer Michael, along with a busload of other patients, to a new facility on Halloween night. How’s that for timing? A crashed bus, a few dead bodies, and guess who is heading back to Haddonfield? And don’t worry slasher fans, Green gives his audience more than enough disposable characters to serve as Michael’s blood-soaked fodder. In fact, practically none of these characters are meaningful other than to raise Michael’s gory kill count and take screen-time away from Curtis who is very good here.

It’s impossible to deny the nostalgia for someone who loved the 1978 film. Green and co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley are routinely calling back to the original and in many instances borrowing from the very sequels they disavow. So aside from Laurie Strode’s journey and a particularly bizarre middle act twist, much of this movie will feel familiar to franchise aficionados and for slasher fans in general. It does little to differentiate itself.

What’s worse is that the movie just isn’t that scary. It throws in a smattering of jump scares but it’s never able to maintain the tension that John Carpenter nailed so well. I only recall one scene that had me antsy. Even the big finale had all the ingredients for a tense sequence but is drawn out too long before FINALLY giving us the overdue payoff (and it is a very satisfying payoff).

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It’s also hurt by the fact that Michael Myers is simply not that interesting. A lot was made of Green’s decision to wipe out Michael and Laurie’s family connection. Here Michael seems aimless, often killing for no reason other than to allow the special effects team to one-up their last kill. And the movie’s weird jabs at humor tend to disrupt the tone (I’m sorry, but potty-mouthed little kids ran their course with me long ago).

Some have called this a horror film for the #MeToo and #TimesUp era. I think that is giving the movie way too much credit. It does aim to put Laurie Strode in the Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor class. That’s a good thing and the film needed more of her. But that’s as far as the movie goes. It’s still a very basic slasher flick which is good for genre fans but it’s hardly one with a profound social conscience. Still there is definitely fun to be had.

It may sound like I’m down on “Halloween” when actually it works well enough within this 11-movie franchise. Jamie Lee Curtis is excellent and the film excels when she is highlighted. But when you have framed yourself as a direct sequel to an all-time horror classic and you’ve wiped out a lot of the series history it’s easy for us to expect a little more than a standard slasher film. Especially one that is so similar to several of the sequels it set out to replace.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “The Hate U Give”

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There seems to be a new wave of movies dealing with one of the hot button social issues of our day – police brutality. It’s an important issue but one often caught up in the mire of politics and emotion. Strong feelings on both sides often lead to the conversation spiraling away from the meat of the matter and into frivolous side debates.

Sometimes what we need is a pointed yet levelheaded examination. For the most part that is what we get in director George Tillman Jr’s “The Hate U Give”, a film adapted from Angie Thomas’ young adult novel of the same name. Without question “The Hate U Give” is looking at its issues from a specific point of view, but that doesn’t undercut the relevance of what it has to say nor does it negate the power with which it says it.

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In what should be a star-making performance, Amandla Stenberg plays Starr Carter. She’s a bit of a chameleon, taking on different personas in the two worlds she occupies. During the day she is one of the only African-American kids in her mostly white private prep school. While there she hides anything that may hint at where she is from. And where is she from? The lower income and predominantly black neighborhood of Garden Heights where she back-pockets and keeps quiet about her school life especially her white boy friend Chris (KJ Apa).

Keeping her two worlds apart is the easiest thing for Starr, but it’s not without complications. A portion of the movie deals with her bouncing between cultures and finding it hard to fit into either. For Starr it becomes about putting off the facades, discovering who she is, and finding her own distinct voice. Unfortunately the catalyst for Starr’s evolution is a senseless act of violence.

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At a late night party in Garden Heights Starr bumps into childhood friend and first crush Khalil (Algee Smith). After gunfire rings out, Kahlil helps Starr out of the party and drives her home. On the way they are pulled over by a patrolman for a lane violation. Minutes later the cop panics, an unarmed Khalil lay shot to death, and Starr is the lone witness.

News of the tragedy reverberates throughout the community, the city, and eventually the nation. Starr’s father Maverick (a terrific Russell Hornsby) wants her to use her voice regardless of her apprehensions. Starr’s mother (an equally good Regina Hall) wants her to stay quiet fearing the repercussions of the spotlight. As Starr is torn between defending her friend and protecting her family, others unknowingly treat her like a pawn for their own agendas. It makes finding her voice even more of a struggle.

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While police brutality is the film’s central topic, it explores a host of other racial and socioeconomic issues. It looks at urban poverty, profiling, drug dealing, protesting, among several other things. Screenwriter Audrey Wells (who sadly died earlier this month) leans on her big lot of characters to explore these subjects. The characters are a strength and even the smallest are authentic and believable pieces of the story. There are a couple exceptions. Her white friends from school often come across as clichés intended to move the narrative in certain directions. And I loved Anthony Mackie as a local gang leader and drug pusher. He is intense and menacing but too often relegated to giving intimidating stares from a distance.

George Tillman Jr. works with a lot of moving parts and manages them with an able hand. He tells a good story while only occasionally dipping too far into melodrama. His movie is very open about about its feelings which is to its credit. At the same time its earnestness occasionally leads the film to paint in broad strokes and dabble in generalizations. But those instances are rare. Ultimately “The Hate U Give” is a film that speaks its mind but does so with optimism. The filmmakers want to make a difference and they truly believe their film can help do so.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Hostiles”

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A new traditional Western is somewhat of a rarity these days. You could say 2016 was the year of the subversive Western while 2017 didn’t offer much of anything for the genre. But then along comes “Hostiles” which sits somewhere between subversive and traditional.

“Hostiles” is written and directed by Scott Cooper, probably best known for his award-winning feature film debut “Crazy Heart”. The movie begins with the ‘traditional’ – a familiar but effective opening sequence showing a frontier family brutal attacked by a Comanche war party. The lone survivor, a wife and mother named Rosalie Quaid (played by an excellent Rosamund Pike), is left in a state of shock.

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The story then moves to Fort Berringer, New Mexico. Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) has seen his share of frontier bloodshed. And while he tells himself he was justified by simply “following orders”, the killing has taken a toll. He reluctantly accepts a mission to escort an imprisoned, dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to their Montana tribal homeland on orders from President Harrison.

Bale and his handpicked soldiers set out with their Native American prisoners to make the dangerous journey north. Cooper fills this party with some good faces. Bale is outstanding with a ‘less is more’ approach and I’ve always enjoyed Wes Studi. But we also get Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach and current flavor of the year actor Timothée Chalamet. Pike joins them after her traumatized Rosalie is discovered among the charred remains of her frontier home. A blood-soaked pilgrimage follows with several characters forced to reckon with their past and present sins.

There is an interesting line “Hostiles” walks. On one side it openly recognizes the part bigotry and brutality played in American policy towards the indigenous peoples. On the other side it doesn’t insult Native Americans by portraying them as overly sentimental dramatic pieces. Walking that line is Blocker, disillusioned by the military he has blindly served and bitterly prejudiced because of the men he has lost in battle with the natives. He is the film’s centerpiece and while there are intriguing ideas about what he represents, I was just as much into his personal quest as a broken man in search of repentance.

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“Hostiles” is a bleak and tough-minded movie. In Cooper’s portrayal of death and suffering neither discriminates and none of his characters are free from the sting whether it be during their trek north or from scars of the past. Cooper uses explosions of violence but he also allows for quiet meditative moments that aren’t without purpose. It makes for a slow burn which may not satisfy those looking for a more traditional western shoot ’em up. But as the group moves across Masanobu Takayanagi’s beautifully shot landscapes I appreciated the action as well as the contemplation.

Some of the responses to “Hostiles” have been curious. Many have criticized Cooper for his “white perspective” even going so far as to say the movie is an attempt to ease a nation’s guilt over their treatment of Native Americans. Those are dramatic stretches which tags the film with an unfair label. It never draws a broad equivalence between the motivations of the U.S. Army and the natives. Again, Blocker makes several references to his “job” which he knows is genocide. And the Army’s atrocities take various forms within the characters particularly Cochrane’s and in Ben Foster who appears later on. It’s even hinted at in the D.H. Lawrence quote which opens the movie — “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

“Hostiles” is unquestionably solemn and dour yet fittingly so considering the subjects it wants to explore. But at the heart of the movie lies a message of reconciliation and healing which is especially welcome during our current times of such division. The wonderful final shot offers us a glimmer of hope. It’s filled with uncertainty and it’s far from tidy. Yet it’s hopeful in a way that brings the film’s ultimate message to light.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Happy Death Day”

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If you’re like me it’s tempting to dismiss this movie because of its title alone. It sounds like the straight-to-video B-movie horror that often found its home on the back shelves of those 80s video rental stores. But in truth that’s part of the craftiness at the center of “Happy Death Day” – a playfully subversive horror film that has a field day toying with familiar tropes that have defined a genre.

Writer Scott Lobdell (known for his work in comic books) pens a script that may best be described as “Groundhog Day” meets “Scream”. This wacky genre blend plays out far better than it may sound and it makes “Happy Death Day” a hard movie to pigeonhole. Case in point, Lobdell and director Christopher Landon are mainly focused on making a horror-comedy, but you could also call it college campus satire, a romcom, and even a life-affirming morality tale. It’s far from revolutionary, but there is much more to this movie than you would expect.

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Jessica Rothe plays the snooty and loose-living ‘mean girl’ Theresa “Tree” Gelbman who wakes up in the unfamiliar dorm room of sweet, unassuming ‘nice guy’ Carter (Israel Broussard). Unable to remember anything from her previous night of partying, Tree storms out and begins her normal routine of berating or belittling the people in her life. But her day doesn’t have a happy ending. On her way to a party she is stalked and murdered by a killer in a black hoodie and a baby mask.

Now enter the “Groundhog Day” conceit. The moment of her death she suddenly wakes up in Carter’s room yet again. She’s met with the same response from him and everyone else she encounters. She quickly realizes she is replaying the same day. This happens again and again, with her dying at the end of each day regardless of her efforts to avoid it.

At a point during this time loop we see a transformation take place both in the story and in Tree. She turns from novice scream queen to super sleuth and the film becomes more of a murder mystery as she works to reveal her own killer. The list of suspects is long, filled with people Tree has mistreated or offended. She focuses each replayed day on a new potential suspect and as she goes down her list she begins to learn some not so flattering things about herself.

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Rothe (perhaps best known for her bit part as one of Emma Stone’s roommates in “La La Land”) may be the biggest reason to see this film. I’m pretty sure she is in every single scene and it’s not the easiest role to tackle. She’s asked to stretch herself out in several different directions. Perhaps the most surprising element to her performance is her sharp comedic chops. I can see this opening up some new doors for Rothe.

While the script is clever and the performances are good, I don’t want to oversell “Happy Death Day” or leave the impression that it is some kind of seminal groundbreaker for the horror genre. It definitely utilizes some of the same tropes it pokes fun at and the whole thing is unquestionably silly. But the tongue-in-cheek approach by the filmmakers and their willingness to laugh at themselves makes this a better experience than the title would have you believe.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Hidden Figures”

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The inspiring true story at the center of “Hidden Figures” is one aching to be told. Three brilliant mathematicians struggle to get their due in the fledgling NASA program. Why do they struggle? Because they dare to be African-American and women. It’s a spirited account of the persecution these women faced and the barriers they boldly broke. At the same time it’s a film aiming at being a crowdpleaser and packaged with a glossy coat of Hollywood influence.

“Hidden Figures” is adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s biography of the same name. The story begins in 1961 fresh after the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik space mission. In full Cold War mode, the United States government begins pressuring NASA to catch up with the Soviets and put an American in space. To accomplish that in the pre-computer era NASA relied on human computers to put together equations and calculations. Many of these ‘computers’ were African-American woman who worked behind the scenes and without much credit.

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The film focuses on three of these women, brilliant mathematicians working in a back room at the segregated Langley NASA complex. Taraji Henson gets the starring nod playing Katherine Johnson, a mathematics genius from birth. Octavia Spencer co-stars as Dorothy Vaughan, the eldest of the three friends and an aspiring supervisor. Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, a fiery engineer who is consistently denied the promotion she deserves. One of the film’s true pleasures is watching these three actresses work. Henson, Spencer, and Monáe have spectacular chemistry but they also bring an immense amount of truth individually, even when their scenes are a bit on the nose.

Each of these brilliant women are in line for promotions yet they all meet some sort of racial or sexist hurdle at every turn. Most notable is Katherine’s assignment to the Space Task Group, a team of white male engineers tasked with getting their astronauts into space and back down safely. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the director of the group under intense pressure by the paranoid government. Harrison is all about results. He doesn’t see male or female, black or white. At the same time he’s impervious to the obstacles Katherine faces and the abuse she takes particularly by the wormy Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons).

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Co-writers Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (Melfi also directed) tell a powerful story but do so with splashes of fiction. Often this works in the movie’s favor but not always. Their additions may occasional take away from the real story, but they also give an honest depiction of the oppressive rules and attitudes of the time. Then you have Parson’s completely fictional character who is a conduit for those prejudices. The performance is fine but the character is scripted so tightly that it’s hard to believe in him. Kirsten Dunst has a similar fictional character but one that is handled much better.

“Hidden Figures” is a polished Hollywood movie through and through, but the power and importance of its story along with the three central performances easily overshadow any hiccups. I would even toss in Kevin Costner who offers up some of my favorite supporting work of the year. There is simply an irresistible quality to these characters that makes spending time with them a joy. And regardless of how predictable it may be, this is still an empowering, inspirational story that needs to be told.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Hell or High Water”

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Taylor Sheridan’s script for “Hell or High Water” didn’t have the easiest track to the big screen. It was finally purchased for production in 2012 after being highlighted as the Black List’s top script, but it would be another four years before it would finally hit theaters. But it’s hard to believe there has been a timelier moment for the movie to land than right now.

It has been accurately defined as a neo-western. It’s also a heist movie. It could be considered a comedy. Some may even call it an incisive bit of social commentary. Actually all of the above are fitting descriptions of this sensitive but slightly off-beat tale of two brothers burdened by their economic struggles. Director David Mackenzie takes this idea and visualizes it through the lens of tough small town living, something that the film rightly shows is slowly dying off.

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Those not close to or familiar with the rural challenges the movie depicts may not appreciate how accurately the film captures it. In the real America small working class towns are drying up. Many have economies dependent on one or two plants or factories and when those industries leave the communities suffer. Sheridan and Mackenzie capture this with such vivid and authentic detail through a powerful mix of camera, script, and setting.

It’s this world that brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) live in. Toby is recently divorced and struggling to keep his family’s ranch left to him by his deceased mother. A reverse mortgage has left him smothering in debt and trying to avoid a looming foreclosure. Tanner is a rambunctious sort, recently out of prison and with no real direction for his life. But he does love his brother and will help him any way he can. That means helping him with well thought out robberies of a series of small West Texas  banks.

The movie also tells the story of a retiring Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who along with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) set out to find the men responsible for the series of bank robberies. Much of the film’s humor comes from their back-and-forth banter which features a slew of affectionate insults. Bridges is a hoot and is right in his comfort zone. You could say he’s channeling a variation of his Rooster Cogburn from “True Grit”. The movie doesn’t miss a beat when it switches to Hamilton’s story and his scenes add more suspense to the inevitable crossing of paths. 

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Sheridan and Mackenzie go to great lengths to keep this from being a ‘good guy vs bad guy’ tale. They try hard to keep the black hats off of Toby and Tanner and put them on the banks and the economic system that keeps people down even when they seem to be ahead. This is emphasized when we learn oil was found on the family’s ranch. But I’m not sure the movie does a good enough job keeping the brothers within the grey area it wants them to be in. There are moments when they do try and morally reckon with their crimes and their hardships clearly contribute to their reasoning. But as things intensify it’s hard to know how the movie wants us to feel about them.

There is a pretty significant plot-hole in the final act that I can’t quite shake, but otherwise “Hell or High Water” sticks its landing. The similarities to the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” are obvious from the start and there even seems to be a nod to Humphrey Bogart’s “High Sierra”. Those influences add a lot to the film but its strength is in its camera and in its realization of a segment of the country slowly being smothered out. The characters are easy to latch onto and the timely authentic story, while not perfectly told, feels grounded in a very true current reality.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars