REVIEW: “The Kid” (2019)

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Vincent D’Onofrio’s “The Kid” is a fresh venture across some well-traveled cinematic territory. Over the years we’ve seen the legend of Billy the Kid explored through numerous movies and television shows. D’Onofrio doesn’t so much retell William H. Bonney’s story as he does intersect with it.

“The Kid” puts its main focus on a young boy named Rio (Jake Schur). In the opening scene we see him and his older sister Sara (Leila George) fleeing their home. Rio has shot and killed his abusive father and his equally violent uncle (a rather menacing Chris Pratt) wants revenge for his brother’s death.

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The siblings cross paths with the notorious Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) who sees shades of himself in Rio and promises to keep the two safe. But in no time the dogged Sheriff Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke) sweeps in and takes them all into custody. Pat and his men intend to get Billy to Lincoln, New Mexico to pay for his crimes. The opportunistic Billy keeps his eyes open for any chance to escape.

While their game of cat-and-mouse plays out, the film’s centerpiece (Rio) is forced to decide what kind of man he’s going to be. So amid a slew of western violence and oneupmanship, an unexpected coming-of-age story springs up. Does Rio follow the path of the charismatic outlaw or the principled lawman?

The story was conceived by D’Onofrio and screenwriter Andrew Lanham. The bulk of it is told through Rio’s eyes as his innocence is steadily being chiseled away. The two influences in front of him couldn’t be more different and watching him wrestle with both adds an interesting and unexpected twist. It keeps the whole thing from being yet another telling of Billy the Kid’s story.

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But I don’t want to shortchange the Billy vs. Pat angle. It will certainly be familiar for many and D’Onofrio doesn’t bring much new too it. But it’s still fun to watch mainly due to the performances given by DeHaan and Hawke. I’ve long struggled to fully embrace DeHaan as an actor but this is definitely a step in the right direction. He has always had a hard-to-define screen presence and it actually works really well here. Hawke on the other hand gives another rock solid showing, continuing a streak of great performances that have become his norm.

D’Onofrio frames all of this through a nicely realized western backdrop. He shows off a good eye for setting and a nice sense of the genre he’s working in. His pacing is a bit uneven at times and many won’t be able to shake the feelings that they’ve seen some of this before. But “The Kid” offers enough of a mixture of fresh and familiar to not only warrant its existence, but to provide an unorthodox and entertaining Old West experience.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Kodachrome”

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For those who aren’t photography enthusiasts or who weren’t around when taking photos was more refined than simply whipping out our phones, Kodachrome was first introduced in 1935 and became one of the earliest color films to be commercially successful. It quickly became the preferred choice for both still photography and cinematography before succumbing to digital in 2010.

So why am I talking about photography? It happens to be a key plot device in the father/son road trip drama “Kodachrome”. In this Netflix Original film Ed Harris plays Benjamin Ryder an accomplished photographer who is dying of cancer. His last wish is to carry some of his recently discovered early film to Parsons, Kansas where the last Kodachrome development lab in the world is preparing to shut its doors. His health doesn’t permit him to fly so he sends his nurse/assistant Zooey (Elizabeth Olsen) to recruit his estranged son Matt (Jason Sudeikis) to drive him.

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That quickly proves to be easier said than done. Matt, a struggling record company executive and recent divorcee, has nothing but disdain for his father who ran out on him and his now deceased mother. But he is eventually persuaded by Ben’s manager (Dennis Haysbert) to make the uncomfortable and at times toxic 2,000 mile trip with his dad and Zooey.

This is writer Jonathan Tropper’s second feature film script (his first being 2014’s “This is Where I Leave You”). He works with director Mark Raso to build a deeply character-centered story around a very familiar premise. The pair lean heavily on their actors, the always reliable Harris and Olsen and the surprisingly strong Sudeikis. The performances are genuine and the writing so sincere that it’s easy to look past the fact that we know where things are heading.

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Predictably the film deals with the themes of death and reconciliation, but it doesn’t plow a straight and easy row. Ben doesn’t allow much room for sympathy and the story doesn’t provide him with an easy way out of how we (the audience) perceive him. Look no further than his toxic and often bruising back-and-forths with Matt. This is perhaps best realized when they make an unannounced stop to see Ben’s (also estranged) brother and sister-in-law (played really well by Bruce Greenwood and Wendy Crewson). Let’s just say it unearths yet another unflattering side of Ben.

I think some have mislabeled “Kodachrome” by considering it a comedy when I found it to be far from that. It’s equal parts family drama and character study with maybe a pinch of black comedy. From the very start the familiar story structure appears routine and the movie never quite shakes that feeling. But with three well developed central characters and top-notch performances behind them, “Kodachrome” is able to do the single most essential thing in a movie like this – make us care.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

Blind Spot Review: “The King of Comedy”

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In the entirety of director Martin Scorsese’s diverse filmography few of his pictures stand out quite like “The King of Comedy”. It’s a tough movie to grasp with its peculiar tone and unbridled cynicism. It’s a movie filled with undesirable characters and we are left with practically no emotional connection to any of them. Yet, despite all of these apparent issues and conflicts, I found myself glued to this offbeat bit of satire.

So I said ‘undesirable’ but for the film’s main character Rupert Pupkin that may be a tad harsh. Despite being delusional, obsessive, and a bit creepy there is a sympathetic quality to Pupkin. Similar to Scorsese’s Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver”, Rupert is an outsider desperately wanting on the inside. Both are sad and pathetic eccentrics who refuse to be creatures of circumstance. They have pride and aspirations – misguided but genuine. Slowly both men mentally unravel and the question becomes how far will they go?

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Both characters are played by Robert De Niro (at the time this was his fifth collaboration with Scorsese). Yet while similar in some areas, Rupert Pupkin has a uniqueness all his own. He doesn’t want power or to win the heart of a special lady. He simply wants to be a famous standup comic. He dupes his way into seeing late night talk show host and comedian Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis) in hopes that it will lead to his big break. Rupert is given the old ‘contact my office’ brush off which he optimistically buys. Of course we know better.

A big chunk of the movie focuses on Rupert’s attempts to meet with Jerry. Some of the film’s best scenes take place in the lobby of Jerry’s office. Scorsese brings us back there several times as a persistent (and delusional) Rupert is repeatedly turned away by the receptionist and by Jerry’s secretary Cathy (played by a very good Shelley Hack). Each visit is a little kookier and slightly more uncomfortable than the previous one.

With each rejection Rupert becomes more unhinged and even more impulsive. Desperate, he seeks the help of fellow deranged stalker Masha (Sandra Bernhard). The two hatch an idiotic but well thought-out plan to satisfy both of their unique Jerry Langford obsessions. It’s here that the movie goes into some pretty weird directions but Scorsese keeps it all under control and unpredictable.

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One thing that struck me is how the film keeps Rupert’s act hidden for most of its running time. His passion is unquestioned and his determination is limitless. But is he funny? Can he make people laugh? Scorsese eventually gets around to answering that question in a really fun way and it’s a perfect wrap up to this zany concoction.

When people talk about Martin Scorsese movies “The King of Comedy” often falls through the cracks. That’s a shame. It may not belong among the director’s best, but it certainly stands out for its uniqueness. It’s quirky, a bit bizarre actually, and that’s a big positive. DeNiro is a blast and offers up another example of why he and Scorsese are such a good team.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”

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As a movie fan here is a scenario I have experienced more than once: I see a trailer for a big studio picture and immediately say to myself “This movie is in trouble”. Then I learn of its $175 million production budget and I say “Make that BIG trouble”. And then critics begin dropping a slew of scathing reviews (not always a guaranteed indicator but in many cases…). Needless to say my expectations bottom out.

But then I actually see the film and it turns out to be far from the horrid experience I expected. “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” fits into this category. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a ringing endorsement. At the same time it’s far from the unwatchable dreck I was led to expect.

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Where to start? Guy Ritchie’s take on the Arthurian legend doesn’t follow many traditional guidelines. You could say (for better or for worse) Ritchie does his own thing. That’s good in the sense that it feels like a unique undertaking and the looniness is one of my favorite things about it. What’s not so good is that it misses much of the mythical and magical charms that has made the story somewhat timeless.

Since 2004’s forgotten and underrated “King Arthur” Warner Brothers has been hard at work attempting to bring a new film to light. They finally settled on what is supposed to be the first of a six film cinematic universe. The likeliness of that happening has dwindled. Something about losing $15 million will do that.

The film begins with Camelot under siege by the dark mage Mordred. It’s a sequence resembling a cheaper version of Peter Jackson’s battle for Minas Tirith (see “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”). King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) prevails much to the chagrin of his ambitious and devious brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Hungry for the throne, Vortigern leads a coup against his brother. Realizing the peril, Uther sends his infant son Arthur drifting down the river, baby Moses style. Then through a speedy time-hopping sequence we learn young Arthur was found by a group women and raised in their brothel.

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What follows is a gonzo account of Arthur’s rise, his introduction to Excalibur, and of course a confrontation with the new king Vortigern. Charlie Hunnam plays Arthur, now all grown up and with a fantastical and unwanted destiny laid out before him. Hunnam is a good actor but here he seems a bit hog-tied by the script. It’s steadily working towards him becoming the mythical sword-wielding hero, but for too long it keeps him locked in as the reluctant denier.

The action is pretty good and Jude Law is a hoot playing such a detestable slug of a human being. And the sheer nuttiness of the whole thing works in several regards. Despite its noticeable flaws, before I knew it I found myself having fun with this gonzo vision of Camelot. But is it enough to put things in motion for a full cinematic universe? I’m afraid not. It’s entertaining as its own thing, but there isn’t much to draw anyone back for another dose. Like I said, not a ringing endorsement but fun enough.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Kong: Skull Island”

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I’m sure we’ve all had movies we have really wanted to be good but secretly feared would disappoint. I can name several and most of them probably fell in line with my fears more so than my hopes. “Kong: Skull Island” is a movie I’ve wanted to love since seeing the first trailer. But there were several reasons why it could have failed and I was never quite able to shake my skepticism.

Sometimes I love being wrong. “Kong” is an absolute delight and a rousing throwback to the creature features that permeated the 1950s. King Kong has had several big screen features, not as many as fellow movie monster icon Godzilla, but enough to earn him a pretty legendary status.

This film version steers clear of the traditional King Kong story. There is no damsel in distress, ventures to New York City, or the Empire State Building. This time we stay put on Skull Island, a beautiful uncharted South Pacific island by air but underneath its lush canopy is the home of the wildest assortment of creatures. The island is shielded by an ever-present storm wall but by 1973 satellite innovations led to its discovery. The most interested party is a shadowy government outfit called Monarch.

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John Goodman plays Bill Randa, Monarch’s senior official who convinces his government contact to fund an expedition to map out Skull Island. He requests a escort from the battered and bruised US military who in 1973 was in the process of leaving Vietnam. Their escort is led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Randa also hires a British SAS tracker named Conrad who knows the mission stinks but needs the money. They are joined by Brie Larson’s tough and feisty anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver.

Let’s go ahead and state the obvious – the mission doesn’t go very well. The film wastes no time introducing the characters to their Kong – more of a towering monster than a big gorilla. The team’s surprise introduction and initial clash with Kong may be the film’s best sequence. It’s an intense, violent collision filled with chaos and carnage that leaves the team’s survivors grounded and separated. There they must navigate a treacherous landscape filled with a host of dangerous digital creations. Oh, and there is John C. Reilly, a true scene-stealer playing a World War 2 pilot who has been stranded on the island for 30 years. He’s a hoot.

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Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has only one other feature film credit to his name and it’s a far cry from “Kong: Skull Island”. What he manages here is pretty incredible – a swift on its feet thrill ride with plenty of action and just enough wit. Most importantly it doesn’t get bogged down in its pretty looks. It’s one thing to look really good. We’ve come to expect it in this age of digital effects. Vogt-Roberts and company goes beyond that by finding clever ways for the visuals to make the action more cinematic and to emphasize the smallness of man compared to their giant beastly threats (There almost seems to be a crafty Vietnam War metaphor is hidden in there somewhere).

Vogt-Roberts has stated he pulled inspiration from a wild assortment of areas including “Apocalypse Now”, “Platoon”, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and of course the original “King Kong” film from 1933. Several hands went into the script including Max Borenstein who penned the first draft. Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) did some important touch-up work and Derek Connelly who came in for some final rewrites. Their story smartly passes on getting too deep in backstory and relationship building. There’s some of it but for a story about a group of strangers thrust into a horrible situation it is held to just enough.

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Another smart move is putting together a fabulous cast. Hiddleston, Larson, Jackson, Reilly and Goodman are all great fits with their characters. But just as fun are other characters played by quality supporting actors. Tobey Kebbell, Corey Hawkins, Shea Whigham, John Ortiz and Thomas Mann all contribute plenty and each have their moments.

It may be tempting to dismiss “Kong: Skull Island” as typical CGI-heavy blockbuster mush. In fact it may be easy to do so because “Kong” doesn’t shy away from what it is. But this is no Transformers-like brain cell killer. It’s a well made, fast-paced monster movie with far more craft behind its presentation and storytelling than you would expect. I love the Vietnam War era setting, the jamming classic rock soundtrack and the old school creature feature nostalgia. It all clicks in a way I wish all big budget movies did. Oh, and be sure to stay until after the credits.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

2016 Blind Spot Series : “The Killing”

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When talking about Stanley Kubrick films conversations often gravitate towards “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “The Shining”, and “A Clockwork Orange” to name a few. While these films have been called masterpieces by many, I have always resisted portions of them (all of “A Clockwork Orange” if I were to be honest). I’ve tended to be a bit dismissive of claims to Kubrick’s greatness, but that was before discovering what may be the biggest strength of his filmography – his early movies.

In 1955 Kubrick met a young film producer James B. Harris and the two formed their own production company. Their first film together was a tight classical noir titled “The Killing”. Built around a documentary-ish structure and nonlinear narrative, “The Killing” is actually a fairly straightforward heist picture but one brimming with an effervescent style and craft.

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Popular crime noir novelist Jim Thompson was brought in to handle the dialogue and an assortment of actors familiar with film noir were cast. Sterling Hayden plays a career criminal named Johnny who wants to settle down and marry his girl (Coleen Gray). Before tying the knot he sets out to pull the familiar ‘one final heist’ – an elaborate plan to swipe $2 million from a racetrack. To pull it off he brings in an assortment of characters who each have their own unique role to play in the heist.

Kubrick put a heavy emphasis on characterization and he takes just enough time to show each of the motivations for signing on to Johnny’s plan. Elisha Cook plays a weak-minded cashier at the track who needs the money to satisfy his insulting gold digger of a wife (Marie Windsor). Ted de Corsia plays a boozing crooked cop. Joe Sawyer plays the racetrack bartender who needs money to help his sick wife. Jay C. Flippen plays an old friend of Johnny’s who funds the heist. Toss in a gunrunning sharpshooter (Timothy Carey) and a brutish wrestler (Kola Kwariani).

Johnny’s plan works like one big puzzle where every man serves as a piece. If one piece is missing the puzzle is incomplete. None of the players other than Johnny know the entire plan. They know their roles and outside of that they are in the dark. In a sense Kubrick leaves the audience in the same boat. We know the individual parts people play but we don’t know how they all fit together.

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One method Kubrick uses to keep us in the dark is his fractured storytelling. The narrative bounces back and forth feeding us bits of the timeline but not in chronological order. This nonlinear approach makes it tough for us to fully realize the plan until the job is underway. It is a crafty bit of tension building that was incredibly effective despite its unorthodoxy. Kubrick would become famous for his dabbling in unorthodox forms of moviemaking. “The Killing” is his creative approach at its simplest but also its best.

“The Killing” isn’t a highly polished film. It feels raw and a bit crude. That’s one thing I love about it. It also highlights one of the shining (no pun intended) characteristics of Stanley Kubrick. Like him or not, he was a filmmaker determined to make each film different than the other. Think of the vast differences between “2001”, “Dr. Strangelove”, “A Clockwork Orange”, “The Shining”, “Full Metal Jacket”, etc. “The Killing” sticks to that trend by giving us a superb crime noir that holds a unique place in Stanley Kubrick’s filmography.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS