Blind Spot Series – “Picnic at Hanging Rock”

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I’ve always been a fan of Australian filmmaker Peter Weir. A quick scan of his filmography reveals a unique variety of movies. Just consider 1985’s “Witness”, 1989’s “Dead Poets Society”, and 1998’s “The Truman Show”. Since then Weir has made just two other films – one of my personal favorites 2003’s “Master and Commander” and 2010’s excellent “The Way Back”.

Weir was his busiest during the 1970s when he put out seven movies. Among those was his 1975 mystery-thriller “Picnic at Hanging Rock”. It’s based on a 1967 novel written by Joan Lindsay who left a cloud of uncertainty hanging over her inspiration. Was it based on true events? Did any of this really happen? Weir taps into that same sense of mystery and never tips his hand one way or the other.

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The film revolves around the mysterious disappearance of four girls. Set in 1900 Australian, the story begins at a girl’s boarding school as a group of students prepare for a Valentine’s Day outing to a nearby landmark known as Hanging Rock. They are accompanied by their math teacher Ms. McCraw (Vivean Gray) and Mlle. de Poitiers (Helen Morse). Meanwhile the school’s stern disciplinarian headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts) informs the quiet, introverted Sara (Margaret Nelson) that she isn’t allow to go.

While at Hanging Rock a group of girls go exploring. They are lead by the beautiful and adventurous Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert). Much like Hanging Rock itself, there is an ethereal aura that surrounds her – an almost heavenly suggestion that contrasts with the ominous foreboding geological formation. Mlle. de Poitiers taps into her mystery when she says “Now I know. I know that Miranda is a Botticelli angel”. It’s a cryptic reference to Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. She says this as the curious girls disappear from her sight. They do not return.

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From there the film shifts to the search for the missing girls and the ripple effect it has throughout the school and community. What happened to them? Do some people know more than they are telling? Through this transition we get to know a young Englishman named Michael (Dominic Guard) who grows obsessed with the disappearance. He was among the last to see the group which raises suspicions and adds to the growing concerns of the local authorities.

The intentional ambiguity of the book certainly carries over to the film. When the novel first released it stirred quite the response. The movie rekindled it to a degree. The sheer mystery of the disappearance and the search for answers is fundamental, but Weir makes the emotional aftermath just as compelling. And whether it’s through his camera or Cliff Green’s script, the movie had me in its clutches. I fell into this beautiful nightmare and now I understand why the film is so revered.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Prodigy” (2018)

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Horror and suspense movies have certainly gotten plenty of mileage out of eerie children with powers. You could probably list several films off the top of your head that have leaned heavily into this now common horror movie device. The sci-fi psychological thriller “Prodigy” joins the long list of movies who use creepy kids to unsettle their audiences.

While the idea is familiar, “Prodigy” works because of a key decision by co-writers and co-directors Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal. They place an unexpectedly heavy emphasis on human interactions, namely between child psychologist Dr. Fonda (Richard Neil) and 9-year-old Ellie (Savannah Liles). The film’s miniscule budget may play a role, but ultimately it’s this tighter more character-driven focus that makes this a success.

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Dr. Fonda is summoned to a high-security facility by an old college friend Agent Olivia Price (Jolene Andersen). Once there he learns of Ellie, a supernaturally gifted young girl with a supreme intellect and a violent past. Ellie’s perceived sociopathic personality has led to her be deemed too big of a threat. She is scheduled to be executed and dissected for study. Despite the cynicism of her colleagues Olivia still has hope for the Ellie and Dr. Fonda is her last resort.

Haughey and Vidal boil up a good amount of tension as Fonda tries to break through Ellie’s cast iron exterior to find the humanity in the ‘monster’. Ellie expects the same contentious back-and-forth as with other doctors she has mentally chewed up and spat out. But Dr. Fonda throws her off with his open mind and unwillingness to judge her based on a case file. The cold and disconcerting Ellie is hesitant and confrontational. But if Fonda can break through he may just save her life.

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We get a handful of supporting characters who are all convinced pulling the plug is the right move. None believe the unkept and unconventional Dr. Fonda can make a dent in Ellie’s tough psyche. This is also where the movie’s biggest weaknesses shows through. Outside of Olivia none of the supporting characters have any depth whatsoever. Most are caricatures rather than authentic and interesting, not to mention a couple of the performances are pretty rough. It brings things down a notch.

“Prodigy” still manages to be a thoughtful and suspenseful thriller and does so despite its small scale and even smaller budget. I mean practically the entire film takes place in two rooms. But that shouldn’t scare you away. It manages its strengths well plus it features an outstanding performance from young Savannah Liles. Give it a look.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Proud Mary” (2018)

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From the opening credits you get a good sense of what “Proud Mary” would like to be. 70’s text effects with bursts of retro yellows and oranges all to the sounds of “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” by the Temptations. But the promise of a modern blaxploitation entry turns into a tease and “Proud Mary” goes off into much more conventional and predictable territory.

A hitwoman who goes by the name Mary (Taraji P. Henson) takes out a target only to discover he has a young son Danny (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). A year passes and a guilt-ridden Mary keeps tabs on Danny from a distance. He has become a runner for an abusive Boston mobster named Uncle (Xander Berkeley). When Mary finds Danny passed out in an alley her motherly instincts meet her professional killer skills. She secretly takes Danny in and offers up her own special brand of retribution on Uncle.

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Mary’s compassionate but impulsive actions inadvertently starts a gang war within the Boston underbelly. She hides her deeds from her mob kingpin mentor Benny (Danny Glover) and his headstrong son Tom (Billy Brown). But keeping things a secret proves to be a tall order especially with Tom (her persistent ex-lover) growing more suspicious. As you can probably guess Mary finds herself in quite the pickle.

“Proud Mary” is a bit of a whirlwind that manages to be both entertaining and disappointing. On the one hand you have Taraji Henson who has the look, attitude, and physicality for this role. She is able to have several good moments in spite of the script which doesn’t always serve her well. Also, you can see the framework for a much better movie, enough to keep things from getting boring.

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That leads to the other hand. While I was invested throughout the brisk 88-minute running time, the movie never seems to get out of first gear. Even the action lacks any real punch. Other odd decisions stand out. Several weird edits especially in the first half are hard to figure out. And there are some odd tonal jolts, none bigger than the film’s big action climax with Tina Turner’s rendition of the title song blaring. It doesn’t click.

And getting back to what I said earlier, the story is woefully too conventional and predictable. A new flavor of blaxploitation for modern audiences is something I could get behind. I can’t deny the allure of “Leon: The Professional” meets “Foxy Brown”. “Proud Mary” has the ingredients for it. Unfortunately it goes the more obvious route and suffers for it.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

BlindSpot Review: “The Producers”

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Mel Brooks burst onto the filmmaking scene in 1967 with his raucous satirical comedy “The Producers”. It was his big screen debut as writer and director. After a wild variety of initial reactions, “The Producers” would eventually earn Brooks an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Not a bad way to start your moviemaking career.

“The Producers” started as a joke, moved to a play and ended up a movie. Initially it was a tough sell for Brooks who had a difficult time finding backers amused by his melding of Hitler and a musical. Once funded Brooks was given $1 million and 40 days to finish his movie. He pulled it off but not without some bumps along the way which mainly stemmed from Brooks’ inexperience as a director. After release initial reviews were all over the map including some that ripped the film to shreds. Yet it still won an Oscar and over time “The Producers” has gained a much more positive following.

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As nutty as they are, the film’s two lead characters are based on actual real-life inspiration. Washed-up Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) stays afloat by duping wealthy elderly women into supporting his “next big production”. But with his well running dry, he solicits the help of a neurotic and gullible accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder). The two concoct a wacky plan to make the worst play possible. Max will oversell the shares, Leo will doctor the books, the play will bomb, and the swindled money will be theirs. What could go wrong?

The desperate and dimwitted duo begin by seeking out the worst possible script. They find it in “Springtime for Hitler”, a musical love letter to the Führer sincerely written by a loony ex-Nazi (played by Kenneth Mars). Next they hire a notoriously bad director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) who has a long history of Broadway flops. Finally the lead role of Hitler is given to Lorenzo Saint DuBois, a trippy hippie who fittingly goes by L.S.D. All the pieces are in place for a sure-fire disaster.

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Brooks takes this goofy band of misfits through the play’s production and eventually opening night. The entire concept screams absurdity and one of the great things about “The Producers” is that it can be delightfully tasteless in its humor. Not crass or vulgar, but unashamedly politically incorrect. It’s almost prodding people to be outraged while at the same time ridiculing the very thing which stirs them up. Lines like “We’re marching to a faster pace. Look out, here comes the master race.” and “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty! Come and join the Nazi Party!” only touches the surface. But it’s all done in such a preposterous fashion it’s impossible not to laugh out loud.

And you can’t say enough about the comic chemistry between Mostel and Wilder. In some scenes Brooks takes off their leashes and lets them run wild. There are moments where it can be a bit much (and a bit loud), yet at the same time it’s fascinating to watch – the deviously deceptive Mostel and always nervous Wilder bouncing their lines off each other. Most important it’s really funny and it serves as a nice introduction to the brand of zaniness Mel Brooks would share over the three decades that would follow.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Pacific Rim: Uprising”

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Five years ago revered filmmaker Guillermo del Toro added one of the weirdest additions to his already strange and eclectic filmography. The movie was “Pacific Rim”, a big-budget sci-fi monster mashup that drew comparisons from Transformers to Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Sporting a whopper of a budget, the movie didn’t exactly burn up the box office, but it did gain a cult following and was successful enough to encourage a sequel. But that doesn’t mean we needed one.

“Pacific Rim: Uprising” had only a slightly smaller budget but made significantly less money. Not a good sign for fans of the aspiring franchise. Aside from a producer credit, del Toro is out of the picture. And while his first installment was far from pure greatness, it did a number of things this sequel just doesn’t pull off.

As you recall, giant monsters known as Kaiju emerged from a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. To combat these city-leveling threats mankind constructed huge mech-like machines called Jaegers. “Uprising” takes place ten years after the events of the first film. John Boyega plays Jake, an ex-Jaeger pilot and son of inspirational Commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba’s character from the first picture). Jake shuns his father’s legacy instead choosing to sell Jaeger parts on the black market.

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While scavenging Jake encounters a young teen and Jaeger admirer named Amara (Cailee Spaeny). As the two duke it out for a power core it draws the attention of the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps who take them both into custody. Jake is given the choice of prison or returning to the corps as an instructor with his former co-pilot Nate (Scott Eastwood). Amara is among the new cadets he is tasked with training.

But as you would expect things get bad. During a tech exercise in Sidney, Australia a rogue Jaeger attacks increasing calls to shelf the program and replace it with Shao Corporation’s drone technology. To make matters worse a new Kaiju threat surfaces thrusting Jake and his green recruits to the frontlines where the must save the world from enemies big and small.

First time feature-film director Steven S. DeKnight (mostly known for his television work on “Spartacus” and “Daredevil” among others) takes the helm and steers the ship the best he can. The visuals in “Uprising” can be stunning at times and it’s hard not to be impressed by the massive-scaled battle sequences between machine and monster. Even a guy like me who has grown a little numb to the CGI devastation of major world cities in movies found the battles sometimes exhilarating. And the film’s explosive ending is absurdly fun and entertaining.

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Where “Uprising” stumbles is in its story and its characters. A team of four writers (including DeKnight) are credited with navigating the screenplay through a series of rewrites. Minus a handful of small twists, it’s really a basic story that has little to offer thematically. For example there is only a shell of the first film’s central theme of togetherness. The whole ‘drifting” and ‘neural handshake’ thing is still an intriguing idea but not much is done with it. And we are only given a perfunctory treatment of teamwork and camaraderie. It all feels so lightweight.

And the characters aren’t much better. So often the attempts at human moments are as mechanical as anything we see in Jaeger form. Boyega and Eastwood are the only remotely convincing as pilots but offer little else in terms of character. And other than Amara, the younger pilots are hard to buy into and utterly forgettable.

Guillermo del Toro’s movie was no masterpiece. I would even say it’s somewhat overrated. But it was fun and even a bit nostalgic. Also its message of coming together was effective even in its simplicity. “Uprising” doesn’t match its predecessor in any of those areas. It does have its moments most notably the giant-sized battle sequences. But with so little else to offer, it’s tough to embrace it as anything more than forgettable blockbuster fluff.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “The First Purge”

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The success of James DeMonaco’s “Purge” franchise comes from a fairly simple formula. Make a good and well-received first film and then ride its name for countless sequels. Oh, and this is key – maintain small budgets making it next to impossible to lose any significant money. I would say it has been pretty effective. The four films have a combined budget of around $40 million but have taken in close to $375 million so far. The math is pretty easy.

For me the “Purge” series has been a guilty pleasure – movies with an undeniably absurd concept yet an attractive hook that kept me coming back. But the franchise has steadily evolved to where there is practically no resemblance to the tense Ethan Hawke original. That’s not a good thing. Throughout the course of the movies the horror element has become less and less pronounced. In this newest installment it’s all but gone.

The First Purge” is a prequel aimed at showing how the whole ’12 hours of legal violence’ began. Amid a collapsing U.S. economy a third political party, The New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), have risen to power. Backed by the NRA (as silly as it sounds) and profoundly white, the NFFA is DeMonaco’s biggest hammer. Of the many he uses, it’s the one he bludgeons us with the most. But at this point in the franchise it’s pretty clear DeMonaco isn’t interested in subtly or craftiness.

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A non-partisan and naïve behavioral scientist Dr. May Updale (Marisa Tomei) devises a social “experiment” in which for 12 hours all crime including murder will be legal and emergency services are unavailable (it’s still as preposterous as it sounds). Updale’s idea is that people will have the opportunity to unleash their anger and hate (to Purge them if you will) leading to less crime and a more stable society. To use the film’s terminology, it is intended to be a “societal catharsis”. It’s an idea that remains both ludicrous and narratively fascinating.

But as followers of the franchise know, the devious NFFA have much bigger ideas for the “experiment” – population control, ethnic cleansing, economic class suppression, etc. Pick a vile, reprehensible position and DeMonaco probably has them booked for it. Most of this is conveyed through a barely registering Patch Darragh playing the President’s Chief of Staff (and looking far too similar to former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to be a mere convenience). They’ve chosen Staten Island for the “experiment” with hopes that it could be rolled out nationwide. To encourage maximum participation, the government offers $5000 to residents, specifically low income residents, who agree to stay on the island during the “experiment” with even more incentives for participation.

The bulk of our time is spent in an impoverished Staten Island neighborhood with an interesting assortment of locals played by a cast of relatively unknowns. Among them is an intriguing young actress Lex Scott Davis. She is very good as an inspired activist named Nya who is committed to her community and to her impulsive young brother Isaiah (Joivan Wade) who is being tempted down the wrong path. There is also Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), Nya’s ex-boyfriend and (how should I put it) a local drug kingpin with a heart of gold. Noel is another new face who offers a real presence on the screen despite some real logic issues with his character. Once the haunting sirens wail initiating the start of the “experiment”, Nya, Dimitri, and Isaiah must not only survive but defend the community the hold dear.

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The First Purge” marks the first installment written but not directed by DeMonaco. Gerard McMurray takes the directing reigns and in terms of visuals and tone his take is pretty much indistinguishable from the last two “Purge” films. What he does do is amp of the violence. By the final act it has hypocritically morphed into a crazy, bullet-riddled action movie, relishing much of what the film is supposedly speaking against. And aside from feeling weirdly disconnected from the rest of the movie, the big blood-soaked finale (think Rambo laced with The Crow) was almost unbearable in my theater due to a cool but headache-inducing strobe light effect.

Speaking of violence, the “Purge” movies seem to have a growing fascination with white versus black warfare. The race/class warfare theme has been hammered home for the entire series, but an argument could be made that this movie ratchets it up. It’s uncomfortable to watch but not in the smart, provocative or thought-provoking way. In this film it’s hard to tell whether they are pandering to a current political angst or exploiting it.

Despite its goofiness and inflated sense of relevance “The First Purge” is serviceable throwaway entertainment. In other words there is enough in terms of functional characters (thanks to a couple of interesting new performers) to salvage it from disaster. But it’s still not a movie to recommend. It’s more of the same in slightly (and I do mean slightly) different packaging. Oh, and if you’re worried this will be the last “Purge” movie, fear not. Look for several shameless endorsements of fellow Blumhouse production “Halloween” and a mid-credits commercial for their upcoming “Purge” television. They definitely have plans for this franchise. I just wish it was heading in a better direction.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars