RETRO REVIEW: “Predator” (1987)

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I grew up in the heyday of the beefcake action genre and I’m not going to lie – I loved it. Throughout the 1980’s to the mid 1990’s names like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Norris, Van Damme, and Seagal had a constant presence in movie houses across the country. Granted, when looked at through a more discerning eye, lots of their films were much of the same. But even some of the bad ones were undeniably entertaining.

And then you had the really good ones. These movies were not only fun during their day, but they have stood the critical and evaluative test of time. Tops on that list may be Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Predator” from 1987. This energetic mix of military action and creature science-fiction still stands as a genre classic.

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© 2019 20th Century Fox All Rights Reserved

Schwarzenegger plays Dutch, the leader of an elite special forces rescue unit. He and his team are summoned to Central America after a helicopter carrying a cabinet minister crashes in the guerrilla-occupied jungle. Dutch is tasked with finding the wreckage and bringing back the survivors. He reluctantly allows CIA Agent and old military pal Dillon (Carl Weathers) to tag along.

The six-man unit plus Dillon find the wreckage and discover the bodies of its passengers skinned and hanging in a tree. The team’s tracker (Sonny Landham) picks up a trail that leads them to a guerrilla camp (and to one of my favorite pure action sequences of the decade). Dutch and his team takes out the camp, learn why they were really sent in, and then venture deeper into the hostile jungle towards an extraction point.

But then things take a turn. Since the beginning director John McTiernan drops hints that there is something else in the jungle; something perhaps not so human. When this otherworldly creature takes out a couple of Dutch’s men it becomes clear that the humans have now become the prey.

Brothers Jim and John Thomas wrote what would become their signature screenplay. Their cohesive blend of straight action, survival elements, and sci-fi thrills inject “Predator” with a cool and unique identity. It all leads to an unexpectedly primal final act that pits brawn versus beast. Is it silly? You betcha. But it’s also a ton of fun.

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© 2019 20th Century Fox All Rights Reserved

Obviously this is Schwarzenegger in his prime, but “Predator” is one of the first movies where he begins to show a better understanding of the acting process. Clearly he has a dominating physical screen presence, but this performance sees him as more human than robotic. A game supporting cast including Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke and Sonny Landham brings even more muscle and personality.

There have been several attempts to recapture the magic formula of McTiernan’s original “Predator” but none have really come close. Sure, some may find it easy to dismiss the film as more 80’s meat-headed action. But “Predator” not only stands out in what was a crowded action genre, but it has held up extremely well for over thirty years. And I’ll confidently herald it as being among Schwarzenegger’s very best films.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “The Photograph” (2020)

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Making a good movie doesn’t have to be difficult (as if I would know). Sometimes all you need are two convincing leads and a good script. Ok, obviously there’s more to it than that, but you get what I mean. A good story told through captivating, relatable performances can often carry a movie to unexpected heights. “The Photograph” is a prime example. Or at least that’s how I felt early into the film.

But I quickly came to see I couldn’t brush off Stella Meghie’s stellar direction. It’s her screenplay and ultimate trust in her leads than really shine. But at the same time, believing in the material and giving your performers space are often signs of a good director. So is patience in letting relationships develop naturally and capturing genuine humanity in a genre not always known for it. Writer-director Meghie shows all of these strengths which separates her film from the soupy fluff normally thrown out on Valentines Day.

“The Photograph” tells an intergenerational story that oscillates between two intimately connected timelines. In the present day Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) is an ambitious but unfulfilled writer for an New York based online magazine called The Republic. He arrives in Louisiana to interview Isaac (the ever terrific Rob Morgan) for an oil spill story he’s working on, but is instead captivated by a 30 year-old photo on Isaac’s mantle. It’s of a young woman, Christina Eames who Isaac shared a relationship with before she moved off to New York.

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PHOTO: Universal Pictures

Back home, Michael discovers Christina was a successful photographer who just recently passed away. Feeling there is a story to be told, he reaches out to her estranged daughter Mae (Issa Rae) who is a curator at the Queens Art Museum. The two meet and instantly the proverbial sparks fly but not in the sappy, shallow sense. From their first meeting Meghie creates a truly palpable attraction built upon Rae and Stanfield’s simmering chemistry. I say ‘simmering’ because that’s the temperature Meghie is going for. She’s into giving us real people full of uncertainty and hesitations. So the low-key, slow romantic buildup makes sense.

A second narrative, shown through a series of flashbacks set in the 1980’s, tells Christina and Isaac’s story. Based in Louisiana, these scenes offer an invigorating Deep South contrast to New York City. Chante Adams is sublime as Christina, young and driven yet torn between her desire to pursue a dream and being with the man she deeply loves. Younger Isaac (played by Y’lan Noel) is a third generation crab fisherman who loves Christina with all his heart. He would do anything for her save uprooting from the only place he has ever known.

These older scenes are great companions to the current day stuff. And while both story strands have very different flavors, much of the storytelling technique is the same. We learn the most through simple conversations. Whether Mae and Michael are debating Drake versus Kendrick Lamar or talking about a recent ex who we never lay eyes on. Meghie let’s her characters tell their stories, not through contrived and stilted exposition but from their personal interactions. They determine what is important for us to know. And neither story is dependent upon trauma or betrayal to add depth. It’s all about delicate emotion and the human complexities that make us who we are.

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PHOTO: Universal Pictures

As the dual love stories play out to Robert Glasper’s elegant jazz-influenced score, we can only wonder if the daughter is destined to follow the mother. The looks into Christina’s past with Isaac reveal her strength and grit but also pain and longing. With Mae vivacity comes with a not-so-thinly-veiled vulnerability while the charming Michael isn’t quite as confident as he would have Mae believe. In other words, nothing seems for certain.

Some surprisingly welcomed levity comes from Lil Rel Howery playing Michael’s domesticated brother Kyle. His mix of dialogue and improvisation is funny and (thankfully) more grounded than in some of his other movie appearances. Teyonah Parris is a great match as Kyle’s wife Asia. Both have relatively small roles but are good fits and come across as more than just throwaway comic relief.

There’s a throwback romantic quality in Meghie’s use of the gaze that calls back to Bogart and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, MacMurray and Stanwyck. The eye contact is meaningful and the warmth is genuine. It’s also nice to see a movie push back on the hackneyed formulas of a cliche-soaked genre. Sure it sprinkles in a few familiar ingredients (maybe too many), but “The Photograph” maintains its tenderness and sophistication by simply latching onto the one thing all great romances embrace – the human element.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

 

REVIEW: “Parasite” (2019)

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It would be hard not to take notice of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”. The film exploded out of this year’s festival circuit starting with its historic Palme d’Or win at Cannes. Now it sits as one of the best reviewed films of 2019 and Academy Award chatter has already begun. How could you miss that much buzz?

It’s exciting to say that “Parasite” deserves the adulation. The South Korean co-screenwriter and director has put together a stinging class warfare satire that has plenty to say about how ugly and callous people from all social statuses can be. With a delicious black comedy edge, some surprising jolts of heartfelt emotion, and a violent throat punch when you’re least expecting it, “Parasite” is a movie that keeps you engaged and guessing.

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© 2019 Neon Pictures All Rights Reserved

The film is set in Seoul and follows the Kim family who reside in a cramped street-level apartment/basement at the end of an alley. Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives with his snarky wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), their crafty son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), and their artist/top-notch forger daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam). Both parents are unemployed and forced to do menial pay-nothing jobs such as folding carry-out pizza boxes just to get by.

A friend convinces Ki-woo to take his place tutoring the teen daughter from the extremely wealthy (and gullible) Park family. It pays well and his family needs the money. As for Ki-woo’s concerns that he’s not qualified, his friend confidently advises him to just fake it. The Parks will never know the difference he says. So Ki-woo cooks up a fake identity, gets some documents forged by his sister, and lands the job with the upper-crusters.

The Park family seem nice enough. The stealthily condescending Mr. Park (Lee Sun Kyun) makes his money as the CEO of a big tech company. His friendly and slightly neurotic wife (a really good Cho Yeo-jeong) stays home tending to their social calendar and minding their disaffected daughter and rambunctious son with the help of their reliable housekeeper (Lee Jung Eun).

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© 2019 Neon Pictures All Rights Reserved

They all fall for Ki-woo’s scam but he doesn’t stop there. Upon hearing the Park’s are looking for an art teacher, he recommends Ki-jung who assumes her own fake identity and also gets hired. Soon every member of the Kim clan has conned their way into employment by the Parks while keeping their family ties secret. For a while everyone seems happy, the Parks and their oblivious blue-blooded living, and the Kims who are making good money leeching off their employers.

The script from Bong and his co-writer Han Jin-won weaves a fascinating web. The first half plays out like dual family dramas bound together by threads of sharp dark humor. But the moment you think you’ve figured it out, Bong has you exactly where he wants you. The wildly unpredictable second half broadsides us with one twist after another, spinning the story into a darker and unabashedly violent direction. There are moments where you would swear it was all about to fall apart. But Bong has an impeccable control of his material and amazingly keeps it together with the craftsmanship of a true auteur.

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Bong is no stranger to dealing with the issue of class. Each of his previous two films “Snowpiercer” and “Okja” addressed it in their own ways. “Parasite” does a great job of rousing our senses to the subject without burying us in it. There are a couple of instances where the dialogue is too pointed, but overall the movie speaks to more than just a single topic. And it doesn’t treat things solely as black or white. You could say the entire movie plays out in the ugly gray areas in between right and wrong, guilty and innocent, heroes and villains.

By the end of it all we find ourselves asking who are the real parasites? Is it the Kims and their shameless willingness to connive and deceive for their piece of the proverbial pie? Is it the Parks and their snobbish expectation of being served by the lower class? Maybe the movie is making the case that we’re all parasites. Maybe we all are out for ourselves and willing to exploit anyone to get ahead. And as the film’s brilliant yet bleak final act shows, those attitudes have some pretty nasty consequences.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Peanut Butter Falcon”

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This is one of those cases where a movie had me with the trailer. Despite the question marks of Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson or the potential for sappy and overwrought sentimentality, there was something about the way “The Peanut Butter Falcon” presented itself that instantly grabbed me. Oh, and the name is pretty catchy too.

From the very start “The Peanut Butter Falcon” plays like a Mark Twain story for modern day audiences. It’s the feature film debut for co-writers and co-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. Friends and collaborators for over ten years, Nilson and Schwartz show off a wonderful sense for their Outer Banks, North Carolina setting and for the characters who live there. It’s easy to lose yourself in their convincing slice of Deep South Americana.

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At its core this is a movie about three lost souls each bound by their own circumstances. Shia LaBeouf is excellent playing Tyler, a struggling crabber who gets in deep with another local fisherman (a perfectly cast but underused John Hawkes). Zak (a beguiling Zack Gottsagen) is a 22-year-old with Down Syndrome who is stuck living in a nursing home for the elderly. His dream is to attend the pro wrestling school of his hero Salt Water Redneck. Dakota Johnson plays Eleanor, Zak’s caseworker and friend. She genuinely cares for him and he’s the one meaningful relationship in her life.

With the help of his rascally roommate (Bruce Dern), Zak busts out of the nursing home and he crosses paths with Tyler who is trying to get away from Hawkes’ Duncan. With both of them on the lamb (so to speak) the two form an unexpected and poignant bond. Tyler agrees to take Zak to Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school and their Huck Finn-inspired journey begins. In the meantime Eleanor is following their trail but unsure of what to do when and if she finds them.

Along the way they meet a fun array of southern-fried locals and each encounter strengthens the relationships Tyler, Zak, and Eleanor share. And as the movie progresses Nilson and Schwartz show off two clear strengths – the ability to authentically capture the rural South and a true feel for fleshing out their characters. There is an undeniable sweetness at the center of this truly heartfelt story. But it only works because we care for the characters and believe their plights.

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The performances are just as important. LaBeouf is the real standout here. He is deeply committed to his character and has clearly done his homework. The Tyler he gives us could have been plucked right out of North Carolina’s barrier islands. And what delightful work from Zack Gottsagen, a real-life Down syndrome young adult. As an aspiring actor, Nilson and Schwartz had promised Gottsagen they would write a movie for him and he pays back their efforts with a performance full of enthusiasm, humor, and moxie. Johnson isn’t given as much to do yet she’s a nice fit within the trio.

“The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a tender and often funny heartwarmer with loads of charm, personality, and humanity. A career best turn from Shia LaBeouf and an endearing debut from Zack Gottsagen certainly doesn’t hurt. It all makes for an utterly charming tale of friendship that feels pulled off the page of a storybook yet still very much etched in the real world. I really fell for it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Pet Sematary” (2019)

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It has been 30 years since the original movie adaptation of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary”. It was a peculiar slice of genre entertainment that was essentially a twisted horror fable on death and loss. And even with King writing the screenplay himself, it never quite overcame the goofiness of its concept to be a truly effective horror film. The same could be said for 2019’s version

The duo of Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer direct from a screenplay by Jeff Buhler. Their film follows the same basic blueprint but with a handful of noticeable changes, none of which makes this a particularly better picture.

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Jason Clarke plays Louis Reed, a Doctor from Boston who moves his wife, two children, and the family cat (yes, it’s important that I mention the cat) to the idyllic small town of Ludlow, Maine. His hope is to exchange the hustle and bustle of the big city for quiet rural living. It probably goes without saying, but things don’t exactly go as planned.

It starts when his daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) stumbles upon an old pet cemetery in the woods near their house. She bumps into their creepy neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) who warns her that the woods are a dangerous place (as they always are in movies like this). When the aforementioned family cat is killed on the highway Louis sets out to bury it at the cemetery. But Jud recommends a patch of ground deeper into the woods – one apparently built on a studio set yanked straight out of the Dark Shadows television series.

Louis takes Jud’s advice but is stunned the next morning when he discovers the formerly dead cat is (gasp!) alive. He has no believable explanation for his skeptical wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), I mean who would? But things get really hairy when they realize that their kitty isn’t the same cute, cuddly feline he once was. In fact, he has a bonafide mean streak.

That sets the groundwork for the film’s more macabre turn after the family is hit with a far more devastating tragedy. A bad idea gives birth to even worse decisions and the consequences are tremendous. Similar to the 1989 film, there is something to this story that has potential to be both creepy and provocative. But the movie can’t quite nail it down. It’s never able to sell us enough on its premise.

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“Pet Sematary” leans on too many genre tropes instead of doing what could have been a lot better – blending in more psychological horror. Also the script has several issues ranging from illogical character actions to underserved side stories. Take Rachel’s lingering mental trauma following a childhood family tragedy of her own. A decent amount of time is put into it yet the story thread never feels particularly relevant. It feels tacked on rather than thoughtfully incorporated into the film.

It’s a shame because there are a handful of decent sequences as well as some clever work with the camera that helps build some much needed tension. And it’s not a movie you have labor through. But it is one that will leave you constantly questioning its logic and always aware of its unfulfilled potential.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “The Peanuts Movie”

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My favorite animated neurotic blockhead Charlie Brown and all of his friends returned in “The Peanuts Movie”, an adorable film so charming in its dedicated storytelling and its visual style. But what to make of its appeal? Will it be a warm nostalgic trip down memory lane for parents or a fun introduction for a new age of young fans? Better yet, how about both?

The film is based on the classic Peanuts comic strip from Charles Schulz which ran for 50 years and continues today in syndication. Schulz produced just under 18,000 strips, several books, and television specials. Under its layer of light-hearted humor the Peanuts subtly explored a variety of issues but always from a children’s perspective. The strip was a window into their world which made it all the more appealing.

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Steve Martino directs a script co-written by Bryan and Craig Schulz (Charles’ son and grandson). Their involvement undoubtedly contributes to one of the film’s greatest strengths – its faithfulness to the original vision for the Peanuts. The movie feels every bit in tune with the television specials. It avoids any urge to modernize the formula (which some saw as a dissapointment) and captures the same idyllic charms that made these characters so endearing.

The movie’s story is segmented in a way that channels the comic-strip vibe. The focus is on Charlie Brown and his every-present struggle with cynicism, self-worth and general bad luck. When the little red-haired girl moves into the neighborhood Charlie Brown is instantly smitten and instantly convinced she’ll never talk to him. But a number of opportunities arise which gives him a chance to impress her. Spurred on by advice from his friends (some good, some not so much) Charlie Brown sets out to establish himself as worthy of her attention. But is he looking in the right places?

Sprinkled in are tons of nostalgic snippets that will bring smiles to the faces of Peanuts fans – Charlie Brown’s kite-flying escapades, Lucy’s 5¢ Psychiatric Advice, Peppermint Patty’s classroom dozing, Frieda’s naturally curly hair, Sally’s bubbly crush on Linus, and so on. They are all here and playfully incorporated into the story. Of these the most time is given to Snoopy and his Red Baron tales. It’s a full-fledged side story that is given a fairly big hunk of the running time (I would say a bit too much). The Red Baron stuff was fine but felt more like its own separate thing.

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I was a bit skeptical on the idea of 3D computer-animated Peanuts feature. 20th Century Fox teamed with Blue Sky Studios (known for their animated work on “Rio” and “Ice Age”) and clearly their goal was was to stay loyal to the material. The CGI is sharp, simple, and most importantly uniquely Peanuts. So many clever touches highlight the film’s roots while giving it a lovely modern day coat of paint.

You could say “The Peanuts Movie” clings to an almost-forgotten vision of childhood. It’s sad to think of that way, but you can’t help but wonder. For that reason alone the Peanuts are a precious commodity to be cherished. This film keeps their creator’s ideals at the forefront. For Schulz, children were precious and his strips offered kids and adults alike a look at life solely from their perspective. This film does it too and to great effect. Just maybe a tad less Red Baron next time.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars