REVIEW: “The Strangers: Prey at Night”

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I liked the 2008 horror-thriller “The Strangers”. It was essentially a slasher film but with an emphasis on atmosphere and tension over the traditional gore galore. And I found something a bit creepy and unsettling about the randomness at the core of the terror. It was a knife-twisting home invasion flick with enough craft to cover its handful of flaws. That certainly isn’t the case for its sequel.

It took ten years to get a sequel but it’s hard to believe they spent more than 10 days conceiving it. “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is a paper-thin follow-up that neither captures what I enjoyed about the first film nor offers anything remotely new. In fact it barely seems to try. It hurriedly thrusts its small and underdeveloped cast into the sites of the killers and expects us to care. I certainly did not.

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The film starts with the all-too-familiar tag ‘Based on True Events’, but it is so in the slightest sense. Series creator and sequel co-writer Bryan Bertino stated that inspiration came from the Manson Family murders mixed with a string of neighborhood robberies from his childhood. You can see shades of that in the first film. “Prey at Night” doesn’t show much inspiration at all.

Story-wise this is all we get: Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and husband Mike (Martin Henderson) set off on a family weekend with their two detached teens. The idea is to spend time together before their angst-filled daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) is shipped off to boarding school. Her older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) is caught in the middle of the parents/daughter bickering.

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This not-so-happy lot drive to their aunt and uncle’s trailer park campground. Too bad for them the only people they find are Dollface, Pin Up Girl, and the Man in the Mask (yes, they actually have names. I had to look it up to make sure). Your run-of-the-mill terror and mayhem ensues. I think the idea is that the family is pulled closer together throughout the ordeal, but the movie doesn’t seem too interested in all that character stuff. Instead we get scene after scene of various family members in peril, slowly opening doors, slowly walking down hallways, slowly rounding corners, etc. But fear not, they run around a lot too.

While watching “Prey at Night” one word repeatedly came to mind – flat. That describes nearly every facet of this movie. The one remotely impressive scene is a swimming pool sequence. In it we get some clever camera work and a welcomed bit of genuine tension. Otherwise the movie is a wash of reprocessed horror gimmicks which we’ve all seen over and over. I guess ten years wasn’t long enough to put together a good second installment.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Searching” (2018)

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There was a time when I didn’t pay much attention to John Cho the actor. His “Harold & Kumar” comedies never landed with me and I was even less impressed with his “American Pie” work. He’s fine in the rebooted “Star Trek” series but not exactly a standout. That all changed with his stellar performance in last year’s soulful character drama “Columbus”.

In “Searching” Cho is handed an even meatier role and he doesn’t disappoint. He plays David Kim, a widowed father of 16-year-old Margot (Michelle La). To David everything seems right with his daughter. She is a happy girl with lots of friends who enjoys piano lessons and attends study groups with classmates. But David is living in a bubble brought on by his own grief. His image of Margot slowly comes into question after she disappears without a trace.

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David files a missing person’s report and Detective Rosemary Vick is assigned to the case. She handles the ground investigation and tasks David with searching for Margot’s digital footprints. This feeds the film’s big trick – every scene is through some form of digital communication. Skype, Facebook, YouTube, FaceTime, video conferencing, streaming services, security cameras, news feeds, etc. The entire movie is shot within this digital framing.

Director Aneesh Chaganty (who also co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian) deserves a ton of credit for not only keeping things coherent but also steadily ramping up the tension. It’s a tricky storytelling mechanic that comes across as much more than a gimmick. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it the found footage model for the modern era, but it has the same satisfying effect as the earliest found footage movies.

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If you’ve seen the trailer you get an idea of how the story is pieced together. With the bulk of the action taking place on a laptop or smartphone screen, it takes some crafty direction and snappy editing to pull it off. Equally impressive is how the movie never tips its hand. David trails a smattering of clues throughout Margot’s digital profile leading to several red herrings and a few meaningful revelations. But it isn’t until the finale when things are spelled out for us, perhaps a little too neatly, but still with good effect.

“Searching” is a fantastic debut effort for Chaganty who gives us more than a simple gimmick film. It’s a riveting thriller with interesting things to say about the online lives we live. It’s also another showcase for John Cho who carries the film through his character’s intensifying stages of emotion and desperation. I was wrong to shortchange the guy. Cho is a legitimate leading actor who earns the praise he has been receiving.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Skyscraper”

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Expectations are a funny thing, especially when talking about a movie like “Skyscraper”. After seeing the trailers I could never shake my “The Rock versus a Skyscraper” impression. I fully expected a movie cheesier than a block of Velveeta. But after seeing the film I can honestly say I was wrong…sort of.

Now don’t misunderstand me, there is still cheese. And “Skyscraper” never quite breaks out of its genre mold or shakes free from its conventional and predictable blueprint. Once it gets rolling you pretty much know what you’re in for. But it’s easily an above average popcorn flick that surprised more than expected.

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In the prologue an FBI raid goes terribly wrong and Hostage Rescue Team leader Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is seriously injured. He loses his leg but meets his future wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) as a result. Ten years later the two are married with two kids and soldier-turned-family man Will manages his life as an amputee while running a small independent security company.

Will and his family travel to Hong Kong after an old FBI buddy (Pablo Schreiber) helps him get a shot at a potentially huge contract. The job is as a security consultant for a 3,500 foot state-of-the-art skyscraper called The Pearl. It’s the brainchild of a Chinese entrepreneur (Chin Han), complete with its own energy source, a massive botanical garden with its own waterfall, and a large residential section. It’s essentially a city in the sky. Will is brought in to give The Pearl a thorough security examination before it can be opened to the public.

But as John McClane can attest, oh those pesky terrorists. While Will is working offsite, the crime syndicates send their extortion handler Kores Botha (Roland Møller) and his band of mercenaries to infiltrate The Pearl. A few double-crosses and one large fire later, and the terrorists have control of the skyscraper with Will’s family trapped inside. I shouldn’t need to tell you where it goes from there.

The glaringly obvious “Die Hard” inspiration goes without saying, but I also couldn’t help but see glimpses of “The Towering Inferno”. Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber uses elements of those movies but shakes them up a bit. He does the same with Johnson (the two previously worked together on the 2016 comedy “Central Intelligence”). Thurber dials back the witty charm and downplays the buff action hero persona. Johnson does good with the more dramatic material he is given.

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Several other things impressed me about “Skyscraper”. The film makes a conscience effort to respectfully represent disability and the reactions from those communities have been heart-warming. Will’s disability is never seen as a weakness. It actually saves his life on multiple occasions. Most importantly it isn’t used as a narrative gimmick. There is also a strong message of family that I responded to. Again, at times cheesy, but still a welcomed ingredient.

So yes, “Skyscraper” was a nice surprise and certainly a step up from Johnson’s last blockbuster effort. It’s still very much light popcorn entertainment with a predictable framework and the type of crowd-pleasing you expect from these things. Also don’t expect a Hans Gruber-like villain. We get nothing close. But I won’t lie, I was with this movie all the way through and it’s a nice addition to the filmography of Hollywood’s hardest working guy.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”

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I’ve read a handful of rather perplexing reviews of “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”, the new sequel to Denis Villeneuve’s exceptional 2015 border thriller. It seems the film’s perceived politics has stirred the ire of a segment of moviegoers. Perhaps it’s the byproduct of Trump-era baggage being projected onto every frame. It’s surprising because my political takeaway (much like its predecessor) saw “Soldado” as something far more than a slanted, one-sided critique of the U.S./Mexico border situation.

Several significant names from the first movie are missing – director Villeneuve, lead actress Emily Blunt, cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. That’s a ton of important, top-tier talent to replace. This could be why “Soldado” was such a wonderful surprise. It doesn’t just succeed at being a really strong movie despite these absences, but it also manages to capture much of the look, tone and intensity which made the first film so great.

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A key reason for its success is returning screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. His recent film credits have been impressive – “Hell or High Water” and “Wind River” in addition to the two “Sicario” pictures. You could call Sheridan the premier architect of the modern American Western, bringing a new flavor to his frontiers which are full of lawlessness and violence. “Soldado” fits perfectly into that mold.

Sheridan’s story is more of a spin-off than a straight sequel and it’s anchored by the returning Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin. Both were key supporting characters in the first film who had enough intrigue and/or depth to head a new chapter. Toss in the ugliness of the current border situation over the past few weeks along with the shameful politicization of the issue and you have an unintended added relevancy.

The film’s opening sets the table. A coyote for a Mexican cartel is smuggling immigrants across the border when the U.S. border patrol swoops in. During the roundup a suicide bomber masquerading as an immigrant detonates himself among the agents. It and a subsequent attack leads the White House to declare Mexican cartels to be terrorist organizations.

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Enter Brolin’s Matt Graver, a CIA black-ops agent who specializes in doing the government’s dirty work. The irresolute Defense Secretary (Matthew Modine) tasks Graver with making things messy between the cartels. To do that Graver lets loose hitman-turned-rogue operative Alejandro Gillick (del Toro). They organize a plan to kidnap Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a powerful kingpin and frame a rival cartel for the abduction. But when Graver’s war spills over to involve the Mexican government, Washington loses its nerve and orders Matt to “clean the scene”. This drives a wedge between Graver and Gillick with Isabela caught in between.

Italian director Stefano Sollima helms the “Soldado” ship and some have stated he is no Villeneuve. Maybe so, but that kind of comparison is pointless. Sollima more than holds his own showing an impressive knack for building tension-soaked sequences and effectively experimenting with different perspectives. Accomplished cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (known best for his worth with Ridley Scott and on Gore Verbinski’s “Pirates” movies) peppers the film with imagery that stays in sync with Deakins’ Oscar-nominated work from the first picture.

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Sollima also does a good job managing Sheridan’s numerous moving parts and intersecting storylines. One such angle involves a McAllen, Texas teen (Elijah Rodriguez) lured into the world of drug smuggling and human trafficking. It’s a poignant side story given room to breathe by Sollima until it converges with the main narrative. It also helps to have two actors like Del Toro and Brolin. Both are so perfectly cast and portray their characters with such energy and conviction.

“Day of the Soldado” is a strong, formidable second chapter of the “Sicario” series. As its many layers of compelling story unfolded, I found myself once again caught up in its dark and uncomfortable world. I also found unique and unexpected human elements which sets things on an interesting course for the third film they clearly have in mind. And with relatively modest budgets, we should get it. I’m onboard.

And for those struggling with the political meaning of “Soldado”, I can only share what I think it’s saying – There is no easy answer to the border issue. The solution is neither black or white. One thing is for certain, many people are benefitting at the cost of others. From cartels to governments; politicians to traffickers. But caught in the middle are desperate people who get lost in the wrangling. At one point in the film, a character tells another “They’re just Sheep. Treat them like it.” It’s an ugly sentiment, one of many “Soldado” challenges us to wrestle with.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Solo: A Star Wars Story”

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Star Wars fans can be a surly, cynical, and often overly protective bunch. Trust me, I’m not saying that as some outside observer with his nose in the air. I myself am a proud, passionate, card-carrying member of that bunch. I adore Star Wars and it is indelibly etched into my entire life story. I have vested interests and sharp opinions on “Han shot first”, the midi-chlorian controversy, and the merits of the prequels. In other words I am a bonafide Star Wars geek.

Having defined myself, let me say I was one who had a handful of questions upon hearing of Disney’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story”. Is this a film we really need? Is it simply a cash grab or is there truly a great story to be told? Could they actually pull it off considering the iconic role wouldn’t be played by the man who made it – Harrison Ford?

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“Solo: A Star Wars Story” answers most of the questions lobbed it’s way, yet I still found myself having to make some fairly big mental adjustments. That mainly comes from the casting of Alden Ehrenreich in the title role. The film’s Herculean task of selling us a new Han Solo is absolutely essential. If we can’t buy into Ehrenreich the entire movie fails. That’s a brutal responsibility that I would never have the guts to take on. But Ehrenreich does take it on and does an impressive job of respecting the character while also making it his own. And while I didn’t always see him as the lovable scoundrel from my childhood, it’s a solid portrayal that doesn’t undermine what the movie is going for.

The film is written by franchise vet Lawrence Kasdan along with his son Jonathan and I wouldn’t say their story adds a ton to the vast Star Wars universe. But fans of the character will find more than enough to connect this movie to the Han Solo mythos. It answers a lot of questions you probably never had but has a lot of fun doing it. An unbridled fanboy like me had a blast seeing how Han acquired his iconic (that word again) blaster, learning about the Kessel run, and seeing him first lay eyes on the Millennium Falcon. Cool nuggets like those are spread throughout. Only the final act reveals things that shake up the universe in a very cool way.

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Ron Howard took the directing reigns from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who were let go due to “creative differences”. Figuring out where Howard’s influence comes in is pretty difficult as the movie maintains a fairly consistent flow. It’s a bit slow out of the gate as it deals with Han’s life on the criminally-ran planet of Corellia. He and his love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) make a vow to leave the oppressive planet together. Of course it’s never that easy. The two are separated during a failed escape and Han finds himself off-world with the smuggling crew of Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson). For Han it’s about making some quick money and going back for Qi’ra. Did I mention it’s never that easy?

The film picks up steam and uncurls into an exciting action-packed adventure. Throughout Han’s quest characters are brought in which give the story more weight. None are more welcome than Chewbacca who for the first time is treated as more than a Wookiee sidekick. For Chewie there are stakes to consider and meaningful decisions to be made. Then there is Donald Glover’s Lando who slickly captures Billy Dee Williams’ suave but slimy charisma. He’s a hoot. Both of these characters not only bring an entertaining nostalgic flavor to the overall movie, but both serve to give Han more depth and zest. Observing their growing relationships and camaraderie left my inner fanboy pleased.

As far as the new characters, Harrelson’s Beckett and Clarke’s Qi’ra, while dramatically different, both offer some interesting twists to the story. The film’s new droid (because they always seem to have one) is Lando’s navigator and companion L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) – an amusing character sure to tickle the political fancies of some while being downright bizarre to others. Also Paul Bettany shows up as Dryden Vos, a ruthless crime boss who has a history with Beckett and a connection with Qi’ra.

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“Solo” certainly delivers on the action. From its speeder chases to its gun fights to its space battles, it all has a very ‘space western’ feel. There’s plenty of CGI, most of it very good, but the film also seemed to incorporate a surprising amount of practical effects. That’s always good to see. And while the movie looks good as a whole, I was a bit concerned early on. For the first quarter of the movie the muted dark color palette became an issue. I think it was intended to show an ugliness of the world it was depicting, but I found it be too dim and dreary for its own good. Thankfully it’s a problem solved once we begin seeing other locations.

“Solo” is making news for not coming out strong at the box office the way Star Wars films have in the past. While it’s still making good money, many are already trying to figure out why it is underperforming. There are a number of potential factors, but I do hope it finds a bigger audience. Howard, Ehrenreich and company craft a fun and compelling romp that carefully walks the line between Star Wars fan service and old-school action/adventure. It doesn’t hit every note the way it wants, but it certainly came out far better that I expected. I appreciated its more narrow focus, I loved Chewie and Lando, and was excited by a final act that’s sure to confuse some and exhilarate others. Count me among the exhilarated ones.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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Blind Spot Review: “Stranger Than Paradise”

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Jim Jarmusch’s reputation as a master of minimalist storytelling and an independent cinema trailblazer found its genesis in his 1984 film “Stranger Than Paradise”. This medley of low-key drama and deadpan comedy was startling at the time but would soon uniquely define much of Jarmusch’s work that would follow.

Going back to Jarmusch’s cinematic roots has been a joy. I came to his work late, first seeing and loving “Only Lovers Left Alive” and then last year’s “Paterson” which I loved even more. “Stranger Than Paradise” wasn’t Jarmusch’s first film. That would be his 1980 New York University senior project “Permanent Vacation”. But “Paradise” was his first major project despite its tiny budget. It would win the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at the Cannes Film Festival and go on to earn widespread critical acclaim.

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One of the funny things about “Stranger Than Paradise” is that it basically tosses out everything Jarmusch learned in graduate film school. From the very start it’s clear there is nothing traditional or conventional about the film. Take the decision to shoot it in beautiful and fitting black and white. Or the thinly plotted story with three rather aimless characters as the focus.

But perhaps the most profound departure from traditional cinema is the movie’s structure. Jarmusch shoots a collection of short scenes, each bookended by a fade-in and then a fade to black. Within every scene you’ll notice very little camera movement and not a single close-up for the entirety of the movie. They are individually staged segments which are then put together to tell the story. It’s an cool and crafty technique that helps give the film a unique personality.

The story is pretty simple and can be broken down in three acts that take place in three locations – New York, Cleveland, and Florida. Willie (John Lurie) immigrated from Hungary several years ago and has worked hard to perfect his vision of a bonafide New Yorker. That vision includes sleeping late in his tiny apartment, eating TV dinners, catching some movies, and earning some dough playing poker.

Willie’s routine is interrupted when he gets a call saying his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) from Hungary is paying him a visit. She needs a place to stay for ten days then she’ll be off to Cleveland. At first she cramps Willie’s big city style and he lets her know about it. Even when his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson) takes a liking to her Willie is quick to shoot him down. But the longer she stays the more Willie likes having her around and when she heads off to Cleveland he misses her.

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Eventually Willie and Eddie decide to borrow a car and drive to Cleveland to visit Eva. Later the three of them take a road trip from Cleveland to Florida. Jarmusch plops us in the passenger seat and we ride along observing their laid-back adventure. There isn’t much to it really, yet it seems harmonious with the care-free aspirations of the characters. And the dry dead-pan humor feels perfectly in tune with the film’s style and tone.

Throughout “Stranger Than Paradise” I couldn’t help but feel a hip French New Wave vibe in the vein of early Godard, Truffaut, and Chabrol. The movie defines its own unique set of rules and then maneuvers them at its own pace. Jarmusch would go on to make several movies defined by their idiosyncratic flavor. They would often focus more on mood and character than plot. You see the roots for all of it in “Stranger Than Paradise” and even today it remains a fresh kick in the pants the film industry still needs.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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