REVIEW: “Snakes on a Plane” (2006)

 

SNAKESposter

Let’s be honest, the very title “Snakes on a Plane” tells you all you need to know. And if you went into this 2006 thriller thinking it would be anything other than a wacky and absurd B-movie romp, you really have no one to blame but yourself. Now whether or not you find it entertaining is another question altogether, but don’t expect anything profound. This is silly big screen escapism through and through.

“Snakes on a Plane” gained an enthusiastic internet fanbase well before the movie even hit theaters. Story goes that David Dalessandro, a college administrator at the time, wrote the script which taps into two common fears – snakes and flying. After the title began circulating online a big web following developed giving rise to all sorts of fan fiction, parodies, and art.

SNAKES111

The movie opens in Hawaii where a Red Bull chugging dirt biker named Sean (Nathan Phillips) witnesses a brutal murder at the hands of powerful crime boss Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson). With a contract on his head, Sean is rescued by FBI Agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) and convinced to fly back to Los Angeles to testify against Kim in federal court.

As a diversion a private government plane is used as a decoy while Agent Flynn and Sean take a commercial airliner, commandeering the first-class section much to the chagrin of the flight attendants and some passengers. But wouldn’t you know it, Eddie Kim has eyes everywhere and enacts a plan to sabotage their flight. Not by tampering with the mechanics or planting a bomb. No, instead he smuggles hundreds of deadly snakes into the cargo bay and rigs a pheromone to be unleashed once the plane hits 30,000 feet sending them into a lethal frenzy. I’m not making this up.

Before the flight takes off we get one of those tried-and-true survival movie sequences – a scene briefly introducing an array of characters (in this case passengers) many of whom will amount to nothing more than snake fodder. We get a rap mogul/germaphobe, a single mother and her baby, a low-rent Paris Hilton clone, a jerky businessman, and so on. They all are pretty paper-thin but there are a couple you can’t help but root for (or in some cases against).

SNAKES2

Once the high altitude mayhem kicks in you can see the movie trying to one-up itself on how preposterous it can get. Believe or not that’s the film’s one big strength. I admit, I laughed quite a bit. We get ridiculous lines like “Well that’s good news, snakes on crack.” And numerous CGI snake kills that are almost as goofy as the dimwitted victims. I’m sure all of this sounds like a slam but it’s actually what keeps the movie in the air.

So as a thriller/comedy/horror/survival mashup “Snakes on a Plane” squeaks by simply because it unashamedly embraces its cheesiness and absurdity. Obviously that doesn’t make it a good movie, but it does make it entertaining. And sometimes that’s all you’re really looking for.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Seven” (1995)

SEVENposter

In David Fincher’s dark, grisly crime thriller “Seven” atmosphere is as essential as dialogue. Nearly every camera shot from cinematographer Darius Khondji finds some way to contribute to the ugliness of the film’s decaying big city setting. The heavy shadows, grimy color palette, perpetual rain – it makes for a visual experience that is consistently raw and depressing. Its effectiveness still stands out today.

Fincher’s crime thriller works within a pretty familiar genre framework. Two police detectives, one old and seasoned, one young and headstrong, follow clues left behind by a by a twisted, methodical serial killer. But “Seven” comes off as something more than your standard police procedural. The film deals heavily with the psychological effects left by this bleak unnamed city and the gruesome violence that emerges from its rotten core.

SEVEN1

Morgan Freeman plays Detective William Somerset, a veteran officer of nearly 30 years. Somerset is well-respected and good at his job, but police work in a city of such moral decline has taken its toll. With only a few days left until retirement he is partnered with Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), an impulsive but idealistic rookie who just recently moved to the city with his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Somerset and Mills are called on to investigate a gruesome murder where an obese man had been bound and forced to eat himself to death. Clues lead to a second crime scene and eventually a deadly pattern is discovered. The detectives surmise that the killer is preaching a sermon and basing each of his murders on the seven deadly sins (gluttony, greed, lust, etc.). Each murder scene is meticulously framed and hidden within them are hints to this John Doe’s next victim. Somerset and Mills must find a way to get in front of the killer before he can complete his sermon.

One strength of the story is found in its handling of its killer. He is a madman who is unquestionably insane but he’s no imbecile. He never loses control and is always one step ahead of the detectives. Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker keep John Doe under wraps only revealing him in the final few scenes. For those who haven’t seen the film I won’t reveal who plays him. But let’s say its a brilliantly uncomfortable performance from an equally uncomfortable actor.

“Seven” is an absolute showcase for Morgan Freeman, a consummate professional with an ever-present strength and gravitas. He is the film’s most grounded character and more subtly impacted by the vile urban mire. Pitt is given the much broader task of playing an ambitious young firebrand eager to make a name for himself in the department but impervious to the effects Fincher’s hellscape has on his family. Very different performances but seamlessly woven together by a persistently unsettling script and setting.

1920x1080 Se7en Movie Se7en,Movie

As “Seven” maneuvers its way forward you see it fully embracing its sense of unease and dread. It ends up in a place befitting of a more disturbing horror genre entry and it’s final moments will shock you to your core. Suffice it to say it’s not a movie for the squeamish yet Fincher doesn’t show a lot of violence. Instead it is insinuated through the investigation and glimpses of the effects are in each crime scene. It’s intensely effective.

“Seven” isn’t an easy watch and it still packs the same visceral gut punch it did 25 years ago. Fincher’s bleak and oppressive second feature film shook up the crime thriller genre and set the stage for the litany of copycats that would come after it. And while it may best be remembered for its notorious ending, it’s the aforementioned atmosphere that gets under your skin and stays there.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Stronger”

STRONGER poster

There are many ways a movie like “Stronger” could go astray. We’ve seen it before – filmmaker gets hold of a meaty true story, they exploit the conflict, crank the melodrama up to 10 and wring it of every drop of emotion in what often becomes the same old biopic fodder. On the flipside, when a filmmaker sinks his/her teeth into the material and gets down to what makes the characters and their story fascinating you often have something special. David Gordon Green does that with “Stronger”.

It’s based on the true story of Jeff Bauman, a Boston native and Costco deli worker who was a victim of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. His injuries resulted in the amputation of both legs just above the knees. Over time Jeff became a reluctant symbol of the “Boston Strong” slogan for many well-meaning but impervious people.

STRONGER2

“Stronger” spends a little time leading up to the bombing but its main focus is Jeff’s struggle with the mental and physical aftermath. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff in what may be the best work of his career. With the aid of some digital wizardry, Gyllenhaal is extremely convincing in every facet of his performance. He’s fantastic in conveying the mental deterioration brought on by the trauma and by the overwhelming expectations of his family and community. And he’s just as good on the physical side portraying a man trying to cope with new and severe physical limitations.

Equally good is Tatiana Maslany who plays Jeff’s on again-off again girlfriend Erin. She is more grounded and responsible than the charming but flighty Jeff which has led to their numerous breakups. But in an effort to convince her of his love Jeff shows up at the marathon to root her to the finish line. After the bombing Erin puts her life aside and is a far more of a stable caretaker than Jeff’s family. But it’s a punishing journey for her too. Maslany’s instincts are spot-on and she walks her character through an emotional minefield always with the perfect level of intensity.

STRONGER1

Green deserves a lot of credit for managing his material with an intimate, character-centered emphasis. He and screenwriter John Pollono keep things on the ground level, only occasionally hitting us with the traditional biopic highlight moments that you can’t help but notice. But it’s the small touches and scenes of Jeff managing everyday struggles that are so potent. Once simple tasks such as using the bathroom are difficult to watch. Or it may be something as subtle as a glance into a sock drawer. These moments hit hard.

David Gordon Green’s career has been an interesting one. From his breakout hit, the obnoxious “Pineapple Express”, to 2013 where he had two strong films “Prince Avalanche” and “Joe”. We definitely see him hitting his stride with “Stronger”. It’s an incredible true story that deserves to be told and Green allows his characters to do just that. I can’t imagine a viewer not being effected by this film.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

Blind Spot Review: “Shane” (1953)

Shaneposter

On the surface “Shane” may appear to be routine Western genre fare. A mysterious stranger with a lightning fast draw helps a family harassed by a gang of unsavory types. But beneath its seemingly simple exterior is a movie that prods us to look beyond the familiar.

“Shane” was directed and produced by George Stevens and adapted from a 1943 Jack Schaefer novel. While not Stevens’ first choice, Alan Ladd was cast as the title character Shane. Story goes that after Stevens couldn’t secure his actors of choice he asked a Paramount executive for a list of those under contract. Ladd was a quick choice.

Shane1

Our first glimpse of Shane sees him riding to the backdrop of the gorgeous Tetons. It’s a beautiful introduction to Loyal Griggs’ Oscar-winning cinematography. Shane comes upon a small homestead ran by a rancher Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur in her final feature film role) and their peppy young son Joey (Brandon deWilde). The family takes to Shane and asks him to stay as a ranch-hand. Shane sees the invite as a chance to put aside his past ways and start fresh.

Shane makes every effort to forget his mysterious old life. He hangs up his holster and sixshooter. He buys some new regular man’s clothes. He quickly begins to find and enjoy his place among the community of homesteaders. But as Shane himself says later in the film “A man has to be what he is.”

While the film never delves too deep into Shane’s past, a key (and frankly obvious) element of it eventually comes much more into focus. The Starretts along with a handful of other local settlers are being squeezed by greedy cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) who wants their claims for himself. As his henchmen’s terrorizing heats up and a hired gun shows up (played by a menacing Jack Palance), Shane is forced to unearth the past he is trying hard to bury.

Shane2

There are several other interesting plot angles Stevens plays around with. There is a subtle romantic tension between Shane and Marian. You have the starry-eyed young Joey whose idealized view of Shane is sometimes at odds with his perception of his father. Even Ryker’s motivations are rooted in a place that reveals surprisingly more character depth than you would expect.

Its $3 million budget made “Shane” one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time and you can see the money on the screen. The Wyoming Territory setting is exquisitely captured and the sheer visual craft behind some sequences is undeniable. One particular scene between Palance and Elisha Cook, Jr. is one of the genre’s best mainly due to Stevens’ camera. But “Shane” works in large part due to the attention given to the characters. It’s certainly a film of its time, but good characters and well told stories about them never get old.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Stranger Things 3”

STRANGER3

With “Stranger Things 3” three things struck me right out of the gate. First, the little town of Hawkins, Indiana is a little bigger than I remembered. Big enough in fact to support a brand spanking new double-decker shopping mall that’s always full of people. Second, I was reminded of just how fast kids grow up. Seeing how the younger cast members have grown in only a year’s time really brought that to light. Third, if their security was half as bad as what we see this season, then it’s no wonder the Soviet Union crumbled.

“Stranger Things 2” ended on a sweet and tender note but with a brief reminder that things in the not-so-small town of Hawkins still isn’t quite right. Season 3 puts even more emphasis on its youngsters. We start out by seeing the relationship between Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Elle (Millie Bobby Brown) intensifying much to the chagrin of her acting father Jim Hopper (David Harbour). Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max (Sadie Sink) are still an item. Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) returns from summer camp bragging about the perfect girl he met who may or may not really exist. And Will (Noah Schnapp) is left longing for the days of playing games with his buddies.

Elsewhere Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and full-time beau Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) both work at the hyper-chauvinistic local newspaper while Joyce still works in the general store on Main Street which is slowly drying up thanks to the the Starcourt Mall. Steve (Joe Keery) works at an ice cream parlor in the mall with new character Robin (Maya Hawke). And then there’s over-the-top bad boy Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who you could say triggers the story’s supernatural bend.

STRANG1

“Stranger Things 3” sees the series take a noticeable shift. Show creators and overseers the Duffer brothers return and you can instantly see them moving away from their early roots. Season 1 was a near flawless eight episodes that steadily built tension while growing its characters and adding just the right amount of humor. Season 3 goes all-in with the comedy, leaning especially heavily on the tired ‘potty-mouthed kid’ trope. Yes, the horror/sci-fi elements are still there, but as someone who absolutely loved ST1, this felt like a departure.

Don’t get me wrong, the humor can be really funny. Minus the above mentioned annoyance, the kids still have a great chemistry and tons of personality. The showrunners use them to great effect and they continue to be characters we genuinely care about. At the same time, the season is decidedly sillier and not just the comedy itself but certain story beats as well. Take the multi-episode storyline that sees Steve, Dustin, Robin, and Erica (Priah Ferguson) investigating a possible Russian plot. It starts good but steadily gets more and more preposterous. I’m assuming it is intentional, but it’s hard to tell.

That gets to one of my biggest gripes about “Stranger Things 3” – its inconsistent tone. Maybe its my ingrained preference for movies, but tone management can be a big deal. All too often ST3 bounces back-and-forth between super serious and straight comedy. It makes tension-building needlessly difficult and robs several scenes of any real suspense. Again, Season 1 had its moments of humor and they were injected at just the right times, never subverting the tension and sometimes catching you off guard. I miss that.

STRANE2

But enough of the negatives. “Stranger Things 3” gets a lot more right than wrong and it starts with the characters. Hopper remains the most entertaining character on the show. This season he’s still the short-tempered, impulsive, bull in a china shop who you can’t help but love. But we also see him attempting to fine-tune his fatherly instincts as well as wrestle with certain feelings the show has hinted at since the first season. And I still find myself drawn to Elle and the emotional tug of her story. The only characters that feel shortchanged is Nancy and Jonathan. Outside of the first episode, their relationship takes no meaningful strides forward.

It’s also worth saying this is the best looking season to date. The effects take a huge step up and they really add to the horror element. It don’t think it’s a spoiler to say there is a pretty grotesque monster that plays a significant role in the story. It’s visualized through some really good CGI and a couple of standout set pieces. And the Duffer bros still know how to capture the 1980s. From the most obvious inclusions to the smallest details, the sheer number of callbacks to the summer of 1985 is astonishing.

ST3 says some interesting things about small town Americana, Cold War paranoia, and the ups and downs of growing up. But ultimately it’s an adolescent comedy built around a science-fiction/ horror premise. That’s not a description that would have originally fit the series, but for better or for worse that’s what “Stranger Things” has become. Regardless, you simply can’t watch Season 3 and not still be attached to these characters and invested in their relationships. I just wish a little more energy was spent on the mystery and suspense; the science-fiction and the conspiracies. In other words, I wish it would get back to its Season 1 roots. But that’s just me.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “Stockholm” (2019)

STOCKposter

“Stockholm” begins by informing us it is “based on an absurd but true story”. Truer words have never been spoken. This off-beat movie from writer-director Robert Budreau is one part heist film, one part black comedy and all parts utter absurdity. I think that’s why I liked it as much as I did.

The film is set in 1973 Stockholm, Sweden and is based on an article written by Daniel Lan for the New Yorker magazine. It tells of a bank heist where the hostages begin to sympathize and side with their captors giving rise to the condition known as Stockholm Syndrome.

STOCK1

Ethan Hawke adds yet another fresh and fun role to his resumé. He plays a rather doltish American named Lars who we first see arming himself with a submachine gun, a really bad wig, and an even worse jacket. He then moseys into a Stockholm bank for what looks like your prototypical stick-em-up. But we immediately begin noticing Lars isn’t your ordinary robber and he has more things on his mind other than money.

Enter the canny yet hilariously reckless Police Chief Mattsson (Christopher Heyerdahl) who immediately pulls out the hostage situation playbook. He starts by contacting Lars and getting his list of demands. They include $1 million and for his best friend and former cellmate Gunnar (Mark Strong) to be brought to the bank. Oh, and “a Mustang 302 like Steve McQueen had in Bullit” (actually McQueen drove a 390 V8 Mustang GT but Lars isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer).

STOCK2

Inside the bank Lars takes a liking to cashier Bianca (Noomi Rapace) and the whole Stockholm Syndrome link is made. But don’t expect the movie to explore that link too deeply. Budreau isn’t that interested in the psychology. Instead he embraces the nuttiness of his story and gives the hilarious Hawke and subtly funny Strong some pretty good material to play around with. Plus, there are a handful of cheeky gags about the police and the media that land really well.

“Stockholm” ends up being a fairly light indie comedy that could probably dig a little deeper into its story and characters but seems perfectly content to just have fun. To be honest, that’s one of the things I like about it. It’s a breezy and often silly heist flick that is completely comfortable with itself. And Ethan Hawke continues his extraordinary run of solid and surprisingly varied performances.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars