Friday, April 14, 2017

What I Watched in March

The X-Men film series and all it's offshoots have been a mixed bag, to say the least, but I've enjoyed more of them than I've disliked. But if we had to suffer through convoluted messes like the third X film and that hideous Origins Wolverine disaster to get to LOGAN (2017) then it may have been worth it.

Set in an apocalyptic future America in which the rest of mutant-kind has been hunted to extinction, Logan hides his identity trying to earn enough money get a sick Charles Xavier out of the country. Xavier's illness makes him unintentionally dangerous and the plan is to get him far away from people. Enter a woman on the run with a child that just might be another mutant with a connection to Logan. Soon, a business financed paramilitary force is after them and Logan has to decide if he has any of his past heroic nature within.

The strengths of this film are many and often surprising. I expected great performances from this cast but the depth of emotion in the story was stunning. I expected well done action sequences but I didn't expect each action scene to cause so many intensely distressing feelings for me. This is a finely written, beautifully crafted and - dare I say it - brilliant film with much to say about life, humanity, friendship, duty and love. This is a great movie and if it is ignored at award time then the Academy can burn in Hell.

I'm a fan of Vin Diesel and have followed his screen career since seeing his self-made short film Multi-Facial in 1995. He's a big beefy guy with an remarkably resonant voice  who can actually emote and has taken control of his career in a way that is impressive. As insane and over-the-top as the Fast & Furious films have become they are still great fun action movies and play by their own loopy rules (and physics). It was in the hope of just such silly fun I went to see XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE (2017).

I saw the first XXX film and did not like it. If I had remembered this fact a bit more clearly I would have skipped this matinee screening and done something more productive with my time. But ten minutes into this third entry in the series the memory came flooding back and I said out loud 'Oh, yeah. This is going to suck.' What I had forgotten was that these movie have no sense of reality but not in the fun, wink-wink slick manner of the Fast & Furious franchise. Here all is supposed to be super serious with Cage being the smartest man in the room at all times. The problem is that the script is never up to a level higher than a cartoon so for Cage to be that smart guy everyone around him has to be as dumb as a stack of peat moss. There is almost no attempt made to present the other characters as credible threats, thinking human beings or even anything other than game play obstacles to be overcome.

That is the biggest problem of this film and this sad series in total. Nothing matters because nothing is creditable and therefore there are no stakes in the story. Without a viable sense of danger we have no reason to care about the thinly drawn characters or their fate so it's all just a silly and eventually tiring bunch of kinetic crap. A movie about a group of extremely talented, adrenaline junkie spies should not bore it's audience into yawns. It's easy to see Diesel is trying to build another franchise around a core group that will expand into a 'family' but I suspect it will fail. Or, it should.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) has been lauded and castigated in almost equal measure among monster fans. The 'thumbs up' crowd claim it's a fun, exciting monster epic that builds a new Kong story from elements of Apocalypse Now, the original 1933 Kong and the 1976 remake. This is true, to a certain point. The 'thumbs down' side argue that the film is bereft of decent characters, the action overwhelms the story and pace is too quick. This view is also true to a degree. Where do I stand?

I ended up enjoying KONG but with reservations. Most of the objections I've heard from the Nay side seem a little silly but I do think there are some valid criticisms to be made. First, there is precious little time spent letting us get to know the characters. The only actors that really get a shot at crafting meaningful characterizations are Sam Jackson and John Goodman but even they are given less time than is necessary. John C. Reilly's WWII pilot is somewhat amusing and talks a lot but we don't really get to feel much for him. Everyone else is merely a cipher moving through the tale doing what is required to advance to the next plot point.   

That would be my main criticism of the film - there is not enough time spent letting us soak up the beauty and grandeur of the Skull Island they have created. It's as if they learned only one lesson from the Peter Jackson mess from 2005 - don't let things drag out to David Lean lengths. And don't get me wrong - that's a damned good lesson to take from that film! But when you're creating a whole new fantasy world location you need to let us look around for a while before tossing us into the conflict. Let us wallow in the visuals and then gradually introduce the monsters and tension. Or introduce the monsters in a shockingly quick manner and then let us look at the world you've built in the second act so we grow to understand the environment and it's people a bit. We needed much more time with the human natives without Reilly's babblings to show us their village and how they live in this mad place. This is where the film could have let us get to know the characters well but it doesn't.

I suspect that there were several scenes left on the cutting room floor that would give the movie the extra characterization I feel it is lacking. Perhaps we'll get those in some future extended edition on Blu-Ray. But it would have been nice to have seen them on the big screen making the exciting action sequences more emotionally involving. I like what is there, but I hope for more.

GET OUT (2017) is one of the best horror films of recent years and takes some great older ideas into fascinating modern areas. Jordan Peele's debut as writer/director shows that he is a student of the genre as well as a clear-eyed observer of humanity and society. It is his vision of American culture that I found most refreshing. He lets his audience gradually see, one incident at a time, how a black man interacts with and carefully negotiates a world where he is always suspect. We see how his natural fear of white people and their inherent position of power informs his thoughts and actions and how he has to remind himself that the family of his girlfriend feels no malice toward him. But while his normal defenses are sometimes too sensitive to small things is he right to sense a dangerous undercurrent of racial superiority in his weekend hosts' attitude? Is the predatory vibe he gets from certain comments a misread of a culture he knows only as an outsider or a warning sign he should heed?

I won't reveal anything more than to say that this is a brilliant film and heralds what I hope is a long career in the horror genre for Peele. 

The List 
X-RAY (1981) - 3 (terrible slasher)
LOGAN (2017) - 9
SPECTRAL (2016)- 5 (derivitive SF tale)
THE WITCH'S MOUNTAIN (1972) - 5 (odd Spanish horror effort)
THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969) - 8 (rewatch)
XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE (2017)- 3 (miserable)
DEATH WISH 3 (1985) - 5 (cheesy, ridiculous BUT entertaining trash)
PULSE (1988) - 4 (electricity is evil!)
HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB (1973) - 8 (rewatch)
THE NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF (1981) - 7 (rewatch)
GET OUT (2017) - 9
HATE FOR HATE (1967) - 5 (spaghetti western) 

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