Thursday, May 31, 2018

BLUMHOUSE'S "UPGRADE" RAISES THE BAR ON SCIENCE FICTION FUN


Blumhouse Productions has given film audiences some remarkable horror franchises including PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, INSIDIOUS, THE PURGE, and SINISTER. Blumhouse’s latest release, under the BH Tilt banner, is entitled UPGRADE and the sci-fi thriller could quickly become the next breakout series for them. It’s wickedly witty, zips along with gusto, and has a rich premise that could easily yield a number of sequels.

If you liked actioners from the Reagan era like ROBOCOP and THE TERMINATOR, you’re going to love this one. Writer/director Leigh Whannell clearly does, and his affection for them is evident in the dystopian premise of UPGRADE. Whannell’s story concerns a not too distant future, similar to those depicted in those above 80’s classics, where technology has enabled society in both good ways and bad. UPGRADE portrays self-driving cars, computer-run households, and police drone surveillance dotting every corner of the population, but some incendiary upgrades have been baked into the mix too. Advanced weaponry can now be fused into one’s body, turning one’s arm into an arm, as in the semi-automatic kind. 

Automobile mechanic Grey Trace (Boy, there’s an 80’s sounding movie character name!) disdains such advances, preferring to restore old cars in his garage and listen to music on vinyl. As played by Logan Marshall-Green, Trace comes off like a gruff cowboy, an old-school sort with a low-key swagger who quietly rages against the future. Ironically, his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) is 180-degrees different, toiling in the tech industry as a high-powered executive. Still, their relationship works in the best kind of “opposites attract” dynamic.

One night, Grey and Asha deliver a restored classic automobile to a wealthy customer on the outskirts of town. Grey’s private client is an eccentric inventor/billionaire named Eron (a vamp on the name Enron or Elon Musk, perhaps?). As played by a suitably sinister Harrison Gilbert, Eron lives in a lavish home underground where he’s working on the development of a computer chip called STEM that is a genuine game changer. It looks like a literal bug, almost like a cockroach, and soon enough, this “bugging device” will change Grey’s life forever.

On the way home, Asha’s self-driving car malfunctions and takes the couple on a dangerous detour straight into the wrong side of town. As soon as it crashes, a gang of thugs descends upon them, and Asha is shot dead in the scuffle. Grey fights back but is pummeled and left a quadriplegic. He survives, but in the hospital, the forlorn widower begs for someone to end his life as he cannot move his limbs.


When Eron visits him there, Grey’s attitude starts to improve. The creepy genius offers Grey a miracle cure in STEM. The spinal implant would not only restore all his mobility but also give the vengeance-minded man the opportunity to hunt down his wife’s killers. Grey reluctantly agrees and is soon on Eron’s operating table getting the STEM attached to his brain stem. Quicker than you can say, “Doc Ock!”, Grey is up and moving around like his old self again.

Not only does Grey have all of his mobility back, but STEM also enhances every one of his functions. He can run faster, listen better, and think smarter. STEM even talks to him in a voice that only he can hear, and the independent-thinking computer chip becomes Grey’s counsel, alter ego and fight coach taking total control of his body when he goes looking for a fight. As Grey and STEM reckon with their technological powers and hunt their prey, the movie becomes very analogous to ROBOCOP, particularly as Grey is conflicted between his humanity and mechanical abilities. Yes, he can snap the neck of his victim in five, precise moves, but is this the man he wants to be? 

The scenes where STEM calmly takes over and then directs Grey on exactly how to kick, chop, and destroy with economy are a hoot and a half. It will remind you of how Robert Downey’s SHERLOCK HOLMES plotted his fight moves in his head before executing the blows in Guy Ritchie’s modernistic take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth. The scenes are exhilarating action set-pieces, but they’re also cheekily farcical. This sci-fi tale isn’t afraid to be laugh-out-loud hilarious during these scenes, as Grey watches his body do things he couldn’t imagine doing. 


Here, Whannell is making pointed commentary about our over-reliance on machines, but also on how silly fight scenes have gotten cinematically. Honestly, there isn’t a lot of difference between how STEM enhances Grey’s fighting versus the overly choreographed and physically impossible action scenes in any screen adventure that comes down the pike these days. Whannell ensures the satire comes through by having Stefan Duscio’s crisp cinematography sped up, along with Andy Canny’s quick-cut editing. One all but expects Benny Hill’s favorite song “Yakety Sax” to accompany these fight scenes. 

Of course, as corpses stop popping up, complications for Grey and Eron ensue when Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel) starts sniffing around, and the thugs’ leader Fisk (Benedict Hardie) starts putting the pieces together. He's a shrewd villain, and physically has advantages too. One of his tricked-out arms allows him to point his finger and unleash an arsenal of bullets, just as he did in slaying Asha.

There are shades of DEATH WISH to this tale of vengeance, of course, not to mention a significant nod to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY what with STEM’s voice clearly riffing on HAL 9000. The silky threats from STEM, voiced by Simon Maiden, have the same effeminate lilt as the computer from Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece, and that only adds to the humor when STEM turns Grey into such a bad-ass killing machine. As the film plays on, Marshall-Green and Maiden almost become a comedy team, and as sequels are likely ordered, it will behoove the filmmakers to choose characters that humorously contrast with STEM’s quiet treachery in the same way.

UPGRADE could have been just a B-picture, albeit an expensively-produced one, but Whannell is as serious about his social commentary as he is about entertaining us. He sees a future both beautiful and increasingly dilapidated. The gulf between the rich and poor will only widen, and this film serves as a stinging political commentary about the disparity between the classes. Whannell also sees our humanity becoming more and more fragile, while AI’s start to imitate our worse traits too like selfishness and greed.

There are comedies out there that don’t have a tenth of the laughs that UPGRADE contains and even fewer genre films that so brilliantly visualize a world and all aspects of it. UPGRADE is indeed a higher standard of actioner for other moviemakers to aspire to. Blumhouse has mastered horror and UPGRADE indicates that they’re ready to conquer different genres too. They’re kind of like the STEM of genre filmmaking, latching onto the entertainment world and showing us how it should be done with finesse and economy. More power to them.

Monday, May 28, 2018

"SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY" IS LOTS OF FUN IF NOT FORCEFUL


 SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY is a title that works on two levels. First, it’s the origin story about beloved franchise character Han Solo, and second, it’s the first solo film that is not connected to the sequencing of events evident in all the other films. It’s a ton of fun, and well made on every level, but it suggests that there is some fraying in the forcefulness of ‘The Force.’ This one feels overly familiar and makes the case that the STAR WARS universe should start expanding its galaxy far, far away and very, very soon. 

The simple fact is that the franchise has grown too fond of its past characters and legend. There are dozens of Star Wars books out there that have been introducing new characters, different Jedi’s, and other corners of that galaxy for decades now, so why aren’t more of those stories being mined? Instead, the multimillion-dollar movies seem content to stay very close to home. And while it’s been great to see the return of Han, Leia, and Luke in the last few episodes of the film series, this new backstory about the origins of everybody’s favorite space pirate feels far too gratuitous.

That’s a shame because taken at face value, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY is smart, exciting, and introduces a number of strong new characters. It also includes a half-dozen action set-pieces that are thrilling and memorable. Even John Powell’s score wisely refrains from overly echoing the well-known John Williams cues. Still, all that can’t erase the fact that there this trip wasn’t really necessary in the first place, let alone the fact that there are more Solo efforts due in the future. (Star Alden Ehrenreich has supposedly signed on for three more films.) That’s an awful lot of backstory for a character whose fate we already know. 

Kudos to screenwriters Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan for at least delivering a sharp and witty script that manages to be both nostalgic and somewhat modern. Their introduction to the young Han, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian is done with an engaging breeziness. And while they feel compelled to show a lot of history, including Han’s start in the army and his transition into the criminal world, at least their script makes fun out of it all, never taking anything too seriously. Thankfully, there are none of the morose qualities that marred the three STAR WARS prequels (Chapters 1-3) that cravenly asked audiences to pity Anakin Skywalker before he donned Darth’s dark helmet. 

This film frolics along, finding fun in almost every corner of conflict. It cleverly introduces a love interest/foil for Han in the character of fellow street orphan Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) and their relationship is one of the best parts of this prequel. Ehrenreich and Clarke have a bubbling chemistry, and it’s great to see the ingenue sparkle on the big screen. (She gets little chance to show such joy these days on HBO’s GAME OF THRONES as her character of Daenerys is excessively dour.) 

The star-crossed lovers of Han and Qi’ra plan an escape out of their slum existence in the first ten minutes of the story and the snappy sequence sets the tone for the rest of the film. It’s chase through the streets set-piece doesn’t drag, contains snatches of adroit dialogue interwoven throughout, and demonstrates an easy-to-follow movement in every frame. Ron Howard may have come in late to the game, replacing original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, but the storied filmmaker knows how to deliver the goods in his straight-forward, unfussy manner. Howard’s cinematographer Bradford Young does terrific work too, framing each scene in a clean and crisp way, whether it’s characters talking or fighting. Plus, Pietro Scalia’s editing is shrewd and economical, moving a lot along without ever seeming rushed. In fact, this may be one of the easiest “Star Wars” movies to track from the first moment to last. 

The best action sequence in the movie is a train robbery done against snow-capped mountains. Not only do the train cars twist and writhe over hill and dale, but their cargo is unrefined Coaxium, a nitro glycerin-style substance that could explode all too easily if overly agitated. It’s a layered scene too, with three different parts to the robbers’ plan, and the added conflict of a group of marauders swooping in from the sky to steal the goods from them. The set-piece contains a ton of CGI, but Howard never lets it overwhelm our investment in the lives at stake out there on those treacherous tracks.  

The veteran director is especially good at getting nuanced work from his cast. Woody Harrelson (scampy space pirate Tobias Beckett), Thandie Newton (Tobias’ tart-tongued wife Val), and Paul Bettany (elegantly evil villain Dryden Vos) all find fresh layers to the types of characters they’ve played many times before. Harrelson’s Beckett is more scoundrel than you’d expect, Val suggests a weariness to her criminal vocation, and Bettany resists any temptation to overplay. In fact, the CGI on his face, consisting of streaking scars that redden with rage, is broader than any of his circumspect line readings. 

Especially strong is Donald Glover’s Lando. He lends a droll Billy Dee Williams-style lilt to his delivery, clearly paying homage to the original actor, but he also ensures that his character’s selfishness is more evident than it was in the portrayal of his predecessor’s. Glover is funny and charming, stealing almost every scene he’s in, but his Lando remains a selfish dandy cloaked in chicanery as obvious as his designer capes.

Director Howard’s success in directing Ehrenreich is not quite as successful. The young actor nails the sly charm and swagger of the young Han, but he never seems to be enough of the cocky S.O.B. Harrison Ford played. Remember how we were all surprised when Han showed up at the last minute to help Luke destroy the Death Star in STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE? Han has to make some similar types of judgment calls here, but despite pleading that he’s not a “good guy”, his heroic stature never stands in question. 

If anything, the entire film needs more of an antihero edge. The action scenes have some of it, killing off both villains and heroes while barely batting an eye. And the number of twists that occur in the last 30 minutes, as characters betray one another with abandon, adds a lot of arsenic to the confectionary flavor. Yet, even though the elder Kasdan has gone on record that Han fired first in that famous scene in the bar from the original movie, it’s hard to find anything close to that nasty rogue here. Sure, Han plugs a villain late in the game here without hesitation, but he’s entirely too lovable. Why he’s as warm and fuzzy as his Wookie partner.

Per usual with any new STAR WARS release, social media is burning with outrage over perceived slights or inaccuracies in this new material. Everything from Ehrenreich’s lack of physical resemblance to Ford, to how the script showcases the famous “Kessel run in 12 Parsecs”, has come under scrutiny. Critics and fans love parsing such details, but the real debate should be about the franchise running out of some steam. It didn’t learn its lesson from all the backlash over Anakin’s backstory, and now it expects us to anxiously await more Solo ventures, as well as the return of Darth Maul as a big bad? Talk about Forced.

Like ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, this new prequel fills in blanks of the lore in an entertaining way, but it fails to genuinely move the narrative forward. STAR WARS may be the favorite franchise of generations of children, but do they all feel the pull of nostalgia in the same way as those making these films? I’m all for finding out that Han was supposed to be Chewie’s dinner when they first met, but the franchise should be giving audiences a lot more to chew over. 
  

Sunday, May 20, 2018

PAUL SCHRADER AND ETHAN HAWKE STUN WITH "FIRST REFORMED"

Original caricature by Jeff York of Ethan Hawke in FIRST REFORMED (copyright 2018)
 Ethan Hawke has given many brilliant performances in his 33-year film career, including standouts like GATTACA, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, BOYHOOD, and the BEFORE SUNRISE trilogy. Now, with FIRST REFORMED, written and directed by Paul Schrader, he tops himself in his most accomplished screen work to date. In this intense drama, Hawke plays Pastor Ernst Toller, a minister in the middle of a crisis of faith and he ensures that we feel every high and low of the cleric’s pained journey to redemption. His portrayal should be remembered come awards season, as should this provocative film.

Toller is a well-meaning minister who oversees a small group of parishioners at the First Reformed Church in upstate New York. It survives as a place of worship due to two things: it’s a historical landmark, and the local mega-church Abundant Life takes care of all of its upkeep and needs. Abundant’s Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, AKA Cedric the Entertainer) has hired Toller to shepherd First Reformed, thinking it’s the fresh start he needs after a personal tragedy. Toller, you see, was a former military chaplain who encouraged his son to enlist only to see him return home from the Middle East in a body bag. That’s when the pitying eye of Jeffers took Toller under his wing hoping to help him find the good in life again.

The gig should be easy for Toller. His flock is small and showing off the historic church to the local tourists is a piece of cake. But the pastor has more demons to battle than those written about in the pages of the Bible. Toller’s still mourning his son, and his uncertainty about God’s mercy has driven him to drink. All of his angst is eating him up inside, literally and figuratively, and the dyspeptic reverend tries to soothe his ulcers by mixing Pepto-Bismol in his whiskey. 

Toller also carries around the guilt of a misbegotten affair with a co-worker, and he’s not sure his sermons on Sunday have any effect on the smattering of people who come to hear him preach. As he starts to circle down the drain, Toller decides to chronicle all that he’s feeling in a journal. But as he scribes more and more, his entries start to sound like those of a ranting madman; one who’s spiting God and questioning his divine plan.

Then one day, a form of salvation approaches Toller. A young, pregnant parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) needs his help, and her purity of heart touches him. She’s worried about her husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger) as he agonizes over bringing their child into a world whose citizenry is so blithely destroying the planet. Toller tries to help him see the light and the grace of God around him, but Michael’s darkest fears take a toll on Toller. Soon, the pastor is as obsessed with saving the environment, and he becomes radicalized against the local industry blatantly polluting the community’s land, air, and water. It doesn’t help that they’re also subsidizing the upcoming anniversary celebration of First Reformed, an event that Toller is forced to manage. No wonder he can’t sleep at night.

Despite the able supporting cast, including a deftly dramatic Kyles, Hawke is left alone onscreen for most of the movie, and he runs with it. He’s held the screen similarly before, as in 2012’s SINISTER where he spent most of the time in that frightener acting all by his lonesome. Hawke knows just how to use each of the tools in his actor’s arsenal – eyes, body language, breath control - to convey every ounce of what his character is feeling. And as Hawke has gotten older, his voice has coarsened, and it works wonders here in expressing all the uncertainty in Toller when he speaks.

Schrader reaches a career high too as both writer and director. His FIRST REFORMED screenplay is right up there with his landmark scripts for TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL. FIRST REFORMED is not only a rich and detailed character study, but it also serves as a timely and scathing critique of politics, the church, and society’s middle finger to the environment. At times, Schrader’s storytelling plays like a no-holds-barred editorial condemning corporate America and its rape of God’s green earth. Yet, the film remains an uplifting work too. Schrader finds hope in mankind to halt their ruin, particularly when two people can still come together and soar above their problems as Toller and Mary do in a fantasy sequence that utterly dazzles.

FIRST REFORMED is a stunning work, chock full of powerful messaging and indelible images. A couple levitating above the floorboards, a suicide’s remains being discovered in a wintry park, the lines on Hawke’s forehead getting deeper and deeper with worry – these are just some of the potent visuals Schrader and his cinematographer Alexander Dynan serve up. Both haunting and hopeful, FIRST REFORMED is not only Hawke’s best work as an actor, and Schrader’s best work as a director, but it’s one of 2018’s most captivating and wondrous works of cinema.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

MARGOT ROBBIE'S FEMME FATALE DOMINATES THE STYLISH NOIR OF "TERMINAL"


In celebrity interviews on television, Margot Robbie comes off like “the girl next door.” On screen, however, her persona is more like the girl who will end up putting you in jail or worse. Robbie purred and slithered all over Leonardo DiCaprio in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. She stole SUICIDE SQUAD with a Harley Quinn characterization as lethal as she was lovely. And now, in the stylish new noir TERMINAL, she plays such a man-eater that she might as well be an anaconda. Costars Simon Pegg, Max Irons, Dexter Fletcher, and Mike Myers are swallowed whole by her femme fatale. And she does it all without once smearing her lipstick. 

In TERMINAL, Robbie plays Annie, a dangerous woman out for revenge. As the film starts, she is contracted to take out a local gangster, and her bravado clues us in that she’ll rub him out as surely as he applies her green lipstick. Annie never blinks, her voice never falters, and the vixen manages to walk in 4-inch heels like she was born in them. She’s so expert at her lethal skills, she probably could’ve walked up to Thanos in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and stolen his stones before he raised a glove to her.

Annie’s vengeful ventures will send her into the dark underbelly of London, albeit one lit like it’s a tantalizing perfume commercial. The film is too sultry by half, even when Robbie isn’t in the frame. Never has the criminal underworld of Cockney thugs glistened with such glamour. Annie fits right in with her extraordinary allure as well as her determination to dominate the criminal element she’ll encounter. 

During her efforts to best the bad men who cross her path, Annie loves to play dress-up. In one scenario, she dolls herself up like a Chinatown dragon lady. In yet another, she takes on the guise of a kittenish stripper who brags about showing clients her tail. Even her diner waitress uniform looks like one of those sleazy adult costumes they sell at Halloween Spirit stores. She is dressed to excess in every scene, but it robs her of some of her menace. 


Writer/director Vaughn Stein has learned a lot from the genre, culling bits off of everything from BODY HEAT to SNATCH to SIN CITY, but it feels like he’s riffing more on noir style than hardboiled Hammett prose. Neon lighting bathe every scene, all the pavements gleam from the rain, and his dialogue is so loaded it probably should carry a permit. It’s all such a “movie-movie” that it never becomes quite the thriller it wants to be. 

Veteran comic Simon Pegg brings a heavy dose of pathos to his suicidal teacher Bill, but he feels like he belongs in a more serious film. Still, his scenes with Robbie crackle with tension as he holds his own with her. Fletcher and Irons, as two quippy cons at odds with Annie, don’t succeed as strongly. They’re capable actors but their bitchy repartee isn’t nearly as clever as it should be, and they are far too milquetoast to be proper foils for Annie’s homicidal harpy. Most shockingly, the film fails to add real heat to Annie’s flirtation with Max. For such a sexy looking film, where’s the sex?  


The film is shot exquisitely, and it’s deftly edited, but its stylization keeps it at arms’ length. That becomes especially apparent in how Mike Myers plays the critical role of Clinton, the mysterious terminal custodian. Myers plays the deceptively salty old coot in heavy make-up, and it can’t help but draw unfavorable comparisons to the likes of “Fat Bastard” in his AUSTIN POWERS parodies. The ruse makes this film feel like even more of a lampoon rather than a legit noir. 

Even the framing and lighting in TERMINAL borders on caricature. Ace cinematographer Christopher Ross buttresses pinks and reds jauntily up against lime greens, but it looks like panels from a graphic novel too much of the time. Its look can’t help but draw comparisons to how “Creepshow” was lit in 1982 to give it a comic book feel. Because TERMINAL is photographed with such a heightened theatricality, the story’s grit tends not to stick. The body count piles up, but we know who’s going to be standing at the end. 

What does stick is Robbie. With the previously mentioned films from her resume, as well as her Oscar-nominated turn in I, TONYA, she’s proven to be the real deal as an actress and a movie star. She utterly commands the screen in her naughty vamp role and helps gloss and gleam over some of the more problematic parts of the story. And with as much gleaming neon as there is all around her in every frame, to shine more says a whole lot about her formidable talent. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

RIP MARGOT KIDDER, AN UNDERRATED ACTRESS WHO FLEW HIGH AS LOIS LANE


Margot Kidder, who achieved worldwide fame playing reporter Lois Lane in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, has died at 69. She was an underrated actress, one who could do comedy as easily as drama. Kidder defined the word "spunk" and brought intelligence and wit to almost every role the actress played. Some of the best parts of her career may have been sidelined by addiction issues, as well as unfortunate bouts with mental illness, but she nonetheless leaves behind some truly incredible film work. And for most Man of Steel fans, she will always be Lois. 



In the late 60's and early 70's, she was one of the up and coming ingenues, often popping up on television series like HARRY O and BARNABY JONES. I remember her as a sassy foil to George Peppard's cool sleuth in an episode of BANACEK. She was always sassy, even way back then. Of course, not long after that, Kidder got her big break when she was cast as Lois for Warner Bros' big-budget tentpole that carried the tagline "You will believe a man can fly." It was a ginormous critical and commercial hit, and suddenly, Kidder was everywhere. 

There were many outstanding attributes to Richard Donner's comic book adaptation, including one of John Williams' best scores, and Gene Hackman's cheekiest villains, but it was Christopher Reeve and Kidder who propelled that movie into classic status. She had palpable romantic chemistry with Reeve in his Man of Steel garb, and the scene where they fly together on their date is one of the most exhilarating and poignant love scenes ever captured on film. 



During it, Kidder's voice-over narrated the song "Can You Read My Mind" playing as they soared over Manhattan. As lovely as that song was, it probably wouldn't have become such a romantic ballad hit for songstress Maureen McGovern if Kidder hadn't made it so intimate and sexy while ogling her new 'boyfriend' amongst the clouds. 

Of course, where she really shone in that film, and the sequels she participated in, was in the comic interactions with all of those around her. Not only did she and Reeve conjure up the feeling of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in their schtick, but she batted banter with Jackie Cooper as crusty editor Perry White and Marc McClure as the naive Jimmy Olsen as well. Yet, even though Lois could be selfish and crude, Kidder kept us in love with her. She was a tough cookie, albeit one with a soft, gooey middle. 



There were other acclaimed films or starring roles, mostly in indies after that, though she did help make THE AMITYVILLE HORROR a hit, as well as HALLOWEEN II. Her best work, outside of the SUPERMAN franchise, was probably her starring turn in the Canadian sleeper HEARTACHES. She even won the Genie award in 1982 for Best Actress for that one.

Then her career got sidelined by personal problems that took her off the big screen and plopped her down on the gossip pages. She came back a few times after that, doing a lot of TV work, but her star never rose quite so high again. Hollywood is tough on actresses, especially those that develop a reputation for being "problematic." But Kidder persevered and has quite the lengthy IMDB biography.


My original caricature of Margot Kidder in SISTERS (copyright 2011).
Among those listings are some other films that have stood the test of time and became classics in addition to her SUPERMAN work. She was incredibly scary in the 1972 horror movie SISTERS written and directed by Brian De Palma. There, she played conjoined twins who are separated and have a great deal of difficulty letting go of their, ahem, singular relationship. It became a cult classic when first released, and its reputation has only grown since. 

I had a celebrity encounter with her in 2009 when she appeared at the Wizard World comic convention out in Rosemont. Kidder was signing 8" x 10" glossies for fans, as many celebs do at such things. After a quick lunch break, she returned, and I found myself the first one in line. I did not choose a pic of her as Lois to sign, but rather one of her as the twins Danielle and Dominique from SISTERS. As I approached her with that photo, she remarked that I was the first fan to choose something from that movie for her to sign. 


My autograph of Margot Kidder on the 8" x 10" glossy from SISTERS. 
"That's a shame," I commented. "I suppose it's because some of your fans aren't aware of the film." She nodded, but then added, "Or maybe they found me too scary in it." I laughed and told her that her scene in that film where she stabbed her date with a cake knife still gave me nightmares. Kidder confessed, "Brian (De Palma) wrote that script for me when we were dating. He said he wrote the two sides of me." I asked her if he wrote it for her before or after celebrating his birthday. She laughed in that hearty, distinctive way of hers and signed my picture. It remains a cherished memento of mine as Margot was one of my earliest crushes. 



My interaction with her was small but perfect, capturing all that I loved about her. Both sweet and coarse, sentimental and dark, sensitive and resilient, Kidder was an actress who could juxtapose those disparate emotions right up against each other. She made over 135 appearances on the big and small screen in her vast, 49-year career. And if she could have read the minds of her fans, she'd have known the permanent place she would always have in our hearts. 


Monday, May 7, 2018

LOOK FOR MY TWO LATEST MOVIE REVIEWS AT CREATIVE SCREENWRITING MAGAZINE ONLINE


As many of you are aware, I am now writing reviews for Creative Screenwriting magazine (www.creativescreenwriting.com), so bookmark it as there may be reviews of mine there that will not be duplicated here. That's particularly true when it comes to television content. The Establishing Shot doesn't review TV shows or miniseries with regularity, but at Creative Screenwriting magazine, such critiques will be frequent. 

To save you time this week, might I refer you to my two latest movie reviews? They are the new film DISOBEDIENCE from filmmaker Sebastian Lelio, who won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film a few months back with A FANTASTIC WOMAN. This new love story stars Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams. Here is the link: https://bit.ly/2JYw1Uw


The other new review that is up is that of the French romantic comedy called LET THE SUNSHINE IN. It stars the ever-luminescent Juliette Binoche working for director Claire Denis in a very dark tale about middle-aged dating that is hardly the type of romantic comedy they do in the States. Here is the link to that review: https://bit.ly/2JZ2ZEd


Both films are fascinating works with strong women at the center of each. Thank you again for following me here at The Establishing Shot, and I hope you'll follow me at Creative Screenwriting magazine online as well. 


Tuesday, May 1, 2018

“FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA” PAINTS AN ECCENTRIC PORTRAIT OF LOS ANGELES AND ITS CITIZENS


Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “Turn the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” That’s definitely true in the new film FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA where oddball characters bounce off each other like billiards in a pool hall. The comedy contains plenty of universal truths, but make no mistake, this is a very particular film about the very unique types of eccentrics who populate La La Land. It’s both hilarious and moving, a little gem of an indie dramedy that is available now on VOD.

So, just what kind of LA eccentrics can be found in the landscape of FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA? Start with Rodney (Steve Olson), the lead character, a jobless writer trying to break into the entertainment industry who thinks that his quick quips and bemused attitude about everything are enough of a resume. Rodney walks around, chattering about, running his mouth with almost a stream-of-consciousness commentary as he goes. He’s old enough to be more mature, yet he clings to his man-child tendencies and his inability to reckon with the fact that even in the surface-obsessed LA, work earns rewards. 

His laissez-faire approach to everything has opened the door for his hottie girlfriend Tess (Katrina Bowden) to grow tired of him and look for a way out. She’s an ingenue-type in her late 20’s, who will likely become a stylist after more casting rejection, and she’s looking for a life raft out of the dead sea of their relationship. She finds that in Keith (Jared Kusnitz), a pilot who still wears his cap during their trysts. Tess casually tosses Rodney out and, with nowhere to turn, he starts living out of his run-down car.  

Rodney is the kind of guy who is so used to rejection that he blithely accepts his beleaguered fate, even as he becomes a vagabond. Rooting for such a schlemiel could quickly start to grate but what keeps the audience on his side is Olson’s comic chops. He makes Rodney consistently funny, mumbling his bon mots and reacting to all of life’s indignities with his Buster Keaton-esque deadpan facial expressions. Too bad Rodney wasn’t around during Hollywood’s silent era; he might’ve been able to get a job in front of the camera. 

The desperate doofus starts stealing power through an extension cord for his daily needs from the electricity outlet outside a stranger’s home. The house belongs to June (Katherine Cortez, in the film’s slyest performance) and she is a piece of work herself. An ailing widow who forgets to take her med’s, she finds solace in the bottle and being a shrew to all who cross her path. She particularly likes busting the balls of her fussy neighbor Woody (veteran character actor Tim Bagley) who complains about how she’s letting her place go to seed and drive down the resale values of the other houses on the block. But when June discovers the thieving Rodney, she finds an even better punching bag.

She puts him to work, mowing her lawn, painting the fence, and lo and behold, Rodney becomes quite the handyman. He even strikes up a contentious, yet flirtatious relationship with June’s brittle daughter Olivia (Jenna Willis). She is on edge from her job as a nurse, and her angst is compounded by her cranky mom and the new interloper. Still, as played by Willis, Olivia shows signs of thawing. She is a nurse, after all, and the fiery redhead does have a big heart.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree here as June is shown to be all goo underneath her hard shell too. The scene which introduces her to us showcases her thwarting a convenience store robbery when she shames the potential stick-up artist into stopping because she recognizes him from the neighborhood. Cortez does an excellent job making her character wholly believable, swinging from cranky to cutesy on a dime, very often from line to line. 

June is like so many of the old guard hanging around the City of Angels, from West Hollywood to Los Feliz to Echo Park and the like. She’s let herself go, shambling around with greasy hair and a bedraggled wardrobe, yet there is still a spark and passion present in almost all she does. Some would throw her away, but June won’t let them. She knows the city burns a lot of people, and indeed, it has beaten June into submission, but it can’t extinguish her inner spark. The senior is a survivor, even a fixture in the community, and won’t go quietly. And she cares. It’s her rapport with all those in her orbit that keeps her going. June enjoys the bitchy banter with Woody, not to mention the moments when she can showcase her motherly tendencies, like when she counsels convenience store clerk Quinton (Rad Chad) and all comers…including Rodney.

One of the great things about FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA is how it makes all of the peripheral characters specific and worthy of admiration. It reflects the utmost respect that director Michael A. MacRae and his fellow screenwriters Jordan Hodges and Wyatt Aledort have for such types. They understand that for most everyone in LA, it’s a daily struggle to matter, to make rent, to keep their heads above water, and to exist in a town that rolls out the red carpet for the rich and celebrated, but no one else. The filmmakers love actors too as they’ve given strong roles to veteran performers like Kate Flannery and Richard Riehle as well. 

Even when you can see where the movie is headed, it charms by treating every character with respect, giving them lots of business to showcase. Even Keith gets a lot of screen time and is able to round out what could have just been a shallow villain. Ultimately, FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA argues for inclusion, courtesy, and consideration of every soul who makes up a community, even the utterly misbegotten. Rodney becomes a friend to June and grows into an ersatz member of her family. Even Woody comes around in the story, suggesting that he and June’s squabbling is more of a comedy routine the two have been running forever than the loathing it appeared to be at first. 

Characters change and grow, mostly protagonist Rodney of course, without ever becoming 180-degree different versions of where they started out. This is a grounded and more realistic comedy than most, striving to keep it honest in how it presents the fringe of LA. Even though everyone’s life here is a little desperate, made all the darker by the constant gleam of the Southern California sun, none of these are “garbage people.” There’s a quiet nobility to these has-been’s and never-was’ on display in FISHBOWL CALIFORNIA. This little indie that could will put a lump in your throat, in between laughs. The movie is quite the Valentine to the town and its lovable eccentrics. It knows that all you need to overcome the daily indignities of LA are friends, a few breaks, and a functioning car. 

WORLDS, CHARACTERS, AND SHOCKS COLLIDE IN THE MCU'S "AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR"



Now that Marvel Studios’ ginormous, star-studded, all-hands-on-deck, tentpole “Avengers: Infinity War” has opened and broken worldwide box office records with a take of $630 million worldwide, plot spoilers are everywhere. Thus, this review can critique the whole of the movie, not just its basic premise, and more wholly address the controversies and shocks dominating most of the chatter across social media. The funny thing is that most of the spoilers have been out there since 1991 already when the six-issue “Infinity Gauntlet,” on which it was based, was published. As if that wasn’t enough, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been trumpeting the pending slate of films on their docket all over TV and online, defying some of what this new film would have us believe about various characters’ fates. In a way, this is a movie that must be doubly critiqued – for what appeared onscreen and all that swirls around it offscreen as well. 

For starters, bringing the onscreen and offscreen issues into one, this is a movie that does not stand alone as its own entity. It will be lost on an audience that isn’t familiar with the previous 18 Marvel Studios films that set up all the characters, conflicts, and various plots that have led to this epic showdown. Ten years in the making, waiting for all of the origins stories to fall into place in the MCU, “Avengers: Infinity War” is not for the uninitiated. It brings together over a dozen superheroes, almost 40 major characters, and 31 returning stars. Good thing their names don’t appear onscreen until the end credits, otherwise the film would take infinity to get started. And it’s the first of two parts, with its conclusion making its way onto screens in the spring of 2019.

Even with all that to squeeze in, and wait on, this film does a spectacular job of getting going right off the bat, bringing all those heroes and stories together quickly and deftly. The movie also immediately starts mixing up the combinations of characters with cross-overs happening with many heroes who’ve never met each other. Tony Stark meets Dr. Strange, Thor meets the Guardians of the Galaxy, and so on. This film expertly blends the fresh with the familiar. And in an expansive running time of 149 minutes, the film rarely drags. It also manages to juxtapose comedy right up against tragedy with ease. Despite the fact that most of the discussion everywhere concerns the film’s last 10 minutes, it is the previous 139 that deserve the most conversation. That is where the film succeeds spectacularly. 

“Avengers: Infinity War” is truly at its best with those unusual character combos coming together. What brings them together is an intergalactic villain named Thanos (a motion-captured Josh Brolin) who is steamrolling through the universe collecting Infinity Stones to help him conquer all the cosmos. The collision course with this baddie makes for strange bedfellows on the Avengers side. Watching narcissistic brainiac Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) match wits with the equally cerebral Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a treat not only because their needling banter turns to begrudging respect, but because of the subtext of seeing two Sherlocks go toe-to-toe with one another. And adding Tom Holland’s Spider-Man into the mix, trying to keep up with these two sparring adults, makes their scenes brim with all the more ego and cheeky humor. 

Equally as amusing are the scenes where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) joins forces with the Guardians of the Galaxy. He manages to fit into their merry band of misfits, cracking wise and busting balls, like he’s the missing Marx brother. Watching the insecure Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) fret as his team gushes over the new he-man in their midst yields some of the film’s biggest laughs. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) coos, “It’s like his muscles are made of Kryptonite fibers.” Take that, Star-Lord, and while we’re at it, you too, Superman of the DC Universe!

As various groups form to battle Thanos in his stone quest, the film starts to take on a bit of the feeling of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” All these stars, all these arguing characters, reluctantly forming partnerships, isn’t that far off from Sid Caesar, Jonathan Winters, Ethel Merman, and the dozen other comic characters coming together in similar ways to find stolen loot in that classic 1963 farce. This film brings a ton of comedy, but it also juxtaposes its pathos effectively up against all the laughs. 

With over two dozen characters gallivanting about in this one, it’s inevitable that some get shortchanged, forced to recede into the background. Captain America has a supporting role at best this time out, with little to do until the finale. The same goes for his compadres Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Other characters fare better, including some that pack a wallop like never before. Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen, as Vision and Scarlett Witch, are standouts here, shouldering a significant portion of the story’s emotional heft. Saldana carries even more, what with Gamora’s relationship to her step-father Thanos and the actress runs with her character’s devastating arc. 

And considering that Thanos is a big CGI behemoth, the character comes off as entirely believable alongside his human scene partner. He’s easily one of the best villains put on the screen in some time, and probably MCU’s best since Loki. Kudos to writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, a wisely underplaying Brolin, and oodles of computer graphics artists for making Thanos so worthy. He’s not only an understandable villain, but he gets the most screen time of any character in the film as well.

Thanos has an ax to grind because he saw his home planet of Titan destroyed by overpopulation and when he attempted to save its resources and citizenry by suggesting a lottery that would mercifully take out half the population, his planet elders balked. His idea was genocide, of course, but Thanos’ justification is not some crazed rant. Rather, he’s a calculating politico looking at the bigger picture, even if it’s incredibly harmful to get there. Learning from his attempt at winning over others, he has changed tactics and will now merely brawl his way to gain the gems that will help him put his plan into action. Once he has the six stones - Mind, Soul, Space, Power, Reality and Time – he will be unstoppable. 

Those are some ridiculously high stakes, and many Avengers here will fail in trying to thwart him. The film doesn’t pull punches, starting right off the bat with Thanos destroying the Asgardians who escaped on spacecraft at the end of THOR: RAGNAROK. A few more minutes into the movie, the villain than disposes of Heimdall (Idris Alba) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and it’s devastating. It’s one thing to kill off a beloved character, but it’s something entirely horrific to watch Thanos strangle the life out of Loki. It seems especially incongruent after the farcical tone of the previous film, but ace thespians Hiddleston and Hemsworth make it work. In fact, Hemsworth sets the tone brilliantly in that first scene by expertly showcasing the comedy and tragedy inherent in his character and the MCU. He ends up giving the best performance in this film and has become the most compelling and watchable of all the Avengers.  

Yet of all the shocks, and all the action set-pieces, including some very good skirmishes throughout like the extended battle on Wakanda where Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and his people nobly join the Avengers, it’s the ending that packs the biggest wallop. And it’s the one that has all the tongues wagging and fingers clacking away on social media threads. In the end, Thanos wins and obliterates half of the universe’s population with the snap of his fingers. Watching some beloved characters disintegrate into ash is devastating, for sure, but it’s also confounding, and more than a touch irritating. 

Why? For starters, any audience member, even those who are not aficionados, knows that it’s a bit of a ruse. We know that second part of the story is coming. Also, anyone who knows anything about Hollywood and commerce knows that Marvel isn’t going to kill off half of its golden geese. Finally, talk of the latest sequels to Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Spider-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy have been all over the news lately, especially with the staggering success of “Black Panther” these past few months.

Thus, that lump in your throat is very, very temporary. And to add a bit of insult to it, the post-credits sequence confounds even more by having Captain Marvel be the recipient of a distress call as earth starts to lose half its citizenry. The story of Carol Danvers comes out in 2019, a month before the second part of “Infinity War” and will now have a lot of explaining to do. For starters, her origins story is slated to take place in the decade of the 1990’s, so how she figures in this contemporary tale remains to be seen. Also, the salvation in the original comic six-parter comes from other characters, but then the MCU has often rewritten backstories and characters. Who will fix the universe? My money is on Stark and Strange putting their two brains together and coming up with some sort of plan involving time travel. 

Considering that that ending reveal is the spoiler that MCU has put all of its Sturm und Drang around, it isn’t quite the shocker it’s designed to be. By now we know that any tragedy befalling the Avengers, or any superheroes for that matter is far from permanent. (Hello, the resurrection of Superman in “Justice League.”) And with that, the MCU underlines a problem with its franchises – they’re never really going to kill off their main characters. It’s a flaw that mars this otherwise sterling tale because it takes us out of the movie while the movie plays before our eyes. Best to not obsess over all this too much, however, especially when there are a thousand fan theories out there to chew over how Captain Marvel is going to fit into all of this.