THE INVITATION (2015) Keeps Its Audience Off Balance

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If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.  Then again, maybe your emotional baggage is just making you paranoid.

That’s the overwhelming feeling generated in the taut thriller THE INVITATION (2015) in which main character Will (Logan Marshall-Green) has the haunting feeling that the dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new husband is all so very wrong and dangerous; yet, he can’t deny that his head is clouded by grief over the death of his young son, a death he and his ex-wife still have not come to terms with.

THE INVITATION opens with Will and his current girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) driving to Will’s ex-wife’s dinner party, when their car strikes a deer.  The animal is badly injured, and without hestitation, Will puts it out of its misery using a tire iron, which says something about his resolve and temperament right at the outset.

Will feels uncomfortable immediately upon arriving at his former home, even though he’s surrounded by a large group of his friends who are already there at the party.  Seeing his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) only opens old wounds for him, and it doesn’t help that her new husband David (Michiel Huisman) is overly sympathetic and syrupy sweet, but there’s something off-putting about him that continually rubs Will the wrong way, so much so that he becomes suspicious of every little thing the man does, like seemingly locking them inside the house, an action that David dismisses as the innocent act of locking one’s door.

Will also takes issue with David’s decision to invite a couple of his friends to the dinner party.  Will was under the impression that the gathering was supposed to be a closed reunion of old friends.  And when Will perceives what he considers to be weird things happening, he tries to warn everyone, but they dismiss his charges as the emotional misgivings of a grieving parent and urge him to relax and see things through.  The more the evidence seems to support his friends’ assertions that there really isn’t anything wrong inside the house, the more Will questions his own feelings.

After all, his friends are right.  He’s still grieving over his son’s death.  There’s nothing really sinister going on inside Eden’s and David’s house, is there?

Well, is there?

And that’s the fun of THE INVITATION.  It plays its shell game well.  The movie does a terrific job masking the truth.  The audience feels the same way Will does. There’s just something very peculiar about David and Eden and their new friends.  And yet, all the peculiarities can be explained away, but still, Will can’t shake that troubling feeling that they are all in danger.  To make matters more frustrating, Will is completely on his own. None of his friends or his girlfriend Kira feel the same way he does or see the same things he does.  It’s all very maddening, yet it’s a heck of a lot of fun as it makes for a very suspenseful story.

The screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi is sharp and incisive, and it plays like an intricate puzzle.  We empathize with Will, but we really don’t want him to be right, even though we tend to believe him because he doesn’t come off as overly disturbed.  Sure, he’s emotional, he’s grieving, but he seems to be a pretty solid well rounded guy, except that he’s now wounded by his son’s death. The movie does a really good job keeping its audience off balance.

It’s a strong screenplay by Hay and Manfredi, much better than their work together on the subpar remake CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010).  They also co-wrote the box office bomb R.I.P.D (2013) starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges.

Director Karyn Kusama has made a very tight and scary little thriller.  It kept me guessing throughout, and the payoff was frightening and satisfying.  The film also doesn’t skimp on the violence.  There are some jarring scenes in this one.

Logan Marshall-Green is very effective as Will, and his performance drew me in immediately.  I felt for him and believed that he was seeing things that were weird enough to be concerned about, even if no one else in the movie believed him.

Tammy Blanchard is sufficiently weird as Eden, as is Michiel Huisman as her new husband David.  There’s something so very off-putting about the two of them, and yet David always says the right things to put people at ease and disarm their fears.

John Carroll Lynch and Lyndsay Burdge are also very good as David’s creepy yet seemingly sincere friends.

The film has excellent acting all around.

I had heard good things about THE INVITATION, but really didn’t know what to expect.  It lived up to my expectations and then some.

If you like tense thrillers in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock you’ll love THE INVITATION.  It’s as engrossing as it is deadly.

It’s one invite you’ll be glad you didn’t pass up.

—END—

 

 

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THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) Not So Magnificent

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A bully takes over a town, and the frustrated townspeople hire gunslingers to protect them.  It’s the story told in the classic western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), itself a remake of an even better movie, Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954).

So, you’d hope that the folks behind this latest remake would offer audiences something new.  After all, if you’re going to remake a movie, wouldn’t you want to put your own stamp on it, to make it stand out as your own?  And that’s the biggest problem I had with this new version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016):  it doesn’t give us anything new or stand on its own.

The biggest culprit?  A screenplay that never really gets to the heart of the matter.  In spite of the solid acting and crisp clear directing, the story never really moves beyond the superficial.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN opens with a baddie named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) terrorizing a small town in the old west.  He’s buying off the people’s land at ridiculously low prices, and if they won’t sell, well, his army of bandits will simply kill them.  And when some of the townsfolk object, that’s exactly what they do.

One of the men killed is the husband of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a feisty woman who then sets out to hire gunslingers to free their town from Bogue’s clutches.  She meets a hired gun named Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and he turns her down until he hears the name of the man she wants stopped, Bogue, and then he changes his mind.  Chisolm and Bogue obviously share some history, which we learn about later in the story.

Chisolm rounds up a team of men to join him, with the total number eventually reaching seven.  They then spend the rest of the movie preparing to defend the town, setting things up for the obligatory climactic confrontation.

As you can see, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN tells a very simple story, and for a movie like this to work, it needs to be carried by strong characters and a lively script, neither of which are in this movie.

The characters are okay and the actors are all solid in their roles,  but they’re all very plain and straightforward.  None of them are particularly memorable. Only Vincent D’Onofrio stands out as the high-pitched soft spoken trapper Jack Horne.  D’Onofrio gives Horne something the other characters all lack:  a personality.  He’s the one memorable character in the whole lot.

I’m a big Denzel Washington fan, going back to his early years with films like CRY FREEDOM (1987) all the way through to today, although some of his recent films have been lukewarm.  Washington is fine here, but there’s just not a lot to Chisolm.  He’s a cool customer, not saying a whole lot, but unlike Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, we don’t really see Chisolm back up his persona with action, and what little he has to say is flat out dull.

Chris Pratt plays the lively gambler Josh Faraday, and it looks like Pratt is having a good time, but the problem with Faraday is nearly every line he spews is a cliche.  It’s the type of role James Garner would have played, but Garner would have anchored the charm with some realism, and Pratt doesn’t give Faraday anything that is even resembling real.

Ethan Hawke is Goodnight Robicheaux, and the most memorable thing about him is his name.  Hawke is another actor I usually enjoy, but the role he’s playing here is shallow and underdeveloped.  The same can be said for Robicheaux’s buddy Billy Rocks, played by Byung-hun Lee.

As I said, Vincent D’Onofrio is the one guy who stands out from the rest here, as the burly trapper Jack Horne.  He also gives Chris Pratt’s Faraday one of the better lines in the movie when he says of Jack, “I do believe that bear was wearing people clothes.”

And the seven are rounded out by a Mexican gunman named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and a Native American named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).  Both of these characters are like the other five:  solid but unremarkable.

I also wasn’t overly impressed by Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen.  She sure looks feisty with her heated stares at the camera, but again I’ll blame the script.  We know very little about Emma, and she remains largely in the background while the seven do their thing, rather than being in the middle of the action.

The one other actor who does make an impression is Peter Sarsgaard as the dastardly villain Bartholomew Bogue, but that all happens in the opening sequence of the movie. Sarsgaard struts his stuff in the opening scene, making for a very dark character, giving the film a rather chilling start.  But then he disappears for the remainder of the movie, and when he returns for the climactic battle, he remains in the background,reduced to reaction shots as his army goes toe to toe with the seven.  So, unfortunately, Sarsgaard is hardly a major factor in this movie, since his best scene is the first one.

Director Antoine Fuqua , who also directed Denzel Washington in THE EQUALIZER (2014) and the film which won Washington as Oscar, TRAINING DAY (2001), does a serviceable job here.  I mean, the action scenes are clear and crisp, but they don’t wow.  The cinematography is adequate, but it didn’t blow me away.  This wild west is nowhere near as grand or picturesque as the west captured by the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Fuqua also glosses over one of the more interesting parts of the story:  the training of the townspeople to defend themselves.  There are a few fleeting scenes of our magnificent seven teaching these folks the art of self-defense, but there was so much more that could have been done.  It’s a missed opportunity in a movie that was begging for some captivating sequences.

And while the shoot-outs and fights are professionally shot— heh heh— they are way too sanitizied and neat.  First off, the film is rated PG-13, and so for the countless unfortunates who are shot, stabbed, blown up, what have you, there’s not a drop of blood anywhere.  Not that I want to see a gory bloodbath, but when things are as neat and tidy as they are in this movie, it takes away from the strength of the story.

The bigger drawback with the action scenes is that they are all so orderly.  There’s no sense of panic or pandemonium.  Take the climactic battle between the seven and the townsfolk and the army of villains.  There are people running everywhere, and yet everyone knows exactly who to shoot, without question.  It’s so precise you’d think they were wearing sports jerseys with their names on them, like having “Team Bogue” printed on their backs.  This is an all out war, people are being shot and blown up, and yet there’s no horror whatsoever associated with it, which really limits the story.

The best action sequence is when Chisolm and company first arrive in the town and put a big hurt on the thugs stationed there.  This dramatic sequence works well.  By contrast, the movie’s ending is nowhere near as riveting.

Again, the biggest culprit to this one being mediocre is its screenplay by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto, which surprised me because Wenk has written screenplays for films I’ve really enjoyed, movies like the remake of THE MECHANIC (2011) with Jason Statham, and the Sylvester Stallone all-star actioner THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012), which I thought was the best of that series.

The screenplay to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN tells a straightforward story without many surprises.  There are the occasional witty lines, but I’d hardly call it a lively script.  Plus it’s all so predictable, with the ending to this one never being in doubt.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a by the numbers western that never rises above its material or puts a distinctive stamp on the genre.

It’s not bad, but for a movie called THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, there’s nothing all that magnficent about it. Perhaps it should have been called THE STRAIGHTFORWARD SEVEN.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weak Writing Slays Season 2 of DAREDEVIL (2016)

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I absolutely loved Season 1 of the Netflix/Marvel TV show DAREDEVIL.  It was dark, gritty, and had a definite edge to it.  The writing was superb, the characters fleshed out, and it had a helluva villain, Wilson Fisk, masterfully played by Vincent D’Onofrio, who for my money was better than any of the villains seen in the Marvel Superhero movies.

But Season 2— well, simply put, Season 2 was a major disappointment.

Yup, Season 2 of DAREDEVIL fell short on so many fronts.

We can start with the absence of Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio).  Both the character and D’Onofrio’s performance were clearly my favorite parts of Season 1.  With Fisk caught at the end of Season 1, it meant there would be a new villain in town.  I hoped the writers would be up to the task of filling the void left by the departure of Fisk.  They were not.

Fisk was such a dominating force in Season 1, the villain who pretty much set the tone for the entire series, and who made the hero Daredevil stronger because of his presence.  In Season 2, there was no such driving force.  The main villains this time around, the shadowy Ninja group known as The Hand, and their leader, the nearly supernatural Nobu, mainly remained in the shadows, their motives barely expressed.

But the lack of a strong villain on its own wouldn’t be enough to sink the entire second season of DAREDEVIL.  There’s more.

Let’s start with the main character himself, Daredevil/aka Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox).  I hate to say it, but simply put, Matt Murdock became a complete bore in Season 2, which is a complete turnaround from the compelling character we met in Season 1.  One of the best things about Murdock in Season 1 was his relationship with his friends Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll).  Nelson is his best friend from law school, and the two practice law together at their own tiny firm.  Karen becomes their secretary, and in Season 1 there was a fun sexual tension between the three of them.

All of that disappeared in Season 2.  Matt becomes distracted with the return of a former lover, the unpredictable and dangerous Elektra (Elodie Yung), and he ends up spending nearly the entire season in an on again/off again relationship with Elektra, while also using most of his energy to help her combat The Hand.  As a result, he blows off Foggy and Karen at nearly every turn, leaving them to spend nearly the entire season reacting to his terrible treatment of them.  It gets so bad that eventually Foggy calls it quits and dissolves the firm.

To make matters even worse, Matt finally acts on his feelings towards Karen, but then does an about face and dumps her for Elektra, which was too bad, because Matt and Karen shared some chemistry.  Matt and Elektra do not.

As such, two of the more enjoyable characters from Season 1, Foggy and Karen, get reduced to being emotional punching bags for Matt Murdock.  Even worse for Karen, once she leaves the firm, she enters a ridiculous storyline where she becomes a reporter and suddenly is a major newspaper writer because she “has a knack for that sort of thing.”  I have a knack for cooking too but you don’t see me suddenly hosting my own TV show on the Food Network.  Writing is hard work, and any story that implies otherwise is difficult to take seriously.

The dialogue in Season 2 also did not help matters.

The philosophical conversations Daredevil had with the Punisher were trite, cliche, and hopelessly dull.  They basically debated over vigilantism, with the Punisher arguing it’s okay to kill while Daredevil would display his halo— is he Daredevil or Dareangel?— and say klling is always wrong.  Daredevil’s stance is admirable— heck, Batman lives by the same creed— but the writing here was so bad, the dialogue so basic it was laughable.

Speaking of the Punisher, Jon Bernthal’s performance as the Punisher was one of the highlights of Season 2, and he got to enjoy a few decent episodes.  But as the season went on, his storyline got pushed into the background, taking a back seat to the Elecktra plot with the Hand. Anwyay, I’m glad he’s getting his own Punisher TV show soon.  I’m looking forward to it.

The other new character, Elektra, I didn’t like as much.  I never warmed up to her.  A big reason why was I enjoyed Matt’s chemistry with Karen more than his chemistry with Elektra.  She was also stuck in a story I didn’t like, the whole plot with the Hand.

What exactly was the Hand up to?  Their motives were never made clear, and the show clearly suffered for it.  There was so much screen time devoted to Matt and Elektra discussing the Hand, and I just didn’t care about any of it.

Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) does show up for a couple of episodes, where he’s in prison and his path crosses with The Punisher’s, in what clearly were the best episodes of Season 2.

Season 1 of DAREDEVIL had a central villain, Wilson Fisk, who had an agenda, and who’s violent antics gave Daredevil a major challenge and a reason for being.  With Fisk gone and without a powerful foe, Daredevil morphed into a far less interesting character in Season 2.

All of these flaws revolve around one central weakness:  inferior writing.  The writing in Season 2 was far less impressive than the high quality writing from Season 1.  The plots were all over the place and hardly ever came together.  The strong trio of Matt, Foggy, and Karen were divided and left weaker and far less interesting.  Newcomer the Punisher was given little to do, and newcomer Elektra failed to impress.

The villains in Season 2, the Hand, were never fully developed, and for most the season, Daredevil was reduced to a whiny pontificating pacifist with a mask and bad taste in women.

Here’s hoping Season 3 will be an improvement.

Wilson Fisk can’t get out prison fast enough!

—END—

 

 

 

 

Movie Lists: Gene Wilder

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Gene Wilder shrieking “Give my creation, life!” in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974).

Welcome to another edition of MOVIE LISTS, the column where you’ll find lists of odds and ends about movies.  Today, we look at films starring Gene Wilder.

Wilder, who passed away on August 29, 2016, was one of the most popular comic actors on the planet between 1974-1982.  Here is a partial list of his film credits:

THE PRODUCERS (1967)- Leo Bloom- if you’ve seen this Mel Brooks comedy, you’ll remember Wilder as the neurotic producer who can’t handle it when the sure-fire flop he and co-producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) plan— a musical about Hitler— becomes a surprise hit.  Wilder at his unstable best.

START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME (1970) –  Claude/Philippe – Having fun with Donald Sutherland during the French Revolution.

WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971) – Willy Wonka – Wilder is excellent in the lead in this Roald Dahl fantasy.  I believe this is the first Gene Wilder movie I ever saw, although it’s not the movie that made me a fan.  That would happen with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK (1972)- Doctor Ross.  Wilder is hilarious here as a man who falls in love with a sheep in this wacky yet uneven Woody Allen comedy.  I saw this years after it came out, probably in the early 1980s when I was in college.

BLAZING SADDLES (1974) – Jim – another Gene Wilder/Mel Brooks classic that I didn’t see until years after its release, again in the early 1980s.  I was only 10 in 1974, and BLAZING SADDLES was Rated R, which meant it was off limits to me.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)- Dr. Frederick Frankenstein – this one I did see shortly after it came out, as it was rated PG, and it’s the movie that made me a lifelong Gene Wilder fan.  So many amazing memorable moments in the movie, generated by Wilder and the entire cast, and of course writer/director Mel Brooks.  Among my favorite Wilder bits:  “You just made a yummy sound,” “Put the candle back,”   and “I thought I told you never to disturb me while I’m working!”  

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Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974).  Hello, handsome!

THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER (1975)- Sigerson Holmes- Funny film, but tried too hard to follow the same formula as YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN with inferior results.  Wilder’s directorial debut.

SILVER STREAK (1976) – George- Wilder’s first pairing with Richard Pryor.  Probably my second favorite Gene Wilder movie behind YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

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Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder

THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER (1977) -Rudy Hickman- Not one of my favorites.  This was the second film Wilder directed, after THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER. The jokes just aren’t as sharp this time around.

THE FRISCO KID (1979)- Avram-  This has always been one of my favorite Gene Wilder roles and movies.  Wilder plays a rabbi on an adventure in the wild west in this unlikely charmer by director Robert Aldrich.  Co-starring Harrison Ford.

STIR CRAZY (1980) – Skip Donahue – Wilder’s second pairing with Richard Pryor might be their funniest.  Directed by Sidney Poitier.

HANKY PANKY (1982) – Michael Jordon – Wilder co-stars with future wife Gilda Radner in this box office disaster originally written to feature both Wilder and Richard Pryor again.  Once more directed by Sidney Poitier.  Wilder considered this to be one of his worst movies.

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Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder

THE WOMAN IN RED (1984) – Teddy Pierce – Another one of my favorites.  Wilder becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman in red played by Kelly LeBrock in this amiable romantic comedy.  Co-starring Charles Grodin and Gilda Radner.  Wilder directed and co-wrote this remake of a French movie, which might be his best directorial effort.

HAUNTED HONEYMOON (1986) – Larry Abbot-  Wilder once more directs himself and wife Gilda Radner, in what would be both his final directorial effort and last movie that he and Radner made together.  Not surprisingly, this unfunny film bombed at the box office.

SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL (1989) – Dave Lyons-  Wilder’s third pairing with Richard Pryor, directed by Arthur Hiller, who also directed Wilder’s/Pryor’s first pairing, SILVER STREAK.  Early film role for Kevin Spacey.

ANOTHER YOU (1991)- George/Abe Fielding – Wilder’s fourth and final movie with Richard Pryor.  This was also Wilder’s final theatrical release.  He would make four more movies, all of them made for TV.

Okay, there you have it, a partial list of the movies starring Gene Wilder.

Gene Wilder – June 11, 1933 – August 29, 2016

Thanks for reading everybody, and I’ll see you again next time for another MOVIE LISTS column where we’ll look at more odds and ends from the movies.

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MORGAN (2016) Emphasizes Action Over Science Fiction

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Anya Taylor-Joy and Kate Mara in MORGAN (2016).

MORGAN (2016), the latest movie about an artificially intelligent humanoid, relies more on action than science fiction.  As such, there’s more BOURNE than EX MACHINA in this sci fi adventure tale.

MORGAN begins with scientist Dr. Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason Leigh) speaking to an artificially intelligent humanoid named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy).  Morgan suddenly flips out and in a jarring opening scene viciously stabs Dr. Grieff in the eye.

The company which financed the creation of Morgan sends a young consultant named Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate the incident to decide whether or not Morgan should be terminated.  Lee gets to know all the scientists involved, and it’s clear from the outset that these scientists are emotionally tied to Morgan and extremely protective of her.  They do not want to see anything happen to her.

When psychologist Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti) arrives to perform his evaluation of Morgan, he purposely pushes her buttons to a get a reaction from her.  When she overreacts and escapes, all hell breaks loose and it’s up to Lee to stop her.

For a film about artificial intelligence, MORGAN is a pretty straightforward and simple flick.  It’s not really much of a science fiction movie at all.  The recent EX MACHINA (2015) was a much more thought-provoking take on the subject.  That being said, MORGAN is still a very entertaining movie. It’s an action thriller rather than a contemplative science fiction film, but this doesn’t take away from the fun.

Kate Mara is excellent in the lead role as Lee Weathers.  It’s one of the best roles I’ve seen Mara play.  She’s nearly perfect for this part.  She’s smart, sexy, and sleek, and she’s a formidable force who does not back down to the scientists around her or to Morgan.

Anya Taylor-Joy plays Morgan, and she’s okay, but strangely  she didn’t have a lot to do. It’s not really Taylor-Joy’s fault but the way the character is written.  Most of the time she just stares ahead and looks artificial or ominous.  We don’t get inside her head enough to know what it’s like to be artificially created.  We never really feel what it’s like to be Morgan, and this is one of the weakest parts of the movie.

MORGAN is actually more about Kate Mara’s character.  Early on the film focuses on her investigation, and later on it follows her pursuit of the escaped Morgan, when the film turns into an action thriller.

The confrontation between Lee and Morgan near the end of the film is one of the more riveting female fight sequences I’ve seen in a while.  It was really intense.  I loved the way it was edited.  A great job here by director Luke Scott, in what might be the best scene in the movie.

Anya Taylor-Joy also played Thomasin in THE WITCH (2015), and she was better in that movie.  Of course, she also had more to do, and it was a better written part.

The rest of the cast is very good.

Rose Leslie from TV’s DOWNTON ABBEY and GAME OF THRONES plays Dr. Amy Menser, a behaviorist, who probably is closest to Morgan.  Toby Jones, the son of Hammer Films’ character actor Freddie Jones, plays Dr. Simon Ziegler, a man who is clearly proud of Morgan and does not want the company interfering with his prized project, which he continually tells people took years and years of hard work to perfect.

Boyd Holbrook plays the likable and easy going chef Skip.  Holbrook was memorable in the Liam Neeson thriller A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014), and he was also in GONE GIRL (2014).  Chris Sullivan, who appeared in the first episode of STRANGER THINGS as Benny, the man who lost his life befriending young Eleven, plays Dr. Darren Finch, and Michelle Yeoh, who also just co-starred with Jason Statham in MECHANIC:  RESURRECTION (2016) plays the lead scientist of the group, Dr. Lui Cheng.

Paul Giamatti shows up for one scene as Dr. Alan Shapiro, the guy brought in to perform Morgan’s psychological evaluation.  It’s one of the better scenes in the movie, one I would have liked even more had I not seen most of it in the movie’s trailers.  Giamatti is always fun to watch, and he makes the most of this one sequence, which is pretty much all him.  Again, Morgan herself has little depth other than to show anger when pushed.

And even Brian Cox shows up for a brief second as the head of the company responsible for Morgan.

Director Luke Scott does a nice job with this one.  The fight scene between Lee and Morgan is a keeper, and the other action sequences are also done well.

The biggest knock on this one is the screenplay by Seth W.Owen. I really expected this one to be a thought-provoking science fiction tale, but it’s not.  We never get inside Morgan’s head.  The concept of what it’s like to be an artificially intelligent being is hardly explored.  It’s covered very briefly when the scientists speak of Morgan’s rights, and Lee flatly denounces, “She has no rights.”  That’s it.  No debate, no wonder.

Later, in what is supposed to be a defining moment, Morgan declares “I feel alive.”  She says this, but she never acts it.  She only acts like an assassin out of a Bourne movie.

And that’s because MORGAN isn’t really a science fiction movie at all.  It’s a Bourne-style thriller featuring a humanoid in the lead rather than Jason Bourne.  But as such, it works.  While I was disappointed the film didn’t have more ambition in terms of its artificial intelligence story,  I definitely enjoyed the thriller aspects to this one, and the Lee -in pursuit of-Morgan story I found compelling and very watchable.  In fact, I would argue that the best part of MORGAN isn’t Anya Taylor-Joy as Morgan, but Kate Mara as Lee.  Mara is the driving force behind this movie.

There is a twist in this movie, one that I sniffed out from the get-go due to some obvious hints that perhaps shouldn’t have been placed there so prominently.  I for one wasn’t surprised in the least by the revelation at the end.

All in all, for what it was, I liked MORGAN and found it a fun way to spend 90 minutes at the movies.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

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BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986) marked the fourth time director John Carpenter worked with actor Kurt Russell,  following  ELVIS (1979), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), and THE THING (1982).

Whereas time has been kind to both ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING—THE THING is often ranked #1 on horror fans’ “Favorite Horror Movie” lists— when they first came out, neither film was a hit.  In fact, THE THING was a box office bomb.

Kurt Russell wasn’t faring much better in 1986.  He had just come off a string of films that had performed very poorly at the box office, and the story goes that he was so worried about his box office slump that he told Carpenter to get someone else to star in BIG TROUBLE, but Carpenter told him not to worry, that he wanted him to star in the movie.

I wish I could say that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was a huge hit and rejuvenated the careers of both these artists, but that’s not what happened.  Like their previous few films, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA also tanked at the box office.

But like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA has enjoyed a resurgence.  Fans nowadays like this movie.   I saw it when it first came out, and I did not like it.  I liked it so little that I never bothered to watch it again.

Until now.

And that’s because I’ve been hearing fans say good things about the movie, and I thought it was high time I gave it a second viewing.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a strange movie.  It’s an action adventure that takes place in Chinatown, San Francisco and involves Chinese mysticism, which gives the film a supernatural element.  It’s also a comedy, meaning that the entire thing is played for laughs.

Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) go to the airport to pick up Wang’s girlfriend, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai).  While there, Jack flirts with a woman named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) which provides him with a few minutes of fun before a Chinese gang shows up and kidnaps Miao.

Jack and Wang give chase, but the gang eludes them and gets away with Miao.  Wang vows to get her back, and Jack agrees to help him.  I guess no one thought to call the police. Anyway, Gracie Law shows up at their doorstep and reveals that she’s a lawyer who knows all about the Chinese mystical underworld, and she wants to help Jack and Wang as well.  They also receive help from Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a bus driver who’s also an expert on Chinese sorcery.

They need all this help because Miao has been kidnapped by David Lo Pan (James Hong), a two thousand year-old sorcerer who’s cursed to walk the earth without his physical body.  To lift the curse, he has to marry a girl with green eyes, which is why he kidnapped Miao, because she has green eyes.  It turns out that Gracie Law also has green eyes.  Suddenly Lo Pan has more choices than he knows what to do with.  Life is good.  For a while, anyway, as soon Jack and Wang show up, and they’re all about taking down Lo Pan and his supernatural army.  Good luck with that!

As I said, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is played for laughs.  There isn’t a serious bone in this one’s body.

At first, I was really enjoying this one, and during the movie’s first half, I thought my opinion of it would change.  What wasn’t to like?  It was full of 1980s nostalgia, it had Kurt Russell, lots of colorful martial art action scenes, monsters, supernatural goings on, and a neat music score by John Carpenter.

But midway through, the movie runs out of gas, and I remembered why I didn’t really like this one back in 1986.  The martial arts action scenes start to get repetitive, and a major reason why is they’re simply not very good.

The script by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein also fizzles.  Early on, things are mysterious, and the dialogue is rapid fire funny, but later, once you know Lo Pan’s story, it’s pretty ridiculous, even it if is played for laughs.  I’ve seen more believable plots on SCOOBY DOO.  And the humor definitely loses its edge, mostly because after a while it’s simply Jack and Wang dealing with one unbelivable situation after another.

The film definitely gets goofier as it goes along, becoming flat our silly rather than focusing on the action and the adventure.  Had this one had more of an edge to it, and kept the humor in the background, it would have worked better.

Kurt Russell based Jack Burton on John Wayne, and it’s apparent right from the get-go. Russell is fun to watch here because he really does capture the Duke’s onscreen persona. Similarly, Russell based Snake Plissken in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK on Clint Eastwood, which is also clearly apparent.

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Kurt Russell as Jack Burton in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Things would change for Russell with his next movie, the hit comedy OVERBOARD (1987) in which he starred with Goldie Hawn.  And a series of hits would follow Russell over the next five years.

While Russell is entetaining in BIG TROUBLE, Dennis Dun is just OK as Wang Chi.  He lacks Russell’s charisma and larger than life qualities, which is too bad because one of the movie’s jokes is that Jack thinks he’s the hero, yet he’s constantly messing things up, and it’s Wang who’s the true hero in the movie, but at times, Dun doesn’t make this notion all that believable.

Kim Cattrall is the epitome of 1980s actresses, and she fits right in here.  She’s got the 80s hairstyle, and she plays Gracie Law with a mixture of strength and ditziness.  She could easily walk into the CHEERS bar for a drink.

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Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

Victor Wong is sufficiently knowledgable as Egg Shen, but James Hong is rather ineffective as main baddie David Lo Pan.  He spends most of the time behind make-up and special effects.

The special effects are OK.  They run hot and cold, and they’re really cheesy.  I guess that’s part of the charm for some people.

So, after my second viewing, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA remains not one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. Sadly, Carpenter would follow this up with the even worse PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987).  It would be a little while before Carpenter would find his stride again, and that would be with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995).

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA means well.  It’s got tons of energy, and everyone looks like they’re having a grand old time.  But as the action becomes flat out goofy, the story doesn’t hold up, and the script doesn’t match the film’s inanity, as the dialogue and situations are never that funny, it all becomes rather tedious long before the end credits roll.

The trouble in Little China just isn’t all that big.

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SULLY (2016) – Remarkable Story, Exceptional Movie

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SULLY (2016) has a remarkable story to tell, so even if it were just a mediocre movie, it would still be worth seeing due to the strength of its story.  The good news is SULLY is more than just a mediocre movie:  it’s an impeccably made film by director Clint Eastwood, and it features yet another superb performance by Tom Hanks, which means that simply put, SULLY is  an exceptional movie, one that you should definitely see at the theater.

SULLY tells the incredible true story of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” which occurred on January 15, 2009 when airline Captain Chesley Sullenberger guided his disabled plane onto the frigid waters of the Hudson River, a forced landing in which all 155 people on board, passengers and crew, survived.

Sully (Tom Hanks) becomes an instant hero.  Yet, the airline and its insurance company are none too happy that one of their planes ended up in the Hudson River.  In fact, their computer simulations show that the plane could have made it to two airports.  They believe Sully erred in his decision to land the plane on the water.  Of course, Sully disagrees, saying it’s his belief that there was no way they would have made it to an airport.  He did the only thing he could do.

Suddenly Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are the subjects of a massive investigation into the forced landing, putting their reputations on the line, and in Sully’s case, making him second guess himself, fearing that perhaps he made a mistake and put the lives of the 155 people on board in jeopardy.

There are many fine things about SULLY.

To begin with, it has an excellent script by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book  “Highest Duty” by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow.  It makes the wise choice of not telling its tale in chronological order.  Had it done so, the movie would have featured the exciting forced landing first, leaving the anti-climactic and dialogue-driven investigation to follow.  When SULLY opens, the forced landing has already happened, and the movie dives right into the investigation.  The landing is shown via flashbacks.

The dialogue is first-rate, and there are plenty of memorable lines, like when an official congratulates Sully and tells him that New York hasn’t had much good news lately, especially with stories involving airplanes.

What can you say about director Clint Eastwood at this point?  Eastwood is 86 years old, and the fact that at his age he’s still directing and sometimes acting in movies is incredible.  And he’s not only making movies, but he’s making quality movies!  Before SULLY, he directed AMERICAN SNIPER (2014), one of the best movies of that year.  SULLY is one of the best movies of this year.

For years, starting in the 1960s, Eastwood was the best action star on the planet.  In 1992, he won an Oscar for Best Director for UNFORGIVEN (1992), a film that also won Best Picture that year, in what many at the time considered to be Eastwood’s swan song.  Eastwood was 62.  Since then, Eastwood has gone on to direct one quality movie after another.  Sure, he’s had some misfires along the way— HEREAFTER  (2010), for example— but for the most part his films have been phenomenal.  His last two movies AMERICAN SNIPER and JERSEY BOYS (2014) were both among my favorite films of 2014.  And I can’t stress this enough:  Eastwood is 86 years old.  It’s quite possible that when his career is over, he might be remembered more for being one of Hollywood’s greatest directors than one of its greatest action stars.

Eastwood does a phenomenal job here with SULLY.  The high energy behind this movie is not what you expect from a director pushing 90.  AMERICAN SNIPER may be the more impressive of the two films, because it had a more complicated story to tell, whereas SULLY just on the strength of its story alone promises to be a crowd pleaser.

But Eastwood uses his talents behind the camera to make this movie even better.  The investigation scenes have Eastwood’s stamp all over them.  Indeed, you can trace the theme here all the way back to Eastwood’s iconic actioner DIRTY HARRY (1971), which of course he only starred in, but Eastwood embraced Harry Callahan’s law-in-your-own-hands anti-burearacy philosophy as his own, and it would show up in future Dirty Harry films and other Eastwood projects.

You can see it here in SULLY.  Aaron Eckhart’s Jeff Skiles tells his best friend Sully that the airline should be praising Sully— everyone survived!— not investigating him.  But that’s not enough for the airline.  Their plane ended up in the river, and in their eyes, that’s something that should not have happened.  Sure, no one died, but everyone’s life was put in jeopardy.  In Eastwood’s vision, this way of thinking is insanely ridiculous.

Eastwood also makes wise creative choices.  The forced landing is shown twice.  The first time we see it from different perspectives, including from the air traffic controllers who are desperately trying to convince Sully to head to an airport.  But the second time it’s shown in real time and never leaves the cockpit and so we see Sully and co-pilot Skiles deal with the situation as it happens.

Both sequences are incredibly intense, and they provide some of the best cinematic moments of the year.

And both Eastwood and the script take full advantage of our emotions.  We follow a few of the passengers specifically, including a man flying with his two adult sons, and after the landing, they are separated.  Later, once they find each other, one of the sons exclaims, “Can you believe this?  We crashed!  And we all survived!”  It’s the perfect sentiment as it is what everyone in the audience is thinking.

The sequence after the crash, when everyone is in the water, waiting to be rescued by the oncoming ferryboats and New York rescue crews is also intense because the water is icy cold and the rescuers only have minutes to work with.  Later, Aaron Eckhart’s Skiles declares, “I’ve never been happier to be in New York!”

Tom Hanks is superb as Sully.  The best part of his performance is the self-doubt he puts himself through, wondering if perhaps his instincts were wrong.  Hanks also shows how important duty is to Sully.  Once they land in the water, he makes sure he’s the last one off the plane, that everyone has gotten off, and he doesn’t relax until he knows for sure that no one has died.  The moment the news is relayed to him that all 155 people on board have been accounted for is one of the more emotional moments in the movie.

Like Eastwood and his previous film, AMERICAN SNIPER, Hanks in his previous movie BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) may have had a more challenging assignment in that he played a more complicated character.  But as Sully, Hanks is excellent.  It’s another terrific peformance by the very talented actor.

Aaron Eckhart is also memorable as co-pilot Jeff Skiles.  And the rest of the cast, in smaller roles, are all solid.

The past few weeks have seen the release of some outstanding movies, like the critically acclaimed HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), and the under-the-radar HANDS OF STONE (2016).  SULLY is right up there with these gems, perhaps even the best of the bunch.

It’s certainly the most inspiring and emotionally satisfying.

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