Reel Opinions


Saturday, May 29, 2021

A Quiet Place Part II


When writer-director John Krasinski was approached with the idea of doing a sequel to his 2018 horror film, A Quiet Place, he was hesitant, as he thought the film worked well enough as a stand alone feature.  Reading about this, I agreed with him.  His film was a perfect little cinematic short story that was beautifully told, and even wound up as one of my picks as the best films of the year.  However, I guess Krasinski was ultimately swayed into signing on, as here is A Quiet Place Part II.  And while it does not have quite the impact of the original, it's still a wonderfully intense and visual experience.

Watching the film, you can kind of sense the trouble the filmmaker had with going back to his post-apocalyptic world where a family tries to survive a series of attacks by massive spider-like aliens that look like something out of a Silent Hill video game (And I mean that in a good way.  Anyone who has played that franchise, and not just watched the inferior film adaptations, knows that they had some of the most creative and nightmare-inducing creature designs around.), and are drawn to their victims by sound.  In the first film, I got drawn in by how it set up this deadly world, and showed the different ways that the family survived, mostly by communicating through sign language, and making as little sound as possible.  In expanding the world after the first movie, Krasinski relies on introducing a few new characters, but not many elements.  What is here is very good, but there's little that's new, and some of the characters this time are given little to do.

One of my favorite aspects of the first is how the film dropped us into its world and allowed us to figure out what was going on by showing abandoned newspaper reports that were left behind on the streets.  This time, we get a flashback (labeled "Day 1") of how the invasion all began, which turned a Little League baseball game into a waking nightmare.  This opening 15 minute sequence allows us to be introduced to the original family members, including father Lee (Krasinski), mother and wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), along with children Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and toddler Beau (Dean Woodward).  From there, the film jumps ahead to not long after the events of the first, and the surviving family members (plus Evelyn's new baby).  They are still suffering from the physical and emotional scars they endured from the previous film's climax, and have been forced to leave their previous home, and seek shelter with a former friend of the family, Emmett (Cillian Murphy).

From there, the movie splits into different directions as the various characters are faced with different tasks.  Emmett and Regan leave to search out a mysterious radio signal that may lead to other survivors, Evelyn must venture into town to look for more medication, and young Marcus is left alone to care for the baby, as he hurts his leg in a scene early in the film, and can't venture out.  Like the original, A Quiet Place Part II embraces minimal storytelling, opting instead to mostly tell its story visually and with little dialogue and sound as possible.  However, the mystery has been lessened a little, as we get much better views of the aliens this time around (they mostly kept to the shadows before), and the movie relies on jump scares a bit more than before, most of which are easy to predict.  Still, Krasinski is once again able to bring us into his world, and at times brilliantly puts us in the shoes of the character Regan, who is deaf (as is the actress who plays her in real life), by killing all the sound at key moments, and letting us see events through a silent world.

Speaking of Regan, and young Millicent Simmonds who plays her, her role has been greatly expanded here, and Simmonds is quite wonderful.  I would have liked if she had gotten more to do with the returning cast (she spends a majority of her time with Cillian Murphy), but she shows herself quite capable at carrying a majority of the film.  This also leads to one of my big complaints, however, which is that the rest of the returning cast are not given as much.  Emily Blunt gets some good scenes here, but not as many as last time, and young Noah Jupe mostly gets to sit in a vault for most of his screen time. Again, this may all go back to Krasinski's initial fear of doing a sequel in the first place.  What's here is good and very strong, but it lacks the impact and the character bonding that made the first not just a thriller roller coaster, but an emotional one as well. 


At the very least, the movie understands what worked before, and builds on it for the most part.  If it's not quite as memorable as before, that might be due to the fact that a Part II was not entirely needed in the first place.  Of course, the film's final moments state that this is far from the end, so I'm sure Krasinski and his team will be asked to stretch the concept out for one more movie at least.  I kind of hope he doesn't, though.

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Friday, May 28, 2021

Cruella

Leave it to director Craig Gillespie, the man responsible for humanizing controversial former figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, to now attempt to humanize the cartoon dog-napping villain, Cruella de Vil.  Wisely, he knows just what to do to accomplish this task, by making his antiheroine plenty wicked, but maybe just making her a bit more sympathetic than before, though not to the extremes that Angelina Jolie went with MaleficentCruella is probably the darkest film Disney has ever done, and is quite a lot of fun, especially when stars Emma Stone and Emma Thompson are going at each other's throats as dueling divas.  It just never gets around to answering the key question I'm sure everyone is asking - Why does Cruella need an origin story in the first place?

This makes the movie more of a fun diversion than a substantial blockbuster, but after the past year, a fun diversion might be just the ticket some people need.  That's not to say the movie isn't engaging, as it certainly is.  In the title role, Emma Stone wisely downplays the over the top cartoonish antics of the character that Glenn Close embraced in her two attempts at the role in the live action 101 Dalmatians movie, and its sequel.  Instead, she embraces the cunning and scheming of the character, as well as the venomous insults.  With her every step of the way is Thompson as a fashion figure who starts out as kind of an ice-cold mentor, becomes a competitor, and ultimately becomes a target of mad vengeance and determined malice.  This movie doesn't so much make us like Cruella as a person, but rather get caught up in her transformation from a bullied private school student, to an orphan, to a lowly pickpocket, to a dress designer, and ultimately into the flamboyant and evil fashion figure that she would ultimately become.

Of course, a good chunk of the film is devoted to her humble beginnings.  Born with her trademark two-toned hair, Cruella (named Estella at this point in the story, and played as a child by Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) was shunned by many, and learned early on that she would have to fight back in order to get ahead, despite her mother's constant pleas for her to behave.  After she gets kicked out of school for causing trouble one too many times, her mother (Emily Beecham) decides that the two should head to London for a fresh start.  On the way to their new life, mom decides to stop by a party being held by an old friend to ask a favor.  It's at this party that young Estella witnesses her mom die in a rather freak accident. (Did I mention this movie is very dark, and fully embraces its PG-13 rating?) Now an orphan, she runs to London on her own, where she happens to have a chance encounter with a pair of young pickpockets named Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), who will become her family and eventual partners in crime.

It's these opening moments that let us know what Gillespie is going for with his film, and that there will be a definite edge to the events to come.  The film's 1970s London setting, accompanied by hit songs from the era, only add to the tone that the film is going for.  We watch Estella learn how to take care of herself on the streets, and become a thief who knows all the angles.  But, her heart has always been with fashion design, and due to a series of lucky accidents, she ends up in what she thinks is her dream job, working directly under the Baroness (Emma Thompson), the leading fashion figure in London.  Like all dreams, however, there is a very dark undercurrent that rears its ugly head, and before long, Estella is forced to fully embrace her "Cruella" persona in order to go head-to-head with the Baroness in an attempt to dethrone her from the top of the fashion world, or possibly destroy her, whichever may happen first.

There are many who will deem Cruella unnecessary, and likely too long at 135 minutes, and they are certainly right.  But the movie finds such a perfect tone of comedic darkness and wickedness that I found myself having a great time while I was watching it.  Sure, it starts to fade from your mind almost the second the end credits come up, but while it was playing out and I was watching Stone and Thompson up on the screen trying to out-camp and out-vamp one another, there's no denying that it was working for me.  The gritty urban vibe of 1970s London works well here, the costume and set design are impeccable and certain to be up for some Awards next year, and the movie has more than enough energy so that I didn't really mind its extended running time as much as I thought I would.  

I also appreciated how the movie does not try to slavishly connect itself to the earlier tellings of the 101 Dalmatians story.  Yes, there are obvious nods, with a few of the characters from the story popping up, though in different roles than we are familiar with.  The movie even manages to work some dalmatians in, though probably not the cute and child-friendly way that you are expecting.  As a stand alone movie, it works as the story of a woman who goes a bit mad, gets a hold of some power, and tries to destroy her enemies.  We know in the back of our minds what eventually will happen to the character, but at this point in the story, she's getting her first taste of glory, and learning to like it.  The movie's strongest asset is Stone's performance, who embraces all sides of the title character, and excels at them all.


In the end, I think Gillespie and his team of writers found the perfect angle in which to make the character someone we want to follow in a two hour-plus film, while at the same time sacrificing little.  Cruella is far from perfect, but it's honestly much more fun that I was expecting walking in, and surprised me greatly with its delightful mean streak. 

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Saturday, May 22, 2021

Army of the Dead


A mere two months after his director's cut of Justice League hit streaming services, filmmaker Zack Snyder returns with Army of the Dead, another troubled film that got saved thanks to the involvement of a streaming studio. (This time, it's Netflix, rather than HBOMax.) A follow up to his 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake (which remains Snyder's best film in my eyes to this day), this one has been languishing in "Development Hell" at Warner Bros. since around 2007 in one form or another, and is just now seeing the light of day.

You don't have to glance at its nearly two and a half hour long running time to know that Snyder has some grand ambitions for his latest dive into the zombie movie genre pool.  He seems to be trying to give something for everyone here.  Aside from your standard Zombie Apocalypse setting, and the over the top blood and gore that goes hand-in-hand with it, he's also making a heist movie here.  And not just any heist movie, but one set in Las Vegas.  The immediate thought of Ocean's 11 directed by George A. Romero is probably better than anything the movie actually provides.  Not only that, the movie finds time for some hit and miss humor (the tone is much more fun here than in a lot of Snyder's recent work with superheroes), and even some tender father and daughter bonding moments.  He's definitely covering the bases here.  But is it enough?

Perhaps it's just me, but my personal cup has run over with zombies.  Between The Walking Dead, and the over-saturation the zombie genre has seen in pop culture in everything from movies, comics, TV and video games, I've gotten bored with the concept.  There's only so many interesting things you can do with zombies visually, and pretty much everything you can think of have been done.  Snyder obviously knows this, and while he makes a valiant effort here, he never quite leaves the shadow of the fact that we've seen it all before.  He does manage to keep a fairly relentless pace, which keeps the audience from growing restless, though thanks to its extended length, it still feels like its way too much.  Regardless, Snyder knows what kind of movie he wants to make, and coasts right through the required world and character building, so he can get to the big action set pieces.

In those opening moments, we see how the zombie outbreak initially started with a doomed military patrol having an unfortunate run-in with some rowdy newlyweds not paying attention to where they're driving.  This new outbreak happens to start right on the outskirts of Vegas, and during the film's opening credits (set to "Viva Las Vegas", naturally), we get to see the "City of Sin" fall and turn into a walled-off living hell.  The President of the United States is planning to nuke Vegas in order to wipe out all the undead, but before that can happen, a veteran of the zombie-human war by the name of Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is approached by shady businessman Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, making his second appearance in a film after last month's Mortal Kombat where he is woefully underused.)

It seems Tanaka has learned of a grand fortune buried in a vault under one of the abandoned casinos.  He wants Dave and a small team of specialists to go into zombie territory and get the millions before Vegas gets nuked off the map.  If they pull it off, Dave and his group are promised a share of the money, which is apparently all it takes for these guys to risk their lives venturing through streets where zombie white tigers roam.  The team consists of your usual meat-head soldiers, safe crackers, wise guys, and those with hidden motives.  Scott's daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), is also along for the ride for her own reasons.  From there, the movie seldom if ever lets up for the next two hours or so, splashing as much blood and throwing in as many gory kills as the screenplay (written by Snyder and two others) will allow.

Considering the long road Army of the Dead took to becoming a reality, and the troubles it faced while being filmed during a pandemic, and having one of the actors removed after sexual assault allegations were made, so they had to CG a new actor (Tig Notaro) into the role of a helicopter pilot, the movie is probably better than you would expect.  Bautista makes for a likeable lead, and is able to sell both the kick-ass aspects, as well as the softer moments he must share with his daughter and their painful past together.  But it all comes back to the simple fact that the movie simply can't think of anything new to do with its monsters.  Not even the Vegas setting, or the addition of heist movie elements (which are not played up as much here as you might like), are enough to make this stand out from the literal hoard of other zombie-related stories we've gotten the past couple decades or so.  


If you're still big on zombie movies and their ilk, maybe this will speak to you more.  I got some mild enjoyment out of this, but not enough to warrant a recommendation, and certainly not enough to justify its excessive length.  Snyder has at least swung for the fences here, but in all honesty, I felt a bit burned out long before it was all over.

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Monday, May 17, 2021

Profile


Russian-born filmmaker, Timur Bekmambetov, has pretty much single-handedly brought on the current trend of films that take place largely on computer screens and video combination.  The past few years, he was the lead producer of the Unfriended horror films, as well as the excellent thriller, Searching, which still stands as the very best example of this low budget genre.  This time, he takes on directing duties with Profile, which not only creates a gripping narrative out of a very bare bones subject, but manages to be just as intense as some thrillers with probably 10 times the budget this film had.

With this film, he is using the real-life story of Anna Errelle for inspiration.  Errelle is a French journalist who went undercover, and struck up a relationship on line with a Syrian terrorist in order to learn how they were luring European women into leaving their lives behind, and traveling to Syria in order to become sex slaves or suicide bombers.  Her actions, and the article she published with what she had learned, caused her to be targeted by ISIS, and she has had to live under an assumed identity ever since.  And while the film itself is not based on the actual person, it still has a sense of realism that makes the film incredibly tense.  Errelle is represented here by a London-based reporter named Amy (Valene Kane), who finds herself drawn into the world of terrorism during her video and text conversations with British-born ISIS fighter, Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif).  She hopes to learn how the militants are attracting teenage girls and young women, and winds up getting in further over her head than she could imagine.

Almost from their first conversation, Abu is clearly trying to charm her, and convince her to come to Syria to live with him.  He promises her the life of a Princess, where she will want for nothing.  Amy knows that she is being manipulated the entire time, but the more time they spend chatting in order for her to get research, she actually finds herself somewhat drawn into his world, and the romantic things that he tells her.  Watching Amy beginning to let her guard down with each conversation is terrifying in a quiet way, and she even begins to genuinely grieve when she thinks he may have been killed in a bomb blast.  Some may question the idea of a seemingly-intelligent woman falling for his obvious manipulations.  But, when you think of how many women have pledged their loves to killers on death row, the idea does not seemed so far fetched.

That is the idea from where Profile gets its intensity.  Amy has a stable relationship with a fiance (Morgan Watkins), and they are looking for an apartment they can share together early on in the film.  And yet, as she is drawn deeper into this world and this fake profile of a 20-year-old woman who is a converted Muslim, she starts to ignore elements of her actual life.  Her editor behind the article, Vick (Christine Adams), can see what is happening, and tries to warn Amy, but we can sense that she is already in too deep when the warnings come.  Like Bekmambetov's other films, this one hardly leaves the computer screen, and is told entirely through Skype video calls, text messages, and emails to drive the plot.  This is not only a stylistic challenge, but a great challenge to the cast, as they have to act like this is all happening.  More so than in a "found footage" movie, they have to sell the realism.

And that's what this movie gets right.  In something like this, you can't get away with made up technology or computers doing things they can't do in real life, like you can in some films.  We have to believe that we are watching everyday conversations, and be drawn in by the story that's developing, and I think that's this film's strongest aspect.  Both of the lead actors do a great job of selling their characters as genuine people, particularly Valene Kane, who must switch back and forth between her true persona of Amy, and the one she creates online of a young woman named Melody.  As we see these two sides to her kind of merge, and Amy starts to believe in the words of this man, it's chilling to see the line between fantasy and reality blur right there on the screen.


Profile
is probably not a movie you need to see on the big screen in order to enjoy, and might even work better if you watch it on your laptop.  Regardless, however you see it, this is an effective thriller that has an easy way of drawing you in, just like how the main character gets drawn into her fictional profile life she creates for herself. 

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Saturday, May 15, 2021

Those Who Wish Me Dead


Taylor Sheridan's Those Who Wish Me Dead is a lean and effective thrill machine that works, just as long as you don't apply any logic to it.  It's a throwback to the kind of action movies we got in the 90s, where the grizzled but haunted hero was placed in the position of protecting someone who is innocent.  It's all about putting the heroes in one life-or-death situation after another.  Sure, it gets a bit silly after a while (lightning bolts seem to be oddly attracted to this hero for some reason), but it knows what kind of movie it's trying to be, and it's good at what it does.

The grizzled and haunted hero this time around happens to be (Gasp!) a woman.  She's Hannah (Angelina Jolie), a smoke jumper who has just as much of a thrill seeking heart as the guys on her crew, can throw back beers with the best of them, and has the same passion for using the same four-letter words in her dialogue over and over as her male cohorts do on the job.  She's a bit of a daredevil too, as we witness in an early scene where she does a stunt with a parachute.  She seems to have a bit of a death wish, and that's where the haunted part of her character comes in.  While battling a forest fire with her team once, she misjudged the way the winds were blowing, and this led to an accident that took the lives of three innocent children.  She's still haunted by their screams both in her sleep and her waking hours, and tries to quiet them with alcohol and risking her own life.

At the same time, we're introduced to little Connor (Finn Little), the young son of a Florida forensic accountant (Jake Weber) who is haunted as well, due to the fact his mom died of cancer.  His dad sees on the news that one of his clients died in a mysterious house explosion, and he immediately starts to panic, grabbing his son and hitting the road to somewhere where they will be safe.  All he will tell Connor is that he "did the right thing", and now some people want him dead for doing so.  He gives his son a letter, telling him not to open or read it until he finds someone he can trust, and to bring the letter to the news media.  All we know is that the information he has could implicate some powerful people in government, and that two men (Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) are hunting him down.  In a bizarre bit of casting, Tyler Perry shows up for a one-scene cameo as the guy giving the killers the orders.

Connor and his dad head for Montana, where the dad's former brother-in-law (Jon Bernthal) and his pregnant wife (Medina Sengshore) live, and can offer them safety.  Unfortunately, the two hired killers catch up with them before they can make it there, and kill the father.  Connor manages to escape with the information that his dad was trying to deliver, and that's how he bumps into Hannah, who gets wrapped up into the situation.  Not only are the killers now after them both, but there's also a raging forest fire they have to contend with.  The secret to Those Who Wish Me Dead working is that the movie never slows down long enough for us to stop and realize how ridiculous it is.  Oh, I had my inklings, obviously, but I was enjoying myself enough that I didn't really care.

There's a certain skill required for a movie like this to work.  You need to have some impressive stunts and special effects, you need to have the heroes make a lot of death-defying escapes, and you need to make the bad guys merciless enough that we want to see the hero kick their ass in the end.  I may not have believed the plot for a second, but I did believe when both Jolie and Little were threatened by rampaging flames.  They also get some funny banter with each other when they're not running for their lives, although I question the decision to make the kid as much of a foul mouth as Jolie's character.  The violence was enough to secure this film a hard-R rating.  Still, the movie works on that primal level that we sometimes need to see good prevail, and evil be punished.  It's a simple movie, but it's good at what it does.


Taylor Sheridan (who directed and co-wrote the film) is more famous for his gritty crime dramas, like Hell or High Water, Sicario, and Wind River.  This time, he decides to simply throw the plot to the winds, and give us non-stop action.  At the very least, he proves here that he's effective at this kind of filmmaking, as well as his usual, more complex material. 

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Finding You


Finding You
is a teen romantic comedy that is as gentle and bland as it can be.  It's about a young woman who spends some time in Ireland in order to find herself, and also winds up finding love with a handsome young movie star, gets some life advice from the village drunk (who is the most kindly and grandfatherly village drunk ever captured on film), helps heal the heart of a crabby old lady in a nursing home, and even finds time to solve a mystery left behind by her dead older brother, who also visited Ireland when he was her age.

This is a movie filled with bubbly, inspiring pop songs on the soundtrack, and equally bubbly characters who are bright and sunny, but never seem to have much on their minds.  But then, nobody needs to think in this movie.  I've been able to enjoy movies like this in the past, as long as I can sense some wit in the screenplay, or maybe if it throws in an interesting character or two.  This time, I did not pick up on much.  The best part about the film is the Irish scenery, which is shot beautifully, and I'm sure will inspire some vacation plans.  Outside of that, I couldn't really find any characters or plots that engaged me, aside from the mean old lady at the nursing home, who is played by Vanessa Redgrave, and is obviously not as mean as she initially appears.  Her plot revolving around a decades-long feud with her sister is more interesting than the main plot, and I often found myself wishing I was watching a movie about her story.

Instead, the story here is about Finley Sinclair (Rose Reid), an aspiring violin player who does not get accepted to a prestigious New York music school as the film opens.  She has another chance to audition in the Fall, but before that, she decides to clear her head and maybe find herself by taking a 4-month semester abroad in Ireland, like her late brother Alex did once.  On the plane, she's bumped up to First Class, where she finds herself seated next to young movie star Beckett Rush (Jedidiah Goodacre), who has been acting in films since he was seven, and is now starring in a series of Game of Thrones-inspired fantasy films, which has made him the idol of teen girls the world over.  Finley is not impressed with him, and they banter for a good part of the flight.  They part ways, and she's sure she'll never see him again.

In what will be a surprise to no one, it turns out that Beckett is staying at the same bed and breakfast that Finley's host family runs while he is shooting his latest film.  They have many encounters together, with her first volunteering to help him run lines for the movie, and then spending time together as they tour the local village, and meet its wealth of colorful characters.  All the while, there's only two scenes where Finley is ever seen in a classroom, and both are brief.  As for Beckett, he has to deal with the tabloids trying to scoop about his forced relationship with his co-star Taylor (Katherine McNamara), as well as with his slimy dad (Tom Everett Scott), who is also his manager, and is trying to manipulate his son into agreeing to a long-term contract for a series of spin off films.  Naturally, Finley will slowly realize that there's more to Beckett than what the tabloids portray, and they will fall for each other.

This idea of an average person falling in love with a Hollywood celebrity, and the pressures of family and fame that it presented, was done much better in 1999's Notting Hill.  That was probably as light and fluffy as this movie is, but it also had the advantage of being written by Richard Curtis, one of the funnier romantic comedy writers out there.  Finding You, in comparison, is obviously pleasant, but it simply never engages.  As I watched the young couple fall in love and interact with a lot of the locals, I found myself largely disinterested.  Nobody gets to say or do anything all that interesting here, and the relationship between the lovers is as squeaky clean as can be.  They kiss maybe once, and their first date involves them goofing around with the stunt harness on the set of Beckett's movie.  Everyone is completely clean cut and nice, even the town drunk Seamus (Patrick Bergin), who is often seen sleeping on benches on the street, but is always sober enough to advise Finley on her music career, and where she should go in her life.

There are a lot of subplots thrown in here, many surrounding Finley's host family in Ireland.  The parents, Nora and Sean (Fiona Bell and Ciaran McMahon), run the bed and breakfast and are trying to keep it a secret that the major movie star is staying there with them, while their teen daughter Emma (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) wants to be asked to a big upcoming dance.  There's also the secret behind a drawing that Finley's brother drew while he was in Ireland years ago, left behind for her to discover, and what it could possibly mean.  Then there are the catty girls who are jealous of Beckett and Finley's budding relationship, and try to put a stop to it.  Again the only subplot that held my attention was the one surrounding Redgrave's character.  Not only does she give the best performance in the film, but her plot revolving around her trying to reconnect with her estranged sister Fiona (Helen Roche) is more heartfelt than anything else that happens here.


This is a movie that only wants to please.  I get that.  But, even films as light as this need to be engaging on some level.  Finding You has some lovely scenery, but is total cotton candy for the brain, and has no nutritional value whatsoever.  I know I was supposed to feel happy when it reached its end, but I just kind of felt empty. 

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Friday, May 14, 2021

Spiral


Nothing clicked with me while I was watching Spiral.  Not the characters, not the underlying mystery, and surprisingly not the gory deathtraps that are supposed to be why the movie exists.  This attempt to revitalize the Saw series, the horror franchise that started the whole "Torture Porn" trend of the mid 2000s, is not exciting, thrilling, or gruesome enough to create much of a spark with the audience.

This is despite the addition of some top-tier talent, including Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson, the return of series veteran director Darren Lynn Bousman (he was responsible for Saw II through IV), and a timely theme involving corrupt cops.  Apparently, Rock himself is a fan of the series, and approached the studio with this new idea and take.  You can see potential here, but the movie simply never builds to any real tension.  It simply splashes grisly images up on the screen once in a while, before devoting a majority of its time to a detective story that never really picks up steam.  Even the big reveal at the end seems curiously like a nonevent.  I wanted to be thrilled and on the edge of my seat, but the movie kept me at a distance the entire time.

The film opens with a cop being lured into an underground tunnel by someone who hides their face behind a pig mask, and shares the same passion that the infamous Jigsaw killer from the earlier movies had for elaborate traps with some kind of social or ethical commentary.  This new killer is targeting dirty police officers, and this particular poor sap eventually finds himself hooked up to a strange device with cutting off his tongue being the only way to escape.  Oh, and a subway train is due in about two minutes.  Needless to say, it does not end well for the officer.  Detective Zeke Banks (Rock) demands to be put on the case, as the victim was a close friend of his.  Zeke and his new partner (Max Minghella) try to piece things together, while the new murderer works his way through the supporting cast of officers who all seem to have some kind of grudge against Zeke for one reason or another.

Spiral keeps on establishing characters and relationships, as well as possibly interesting angles for which to take them, and then never follows through with them.  We learn through flashbacks about Zeke's troubles on the police force, and the connection that he had with his father, a veteran officer played by Samuel L. Jackson.  You know that actors like Rock and Jackson have the goods to sell this material and make it memorable, but the movie is simply not engaging.  That's because nobody who walks onto the screen gets to be developed in any realistic or interesting way.  The main characters don't even seem like real cops, but rather walking cliche movie cops.  When we learn of their past actions and why they're being targeted by this new killer, it's not shocking like intended.  This movie simply scratches the surface.

Do these crooked or corrupt cops have families, or homes, or lives?  I doubt this movie cares.  We just see flashbacks of their crimes, and then the killer shows up and tortures them to death in some uninspired trap concerning electrocution, or having your face melted with acid.  Sure, it's gruesome, but it lacks the twisted insidiousness of the better entries.  If the movie wants to say something about dirty cops, and I think it's trying to, it doesn't dig deep enough in order to make it engaging.  Yeah, this is a movie filled with horrible characters, but I've admired those before.  Those are the ones that actually show us all sides of them, and give us some kind of motivation for their actions.  Here, everyone's just kind of a miserable S.O.B. in one sense or another, and they die for it.  


Rather than revitalize the franchise, I think Spiral will only dig it deeper into the obscurity it's occupied since the inspiration of the earlier entries left.  A fresh take is exactly what the films needed, but all Rock and his crew here have done is waste a lot of potential, and waste the opportunity to bring back the fans, and maybe make some new ones.

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Sunday, May 09, 2021

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street


Much like Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Mr. Roger's Neighborhood from 2018, Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street takes a look at a beloved TV show for young children, and its cultural and societal impact.  There are even some similarities, as both TV shows were initially spawned due to the lack of quality children's programming at the time.  While Fred Rogers was disappointed in what he saw as humiliation humor in kid's TV, and wanted to create a more positive and gentle message with his show, the minds behind Sesame Street wanted to educate children the same way advertisers were handling marketing on television, with colorful images and songs.

The story behind the program is mostly the story of three people - Joan Ganz Cooney (who developed the show, and came up with the idea), Jon Stone (who directed a majority of the episodes during his time with it), and puppeteer Jim Henson.  Of the three, only Cooney is still alive, and the film features a number of new interviews with her, along with archival interviews and footage of Stone and Henson.  According to Cooney, she wanted to create a show to reach all children, especially those in inner city areas, who often fell behind in education, and were not ready to handle school when they started.  When she read about how many hours of television children would watch in a day, and happened to notice that kids knew the words to jingles in commercials like for Budweiser Beer, it spawned the initial concept for the program.

The main focus on the filmmakers is the early years of the show, and its political motivations of having a diverse cast of actors with different ethnic backgrounds.  One of the more interesting stories that the film shares is how the PBS station in Mississippi decided to pull Sesame Street off the air in 1970, due to its depiction of its diverse cast, and a black father figure in the form of the show's original "Gordon", Matt Robinson, who started out as a talk show host for black audiences, and found success here. (His now adult children share some very funny interviews of what it was like for them growing up with someone who was on the show they watched every day.) Due to the show's popularity with kids, local commercial TV stations started airing the program until the Mississippi PBS changed their mind, due to negative backlash from viewers.  

Henson, obviously, plays a big part of the story, as do some of his closest co-workers like Frank Oz, who appears only off and on through archival footage.  We learn that initially, Henson's Muppet characters were not a part of the Sesame Street set with the live actors, and would only appear in separate segments.  However, when the Muppet characters became the most popular segments of the show with its young viewers, they were added to the main parts of the program, where they could interact with the human characters.  We get a lot of interviews with the surviving early cast members, and even some of the writers, who were mainly New York comedy writers, and had a hard time integrating educational aspects into their humor at first.  There are also interviews with Joe Raposo, who composed many of the songs for the show, and some extremely hilarious outtakes where we get to hear the Muppet characters say words they don't usually say. (The film is rated-PG, so it's nothing too serious.  Still, seeing Oscar the Grouch call his puppeteer a certain insult is a sight to behold.)

Street Gang takes a rather loose structure to the show's history.  This is not an in depth documentary, nor does it expose any big behind the scenes drama, although it does talk about some.  That's not really the focus of the film, anyway.  We get a lot of highlights, get to catch up with a lot of people responsible for some precious childhood memories, and we get to revisit one of the more important episodes the show ever did, when the writers developed an episode around the death of actor Will Lee, who played shop owner Mr. Hooper.  We also get some charming vignettes about children who got to perform individual sketches with the Muppet characters, and how they often acted like the felt characters they were talking to were truly alive, leading to some wonderful unscripted moments on the show.


This is an undeniably heartwarming and nostalgic film, and if it doesn't hit quite as hard emotionally as the Mr. Rogers doc did, it's only because this film is covering a much broader subject and people involved.  There's still plenty of tears (seeing footage of Jim Henson's funeral still gets me), pathos, and laughs here, and more than enough fond memories from the numerous clips from the show that the film uses.  For those who grew up on the show (And isn't that everyone?), this will provide some wonderful history and facts you probably did not know.


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