Your iPhone Is Making You a Zombie (Cell, 2016)

Cell_PosterIn a lot of ways, Cell is an update of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.  King has replaced the mall full of zombies as the representation of mindless consumption with modern technology.  Specifically Cell phones.

Clay Riddell is a graphic novelist who is returning home to his estranged wife and son after after a year away pursuing his dream of selling a graphic novel.  After arriving home, he is talking to his wife and son when his cell phone dies.  He calls them back on an airport pay phone, but suddenly, everything is interrupted by a high pitch noise being emitted from cell phones.  People start frothing at the mouth and then start attacking everyone around them.

Clay tries to avoid being attacked, making his way down to the subways, where he finds several survivors.  He learns the subways train is shut down due to the emergency, and tries to convince everyone to make a run in the tunnels. Only two people, Tom (the train conductor) and another young man join him.  They are attacked in the tunnels and make their way to the surface, with Clay and Tom making it out alive.  They make it to Tom’s apartment, where they run into a young woman named Alice.  One of Clay’s neighbors, she is shaken as she has had to kill her mother to save herself. They proceed to make their way across the the state as  they meet various survivors and try and avoid the zombies.

Like the book, the source of the “zombie” (these are not actual zombies, the individuals are alive) infection is cell phones.  And like the book, the actual source is never revealed.  The movie tries to explain the infection in general terms, though never going as far as King’s original novel. The infected in the book are slowly mutated, opening their minds to new abilities, such as levitation.  The movie includes the notion of the hive mind, with Clay realizing they can see where people are through the eyes of any of the “zombies”. And early on, Stacy Keach’s headmaster suggests it is a new stage of evolution.  The infected “sleep” at night, which the sole remaining student Jordan suggests that the people are having their brains “updated” with new programming.

Clay’s goal is to locate his son, and the intelligence behind the infected use this to draw him out.  For reasons that are never clear, it is implied that Clay is important to the infected, which ends up being undermined by the end of the film.

King adapted his novel as far back as 2009, and had help from Adam Alleca (screenwriter of the Last House on the Left remake). The film’s largest change is the ending.  The book had a sad, but emotionally engaging ending.  King states he took a lot of crap for the book’s ending and so he changed it for the film.  Here, King opts for an ending more depressing than the Mist.

This was a film I was excited to see.  I recall when I read the book thinking the beginning would make the most intense twenty minutes of a movie.  And yet, somehow, the film feels like it downplays the terror of the opening events.

The film often fails to create tension. And both of the film’s big event moments are dragged down by uninspired digital visuals.

That said, the performances are good.  Samuel L. Jackson’s Tom is one of his quieter performances.  This is not the loud and brash stock Samuel L. Jackson performance (which is usually pretty darn enjoyable). And John Cusack tends to be able to make characters who do lousy things (like walk out on his wife and kid to chase comic book dreams) still come across as sympathetic.  He becomes more and more desperate, making some pretty terrible choices. Isabelle Fuhrman (Orphan) is strong as Alice. Anthony Reynolds turns in a terrific manic performance as a Ray, a man so disturbed by his dreams, he has avoided sleep for days.

But unfortunately, none of these save Cell from being a mediocre adaption of a Stephen King novel. Sure, this is not Sleepwalkers or Maximum Overdrive…but those films are almost so awful that they become amusing.  Cell is just pretty average.


Hope in Retreat (Dunkirk, 2017)

Dunkirk_PosterThe Nazi’s are on the march across Europe.  In the French city of Dunkirk, the Allies have been beaten back.  The British and the French are trying to get out before they are overtaken by the Nazi armies.

The British are waiting for ships to arrive and bring the troops home.  But they are facing regular air barrages from the Germans.

The Allies recruit boats from local small boat captains.  They go on their way to try and retrieve the soldiers, and at the same time, a small group of British pilots try and provide the boats cover.

The film starts with breaking down the story into three parts.  Earth (where the soldiers wait), sea (following a boat on it’s way to Dunkirk), and air (following three pilots).  When you see the immense number of soldiers waiting for rescue, it becomes clear why Nolan made this choice.  On the ground, we follow Tommy and Gibson, two very young soldiers.  They are trying to get on a ship, and end up getting bumped to the front of the line when they risk their lives carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher to a medical boat.  But the soldiers face a horror as German planes bomb the ship and they can only watch as a ship full of wounded men sink into the sea.

We also get to see the concerns of the top officers who are trying to get their soldiers out.  While they are making every effort, they are given some instructions that trouble them.  Specifically, they are told to leave the French soldiers behind.

The sea focuses on a small vessel driven by Mr. Lawrence, Peter and George.  Early on, they pick up the only survivor of another ship that has been sunk.  This soldier (Cillian Murphy in a role credited only as “Shivering Soldier”) is terrified when he finds out they are going to Dunkirk.  We never see exactly what he has witnessed, but he is adamant they return to Britain.

Air is focused on pilots Farrier and Collins.  They are two of three planes trying to shoot down as many Germans as they can and save as many soldiers as possible.

On it’s face, Dunkirk seems like an odd choice of World War 2 Events,  Most World War 2 films seek to focus on the great victories, especially against great odds. And, certainly, there is an aspect of that here.  But Dunkirk was a moment in which the Allies faced a defeat and had gone into retreat.

However, it is clear to see why the British see this as such an important moment of their history.  This is about finding hope and unity in moments of great defeat. It does not shy away from the cruelty of war, even though it is never as graphic as say, Saving Private Ryan.  Nolan looks at the demons of war, but also sees where humanity can shine.  We see men, both soldier and citizen uniting to survive.  To get back alive and rebuild.

Nolan’s use of audio, both in sound and the music, are in top form here.  The intensity is constantly building as music blends with the sounds of ships and planes.  Much of Dunkirk was actually filmed on the beach of Dunkirk, adding to the reality and weight of the film.

Nolan has created a powerful epic that looks at the destruction, both physical and emotional, war will do…and sees where humanity can triumph in the face of that adversity. And he manages this looking at a moment when the good guys were facing a resounding defeat.

When It All Goes Wrong (Free Fire, 2016)

Free_Fire_PosterOrd and Justine have brokered a black market arms deal with Chris and Frank.  Just as the deal seems done, a beef between two of their henchmen breaks out that results in a shootout.  An hour long shootout. And then things get bad.

I am not joking…a solid hour of the film is the shoot out.  First we see it divided between the two groups, but then it takes a twist bringing them together, only to throw everyone into “every man for himself” insanity.

Free Fire is playing with a tongue in cheek attitude and a seventies low budget action feel. The opening credits have a grindhouse movie feel.  You also see this in the clothing styles and hair.

And the lighting aims to give a feeling of grit. In fact, I am a little surprised they did not add an extra bit of “film grain” for an authentic aged movie look.

The film kind of stumbles in it’s tone.  It is going for “action Comedy”, but the long and bloody shootout feels to serious for the lighter dialog.  Which makes the most violent and comedic scene (as the two underlings that caused the shootout to begin a man to man fight to the death set to a John Denver song) almost feels out of place.

Free Fire also starts to just get tedious as it goes on, because one long fire fight just starts to wear thin after awhile. The high point is the cast.  Especially especially Sharlto Copely and Armie Hammer. Cillian Murphy is dependable, though Brie Larson feels wasted as her character seems to lack much personality.

While the trailer seemed promising as a wild and crazy action comedy, the film never finds firm footing in the comedy camp, as the comedy usually gives away to extended action.  But the action lacks a lot of humor.  And one of the most important things in action comedies is that the action and comedy intersect.


Inner Conflict (The Hidden, 1987)

Hidden_PosterDetective Tom Beck has a head scratcher of a case.  He is investigating a man who, up until a week prior had been a law abiding citizen.  One day Jack DeVries just up started killing people, stealing cars, robbing banks and listening to heavy metal.

After taking the guy down, an FBI Agent named Lloyd Gallagher shows up to work with Beck. Gallagher seems to have other motives, suggesting there is something bigger at work…or at least that having DeVries in the hospital is not the end of the case.

The audience quickly learns the cause of DeVries’ behavior is an alien bug that can move from body to body. When he is in a body, it can withstand a barrage of bullets before having to find a new host.  And this is where the problem lies, Gallagher can only destroy the alien when it is moving between bodies.  His weapon cannot penetrate human flesh.

The two cops try and catch the alien, constantly a step behind.  The film revels in it’s crazy concept, with car chases and bloody gun fights. The evil alien is a selfish and hedonistic teenager.  He takes whatever he wants, and mainly what he wants is money, cars and power.

MacLachlan plays his role completely straight.  He is the awkwardly out of place alien trying to fit in.  There is a touching scene where he meets Beck’s daughter, and she seems to realize there is something different about him.

The Hidden is not a sci-fi classic, but it is a pretty good bit of fun trashy eighties excess.

Get Arnold (Killing Gunther, 2017)

Killing_Gunther_PosterSNL Alumni Taran Killam wrote and directed this entry into the fake documentary genre.  Killam plays Blake, a mid-level hitman who aspires to prove himself by taking out the infamous Gunther. Gunther is the hitman all other hitmen both admire and fear.

Blake believes he will cement his own status as a legend if he can kill Gunther. For help, he assembles a team of assassins and starts setting traps for Gunther.  He has hired a documentary crew to follow he and his league of assassins.  Of course, it becomes increasingly clear that these assassins are ill equipped for taking on Gunther and they start to make fatal errors.

As a comedy, the characters to to be made with quirkiness in mind.  There are scenes where Blake gets frustrated by a barrage of questions from his tech guy, because they are interrupting his dramatic monologue.  Bobby Moynahan plays the excited Donnie, whose gimmick is explosives.  I would say that Aaron Yoo’s Yong is the most interesting assassin, as his gimmick is poisons.  This actually leads to some comical situations where he finds himself largely ineffective in the mission.

Killing_Gunther_poster_002But the film has one big problem.  Who do you see on the posters? Whose name features most prominently in both the posters featured in this review? Arnold Schwarzeneggar.  And boy, when he shows up?  The film starts getting more fun.  Know when he shows up? About the last twenty minutes of the film.

Fans of Schwarzeneggar will get impatient waiting for him to appear, and he shows up to late to save the film from the mediocrity that proceeds it. Killing Gunther is not terrible…but it just is not as entertaining as it could be in it’s road to the exciting stuff at the end.


Live Fast (Baby Driver, 2017)

Baby_Driver_PosterDirector Edgar Wright is known for his playing with genres, usually via comedy.  He has tackled action films through Hot Fuzz, horror through Shaun of the Dead and Sci-Fi with The World’s End.  He was long attached to Marvel’s Ant Man (going back before anything called the Marvel Cinematic Universe existed) and instead adapted the indie comic Scott Pilgrim Vs the World.

Here Wright has made a noir heist film.  Unlike previous efforts, he plays this film straight. Baby is a skilled getaway driver.  He is working off a debt to the enigmatic Doc. Doc is hired to put together teams for heists.  Baby has met a beautiful young waitress named Deborah.  Baby’s plan is to do a final job and be done with his debt.

Baby is quiet, rarely speaking, and usually just listening to music through his headphones.  According to Doc, he suffered an injury to his ears and the music helps him focus on his purpose as a driver.

Baby finds himself forced to do another job for Doc, which ends up going bad.  Baby then must find a way  to save Deborah and himself and get out from under Doc’s thumb.

Keeping it simple, Wright builds everything around impressive car chases and catchy rock and soul music.  The characterization is light, especially in the case of the women. Deborah is the virginal love interest, while Darling is the sexy femme fatale.  John Hamm’s Buddy is the character with the most depth, but that is only because he appears to have a bit of diversity to his personality.

Though the characters are not really deep, this serves the the narrative.  We don’t need complex characters or motivations, and they would really bog the film down. Instead, Baby Driver is a fun thrill ride with cool driving stunts and a killer soundtrack.

Fantasy Nation (Bright, 2017)

Bright_PosterNetflix has been focusing hard on original material over the past few years, especially now as they face the future of no Disney films.  Bright is their first foray into high concept, high budget action fantasy.

They brought together notorious Internet personality Max Landis (Screenwriting son of John Landis) and David Ayers (director of End of Watch and Suicide Squad) to present us with Bright.  Bright is a genre mashup, best described as a combination of Ayer’s own End of Watch and the 1988 sci-fi film Alien Nation*. Except, instead of aliens, it involves fantasy creatures.

Set in a version of our world in which elves, orcs, fairies and so on all exist and interacted with humanity for thousands of years, Will Smith plays the human cop Daryl Ward. His partner is the first Orc police officer, Nick Jakoby. Due to an incident where Ward was shot and Nick appeared to have let the perp get away, there is tension.  Nick pays lip service to the equality of the races when talking to his daughter, but he seems to struggle with it himself.

When the two stumble upon a young Elven Bright (a user of magic), they find themselves on the wrong end of gangs (both human and orc), evil elves and corrupt cops.  It is a chase through the city as they try and determine who they can trust and how they can stop the impending threat to the world.

Bright is not a terrible idea.  The film works hard to establish an existing racial hierarchy with it appearing to be Elves and Humans at the top, while Orcs face a lot of discrimination.  The film hints that the Orcs once threw their lot in with a dark lord, and so people generally do not trust them.

But this is also where the film falters. While it is a decent concept, some of the execution just feels lazy.  Smith has a throw away line about an orc being a “Shrek-Looking” thing.  Would Shrek exist in a world like this?  Would pop culture develop in the same trajectory?  Orc music is literally just death metal. Orc culture is basically “L.A. Gang Culture” stereotypes.  Sure, one character refers to having been a bus driver before moving to L.A., but we see no real examples of Orcs in any other life than gangs.

And to make things more frustrating, we never observe what kind of life Jakoby lives outside of being on the police force.  Oh, sure, he talks about how he has wanted to be a police officer since he was a child, and how he files down his tusks to appear less threatening. But we are told this.  And we know nothing beyond what he tells Ward. We see Ward’s home life.  We even know he is trying to sell his home.  We meet his wife and daughter.  Nick is likable in his somewhat teenage-ish exuberance and well intentioned demeanor.  Yet we never experience his life as an audience.  And the film really needs that.  This is where that Alien Nation comparison leaves Bright wanting. Alien Nation creates a real feel of the Newcomers trying to assimilate into the world around them. There are rich businessmen, street punks, teachers, prostitutes and most any profession out there. We are given important information through both show and tell. And it feels organic.  In Bright, it is all given through dialog.  There is some attempts to give us visual queue, mostly in the beginning where Ward and Jakoby are driving to work. This is mostly done through graffiti and Smith getting upset when they cut through Elven territory.

The villains are either stock characters (the humans and the orcs) or severely undefined.  While the film references the Dark Lord, the evil magic using elves seem to have very vague notions other than service to this Dark Lord.

This is not to say it is all bad.  I mean, the visual effects are nice.  The Orcs are appropriately brutish looking and the elves are both creepy and ethereal. The action sequences are exciting to watch.  But as much as I wanted to like this film, it just does not live up to it’s potential, especially when similar territory has done it so much better.

*I cannot take credit for this, the first person I saw make the reference was the talented comic book artist Jamal Igle. But this is by far the most accurate comparison.

Out Of Time Part III (Back To the Future Part III, 1990)

Back_To_The_Future_3_Poster“The Future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one!” These are the words of wisdom Doc Brown chooses to give Marty after three films bouncing around time. Spoilers occur throughout…

Made back to back with Part Two, the third film takes Doc and Marty to a time most appealing to Doc Brown.  Why the old West is so appealing to Brown, a scientist, always seems weird to me. But anyways, Marty goes to 1955 Doc Brown for help.  Future Doc Brown hid the Delorean away, so Marty and 1955 Doc dig it out so they can fix it and Marty can return to 1985.  However, in spite of Doc’s comfort with remaining in the old west, Marty realizes there is a danger when they discover a tombstone for Brown from the 1800s.  And so he goes back to get Doc.

In the old West, Marty finds himself meeting the relatives of both his family and Biff Tannen.  Biff apparently comes from a long line of bullies. The film brings back the gag of Marty giving a false name, this time around he calls himself Clint Eastwood (which is met by laughter from locals for being a non-masculine name). Marty and Doc must figure out how to get back to 1985 before Doc is killed.

Things are complicated by the arrival of Clara, a schoolteacher.  Doc saves her from falling off a horse.  As Doc falls for her, they realize that she should have died, and Marty and Doc have altered history.

Back to the Future Part III avoids the complications of the previous film, keeping everything in a single time for most of the film.  It repeats the motifs of the original film, and it takes three films for Marty to learn not to be set of by being called chicken. But while it is less creative than Part II, it is more tonally consistant and therefore more satisfying for the audience, I suspect.

I do find the “moral” imparted by Doc odd.  We have spent three movies with Doc declaring how dangerous time travel is and how they need to stop jumping through time…only for Doc to decide to run around the time continuum with his family.

But still, this is a pretty enjoyable close to the series, and really, feels like a decent high note to end on.

Out of Time Part II (Back to the Future Part II, 1989)

back_to_the_future_2_poster-e1514977762521.pngSpoilers occur throughout…Back to the Future had one of those endings that worked both as a setup for future films, as well as just a cute way to end a time travel movie.  Marty’s life looks awesome and then Doc Brown shows up saying they need to fix the future. I suspect that the reality is, it was just meant to be a cute little throw away ending.  But then, Back to the Future was a big hit…and both the film makers and audiences wanted to see more. And so they set forward with plans for two sequels.

Back to the future begins right where the first film left off, Doc Brown urgently telling Marty they have to go into the future to do something about Marty’s kid. They bring along Jennifer for the trip to the future, but she becomes so excited by the notion of being able to see her future, the Doc opts to knock her out, telling Marty she will just think it is a dream.  Doc tells Marty to go to a local hang out, meet Griff (grandson of Biff) and simply tell him “no”.  It turns out that if Marty Jr. goes along with Griff’s peer pressure, he will end up in jail.

But after fixing that potential future, other things go awry.  The police find Jennifer and bring her to her future home. Meanwhile, Marty gets the idea to buy a sports almanac so he can go back to the present and make bets based on future knowledge.  Doc puts the idea to bed, but someone overheard the idea…and while Doc and Marty go to get Jennifer? Old Man Biff seeks to reverse his fortune.

They return to the present and leave the unconscious Jennifer on her porch. Marty slips in through his bedroom window, only to discover a whole new family is living in the house.  After being chased off by an angry father, Marty comes across a newspaper.  Certain they came back to the wrong time, Marty discovers that, indeed, they returned to 1985…but everything is off.

Marty is knocked out, and when he awakens (in a scene mimicking the sequence from the first film where he awakens to find his teen mother watching over him) he is startled by a mother who looks very different from before.  He is horrified to discover that Biff is his step-father…and Biff is the richest man in America. Biff tries to kill Marty based on a warning from the man who gave him the sports almanac.  Doc Brown intervenes and explains to Marty that an alternate timeline has been created.

To fix the timeline, they must go back to 1955 and steal the almanac from young Biff.  Then, hijinks ensue.  Marty has to get the almanac from Biff, while avoiding Biff’s thugs, yet also save his other self from those thugs.  It is a crazy last act, filled with alternative views of sequences from the original film.

The most memorable part of the film for audiences was the future of 2015, where Marty rides a hover board, is wearing self drying clothes and everything is super technologically advanced. And apparently Gale and Zemeckis believed the height of future technology would be TV screen communications, swiping credits cards and…fax machines all over the house, built into walls.

It is a fun sequence though, for my money alternate 1985 is an interesting idea.  Biff’s rich and famous routine is absurdly entertaining in it’s obvious allusions to the Donald Trump of the 80’s.  And the notion of 80’s nostalgia is certainly not inaccurate.

The film ends on a cliff hanger, with it seeming that they solved the problem of the Dark 1985 timeline, but the Delorean is hit by lightning, causing it to appear as if Doc Brown was incinerated…but it is all a set up for the third chapter.  A Western Union guy arrives with a letter addressed to Marty from 70 years earlier.

They introduce a a variation on the photo gimmick from the first film, instead using newspaper clippings. As they make changes, the paper headlines and photos change.

This is a flawed film, mainly because halfway through it just starts to seem endlessly complicated. But, in some ways, I really like it for daring to mess around with it’s formula.

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