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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Green Room



Traveling around the country cramped in a crappy Scooby Doo van, siphoning off gas from other cars because you have no money, putting on gigs in an empty pizza parlor for six bucks a head... being part of an unsigned punk rock band kinda sucks enough -- details Green Room captures persuasively -- and that's before they unwittingly witness a gruesome murder in a dingy Pacific Northwest club owned by neo-Nazi white supremacists. This is what happens to the members of the band The Ain't Rights (billed incorrectly as The Aren't Rights), played by Anton Yelchin (Like Crazy), Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), Joe Cole, and Callum Turner. They just showed up to play a gig for $350 (delightfully opening with "a cover song" aimed right at pissing off the neo-Nazis in the audience), but when Yelchin returns to the green room to retrieve Shawkat's iPhone, he finds a fresh corpse of a girl with a knife in her head The Walking Dead-style, her friend Imogen Poots in hysterics, and a bunch of huge neo-Nazis standing around looking guilty. Because they did it. Next thing you know, Yelchin and his band mates are trapped in the green room, barricading themselves in, as things get much, much worse for them and everyone involved.

The arrival of the police is quickly neutralized by the arrival of the club's owner and the leader of this neo-Nazi cadre, Sir Patrick Stewart, playing against his beloved type as a menacing schemer more than willing to let young bodies be hacked by machetes and mauled by dogs to address the growing problem in his club's green room. Most of Green Room takes place within the green room, as the band and Poots attempt to weigh their shrinking options and rally some form of escape. Yelchin's left arm is an early casualty, gruesomely hacked up by Stewarts' men so that his hand is nearly severed from his wrist. Thank God for duct tape (a sentiment Matt Damon echoes in The Martian). Green Room relentlessly ratchets up the brutality as the band and Poots make repeated attempts to escape the club, only to find rabid dogs and shotguns and more machetes waiting for them, so that fewer and fewer of them are able to return to the relative safety of the green room to lick their wounds. 

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier maintains a harrowing and merciless edge to the proceedings, with the question of which band would be each character's "desert island band" as the lone source of welcome comedy occasionally diffusing the tension. (The shout out to Prince could not have been more timely or welcome.) Yelchin, who plays Mr. Chekov in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies, confronting Stewart, whom everyone in the Alpha Quadrant reveres as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, late in Green Room plays like some kind of bizarre but thrilling Star Trek mirror universe episode or fan fiction. In the end, the bloody and remorseless Green Room leaves us with one less punk rock band in the world, but also a lot fewer evil skinhead a-holes in the world, and ultimately, it seems a fair trade.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Jungle Book



Jon Favreau's delightful live action The Jungle Book, adapted from the beloved Disney cartoon which was adapted from the beloved (?) tale by Rudyard Kipling, is like a really weird episode of Naked and Afraid with a bunch of talking CGI animals. To be fair, Mowgli (a charming Neel Sethi), the young "man cub" found by a talking panther named Bagheera (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley) and raised by wolves (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito), is rarely afraid. Mowgli is a bright, cheerful boy, growing up in the jungle and doing the best he can to be a good wolf to his pack, while at best tolerated by all the other beasts. Except for one beast who finds him simply intolerable, the savage tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba, from, appropriately, Beasts of No Nation). Shere Khan killed Mowgli's father years ago for the crime of intruding upon the jungle, but was scarred by the "red flower," the one weapon Man possesses that all in the jungle most fear -- fire. As such, Shere Khan wants Mowgli dead, and, being a tiger, he doesn't really have much else to occupy his time besides hunt the man cub and give him a good mauling.

Mowgli is forced to abandon the wolf pack and make a run for it. (Which really doesn't say much about the wolves -- a whole pack of them can't take down one tiger? No, we find out in the climactic battle, turns out they can't. Those are some wussy wolves.) Bagheera attempts to return Mowgli to his own people, but Shere Khan hunting them makes that impossible. They are separated, and Mowgli has the misfortune to be robbed of his scavenged fruit by a pack of wild monkeys, hypnotized and nearly eaten by a giant snake (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who somehow knew Mowgli's entire origin story, but Mowgli also has the good fortune to meet his new bestest bear buddy Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray). After what happened to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Leo must have been pissed seeing The Jungle Book's bear being so nice to that friggin' kid. The Revenant's bear never let Leo float on his stomach down a river while singing "Bear Necessities" to him. Then again, Leo was never tricked by his bear to climb up a cliff and risk getting stung by bees to bring down honeycombs. Still, Mowgli had it way better than Leo.

Mowgli can't help but be a do-gooder, though. Like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone, young Mowgli possesses inherent skills in building and using human tools, and he has a profound understanding of pulleys and winches most civilized adults don't even have. Mowgli does a bunch of elephants a solid when he uses his skills to rescue one of their cubs from a pit, and it turns out no good deed by Mowgli goes unrewarded when the elephants later use their abilities at jungle terraforming to save the jungle from being burned down by the fire Mowgli accidentally started (oops). Besides the evil tiger who wants him dead, monkeys are the bane of Mowgli's jungle life, as he is soon kidnapped by monkeys and brought before a giant ape named King Louie who lives in "a giant monkey temple" and wants that red flower (voiced by a distracting Christopher Walken, to be honest, who also sings). One waits for Walken to tell Mowgli a story about his father and a gold watch, to no avail. Also, considering how far Mowgli traveled, apparently, one night of running through the jungle can bring him right back to where he started from for his fateful final battle with Shere Khan. In the end, The Jungle Book is a winning and enjoyable tale of a man cub becoming one with nature, after killing the things in nature that want to kill him, and nearly burning down that nature by being careless. But hey, man cubs will be man cubs.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Midnight Special



Midnight Special is writer-director Jeff Nichols' compelling and sober science fiction tome about a very special, super powered young boy, played by Jaeden Lieberher, and the lengths his parents, played by Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst, will go to keep him safe until he unlocks the secret to his very existence. Shannon and Dunst, with the aid of former state trooper and Shannon's loyal childhood friend Joel Edgerton, abscond with their son from the Texas cult they belonged to, the kind of cult like we've seen in HBO's Big Love. The cult sends mercenaries to get Lieberher back. The federal government, having raided the cult, also wants control of the boy. Adam Driver plays an NSA analyst recruited to suss out what the boy can do and why. All these forces converge upon the missing family, trying to find an escape through night time blacktop highways of the Southern United States, staying in seedy motel rooms with the windows blacked out with cardboard, hoping to find an answer to who and what their son is.

Lieberher, who cannot be exposed to daylight and wears swimming goggles over his eyes, seems to have supernatural abilities like other worldly senses and the ability to control electricity and machinery. In a harrowing spectacle, he brings down a satellite spying on him, demolishing a gas station in a rain of fireballs. Pushing the comic book-like aspects of the story, he also reads Superman comics while sitting in the back seat of their getaway cars, an amusing nod to Michael Shannon, who played General Zod in Man of Steel. (As is Edgerton explaining how Kryptonite works. Shannon is not amused.) Things get worse for the family as the cult attacks them in a motel at gunpoint, which leads to the government capturing Lieberher. His interview scene in a white room with Driver is one of the most thrilling scenes in the movie, as Driver gets closer than anyone to understanding what Lieberher is, and agrees to help him get where he's going.

Oddly, where Lieberher is going turns out to be Tomorrowland. As he comes full bloom into his powers, Lieberher enables the "world on top of the world" inhabited by otherworldly beings of light to be exposed to almost everyone in the Southeastern United States. An enormous future city that is the spitting image of the gleaming and spire-laden megalopolis in Brad Bird's Tomorrowland is the final destination for Lieberer, and while it's cool to see, it's also so jarring and weird, George Clooney and Britt Robertson might as well have appeared to welcome the boy into his new space age home. To Midnight Special's credit, it does go out with a final face to face meeting with Driver and Edgerton, and the delight of Uncle Owen Lars sharing the screen with Kylo Ren isn't lost on the Star Wars fans in the audience. One imagines they argued long into the night about how no good/awesome Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were. To be a fly on that wall...