The First Purge (2018): A Template Tale (Review)

The First Purge

The First Purge may feel like “Billy Jack ”  without the hat and the protagonist is a caring and sharing neighborhood drug lord, but it really aims for much higher ideals. Trotting out the tropes of “you cannot trust the government and that all people of color, even those of oriental descent, are to be exterminated with extreme prejudice, The First Purge follows its own template yet again.

All of the films in this popular franchise are carbon copies of each other. Albeit slightly different directions are taken in each iteration. However, apart from the tendency to stick with one small group throughout, the film offers the same overall theme: That government want to clear out the “minorities” and the ghettos via “The Purge.”

Written by James DeMonaco and directed by Gerard McMurray, The First Purge stars the heart stoppingly beautiful and abundantly talented Lee Scott Davis and features a biggish cameo by the evergreen Marisa Tomei. The film  tries to offer an insight to all that mercenary involvement that features heavily in the other installments of the franchise.

Unfortunately, the entire thing  feels like a template from the other films that followed the first offering back in 2013. With a final message (Spoiler Alert) of your local crime lord caring more for his fellow downtrodden and impoverished neighbors than the cold hearted government (read Donald Trump’s cabinet and the Republican Party here) the timing of this tale is, perhaps, too close for comfort.

While it strains believability, the film does throw shade on the current government. That being said, the earlier installments also cocked a snook at the establishment. One that was headed by then president Barrack Obama. So the message, which feels quite relevant now, is still trodding the path of good old Billy Jack: “We cannot trust government” or “the Man.”

(Or as the outlaw Josie Wales tells the Cherokee chief in the film of the same name – “Looks like we can’t trust the white man.”)

All racial aspects aside, and political relevancy ignored, The First Purge offers an almost eerily correct picture of the current government in the United States of America. We never see the president, but we hear the one-sided sycophantic conversation that the leader of the social experiment passes on to the “current leader” before sending Marisa Tomei’s character out to be shot in the head.

By the end of the film one feels that nothing is really new here. McMurray and DeMonaco both lead the audience in the same direction as previous offerings in the franchise. No one, in terms of the cast, really stands out. Y’lan Noel (as Dimitri) is limited by the script and Mugga  plays a role that, in earlier years, would have been filled by Octavia Spencer

Overall, The First Purge is not quite mutton dressed as lamb but it lacks the enjoyment level of the other offerings in this violent and, perhaps, prophetic set of films. The message is the same in this template tale of big brother murdering the lower classes and while the presence of Aunt May helps to a degree it is not enough to save this one from a certain mediocrity and mendacity.

(On a side note: The colored contacts that the “players” wear, is never really utilized to its full potential. It makes the purge participants look like zombies, to a degree, but it, in the end, detracts from the action.)

The First Purge is a three star offering; a stale and repeated tale without the personal touches of previous films in the franchise. Fans may enjoy it, although I am admittedly a fan of all the previous films and found it a bit…hum-drum, but this is one to view via DVD or streaming. Seeing it in the cinema is not recommended as this film follows the same old template ad nauseam….

Lady Bird (2017): Simply Wonderful (Review)

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It is inconceivable that this splendid little “feel good” film was excluded, nay snubbed, at The Golden Globes. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is, quite simply, wonderful. Starring Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird, along with the delightful and talented Laurie Metcalf as the teen’s passive aggressive mum, the film is a coming of age story set in a Catholic school in Sacramento. 

While Lady Bird never quite lives up to the comedic promise of that opening scene in the car, it does go on to deliver a steady stream of low-key humour,  a little heart-break and some well timed pathos. Metcalf and Ronan make a delightful double-act and Tracy Letts (as the big hearted dad) steps in, as needed, to spread a little love to both combatants. 

Writer and director Gerwig addresses a lot of teen issues in this dramedy. Sexuality, losing one’s virginity, living on the wrong side of the middle-class divide, unemployment and trying desperately to grow “away” from one’s parents. None of these subjects are earth shatteringly original or ground breaking but they are delivered expertly and adorably by Ronan as the girl who wants to soar above her socially placed limits.

There is not doubt that this is Ronan’s film. She rules each and every scene she is in. However major kudos need to be given to Lucas Hedges – Lady Bird’s first love interest, Beanie Feldstein; who plays the best friend and if Metcalf does not snag a little golden fella come award time for her performance as Lady Bird’s mum, there is something definitely rotten going on in the Academy.

Lady Bird allows us into the main character’s world and her determination to head back east for her further education. She submits applications to colleges in New York on the sly, with help from her dad while she rushes to complete her last year of high school and break free of her lower middle class bonds.

We are privy to her foray into love, her first: School play, job and her acceptance into the upper echelons of Sacramento society. She becomes friends with rich girl Jenna Walton (played by Odeya Rush, who looks eerily like a young Mila Kunis) while turning her back on her old bff.

Lady Bird may not be Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical tale, but it gives us a taste of what she finds fascinating. She gives us a character who is, according to a Rolling Stone interview, a combination of underachiever and dreamer who dares to exceed her own wildest expectations.

Christine snacks on unconsecrated communion wafers with her bestie Julie and pranks the nun headmaster by putting a just married sign on her car. She steals a teacher’s grade book and then lies about her math grade to get a better score. She falls in love (twice) and buys all the things she has been forbidden to have when she turns 18.

Rebellion may be the catchword here, but it is pretty tame. This is what makes the character of Lady Bird so endearing and we cheer her brief, somewhat timid, trips into the abyss. The film is a firm 4 star venture that gives us a heroine we can get behind and a protagonist we understand.

Catch this one as quick as you can, the Golden Globes may have snubbed this simply wonderful film but one can be sure that the Academy will not. Movies like this one go a long way toward proving that Hollywood is a long way from being finished.

Hostiles (2017): Slow Downbeat Western With a Message (Review)

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Hostiles is a film that screams out for Sam Elliot, or at the very least a Sam Elliot “type.” Christian Bale attempts to fill Elliot’s boots but loses something in the translation. This is not to say that Bale fails in his interpretation of a bitter and cold “Indian” fighter who must transport a Cheyenne chief (the brilliant Wes Studi) back to his hunting ground to die, but Captain Blocker was tailor made for Sam Elliot and one wishes devoutly that the older actor had been cast instead.

(That said, it turns out that the casting of Bale in this film led to his dropping out of the Travis McGee film “The Deep Blue Goodby” where he had been hideously miscast as the hero…)

Co-written and directed by Scott Cooper (Donald E. Stewart is also credited on the screenplay) Hostiles is Cooper’s fourth time at the helm as director. Like the storyline itself, Cooper does a decent job, although it is a tad convoluted. Overall this message film is slow and not a little downbeat. 

Performances tend to be pretty much spot on although each character is so taciturn and stoic that the sheer lack of dialogue leaves one wishing for more action. It has to be said that the casting of Oklahoma born Wes Studi was a stroke of genius. With his face showing years of strain mixed with a certain tired nobility, the actor does more with his character’s long silences than the rest of the cast put together.

Hostiles relies upon a certain amount of stereotypes while, at the same time, utilizing a “modern” approach to prairie life back at the time of the white man’s  steadfast, and cold blooded, fulfillment of their “manifest destiny.” Brit actress Rosamund Pike, is a wife and mother in the middle of teaching her two daughter’s the finer points of English at the start of the film. 

As Mrs. Quaid, Pike manages to have the most satisfactory character arc out of the entire cast. Bale’s journey ends almost too predictably, with his coming to an almost “Dances With Wolves” inner acceptance of his -previously hated enemy.

The start of the film, with it’s brutal murder of an entire family sans one, tells us the direction that Cooper intends to take from the first shot fired. Mr. Quaid is sawing wood when a small group of Comanche warriors ride into view. He immediately sounds the alarm, tells his small brood to hide and he runs out of his cabin and begins firing his carbine before the band of “hostiles” are within range.

It is the white man who shoots first, which results in the Comanche party retaliating with deadly and over-zealous force. (This short-lived battle, where Pike’s character loses everything she loves, shows the Native American proclivity for using the white man’s weapons, six shooters and rifles, along with their more traditional weapons.)

Hostiles moves at a sluggish pace. It appears that Cooper has used the 2014 Tommy Lee Jones/Hilary Swank western “The Homesman” as a template for the modern westerns. (Although it could be argued that Clint Eastwood started this slow trend with his 1992 award winning western Unforgiven – another film that also offers a bleak but bloody storyline.)

*Cooper does offer up a small homage to the Eastwood western by having one of his characters repeat William Money’s line of “I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another.”)

Filmed in New Mexico and Arizona, the film looks stunning and while there are no real “panoramic” views, the bits of scenery on offer are breathtaking and makes one feel assured that this tale really is taking place in the “old west.”

Bale is satisfactory as the hard Indian wars campaigner, Studi deserves an award for his portrayal of a chief dying of cancer, Pike is spot on, and she is another member of the cast who should get a gong from the academy this year. Honorable mention goes to  Scott Wilson, aka Hershel from the AMC hit TWD, who has a splendid cameo as one nasty land owner. 

(Ben Foster has an excellent cameo as another campaigner who is set to be hanged when he is returned to civilization. Although his storyline is too predictable by far.)

Hostiles is a 4 star film that could have been a full 5 had it trimmed the overall running length from its mind numbing two hour and 13 minute run time. The film offers some surprising non visceral blood letting, a lot of f-bombs and not one bit of nudity. Cooper has even opted to leave out anything remotely resembling sex.

Cooper’s film has finished its festival circuit and will open with a limited release on 22 December this year. This one may be slow and plodding but it is worth a look, check it out on the big screen and see what you think. (In closing: Kudos to the filmmakers here for using what appears to be real Cheyenne language in the exchanges between Studi’s small band and Bale.)

The Disaster Artist (2017): “The Room” Behind the Scenes Tribute (Review)

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The Disaster Artist is one part homage to a director who has more than a little in common  with Ed Wood, one part celebration of someone whose dream reaches a surprising fruition and one part celebration of “The Room.” This behind the scenes tribute to one of the world’s worst films captures the innate weirdness of Tommy Wiesau as auteur.

The film is based on Greg Sestero’s retelling of everything that went into the making of the 2003 cult favorite; a film so bad that audiences took it to their collective bosom and began to worship the atrocity as a delicious comedy.

Directed by James Franco from a screenplay penned by Scott NeustadterMichael H. Weber, Sestero and Tom Bissell, The Disaster Artist is as funny as it is difficult to watch, in places.  The story of how a complete novice, to whom English is a shaky second language, manages to make a movie and pour enough money into the venture to ensure Oscar qualification is entertaining.

“The Room” (the film made by Wiesau) was so monumentally bad that it became a cult favorite and the start of Franco’s “behind the scenes” film has a few celebs from the business explain their fascination with the movie. Even if one has not seen the original, which Franco manages to match shot for shot – several times, The Disaster Artist is funny.

Seth Rogen plays the only character who appears to have any experience making movies and Dave, brother of James, plays Sestero, Wiesau’s object of devotion and the other star of “The Room.” Zac Efron has a cameo as the gun toting thug and the delicious Alison Brie is Amber, Sestero’s girlfriend.

(Ari Graynor, Megan MullallyJosh Hutcherson, Bob Odenkirk, Randall Park and veteran Aussie actress Jacki Weaver round out the cast in a most satisfactory and fun “spot the face” way. These familiar faces really make the film seem like a labour of love.)

It is Amber’s entrance that clarifies Tommy’s “obsession” with Greg and causes the first of many cracks to show in the two men’s relationship.  There are a number of cameos in the film.  Melanie Griffith plays Jean Shelton and  Sharon Stone plays Hollywood agent Iris Burton. The delightful Lauren Ash plays the florist.

Cameo appearances aside, The Disaster Artist can be seen as much more than a biopic about a Polish mystery figure who wants to make and star in movies. It is about tenacity winning out over lack of experience and, somewhat ironically, seems to prove that any moron with enough money can indeed make a movie.

The one thing that shines through is that Tommy knows nothing about making films. He manages to write a screenplay but has to rely upon his hired “experts” to make the film happen. Rogen’s character and the DP both run the two cameras, one of which is a high definition video camera, and try to instill a little realism into the 2003 film.

The Disaster Artist is more like “The Little Train That Could.” The end of the film shows Wiesau, Sestero and the rest of the cast and crew attending the film’s premiere. At the end of the viewing the audience stand spontaneously and give the auteur a standing ovation. The message being that despite the film being funny for all the wrong reasons, Wiesau has managed to entertain his targeted audience. As a result, his little film makes a new kind of history.

Franco does a brilliant job as director and with his portrayal of the rather odd Tommy Wiesau shows that he can really wear multiple hats successfully. (His character Tommy, the real one,  actually makes an appearance toward the end of the post film credits and interacts with “himself” – Franco’s version of Wiesau.)

The Disaster Artist may not be Oscar material but it is funny and hits those parts that many films fail to reach. A real 4.5 star effort that tickles that funny bone while simultaneously pulling off some brilliant cringeworthy moments. It is in cinemas now and well worth the price of admission.

Thelma (2017): Low Key Norwegian “Carrie” With a Twist (Review)

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Co-written and directed by Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt was the other writer who helped on the  screenplay, Thelma is a slow paced, almost languid twist on Stephen King’s “Carrie.” Starring the achingly beautiful Eili Harboe, this suspenseful horror film includes key elements that are present in King’s tale of repression, telekinesis and religion.

The film can also be seen as being influenced by the Richard Matheson tale “It’s a Good Life.” This Twilight Zone story (directed by James Sheldon) dealt with a young boy on a farm who holds his “terrified family” hostage with his incredibly powerful mental ability. The lad, played brilliantly by a young Billy Mumy, can literally “think” someone out of existence if they annoy him.

Thelma has mental powers but they have been repressed with a brand of zealous religion practiced by her family. When the girl goes off to college and starts to fall in love, the power re-emerges with a vengeance. Just before leaving her family, Thelma (Harboe) has a seizure and these become more prevalent at school.

We see the young woman cautiously spreading her wings as she meets Anja, played perfectly by Kaya Wilkins) and as the two become infatuated with one an other, Thelma has an increase in seizures and some disturbing visions/dreams.  Eventually she goes to a doctor for help and discovers that her grandmother, whom she believed was dead, suffers from the same problem. 

After being tested for epilepsy, Thelma tracks her grandmother down and starts remembering a tragic event from her childhood. Her father, Henrik Rafaelsen, a general practitioner, starts treating Thelma as her mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) uneasily watches from the sidelines. 

Thelma can be seen as a loss of innocence film, or a “coming of age” tale. Regardless of how the viewer opts to interpret this story, it is beautifully filmed and splendidly executed. At just under two hours, the film is a long one, but it never bores or drags.

The sequences where Thelma seeks help from the medical community do crawl but despite this, interest in the young protagonist does not wander. Trier gives us a plot and storyline that teases with flashbacks and ethereal connections between Anja and Thelma.

Harboe as the naive Thelma gives us just the right amount of wonder and dread as she starts to grow up outside the influence of her strict parents. We learn, as the film progresses, just why Trond and Unni keep close tabs on Thelma; they are already aware of what she is capable of doing.

The horror here is very low key. However,there are moments where it strikes fear right into the heart of the audience. These are not jump worthy moments by any means but the instances, a drowning and a moment underneath an icy lake, reduce us to a primal horror that stays long after the moment appears on screen.

Thelma, unlike “Carrie,” gives us a protagonist that is not a victim but is, rather, a young woman who has lived a sheltered life. There is a reason behind her earlier protected existence. This helps us to develop an empathy with the young girl and her increasing confusion.

This is a full 5 star film that grabs the viewer and draws them slowly into the world of Thelma. Norwegian, indeed Slavic films in general, are, at the moment, top notch and well worth sitting through, despite having subtitles. Check this one out as soon as you can.