John Carpenter’s The Thing (Round 2)

Just a quick update to remind myself that I did go and see “The Thing” again on the big screen at the Alamo Drafthouse last Friday.  They are doing a summer series on films that came out in 1982, forty years ago now, and of course John Carpenter’s masterpiece is included. 

This video is from the same program seven years ago, but it still kicks ass. 

As early arrivals, we scored a nice mini-poster of John Carpenter films that have apparently played at the Drafthouse at some point or another. 

I’ll be looking at the Drafthouse theaters near me to see if I can catch up with any of these movies. The only one I have never seen is “Christine”. Don’t ask me why, I have no idea how I missed it. 

Once again, the greatest performance in this movie is turned in by the dog in the opening section. The trainer who got this dog to stand so still and stare in just the right ominous manner, deserves a round of applause

Bullet Train

Director David Leitch knows his way around a contemporary action scene. Having been a producer and an uncredited director on John Wick,  he took on “Deadpool 2” and the “Fast and Furious Spinoff Hobbs and Shaw”. In other words, Leitch has become adept at making action films that are short on credulity but long on humor and style, and this is one of them. “Bullet Train”, to use the obvious metaphor, is a fast moving vehicle that has few stops, no real scenery and a self contained environment for the players to bounce around in.

Brad Pitt plays an operative who has gone through some kind of existential crisis and is trying to maintain his career as a top clandestine agent, without having to kill or confront anyone in a violent manner. Of course when your job is to steal valuable assets from dangerous people, your life goals may have to take a backseat to your survival skills. In this situation Pitt’s character, code named “Ladybug”, has to steal a briefcase containing a large amount of money. Of course there is a reason for the money to be there, and there are others on the train who are after the same thing for different reasons, and there are other “fixers” from crime syndicates all trying to eliminate one another. If you took the characters from “Clue” and you moved them from a locked house mystery, to a trapped on a train crime thriller, this would be the result. This is one of those films that plays dismemberment for laughs and violence as a mere inconvenience until the next quip or visual joke comes along. 

“Ladybug” is a Buster Keaton like character who manages to get into and out of situations with a combination of great skills and incredible luck. The physical jokes are over the top and completely unbelievable, they are also incredibly fun to watch and they are accompanied by the relaxed performance of Brad Pitt. It is as if Pitt is not only channeling the laid back character he played in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, but he is now calling on the spirit of Owen Wilson to add a zen like daze to his hipster cool. Pitt seems to know how silly it all is but is having a good time anyway. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry, in addition to using three names, play salt and pepper brothers who are contract killers/operatives for hire, who having thought they completed their mission, now have to deliver the briefcase that is the target of Ladybug. They too have cute code names, Tangerine and Lemon, and they are full of some of the same cool headed hipster violence and humor that dominate these types of movies. 

If you saw “The Lost City” earlier this year, you probably won’t be too surprised at a couple of cameo spots that show up in the movie. Also, if you liked Pitt’s role in Deadpool 2, we get a turnabout moment that lasts just as long in this film. Maybe this is a little close to spoiler territory, but none of it gives away plot and you know how these things go anyway, so it is really more a moment of pleasure more than surprise when these things happen. I was also a bit pleased when I finally recognized the big bad who shows up at the climax of the film, it was not a role I had any foreknowledge of and it was another moment of cinema fan service more than plot development. Speaking of plot, unlike “Atomic Blonde” which still does not make any sense, this convoluted series of set ups works pretty well at bringing everything together in a reasonably coherent way. There may still be plot holes, but you will understand why everyone is in the picture and what their motives ultimately turn out to be. Pay no attention to the other passengers who appear and then vanish from the train. At best they provide a quick joke, most of the time they would be in the way, but by the end no one cares because the action and the train have accelerated way past reality a third of the way into the movie. By the last act we are watching a live action Road Runner cartoon, and that will be fine for most of us.

“Bullet Train” is the kind of summer movie you should be looking for right about now. It has no long term agenda, there is nothing serious going on that will haunt your memories, and it is easy to watch. Any film that has a Bee Gees tune and mimics the opening of “Saturday Night Fever” must have something going for it. Layer a Jim Steinman song on top of that with a bunch of other upbeat tunes and you will find yourself refreshingly immersed in a pop culture mashup, perfect for these times and this time of year. Jump the turnstile or buy a ticket, “Bullet Train” will entertain you for the dog days of summer.

Vengeance

I am as big a fan of comic book films and action movies as anybody you can think of, but my two favorite films so far this year are small independents created by film makers with distinct visions, and this movie is one of those films. This was written and directed by actor B.J. Novak, and I am impressed with his ability to balance the story he is telling with the subjects he is dealing with. It would be easy to see this as a take down of fly over culture, except that it isn’t. Certainly, the idiosyncrasies of Texas life are shown in a humorous light, but just when you think they are being mocked, there is a note that not only validates the point but expresses some appreciation for it. Oh, and by the way, the coasts are not immune from the being targeted. In the long run, this film does a lot to unify the culture in a way that may not be appreciated by everyone, but was certainly welcome by me. 

Novak has identified Rob Reiner as his favorite director, citing the marvelous stretch of films from the early 80s to the early 90s. Among those films is “This is Spinal Tap”, a mockumentary that has been an inspiration for film makers ever since and  clearly has influenced this film. “Vengeance” is a little more subtle about taking down the podcast/media establishment, but the humor and satire in this script is no less biting than Spinal Tap’s songs that mimic heavy metal themes. When Ben and his editor/mentor start calling the project, “Dead White Girl”, the rest of us can see that this is “Sex Farm Woman” and “Big Bottom” redux. The shallowness of our gawker consumption of true crime podcasts is also indicated by the opening conversation that Novak’s character Ben has with his friend at the party. Their supposedly rational approach to relationships sound insincere from the start, and it sets up the payoff for this film at the climax. 

Everybody in the film is excellent, but I would be remiss if I neglected to take special notice of actor Ashston Kutcher in the role of West Texas music producer Quentin Sellars, with a charismatic grasp of that job, but a warped philosophy about life. He is in two long sequences in the film and those moments both owe a debt to Robert Shaw’s monologue in “Jaws”. Kutcher is not quite Shaw in those moments, but he is damn good and watchable as all get out. Novak’s Ben is basically Richard Dreyfuss  in the monologue sequence on the Orca. We see astonishment on his face as Kutcher pulls a greater performance out of his recording artist with a story that seems incongruent but perfectly taps the inspiration he is looking for. The growing admiration Ben feels for Quentin Sellars in this moment will be juxtaposed later in the film when the ramification of the philosophy is causally laid out in front of him by a smug and self righteous charlatan. Ben’s facial expressions mirror the horror and disbelief that Hooper felt as he listened to Quint. The final reaction is priceless and justifies classifying this film as a revenge drama along side the phrase comedy/mockumentary.

There are three distinct turns that the film takes in story and tone. At first we are treated to what looks like a comedy takedown of life outside of the big city. There was plenty to laugh about and the characters don’t feel too exaggerated as to make the perception feel skewed. The second section goes a long way to building a warm relationship between disparate characters and the way they approach life. I have to admit that as a transplant to Texas, I learned more about the “What-a-burger” obsession that some people here have than I have learned in my two years of living here. Unfortunately, the jurisdictional law enforcement politics hits it’s mark a bit too accurately in light of the police response to the Uvalde shooting. The third section of the film, forces us to confront some ugly truths about all of the characters. Our ability for denial in the face of the truth, our willingness to emotionally betray those we care for in pursuit of our own needs are both big parts of the last act. It is however redemption, in the most unlikely Liam Neeson moment of a film called “Vengeance”, that will let you love or hate this film.  I felt the climax was earned, and in the end, like a long string of revenge movies before it, “Vengeance” surprisingly earns it’s title.

As writer, director and principle actor in the film, B.J. Novak has earned my respect. This is a sophisticated and balanced look at our contemporary culture. He finds the sad, meaningless relationships of modern men and destroys them. The use of stereotyping is shown to be destructive in multiple directions, finally acknowledging that sophisticates are capable of being just as blind as those in the hinterlands. The tonal shifts do come abruptly, but they come from revelations that are natural and human. Maybe the journalist/writer is a little too self confident in his interviews, but he is capable of screwing up like the rest of us and gets called out for his condescension each time. The one time that being called out for his so called selfish acts, is the mic drop moment of the film.