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Monday, September 10, 2018

FILM REVIEW OF ''KIN" (2018)


Two heads are better than one, so the old adage goes.  Sadly, this doesn’t apply either to the Baker brothers or their directorial debut, “Kin” (1/2 OUT OF ****), that juggles a sci-fi thriller about a lost space gun, a dysfunctional family crisis with a juvenile-in-jeopardy, a cross-country chase, and a revenge melodrama.  Basically, Australian brothers Jonathan and Josh Baker developed “Kin” from their own fifteen-minute short “Bag Man” (2014).  In “Bag Man,” an African-American youngster stashes an exotic space carbine under his bed at home without informing his stern single mom.  Sneaking it out in a duffel bag for target practice, he winds up in a remote clearing, but rescues a man with a bag over his head from three murderous ruffians.  They were armed and abusive to the bag man and had bound his wrists behind his back.  At one point, one of the three wields a shovel and knocks the bag man off his knees onto his head.  The black kid disrupts their orgy of violence, and the shooting commences.  The bizarre alien weapon dissolves the three assailants into atoms when the kid lets them have it!  Lean, mean, and electrifying, “Bag Man” doesn’t squander a second.  Indeed, the Bakers left a lot to the imagination, but most people could probably fill in the gaps.  Not only did I enjoy “Bag Man” (*** OUT OF ****), but I could watch it again.  

Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to “Kin.”  First, the Baker brothers bite off more than they can chew. Scenarist Daniel Casey of “The Passage” has helped to expand the plot far beyond “Bag Man” with too many stock characters.  Second, the only character who deserves our sympathy is gunned down too early.  Third, the rest of the characters—except for the African-American teen who salvaged the weapon—are worthless specimens of humanity with little dimension.  Fourth, the filmmakers could have told us a little about this otherworldly firearm and its apparently infinite ammo capacity.  We never learn if it contains a battery that keeps it charged up and ready to blast.  Fifth, the mysterious weapon that the youth found isn’t deployed until halfway through the road trip.  Furthermore, our juvenile protagonist doesn’t have a chance to display its heavy-duty firepower until an explosive finale in a besieged Nevada police station.

“Kin” opens in modern-day Detroit, where a strange firefight occurs in a derelict factory building.  As noisy as it sounds, this activity doesn’t attract the attention of the police.  Later, a 14-year old African-American, Eli Solinski (Myles Truitt of “Dragged Across Concrete”), who rides his bike around to these forsaken edifices, scours them for anything of value.  Although he is black, Eli is the adopted son of a hard-working contractor, Hal Solinski (Dennis Quaid of “The Long Riders”), but the Solinskis have fallen on hard times.  Hal’s wife has died, and his oldest biological son, Jimmy (Jack Reynor of “Free Fire”), has just been released from prison after a six-year sentence.  Hal and Jimmy don’t get along, but Hal is letting Jimmy sack out at the house until he can land a job.  When Jimmy asks his father for a job, but Hal refuses to hire him because he is an ex-con.  Jimmy looks up an old friend, Taylor Balik (James Franco of “Future World”), who deals in contraband firearms, and reassures him, he hasn’t forgotten about the $60-thousand that he owes him.  Taylor demands his dough pronto, and he lacks patience.  Jimmy approaches Hal about a loan, but Hal rules it out, too.  One evening, when Hal returns to his office with Eli riding with him, he confronts Jimmy, Taylor, and Taylor’s brother.  They have broken into his office and are ransacking his safe.  Hal brandishes a crowbar, and a deadly fight ensues.  Hal dies from a gunshot wound, but Taylor’s brother bites the dust, too.  Managing to escape, Jimmy flees in Hal’s truck with Eli.  Repeatedly, Jimmy concocts one lie after another to dupe Eli into believing that Hal has dispatched them off on a cross-country trip to Lake Tahoe where they will all reunite.  Eli packs a few things, including the duffel bag with the futuristic weapon.

Earlier, while combing through a deserted factory building, Eli discovers two space soldiers in a sinister black outfits.  One of them had lost his head during the firefight.  Eli handles a strange-looking weapon that resembles a high-tech military assault rifle.  When he is toying with the weapon, he activates it, and a laser sighting system illuminates the weapon with several gauges and numbers.  Eli says nothing about his discovery.  Later, Hal learns about Eli’s behavior troubles and school suspension.  Later, he chews him out for stealing things from deserted buildings.  All of this leads up to Hal taking Eli along with him to his office where he discovers Jimmy and Taylor ransacking the company safe.  Meanwhile, a vindictive, grief-stricken Taylor loads up an arsenal of firepower along with his homicidal henchmen, and they pursue Jimmy and Eli.  Later, two space soldiers materialize out of nowhere in the building where the gun was lost.  They activate a locator device to track the weapon.  Essentially, it’s road trip time, and everybody is lined-up in hot pursuit of our heroes.

Whereas “Bag Man” delivers simple and straightforward action, “Kin” struggles with too many characters and too many clichés.  The Bakers provide little background about the aliens, who appeared after the loss of the weapon and then reappeared for the lively finale.  The last-minute revelation not only about the weapon, but also Eli’s identity seems like a last-minute addition to generate a sequel.  During the final scene, when the aliens expose their humanoid faces, actor & producer Michael B. Jordan of “Black Panther” fame makes a cameo appearance as one.  Ultimately, “Kin” amounts to little more than a remake of the cheapjack 1978 sci-fi thriller “Laserblast” about a youth on a rampage with an alien weapon.

Monday, September 3, 2018

FILM REVIEW OF ''THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS" (2018)


The fiftysomething son of Muppets creator Jim Henson, Brian Henson may have thought everybody would laugh hysterically at the sight of his father’s “Sesame Street” Muppets wallowing in puppet sex, killing other puppets, and spewing R-rated “Scarface” obscenities.  Indeed, the production company behind “Sesame Street” sued STX Films for an early poster displaying the tagline: “No Sesame, All Street.” Mind you, none of the actual “Sesame Street” Muppet characters are ridiculed in Henson’s farce.  Nevertheless, The Sesame Workshop argued such advertising “deliberately confuses consumers into mistakenly believing that Sesame is associated with, has allowed, or has even endorsed or produced the movie and tarnishes Sesame’s brand.”  Judge Vernon Broderick threw the case out.  Although they lost the lawsuit, The Sesame Workshop must be elated that Henson’ abominable police procedural comedy “The Happytime Murders” (* OUT OF ****) bombed during its first week in release.  Forging a make-believe world where “meat sacks” and “felties” bump into each other, this lame laffer earned only a quarter of its $40-million budget. Puppets refer to humans as “meat sacks,” while humans call puppets “felties.” Comparisons between “The Happytime Murders” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988), where cartoon characters co-existed with humans are inevitable.  Despite its top-notch CGI of Muppets ‘behaving badly’ and its celebrity cast, featuring Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, and Elizabeth Banks, this predictable, half-baked hokum should have been called “The Crappytime Murders.”  Basically, neither Henson nor scenarists Todd Berger and Dee Austin Robertson have conjured up enough sidesplitting jokes to weather its lowest-common-denominator 91 minutes.  Moreover, the jokes are neither shamelessly nor hilariously memorable.  If you’ve seen the trailer where puppets perform “Basic Instinct” sex and the guy squirts ‘silly-string’ semen, you’ve seen the most provocative scene.  Another scene with a Dominatrix Dalmatian whipping a semi-nude, tied-down fireman while yelping, “I'm gonna piss on you like a fire hydrant” is more idiotic than erotic. 
 
This whodunit takes place in the seedy underbelly of contemporary Los Angeles.  Mankind has marginalized puppets as second-class citizens, and the filmmakers cannot resist exposing the racism with which humans belittle puppets. The action concerns the puppets who starred in “The Happytime Gang,” a popular 1990’s kiddie show. Humans embraced this groundbreaking sit-com about puppets, and puppets attracted greater sympathy from humans.  Decades afterward, the lucrative syndication rights for the show are up for grabs.  Now, a serial slayer is stalking and knocking-off the seven puppet cast members one-by-one.  Lieutenant Banning of the LAPD (Leslie David Baker of “Elizabethtown”) assigns former police detective Phil Phillips (long-time Muppeteer vet Bill Barretta) to serve as a consultant for his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy of “Identity Thief”), to solve these homicides.  Traces of bad blood linger between Phil and Connie.  For the record, Phil is a sky-blue Muppet with black hair who resembles former “Late Late Show” talk host Tom Synder, and he doesn’t mind kicking the crap out of anybody.  Phil was a rising star in the LAPD, until a pistol-packing puppet took Connie hostage in a stand-off.  Phil fired at the perpetrator, but his bullet ricocheted and killed an innocent bystander.  Connie caught a slug in the liver when she disarmed her truculent captor.  Desperately, Phil rushed her to the nearest medical facility, and it turned out to be a puppet hospital.  Although the puppet doctor refused to operate on a human, Phil waved the muzzle of his service revolver under his nose.  Since acquiring a felt liver, Connie contends with many of the afflictions puppets suffer on a daily basis. Puppets crave sugar as if it were cocaine, and Connie has dozens of Maple Syrup bottles chilling in her fridge.  

Now, Phil ekes out a living as a private investigator. One day, switch-hitting, nympho puppet Sandra White (Dorien Davies) slinks into his office.  She hires Phil to thwart blackmailers demanding $350-thousand from her.  The first place Phil heads is a smut shop.  He is trying to trace the cut-out letters in the blackmail note to a porno magazine.  Meantime, a masked gunman enters the store, kills the owner and his two employees, who were staging a porno about an octopus milking a slutty dairy cow with his tentacles.  The gunman blows their felt heads off with a shotgun.  BLAM!  BLAM!  During this blazing mayhem, Phil occupied himself in the smut owner’s office, scrutinizing a list of suspects who might have clipped letters from the porno magazine for Sandra’s blackmail message.  Nevertheless, the LAPD treat Phil as ‘a person of interest’ despite his story that he heard nothing in the owner’s office.  Now, Phil is on the lam, and Connie is struggling to protect him, while they ferret out clues to the identities of the killers.

Comparably, “The Happytime Murders” isn’t nearly as rude, crude, and offensive as Peter Jackson’s “Meet the Feebles” (1989), Trey Parker’s “Team America: World Police” (2004), and Seth MacFarlane’s two “Ted” comedies with Mark Walhberg.  Mind you, the prospect of a “Happytime Murders” sequel is probably as infinitesimal as “Ted 3.”  Sadly, Henson and his writers provide a far from adequate history about the origins of this strange new world where puppets talk.  Principally, when did the Muppets become sentient?  Sure, these questions may not bother you, but some explanation should have been offered.  We watch puppets play cards, orchestrate drive-by shootings, and generally act like criminals.  Puppet die violently in this murder-riddled melodrama. Bullets blow the stuffing out of these puppets when dogs aren’t mistaking them for chew toys. The puppet work is probably some of the best.  Publicity material for “The Happytime Murders” reveals that Henson and company fashioned about 125 Muppet-like puppets for it.  Indeed, the interaction between the actors and the puppets looks appropriately goofy.  While she is cast as the top-billed detective, Melissa McCarthy plays second banana to Phil. Maya Rudolph steals every scene as Phil’s radiant secretary ‘Bubbles’ who can pick locks. Neither trailblazing nor sharp-edged enough as a satire, “The Happytime Murders” scrapes the bottom of the barrel with little to show for it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

FILM REVIEW OF ''THE MEG" (2018)


“Jaws” for the “SpongeBob” generation, “The Meg” (** OUT OF ****) proves bigger isn’t always better when it comes to atmospheric suspense and a bloodthirsty R-rating.  “National Treasure” director Jon Turteltaub and “Life of Pi” scenarist Dean Georgaris with “Battleship” co-scripters Jon & Eric Hoeber have expunged all vestiges of horror from Steve Alten’s twenty-year old bestseller “The Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror” and pared it down to broad essentials with a wholesome PG-13 rating.  Moments that would have benefited from those deplorable, but effective jump scares are nowhere to be experienced.  “The Meg” does manage with its $130 million budget to attain an aura of credibility.  The people who made “The Meg” don’t exploit the camp factor like The Syfy Channel’s preposterous, so-awful-it's-good “Sharknado” franchise.  The Megsters are playing everything for authentic thrills.  Victims are eaten without buckets of blood.  Indeed, you can see only one victim in the Meg’s attack on a popular Asian beach.  The leviathan glides beneath hundreds of sun bathers elbow-to-elbow without munching them.  In Alten’s novel, a surfer swerved his board into the Meg’s gaping maw.  Admittedly, the 3-D effects add a modest dimension, but not enough to make you dread each appearance of the Carcharocles Megalodon like “Jaws” with its Great White shark.  Principally, ‘the chomp’ constitutes a fundamental element in any scary shark movie.  Sadly, we never see anybody chomped the way the Great White in “Jaws” chomped Robert Shaw.  A scene does occur which imitates Samuel L. Jackson’s demise in “Deep Blue Sea” when the shark chomped him ‘air jaws’ style. 

Jonas Tyler (Jason Statham of “The Expendables”) rescues eleven sailors stranded in a sunken submarine in an early scene in “The Meg” before some mysterious battering ram of sorts implodes the hull.  Jonas believes a prehistoric shark may have destroyed the sub.  He faces reprimands galore, particularly from the sub’s doctor, Heller (Robert Taylor of TV’s “Longmire”), who labels him a coward as well as a lunatic.  Jonas argues everyone would have died if he’d gone back after the two remaining sailors. Heller is adamant about Jonas’ cowardice.  In a rare exception to the rule, the magnitude of the film’s opening gambit overshadows the novel’s first scene where Jonas—suffering from too many hours on duty--reacts suddenly to the appearance of a Megalodon.  Reacting in panic, our overwrought oceanographer blew ballast and his deep-water aquatic sub ascended to the surface like a Polaris missile.  Miraculously, Jonas survived the encounter, while his two scientific colleagues perished in the process.  Afterward, when Jonas swore he saw a Megalodon, his incredulous superiors refused to swallow his saga about the prehistoric predator and discredited him as well as court-martialed him despite evidence that proved what his story.  A rival Navy officer tampered with the evidence and tossed a Meg tooth--wedged in the underwater Naval craft--overboard.  A situation similar to the novel occurs when oceanographers are trapped at the bottom of the sea and a Megalodon attacked because their lights exacerbated the creature in its habitat that lies far beneath what was thought to be the bottom of the ocean.  As it turns out, there is more ocean below a layer of hydrogen sulfide that forms a thermocline.  Billionaire Jack Morris (grossly miscast comic actor Rainn Wilson of “Galaxy Quest”) has erected a state-of-the-art underwater research facility code-named Mana One to study those lower depths of the briny blue.  The entire set-up looks like something out of a James Bond movie.  Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao of “The Wedding Banquet”) and his colleagues are studying heretofore unexplored depths of the Marianas Trench.  The lady-in-charge, Lori (Jessica McNamee of “CHIPs”), is piloting a submersible with Zhang’s son, Toshi (Masi Oka of TV’s “Heroes”), and an obese guy called ‘The Wall’ (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson of “Contraband”), when an unknown force smashes into them and disables their craft.  James "Mac" Mackreides (Cliff Curtis of “Training Day”) convinces Dr. Zhang that the only man who can get his son and their colleagues out of the trench is his old friend, Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), and they recruit the reluctant diver, who had vowed to never descend again.  Although Jonas rescues them, the thermocline dissipates enough for the 75-foot Megalodon to escape and terrorize the world.

Basically, if you’ve read the gruesome novel, as I did recently, you’re going to be appalled that the writers have eliminated the best scenes.  The characters and the cover-up that gave the novel momentum as well as a long-standing feud between the Navy and the protagonist who had been summarily drummed out of the service for panicking during an incident in the Marianas Trench are AWOL.  The filmmakers have altered significantly the Nautilus scene where the Meg pummeled the iconic sub into submission.  Instead, they use a sub earlier in the action than a wrecked submersible for Jason Statham’s opening scene where a doctor accuses Jonas of cowardice.  Not surprisingly, the novel “The Meg” surpasses the “The Meg” movie.  Combine this wannabe “Jaws” with “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and you’ve got this tolerable nonsense.  Incredibly, the Megalodon shark plays second fiddle to Jason Statham and the diverse cast.  Statham swam with the British National Diving Team and finished 12th in the World Championships in 1992.  At age 51, he looks at home in the drink.  Hard as it is to believe, the scenes between Statham and the members of an ocean-going shark think-tank generate more interest than the scenes with the runaway shark.  Mind you, the CGI is far better than it should be for a B-movie epic, but nothing about the Megalodon is as remotely creepy as the Great White shark in “Jaws” or comparably the revenge-mind killer whale in “Orca.”  If you cannot find “Jaws,” then “Deep Blue Sea,” “The Shallows,” and “47 Meters Down” would make worthy substitutes if you’re disposed to postpone until “The Meg’ swims into home video.  Altogether, “The Meg” is a polished sea monster yarn that lacks bite.

(Author's Note:  Apparently, there is a bloodier version of "The Meg," and I've heard that it may wind up on home video as 'the director's cut.')