Icarus File No. 4: Captive State (dir by Rupert Wyatt)


Does anyone remember Captive State?

Captive State came out in March and, before it was released, it seemed like it had the potential to be something special.  The trailer looked good.  The cast was impressive.  Perhaps even more importantly, the film was directed by Rupert Wyatt, who did such a good job with Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.  Surely, if anyone had the talent to create a convincing film about life under an alien dictatorship, it would be Rupert Wyatt!

In fact, my only reason for concern had to do with when the film was being released.  March seemed like a very strange time to be releasing a big “event” film.  Don’t get me wrong.  A March release isn’t as bad as a January or even a February release.  I mean, unless your film is a romantic comedy, you definitely do not want it to be released in either one of those two months.  Those months are where studios dump their worst films so that they can die a quiet death.  March, on the other hand, is when the studio releases films that have the potential to be a success but which they’re still not expecting to set the world on fire.

Of course, there have been exceptions to that rule, as both Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel) and Jordan Peele (Get Out) can tell you.  So, as Captive State’s release date approached, we were left to wonder.  Would this be another case of a film being better than it’s release date or would this be just another forgettable but not terrible movie that the studio probably spent a bit too much money on?

Captive State, sadly, turned out to be more of a case of the latter than the former.

The film opens with Chicago being invaded in 2019.  Significantly, unlike other recent invasion films, this one doesn’t spend too much time on the invasion itself or Earth’s initial attempts to fight back.  Instead, it jumps forward eight years, to 2027.  The aliens are in control of Earth, though the aliens themselves claim to only be “legislators” who are governing the planet for our own good.  While the majority of Earthlings just seem to be resigned to accepting being conquered as their new normal, there are a few resistors.  There’s also quite a few collaborators.  The tricky part of life in 2027 is figuring out who you can and can not trust.

There’s a lot of characters in Captive State and, at times, it can be difficult to keep track of how everyone’s related and who is working for who.  However, that seems to be intentional on the film’s part.  Rather than telling a conventional tale of alien conquest, Captive State sets out to be a serious exploration of what life would be like for the people living under the thumb of not just an intergalactic dictatorship but actually any dictatorship.  The Legislators rule by fear.  The collaborators have their own individual reasons for collaborating but, now that they’ve declared which side they’re on, there’s no going back for them.  One way or another, they’ve sealed their fate.  The same can be said for those in the rebellion.  Meanwhile, most people are just trying to not get caught in the crossfire.

And the thing is …. you want the film to work.  It’s an intriguing idea and how can you not respect that fact that Wyatt wanted to try to do something a little bit different with his story of alien invasion?  But sadly, the film never works the way that you’re hoping it will.  The film tries to do a lot in just 109 minutes.  In fact, it probably tries to do too much and, as a result, there’s little time to get to know the characters, the majority of whom come across as being underwritten and with murky motivations.  Captive State hinges on the actions of a detective played by John Goodman but the film itself doesn’t seem to be sure of who Goodman’s supposed to be.  Hence, the film’s final twist seems to come out of nowhere.  It’s hard not to feel that the ideal way for Captive State to have told its story would have been as a 10-episode miniseries on HBO.  Trying to stuff all of this into under two hours of running time just doesn’t work.

And it’s a shame, that it doesn’t.  Ambition should never be faulted.  If only the results, in this case, lived up to the ambition.

Previous Icarus Files:

  1. Cloud Atlas
  2. Maximum Overdrive
  3. Glass

Music Video of the Day: Wild Wild Life by The Talking Heads (1986, directed by David Byrne)


In 1986, David Byrne of Talking Heads directed his very first feature film.  True Stories took place in the fictional town in Virgil, Texas and, as Byrne himself put it, it was “a project with songs based on true stories from tabloid newspapers. It’s like 60 Minutes on acid.”

Some people love True Stories.  I am not one of them.  However, not surprisingly, the film did have a killer soundtrack.  The best known song to come off of the True Stories soundtrack was Wild Wild Life.  The video for Wild Wild Life takes place at what appears to be a karaoke bar, where different performers lip sync to the song while dressed up as their favorite performers.  One person is dressed up like Billy Idol.  Another does Madonna.  Jerry Harrison imitates Prince.  Be sure to keep an eye out for a young John Goodman, who co-starred in True Stories and who damn near steals this video with his energetic performance.

Wild Wild Life subsequently won the award for Best Group Video at the MTV Music Video Awards.

Insomnia File #36: Punchline (dir by David Seltzer)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you were up at 12 midnight and couldn’t get to sleep, you could have turned over to Movies TV and watched the 1988 film, Punchline.

Sally Field is Lilah, a New Jersey housewife who, in between getting her children ready for school and helping her husband (John Goodman) throw dinner parties, is pursuing a career as a stand-up comedian.  Everyone says that she has a lot of stage presence but she struggles with her material.  She’s even resorted to buying jokes from a seedy man who hangs out in a grimy diner.

Tom Hanks is Steve Gold, the youngest member of a family of doctors.  When we first meet Steve, he’s getting kicked out of medical school for cheating on an exam.  That’s probably for the best, though.  Steve doesn’t want to be a doctor.  He wants to make people laugh!  Every night, he performs at a comedy club known as the Gas Station.  Audiences love him almost as much as he hates himself.

Together … they solve crimes!

No, actually, they don’t.  I wish they had but they don’t.  Instead, in the tradition of A Star is Born, Steve ends up mentoring Lilah and helping her develop her own voice as a comedian.  Lilah attempts to balance her loyality to her family with her friendship with Steve.  It’s not always easy, largely because Steve isn’t exactly emotionally stable.  On stage, Steve may be in control but offstage, he’s frequently selfish and self-destructive.  Complicating things is the fact that, even as he watches her talent threaten to eclipse his own, Steve thinks he might be falling in love with Lilah.

Punchline is an uneven movie, largely due to the fact that, while one role is perfectly cast, another one most definitely is not.  Not surprisingly, Tom Hanks is believable as a stand-up comedian.  It’s not just that he’s obviously comfortable on the comedy club stage.  Hanks also shows that he knows how to tell a joke.  To put it simply, he has good timing.  As played by Tom Hanks, you can look at Steve Gold and imagine people actually paying money for him to make them laugh.

But then you’ve got Sally Field.  At no point is Sally Field believable as a stand-up comedian.  That’s not so much a problem at the beginning of the film when Field is supposed to an inexperienced amateur.  But, as the film progresses, we’re asked to believe that Lilah could conceivably win a spot on television over Hanks and there’s nothing about Field’s performance that suggests that would be possible.  When we laugh at Sally Field’s jokes, it’s because she’s Sally Field and she’s talking about multiple orgasms.  However, the comedy club audience doesn’t know that she’s Sally Field.  Instead, they just know that she’s a comedian who has absolutely no timing.

Much like The Comedian and the Showtime TV series I’m Dyin’ Up Here, Punchline is one of those films that really goes overboard with the audience reaction shots.  The only thing worse than listening to an unfunny comedian is then being assaulted by a shot or the sound of an audience dying of laughter.  If someone’s not funny, showing some random guy doing spit take isn’t going to help.  One thing that directors rarely seem to take into account is that laughter is rarely neat.  It’s rare that a huge group of people both start and stop laughing at the exact same moment.  There’s usually a stray chuckle or two to be heard, both before and after the punchline has been delivered.  Even Tom Hanks, who actually is funny in the movie, is sabotaged by one scene where a group of patients at a hospital are way too amused by his act.

The film’s a bit too long and it takes its dramatic moments way too seriously but it’s almost worth watching for Tom Hanks. Hanks plays a real bastard in Punchline but you still care about Steve because he’s a likable bastard.  As you watch the film, you hope Steve becomes a star even if he doesn’t really deserve it.   I mean, he’s Tom Hanks!

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian
  34. The Minus Man
  35. Donnie Brasco

Playing Catch Up With The Films of 2017: Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets (dir by Luc Besson)


Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets is another film, much like The Dark Tower and this year’s Transformers movie, that I watched in a state of total and thorough confusion.

More than once, I asked myself, “What the Hell’s going on?  Who are those people?  Why are they blowing stuff up?  Why are they shooting at each other?  Who’s fighting who?  Wait, is he a good guy or a bad guy?  Is Valerian human or alien?  WHAT’S GOING ON!?”

But I have to admit that it really didn’t bother me that Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets is an almost totally incoherent movie.  After all, Valerian is a Luc Besson film and Besson has always been a supreme stylist above all else.  That’s not to say that there’s nothing going on underneath the glossy visuals of a Besson film.  It’s just to say that Besson is one of the rare directors where the subtext is usually less interesting than what’s happening on the surface.

Take Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  It takes place in the far future, on Alpha.  Alpha used to be the International Space Station but now it’s become a floating city where the inhabitants of a thousand different planets mix and socialize.  It’s a very cosmopolitan city, one where the only disturbance comes from obnoxious human tourists who are all either extremely British or extremely American.  Now, you could argue that Besson is making the argument that Alpha is meant to represent France but, if you spend too much time doing that, you’re going to miss just how amazingly Alpha has been visualized.  It’s not just that everyone in the movie says that Alpha is home to a million different creatures.  It’s that when the film travels to Alpha, you take one look at the screen and you believe it.

The film’s plot … well, this is where it gets difficult. It gets off to a truly brilliant beginning, with an intergalactic summit that takes place while David Bowie’s Space Oddity plays in the background.  After that, the film’s visuals were so amazing that I have to admit that I was usually too busy taking it all in to pay much attention to what was actually going on.  Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevigne) are members of the special police force that has been created to protect Alpha and apparently the rest of the universe as well.  Valerian has strange dreams about a primitive race of people who live on a beach.  Laureline frets about Valerian’s recent proposal of marriage.  They’ve both been assigned to track down a creature, the last of its species, that is currently being sold in a black market.  It all links back to some secrets concerning their superior (Clive Owen) and a plot involving intergalactic refugees.

And, obviously, if you’re someone who insists on finding political subtext in every movie that you watch, there’s a lot to be found in Valerian‘s story about space refugees and government cover-ups.  But, honestly, none of that is as interesting as the effort that Besson has put into making his flamboyant universe come to life.  Valerian may be narratively incoherent but visually, it come close to proving Lucio Fulci’s theory of “absolute film.”  The plot is less important than the film’s visuals and how you, as the viewer, reacts to those visuals.  Even Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne seem to have been cast less for any acting ability they may have and more because the boyishly rugged DeHaan and the achingly pretty Delevingne both compliment the film’s visual scheme.  Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is cinematic pop art.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2017: Transformers: The Last Knight (dir by Michael Bay)


So, I’m just going to be honest here.

I did watch Transformers: The Last Knight.  I didn’t see it at the theaters, of course.  To date, I’ve only seen one Transformers movie on the big screen.  It was the fourth one and not only did I get motion sick but when I left the theater, I discovered that I was having trouble hearing.  Even though I watched Transformers: The Last Knight on a small screen, I still made sure to take some Dramamine beforehand.  That may have been a mistake because this movie somehow drags things out for 2 hours and 30 minutes.  That’s a lot of time to spend trying to stay awake while watching something that doesn’t even try to make sense.

So, yes, I did watch Transformers: The Last Knight but I’m not really sure what I watched.  I know that there was a lot of camera movement.  There was a lot of stuff blowing up.  Robots would fly into space.  Robots would return to Earth.  Robots turned into cars.  All of the robots spoke in these gravelly voices and half the time, I couldn’t really understand what they were saying.  Mark Wahlberg was around and he spent the entire movie with this kind of confused look on his face.  His Boston accent really came out whenever he had to deliver his dialogue.  One thing I’ve noticed about Wahlberg is that the less he cares about a movie, the more likely he is to go full Boston.  To be honest, if I just closed my eyes and listened to Wahlberg’s accent and tuned out all of the explosions and robot talk, I probably would have thought I was watching Manchester By The Sea.

Anthony Hopkins was also in the movie, playing a character who might as well have just been named “Esteemed British Person.”  It’s always fun to see Hopkins in a bad movie, just because he knows that his deserved reputation for being a great actor isn’t going to suffer no matter how much crap he appears in.  He always goes through these movies with a slightly bemused smirk on his face.  It’s almost as if he’s looking out at the audience and saying, “Laugh all you want.  I’ll still kick anyone’s ass when it comes to Shakespeare…”  Anyway, Hopkins is mostly around so that he can reveal that the Transformers have been on Earth since time began.  Why, they even saved King Arthur!

The plot has to do with a powerful staff that can be used to bring life back to the Transformers’s home planet.  The problem is that using the staff will also destroy all life on Earth or something like that.  So, of course, the good Transformers are trying to save Earth and the bad Transformers are like, “Fuck Earth, let’s blow stuff up.”  Or something like that.  The main good Transformer — Optimus Prime, I guess — gets brainwashed into becoming an evil Transformer.  Of course, since Anthony Hopkins is in the movie, the majority of the film takes place in England and that can only mean a trip to Stonehenge!

And…

Look, I’ve exhausted myself.  I’m not going to say that Transformers: The Last Knight is a terrible movie because, obviously, someone out there loves this stuff.  I mean, they’ve made five of these movies so someone has to be looking forward to them.  They’re not for me, though.

Some day, I hope Micheal Bay directs a Fifty Shades of Grey movie.  I look forward to watching Christian and Ana discuss consent while the world explodes behind them.

A Halloween Film Review: Kong: Skull Island (dir by Jordan Vogt-Roberts)


You may have noticed that, in the title of this post, I specifically referred to Kong: Skull Island as being a Halloween film but not a horror film.

That was very much intentional on my part.  Kong: Skull Island is really not a horror film.  (I think you could argue that the only King Kong film that can legitimately be considered a horror film would be Peter Jackson’s version and that’s just because he tossed in a few scenes that were obviously inspired by the old Italian cannibal films.)  I watched Kong: Skull Island a few months ago and I really can’t say that there was ever a moment where I was scared or even uneasy.  It’s just not that type of film.

At the same time, it is a fantastically fun and entertaining monster movie, one that has a good sense of humor about its own absurdity.  Halloween is not just a time to get scared.  It’s also a time to have fun and, for that reason, Kong: Skull Island is a perfect movie for October.  In fact, I think that it was actually a mistake for Warner Bros. to release the film in March.  They should have released it during the first weekend of October.  It could have provided a counterbalance to all of the depressing films that have been released this month,

Kong: Skull Island is a throwback to the gleefully absurd monster movies of the past.  Just so we don’t miss that point, the film starts with a 1944 prologue before then jumping forward to 1973.  (Significantly, not a single scene takes place in the 21st Century.)  Samuel L. Jackson plays Lt. Col. Preston Packard, the tough, no-nonsense commander of the Sky Devils helicopter squadron.  The Sky Devils are finally on the verge of leaving Vietnam but they’ve been asked to carry out on more mission.  They’ve been asked to fly an expedition over a newly discovered island.  The official story is that they’re going to be mapping the island but everyone knows better than to trust the government.

Kong: Skull Island is very well-cast, which is a good thing because the majority of the characters are thinly written.  Among the civilians in the helicopters: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and John Goodman.  Of course, they’re all playing characters but, for the most part, you’ll spend the entire movie thinking of them as being Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, and John Goodman.  For that matter, you never think of Samuel L. Jackson as being Preston Packard.  He simply is Samuel L. Jackson.  When they eventually discover a castaway living on the island, it doesn’t matter that the man’s “name” is supposedly Hank Marlow.  He’s played by john C. Reilly and that’s who you’ll always think of him as being.   They’re all charismatic actors so you certainly don’t mind watching them but, at the same time, the film understands that the main reason we’re all here is to see the giant gorilla.

To the film’s credit, it doesn’t take long for King Kong to show up.  This is not one of those films where things are dragged out in an unnecessary attempt to create suspense.  (After all, the audience already knows that King Kong’s on the island.)  Almost as soon as the helicopters breach the airspace over Skull Island, Kong shows up and starts knocking them out of the sky.  The survivors end up stranded on different parts of the island.

Of course, it’s not just Kong that they have to worry about.  In fact, from the start, the audience is smart enough to know that Kong is actually one of the good monsters.  However, Skull Island is also inhabited by bad monsters, like these giant reptiles that Kong keeps having to fight.

Early on, there’s a scene in America where, in regards to the Watergate scandal, John Goodman says that Washington, D.C. is never going to be more screwed up than it is at that moment.  That line pretty much epitomizes Kong: Skull Island.  It’s a lark with a knowing sense of humor and it is not meant to be taken at all seriously.  At it’s best, Kong: Skull Island satirizes some of the most pompous monster movies of the past.  Whenever someone says something portentous, you can be sure that the film will quickly find a way to puncture the somber mood.

And it’s all terrifically entertaining.  Watch, enjoy, and don’t worry too much about whether or not any of it makes sense.  A trip to Skull Island is a trip worth taking.

A Movie A Day #113: Mother Night (1996, directed by Keith Gordon)


Four years after she played the mysterious (and dead) Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, Sheryl Lee starred as another mysterious (and possibly dead) woman in Mother Night.

Lee is cast as Helga Noth, the German wife of American expatriate Harold W. Campbell (Nick Nolte).  Harold is a playwright, living in Berlin and doing propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis.  Working with Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman), a military intelligence officer, Campbell has developed a series of verbal tics that are meant to secretly deliver information to the Allied Forces.  It is never clear whether Harold’s information serves any real purpose just as it is left ambiguous as to whether Harold believes any of the anti-Semitic propaganda that he broadcasts over the airwaves.  Working as both a propagandist and a double agent, Harold serves both the Allies and the Axis.

In the final days of the war, Helga is reportedly killed on the Eastern Front and Harold is captured by the Americans.  Frank arranges for Harold to be quietly sent to New York City but tells him that the government will never admit that they used him as a double agent.

Harold spends the next fifteen years living an isolated life in New York.  His only friend is an elderly painter, Kraft (Alan Arkin), with whom he plays chess.  Eventually, Harold opens up to the painter and talks about his past.  Kraft, for his own shady reasons, reveals Harold’s identity to a group of neo-Nazis.  Though Harold initially wants nothing to do with them, this changes when they reveal that they have Helga.

Or do they?  Almost no one in Mother Night is who they claim or what they seem to be, especially not Harold.

Based on a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night suffers from the same uneven quality that seems to afflict most films based on Vonnegut’s work.  It is easy to go overboard when it comes to bringing Vonnegut’s unique mix of drama and satire to the screen and Mother Night does that in a few scenes, especially once Harold reaches New York.  It is still an intriguing and thought-provoking film, though.  Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as Harold and Sheryl Lee does a good job in a difficult role.

The pinnacle of Vonnegut films remains George Roy Hill’s version of Slaughterhouse-Five but Mother Night is still superior to something like Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Breakfast of Champions.