Tuesday, February 21, 2017

[Review] The Salesman

Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has built an acclaimed reputation crafting complex family dramas like About Elly and the Oscar-winning A Separation. His latest, The Salesman, continues that prestige. The film is a devastating portrait of an uprooted marriage--with it's crumbling trail of destruction leaving no easy answers.

Opening with an impressively chaotic long take within a collapsing apartment building as its occupants scramble to evacuate, we focus in on Emad (Shahab Hosseini), a teacher by day and stage performer by night, along with his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who's also a performer (they're both cast in Death of a Salesman), as they subsequently move into a new place that's a bit of a fixer-upper. But the leaky bathroom isn't the worst of the problems. Apparently the previous tenant attracted some bad customers, and their mark hasn't been completely wiped away. I won't go into too much detail, but a violent intrusion occurs that sends to couple into a shaken down-spiral.

It's a slow-burner, at first playing like a psychological drama, dwelling in friction, trauma, and the paranoia of the event's aftermath. Things progressively shift seamlessly into a mystery-thriller with an engrossing revenge plot that contains some heart-racing beats that actually aren't so different from 2015's Palme d'Or winner Dheepan and even Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners.

The Salesman is tremendously acted all around, with leads Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti embodying these characters with nuance, depth, and a stunning sense of raw humanity. It all escalates into a masterfully intense and almost unbearably stressful climax that really piles on the complications, rendering the film as a hefty and well-wrought examination of the potent tragedy caused by life-damaging moments, blurred morality, and the high-stakes price of revenge.

* 9/10 *

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

[Review] The Red Turtle

In a co-production between Japan's renowned Studio Ghibli and Dutch animator-director Michael Dudok de Wit, The Red Turtle is a major change of pace within the animation world. The quiet, dialogue-free film is both remarkably minimal and as vastly moving as the ocean. It's truly a meditative wonder of rich, visual storytelling.

The tale revolves around a man who gets stranded on a deserted island after a shipwreck. At first, the film feels like a 2D blend of Castway and Life of Pi (I'd throw in Swiss Army Man too if it weren't for the fart factor), as we see the guy's desperation, exhaustion, and loneliness. But when a big red sea turtle shows up ashore, everything changes...

The film is presented in charming and primal hand-drawn animation, set with earthy tones and scenic views of equatorial nature--from deep green jungles to sandy beaches crawling with timid crabs. Sometimes the visuals drift into dreamy black & white nighttime sequences, giving off hallucinatory and existential vibes. It's all aided by a gorgeous (but not overpowering) musical score.

Even though the film's runtime doesn't eclipse 80 minutes, it still might test the patience of some viewers, but that patience will be greatly rewarded. What begins as a somewhat typical island survival story, gracefully transforms into a surreal yet universal tale of humankind, nature, and life.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

[Review] Fifty Shades Darker

Fifty Shades Darker doesn't need much of an introduction, following the massively polarizing kink-exhibit novelty that was Fifty Shades of Grey. But instead of diving deeper, pushing toward a new direction, or righting past wrongs, this film just feels like a lackluster sequel that's simply here because it's tied to an obligation. Running through the motions. A peculiar case of scandal-lite.

The plot sees Christian (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) rekindle their steamy affair again, but this time Anastasia insists "No rules, no punishments, and no more secrets" (I guess those are rules, though). Anyway, it doesn't take an erotic fiction expert to know that these guidelines aren't going to last. When creeping co-workers and jealous exes get involved, things are bound to get DARKER...

...But not really. There are actually quite a few genuinely chuckle-worthy moments that break through some of awkward air, as if director James Foley is letting the audience in and drawing attention to the inanity of it all. So, for a brief time I thought, okay this isn't that bad. It's watchable. It's not making me want to rip my eyes out. But after a while it just becomes tremendously dull and boring. The stilted dialogue, the static repetition, the robotic lust, and Christian's crude and stalkerish possessiveness is all too tiresome over the course of two hours. Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan still don't have any chemistry, and you know, chemistry is fairly vital for a film like this.

It's the type of narrative that Lifetime movies have pulled off with more gusto. This thing has the dramatic heft of a daytime soap opera. And the sex scenes aren't really anything you can't witness on premium cable (I suppose there's a bit more spanking though). While the film itself isn't appallingly bad or anything, it still isn't even close to edgy enough (for better or worse) to be memorable.

All things considered, Fifty Shades Darker is pretty vanilla.

( 4/10 )

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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

[Review] John Wick: Chapter 2

He's built a reputation as a cult action icon and a notorious assassin. The eyes of his enemies widen at the mere mention of his name. He's the Boogeyman, but real. Even Chuck Norris can't hold a candle to him. He's John freaking Wick.

Keanu Reeves reprises his role as the titular character--the man who in 2014's John Wick went on one of the greatest revenge sprees of all time after a group of mobsters stole his car and even worse--killed his puppy (tear). This time around, despite wanting to get out of the hitman game, John Wick gets sucked into a new mission by the organization he gave a blood oath to, and things get... messy, as the narrative plays out like an operatic purgatory of maximal violence.

In a welcome move, Director Chad Stahelski has also returned for Chapter 2. So even if the film doesn't spark the initial surprise of its predecessor--the fact that it retains everything that made the first one great and propels it tenfold--renders it as not only a more-than-worthy sequel, but also one of the best modern action flicks you'll see. What elevates it is the striking cinematography: the rain-glistened streets, the floods of neon, and the careful attention to detail--from the lush lighting to the aesthetically pleasing frames. The picture's artfulness often recalls the visual splendor of other acclaimed action films like Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive or Sam Mendes' Skyfall.

It also possesses a sly sense of humor. As brutal as things get, there are plenty of amusing reaction shots and funny lines to make you chuckle in between the madness. And that brings me to the film's money shots, and by "money shots" I mean the top-notch action sequences. They're choreographed with an exhilarating and stylish flair without being muddled by rapid cutting or shaky cam (thank goodness). And simply put--they're just really cool. To name a few things, we get to see John Wick engage in an intense knife fight with Common on a subway, shoot his way through catacombs and an elaborate hall of digital mirrors and sliding doors, and singlehandedly kill three men with a pencil!

As Kanye West once said in a song, "Any rumor you ever heard about me was true and legendary." The same could be said of John Wick. The guy keeps reiterating his desire to retire, but for the sake of us all--let's hope he doesn't.

* 9/10 *

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Monday, February 13, 2017

[Review] The LEGO Batman Movie

After 2014's surprisingly awesome The LEGO Movie, the film's show-stealer of a Batman has gotten his own audacious spinoff. It's death-defyingly exciting. It's darkly hilarious. And it's tons of brooding fun. Did you catch all those heavy descriptors? Because this Batman wants to make sure you know that he's gloomy and full of rage.

Its initial premise is not an unfamiliar dynamic: The Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) terrorizes Gotham City... Batman (Will Arnett) shows up to save the day... But things shift when a new police commissioner (Rosario Dawson) steps in and outlaws Batman's vigilante activities and urges him to work with the force. But you know Batman--he's stubborn and likes to do things his own way. So he teams up with his Michael Cera-voiced son (yes, you read that right) whom he accidentally adopted (yes, you read that right too), in order to permanently blast The Joker into the "Phantom Zone", a place where the most notorious villains dwell--Dracula, King Kong, Voldemort, Sauron etc...

The terrific script cleverly references Batman incarnations of the past, pokes fun at them, and pays homage--all in a tightly connective and energetic manner. The volume of great jokes is high, and they fire off in rapid succession (the trailer alone seemed to pack more chuckles than the entirety of a lot of the less-than-savory comedies that enter theaters--looking at you Dirty Grandpa), stacking jokes on top of jokes--to the point where your laughs need to catch up from the previous bit. What's also amusing is how this Batman persona is somehow painfully self-aware and totally oblivious at the same time, managing to be multidimensional as a character in a movie of animated Legos that's already based on another character. Will Arnett's gravelly voicework and comic timing fits perfectly, too.

And speaking of the animation, this Chris McKay-directed film may appear basic or rudimentary at the surface, but the more you pay close attention, the more crafty details you'll notice--the scratch and scuff marks on the Lego pieces, along with the oily shine they display, as if someone has gotten a lot of use out of them. The depth of field is so impressive and the plastic textures are so vivid that it seems like you could reach out into the screen and grab the blocks. The busy color palette glows with secondary hues amidst high-contrast lighting, you know--because Batman has to have shadows. 

While The LEGO Batman Movie lacks the sly commentary and imaginative, heart-tugging revelations of its Lego Movie predecessor, it still dives into some themes of loneliness, isolation, and self-absorption and spins them into themes of teamwork, friendship, family, and the importance of setting out to make the world a better place. It might even make you feel feelings and stuff, but don't tell Batman I said that.

* 8.5/10 *

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