Thursday, March 23, 2017

[Review] Beauty and the Beast

If there's anything guaranteed in the near-future of the film industry, it's superhero movies and live-action Disney remakes. Last year's The Jungle Book re-imagining was quite successful, thanks to its splendid visuals, so how does Beauty and the Beast fare? Well, not as well... For all its enchantment, there are some translation flaws that are difficult to just dust away.

This tale as old as time is pretty loyal to 1991's iconic animated musical. A curse is cast upon a vain prince (played by Dan Stevens, The Guest) and his castle, where he'll remain a beast unless he can find true love before the last rose petal falls. On the other side of the land, lives the kind-hearted and inquisitive Belle (Emma Watson). When her father is taken prisoner by The Beast, she exchanges places with him and is left stranded in the castle (kinda creepy). But could she be the one to break thee spell?

One thing that sorely sticks out about this film is the hammy acting. It's as if the human cast haven't diverged from the cartoony form of the characters--especially Luke Evans' Gaston and his sidekick (played by Josh Gad) who's almost too annoying to bear. The whole rendition is cloaked in a layer of melodramatic cheese, and even if you write it off as stagey fantasy, there are a lot of things you really have to let fly. I mean, this is a story about a young woman who falls in love with a horned creature within a couple days (I say "a couple days" as if somehow a couple months would be better). At its surface, it's an inherently odd premise, one that you might question more-so now then when you watched the film as a kid. And even though the heart of the main point is metaphorical--"don't judge a book by its cover", and that "beauty is found within", it seemed to work a lot better in its original animated setting. As for the rendering of The Beast, he looks a bit too computerized and it isn't fully convincing against the backdrop.

I know this all sounds harsh, which is why I'm getting to the high points now. The visual grandiosity and ominous atmosphere of the castle is very impressive. Then there's the fan-favorite anthropomorphic objects with their quirky personalities and great voice cast: Lumiére (Ewan McGregor) the candlestick, Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson), and her son Chip the teacup (Nathan Mack). But it's the songs that really are the film's strongest feature--from the elaborate "Be Our Guest" sequence that dazzles to the ceiling, to the classically stirring melody of the title song, to the new addition of the soaring "Evermore" which arrives during The Beast's major point of despair, feeling like a theatrical emo anthem.

So, this remake didn't completely win me over, but I did get swept away in its spell a few times.

( 6.5/10 )

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

[Review] Burning Sands

This Netflix Original film is a starkly dramatic depiction of a hazing horror story. Both urgent and engrossing, Gerard McMurray's debut Burning Sands is certainly worth adding to your viewing list.

The film follows college student Zurich aka Z (Trevor Jackson) and his group of roommates at a historically African-American university as they pledge to join a renowned fraternity, with Trevante Rhodes (from Best Picture-winner Moonlight) playing one of the leaders. When the crew begins the notorious "Hell Week", they're forced to endure mental and physical abuse that not only crosses the line, but destroys it and sets it aflame.

Similar to last year's Goat, the film is a depraved down-spiral into false brotherhood, toxic masculinity, sadistic abuse of power, and outright humiliation--displaying the blinded desire and exhibiting the irrational lengths these young men will go for a sense of identity, status, and respect in being part of a coveted group. While we as an audience can sit back and think this is ridiculous why don't they just get out?, unfortunately there isn't an easy escape option when extreme peer pressure and the fear of the dangerous repercussions for leaving or failing are out in the open.

Thanks to the impressive cast and gripping direction, Burning Sands is a harrowing cautionary tale that feels raw, real, and relevant--like it was ripped straight from the headlines. Most importantly, it spotlights the major difference between building one's strength and traumatically breaking it down.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, March 13, 2017

[Review] Kong: Skull Island

Have you heard the news? Kong: Skull Island is a colossal mountain of chest-pounding fun.

The plot for this encounter with the iconic beast is fairly straightforward: A group of soldiers, scientists, and documentarians head out to uncharted territory--the ominous Skull Island, where King Kong rules. And mayhem ensues. Along for the journey is a stacked cast: John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Shea Whigham, and Samuel L. Jackson.

The film has an energetic and throwback vibe, enthusiastically recalling campy monster movies of the past and classic war films like Apocalypse Now. When the crew's helicopters first fly over the island, I was half-expecting the Jurassic Park theme to start playing (there's even a crowd-pleasing Easter egg that Samuel L. Jackson delivers). The lush, exotic, and monstrous visuals combined with the wily kinetic camerawork makes this a highly immersive experience. And as well-crafted as an adventure spectacle this is, it never takes itself too seriously. In fact, it's really funny and full of humorous one-liners and apeshit setpieces--like Tom Hiddleston sprinting through a volcanic pit while slicing vicious winged creatures with a katana in slow-motion. The highlight of the cast and surefire favorite is John C. Reilly, as he impeccably plays a kooky but wise longtime resident of the island.

But of course the real star is Kong in all his roaring power, tremendously large scale, and impressive CGI glory. He's a friend if you treat him well, a pulverizing foe if you mess with his home. Other creatures join the party too, like yaks the size of dinosaurs, hair-raising spiders, and nasty lizard-like predators who John C. Reilly's character calls "skull crawlers", or at least until he realizes that name sounds stupid out loud.

Make no mistake, this is the type of film where you specifically come to see King Kong rip a giant octopus apart, and you get exactly that--and then some. Kong: Skull Island isn't a blockbuster--it's an earth-buster... Sorry, that sounded better in my head.

* 8.5/10 *

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

[Review] The Girl with All the Gifts

Zombies. The buggers are here to stay. Personally, I'm a little burnt out on the genre, but The Girl with All the Gifts is a decent brain-chewing specimen with just enough tweaks to keep things interesting.

That girl with all the gifts is Melanie (Sennia Nanua), seemingly a half-zombie with partial immunity to the fungal outbreak infecting the world here. She can still think and act like a sweet and smart little human, but she craves flesh, occasionally launching into Hungry Hungry Hippo-like munchathons. When the military base where she's being studied gets overrun by a horde of "hungries" (that's what they call the zombies), Melanie escapes with her compassionate teacher (Gemma Arterton), a tough-as-nails Doctor (Glenn Close, great), and a couple of army grunts.

It's an intriguing take on a tale of survival--walking alongside the deadly enemy and the potential key to a cure for the future. Sennia Nanua's spirited performance really makes us root for her character's well-being. The film brings the usual close calls while flinging the sloppy amounts of blood and guts that you'd expect. It doesn't skimp on skin-crawling imagery either, like the close-up of a zombie baby with a rat dwelling in its stomach (yikes). Aside from the gross stuff, it's set in a thick dystopian atmosphere--the picture steeped with a sepia haze and filled with evocative shots of vines taking over skyscrapers. Unfortunately, the story loses some of its *ahem* bite during the midsection. There's a little too much uneventful wandering around, and it trudges to a fitting yet underwhelming conclusion.

Still, it's not the worst way to spend an hour and 50 minutes--from a distance, of course.

( 7/10 )

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Thursday, March 9, 2017

[Review] Catfight

Sandra Oh and Anne Heche play bitter rivals in Catfight!, an absurdist comedy directed by Onur Tukel. It's a film that left me feeling indifferent, yet somehow in awe of its execution.

After a fallout as friends in college, Veronica (Oh) and Ashley (Heche) have taken very divergent paths. Veronica is a wealthy homebody in a fancy Soho apartment, while Ashley is a frustrated painter in a messy studio. When the two randomly meet again at a party (and have a bit too much wine), they reignite their feud, and by that I mean they beat each other bloody in a stairwell.

What ensues is a long-term, class-fluctuating grudge match of three rounds. It's dark. It's cynical. It's brash. And it's kind of obnoxious. But it gets points for being a wholly bizarre and unique bout. The film is a no-holds-barred farce with a lot of biting sociopolitical satire and pre-election commentary thrown in, which is sometimes too on-the-nose for its own good (there's a bit about what type of trees Hilary, Bernie, and Trump would be that instantly feels like a passé Facebook meme in movie form).

The unabashed fart jokes and cartoonishly brutal and long fight scenes are pretty funny, though. In fact, the brawls are so over-the-top that I could practically imagine WWE's Jim Ross commentating during them ("Bah Gawd she's going for the wrench!!"). Sandra Oh and Anne Heche are fully game here, even if their characters are thoroughly unlikable. Unbearable, even. The film itself is often intentionally off-putting, so it might actually make you miserable throughout the duration.

Catfight isn't exactly for everyone, but if this sparks your intrigue, it's worth taking a swing, just for the sheer spectacle.

( 6/10 )

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