Tuesday, July 25, 2017

[Review] Maudie

Sally Hawkins gives an incredible performance in Maudie, a genuinely heartfelt portrait of a modest Canadian folk artist named Maud Lewis.

In the small village of Marshalltown, Nova Scotia--we meet Maud (Hawkins). She's hunched, has a prominent limp, and is a bit peculiar. But what stands out is her sweet personality and passion for painting: flowers, birds, butterflies... Eventually, she gets job working as a live-in maid for Everett (Ethan Hawke), a grunty and distant fellow who lives in a tiny, rustic shack on the backroads.

Things don't go very smoothly at first. Early on, Ethan Hawke's character is so cruel and unlikable that it's difficult to approve of this situation. But eventually, the two form a mutual bond, and things lighten up as Maud begins to exhibit her craft, putting her charming touch on any canvas that she can get her hands. Pretty soon, the town catches wind of her paintings, and the demand for them goes through the roof. So much so that Maud becomes a nationally renowned artist. With all the knocks at door, and all the money coming in, the dynamics in the household certainly shift.

Fittingly, the film itself is artistically shot, displaying some great views of the picturesque seaside town and its beautiful surrounding landscapes. It also captures the changing of the seasons and the extremities between the hot and cold weather, which is sort of representative of Maud and Everett's complicated relationship. It would be interesting to see a side-by-side image of the shack before and after Maud arrived, because she practically transforms the place with her colors. Sally Hawkins is absolutely fantastic in a performance that I think is Oscar-nom worthy, from her evocative expressions, to her impressive range of emotion, to the deeply-felt depth she embodies the character with. There are definitely some tearjerking scenes that stick with you long afterward.

This story is all about tough lives and how they're lived. How art can be an escape or a coping mechanism amidst the harsh times. And how little old Maudie made the world a nicer place.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, July 24, 2017

[Review] Dunkirk

Seminal director Christopher Nolan returns with his newest film, Dunkirk, an expertly crafted World War II thriller that leaves you breathless.

It focuses on the efforts of the Dunkirk evacuation, where upwards of 400,000 British and French soldiers were essentially trapped in a harbor by German forces (also a subject in this year's under-the-radar Their Finest). The hostile narrative is presented through three different perspectives: land, air, and sea.

The film wastes no time plunging into the center of the crisis. It's intense. It's engulfing. And it's immersive. The film's visual scope is nothing short of astounding, giving us a 360-degree impression of the area with expansive views of coastlines, shifty seas, cloudy skies, scattered vessels, and the point where they all converge. The sound design pummels with booming tenacity, and Han Zimmer's clock-ticking score escalates the urgency, while doubling as a racing heartbeat as well as inhales and exhales as the characters dodge bullets and bombs and fight to stay above water. This is a very wet film--to the point where you might feel the urge to throw the characters some towels.

The ensemble cast--including the likes of Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and newcomer Fionn Whitehead--is solid all around. And while there isn't one main protagonist or standout performance, the actor who actually impresses the most is, surprisingly, pop star Harry Styles. He's legitimately good in this, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Aside from a couple varying time frames, Nolan has no major tricks or plot twists up his sleeve with this film, and there aren't any lofty concepts at work. It's a very straightforward, matter-of-fact tale of rescue and survival that's told with minimal dialogue, and it's just as impactful anything he's done.

* 9/10 *

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Saturday, July 22, 2017

[Review] To the Bone

Based on her own real-life experiences, writer-director Marti Noxon's To the Bone adeptly follows the struggles of a young woman battling anorexia.

That young woman is 20-year-old Ellen (Lily Collins), a sarcastic and artistic soul who enters an inpatient group home under the guidance of an unconventional doctor, played by Keanu Reeves (!).

It's a surprisingly subdued film, and for the most part, it avoids melodrama. The narrative approaches difficult subjects of body image, addiction, and illness--with honesty, insight, poignancy, and even humor. Lily Collins gives a really good performance as the central character, but the film refreshingly casts a lot of focus on the rest of the ensemble in the home, too. They're an eccentric and sympathetic bunch, and the way they all interact with each other is the most interesting aspect of the story. We witness them all strive to get better under the same roof together, through the ups and the downs.

Of course, this isn't a definitive depiction of eating disorders, but its intentions come from a good place. Unfortunately, the film's final act delves into some strange existential sequences that just don't feel consistent with everything that comes before it. Still, that 'everything that comes before it' is pretty substantial.

( 7/10 )

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

[Review] Tramps

Released on Netflix back in April, Adam Leon's Tramps is a sprinting street caper with a hint of romance, and it's worth checking out.

Set in New York, the story revolves around Danny (Callum Turner) and Ellie (Grace Van Patten), two young strangers whose lives become intertwined during a botched briefcase exchange. From there, they must team up and scramble in order to track down the correct briefcase. The case's contents are a mystery, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter what's inside.

The whole thing takes place over the span of about 24 hours. Throughout the jaunt, there are dicey mix-ups, complications, and feelings that get in the way. The snappy editing and handheld camerawork captures the hustle and bustle of the city, while giving the film a sense of immediacy and momentum, which is fitting for the brisk 80-minute runtime. Turner and Van Patten both exhibit realism-based performances that blend with the aesthetic. Great comedian and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia even shows up as a small-time crook, and I love the guy, but frankly he seems out of place here.

In terms of themes, concept, and style, Tramps covers well-trodden territory, and it definitely works as a similar companion piece to Leon's previous little indie flick Gimme the Loot. But even though it never feels like you're watching anything new, it won't disappoint if you're a fan of this genre.

( 7.5/10 )

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

[Review] 47 Meters Down

Last year's The Shallows was a surprisingly well-crafted tale of shark attack survival. 47 Meters Down feels more like a secondary version of that, but it still has its moments of suffocating thrills.

While vacationing in Mexico, Lisa (Mandy Moore, fresh off "This Is Us" success) and her sister Kate (Claire Holt), get coerced into scuba-diving down into Great White Shark territory, with just a cage of rusty bars separating them from carnage, because you know, there's nothing like putting yourself in the way of a creature that will tear your limbs off. As you can guess, things go wrong. Terribly wrong.

The majority of the film is set amidst ominous ocean depths--the thick, inky darkness of the water giving the impression that the sharks could come out of nowhere, and at any moment, and they do...striking with major jolts of intensity, while instilling fear, panic and screams. Between the chomping madness, there are a couple of lulls in the midsection, like the scene where the sisters spill their figurative guts to each other, and it's never quite convincing. And let's just say the dialogue isn't this film's biggest strength. The biggest strength, of course, is the sharks. Now they're convincing.

Despite the pitfalls, there's just enough urgent tension, hefty obstacles, wire-snapping setbacks, and shark action to make 47 Meters Down a decent escape from a hot summer day. Plus, Shark Week is approaching!

( 7/10 )

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Monday, July 17, 2017

[Review] War for the Planet of the Apes

This Apes reboot has come a long way since young Caesar--now the saga's wise and weary protagonist--was basking in the arms of James Franco. The latest installment, War for the Planet of the Apes swings further into dystopian darkness, playing as an Exodus-like swan song.

As we check back in with the story's stoic leader, he's a bit more grey. A bit angrier. And he's doing his best to keep his village safe from attacks by human soldiers. But when tragedy strikes Caesar's family, he sets out with a couple of his trusty comrades in order to infiltrate a military base and take down its sadistic, Apocalypse Now-esque Colonel (played intimidatingly by Woody Harrelson).

The film is part grueling journey, part prison camp escape thriller. There are surprises around every corner, up every tree, through every tunnel, and amidst every cold and snowy mountain. Let's just say "Game of Thrones" isn't the only place where Winter Has Come... And while the film unleashes a couple of explosive battles, this time around it casts more focus on the smaller, quieter moments--which pack just as much power in their somber plot turns and poignant imagery. This definitely isn't the easiest watch. If it weren't for Caesar's commendable will and the funny new comic relief character "Bad Ape" who dons a blue jacket vest, this would almost be a complete downer. In fact, the film's second half is essentially like watching a Holocaust drama, with just a slight window of hope.

Michael Giacchino's musical score heightens the intensity and deepens the emotion. And like its predecessor, the film's technical proficiency astounds--from the immersive sound design, to the lush cinematography, to the startlingly realistic renderings of the apes and the impressive motion-capture work. And yes, Andy Serkis deserves to be praised for his behind-the-effects performance as Caesar.

In the end, the 21st century Caesar solidifies himself as one of the best on-screen heroes of this generation. And War for the Planet of the Apes is a STRONG conclusion to an excellent trilogy.

* 9/10 *

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

[Review] Okja

Director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer) partners up with Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment for Okja--a weird, sublime, and ambitious eco-parable that can be seen exclusively on Netflix.

Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) lives in the mountains of South Korea with her pet "superpig" named Okja--a snuggly mix between a pig and a hippo. It's not the most convincing CGI job, but you just have to roll with it. Anyway, when Okja is taken by the controversial Mirando Corporation (led by a wicked and teethy Tilda Swinton), Mija must go desperate lengths to get her beloved companion back.

Like the superpig at the center of this tale, the film itself is also a peculiar hybrid, flinging a delirious mix of oddball tones and eclectic genres at us. It's a whimsical and poignant coming-of-age tale of girl and creature, a dystopian thriller of worldly proportions, an absurdist humor piece of consumer culture, a cartoonish satire of corporate corruption, and an in-your-face exploit of animal cruelty. And somehow, it still has room for Jake Gyllenhaal's wackiest character to date.

This is a film that refuses to settle for one route. In fact, it just proliferates in all directions at once. And as jarring and jumbled as it is, it somehow works and coheres the more the story progresses and unfolds. Bong Joon-ho stages the provocative vision as a frenzied circus that's ready to combust at any moment. And while we've seen all these elements separately before, we've never seen them together quite like this. So Okja definitely gets points for being super unique.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

[Review] The Hero

Sam Elliott leads the way in The Hero, a familiar but nicely layered portrait of an aging star longing for the success of their prime.

Lee (Elliott) is a former Western movie icon. Nowadays, he'd just like to land a role that doesn't involve voicework for BBQ sauce commercials. He also gets invites to Lifetime Achievement Award ceremonies, but they only add salt to his wounds. As far as his personal life goes, he's trying to get back in touch with his estranged daughter (played by Krysten Ritter), and he even sparks up a relationship with a spontaneous woman named Charlotte (Laura Prepon), who's around his daughter's age (kind of awkward). Oh yeah, and he's just received that damned cancer diagnosis.

Sam Elliott's fantastic performance is the main draw here. It's magnificently graceful. It's deeply self-deprecating. And there's a lot of emotional turmoil behind those thick eyebrows and mustache. The film is interspersed with Western-style dream sequences that not only intensify Lee's nostalgia, but also function as metaphors for him attempting to run away from his own fate.

But despite the sad story and melancholy tone, there are plenty of sunnier moments along the way. Laura Prepon's character is a beam of light, who also spends her nights as a stand-up comic, which sets up some unexpected appearances from Ali Wong and Cameron Esposito. Then there's all the amusing times when Lee goes over to the house of his only friend (played by Nick Offerman in manchild form) to smoke a lot of weed, watch movies, and relieve stress.

The Hero doesn't quite meet the greatness of its avuncular films (like The Wrestler or Crazy Heart), and its ending doesn't completely satisfy, but it's still moving to witness Sam Elliott in such stellar form.

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

[Review] The House

The House is so bad that I felt like it owed ME money.

Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler play Scott and Kate, a couple of suburban stiffs who, with their clearly unreliable friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), haphazardly open up an illegal casino in a basement in order to help pay for their daughter's college tuition. We all know college is expensive, but in the words of the wise DJ Khaled: "Congratulations... you played yourself." 

Not a good idea. And neither was this film. Or at least the execution of it. I immediately knew things were gonna be rough when it opened with the overplayed and on-the-nose song "My House" by Flo Rida. And despite the funny cast, the film can't land a joke to save its life. It's almost exhausting to watch how hard it tries. I may have mustered up half a chuckle throughout the entire thing.

It's just not that amusing to watch a bunch of dull and obnoxious adults gamble, fight, and reap money off of each other, especially when there isn't even a chip of effective humor or satire to it. The achingly thin premise stretches into a ridiculously vile and violent third act of underground crime cliches and a loosely strung together plot involving cops, city supervisors, mobsters, and debts--making the film seem longer than it really is, and double as miserable.

The House is a loathsome exercise in bad taste. The dice rolled, and so did my eyes.

( 3/10 )

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[Review] The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani writes and stars in The Big Sick, a semi-autobiographical dramedy that is as delightful as it is poignant. It's part Don't Think Twice and "Master of None". Part 50/50 and "Girlfriend in a Coma" by The Smiths. And it's one of the best films of the year so far.

Kumail (portraying himself) is a Pakistani immigrant in Chicago, working as an Uber driver by day, an amateur comedian by night. He's also a compulsive liar, but with good intentions, if that makes any sense. Anyway, when he begins dating Emily (Zoe Kazan), some major obstacles arise in their relationship--like Kumail's wholly traditional parents (Zenobia Shroff & Anupam Kher) who are adamant about arranging a marriage for him. And then there's a serious medical emergency (ah, now the title makes sense) that strikes uncertainty in Kumail and Emily's future together.

Co-written with Emily V. Gordon, the film conveys an excellent script. It's thoughtful, clever, thorny, and heartfelt all at once. The humorous dialogue is always laced with an undercurrent of tragedy, and that's very much indicative of the film's overall tone. There are moments that will make you laugh out loud, as well as ones that will tear your heart out and bounce it on the floor. All of the gooey yet effective streaks of sentimentality feel entirely earned. Oh, and the callbacks. The callbacks are really good. But one of the most interesting aspects about the story is the exploration of the dynamic between Kumail and Emily's parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, who are both pleasantly fantastic here). Like its own rollercoaster--it constantly fluctuates between hostility and bonding amidst a personal crisis. Also great, of course, is the leading man Kumail, with a wide-ranging performance that easily stands head and shoulders above his smaller roles.

The Big Sick is about the complicated relationships we encounter. The doozies that life drops. The intricacies of family and culture. And the power of comedy that can sometimes help us through it all.

* 9.5/10 *

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Monday, July 10, 2017

[Review] Spider-Man: Homecoming

If it seems like there's been a lot of Spider-Man iterations on the big screen over the last 15 years, that's because there has been. The latest, Spider-Man: Homecoming, is a merger of sorts, pulled in by the almighty Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while this film can't help but have some Spidey déjà vu, it's still a lot of swooping, sticky fun.

How does one even concentrate in high school after they've become the Spider-Man and done insane stuff like fighting alongside the Avengers? How does one balance studying with keeping the streets safe, all while getting home in time for Aunt May's (Marisa Tomei) dinner? This is the web of conflicts that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) wrestles with here, while under the watchful eye of his mentor, Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.).

Even though Spider-Man may feel the weight of the world on his shoulders, the film itself is light, jubilant, and spiked with humor. While it boasts some impressively rendered setpieces, like a death-defying close call at the Washington Monument, or a splitting debacle on a Staten Island ferry, the film's most endearing moments come when Peter is hanging out with his best friend (Jacob Batalon), gushing over his crush (Laura Harrier), and during the teen comedy stretches and high school blunders that are always just a few steps away from becoming a "Degrassi" episode. And speaking of things getting real, the stakes skyrocket when Peter must face off against the story's powerful winged villain, Vulture (played with a teeth-grinding grit by Michael Keaton), who runs on "alien junk."

One of the keys to the film is that we never get the impression that Spider-Man is invincible, or that things come too easy for him. After all, he's a rookie in the superhero world (and, again, only 15 years old). A freshman just trying to figure everything out. The talented Tom Holland is great for the role, playing Spidey with a wide-eyed glee and a bounce in his step, while still remaining vulnerable and virtuous. It's these aspects that make the seen-it-before tropes tolerable. Fresh, even.

So what's next? Prom? Graduation? Oh, and be sure to *stick* around after the credits.

* 8.5/10 *

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Saturday, July 8, 2017

[Review] Beatriz At Dinner

Salma Hayek gives a splendidly tenacious performance in Beatriz At Dinner, a meditative and strikingly relevant drama of culture clash.

Beatriz (Hayek) is a spiritual soul, making a living at a holistic healing center, and as a personal masseuse for a haughty couple (Connie Britton & David Warshofsky) in the Hollywood Hills. One day, they invite Beatriz to stay for dinner with a few other guests. And well, it doesn't take long for things to get uncomfortable, as Beatriz finds herself at odds with the table's bigot and controversial real estate mogul (played by John Lithgow).

The whole film takes place over the course of one evening, and director Miguel Arteta stages the tension-filled scenes with an unhurried but substantial touch. Through character backgrounds and cross-table conversations, the topics of racism, class, privilege, immigration, property seizing, and different views of the American Dream arise--and that's all before dessert! It isn't subtle, but in a political climate of drastics, not a lot is...

Salma Hayek is the guiding force of the film, embodying a richly drawn character who's all at once compassionate and sensitive, hard-nosed and confrontational. And as despicable as John Lithgow's character is, he plays the jerk role incredibly well, and with a Trumpian arrogance that is, let's be real--probably not a coincidence.

Just like the conflicts in the world today, the film portrays an ongoing struggle and unfortunately offers no easy foreseeable resolutions. Beatriz is a healer, but ironically, the pain that shows in her own face is undeniable. And like the film's unsettling ending--it haunts.

( 7.5/10 )

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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

[Review] Despicable Me 3

I'll always stand by my adoration of the first Despicable Me film, but I found its sequel Despicable Me 2 to be unsurprisingly mediocre, and its Minions spin-off to be mildly fun at best. So I wasn't really stoked for Despicable Me 3. And well, my feelings haven't changed.

Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell) is now happily living with his new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) and their three adoptive daughters, and yes, the Minions. But things get flipped when Gru and Lucy are fired from the Anti-Villain League. What ensues is an episodic smorgasbord of a plot involving a former '80s child star named Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) who's bent on world domination, Gru getting pulled back to the villainy side by his wacky (and painfully obnoxious) twin brother, a random search for a unicorn, and a Minion Idol side story that should've been bopped from the air.

Somehow, there's a whole lot of nothing and too much of everything going on at the same time. Amidst the colorful and zippy animation, the film is stuffed with frantic action sequences that all just blur together, an onslaught of try-hard gags, tiresome Minion antics, scattershot humor, and a soundtrack by Pharrell Williams that sounds completely phoned in. There's also even less heart and warmth this time around. It's a nearly unwatchable mess. An assault on your senses - as if it's constantly tapping on your shoulder, waving stuff in front of your face, and yelling in your ear. The whole thing is wildly disjointed and incredibly unfocused. In fact, there are THREE different directors listed in the film's credits, and the incoherency definitely shows.

This movie isn't just despicable, it's an abomination. Oh brother, indeed.

( 3/10 )

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[Review] Baby Driver

Consistently buzzing writer/director Edgar Wright returns to deliver Baby Driver, a playlist-inspired action flick with a stylish, high-octane spin of its own.

Ansel Elgort plays Baby. That's his name. He's a quiet and mysterious music junkie (his iPod earbuds rarely leave his ears), who also happens to be an amazingly skilled getaway driver for a bankrobbing crew (which includes Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx). Baby wants to get out of the game though, so he can run away with Debora (Lily James), a down-to-earth girl he meets at the diner. But unfortunately, that won't be so easy under the intimidating grasp of his boss, played by a sly Kevin Spacey.

It's a film that fires on all cylinders. The flashy editing and kinetic camerawork... The escalating conflicts within each beat of the narrative... The way the rock & soul music synchronizes with the exhilarating tempo of the chase sequences and shootouts...  It's all crafted with thematic precision. There's even a bit of sweetness to it as Baby cares for his deaf, wheelchair-bound foster parent (played by CJ Jones). And fittingly, there are several cameos from significant musicians along the way--from renowned Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, to indie-pop singer Sky Ferreira, to southern rap artists Big Boi and Killer Mike (I mean, the film does take place in Atlanta).

As fun as the film is, the ending stretch does drag on a bit longer than it needs to, but Baby Driver is still guaranteed to be an electrifying trip to the movies. Just be careful driving on the way home. ;)

* 9/10 *

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

[Review] Transformers: The Last Knight

The opening scene of Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth installment of Michael Bay's exhaustingly crappy Transformers series, boasts a myriad of giant spiked fireballs raining down over a medieval battle, and one of the first lines of dialogue yelled is "This is what the end looks like!" And I couldn't help but think "This better be the end..."

With all the talk of Lancelot, Merlin, and magic, for a moment I wondered if I accidentally walked into a straggling matinee showing of the latest King Arthur film. But no, amidst all the swords and dragons and aliens, this is actually a Transformers movie, and Mark Walhberg is back to save the day (he must've requested extra shots of his triceps this time), and he's very much in the "Not all Transformers are bad" camp. Anthony Hopkins even shows up to prophesize the events.

It's as if Michael Bay set out to make the messiest and most bloated movie possible, and succeeded. It's like a kid tossed all their different action figures into a box together and Bay took it and decided to morph it into a plot. A very awful and incoherent one. This is a hodgepodge of dizzying, headache-inducing chaos. A stinky clunker of clashing CGI metal. An explosive cinematic fart that seems to be making things up as it goes along. There's also some painstakingly corny schmaltz that shows up about every 10 minutes. And did I mention that the runtime is almost three hours long?

This thing is also riddled with uncomfortably forced and cringeworthy dialogue that sounds like it was written by an asshole. But a couple of the lines are hilarious, whether intentional or not, like when Josh Duhamel orders Mark Walhberg to drop his gun, and Wahlberg says "I'm not dropping shit." Either way, there was a lot of shit dropped throughout this movie.

( 2/10 )

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Monday, July 3, 2017

[Review] The Beguiled

Director Sofia Coppola returns with The Beguiled, a southern gothic suspense tale that stings with promiscuity and constantly pulls the curtains back on innocence.

Nicole Kidman is the headmistress of the Farnsworth Seminary, a sheltered school for young girls - Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning are cast as the notable residents. Things get shaken up when a wounded Yankee (played by Colin Farrell) stumbles from a Civil War battle onto their secluded property. After they nurse him back to health, boundaries are crossed, tensions boil, and legs are lost.

This is a dark film, but not as much in tone as I mean actual the picture. The moody mansion is steeped in natural, shadowy light--the candles hardly making their presence known--the sun barely peeking through the surrounding trees before it fades at the oft shaded windows. It all comes with a smirking sense of humor, too. The dialogue is laced with not-so-subtle innuendos, while deceit fills the humid air as the screwy dynamics of the house unfurl and we witness the conniving, highly secretive interactions the characters have behind each other's backs.

It's exquisite drama. Beautifully costumed. Superbly acted all-around. And even though The Beguiled doesn't exactly ignite any new revelations in the end, it's still a juicy and potent dish.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, June 29, 2017

[Review] The Lure

If by chance you've been in the market for a moonlit musical horror story about killer mermaids, then let Agnieszka Smockzynska's The Lure be the one to pull you in...

This aquatic eccentricity swirls around two mermaid sisters, Golden (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek). Their fins---not of the friendly Disney variety--they're realistically fishy, scaly, slimy, and kind of sea-monstrous. When the sisters are brought onto land, they're hired at a seedy underground nightclub. All the while, one seeks human love, while the other seeks human flesh.

It's as bizarre as it sounds, and entirely unique. A Polish peculiarity. Much of the duration (maybe a little too much) consists of Magic Mike-esque cabaret performances (or should I say Magic Mermaid), as well as full-on musical numbers that even La La Land would be impressed by--if it were high on potions. It's all terrifically-shot, entrancing even. The mise-en-scène appears as if one of those exotic vintage oddity shops came to life and got cinematic... and gruesome.

In addition to being such an imaginative hybrid, The Lure also answers the age-old question: "How do mermaids go to the bathroom?" Well, they don't.

( 7/10 )

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

[Review] Rough Night

Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Zoë Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, and Kate McKinnon make up the squad of hardcore partiers in Rough Night, a raucous if over-the-top romp that lives up to its title.

That squad, all former college buds, reunite 10 years later for a bachelorette weekend. Now--all much more mature--they vow to keep it classy. You know - refrain from anything that could get you fired if you got tagged in it on Facebook. But once the alcohol starts flowing (and the coke begins snorting), things get crazy--so crazy that they accidentally kill a male stripper!

For the most part, the raunchy humor actually works here, as the script is full of wild slapstick and dirty but clever one-liners. The Hangover is an obvious comparison to make, but the film's antics often recall the surprisingly good Neighbors 2, while capturing the wit and awareness of a post-Tinder zeitgeist. And while the film has a hard time cramming these five different personalities into the story, each character still has their moments and they all demonstrate great comic timing.

Kate McKinnon, despite donning an awkward Australian accident, emerges as a quirky standout, as she often does. And while we love Scarlett Johansson's more... serious roles, it's amusing to see her engage in a freewheeling flick like this. Men are intentionally put on the backburner here, but the ones that do show up are comedy sensations like Bo Burnham, Eric Andre, and Hasan Minhaj, who are all forced to play it straight, which is amusing in and of itself.

Rough Night is fittingly wild, scatter-brained, hyperbolic, and completely ridiculous, but that same sense of wicked spontaneity is exactly what makes it a fun time.

( 7/10 )

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Monday, June 26, 2017

[Review] All Eyez On Me

A biopic is a difficult thing to make pop. Especially a music biopic. And especially a music biopic about an endlessly iconic and highly influential hip-hop artist like Tupac. 2015's Straight Outta Compton hit the right notes with its exuberant portrait of NWA's rise, giving some hope that maybe the following Tupac rendition could do the same. But unfortunately, All Eyez On Me just doesn't have the same energy and effective craft behind it, and it falls disappointingly flat.

The film covers the life, death, and legacy of Tupac Shakur (played by Demetrius Shipp Jr.). Of course, a large chunk of it involves the revolutionary rapper's mid-90s reign--both the high points and the downfalls, from prison time to music industry success. Considering Pac's brilliant, complicated, and contradictory nature, there's a lot to delve into in terms of character study and musical genius, but the picture painted here is mostly clumsy, one-dimensional, and not quite as deep as it wants to be.

For a story about a larger-than-life lyricist and rapper, the film itself lacks any sense of poeticism or flow. Structurally, it never seems like it can decide where it wants to go. How much time should we spend on this? What should we cover? What should we omit? In turn, the narrative comes off like an unfocused visual checklist of someone perusing Tupac's Wikipedia page. And sometimes the dialogue is so terribly on-the-nose that it often becomes phony and forced.

Demetrius Shipp Jr. has an impossibly huge task to take on, and he actually does a pretty commendable job considering the weight of it all. But while he's a solid screen presence and greatly resembles the cultural icon in appearance, he doesn't quite possess the same bravado and soul of Tupac's voice. Does anyone really, though? Still, it's a significant glare that is difficult to look past.

All Eyez On Me always feels like it should be more fascinating and powerful than it is. Maybe someday there will be a good Tupac biopic, but it's not this one.

( 4.5/10 )

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

[Review] Cars 3

Ah, Cars... Pixar's, uh, least-beloved franchise (although merchandising might say otherwise). It doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and I mean that in more ways than one. While the latest installment is better than Cars 2 (that's not saying much), it still doesn't exactly rejuvenate the series.

Cars 3 checks back in with Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson). He's a fading old-timer. Far past his prime. Nearing the end of his career on the racing circuit and getting torched by flashy and hi-tech newcomers like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Things take a jarring turn when McQueen crashes and burns. And well, you know what that means: It's time for a comeback story!! But in the form of a mentorship, training young dreamer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).

Despite its sleek animation, endearing voicework, and accessible plot, the film comes off as thoroughly mediocre. All the racing sequences get overly repetitive, and frankly, they just aren't that engaging. This lacks humor, heart, and stakes, and when it faces off against similar racing stories with similar beats--like Ron Howard's live-action (and much better) Rush--it falls far behind.

The narrative comes down to someone (automobile or otherwise) trying to keep up with a world that is moving way faster than them. It's about adapting to change, breaking tradition, taking risks, and not getting stuck in the past. But ironically, the film itself does none of these things. It isn't new. It isn't fresh. And it isn't surprising. In fact, it's about as formulaic as it gets.

So as you can guess, I probably won't be racing to the theaters for Cars 4.

( 5.5/10 )

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

[Review] Raw

Julia Ducournau's Raw is a graphic and grotesque art-horror film that is surprisingly watchable.

This French-Belgian flick follows Justine (Garance Marillier, superb) - a strict vegetarian heading off to veterinary school. Early on, she's bombarded and forced to engage in a sadistic hazing ritual that involves eating rabbit kidneys and getting blood and guts dumped on her head (an image that recalls Carrie). Soon after, she begins craving meat like a rabid carnivore. And not just any meat... RAW meat.

It gets grosser and grosser as it goes. Rashes. Animal parts. Cannibalism. But don't get it twisted, this isn't shallow snuff or shock for the sake of shock. This is well-shot and well-wrought nastiness. And by that I mean it might make you gag while you simultaneously admire the cunning cinematography, the stylized lighting, and the vivid colors. The film exhibits some surrealist flairs, occupying a bizarre and provocative alt-world. Coming-of-age symbolism, themes of sexual awakening, and sisterly bonds and rivalries curdle beneath the sickening surface, putting this film more in the realm of ambiguous arthouse pieces like The Fits or Wetlands, rather than stuff like Green Inferno.

So if you'd like to wet your weird appetite, take a chomp out of Raw. No one will blame you for wanting to puke though, especially if you're eating hotdogs during it. WHY would you do that?

( 8/10 )

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Monday, June 19, 2017

[Review] The Mummy

The Mummy rises up as the first piece in the "new" Dark Universe, Universal's relaunch of classic movie monsters. And well, if this monstrosity is any indication of what lies ahead, there's not much to be excited about, because this wannabe blockbuster is a disasterpiece on multiple levels.

Amidst the film's six different openings, an ancient princess aka The Mummy (played by Sofia Boutella) is awakened, Tom Cruise and his oddly cast buddy Jake Johnson yell at each other in Iraq while dodging bullets and accidentally uncovering a tomb, and Russell Crowe serves as narrator for reasons initially unknown. Anyway, The Mummy is mad and ready to wreak havoc, but in London.

"The past cannot remained buried forever." - A phrase that's uttered twice in this film. But considering what the filmmakers have summoned, the past definitely should've remained buried. This thing can't find a proper tone to save its life. It's a shoddy mash of genres that fails miserably at each one--whether it's horror, fantasy, adventure, comedy, or romance. Along the way, there's head-scratching hallucinations, weird possessions, generic curses, shoehorned conspiracy stuff, and a 5-minute scene of exposition about Tom Cruise's 15-second endeavor with the story's love interest (Annabelle Wallis). I will say - the attempts at humor here are so bad that they do end up being amusing.

The editing is incomprehensible and the action sequences are awfully muddled--not that what's happening is that interesting in the first place, but we should at least be able to clearly see it, right? Some of the film's imagery almost looks unfinished - you know, like those videos of movie footage that leak onto the internet before post-production has taken place. The film's big and bad title character is never that menacing of an obstacle, coming off more as an elaborate Halloween costume with a killer make-up job at best, while rivaling The Enchantress from Suicide Squad for the most futile and ill-conceived villain in recent memory. She spends half the duration chained up and immobile, to the point where you wonder if the creation of this film even began as a Mummy movie. Tom Cruise gives it his all to keep this thing alive, but it's like a captain trying to keep a pile of pierced dead weight from sinking. I don't think this is the worst film of the year, but it's certainly an abominable mess.

Brendan Fraser is rolling in his grave. (I know he's alive, but still.)

( 4/10 )

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

[Review] The Belko Experiment

The company slogan this film flaunts, "Business without boundaries" takes on a whole different meaning in the gruesomely violent 9-5 free-for-all that is The Belko Experiment.

John Gallagher Jr., Tony Goldwyn, Adria Arjona, Melonie Diaz, and Michael Rooker play the notable co-workers who clock into Belko Industries. A seemingly normal day at the office turns into absolute chaos when the building's intercom is hijacked by an unknown voice giving them orders to essentially engage in systematic killing, and it's no joke.

It's like The Purge in a skyscraper. A less-stylish cousin of Ben Wheatley's High-Rise. But it lacks the social commentary or send-up that you might expect from an over-the-top corporate debacle. And it's mostly void of any sense of humor or bite. I say "mostly" because there is an operatic sequence where people's heads start exploding and the film's token stoner yells "It's all in my mind!" But mainly, this is a hollow, hypothetical scenario of people being pushed to the edge under pressure, where all morals are tossed out the window (if the windows weren't sealed up). Who will snap first? Who's gonna get sacrificed. Who's gonna take charge? How does one even develop a plan under these circumstances?

The Belko Experiment is entertaining in a sadistic sort of way for a while, but I began to check out about halfway through as the film became loathsomely cruel, tedious, and one-note--one bloody and skull-crushing note. (I also think it was a terrible mistake to kill off Michael Rooker's character so early.) So this film isn't really fun, intense, or substantial enough to be memorable or gain cult appeal. The biggest question I was left with was: Who cares?

( 5/10 )

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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

[Review] My Cousin Rachel

Based on Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same name, My Cousin Rachel is a handsome period drama and mystery-romance of a darker tone.

Set in Victorian-era England, we meet Philip (Sam Claflin) as he learns about the death of his former guardian Ambrose, and there are indications that Ambrose's wife Rachel (Rachel Weisz, ah - name solidarity) may be responsible for it. Seeking vengeance, Philip invites Rachel to his home in an attempt to unveil the mystery. But welp... he falls in love with her. Whoops!

The narrative has some glacial pacing, making the film more of a moodpiece than a thriller. A gothic, but dull slow-burn that might induce a nap. The central conflict is there, but it's never quite as intense or engaging as you want it to be. What the film does have going for it is its lush production design - the dusted, candle-lit interior of the mansion... the jet-black wardrobe of Rachel's enigmatic aura... Mike Eley's cinematography is gorgeous too, displaying some ravishing views of the grassy countrysides and rocky coastlines. Sam Claflin is very solid in the lead role - he thrives well in this type of stuff. Rachel Weisz also gives a great performance as the complicated titular character, constantly walking the line between guilty and innocent.

It's just unfortunate that the story is no match for its costume.

( 6.5/10 )

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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

[Review] I, Daniel Blake

Acclaimed British director Ken Loach's latest film I, Daniel Blake is a profound character portrait that puts humanity first amidst harsh economic times.

Meet the titular character Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a cranky yet sympathetic man who's just doing his best in dealing with the crap that life has thrown at him: His wife has recently passed away, he has a heart-attack at work, he loses his job, and because of a mix-up is denied unemployment. And to top it off, he sometimes has to put up with the literal crap that his neighbor's dog leaves in the yard. We follow Daniel as he goes through the frustrating appeal process for his benefits.

I know it doesn't sound like the most exciting plot for a movie (far from it actually), but thanks to the rich details, the tremendous central performance from Dave Johns, and the genuinely compassionate script, I, Daniel Blake is a commendable effort on many fronts. It's sad. It's comical. It's heartfelt. It's tragic. It's real--just like the story's well-wrought, resilient gruff of a main character. He's a working class underdog. A relatable every-person battling against a system that has pushed him aside. A big-hearted helper, especially as he becomes a supportive grandpa-like figure to a young single mother named Katie (played greatly by Hayley Squires) and her two children.

Perhaps the closing of his Daniel Blake's appeal letter says it best:

"My name is Daniel Blake. I am a man, not a dog. As such, I demand my rights. I demand you treat me with respect. I, Daniel Blake am a citizen. Nothing more, and nothing less."

That's Daniel Blake.

( 8/10 )

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Monday, June 12, 2017

[Review] It Comes at Night

Put your gas masks on and get your flashlights ready, because It Comes at Night.

Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) live with their awkward teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in a rustic home deep in the middle of a forest. On the outside, an insidious virus is infecting the world. When the household decides to take in another struggling family (played by Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough), they form their own mini-community in a fight for survival.

It sucks you in from the beginning, while raising multiple questions: What is the virus? Where is it coming from? Who is left? Or more pertinent - What the hell is going on? The slow-moving camerawork provides some unnerving POV shots of nearly pitch-black hallways and woods, and the thumping percussion of the music summons the dread. The film does see a lull during the midsection, but it eventually picks back up when hostile conflict arises between the two families. Extreme paranoia also creeps in and builds to some nasty nightmare sequences that will make you jump out of your seat.

Along the way, the story tiptoes into a few different thematic ideas but never really develops them any further. And the film is met with an abrupt and unsettling ending--the type of ending that causes audible gasps and audiences turning and saying "That's it?" Personally, I'm a little more forgiving when it comes to this story's bleak (and slightly rushed) conclusion, but I do wish the film had been longer. Still, I found the high points of It Comes at Night to be quite gripping and the overall atmosphere to be very potent. And while we never really find out exactly what It is, It is pretty scary either way.

( 8/10 )

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Saturday, June 10, 2017

[Review] A Cure for Wellness

This film is wet. Very wet.

Gore Verbinski is the director of A Cure for Wellness, an off-kilter institution thriller and psychological horror that is flooded with style.

Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, a fast-rising financial executive who's sent on an assignment to retrieve his company's CEO from a remote fortress in the Swiss Alps that specializes in advanced hydrotherapy to treat various ailments...Or at least that's what they want you to think. After catching some strange vibes, Lockhart suddenly finds himself as a patient there and is unable to check out.

Its smothering story definitely intrigues, as Lockhart drowns deeper and deeper into insanity. Conceptually, the film comes off as a dead-serious blend between Shutter Island and Get Out (without the racial themes). But despite its isolated high-concept, the film still has a lot of real-world topics on its mind, bringing up social critiques on the twisted aspect of the American Dream, toxic superiority, warped medical experiments, purification methods and cleanses, and there's even some class commentary. But the narrative never really *ahem* capitalizes on these ideas and only skims the surface. In turn, the film feels bloated with its 140-minute runtime, especially considering the couple of detours that don't quite mesh. I didn't find it to be slow-moving though, just overstuffed.

What the film really has going for it is its relentlessly peculiar (and creepy) atmosphere, from the eerie hum of the music to the ominous mystique of the settings--the pools, the preservation tanks, the steam baths, the sensory deprivation chambers. It's all significantly well-shot, capturing the intricate production design and the consistently provocative imagery with pristine framing. The film spouts some striking visual motifs, from vivid reflections--to human anatomy--to freakin' eels.

So even considering the missteps, I found A Cure for Wellness to be an engrossing experience, mainly because of its overall commitment to weirdness and its steam-goth aesthetics. Now I need a towel.

( 7/10 )

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Thursday, June 8, 2017

[Review] The Lovers

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts star in The Lovers, a comedy-drama (lighter on comedy) of diverging marriages and wandering infidelity.

Michael (Letts) and Mary (Winger) are one unhappy couple together, and they're each having an affair. If the film were shown in split-screen, their promiscuous lifestyles would practically mirror each other. But once they re-spark their relationship, complications arise and feelings are twisted.

The Lovers observably dives into the banality of a long-term, dissipating union--where the only proclamations left are "We're out of toothpaste" and where the "How was work?" question is met with an apathetic shrug. While the film is downbeat in tone and plainly shot (and kinda bland overall), it's contrasted with a perkier old-fashioned musical score that injects a bit of levity, as if the film is paying homage to (much better) romantic mix-ups of the past. The whole cast here is solid, but Tracy Letts is a standout. He's been on an impressive role lately with great turns in Imperium and Indignation.

Unfortunately, the film itself gets repetitive and banal, and the longer it goes on the more it begins to feel one-note, as if not much is actually happening. Once the irony of Michael and Mary's situation is pointed out, there's really nothing else to say, and I personally lost interest in the lives of these lovers.

( 6/10 )

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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

[Review] Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

The Captain Underpants books hold a dear place in my childhood heart. So when I heard that a movie was coming out, I was both excited and cautious. But I'm glad to find out that the filmmakers did a pretty swell job in bringing this iconic character to the big screen, wedgies and all.

Best friends George (Kevin Hart) and Harold (Thomas Middleditch) are elementary school pranksters and imaginative comic book artists. They're the type of kids who bonded over hearing the words "Uranus" and "gas" in science class. Anyway, their creations come to life when they hypnotize their cantankerous principal Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms) and unleash the (sort of) superhero Captain Underpants in all his stupendous, incompetent, whitey-tighty, wasteband-snapping glory. From there, they all face off against a mad scientist named Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll)!

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, for the most part, captures the playful spirit and clever charm of Dav Pilkey's masterful source material. The jokes don't always land, and there is some padding between the laughs, but the script still has plenty of irresistible toilet humor to go around. The film is a symphony of whoopee-cushions. A stink-butt extravaganza. A diary of diarrhea. And like the books, it breaks the fourth wall quite often, even presenting its own in-movie Flip-O-Rama! sequence. The smooth 3D animation is also interjected with nifty clips of 2D doodles and sock puppets.

Captain Underpants is all about friendship, imagination, not taking things too seriously, and farts. Definitely farts. And it shouldn't be any other way. TRA-LA-LAA!

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, June 5, 2017

[Review] Wonder Woman

Yes, the Wonder Woman movie is finally here. And it's glorious!

Raised as a skilled warrior on the Godly island of Themyscira, Diana aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, fittingly wonderful) experiences a major shift when she saves the life of a fallen pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, always solid). After a Moana-like departure from her home, she teams with Steve to fight at the front lines of World War I, or as Diana puts it - to destroy the God of War, Ares.

First of all, Gal Gadot makes a TERRIFIC Wonder Woman, embodying the charismatic superhero with passion, heart, and well-rounded dimension. Her character is as much of a fierce fighter as she is an avid restorer of peace. Director Patty Jenkins stages the action sequences with a deeply-felt intensity. Every sword swing, every bullet dodge, every shield clash carries an exhilarating impact. The Zack Snyder slow-mo technique is utilized to great effect, giving us a focused glimpse at the physicality of the combat (plus it just looks really cool). In fact, this is a magnificent looking film all-around.

It has a cohesive story and momentous pacing too, which the last couple of DC efforts have severely lacked. The narrative blends history and fantasy in a way reminiscent of--and I know I'm crossing over comic book brands here--Marvel's first Captain America film. It also indulges in a nice hint of humor (another thing the DC films have been lacking), especially when the fish-out-of-water antics ensue as Diana travels to a dark and dirty London - "It's hideous," she says. But the film itself definitely isn't drab. It's engaging and appealing. Worth rooting for. It gives you chills, and it makes you want to pump your fist. What I'm saying is, this movie has a soul. A shining, hopeful soul.

Wonder Woman is a triumph in many ways. A fantastic superhero movie through and though. Even in the crowded comic book genre, Wonder Woman carves out a formidable path. But Wonder Woman doesn't really need the approval from anyone, because she'll do things her own way.

* 9/10 *

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Saturday, June 3, 2017

[Review] Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

I'll say this about the Pirates of the Caribbean series: I've always appreciated its pure spectacle: the mythical ocean settings, the fantastical swashbuckling twists, the elaborate costuming and makeup, the smarmy villains, the bumbling charisma of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. While the fifth installment Dead Men Tell No Tales has its faults, it still delivers on the aforementioned elements. And no, it doesn't really add anything new, but it's still a fun and majestic nautical adventure.

Like all the Pirates films, there's A LOT going on and there are a bunch of different characters that all desire something. The gist of the plot here sees the brave young Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) and an accused witch named Carina (Kaya Scodelario) who's really a brilliant map reader and star decoder, team up with a drunker-than-usual Jack Sparrow in order to search for the Trident of Poseidon, a powerful treasure that breaks all curses. But swiftly on their trail is the ghastly, sludge-dripping Captain Salazar (played solidly by Javier Bardem).

As expected, the film flaunts some rousing setpieces, like when Sparrow's crew attempts to rob a coastal village bank, only to end up dragging the entire building with them--or the frantic encounters with nasty ghost sharks--or the epic parting of the seas during the story's climax. And there's plenty of slapstick shenanigans to go along with it, and admittedly, they drift further into cartoony territory more than ever in this one. Jack Sparrow is more reactive than proactive this time around, basically just going with the flow, or, excuse me--fumbling with the flow. But I suppose that gives the new characters Henry and Carina time to shine, as they're both very likable. Oh, and the full-pirate garbed Paul McCartney cameo is hilarious. The film's biggest hold-up is a midsection expository flashback that just seems unnecessary, doing nothing but slowing the momentum. And you can't help but notice the recycled parts this installment uses, as well as the feeling that the series is over-stretching its sails.

So yes, I'm well aware that Dead Men Tell No Tales doesn't muster up the freshness that the earlier films in this franchise possessed (it's definitely better than the fourth one though), but as I sat back in the breezy theater, escaping the heat and the headlines, I genuinely enjoyed watching this thing. So I won't even call it a guilty pleasure. Like a pirate, I regret nothing.

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

[Review] Baywatch

Lather up the sunscreen and get your slow-motion jogs ready, because it's Baywatchin' time!

Leading the esteemed crew of lifeguards is the extremely charismatic Mitch (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson). If he hasn't saved your life before, he's saved someone that you know. Things get shaken up when he reluctantly teams with a shallow olympic gold medalist (played by Zac Efron), who's basically a parody of Ryan Lochte. Scratch that - he's less of a parody and more of a realistic rendition of him. Also on deck is Alexandria Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera, and Jon Bass (whose character should've been axed, if you ask me). Anyway, when drugs begin washing ashore and a criminal syndicate (led by Priyanka Chopra) starts leaving their tracks across the beach, the Baywatch crew must dive into an investigation that isn't listed in their job description.

It isn't on the level of the Jump Street series, but Baywatch is still full of meta-humor, evenly dispersed boner and boob jokes, and an overall self-reflexive ridiculousness, even drawing attention to how nuts the source material is, as well as the movie itself. One of my favorites is the running gag where The Rock refuses to call Efron's character by his actual name and instead opts for Boy Band references. At the onset, it isn't the most inspired gag around, but it pays off with chuckles when The Rock eventually lands on "Hey, High School Musical!" because, you know, Efron was actually in that.

With that said, there is A LOT of awful dialogue to put up with along the way (I won't repeat it). But for every few bad lines, there's always at least one dynamite one, like when The Rock says "I'm bigger... and browner" after someone asks if he's Batman. (Love that.) And speaking of The Rock's character, you'd expect this raunchy summer comedy to draw him as a charged-up playboy surrounded by bikinis, but the film interestingly never goes that route. In fact, his sexuality is kept pretty ambiguous here. What's also surprising is Eric Steelberg's sneaky-good cinematography (he has some solid titles under his belt, including Juno, 500 Days of Summer, and Up in the Air). The golden-rayed coastlines here are rendered with a tinted gloss that makes it seem as if you're watching the film with sunglasses on (fittingly). On the other side of things, the film's special effects barely appear to be a step above Sharknado, which is kind of funny in and of itself. The soundtrack also flaunts some great tunes from Vince Staples and Run The Jewels to The Beach Boys and The Bee Gees.

Baywatch boils down to a fun, if unoriginal crime-stopping mission. Of course it isn't going to win any Oscars, and some stretches of the film flop and sink, but what other movie can you hear the future President of the United States Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson yell "I'm oceanic, motherfucker!" before saving the day.

( 7/10 )

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

[Review] Hounds of Love

Ben Young's Hounds of Love is a tortuous, difficult-to-watch crime-thriller from way Down Under. And let's just say there isn't much love or friendly puppies involved.

It's set in Perth during the mid '80s and the plot sees a young woman named Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) suddenly get kidnapped by a deranged serial killer couple (played greatly and creepily by Emma Booth and Stephen Curry--yes you read that right, and no it isn't the NBA star). From there, Vicki is chained up, abused, and held captive in a fight for survival and escape.

It pretty much goes without saying, but this is a sinister and sadistic film. There's a major sense of dread and helplessness. But it's engrossing. And gripping--enough to make you want to see how it all turns out in the end. I've seen this billed as a horror film, but that's a little misleading. It's definitely horrific and disturbing, but it isn't a *horror film* in the traditional sense. Its stark realism and overall grittiness reminded me of another grisly Australian crime story called Snowtown (or The Snowtown Murders). There are a bit of a post-It Follows vibes to it though--the slow-gliding voyeuristic camera pans, the static-y synths, and the fact that a lot of the ugly stuff takes place in broad daylight.

The pace can be on the slower side, but the great performances from the three mains always keep things interesting. And that ending, oh that ending.

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

[Review] Norman

Richard Gere gives a great central performance in the otherwise convoluted Norman.

Gere, of course, plays the title character. Norman is a low-level wheeler and dealer in New York City. He's more of a cold-shot than a hot-shot. The guy who "knows a guy" but no one really knows him. He'd hand you his business card twice during one meeting. But when Norman befriends the future Prime Minister of Israel (played by Lior Ashkenazi), he gets in over his head. And well, the film is exactly what its subtitle entails: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.

Disappointingly, like Norman, the film never really finds its own identity, as it dabbles in many directions and isn't very successful in any of them. It wants to be a drama, but despite creating some high-stakes conflicts and complications, it never really feels that urgent or emotionally engaging. It wants to be a comedy, but it's just not that funny, save for a couple of psshhh moments, at best. And it wants to be a character study, but it never really dives past the one-note layer of Norman. It's also extremely dialogue heavy (and not in a snappy way), comprised of countless phone calls and meetings that just aren't that interesting, making this film frankly difficult to invest in.

On the bright side, Richard Gere is the best he's been in years, disappearing into this role with finely-tuned skill. Lior Ashkenazi is pitch-perfect and should probably be in the underrated actors discussion. The always welcomed Steve Buscemi adds a bit of levity, playing an F-bomb dropping Rabbi. Charlotte Gainsbourg has a brief, but effective appearance. And Hank Azaria even shows up in a small role.

But unfortunately, the solid cast doesn't really bail out Norman in the end.

( 6/10 )

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Monday, May 22, 2017

[Review] Alien: Covenant

Ridley Scott returns to the bleak and futuristic outer-world of the Alien franchise with Alien: Covenant, which operates as a sequel to 2012's Prometheus (a film that I liked more than most people did, it seems). The results are mixed, but this space excursion still has enough exhilarating elements to make it an engrossing cinematic experience in its own right.

Daniels (Katherine Waterston), Oram (Billy Crudup), Tennessee (Danny McBride), and synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender) are the notables comprising a space crew aboard Covenant, a colony mission ship bound for planet Origae-6. But along the way (a very long way) they stop at a surprise planet. What initially looks like a habitable environment, turns into an absolute nightmare.

The film is a little slow-moving at first, but after the planet touchdown, it dives into a nerve-wrecking and grotesque tale of discovery with plenty of nasty run-ins with face-crushers and chest-busters. The alien attack sequences are frankly horrifying to watch, like squirm-in-your-seat horrifying. Amidst the journey, there are a couple head-scratching moments, some stilted dialogue, and uneven pacing that's as clunky as the spacecraft landings. But the thrills and visual splendor are undeniable--from the grandly stark scale of the settings, to the precise framing, to the aesthetic threads of mythology and zoology.

Narrative-wise, the film doesn't exactly cover uncharted territory, but what it does do really well is establish a scary-good antagonist. And honestly, you can't always say that about high-concept genre films nowadays. The cast is solid, too. Fassbender displays his restrained excellence, essentially playing two different roles. Waterston, while a bit bland, emerges as the emotional backbone of the duration. And then there's the highlight Danny McBride, amusingly being Danny McBride in space. Early on, he pulls out a bottle of whiskey to honor a fallen crew member, because of course he does.

So even though it's burdened by a few flaws and the weight of past comparisons, Alien: Covenant isn't a bad ride. It's truly an extraterrestrial gothic. A provocative rumination on gods and creation, humans and artificial intelligence, monsters and life.

( 7.5/10 )

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