Monday, November 20, 2017

[Review] Justice League


You know when a bunch of popular musicians come together to form a band or a project, and the results are almost always disappointing? Uninspired. That's basically what happens in the much-hyped Justice League film. The Justice League unites Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). But despite the fresh collaboration of versatile all-stars, this supergroup ultimately underwhelms as a whole.

It isn't until over halfway through the film when the heros eventually (and reluctantly) team up to save the world from an invading army of extraterrestrial flutterbugs (they kinda look like vampire mothmen), led by the story's heavy and horned main villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds).

For a while, it feels like you're watching chunks from several different movies spliced together. Director Zack Snyder stages the action sequences with a murky backdrop and a jarring overload of CGI -- so much so that the picture seriously looks like cutscenes from a video game. And if things weren't already overstuffed enough, we still have to deal with a few humdrum scenes of Amy Adams wasting away in the nothing-to-do role as Lois Lane, while we wait for the inevitable resurrection of Superman (Henry Cavill), which is handled in a tremendously clumsy manner, by the way.

As for the good, Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman carries over the awesomeness and optimistic humanity from this year's earlier, fantastic Wonder Woman movie. Jason Momoa's Aquaman lends a general badassness and cool seafaring aesthetic to the crew. And Ezra Miller (who's been great in everything I've seen him in) as Flash is the film's electric source of comic relief, delivering the script's best lines and zapping a spark of levity and wide-eyed enthusiasm into the brooding tone of the film. Unfortunately, the neglected newcomer Cyborg is as one-dimensional and robotic as his armor.

And given the way these characters are thrusted into battle together, there's never a sense of camaraderie or chemistry between them. It doesn't help that their mission is plagued with clunky pacing. For a film brimming with so many dynamic powers, it's glaringly void of any true momentum. Then there's the bad villain. And I don't mean "bad" in the evil way -- he's just bad. Faceless. Personality-less. Generic. Stock. He might as well have been a walking statue with a temper-tantrum. In turn, when the climactic showdown arrives, it isn't as exhilarating as it should be, and it feels incredibly low on stakes. At least BvS had a maniacal and memorable Jesse Eisenberg calling the shots.

Justice League does possess some redeemable elements and displays glimmers of hope for future DCEU films. But while it might be a step in the right direction, it definitely isn't a leap.

( 5.5/10 )


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Thursday, November 16, 2017

[Review] Murder on the Orient Express


It's no secret that Hollywood is a prime culprit for producing remakes. But even the decision to revisit something like the whodunnit puzzle Murder on the Orient Express is a curious one from the get-go, especially considering that Agatha Christie's famous novel already experienced a pretty great on-screen adaptation with its 1974 version. But here we are...

All aboard the lavish train is the all-star cast of Daisy Ridley (in her first major role outside of The Force Awakens), Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Olivia Coleman, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp (using another unidentifiable accent), and Michelle Pfeiffer. Things get tense when a passenger suddenly turns up stabbed to death, and all the characters in the coach are enlisted as suspects. On the case is Hercule Poirot (played by Kenneth Branagh), who proclaims himself as "Probably the greatest detective in the world." I like how he says "probably." It keeps him honest. Anyway, what unravels is a shifty-eyed murder mystery.

Branagh serves as director too, and to the film's credit, it's winsomely shot and it confidently achieves the old-fashioned mood and aesthetic its heading for. But narrative-wise, it has a difficult time building up much suspense or arriving at a compelling payoff, especially for those that have seen the original. It's an inherent problem, really. And the revamped cast is definitely a proven one, but with so many players involved, they all just kind of get shuffled into the mix, like cards in a deck vying for their moments at the top. Aside from Branagh (and his glorious mustache) standing out by default, Michelle Pfeiffer (who was also fantastic in mother! this year) impresses in the only other memorable role.

2017's Murder on the Orient Express is a faithful and fateful film... maybe a little too much. It's a competent remake, and exactly that. Nothing more. Personally, I wouldn't have minded if this thing had decided to deviate off the tracks.

( 6.5/10 )


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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

[Review] A Bad Moms Christmas


The Bad Moms are ringing again, and this time it's Christmas! Thankfully, this film's fun cast presents just enough spirit to decorate this middling comedy sequel with some joy.

Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn return as the threesome of bad moms, and they're ready to
take on the stress of the season and pull off the perfect Christmas for their kids, and maybe even enjoy a little bit of it themselves. "Take Christmas back!" they say. "Put the 'ass' back in Christm-ass..." But things get even crazier when their own bad moms roll into town for the holidays, including the uptight and hard-to-please prude (played by Christine Baranski), the oversharing and overbearing care bear (Cherly Hines), and the freewheeling gambler (Susan Sarandon).

The cast is fully game, and they all bring a lot of life to to the festivities, even if their characters are a bit one-note. The film is stuffed with raunchy, brash, awkward, and self-deprecating humor. Not all of it will kiss your mistletoe, but it definitely has its moments, like the tension-filled dodgeball match at Skyzone, or the amusing scene at Hahn's character's spa when Justin Hartley (also known as Kevin from NBC's hit "This Is Us") comes in for a wax, and things get...close. Very close.

Not to anyone's surprise, but there isn't a whole lot of weight or focus to this thing. Most of the time, A Bad Moms Christmas feels like you're watching a montage-driven sitcom. And it's so overtly formulaic and the territory is so well-worn -- that if you've ever seen a Christmas movie or one about parental drama -- you can practically pin down every single story beat before it even arrives -- like, swifter than Santa.

( 5.5/10 )


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Monday, November 13, 2017

[Review] The Killing of a Sacred Deer


After 2016's bizarro The Lobster, provocative director Yorgos Lanthimos recruits Colin Farrell once again, along with Nicole Kidman (these two also starred together in this year's The Beguiled) for another beastily-titled film called The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It's a darkly comedic and disturbingly dour psychological drama that leaves a punishing, infectious mark.

Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, an esteemed cardiovascular surgeon and family man who lives with his wife (Kidman), daughter (Raffey Cassidy), and son (Sunny Suljic). Everything is fairly normal until the boy of a former patient (played by Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) begins to infiltrate Murphy's life in obsessively strange ways. And to go any further than that would be spoiler territory.

From the film's opening close-up of open-heart surgery, you know you're in for a doozy. A not for everyone type of flick. But even though it's challenging, it isn't the kind of thing to cause walk-outs. Personally, I was fully intrigued. The narrative perplexes and stuns, practically catching the audience like an actual deer in headlights. The unhinged tone is enough to make your own heart race, especially as the story steadily gets weirder and weirder, and weirder. The picture is shot with a sterile elegance -- the camerawork slowly glides and zooms with Kubrickian-like style, while the unnervingly high-pitched musical score cuts deep like a scalpel. The cast is solid all-around. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman skillfully lock into a coldly deadpan mode, but it's Barry Keoghan who stands out in one of the most clinically creepy on-screen performances in recent memory.

But as The Killing of a Sacred Deer approached its end, I got the impression that there wasn't much meaning to any of it. While The Lobster was a symbolic and substantial examination of dystopian romance, this film is more of a hollow head-scratcher. But whether it's pointless or not -- it still gets under your skin.

( 7.5/10 )


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Saturday, November 11, 2017

[Review] Wheelman


First there was Baby Driver, and now there's Wheelman -- a car chase crime-thriller on Netflix that's well worth the ride.

Frank Grillo plays the getaway driver. After a botched robbery, he receives a phone call from an Unknown number and an ominous voice begins giving him commands. From there, his situation spins out of control as he gets mixed up in a dangerous web of money, mobs, and shootouts.

In an interesting twist, the whole movie essentially takes place within the vehicle. It's like the Tom Hardy-starring Locke, but much more intense -- without being too overwhelming. The route is steadily paced with impeccable speed and timing, and director Jeremy Rush--with a name that's almost too rich to be true--incrementally ups the stakes and infuses a constant sense of unpredictability as the story takes some surprising turns. The car itself practically becomes a narrative catalyst with close-ups of screeching wheels, stops and shifts, flashing lights, and a (keen) use of mirrors. At times the camera even takes a backseat -- quite literally -- as its placed in the backseat of the car. This POV strategy makes it seem as if we're sitting in on the immediate madness.

Frank Grillo is perfectly cast and does an awesome job carrying the story mostly on his own. And the film clocks in at a fittingly swift 80 minutes. It's an exhilarating get in and get out.

( 8/10 )


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Friday, November 10, 2017

[Review] Marjorie Prime


Marjorie Prime is an intimate and low-key sci-fi drama that takes a thought-provoking look at one form of artificial intelligence and its effect on emotions.

Set in the advanced future where 3D computer technology has risen to stunningly sophisticated levels, this story focuses on a woman with dementia named Marjorie (Lois Smith) as she recounts her past with the help of her "Prime", which happens to be a life-like holographic recreation of the younger version of her deceased husband Walter (played by Jon Hamm).

Thematically, it's like Away From Her meets Blade Runner. The film moves at a slower place, and it's definitely on the quiet, non-flashy side, but it pulls you in with its pure elegance, intriguing vision, and deep examination of the memories, love, and loss. The film is actually less concerned with the technology itself or the potential benefits as well the problems and moral conundrums that can arise from such a thing -- and is instead more concerned about what it means to be human.

Unfortunately, some elements get lost in translation along the way, and the narrative focus shifts in frustrating ways. And my guess is that most audiences will find the film to be too confined and talky (it is based on a stageplay) for its own good. Still, Marjorie Prime has strong performances and is a fairly interesting portrayal of the world's ever-changing futurescape.

( 6.5/10 )



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Thursday, November 9, 2017

[Review] The Dark Tower


The Dark Tower is one of many Stephen King properties to hit movie and TV screens this year. And well, it's the unfortunate rubble of the bunch. For the record, I'm not familiar with the source material, but the film itself plays out like a slice of bad YA fiction.

In another realm exists The Dark Tower, a forceful structure that holds the universe together. There, the last Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) are locked in an eternal standoff. Meanwhile, Jake (Tom Taylor), a young dreamer who everyone else thinks is crazy, finds a portal into this place and teams up with Gunslinger in order to prevent the tower from toppling.

This is one of those frustrating genre flicks that manages to feel overstuffed and underdeveloped at the same time. And for all the awkward exposition that's tossed around, everything in this western sci-fi world feels very vague, nondescript, and one-dimensional -- much like the story's main character Jake, who's as indistinct of a protagonist as they come -- with nothing but a blank "chosen one" tag on his head. Idris Elba is great for what he has to work with here, and his character is undoubtedly cool, but his Death in a Suit foil Matthew McConaughey seems remarkably out of place.

Some nice scenery and unique set designs pop up along the way. And there's monsters and demons and people with tearaway flesh and teleporting and prophetic visions, but none of it ever amounts to anything too terribly interesting. There might be a compelling story to tell in here somewhere, but the execution is faulty--making this version an unstable, crumbling dud.

( 4.5/10 )


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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

[Review] Columbus


Columbus, Indiana is where director Kogonada's quaint little film draws its title from. It's a meditative and keen-eyed character study about two drifting, discontent souls.

John Cho plays Jin, a Korean translator who finds himself stuck in Columbus while his renowned architect father is in a coma. There, he meets a local named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen), whose scholarly dreams are put on hold to take care of her recovering addict mother. The two begin to bond over their shared conflicting emotions about the uncertain structure of their paths.

It's perfectly fitting that this film is shot with a very modernist aesthetic -- its artful frames exquisitely capture the town's prominent architecture and handsome interior design, punctuating the lines and the angles and the symmetry of it all. Cho and Richardson give empathetic and intriguing performances, and the story moves at a gentle pace -- almost serene. But it's so beautiful, so perceptive, and so thoughtful that it sits levels above the dreaded "boring" label. The script ruminates on the complexity of families, relationships, history, physical and mental health, and the roadblocks toward aspirations.

In a striking contrast to its settings, Columbus craftily exhibits that life can't always be carefully measured or planned, despite the blueprints one lays down. In fact, life is anything but symmetrical.

( 8/10 )


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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

[Review] Jigsaw


I don't know if anyone was asking for another Saw film, but a new one has been dumped on us whether we like it or not. The only good thing I can say about Jigsaw is that it's short. But even though it clocks in at just 80 minutes, it's still 80 minutes too long.

Basically the same setup as the others -- a group of strangers trapped in a warehouse are forced to endure and escape a series of tortuous "games". As the victims pop up in grisly scenes around town, law enforcement identifies the killings as the work of the infamous John Kramer. But it can't be, can it? He's been dead for 10 years! The film repeats this in case you didn't get it the first time.

Jigsaw never adds any fresh pieces to the already tattered franchise. It's aggressively more of the same, and it's loathsomely repetitive and void of surprises or shock. Any sense of intensity is dwindled to a shrug. You could probably garner more satisfaction from a "Criminal Minds" episode. And despite all the sharp objects and needles, the story feels more pointless than ever. The face-grinder, throat-choker, and laser contraption setpieces might give hardcore fans a brief rush, but I think most filmgoers are either desensitized to or just plain sick of this sort of thing. And a problem that plagues this series is that there's no reason to really give a damn about these characters. Some of the decisions they make are so stupid that they probably deserve to die a brutal death.

Jigsaw is like an actual jigsaw puzzle - in that once you've done it once, you're probably a lot less compelled to want to do it again.

( 4/10 )


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Monday, November 6, 2017

[Review] Thor: Ragnarok


Dropping in as the third solo Thor installment and the I lost count addition to Avengers universe, Thor: Ragnarok is a wildly warping adventure of cosmic revelry.

Suiting up again in the role he was born to play, Chris Hemsworth returns as Thor, and this time around, the God of Thunder finds himself stranded on the other side of the universe without the help of his trusty and powerful hammer. From there, Thor encounters old faces and new on his crazy journey back to Asgard, as he attempts to save his kingdom from mass destruction.

First of all, this film is all over the place. But I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way. As long as you can get down with all the dimension-transporting, an incredibly loopy tone, and the film's ever-quirky sense of humor, you're in for a mega fun time. Director Taika Waititi, who has a bunch of indie and international gems under his belt (including What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople), makes an impressive leap to blockbuster fare -- his signature eccentricities come through in the film's spunky and colorful visuals as well as the kooky characters. Jeff Goldblum shows up as an amusingly flamboyant persona called Grandmaster, while Waititi himself voices a rocky fellow named Korg (this guy rules), who's one of the film's biggest sources of comedy. The script is stuffed with witty exchanges, hilarious one-liners, and tons of slapstick with gut-busting timing.

Along the way, this jamboree blasts through trippy, psychedelic, fantastical, godly and mythological worlds, as if a mighty set of hands squeezed elements from Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings and pounded them together into a frenzied fever dream. Speaking of Lord of the Rings, a couple of alums show up here, including Karl Urban and Cate Blanchett -- who superbly plays Thor's long lost evil sister Hela. Also great is Tessa Thompson (Creed) as a warrior with a significant past.

This film doesn't exactly subvert the Marvel formula, but it does what people love about these movies really, really well -- and without taking itself too seriously. Simply put - Thor: Ragnarok is a smash.

* 8.5/10 *


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Saturday, November 4, 2017

[Review] Brawl in Cell Block 99


Even though he's mostly known for his comedic chops, actor Vince Vaughn is no stranger to the darker and serious roles, and that's exactly what he pulls off in the rough-and-tumble Brawl in Cell Block 99 -- a ruthlessly violent crime drama of intense prison life, gritty fisticuffs, and skull-crushing.

Vaughn plays Bradley, a former heavyweight boxer turned heavyweight drug-runner. Oh yeah, and he has a huge tattoo of a cross on the back of his shaved head. Anyway, when an exchange turns deadly, Bradley winds up in prison where he must fight to stay alive -- quite literally.

Shot in a brooding light, this thoroughly engrossing film gets off to a deliberate and strategic start before throwing its haymakers. It's directed by S. Craig Zahler, who helmed last year's cannibal western tale Bone Tomahawk, so you know you're in for some unflinching mayhem, especially as the prison setting practically takes on the form of a dungeonous battleground.

It takes a few moments to get used to seeing Vince Vaughn like this, but he does the hardened tough guy part very well here. It also helps that his character is given dimension beyond the exterior. He's a wisecracker; he has a strict moral compass; and he's very matter-of-fact about his situation and self-aware about his own contradictions. And that's essentially what the film is about -- crime doesn't pay, but some people are driven to it and dig deeper and deeper -- until there's no way out.

( 8/10 )


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Thursday, November 2, 2017

[Review] The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)


Indie stalwart Noah Baumbach is back again with another nuanced family dramedy. It's called The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and the film has made its home on Netflix.

Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel star as siblings who are at very different points in life, but they all have one thing in common -- they're contending for the respect of their (sort of) prestigious artist father (played Dustin Hoffman), while also attempting to escape his shadow.

The script delves into bittersweet family dynamics and explores the interpersonal complexities of strained relationships, and like all Baumbach films -- it's full of chuckle-worthy chunks of dialogue and distinctly-developed characters. Adam Sandler emerges as the stand out -- you heard that right. It's ones of those rare roles where you don't want to smack him in the face. This character feels like a genuine human being, rather than an obnoxious ball of over-the-top schtick.

By design, The Meyerowitz Stories does have more of episodic structure, and it can seem a bit meandering at times. And while the film isn't as thematically pointed as the recent While We're Young, and it doesn't hit the emotional notes or achieve overall charm of Mistress America, Baumbach once again proves that greatly detailed writing and lived-in performances can go a long away.

( 8/10 )


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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

[Review] Only the Brave


Based on the true story of an elite firefighting crew called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Only the Brave is a high-stakes film that burns with intensity and emotion.

Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, and Taylor Kitsch play the rugged crew of firefighters who bust their butts to ward off treacherous flames in the hilly forests outside of Prescott, Arizona.

The film carries the same gritty, rah-rah spirit that you'd witness in a recent Peter Berg film (Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon). Director Joseph Kosinski makes sure to pull us into the heart of the dangers and dilemmas -- the obvious ones, as well as the ones we might not think about.

The special attention to character development here gives the action extra weight. Brolin's character is so full of pride and love for his crew and he's hellbent on saving lives, but deep down there's something about his profession that's eating away at him. Then there's Teller's well-played slacker, who joins the force to steer away from his drug addiction and to support the surprise newborn daughter in his life. A commanding Jeff Bridges even swoops in to deliver one of the film's best lines: "The only place you'll find sympathy here is in the dictionary...somewhere between 'shit' and 'syphilis'." Thankfully, there's a nice amount of humor in the script to balance out the heat.

Only the Brave is all about dirt, sweat, hard work, and camaraderie. It's a hard-hitting tale that is as inspiring as it is devastatingly tragic.

( 8/10 )


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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

[Review] Creep 2


2015's lo-fi horror hit Creep snuck around as an under-the-radar "Have you seen this?" found footage flick. This year, we get the unexpected sequel Creep 2, and well, it definitely ups the creep factor.

Mark Duplass reprises his role as the creep, while newcomer Sara (Desiree Akhavan) -- a struggling documentarian with a focus on the people behind oddball Craigslist ads -- answers to his ad and shows up to his house with a camera at-hand. Sara quickly notices the red flags, but she's determined to stick with it in order to get that crucial footage. And, well... things get weird.

This sequel retains the off-kilter tone of its predecessor, as well as the found-footage aesthetic. If you've been following me, you know that I'm not a huge fan of the found footage subgenre, but the Creep series is a case where the format enhances the story's concept instead of detracting or distracting from it. The picture is a blend of subtle details and shocking scares, and there's an immediate, uneasy sense of realism to it. And despite having a very similar setup to the first one, Creep 2 avoids being too redundant. I'd say it's an improvement, actually. The structure is tighter, there's a bit more suspense and intrigue, and this time it contains some role reversals.

The always great Mark Duplass gives another exceptional turn, deviating from the dramedy roles that we're used to seeing him in. This is a character who initially seems charming and innocent on the outside, but he quickly slips into layers of intense awkwardness, dark hilarity, unhinged sarcasm, and a teetering evil that constantly walks the line between performance art and sociopath. He's the type of weirdo to make an unsuspecting observer ask "Is this guy for real?" Unfortunately, he is...

( 7.5/10 )


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Monday, October 30, 2017

[Review] Geostorm


Yes, I weathered the Geostorm -- an un-natural disaster flick that is more of a shitstorm. A muddled wave of mishmash that is as ridiculous as it is forgettable.

It's set in the near future, also known as 2018, and extreme climate change has caused cataclysmic storms. So the world has turned to a specialized satellite (dubbed "Dutch Boy") to combat the problem, but when the technology starts to malfunction, the designer of the Dutch Boy (played by Gerard Butler) must race against the clock to avoid world-ending catastrophe.

Geostorm is as heavy-handed as basketball-sized hail falling out of the sky, and the constant floods of forced exposition are enough to sink the entire endeavor. This thing essentially takes elements from past disaster flicks like The Core and The Day After Tomorrow, swirls in some wacko conspiracy theories, and smacks them together into a gigantic cloud of CGI nothingness. The choppy tone is never sure if it wants to be uber-serious or draw attention to its own silliness, and what we end up with is a soulless and humorless mind-number. Somewhere out there, Michael Bay is saying "This needs more fireballs." Even the Sharknado filmmakers are probably scoffing at the dull execution.

And for a film revolving around worldly and weatherly destruction, we never really get a feel for the actual atmosphere of the settings. Where is the true sense of chaos? What does the power of this storm actually look like? Where is the human element? Of course, I wasn't expecting deeply developed characters here or anything, but I'd like to see more than just humdrum stand-ins. They might as well have been robots! Hey, now that might be an interesting idea...

( 3.5/10 )


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Saturday, October 28, 2017

[Review] 1922


Tapping further into the harvest of Stephen King deep cuts, the Zak Hilditch-directed 1922 is a dark, old-fashioned murder tale with a twist of horror that has recently cropped up on Netflix.

Set on a southern farm in - yes - 1922, the story revolves around the cold and distant Wilfred (Thomas Jane), who somehow convinces himself that it would be a good idea to kill his wife Arlette (Molly Parker) over property disputes. After he does the deed and does away with the body (with the help of his son), he becomes haunted by guilt and terrorized by Arlette's spirit.

Similar to this year's Gerald's Game (another King adaptation on Netflix), this film falls closer to the psychological drama side -- but as you know -- the essence of a psychological drama often is horror, and there are plenty of horror elements to be found here -- including creepy silhouettes, nasty surprises, and grisly, skin-crawling imagery (along with lots and lots of rats...so many rats). Faith No More's Mike Patton lays down a plucky and sporadic musical score of screechy strings that greatly increases the anxiety and dread.

The film also has a southern gothic literary feel to it, especially with Wilfred chiming in as not only an unreliable narrator - but a morally corrupt man whose life is completely unraveling. And when Winter comes in 1922, things get a lot lonelier and desperate. The snow doesn't cover up the tracks of the past - it just makes them more bitter. As Wilfred says, "In the end, we all get caught."

( 7.5/10 )


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Friday, October 27, 2017

[Review] Friend Request


2015's Unfriended was a surprisingly good social media horror film. The whole thing essentially took place on a computer screen via various apps like Facebook, iChat, YouTube, and Skype. It could've been a cheesy gimmick, but the film utilized its platform more cleverly than I think most gave it credit for, and it presented itself as a sometimes flawed yet relevant cautionary tale of cyber-bullying. This year's unrelated but similar-themed Friend Request is, well... *clicks dislike*

The plot zooms in on Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a popular college student who gets a friend request from a loner classmate with a goth aesthetic named Marina (Liesl Ahlers). After Marina crosses into extreme creeper territory, Laura hits the notorious 'Unfriend' button. Marina then commits suicide, and Laura is haunted by a vengeful, demonic presence -- both on the Internet and in real life.

It's kind of a forced setup, isn't it? The film's terror factor relies solely on jarring jump scares, but they're less well-executed than they are irritating -- like those online prank videos where something loudly appears and nearly gives you a heart-attack. Exactly like that, actually. The story is full of shallow and stereotypical characterizations, and it has a questionably-motivated cruel streak to it. And once Marina's spirit begins attacking all of Laura's friends, this thing becomes nothing more than a haphazard, meaningless game of Final Destination with a few pop-up notifications.

Simply put, Friend Request is a film should've deleted its own account.

( 3/10 )


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Thursday, October 26, 2017

[Review] Paint It Black


A striking directorial debut from Amber Tamblyn, Paint It Black broods as a searing psychological drama that will test your nerves and reward your patience...

The story focuses on the perspective of Josie (Alia Shawkat), an L.A. rocker dealing with the sudden and shocking death of her boyfriend, Michael. Things get even worse when Michael's unhinged mother Meredith (Janet McTeer) contacts her, and a nasty clash erupts between the two.

Even as dark and grimy as it is, this film is exquisitely shot and glowingly artful with its crisp framing, lush colors, and high-contrast lighting. It's akin to the beautiful ugliness and punky edge of Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room (Alia Shawkat appeared in that movie, too). The film also exhibits some highly stylized editing, often breaking into surreal hallucinatory sequences that exude the polish of fashion ads, and other times fading in and out of meditative flashbacks.

The moody narrative is a true slow-burner, reflective of Josie and Meredith's hostile relationship. Tension boils and tempers flare, while Alia Shawkat and Janet McTeer both give greatly anguished performances as deeply opposing characters.

Sometimes Paint It Black drips a bit too slow for its own good, but in the end, it lingers and lingers and lingers...

( 7.5/10 )


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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

[Review] We Are the Flesh


Mexican director Emiliano Rocha Minter's debut We Are the Flesh is a brutal and uncompromising post-apocalyptic oddity that makes this year's mother! look tame by comparison.

Set in a dystopian city of ruins (think The Road), the story revolves around a sister and brother (played by María Evoli and Diego Gamaliel) as they stumble into a dilapidated building that just so happens to be occupied by an absolute maniac (Noé Hernández). From there, the guy essentially keeps them as prisoners, while controlling, manipulating, and tormenting them in the worst of ways.

This definitely isn't the easiest film to watch. It's full of predatory perversions, unwavering ugliness, and visceral visuals. As the head-scratching and stomach-churning narrative meanders, the camera crookedly weaves through tunnels like a voyeuristic sadist on its last leg, while psychedelic interludes twist in with disorienting edits and abstract warps of colors. I'd be remiss if I didn't say that the film often drifts into pure distastefulness and shock-for-the-sake-of-shock, as if it were checking off boxes for the utmost taboos. So it'll either keep you engrossed or make you want to shut it off and burn it.

We Are the Flesh is its own private hell, encompassing the nastiest of humanity all in one. It's also extremely effective and audaciously crafted. An artful atrocity--one that you can't wait for to end.

( 7/10 )


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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

[Review] Dave Made a Maze


Dave Made A Maze is a low-budget adventure/horror comedy with a fantastical imagination.

The story revolves around Dave (Nick Thune), a starving artist searching for meaning in his life. One day, he decides to build a fort in his living room. But it's more than just the cardboard boxes of its exterior. Theres a big, winding world inside--full of booby traps and dead ends. Dave eventually gets so lost that his friends have to dive in and save him from his own creation.

Bill Watterson's film, fittingly, is a bit mad and sporadically artful itself, and this is immediately clear from the creative paper cutout opening credits sequence, to the quasi-mockumentary setup. The interior design of the cardboard maze is really cool and amazingly elaborate, crafted with walls of royal playing cards, giant piano key sculptures, temples of trash, origami creatures, and more.

Around the bend, the narrative is an ode to unfinished projects, artistic frustrations, scrappy inspiration, tenacious drive, and unappreciated genius. Unfortunately, the script's comedy doesn't always cut it, and the duration begins to drag, but the film's sheer inventiveness and meticulous love is on full display, for Dave Made A Maze is a passion project in its purest, papery form. And yes, it is bigger on the inside.

( 7.5/10 )


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Monday, October 23, 2017

[Review] Dig Two Graves


The bleak and bizarre Dig Two Graves is a southern gothic horror tale that revolves around one town's treacherous curse. This film is uneven as the ground, but it isn't the worst flick to throw on during a chilly October evening.

When her older brother dies at the local quarry, 14-year-old Jacqueline - nicknamed "Jake" (Samantha Isler) is approached by a mysterious group called the "Moonshiners". They offer to bring her brother back from the dead, but there's one catch--another life must be taken in the process. From there, Jake wrestles with this conundrum and uncovers the dark history of the town.

First of all, this is an impressively shot film, capturing the small-town landscape and geography with ominous and foggy views--stuff that you'd expect from a film called Dig Two Graves. The story, on the other hand, isn't the strongest. For one thing, the tone descends from dead serious to hokey and ridiculous pretty fast. This thing piles on a lot of different elements that don't quite work well together--like over-the-top black magic rituals, humdrum historical flashbacks, and deep family melodrama. It all gets very muddled and overstuffed.

In fact, after its solid beginning, Dig Two Graves constantly feels like it's jumping the shark--or should I say the snake--because there's a HUGE snake in this movie. The story's conclusion attempts to redeem some of the missteps, but by that time, it's already dead and gone.

( 5.5/10 )


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Saturday, October 21, 2017

[Review] Professor Marston & The Wonder Women


This Summer the fantastic Wonder Woman movie dashed into theaters with historical success. And now, this Fall, we get a biopic about the creator of the Wonder Woman comics along with the two women who inspired the iconic character. Of course we don't know how much of this film sticks to real life or how much of it is embellished, but it's a fascinating portrait nonetheless. A superhero origin story of another kind...

Dr. Marston (Luke Evans) is an intense professor who works side-by-side with his brilliant and brash wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), as they practice advanced methods of psychology. When they recruit an almost lamblike student named Olive (Bella Heathcote) to participate in their studies, a juicy and complex love triangle forms. Scandalous!

Sure, Professor Marston & The Wonder Women isn't a superhero film, but it sparks a different type of excitement. It's sharp, observational, intricately layered, and consistently audacious and provocative. The script is well-wrought and the performances are top-notch. Each scene, especially early on, percolates with sexual tension, dances around indiscreet conflicts, and simmers with repressed emotions. It's also very interesting to see how certain details and events in Marston's life translate to themes and images in the comics, especially during a time when "The world won't allow it."

So, is this an engrossing film that you should go see? Yes. Lie detector says: This is true.

( 8/10 )


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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

[Review] The Babysitter


Netflix's The Babysitter is a proud trash-horror flick that I somehow hated and loved at the same time.

Cole (Judah Lewis) is an elementary school kid that often that gets picked on. The only bright spot in his life is his cool, hot, and too-good-to-be-true babysitter Bee (Samara Weaving). That is until one night when Bee invites a bunch of her friends over after bedtime, and Cole witnesses an extremely jarring event that...involves butcher knives and satanic rituals....

Let me be clear, this is not a good movie. It's almost impossible to buy into any of it, but it's also hard to look away. The whole thing feels like you're watching an extended horror version of the "Stacy's Mom" music video. Every single thing in this film is injected with a shot of cheese, a dose of kitsch, and a giddy smirk--from the obnoxious and juvenile characters, to the exaggerated blood splatter and gore, to the horrendous dialogue. Some lines are so bad that they sound like someone's haphazard excuse to incorporate unfunny Facebook statuses and tweets into a movie script.

But as the manic story progresses, it actually becomes really fun to watch Cole utilize his desperation and resourcefulness as he attempts to weasel his way out of this nasty situation. Everyone involved in this film seems to be having a blast. And while The Babysitter isn't the type of film that I'm going to shout about up and down the block, it did help get me into the spooky (and silly) spirit.

( 6.5/10 )


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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

[Review] The Foreigner


The legendary Jackie Chan stars in The Foreigner, a Taken-style thriller that hits most of its marks but leaves you with the feeling that it could've been a lot better.

After his daughter is killed in an explosion orchestrated by a faction of the IRA, Quan (Chan) decides to take matters into his own hands and track down the bombers himself. Oh yeah, and he happens to be a highly skilled and dangerous Special Forces veteran.

While the film lacks the exquisite shots and sly humor of say, John Wick, it's still the type of dark horse story that you pump your fist for. Things begin on the slower side, but it's more of a calm before the storm--you know--just a matter of time until Chan releases his fury in the form of fiery warning pops and gritty fisticuffs. Chan, now 63, is impressively still doing most of his own action stunts, but his dramatic chops are pretty good here too--he's weary, solemn, and relentlessly determined. Pierce Brosnan also checks in with a solid turn as a crooked politician with questionable ties. But unfortunately, the film's subplotting gets way too convoluted, bringing the movie down like a wasted dud while also taking focus away from the film's main draw.

The Foreigner is definitely a brand of rainy Saturday afternoon cable fare, but at least you can count on Jackie Chan to deliver those sweet moments of revenge.

( 6/10 )



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Monday, October 16, 2017

[Review] Happy Death Day


Marked on the calendar as this year's Friday the 13th main attraction, Happy Death Day is an unexpectedly entertaining slasher flick with a swirl of déjà vu icing.

After a wild night, Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes up in the dorm room of a friendly guy named Carter (Israel Broussard, who kinda reminded me of Craig from Degrassi) and promptly takes the so-called walk of shame back to her sorority house. Later that day, she encounters a mysterious baby-mask-wearing knife-wielder (and you thought you'd escaped The Boss Baby!) and is abruptly murdered. In case things weren't already weird enough, Tree then wakes up right back where she started! From there, she must figure out what the hell is going on--in Live. Die. Repeat. fashion.

Each sequence is more intense and crazier than the previous one. The script, through repetition, snowballs a big amount of laugh-worthy comedy. And because every scenario is slightly different (sometimes jarringly different), the narrative becomes predictably unpredictable, if that makes any sense. The tone evokes a streak of late '90s/early 2000s vibes, and fittingly, the picture is laced with bubblegum colors and filmed with the gloss of a Britney Spears music video. Jessica Rothe gives a really good central performance, especially considering how her character is put through the ringer, and then some.

If you aren't too cynical or nit-picky, Happy Death Day serves up a slice of kitschy horror that you'll have legitimate fun watching. It certainly brings a whole new meaning to "Surprise!"

( 7.5/10 )


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Saturday, October 14, 2017

[Review] Kingsman: The Golden Circle


Back in 2015, Kingsman: The Secret Service snuck in as a surprisingly fun blast of mirthful action and witty spy genre tactics. Its sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle aims even higher, but it can't help but fall short of the freshness of its predecessor, despite packing as much spectacle as possible.

After the nifty Kingsman headquarters are completely destroyed, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) travel across the pond to America (Kentucky, specifically) and team up with an allied organization called the Statesman that includes cowboy Channing Tatum (!), in order to take down a criminal enterprise led by a Devil in a Red Dress-ed Julianne Moore (!).

The good news is that the film retains a clever sense of humor, and its SMASH, BOOM, POW brand of action still has a lot of spunk to it. This series has a tendency to get cartoonish, which is actually refreshing, but sometimes this installment goes a little overboard. The plot also feels cluttered and choppy compared to the slick focus of the first one. And is it just me, or has the lead character always been a bit on the bland side? Luckily, the supporting cast is strong. In addition to the aforementioned, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry join the rodeo, and as the trailers suggested, Colin Firth returns as Harry--though not quite as you'd expect. But unfortunately, most of them go underused.

With that said, Kingsman: The Golden Circle does have its charms, and there's a decent amount of enjoyment to be had in this franchise. And honestly, it's difficult for me to fault a movie that opens with a car chase set to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy".

( 7/10 )


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Friday, October 13, 2017

[Review] Super Dark Times


Kevin Phillips' remarkably striking directorial debut - Super Dark Times - is a somber and hectic loss-of-innocence thriller that definitely isn't kidding about its title.

Set in '90s suburbia and steeped in nostalgia and teenage hormones, Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) are prototypical best friends in high school (the film opens with them watching a fuzzed-out Spice Channel) - that is, until a shocking and gruesome accident (it'd be a spoiler to go into detail) followed by an impromptu cover-up sends their lives spiraling out of control.

The film is both wondrously and ominously shot, and it captures a pitch-perfect tone, evoking the likes of Stand By Me, Donnie Darko, It Follows, and "Stranger Things". But there isn't anything abstract or supernatural going on here. The ugliness of reality hits hard. Very hard. Anxiety, paranoia, panic, and regret permeates throughout the story, and it all feels as heavy as the sky falling. The narrative has the type of gripping momentum that makes the duration fly by. The cast is of full of newcomers, and they're all sharp with impressively natural and convincing performances.

It's immensely intriguing to see how the whole thing plays out. I was engrossed until the bitter end. Director Kevin Phillips is certainly one to watch, so catch this one on VOD as fast as you can.

( 8/10 )


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Thursday, October 12, 2017

[Review] Wish Upon


Wish Upon is a film that blends teen drama with horror, and unfortunately, it doesn't do anything particularly special with either one. Frankly, it's an ugly travesty.

The story sees high school outcast Clare (played by Joey King) come into possession of an octangular music box that has the power to grant her seven wishes. And you know how it goes with these too-good-to-be-true trinket sort of things: For every granted wish, something nasty occurs in succession. Pretty soon Clare discovers that there's an evil entity living inside the thing.

If this all sounds very familiar, that's because it is. The film itself is a box full of cliches. And the execution of the premise here is so extremely trite, repetitive, and predictable--to the point where you'll be asking "Are we at the seventh wish yet?" There's no scare factor, the casting is bad, the dialogue is awful, and things get ridiculous in the most eye-rolling of ways. But overall, the film's biggest curse is that it's boring. Not even Barb from "Stranger Things" can save this one.

You'd definitely be able to find much more fright, entertainment, and charm in a 24-minute "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" episode. In the end, all I can say is - I wish this were a better movie.

( 3/10 )


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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

[Review] Our Souls At Night


Robert Redford and Jane Fonda star in Our Souls At Night, a subdued yet affecting sleeper that you can catch on Netflix.

Louis (Redford) and Addie (Fonda) are two lonely souls, long removed from their respective spouses. One day, Addie randomly knocks on Louis' door and asks if he wants to sleep with her. No--not that kind--but you know, just to lie side-by-side and talk to each other about their lives until they drift off. Eventually, Louis accepts the proposal, with reservations of course.

That's the setup. I know it doesn't like the most ...exciting premise, but it's the type of twilight-years story that isn't often explored in cinema. Ritesh Batra (director of 2014's bittersweet love story The Lunchbox) gives this character study an unhurried but assured touch. The film, fittingly, has a nice calming effect. It moves at a gentle rhythm to a soothing folky soundtrack. It also has a solid sense of a small-town setting (and the "everyone knows everyone" gossip that comes with it). And I've said this before, but I always appreciate a great final line of dialogue in a script, and this film has one.

Our Souls At Night thrives on small and subtle moments, but in the end it feels like a wave of change has taken place. Robert Redford and Jane Fonda both give fantastic performances here. But seriously, would you expect anything less?

( 7/10 )


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Monday, October 9, 2017

[Review] Blade Runner 2049


35 years after Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic Blade Runner, the modern great Denis Villeneuve has taken on the lofty task of delivering a sequel, and he succeeds resoundingly. Not only is Blade Runner 2049 a worthwhile continuation and expansion of this universe, but it's also an astonishingly-realized dystopian epic in its own right.

We follow our Blade Runner (played by a stone-faced Ryan Gosling) through a stark world of creation and destruction, manufactured memories, and where holograms bleed into reality, as he tracks down information about a peculiar replicant. Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, and Harrison Ford (reprising his original role) round out the cast of key players.

Like its main protagonist, this film has the sheer confidence and cool patience to move at its own pace--to do things its own way--and it still manages to command attention. Much is due to the stunning imagery, from the deeply imaginative set designs to the techno-futurist visual effects. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins renders breathtaking frame after breathtaking frame. The picture is so sublime and provocative that you just have to sit back and stare in awe. The soundscape is hypnotic too, as Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer's reverberating post-Yeezus score virtually sends waves into your head and swallows you whole.

I understand that some audiences might have hoped for more action sequences and a shorter runtime (the film clocks in at 163 minutes), but personally, I found the pure artfulness, innovation, and neo-noir vibes of it all to be mesmerizing. Such an atmospheric and desolate story could've risked being emotionally numb, but as Villeneuve proved with last year's excellent Arrival, he's about more than just hollow spectacle. For as much as Blade Runner 2049 explores a bleak vision of society in disarray, it also keeps a sentimental fingerprint on a fruitful world that once was.

* 9/10 *


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Saturday, October 7, 2017

[Review] Landline


In 2014 writer-director Gillian Robespierre delivered the great indie dramedy, Obvious Child. Now, she continues that same spirit with Landline, a '90s-tinged romp about a dysfunctional family.

The story revolves around Dana (Jenny Slate) and her little sister Ali (Abby Quinn) as they begin to bond for the first time, ironically, after they find out their father (played by John Turturro) is having a steamy affair. Dana and Ali attempt to keep it a secret from their mother (Edie Falco), and all the while, they're dealing with some mishaps and crossroads within their own lives.

First off, this thing is hilarious. Like Obvious Child, it dives head-first into some boisterously embarrassing moments and it has a refreshingly open embrace of toilet humor. The script is stuffed with snappy, brash, and sisterly bicker-y dialogue. Here's just one of my favorite exchanges: "You're like a little piece of toilet paper that gets stuck to someone's shoe!" / "Well, you're like the embodiment of constipation!" Jenny Slate again proves to be a pleasant screen presence, embodying her spunky character with laughs, likability, relatability, self-aware flaws, and genuine emotion. And of course, you can never really go wrong with John Turturro or Edie Falco.

And even though this takes place in the '90s, it doesn't try to feel like a film that was made in the '90s. Instead, the decade plays more of a nostalgic backdrop: the alternative rock soundtrack... the once bland and almost rudimentary look of computer desktops... and yes--the reminder of what it's like to call someone on a landline phone (whoa!). The tone is light and zippy, and it does have more of an episodic vibe, like it could be a TV series that fits somewhere between ABC and Showtime.

So while it doesn't hit the high notes of Obvious Child, Landline is still a bittersweet little film that's all about the messy complications of life, and the static that gets in the way.

( 7.5/10 )



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Thursday, October 5, 2017

[Review] Battle of the Sexes


Coming off of her Oscar win for La La Land, Emma Stone gives another terrific performance in Battle of the Sexes, a well-played biopic that serves up some empowerment and liberation.

It's the 70s. Stone portrays tennis star Billie Jean King, an avid champion of equal pay and equal respect for women. She's also hiding a secret. Waiting in the wings is the colorful and controversial Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell). The guy is hellbent on coming out of retirement to set up a primetime match between the two. When Billie eventually accepts, a clash for the ages ensues, and there's more on the line than a trophy, especially as Bobby ramps up the "male chauvinist pig" angle.

In the spirit of game of tennis, I'll give you six points that make this a worthwhile sports biopic:

1) It's an interesting story that presents themes that are still relevant today.
2) You can tell there was immense attention to detail, and an emphasis on making this thing feel as authentic as possible--even down to the stitching and cuts of the tennis attire.
3) The cast is stellar across the board. Emma Stone does more than just a great impression--she's nuanced and human, while Steve Carell once again proves to be magnificent as he goes into jerky sleazeball mode. Sarah Silverman even shows up in an amusing role as a snappy promoter.
4) The film is impressively-shot, showcasing a series of splendid frames and retro palettes amidst a fittingly grainy filter.
5) It's well-balanced. Light on its feet, but effectively powerful.
6) And finally, there's a lot of smashing fun to be had here, and of course, plenty to root for.

( 8/10 )


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Tuesday, October 3, 2017

[Review] Gerald's Game


Over the past few years, Mike Flanagan has been gaining a prolific reputation in directing really good, under-appreciated horror flicks like 2013's Oculus, and Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil (which both released last year). His latest effort, Gerald's Game, is a Netflix exclusive and a Stephen King adaptation that might get caught in the shadow of this year's sensational IT, however, it's still a thrilling slice of provocative terror.

Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) are an unhappy couple who take a vacation to a secluded lake house, with plans to "spice things up." But when a role-playing sex act goes horribly wrong, Jessie is left handcuffed to a bed where she begins to see surreal visions.

It's a hell of a setup, and the contained story essentially all takes place in one room. And things get weird. Really weird. Not only is this a strenuous tale of survival with a major sense of shackled helplessness, but it also becomes a scathing dissection of a failed marriage, as well as a disturbing reflection on childhood trauma. Jessie's hallucinations yield some trippy yet lifelike conversations with people she knows very well, and of course, some ghoulish imagery creeps in. Carla Gugino gives a great central performance and carries most of the film as her character attempts to fend off death.

Gerald's Game is a well-crafted and thematically-layered genre piece that's worth a watch - that is - if you can make it through its woozy climax.

( 8/10 )


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Saturday, September 30, 2017

[Review] American Made


Tom Cruise puts his aviator shades back on for American Made, a giddy cocaine-fueled crime-comedy of American Dream exploits and foreign policy loopholes.

Cruise plays Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot living a banal existence. But that changes when he meets Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), a sketchy CIA agent who practically appears like a devil on Barry's shoulder and convinces him to quit his job and rake in the cash by transporting mass amounts of drugs and weapons. And that's exactly what Barry does.

There's a manic energy to the whole thing - think Reagan-era Wolf of Wall Street or War Dogs in the sky. The picture even has a daydreamy haze, as if the endeavor is one big binge of danger. A big greedy blur. And it all comes with a wink of self-awareness. It's definitely no secret that this is effed up stuff. But it's so crazy, that you just have to sit back and laugh at how crazy it actually is. Tom Cruise revels in this role, essentially playing an ecstatic and egotistical sleazebag. There's hardly a scene in the entire film where he isn't grinning ear-to-ear or where his eyes aren't flashing dollar signs.

But like all stories of this nature, what goes up most come down. The highest of highs plummet to the lowest of lows. And well, you know how the deal goes: Crime doesn't pay.

( 8/10 )


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Thursday, September 28, 2017

[Review] Brad's Status


Ben Stiller is at the center of Brad's Status, a low-key character study that scratches at some thoughtful topics within its fairly mundane plot.

Brad is a middle-class man amidst a midlife crisis. He's bitter and jealous of his college buds (played by Mike White, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, and Jemaine Clement) who are all currently "living the dream" and more financially successful than him. And by "financially successful" I mean multi-multi-multi-millionaires. So Brad's case for making us feel sorry for him isn't really a good one. Anyway, when he embarks on a trip of college tours with his son Troy (Austin Abrams, who nails a certain stage of unenthused growing-pains), he's faced with a question of whose 'wants' are more important.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the dynamic between Brad and Troy. They clash and they bond, then they clash and they bond some more. The script ruminates on different ideas of happiness and fulfillment, generational gaps, and jaded vs optimistic ideals. Ben Stiller goes into serious Ben Stiller mode here, and it's a seriously great performance, even though his character is far from likable. In fact, he's kind of insufferable, incredibly self-absorbed, obnoxiously overthinking, and frankly oblivious to his own privilege. Along the way, we wait for him to become more enlightened or at least get called out on his #firstworldproblems. And those moments do come, and they're deeply satisfying, and they also let us know that the film has a worthwhile point to it.

The ending is abrupt, but it leaves you with some things to ponder. And while the main character still has some learning to do, the film itself isn't too proud or cynical to say "Let's put hope in the youth."

( 7/10 )



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