Monday, September 18, 2017

[Review] mother!

The always provocative Darren Aronofsky returns with mother!, a sweaty and smothering chamber piece that takes the idea of "unwelcome guests" to the next level, and then some.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a couple living in a big fixer-upper house in the middle of nowhere. I'm not going to say they're happy, because there's a notable disconnect between the two, and not just in age. When a flock of strangers (including Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) start randomly piling into their home, the situation goes from uncomfortable to tumultuous to batshit insane.

This thing thrives on unpredictability and the uncanny. It's the type of film that constantly makes you wonder "What the hell is going on?" The overall craft makes it a total sensory experience. It broods - the drab, dimly lit setting comes off like a dungeon, and every creak and knock is amplified, to the point where even just someone appearing around a corner can create a jolt. It pierces - the claustrophobic soundscape is filled with door bells, smoke alarms, phone rings, and teapot whistles that raise the anxiety. It boils - the nasty tension is so thick and steamy that you could slice through it with a box-cutter. It haunts and confounds - hallucinatory and supernatural elements creep in, conveying the impression that something sinister is going down. The plot births so many visual symbols and character allegories that it essentially becomes a demented "I Spy" puzzle.

I pretty much loved everything up until the third act, which is guaranteed to be divisive and discussion-worthy. What we end up with is a chaotic clusterfuck of biblical proportions and worldly ills. But things get so dense, ham-fisted, and over-the-top that my initial investment in the film began to diminish the deeper that it dove. You know in high school when you had that house party and things got out-of-hand and you just wanted everyone to leave? mother! gives you that exact feeling. And you know when you're having a nightmare and you try to yell but nothing comes out? mother! gives you that exact feeling too. In these ways, the film succeeds, for better or worse.

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

[Review] Little Evil

Ah, evil kids. From The Omen to Orphan, those little buggers have been a seminal staple in the horror genre. So who better than Eli Craig (director of cult horror comedy Tucker & Dale vs Evil) to take a stab at some comedic ribbing for the devil-children? That's what Netflix's step-horror spoof Little Evil sets out to do, and for the most part, it nails it.

Adam Scott plays Gary, the unlucky stepdad in this picture. He's happily married to the love of his life Samantha (Evangeline Lilly, The Desolation of Smaug), but he's having a difficult time bonding with her anti-social son Lucas (Owen Atlas). Things escalate quickly when the creepy kid starts doing demonic activities and making Gary's life a living hell. While Samantha remains oblivious, Gary attempts to figure out if Lucas (some symbolic names there) is indeed the frickin' antichrist.

The film doesn't exactly flip the tropes on their head, but it playfully works them in while avoiding the overt tackiness of, say, the Scary Movie series. It's fun to identify the references--from The Shining to Poltergeist, as well as the traditional shock techniques--from the abrupt zoom-ins to the screechy music jolts. Adam Scott is perfectly cast here, and it's amusing to see his character go through the ringer (he's buried alive at one point). The batshit plot takes many twists and turns, and it builds to a campy fireball of a climax. But I must say, the film's funniest scene isn't even horror-related. It takes place when Gary enters a support group for stepdads of troubled children, where each member bounces some hilarious stories off of each other (like finding poop in dresser drawers).

Little Evil won't really shatter the world, but it's the type of ridiculously enjoyable horror fare to throw on in-between the spookier, heavier stuff in your Halloween playlist.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, September 11, 2017

[Review] IT

If you're like me, the "IT" miniseries traumatized a portion of your childhood. Looking back on it, it really wasn't even that good, but it had a few scenes that stuck. And while it didn't instill a fear of clowns in me personally, it did make me afraid to go to the bathroom by myself and look down the drains. I mean, I got over that eventually. Obviously. Anyway, Andrés Muschietti (Guillermo del Toro protégé and director of Mama) brings Stephen King's iconic scary clown tale and horror portrait of anxiety-ridden Americana to the big screen, and the film delivers splendidly.

It's the summer of '89 in the fictional town of Derry, and children are going missing at an alarming rate. The town's interconnected sewers and creeks--a swirling cycle of waste, evil, and mystery. A tight-knit group of misfits take it upon themselves to get to the bottom of these stranger things.

The film certainly sets off the jump scares, and it doesn't skimp on its grim and bloody R-rating. This thing is stuffed with ominous visuals and grotesque imagery, as it essentially dives into a series of disturbingly nightmarish sequences, skewing the lines of what's real and what isn't as the kids get caught alone in the dark. It's a terrifying tunnel of tricks. A funhouse of fears. A carnival of creepiness.

The youngster cast is so impressive, and they're the ones that really make this thing work, relishing in classic coming-of-age elements, you know--friendship and escapism, encounters with crushes, and spats with nasty bullies. They're strikingly naive with their unfiltered quips and wide-eyed worldviews, yet more keen and in-tune with their immediate surroundings than the adults. As for Bill Skarsgård's Pennywise, he does a swell job in all his teeth-y, drooling glory--his facial expressions slipping from playful and jolly to maniacal and sadistic faster than you can press open a switchblade.

As far as I'm concerned, the film presents pretty much everything you'd hope for in a modern IT re-imagining. It's a well-crafted adaptation that deftly juggles multiple layers and meanings. And overall, this thing proves to be an affecting experience, no matter what incarnation of it you see.

* 8.5/10 *

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Saturday, September 9, 2017

[Review] Band Aid

Starting a rock band always solves all your problems, right? Right??? At least that's the idea in Band Aid, an angst-filled relationship clash with a riffing twist.

Anna (Zoe Lister-Jones, who directs) and Ben (Adam Pilly) are a notoriously unhappy, constantly bickering couple on the verge of calling it quits. But after a therapy session, they decide to pick up some instruments and turn their fights into songs. Along the way, they're joined by their awkward neighbor (Fred Armison) on the drums, while they work through their grief and crank out some jams.

It's clear from the opening's epic showdown that this is a film that runs on snippy back-and-forth dialogue. It piles on the zingers, running the gamut between caustic, clever, and annoying. For a while, the film maladroitly stumbles along like a Duplass-lite dramedy without the messily endearing characters. In fact, Anna and Ben are both a bit on the bland side, and frankly, they're sort of insufferable most of the time (no wonder why they're always arguing with each other!).

But to my surprise, Anna and Ben began to grow on me. As did the film, especially toward the second half when the comedy hits harder and bits of affecting emotion ring in. And you know what? The songs they come up with are actually kinda good. Raw indie-rock with some catchy hooks. Like, can I purchase an album by The Dirty Dishes somewhere (that's their band name)?

Band Aid still can't escape some of its own obnoxiousness, but it ends up transforming into a decent tune.


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Thursday, September 7, 2017

[Review] The Hitman's Bodyguard

Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson are the bickering duo in The Hitman's Bodyguard, a padded romp that gets caught up in flurries of mediocre action and never really forms its own identity.

Samuel L. Jackson plays the Hitman, Ryan Reynolds plays the Bodyguard. 25 minutes go by before the two actually meet, which is odd. Really odd. Anyway, the two begrudgingly team up for a fist-throwing, bullet-flying, car-chasing jaunt across Europe, with an end game to take down a Gary Oldman-played Eastern European dictator who might as well be called "Stock Villain."

Of course, the two leads possess enough appeal and charisma to make this thing watchable, and there are plenty of great Samuel L. Jackson lines along the way, like "I am harm's way" and "Tick-Tock, Motherfucker!" And this is exactly why it's an absolute crime that the two don't have more screentime here. Instead, there's a lot of surrounding sub-plotting and humdrum sceneage, as if the film, for some questionable reason, was hellbent on reaching a two-hour runtime. A head-scratching move, for sure.

As for the action, it's packed, but it's all kind of ugly, and not in the *good* ugly way. Between the sloppy editing, the mostly unmemorable fight sequences, and the stunts and effects that often leave much to be desired, it never rises above standard parking lot production, save for a crazy setpiece where Jackson busts Reynolds out of a seedy, hellish torture dungeon.

The Hitman's Bodyguard clearly wants to get the job done, but not much else.

( 6/10 )

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

[Review] Patti Cake$

Actress Danielle Macdonald and director Geremy Jasper burst onto the scene with Patti Cake$. It's a hard-not-to-root-for underdog story and a precious love letter to loving hip-hop.

Meet Patricia (Macdonald) - aka Killa P - aka Patti Cake$, a larger-than-life personality and aspiring rap star who's desperate to get out of her rundown New Jersey town (cue the Springsteen song, but really--there is a Springsteen song in this movie). Along the way, we follow her struggles to get her music career off the ground, all in the face of her haters.

Like its main character, this film is brash, fun, and full of creativity. It flaunts a visual flair that maneuvers between gritty and flashy, stylish and sublime. And as unabashedly silly and purposefully tacky as things can get, there's an irresistible energy and wide-eyed spark to the story, as well as a surprisingly heartfelt emotional core--especially as the narrative explores Patti's messy home life and her complicated relationship with her mother (Bridget Everett).

Macdonald is a revelation, giving a praiseworthy performance. It's a role that could've easily gotten cartoony or overly stereotypical, but she embodies it with a fully dimensional humanity. She feels real. She feels genuine. We believe her when she looks into the mirror and says "You're a boss bitch." And we also believe her when she doubts her self-esteem and wonders if she's a complete failure.

Patti isn't alone though. The film also has a great supporting cast of oddballs, including Patti's best (and only) friend Jheri (Siddhart Dhananjay), who works as a pharmacist by day and a turn-up R&B crooner by night. Then there's the mysterious "Basterd" (Mamoudou Athie), a Death Grips-inspired experimental artist who claims to be an anarchist and the antichrist. When these three form a group together, their misfit dynamic is truly a sight to behold. Even Patti's wheelchair-bound, chain-smoking Nana (played by Cathy Moriarty) lays down some sick vocal samples.

When it comes down to it, Patti Cake$ is all about the dreams in life that are chased and the dreams in life that are crushed. It's a feel-good film with a bittersweet flow. Don't sleep on it.

* 8.5/10 *

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Saturday, September 2, 2017

[Review] Death Note

This decade, director Adam Wingard has helmed some stellar horror hybrids like You're Next and The Guest. But then there was last year's humdrum Blair Witch rebirth, and now this year's Death Note (which can be viewed on Netflix). The film is based on a popular Japanese manga & anime series, which I'm not familiar with, so I can only go by what this film itself conveys. And what I see is an awful piece of work and a horrendous waste of time that falls way short of being both a worthwhile conspiracy thriller and a high-concept genre piece.

Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a high school student who finds himself on the end of bullying. One day, he finds a mysterious notebook that has a beady-eyed demon (voiced by Willem Dafoe) attached to it. The demon sort of looks like what would happen if the tree creature from A Monster Calls bred with a sea urchin. Anyway, turns out when you write someone's name in this notebook, they'll automatically die! Sometimes in Mortal Kombat fatality fashion, depending on what you specify. When Turner starts taking out society's worst, a stealthy organization zeros in on his trail.

With all its camp, moody teen melodrama, and gruesome kills, this film comes off like a sour and deranged concoction of Final Destination, bargain bin Donnie Darko and "13 Reasons Why". Flaws litter just about every department, and you'd have to reach to find any redeeming qualities. The plot is severely rushed. The dialogue is stilted. Nat Wolff's lead performance is never that convincing or even interesting. Its love story couldn't be any more banal. And sometimes the shifts in tone are so jarring that I almost wondered if I accidentally sat on the TV remote and Netflix switched to something else. It's one of those movies where just when you think it can't get any worse; it does.

I gave it a chance, because Adam Wingard has proven to be an exciting filmmaker, and a couple of my current favorite actors--Shea Whigham and Lakeith Stanfield--show up, but if anything, they just feel frustratingly wasted. This thing is such an overstuffed mess. Like a head exploding. An idea that should've been crumpled up and tossed in the trashcan...then set on fire.

( 3/10 )

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Thursday, August 31, 2017

[Review] Ingrid Goes West

Get your hashtags and emojis ready for Ingrid Goes West. Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen star in this California dreamin' escapade of social media age antics and web celeb obsession.

Meet Ingrid (Plaza), a disturbed and obsessive loner who falls asleep with her smartphone in her arms every night. One day while perusing Instagram, she latches onto Taylor Sloane (Olsen), a social medialite with a huge following. It's not long before Ingrid becomes so infatuated that she packs up and moves to L.A. to seek out and befriend Taylor. Let's just say things get weird.

It's scandalously fascinating to watch this all unfold, with all its shit-hitting-the-fan and flipping of the scripts. Director Matt Spicer and his co-writer David Branson Smith have a firm grasp on the online zeitgeist. And for a film all about vanity and surface-level idolization, it's fitting that all its interpersonal ugliness and societal observation is so beautifully shot. This is a very pretty looking film. From its vibrant colors, to its sunset lighting, to its carefully picked wardrobes--it's practically a moving postcard. A postcard with a lot of baggage beneath it all.

The film can also be taken as a dark character study, as Ingrid blows way past the lines of stalkerism and living vicariously. And as creepy and pathetic as she gets, she remains a sympathetic figure. Tragic, even. Aubrey Plaza, who has been in a few stinkers lately (*cough* Dirty Grandpa), is perfectly cast here--fully sinking into her awkward, offbeat and unhinged element. Elizabeth Olsen is great too, impeccably playing the role of holistic-chic valley girl with a hashtag #perfect life. O'Shea Jackson Jr. (yes, Ice Cube's son) even shows up as an amusing landlord and hardcore Batman fanboy.

Ingrid Goes West is wild, thoroughly entertaining, and rich in substance. And actually, the film's inclusion of "All My Life" by K-Ci & JoJo alone was enough to get my click of approval.

* 8.5/10 *

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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

[Review] What Happened to Monday?

One of Netflix's latest films What Happened to Monday? is a dystopian thriller that quickly goes from intriguing, to mildly entertaining, to frustratingly preposterous, to melodramatic crap.

In the story's future-shock setting--overpopulation, climate change, and famine have led to a global "One Child Only" policy--strictly administered by a crooked Bureau director (Glenn Close).

But one family, thanks to the help of grandpa Willem Dafoe, has bucked the system. That family is seven identical twin sisters (all played by Noomi Rapace), all named after the days of the week. They have a complicate lifestyle: Each one can only go out on their designated day, as they carefully have to comprise a singular identity. But when Monday suddenly goes missing, they must figure out what happened to her, all while avoiding to reveal their secret, which would risk assassination.

Sound kind of silly? Well, it kind of is. But the film seems to take itself pretty seriously, which ends up being a detriment. What it does have going for it is Noomi Rapace's versatile, multi-character performance (although they all obviously possess similarities) and the aesthetic of its futuristic setting. It's packed with technology that doesn't seem too far off--like 3D holographic augmented reality, new age guns, and advanced identification devices and information chips. Scary!

But despite the high-budget look, the film's confused tone always feels just a couple levels above 'straight-to-video' quality. And while the duration does provide some decent chase scenes and shootouts, they don't really touch anything that we've seen on the big screen this year. The final act is where everything really goes wrong, as the story gets overly convoluted and laughably ridiculous--to the point where you might regret taking the plunge into this one.

( 5.5/10 )

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Monday, August 28, 2017

[Review] Good Time

Robert Pattinson gives the best performance of his career in Ben and Josh Safdie's wickedly intense and tenaciously dirty New York City crime-drama, Good Time.

After a botched bank robbery attempt, the hard-living Constantine (Pattinson) and his mentally impaired younger brother Nick (Ben Safdie) are split up during a police chase. When Nick is captured and arrested, Constantine engages in drastic measures to get his brother home.

This thing is jarring, the stakes are high, and it's chalked full of danger. Every maximal scene is designed to get your heart racing. Its crafty visual style is often drenched in neon lights, especially deep red colors that signify caution, alarm, crisis, spilt blood, and pretty much everything bad. The film even evokes the horror genre at times--like the scene where Nick's entire face is wrapped in bandages during a dark hospital stay (1960's Eyes Without a Face came to mind), or the sweaty sequence that takes place in a haunted amusement park ride - after hours. Electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never's caustic score escalates the madness and greatly overwhelms the soundscape.

Robert Pattinson is incredible here (yes, we're way beyond the Twilight era), and it's not only his solid accent work, but everything else as well. He practically disappears into this character--a guy so entangled in doing what he truly believes is right that he's completely lost all sense of good and bad.

Just like its main character, the film digs itself so deep that it has a difficult time hitting a satisfactory conclusion, but sometimes that's what happens at the end of an adrenaline rush.

* 9/10 *

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

[Review] Brigsby Bear

Brigsby Bear is a difficult one to classify, and that's part of what makes it so good. Its post-captive story falls somewhere right in the middle between Room and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt". But its spirit has more in common with surreal comedy oddities like Frank or Swiss Army Man (without the farts). Either way, it's safe to say this is a film that defies expectations.

Meet James (Kyle Mooney). He lives in his parents' basement, and he's obsessed with "Brigsby Bear"--a campy, 80s-tinged sci-fi show that's filled with life lessons and educational tidbits. But wait, the basement isn't a basement--it's a nuclear bunker! And his parents (played by Mark Hamill(!) and Jane Adams) aren't his real parents--they snatched him at birth! And "Brigsby Bear" isn't...well you get the point. It's not long before the police are busting in and taking James to his real family.

Kyle Mooney (who also serves as screenwriter) plays James with a man-childlike naivety and an almost extraterrestrial quality. And let's just say James has a difficult time adjusting to the outside world. This makes for some wonderfully dry humor and moments that aren't just awkward--they're almost unbearably squirmy--like James' uncomfortable sessions with a therapist (Claire Danes), or when he tags along to a party with his sister and gulps his *first beer* and has his first sexual encounter.

But even with the story's amusing follies and off-kilter tone, there's a definite sadness beneath the costume. A fascinating conflict arises as James gets stuck between holding onto his happy, yet delusional Brigsby Bear life - or moving forward and completely erasing it. This also brings about some somber emotions as his sanity is brought into serious questioning.

Brigsby Bear is strange, imaginative, surprisingly heartfelt, and wholly unique. Or as James would say: "It's so dope as shit."

* 8.5/10 *

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

[Review] Wind River

Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen lead the way in the ice-cold backcountry thriller, Wind River. It's a film that also spotlights the troubling lack of reports on missing Native American women.

Amidst a run-down reservation in the frozen tundra of Wyoming, we meet Cory (Renner), a self-proclaimed "predator hunter" (and he isn't lying) who teams up with a tribal police chief (Graham Greene) and an ill-equipped FBI Agent (Olsen) in order to investigate the grisly murder of a young woman found in the middle of nowhere. And to top it of, a big blizzard is on the way.

Like the chilly wind gusts, this film is harsh, unrelenting, and it cuts right through you. Directed by Taylor Sheridan (screenwriter of Sicario and Hell or High Water), it's an expectedly difficult watch--sort of like blend between Winter's Bone and Prisoners--with its brutal imagery, jarring surprises, unsavory characters, insanely intense shootouts, and a coat of darkness that just can't be shaken. Emotional turmoil runs as high as the snowy mountains, especially as we meet the parents (played by Gil Birmingham and Althea Sam) of the diseased woman, and learn of the heavy baggage that Renner's character lugs around.

In Wind River, there isn't a major revelation, shocking twist, or satisfying catharsis. But considering a story like this, going out with a whimper makes sense. Its final sliver of justice....poetic.

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

[Review] The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature

After the first Nut Job, I can't imagine that anyone was cracking for a sequel. But here we are with The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature, an animated flick that is about as imaginative as its punny title.

We check back in with Surly (voiced by Will Arnett), a protagonist so forgettable that I didn't even remember that his name was Surly (or that he's purple). Anyway, the peaceful existence of Surly and his small mammal friends is threatened when the egg-shaped Mayor of Oakton City (Bobby Moynihan) lays down plans to build a noisy amusement park in their grassy, tree-filled habitat.

It's a wildly familiar plot, and the execution of it is so humorless and so hollowed of originality. It heavily (and shamelessly) borrows a bunch of generic elements from recent hits like The Secret Life of Pets and Zootopia. And it's as if the writers tried to squeeze the word "nut" into the script as many times as possible. So hilarious! As for the animation - it's fine, but nothing to get excited about it.

The film's message of preserving the environment and resisting government greed is an agreeable one, but the The Nut Job 2 is so trite that it just comes off as a soggy, stepped-on shell of entertainment.

( 3.5/10 )

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Monday, August 21, 2017

[Review] Logan Lucky

Director Steven Soderbergh returns with Logan Lucky, a wacky southern-fried heist comedy that's bolstered by a remarkably stellar cast.

Channing Tatum and Adam Driver are the Logan brothers, and they've fallen on hard times in the income department. But with some help from their sister (played by Riley Keough, fantastic) and a prison inmate amusingly named Joe Bang (and amusingly played by Daniel Craig), they form an incredibly elaborate plan to rob a vault during a race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The film runs like a well-oiled machine and it fires on all cylinders. Rebecca Blunt's (whose identity has oddly been called into question) screenplay is full of gloriously deadpan dialogue and hilarious slapstick humor. It's all so intricately schemed as well, and it manages to come together swimmingly. Every plot tube connects. Every little detail pays off. Every setting takes on its own mood. Every character, although not deeply developed, feels lived-in. You can practically smell the grease under Channing Tatum's dirty fingernails. In fact, this is a story that introduces so many quirky individuals that it seems like there could be a whole TV series made out of it. And I would definitely watch.

Logan Lucky is a redneck robbery. A hillbilly heist. An Ocean's 7-Eleven. And it's an absolute hoot.

* 8.5/10 *

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

[Review] 13 Minutes

Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, the historical thriller 13 Minutes revolves around the real-life events of one man's attempt to blow up Hitler during a Munich speech in 1939.

That man is Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), a modest carpenter and accordion player from a small German village. The non-linear plot portrays the aftermath of Elser's arrest where he's brutally interrogated, the events leading up to the assassination attempt, and the recollection of his earlier life and romance with a woman named Elsa (Katharina Schüttler).

Of course, the most intense moments come during Elser's intricate and secretive plotting of explosives, and the most harrowing moments come as he endures harsh methods of torture by the hands (and tools) of the Nazis. It's difficult to watch these unflinchingly detailed scenes, which involve a lot of straps and vomiting, and I'll end it there. Unfortunately, the film's overlong flashbacks can't help but feel like underwhelming filler, especially as they break up the narrative's tense momentum. And Elser's character is never quite as deeply developed as we would like.

Still, 13 Minutes is a pretty well-crafted and fascinating portrait that makes you ask What if?

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

[Review] The Transfiguration

The Transfiguration is a low-key indie drama about adolescence and yes - vampirism. Think Let the Right One In meets The Fits.

Milo (Eric Ruffin) is a quiet young teen growing up in the rough New York housing projects. Oh yeah, and he happens to have flesh-biting and blood-sucking urges. Early on, he meets a girl named Sophie (Chloe Levine), and the two form a sort of outsider bond. Along the way, Sophie learns of Milo's obsession with vampire movies, only she doesn't know just how true his obsession is...

Throughout the film, many vampire flicks are directly mentioned, as Milo and Sophie name their favorites on ponder which ones would be the most "realistic". The referencing is reflective of The Transfiguration itself, and it's also a way of wearing influences on its sleeve--almost as if director Michael O'Shea is going "Yeah, we know you see the similarities..." It's fun, though. And intriguing. For the most part, the meaning of the vampire elements here is kept ambiguous, but the narrative has underlying themes of urban decay, unflinching violence, and a bleak sense of desperation. Eric Ruffin anchors the story with a subtle yet impressively convincing central performance.

So while The Transfiguration can't hide from the familiarity of its predecessors, this gritty coming-of-age horror thing is still a juicy blend of genres that I'll welcome in.

( 7/10 )

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

[Review] Berlin Syndrome

What starts out as a fairly run-of-the-mill romantic excursion, turns into a hostile nightmare in director Cate Shortland's Berlin Syndrome.

While backpacking in Germany, photojournalist Clare (Teresa Palmer, Lights Out) meets a local dude named Andi (Max Riemelt) and the two become smitten with each other. Andi even playfully jokes about locking her in his apartment because he's so obsessed...only it isn't a joke--he actually locks her in his apartment and won't let her leave! Let's just say the guy transcends the word "Creeper."

From there, we witness Clare's intense struggles to get out, whether it's physical attempts or mind games (at best, both at the same time). The handheld camera and gritty cinematography brings us right into Clare's helpless and claustrophobic point-of-view. Sometimes the picture even blurs and refocuses, emphasizing the overall disorientation of the crisis. And of course, as the title suggests, Clare falls into spells of Stockholm Syndrome--turns out, it can happen anywhere!

This film packs some stressful thrills, but unfortunately, a midsection lull diminishes some of the tension, especially as the film approaches a two-hour runtime. This year's other similar captive thriller Hounds of Love is definitely a more succinct, thoughtful, and compellingly-acted viewing. Still, the gripping end of Berlin Syndrome is worth sticking around for.

( 7/10 )

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Monday, August 14, 2017

[Review] Annabelle: Creation

Ah, creepy dolls. You can't live with them, you can't live without them. The same could be said for prequels and spinoffs. Annabelle: Creation comes as a prequel to a spinoff, which is why it's so surprising that it isn't terrible. Sure, the film has its share of problems, and it doesn't really offer up anything new, but it's a serviceable jump-scare flick for those getting anxious for the Fall season.

David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) is the director of this chapter--which sees a grieving couple (played by Miranda Otto and Anthony LaPaglia) who lost their daughter to a tragic accident--convert their rustic house in the country into a foster home for young girls. But of course, things get frightening when the girls uncover that now iconic old, ominous, eerie-eyed doll who goes by Annabelle.

The typical Annabelle antics ensue: strange noises... head turning... popping up in random places... and making the occupants' lives a living hell. The second half of the film ups the ante and throws any sense of subtlety out the window, unleashing crazy poltergeist activity and demonic intrusions--to the point where the film unfortunately seems to become less about the doll and more about all the surrounding stuff. And given Annabelle's infamy and lore within The Conjuring universe, you sort of wish for a more carefully fleshed out backstory. That said, the film's tendency to deviate from focus allows for an awesomely grisly possessed scarecrow scene, which might remind you of Goosebumps.

Annabelle: Creation is all seen-it-before, but every time you see it, it's still pretty scary.

( 7/10 )

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

[Review] Wakefield

Bryan Cranston stars in the noir-ish and voyeuristic domestic drama, Wakefield. Its cynical dissection of marriage and suburban discontent warrants comparisons to stuff like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. As far as quality, it falls somewhere in between (Gone Girl being the better one, of course).

Howard (Cranston) is an agitated family man. After a quarrel with his wife (played by Jennifer Garner), he has a nervous breakdown and abandons her and their two daughters. But that's not all. Instead of packing up and leaving, he secretly stays in the garage attic and spies on them, like some sort of sadistic experiment to see what they'd do if he disappeared. The film could be titled Guy in an Attic.

It's intriguing to see how this all develops. With such a contained story, a lot of it hinges on Cranston's performance and the blunt tone of his voiceover narration. His character is so self-conscious, so observant, so miserable, so vindictive, and so scathingly sarcastic that it becomes comical--in that black comedy sort of way. As we know by now, Cranston does all of these things well, and he's fine with not being the most likable character. Oh yeah, and he grows a gnarly beard throughout.

Unfortunately, a couple extended flashbacks break up the narrative's momentum, rather than presenting any significant depth or insight. And much like Howard's prolonged time in the attic, the film begins to drag in the second half, especially as his self-sabotaging disappearance becomes increasingly pointless. By then, it's just a matter of waiting to see when Howard will reveal himself, or if he's too far gone. In this case, the beginning is much more interesting than the end.

( 7/10 )

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

[Review] The Incredible Jessica James

Netflix's output of original films seems to be increasing by the month. Some hit. Some miss. But I'm pleased to say that the romantic comedy The Incredible Jessica James is one of the good ones.

Jessica James (Jessica Williams) is an aspiring playwright. Upfront honesty is her thing--which is why she's so open about being bitter from her recent breakup with Damon (played by Lakeith Stanfield "Atlanta", Get Out). But things begin to change when she's set up on a blind date with a modest fellow named Boone (played by Chris O'Dowd). The two basically are polar opposites, but there's notable chemistry between them. A real Let's just see where this goes vibe.

The film's bright and colorful dance/title sequence really sets the tone. This is a fresh, breezy, engaging, and exuberant watch. The script runs on deliciously snappy dialogue, and the film flaunts a visual spunk that's met with enthusiastic editing. Newcomer Jessica Williams proves to be a wonderfully natural lead with a terrific and likely star-making performance. And even over the film's brisk 80-minute runtime, her character's personality is nicely drawn.

The only downfall of The Incredible Jessica James is that it has an episodic slice-of-life feel to it, playing more like a really great TV pilot rather than a well-rounded feature film. Much like Jessica and Boone's sparky but short-lived times together, it leaves you wanting more.

( 7.5/10 )

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

[Review] Lady MacBeth

You could definitely call Lady MacBeth the cousin to this year's My Cousin Rachel. It's another dark and scandalous British period piece set in the mid-1800s. But this cousin is the better of the two.

Katherine (Florence Pugh) is a young woman who's been sold into marriage with a dreadfully controlling and unpleasant middle-aged man. Safe to say, she hates it. But when Katherine sparks up a steamy affair with a grounds worker, everything changes as she engages in a chain of rebellion.

"Drab" is the ultimate word that comes to mind when describing this movie. The dour situation... The dingy living quarters... The static camerawork... All the scenes of people getting beaten... "Shit hitting the fan" also comes to mind. There's some nasty confrontations and drastic table turns. This film doesn't dance around the drama, it dives right into it. And just when you think the well might be running dry, something new comes up that raises the stakes and pushes the film into even darker territory.

Newcomer Florence Pugh gives a tremendous central performance that's both tumultuous and commanding. As you can guess, this is far from a feel-good film. But the lead character's transition from sympathetic victim to despicable villain is something jaw-dropping to witness.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, August 7, 2017

[Review] Detroit

Following the gritty and gut-wrenching, real life-informed films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow continues her excellence behind the camera with this year's unflinching Detroit. It's a difficult watch, but it's also a vital watch.

The film portrays the Detroit riots of 1967, where civil unrest and police violence turned the heart of the U.S.A. into a hostile warzone. The cast is full of familiar faces, including John Boyega (The Force Awakens), Anthony Mackie (The Avengers), Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton), along with newcomer Jacob Latimore (who played the lead in this year's under-the-radar Sleight) and the lesser-known Algee Smith, who gives an impressive standout performance here.

It's intense. It's harrowing. And it's racially-charged. We witness maddening injustices, cold-blooded police brutality, and edge-of-your-seat crisis--like the film's big centerpiece - a violent, sweaty, and heart-racing (to put it lightly) raid and interrogation set in the Algiers Motel. And one of the film's most moving scenes takes place in an evacuated theatre where Algee Smith's character (a Motown artist) sings "If You Haven't Got Love" alone. And like Bigelo's past work, the film is very strong from a technical standpoint. The quick-cut editing raises the urgency and reflects the chaos, while the darty handheld camerawork (reminiscent of Paul Greengrass films) immerses us into the action.

Detroit will make you grind your teeth, and it'll leave you breathless. It's not the type of film where you'll walk out with a smile on your face, but it feels like an essential viewing with themes that unfortunately and hauntingly still ring today. Perhaps one of the film's characters says it best: "We're a long way from easy."

* 9/10 *

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

[Review] The Emoji Movie

Ah, emojis... They're a vital part of our day-to-day communication in the smart phone era and social media age. So, of course, someone had to make a big studio movie about them. But The Emoji Movie is proof that some of these novelty concepts don't need to go on the big screen. And let me be clear: this isn't even one of those films that you have to "check out just to see how bad it is." At best, it's a humdrum waste of time. A dismal and derivative pile of dookie.

T.J. Miller (ugh) voices Gene - a designated "Meh" emoji living in Textopolis who's capable of expressing other emotions. When he's ostracized by the town, he embarks on a personal journey to become a "normal", one-dimensional emoji just like everyone else. It's not the most compelling plot setup, especially for us multi-dimensional humans. It really makes no sense. Like, what exactly are the actual consequences if Gene cracks a smile or sheds a tear? Who gives a fuck? What are the other emojis going to do - give him a strange look? Oh wait, they can't.

The "jokes" are so lazy, unimaginative, and on-the-nose that they come across as complete non-jokes, begging for muster up a pity pshhh. At one point, a group of monkeys carrying suitcases say they're ready "monkey business!" It's a surface pun that even Laffy Taffy wrappers would toss into the trashcan emoji. And the script is littered with these things, and the story is just really disengaging. I began to mentally check out of this thing when Gene found himself in a game of Candy Crush, because you know--it's so much fun to watch someone else play Candy Crush.

T.J. Miller's lead vocal performance becomes grating after 10 minutes. I mean, this is the same guy who voices the Mucus in the Mucinex commercials... The film doesn't have much to offer up visually, either. Even some of the most mediocre animated films that have recently hit theaters--like Trolls or Smurfs or Angry Birds--at least have some dazzling imagery to look at. But you can't say the same about The Emoji Movie. It's just so utterly plain. You'd probably be able to see more captivating flourishes of animation on your own phone--like trash dove.

It's best if we just never speak of this movie again.

:poop emoji: / 10

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Review] A Ghost Story

What if you could observe your loved ones after you've passed on? That's just one of the questions explored in writer-director David Lowery's existential arthouse creation, A Ghost Story.

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck play a nameless couple who've just settled down in a modest new home. But it's not long before Affleck's character is suddenly killed in a car accident right in front of their house. He then comes a ghost (spooky!). We see him in that novelty Halloween costume form, you know--big white sheet over his body with hollow eyes cut out.

It's an intriguing, thought-provoking concept--in general and for a film--to be an invisible witness to the aftermath of your own death, and to see how someone close to you moves on with their life. The grief comes two-fold. And on one hand, the film is dressed as a strange, moody, and head-scratching experiment, and on the other, it's a haunting tale of love and loss, pain and time. What kind of mark did you leave behind? Will your memory last? What about the world and civilization as a whole?

The picture is presented in a square with rounded off corners--it reminded me of looking through a View Master. Which is fitting for the story, because it narrows your focus on the deep intimacy, and its effect is like a slideshow with snapshots of life. There are some very long static takes, where the silence and mundanity are almost confrontational. Sometimes these scenes last too long (the pie eating scene!), to the point where they threaten to diminish the film's cinematic presence.

A Ghost Story definitely isn't for everyone. In fact, it'll probably be one of the most divisive films of the year. A few moments turned me off, as well. But even so, there's an entrancing unpredictability to it, especially as the final stretch keeps tacking on pieces. The ending throws you for a loop, but I guess that's the film's way of tapping into what infinity might mean.

( 7.5/10 )

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

[Review] Girls Trip

Girls Trip is an enjoyable, unfiltered comedy that puts friendship over everything.

Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish make up the "Flossy Posse", a once tight-knit crew of cool college friends whose career paths eventually caused them to drift apart. But that all changes when they reunite for a weekend vacation in New Orleans. As you can guess, things get wild. These girls let loose from the get-go and never really slow down.

The film is packed with funny dialogue, eye-widening gags (and I mean that in more ways than one), and some amusingly over-the-top blunders--like an absinthe trip in the club that might make you squirm, a mishap involving a grapefruit, or the uproarious zipline sequence that involves bursting bladders over a crowd of onlookers. The cast is fully game here, but the absolute standout is the lesser known Tiffany Haddish, who steals every single scene she's in with her raucous hilarity, unabashed audacity, and confrontational attitude. There's also just enough drama beneath all the fun, giving us a sense that things could go wrong at any moment, especially when the dynamics of the group begin to clash as old and new conflicts bubble to the surface.

Girls Trip is as brazenly raunchy as it is genuinely heartwarming, because when it comes down to it, the film is a celebration of those special camaraderies that can last through the thick and thin.

The Flossy Posse is back.

( 8/10 )

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Monday, July 31, 2017

[Review] Atomic Blonde

Charlize Theron throws down in Atomic Blonde, an ultraviolent action and espionage thriller from stunt specialist David Leitch, who made his directorial debut with the sensational John Wick.

Berlin. 1989. On the cusp of the wall collapse. Theron plays Lorraine, an icy and immensely skilled spy who teams up (sort of) with a punky firecracker played by James McAvoy, in order to retrieve a compromised list of identities, and most importantly--kick A LOT of ass.

Based on a graphic novel, the film packs a highly stylized visual punch. The cold moon colors... The neon-soaked lighting... The deep shadowy streets... The flush framing that captures it all... It's full notably striking shots. Speaking of notably striking shots--fists, bullets, blunt objects, and sharp blades all land with brutal impact. They want you to imagine the pain. The combat sequences here are just relentless. There's even an unbroken, single-camera fight scene of Theron beating up a bunch of dudes in an apartment stairwell, and it goes on for damn near 15 minutes. It's a tenaciously violent and technically astounding showcase. The film's blaring soundtrack of '80s new wave synchronizes with the mayhem in a way that might remind you of this year's surprise hit Baby Driver.

Charlize Theron, who's no stranger to cutthroat action, is in full command here, and as the late great Stuart Scott would say, she's cooler than the other side of the pillow. As for the plot, this isn't the easiest mission to follow, and it gets more muddled as it goes on. It's who's who story is just too complicated for its own good, which is unfortunate. But even if you get lost amidst the cluster of deception, Atomic Blonde is still an engaging, visceral watch. There's pleasure (and pain) in the details.

( 8/10 )

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

[Review] Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart gives a mesmerizing performance in Personal Shopper, an unorthodox ghost story that consistently intrigues and perplexes.

Maureen (Stewart) works as a personal shopper in Paris. When she gets free time, she hangs out in a big, dusty, creaky house by herself. Why? To attempt to contact her twin brother, who died there.

This isn't the usual supernatural horror film, though. It's more of a slow-burning psychological drama, kind of reminiscent of a really good Irish flick from 2009 called The Eclipse (not to be confused with Twilight: Eclipse of course). There are significant gaps between the scares, but when the scares do come, they're extremely effective. The jolting moments are there, but the film mostly relies on building a dark and eerie atmosphere. And instead of ramping up the tension with music, the film often dwells in silence, which creates an uneasiness as every little noise is amplified. Is it something from beyond? Or just the rickety old house cracking in the wind? These scenes are truly chilling.

Around the midway point, the story takes an even stranger turn as Maureen begins receiving creepy, voyeuristic text messages from an Unknown number. The person (or whatever) on the other end is never quite who you think it is, and that's when the film goes into full mystery and suspense mode. Kristen Stewart is terrific throughout, essentially occupying every scene with a sense of determination, confusion, and anxiety. It's impressively convincing. She genuinely seems like a real person searching for a spirit that may or may not be real.

Personal Shopper keeps you unbalanced. What's in the mind and what isn't? Grief, trauma, delusion, and paranormal activity all seem to be at work. It's the type of film that will make you think, while coming up with your own theories about it, which means it's worth watching more than once. The end is unsettling and ambiguous, and given the nature of the film, you wouldn't expect anything else.

* 8.5/10 *

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

[Review] Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson's ambitious Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (there's a hefty title for ya) gleefully transports us to a futuristic universe that dazzles and proliferates. Unfortunately, the film's aggressively mediocre script and underwhelming leads constantly nag at the potential greatness.

After a welcoming space oddity of a prologue, we witness an oasis planet get destroyed and we learn about some vital pearls, as well as a dark anomaly that threatens the sprawling metropolis of Alpha. Special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are tasked with getting to the bottom of it in order to restore the balance. That's the gist of it, at least.

First of all - the visuals are splendid, flooding the screen with eye-popping CGI, nifty sci-fi gizmos, and imaginative art design. It's layered, it's immersive, and it's luminous. The extraterrestrial beings and creatures are familiar though--from the mystical Avatar-like humanoids, to the obnoxious Jar Jar-like wackos, to the Jabba the Hutt-like blobs of rudeness. The narrative get-go is remarkably clunky too. Amidst all the planet and vessel hopping, there's a lot of sigh-worthy exposition dumps, and somehow, it's still not clear what exactly is going on, or what the goal is. Then it basically launches into series of video game-esque action sequences that scream "generic." Speaking of generic, DeHaan and Delevingne are incredibly bland here, and they virtually have no chemistry together. It's as if the casting directors said "Get me two people who always look like they just woke up from a nap." And their romance story feels tired before it even really begins.

The second half fares much better, and that's when the film begins to gain its own identity, especially as our protagonists journey into a place called Paradise Alley--a busy, bonkers, and neon-lit avenue full of eccentric characters and a wily plethora of *ahem* ...underground businesses. This is also where we meet a kooky showman played by Ethan Hawke and take in an entrancing cabaret performance from none other than Rihanna, who plays a shapeshifting alien named Bubble. It's this very sequence that injects the film with a newfound spunk, and honestly, I couldn't help but think how cool a film about Rihanna's character would be instead.

Valerian never takes itself too seriously, and that's probably for the best, because it allows for a couple of funny one-liners and amusing streaks of delightful camp, even though it does veer too far into cheesy territory at times. But that's Valerian, I guess. A beautiful mess.

( 6.5/10 )

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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 on. 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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