Wednesday, October 31, 2018

[Review] Halloween


2018's Halloween aims to wipe the slate clean, dumping the run of questionable sequels and remakes of John Carpenter's 1978 classic into the trash with the uneaten and stale candy. And while it doesn't exactly take things to the next level, this rebirth is an entertaining slasher that sticks closest to the spirit of the original, like a juicy Milk Dud lodged to your gums.

Just as the film itself arrives exactly 40 years later, the story picks up exactly 40 years later. The infamous Michael Myers has been spending his days under intense observation in an insane asylum. This opening scene has such an eerie build that the cut before the title sequence greatly teases us and unsettles us at the same time. Anyway, you can probably guess that Mr. Myers eventually escapes, retrieving his iconic mask to terrorize the neighborhood where Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis reprising her role) resides. And she's been PREPARING FOR THIS.

Director David Gordon Green, who has a wildly hit or miss filmography, mostly nails all the right spots here. The camerawork is voyeuristic and stalkerish, always creating the feeling that both unsuspecting and suspecting victims are being watched and just  moments  away from meeting their gruesome and bloody demise. There are some pretty gnarly kills here, with Myers leaving a trail for of broken jaws, smashed skulls, and pierced arteries. But the scariest and best shot in the movie is an early image of Myers' ghastly face reflecting off of the front window of someone's front porch -- it's a creepy foreshadowing of the intrusive mayhem to come. And of course, every time John Carpenter's seminal score is paired with these images, we're reminded of how powerful and terrifying those piano keys really are.

The screenplay does have a few glaringly odd choices in narrative and script though, but we wouldn't exactly expect a masterwork of dialogue in a movie about a seemingly undying serial killer going around and stabbing people. Judy Greer joins the cast as Laurie's daughter who is well aware of the legend, but unfortunately she doesn't have a whole lot to work with here. The person who steals the show is a young boy named Julian (played by Jibrail Nantambu), who adds a fresh spunk of personality and comic relief to an otherwise bland set of characters. When we first meet him, he's bored to death by his babysitter and saying stuff like “Got me sitting here cutting my nasty ass toenails.” The kid is involved in some of the most amusing scenes in the movie, and he definitely has the most memorable lines of dialogue. It's to the point where you wish he were the main character. #WhereDidJulianGo?

So even with its flaws, this thing still provides a decent amount of goods for spooky season. And it's more likely to leave a satisfying taste in your mouth instead of a bad one. Happy Halloween!

( 7.5/10 )



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Thursday, October 18, 2018

[Review] First Man


Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) teams up with Ryan Gosling once again to tell the story of Neil Armstrong and the lunar landing. It's both an in-depth character study and well-crafted technical achievement, and it's absolutely astounding.

Gosling plays Armstrong, and he's portrayed as a quiet and reserved family man, as well as a bit of a risk-taker when it comes to his aerial endeavors. Claire Foy (really great) plays his wife, and the two are coping with the painful nightmare of losing a child to cancer. Soon after, Armstrong sets his sights toward space and gets selected for NASA's moon mission, and well, the rest is monumental history.

First Man is a phenomenal cinematic experience. It's immersive, visceral, and utterly moving. We're thrusted into this amazing story as it takes off with a major sense gravitas and gusto. It's full of soaring and exhilarating moments, as well as more down-to-earth moments -- like the comical scene of the spaces trainees sitting in a stuffy classroom with their shirts stained with puke from the simulations. This film is also extremely well-shot and provides plenty of exquisite visuals -- my favorite being an image of Armstrong's eyes displayed directly above a horizon -- it's both surreal and symbolic.

The sound design is superb, too. It places us in the midst of the spacecraft, as every crank, shift and rattle is amplified. The heavy breathing we witness practically fogs the movie screen as our own breathing pattern mirrors the characters. And of course, the film's last 20 minutes are for the books. They'll have your heart racing. They'll have you leaning forward in your seat. From the initial shuttle launch to the moon touchdown -- it's pure magic. Chilling and spectacular. Climactic and cathartic. As beautiful as it is eerie. It certainly made my own feelings float.

And even with all the technology and lofty heights at play in First Man, Chazelle never strays from the humanity at its core.

* 9/10 *


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Thursday, October 11, 2018

[Review] A Star Is Born


Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are the passionate pair of musicians in this powerful rendition of A Star Is Born. The film is a poignant ballad of love and loss that soars with a haunting melody.

Cooper plays Jackson, an established country rocker who is just barely hanging in there (when we first see him he's backstage chasing pills with alcohol). One night he meets Ally (Gaga), a working-class woman with a voice that can alter the ocean's tides, but whose potential has always been turned down due to her appearance, or as she more bluntly stresses -- her nose. The two become enamored with each other's talents (and each other), and it isn't long before they embark on a tour together. But it's not all stage lights and standing ovations -- things get messy as Jackson's addiction spirals out of control, and tensions rise as Ally's career begins to outshine her co-partner.

First off, Lady Gaga absolutely kills it. She's so natural in this role and embodies Ally with depth and dimension from early on. And even though this is a down-to-earth character, Gaga's pure magnetism illuminates every scene she's in, and to no one's surprise, she absolutely revels in some show-stopping musical scenes ("Shallow"). It's a further testament to the fact that Gaga is born to perform, whether it's acting or belting out her lungs, or both at once. Bradley Cooper is excellent too, completely sinking into this grizzled role while also displaying a striking vulnerability. The supporting cast is fantastic as well. You've got Sam Elliott (definitely in his element) playing Jackson's older stoic brother, and Andrew Dice Clay who plays Ally's very Italian father, whose running joke is that he used to be able to sing as good as Frank Sinatra, except it's not a joke to him, because he actually believes it. Maybe he could? Even Dave Chappelle makes a delightful appearance.

Bradley Cooper's direction here is impressive too. Passion permeates through every scene. The sequences that are supposed to be gritty are very grittied up, and the sequences that are supposed to be glitzy are very glitzed up. And many of the smaller scenes are just as emotional and potent as the bigger ones. Narrative wise, it's a very delicate, intense, and compassionate portrayal of substance abuse and the tumult it can cause within relationships, whether it's under the spotlight or not. This modern update also shares a lot of similarities with 2016's sensational La La Land. Call it La La Land with a twang. Crazy Heart meets Beyond the Lights. A Star Is Born dives into that touchy artistic conundrum of sacrificing or attempting to hold onto your genuine roots and what makes you special while making the big break you've always longed for.

This film presents a universal cycle -- stars are perpetually being born, while others are slowly fading away or abruptly burning out. It happens each time you look up to the sky, or into the TV.

* 8.5/10 *


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Thursday, October 4, 2018

[Review] Leave No Trace


Debra Granik, who directed 2010's stunning Winter's Bone, returns with Leave No Trace -- another heavy drama about familial bonds amidst the backdrop of America's wilderness.

A father and daughter (played by Ben foster and Thomasin McKenzie) have been secretly living off the grid in a Pacific Northwest forest. But their quiet and content existence is upended when they are found by authorities and placed into social services for evaluation. From there, the two of them attempt to adapt conventional society.

While these same themes of freedom and isolation from the modern world were also explored in recent films like Captain Fantastic and The Glass House, Leave No Trace is still a thoughtfully observed character study and a worthwhile and well-crafted portrait of contrasting lifestyles and environments. The film is shot with a crisp, yet down and dirty sense of realism, which is fitting for this story. And when we learn that Ben Foster's character is a veteran suffering from severe PTSD, the film gains another potent layer -- especially as tough conflicts arise when his daughter begins to adjust to conventional society (and even like it), while he is hellbent on returning to their home in the woods. The film dives even deeper into this dynamic toward back half, and Thomasin McKenzie delivers one of the absolutely heart-wrenching lines: "The same thing that's wrong with you isn't wrong with me."

Foster and McKenzie both give tremendously haunting and hard-hitting performances that will linger with you long after the film's tearjerker of an ending.

* 8.5/10 *


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Thursday, September 27, 2018

[Review] A Simple Favor


Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are the dynamic counterparts in the darkly comedic mystery film, A Simple Favor.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is bubbly, down-to-earth, and sweet, while Emily (Lively) is haughty, rich, and scathingly blunt. Despite being total opposites, the two hit it off (or at least apparently so) after meeting at their sons' elementary school. But things get peculiar when Emily suddenly goes missing, causing Stephanie to dig deep in order to uncover the surprising truth.

Even though A Simple Favor might come off as Gone Girl-lite at times, it's still an enthralling tale that keeps us wondering and wondering what happened. Director Paul Feig (who's known for big studio comedies like Bridesmaids, Spy, and the Ghostbusters remake) gets more serious than usual here, sparking interest with provocative twists and a methodical sense of secrecy. But even amidst the film's more straightforward thriller elements, it's definitely spiked with a shot of strong humor, like the cinematic equivalent of a chocolate martini.

The cast is fully game, giving pitch-perfect performances all round. Anna Kendrick anchors the story, walking a conflicted line between innocent and scandalous. And despite a briefer screentime, Blake Lively makes a startlingly moody and greatly potent impression. Henry Golding, who a made nice splash in this year's hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, does a terrific job playing Emily's husband with questionable motives.

A Simple Favor's runtime might drag out a little too long for its own good, and its final act gets complicated and overwrought, but it's still a film worth investigating.

( 7/10 )


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