Monday, June 18, 2018

[Review] Tag

This film tells the true, inspirational story of... grown men playing tag? Yes, the bro-com Tag springs forward into a real-life tale about a group of friends that have kept a game of tag going for 30(!) years -- mostly to stay in touch. Every month of May, they sneak up on each other at unexpected times, concoct elaborate schemes and disguises, and sometimes even endure injuries in the process.

Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, and Hannibal Buress are cast as the group of friends here, and the plot sees them team up to finally get their "untouchable" buddy Jerry (Jeremy Renner, hilarious) -- who has never been tagged (yes, he has a perfect record) -- before he retires from the game. As you can guess, some crazy, desperate, extreme, and outrageous shenanigans ensue.

The story that Tag is based on honestly pretty amazing -- it's quirky, delightfully innocent, heart-warming, and nostalgic all at once. And while this film's portrayal of the story is a mildly fun romp that has its moments, it doesn't seem to do its source material justice (can we get a documentary?). The script is a bit middle-of-the-road -- it contains a handful of funny lines, but an even bigger handful of ones that just don't connect. The film is best when it embraces its slapstick comedy (after all, tag is a physical game). Folks crash through windows and fall down stairs just to avoid being 'It.' The riotous setpieces include a bumpy high-speed golfcart chase, a strange trap-filled sequence in a dark forest, and a wild confrontation during an AA meeting that turns into a Matrix-style battle with its slow-motion sprints and tossed donuts. It's easily the best scene in the film, aside from the one where of the guy's moms makes them Pizza Rolls. However, the laughs here never reach the heights of Tag's fellow competition comedies Game Night and Blockers from earlier this year.

The cast here is enjoyable, though. Jon Hamm lets loose in a fairly care-free role and still looks dapper and charismatic while doing it. The other two MVPs are Hannibal Buress -- who has some of the best line deliveries here, and then Isla Fisher -- who plays one of the guy's intense wives that takes the game way too seriously and often steals the show because of it.

In the end, Tag stays true to the essence of its beginnings. It's not just about the game, it's about friendship. As Ed Helms' character says "This game has given us a reason to stay in each other's lives." That's it.

( 6.5/10 )

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Saturday, June 16, 2018

[Review] First Reformed

Paul Schrader's latest film First Reformed is a dark, uncomfortable, and tumultuous character drama that has a lot on its mind.

Ethan Hawke plays the deeply introspective and conflicted reverend of First Reformed church in upstate New York. He keeps a nightly journal in which we hear his thoughts through poetic and self-reflective voiceover. The film follows him around as he speaks with and councils various members of the community, and things take a drastic turn when he happens upon a suicide bomber vest in the garage of a local environmental activist (Philip Ettinger).

The picture is presented in a tightly squared aspect ratio, adding a sense of focus and direct intimacy - similar to last year's existential perplexer A Ghost Story. The film displays some pristine framing and cinematography, emphasizing architectural angles and crisp symmetry. The story itself also ruminates on ideas of equal and opposing halves, constant contradictions, and ever-present dualities. Hope and despair. Duty and grace. Pride and humility. Courage and martyrdom. Forgiveness and sin. The narrative is mostly built on long and talky, face-to-face conversations, which might completely bore some audiences. But the scenes are always thematically tense, as they dive into lofty topics such as the state of the planet, future anxieties, and personal and universal plights.

Ethan Hawke is ravishingly good here, and it's one of those roles that is perfect for him. This character is multidimensional -- weary yet stoic, empathetic yet detached, haunted yet faithful. You can see it all in his face. The solid supporting cast includes a superb Amanda Seyfried, as well as Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer) in a mostly straight-laced and serious part that is much different than the highly comedic roles we're so used to seeing him in.

First Reform isn't for everyone, but if you're in the mood for a commendably complicated and complex character study that doesn't offer anything easy, it's a film to witness. By the time it's over, Cedric's line rings true as a church bell: "Even a pastor needs a pastor."

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

[Review] Cargo

Martin Freeman terrifically leads the way in the Netflix Original Film, Cargo (it's the first one in a while that I've actually dug). It's a dystopian zombie flick, and while this is well-trodden territory, Cargo packs a good amount of intrigue, craft, and reward to sink your teeth into.

Set in a very beige and bleak Australian outback where the population has dwindled due to a nasty virus (it turns people into rabid flesh-eaters), the story revolves around a father named Andy (Freeman) as he attempts to protect his newborn daughter and bring her to safety before his days are up.

The film is crisply shot, taking full advantage of its uniquely rugged landscape across dusty prairies, muddy rivers, and rocky mountains. The narrative also has a strong sense of forward momentum. There's never a lull in conflict or drama (unlike a certain TV show that rhymes with "Stalking Ted"). Every scene feels vital, and there are some really eerie, intense, and heart-pounding sequences along the way. Martin Freeman gives a fantastic central performance, carrying most of the film on his back with great emotional range, grittiness, heart, and determination. Also impressive is Simone Landers, who plays a young indigenous girl that Andy meets during the harsh journey.

Cargo also provides a surprisingly poignant ending that hits in a way reminiscent of another well-wrought zombpocalypse film called Train to Busan. So yeah, load this one up.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

[Review] Ocean's 8

Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna(!), and Helena Bonham Carter are the ladies that lead the way in the stylish and sophisticated, high-end heist mission that is Ocean's 8.

Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, a sly thief that is the mastermind behind it all (she's also the sister of George Clooney's character from the Oceans trilogy). After being released from jail, she assembles a group of eclectic and skilled criminals in order to pull off an elaborate scheme that involves stealing a $150 million diamond necklace from the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the Met Gala.

The film begins on the slower side, as it jumps around locations and introduces individual characters, but once the team gets together and finally hits the field, this swanky caper acquires a nice amount of energy, intrigue, and verve. It's cool to watch the clever and intricate plot unfold with such slick precision. Of course, the stacked cast is the main draw here, and their charisma makes this thing click. However, their shine is divided and distributed, and they don't get a whole lot of character development on their own, but we wouldn't really expect that in a big ensemble piece like this. There's even a handful of celebrity cameos that make their way into the star-studded affair.

Unfortunately, considering how high the stakes are, there's never a major sense of danger or edge. Things almost go too smoothly, which dulls some of the potential thrills. And despite showcasing a few amusing moments, the humor here isn't anything gut-busting, even though this cast has proven to bring the laughs. That said, Ocean's 8 is still a fairly fun romp that mostly gets the job done.

( 7/10 )

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Monday, June 11, 2018

[Review] Hereditary

Hereditary is a family horror film. And I don't mean in the family-friendly sense -- it's a horror film about a family that isn't very friendly. Crawling with anxiety, hysteria, and effective frights, this thing is so terrifyingly demented and disturbing that it'll leave you absolutely shaken -- or stiff, depending on whatever happens when you get the crap scared out of you.

After her unstable mother passes away, Annie (Toni Collette), her husband (Gabriel Byrne), and their two oddball children (Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff) attempt to cope with the toxic aftermath and insidious turmoil, as they're haunted by a sinister curse that seems to be embedded within them.

With hints of demons in the house and demons in the mind, it becomes a continuous mystery as to what the hell is going on with this family. The story's ghostly images exude power in their subtlety and faintness -- it's like if you were to actually glance upon an apparition in real life (spooky!). Hereditary boasts some of the scariest, most nearly-unbearable scenes you'll ever witness in a horror film -- the type of scenes that will make you hold your breath and sink down into your seat.

Just like Annie's miniaturist artwork, director Ari Aster crafts the film with meticulous detail. The overall atmosphere is so tense and somber that it actually feels as if you're sitting in on a funeral - a very twisted and deranged one. The picture is impeccably framed, donning a dollhouse-like aesthetic and placing focus on uneasy views through box-y doorways and windows. It's almost like if Wes Anderson went Satanic. The camerawork is noticeably active, exhibiting slow pans and zooms, rotating shots, and upside-down shots -- which all increase the anxiety. And the sound design here is so unsettling -- every click, slide, or scribble might make you think twice about every any you hear long after you go home. Then there's Colin Stetson's stellar musical score. It's brooding, unhinged, and hair-raising as it floods every scene with dread.

Toni Collette's performance here is captivatingly tumultuous, to the point where it's actually uncomfortable to watch, yet extremely impressive at all once. Her range is commendable, and she goes into some really dark places here. Collette seriously deserves an Oscar nomination for this role. The supporting cast is great too. Milly Shapiro, in particular, gives one of the creepiest creepy child performances in recent memory. The cast's across-the-board devotion is crucial, because there's some pretty weird stuff going on with the characters in this movie, and we don't often see these types of things pulled off with this much conviction.

Hereditary joins the ranks of modern, artful horror classics like It Follows, The Babadook, and The Witch. It's suffocating until the severed end.

* 9/10 *

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