Monday, June 26, 2017

[Review] All Eyez On Me


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

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

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

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

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

( 4.5/10 )

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Saturday, June 24, 2017

[Review] Cars 3


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

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

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

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

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

( 5.5/10 )

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

[Review] Raw


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

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

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

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

( 8/10 )


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Monday, June 19, 2017

[Review] The Mummy


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

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

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

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

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

( 4/10 )

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Thursday, June 15, 2017

[Review] The Belko Experiment


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

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

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

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

( 5/10 )


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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

[Review] My Cousin Rachel


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

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

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

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

( 6.5/10 )


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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

[Review] I, Daniel Blake


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

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

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

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

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

That's Daniel Blake.

( 8/10 )


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Monday, June 12, 2017

[Review] It Comes at Night


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

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

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

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

( 8/10 )



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Saturday, June 10, 2017

[Review] A Cure for Wellness


This film is wet. Very wet.

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

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

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

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

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

( 7/10 )


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Thursday, June 8, 2017

[Review] The Lovers


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

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

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

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

( 6/10 )


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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

[Review] Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie


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

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

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

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

( 7.5/10 )


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Monday, June 5, 2017

[Review] Wonder Woman


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

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

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

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

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

* 9/10 *


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Saturday, June 3, 2017

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


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

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

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

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

( 7.5/10 )


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Thursday, June 1, 2017

[Review] Baywatch


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

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

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

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

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

( 7/10 )

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

[Review] Hounds of Love


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

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

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

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

( 7.5/10 )


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Thursday, May 25, 2017

[Review] Norman


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

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

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

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

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

( 6/10 )


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Monday, May 22, 2017

[Review] Alien: Covenant


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

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

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

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

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

( 7.5/10 )


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Saturday, May 20, 2017

[Review] A Dark Song


Mounting as the directorial debut of Liam Gavin, the Irish indie film A Dark Song is an utterly drab exercise in black magic horror. It's quite the epitome of a slow burn, but unfortunately it possesses more 'slow' than 'burn'.

After hiring an ornery occultist named Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), the determined Sophia (Catherine Walker) purchases a big old house in the middle of nowhere--the type of place that "We Buy Ugly Houses" wouldn't even want to touch. The two use the home as place to conduct a dangerous and exhausting ritual in order for Sophia to get in touch with her son on the other side.

Unlike most horror films of this ilk, A Dark Song focuses more on the build-up and process of the ritual, rather than what happens after the ritual (aka the breakthrough). It's an interesting spin, but not the scariest or most exciting. The film is full of painstaking preparations and meticulous mediations that test the patience of both us and the characters. Talking to the dead, apparently it's a lot of work! Everything has to go perfectly. The list of details is practically longer Mariah Carey's tour rider.

But the film does nail it in the mood and atmosphere section. The ominous musical score scrapes against your nerves like an untuned violin. The scenic views of the strange skies and countrysides come as a breath of fresh air from the claustrophobic bleakness within the house. And the quick-cutting flashes of the supernatural during the film's climax are really unsettling.

So I appreciated the film's relentless commitment to its craft, even if it isn't entirely worth it in the end.

( 7/10 )

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

[Review] Snatched


Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer are the goofy mother-daughter duo in Snatched, a vacation-gone-wrong film that unfortunately goes wrong itself.

After losing her job and getting dumped, the unabashed adventurer Emily and her extremely cautious mom Linda embark on an impromptu trip to Ecuador. The expected fish-out-of-water follies--or more specifically--American blondes-in-the-tropics follies ensue. But things get treacherous when the two vacationers get kidnapped and held for ransom by a gang of criminals.

It does come with a bit of self-aware humor, playing into ditzy and uncultured tourist tropes, even winkingly implying that the main characters might be worse than the actual kidnappers. With a tongue-in-cheek line, Emily says "We're not just white assholes." By the way, didn't The Chainsmokers recently say something similar? Anyhow, the self-poking doesn't necessarily make this raunchy comedy an appealing or enjoyable getaway. Schumer and Hawn totally have the potential to be a fun team, but the material they're given is so haphazard, ill-advised, and over-the-top in some of the worst ways. This is a case where the stars' series of promotional appearances on talk shows were funnier and more likable than anything in the actual movie.

The first 30 minutes or so aren't bad though, diving into some mother/daughter dynamics and humor that actually lands. (Okay, so one of the bits is a fart joke, but I laughed.) However, once the kidnapping plot kicks in, the film--aside from an amusing appearance from Christopher Meloni as an inept explorer--devolves into streaks of eye-rolling action, gross-outs, and crude humor, pushing things to the edge only to come off as a shallow romp of foreign country fears. I got the impression that this film could've been a lot better if it had gone in any other direction than the one chosen. I mean, not ANY direction, but you get what I'm saying. Like its characters, it probably should've just stayed put.

( 5/10 )


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Saturday, May 13, 2017

[Review] Small Crimes


Netflix Original films can be hit or miss. This year the streaming platform has released some great ones like Burning Sands and I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, and some dismal ones like The Discovery and whatever Adam Sandler has been up. Small Crimes falls somewhere in between.

Nikolaj "The Kingslayer" Coster-Waldau plays Joe, a disgraced ex-cop who gets released from prison, striving for a second chance and an opportunity see his daughters again. But trouble follows him just as much as he follows trouble, and he digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole of corruption.

While its title is vague and indistinct, the film's dialogue and visual cues come across as a bit too on-the-nose for their own good--like the way the script rattles off clunky exposition of past events, or the scene where Joe grips an AA sobriety coin while he tosses back a couple shots at the bar. Still, it's an okay little crime drama and a mildly serviceable story of a botched attempt at redemption. It contains some surprisingly pulpy violence, messy dilemmas, and memorable performances from secondary characters--most notably from Macon Blair (Blue Ruin, Green Room, & director of the aforementioned I Don't Feel At Home...), who also serves as a co-writer here.

Nikolaj is competent enough in this shaggy role if you can forgive his Danish accent that often sneaks through. But compared to how great he is as Jaime Lannister in "Game of Thrones", he sometimes can seem sort of stilted and uncomfortable in other things, and this film is no exception. And if the filmmakers were trying to make his character sympathetic, well, it doesn't work. A lot of Joe's problems are of his own doing, and he pretty much effs over everyone he comes in contact with. But maybe that's the point. Some people are just too far gone, and redemption isn't even an option.

( 6.5/10 )


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Thursday, May 11, 2017

[Review] My Life as a Zucchini


The French-language film My Life as a Zucchini (also known as My Life as a Courgette) is an animated picture of a darker, sadder, more somber variety. But don't let that stray you away, because this Oscar-nominated film is truly a bittersweet gem in the rough.

We follow the young Courgette (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) as he moves into a foster home--the blue shadows under his eyes--an all-too-poignant form of baggage. We witness his ups and downs--from his bouts-to-bonds with a bully named Simon (Paulin Jaccoud), to his crushing on Camille (Sixtine Murat), a precocious new resident of the foster home. During the stay we also learn about the backstories of the other children, and in turn, wonder where they'll end up in the future.

Aesthetically, the film is molded with quirky, artful, and meticulously detailed stop-motion animation. The character designs are sort of Tim Burton-esque, think Frankenweenie but with a lot more color. There are some really cool-looking sequences throughout that display a childlike sense of wonderment, even amidst the melancholy tone and unfortunate circumstances in the story.

Emotionally, it's the type of film that'll cause you to well up within the first 10 minutes. Depressing, tender, and heartfelt all at once. "There is no one left to love us," one of the kids says. The narrative carries themes of belonging, lingering trauma, and the complicated push-and-pull between foster life and family life. It actually has a lot in common with an excellent indie film from 2013 called Short Term 12. All of the characters are so well-developed that we really get a significant hint of their personalities and feelings, even within the short amount of time we spend with them.

And I mean very short. In fact, the film's runtime barely eclipses an hour. My Life as a Zucchini is a small but moving, sad but charming film that leaves a big impact.

* 8.5/10 *


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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

[Review] The Age of Shadows


Kim Jee-woon's epic spy thriller The Age of Shadows has a lot in common with Park Chan-wook's recent The Handmaiden. Not so much in story, but very much in setting and style. Both take place in the1920s during Japanese-occupied Korea. Both flaunt a grand duration that's full of twists and turns. Both are lavishly cinematic. And simply put--both are excellent.

The plot sees an elaborate cat-and-mouse game ensue between captain of the Japanese police force Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho, Snowpiercer) and resistance fighter Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo, Train to Busan). As with espionage tales, the best thing to do is to expect the unexpected. This is a high-stakes chess match. A deceptive who's who. A strenuous exercise in which side are you on?

Director Kim Jee-woon has some great films under his belt (including A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw The Devil), and he wields his strengths here, running the gamut between slow-burning drama and rousing setpieces---from hot pursuits across rooftops, to mafia-styled street shootouts, to a suspense-filled clash on a moving train. The film's big montage of a climax even reminded me of a film called The Godfather (maybe you've heard of it). Anyway, it's all captured with remarkably lush cinematography--you know, it's one of those films where you just have to admire how grand and polished everything looks. The technical aspects are all top-notch--the careful period detail, the fittingly high-contrast lighting, the immersive sound design. It's not afraid to get ugly and graphic either. In one of the opening scenes, a guy rips off his own dangling toe during a battle.

The runtime for The Age of Shadows clocks in at nearly two and a half hours, but it feels justified. Sure, there are slower moments, but there are never DULL moments. In fact, you really need all the time you can get in order to keep up with this dexterous, head-spinning story.

( 8/10 )


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Monday, May 8, 2017

[Review] Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


Let me just say that I absolutely LOVED the first Guardians of the Galaxy film. So much so that it landed at the #1 spot on my Top 25 Films of 2014 list. So of course I was excited for the sequel, but also very cautious. However, with James Gunn back aboard as writer/director, I should've let my worries rest, because Vol. 2 is another blast. And while it by default doesn't match the sensational surprise and freshness of it's predecessor, it's still a rollicking, gooey, extraterrestrial fun time.

The crew of ragtags-to-lovable heros: Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) all return for another round of space escapades and interplanetary battles. But this time Star-Lord is faced with some dad drama when he finally meets his long lost God-like father (played by a perfectly cast Kurt Russell), who almost seems too good to be true. Hmmm...

This thing is endlessly entertaining and gleefully crowd-pleasing. The dazzling visual effects... The charming, sometimes Looney Toons-esque camp... The well-curated soundtrack of classic rock & soul songs that pop against the film's arcade colors and cosmic splash aesthetic... The zany sense of humor that sprouts and exudes from the eccentric characters--most notably Rocket and the hysterically gooney Drax... Oh, and then there's the overall adorableness of Baby Groot, a surefire fan favorite. It all truly is an awesome mix!

Early on, the narrative is sort of all over the place, but it eventually solidifies itself toward the latter half, not only giving the story a mostly clear focus and conflict, but also weaving its tentacles into the roots of the first film, making this sequel a worthy extension of this universe. It doesn't leave its heart and sentimentality behind either. There are some sweet moments throughout, along with universal themes of friendship and family--almost giving The Fast and the Furious franchise a run when it comes to reiterating the family aspect...almost. The cast here is great as expected, but the one who impresses the most is actually the least expected one. I'm talking about Michael Rooker as Yondu (a complicated former father figure to Star-Lord), who plays a significant role in this installment.

So yeah, even though I still love the first film more, I enjoyed the heck out of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and I'm glad it's here. I am Groot. We are Groot. *double fist bumps chest*

* 9/10 *


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Thursday, May 4, 2017

[Review] Sleight


Sleight is an intriguing crime drama with low-key glimpses of sci-fi...and magic. Think of it as a minor concoction of Dope, Win It All, and Marvel's "Luke Cage".

Meet Bo (Jacob Latimore), a Houdini-worshiping street magician by day, a reluctant drug dealer by night. The kid has some unique tricks up his sleeve, and by that I mean he literally has an electromagnetic-infused arm, giving him the ability to make small objects levitate. But when Bo gets caught up in a life-threatening debacle, he must pull out all the stops he can in order to escape.

Skilled director J.D. Dillard stages some really cool sequences, gripping thrills, and high-stakes dilemmas that all give the narrative a constant sense of gusto and gravitas. The low-budget flick is often shot under natural lighting and amidst shade and shadows, painting L.A. as a silhouette with varying color tints. Jacob Latimore gives a great lead performance, occupying every scene with his own magnetism, along with a radiating smile, despite the tough hand he's been dealt.

Bo's character is well-drawn too, with enough dimension to be the film's main driving force. He's heavily conflicted about his lifestyle, but after losing both of his parents and having to walk away from an engineering scholarship, it's the one way to keep a roof over him and his little sister's heads. Not to mention, he's trapped within the abusive grasp of Angelo (Dulé Hill), the menacing drug kingpin that he has to kick up to. All the while, Bo attempts to conceal his illegal activities from his brand new girlfriend Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), which brings me to my only major gripe about the film. See, Holly is just a shell of a character, essentially functioning as a convenient stand-in. And Bo and Holly's relationship is just too haphazardly developed to be fully convincing. A gaff, if you will.

Still, the film's jaw-droppingly awesome climax almost makes you forget the shortcomings. I hesitate to call Sleight a superhero movie, because I don't want to lump it into that crowded category, especially considering how different it is. But if that gets more people to go see it, then so be it.

( 8/10 )


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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

[Review] Truman


This Spanish-Argentine dramedy has finally gotten a US release, and it's an absolute gem. Directed by Cesc Gay, Truman is as funny as it is emotional, and as sad as it is life-affirming.

Separated by an ocean, Tomás (Javier Cámara) pays a surprise visit to his estranged best friend Julian (the always great Ricardo Darin) to rekindle their bond. And that's when we learn that Julián has terminal cancer, and is forgoing any more treatment. Taking place over the course of four short days, the film sees Tomás stay by Julián's side as he makes final arrangements and such--one of which includes a quiet yet heartbreaking scene when he researches where to adopt out his beloved dog.

The poignant subject matter is handled with compassion and honesty, organically drawing emotion from the richness of the characters, their complicated relationships, and the difficulties and complexities of the somber circumstances. It's so refreshingly human, and it possesses a warm and chuckle-worthy sense of humor along the way. It's also a thorough and thoughtful examination on coping, and how the people around someone with cancer begin to act differently, for better or worse. Then there's the all-too-true factor of people not knowing what to say. Julián's character notices that many of his acquaintances deliberately avoid him altogether when they see him, as if he's walking death. But as Julián importantly states, a simple "Hello" makes all the difference.

Truman is superbly acted, terrifically written, and genuinely affecting. It's a testament of friendship and companionship that will most likely bring tears to your eyes. A heartfelt hola and a heartfelt adiós. Oh, and if you're wondering why it's titled Truman - well, that's the name of Julián's dog.

* 9/10 *

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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

[Review] Colossal


If you were to take the prototypical indie movie about a millennial getting their life sorted out, and smash it together with a creature feature, you'd get Colossal. At least, that's how to seems at first... Starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, and Dan Stevens, Nacho Vigalondo's peculiar film dives into unexpected places, and it's all the better for it.

After being ousted from her boyfriend's (Stevens) New York apartment, the messy and directionless Gloria (Hathaway) returns to her humble hometown, reconnecting with her childhood friend Oscar (Sudeikis). During a night of reckless alcoholism, news breaks of a monster repeatedly attacking Seoul, South Korea. Gloria realizes that she might be the cause of it--discovering that every time she walks through a local playground--the monster appears, mimicking her exact moves. She now must figure out why her actions are creating a gigantic beast on other side of planet, and how to stop it.

It's strange, but intriguing. The absurd premise is enough to make you want to find out what the heck is going on, what the solution is, and if there's any particular meaning behind this high concept. It's all a bit shaky early on, but it gets a lot clearer and more substantial as it progresses, especially as the odd tone finds its footing and Gloria's character develops. Eventually, a feud erupts between Gloria and Oscar, who emerges as a villain--basically a walking robot of toxic masculinity. The narrative then pulls itself together and tackles heavy themes of bullying, destructive behavior, and abuse. I don't want to give too much away, but Gloria's character comes through with a cheer-worthy arc.

It's a genre hybrid that'll make you scratch your head, then pump your fist. And while there are some nagging flaws that cloud the film's overall vision, Colossal strikes with lightning in the end.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, May 1, 2017

[Review] Their Finest


Somewhere between Hail, Caesar! and Hidden Figures, Lone Scherfig's Their Finest is an equally delightful and tragic picture of a movie-within-a-movie amidst wartime. It's led by a fantastic performance from Gemma Arterton as the film's driven, empowering central character.

That character is Catrin, a talented writer in 1940s London who lands a gig at the Ministry of Information (the Film Division) as a scriptwriter. There, she plays a vital role in the turbulent, bomb-blasts-in-the-background production for a film about the Dunkirk evacuation. Coincidentally, this comes right before Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, a highly-anticipated film on same subject.

Anyway, what unfolds is a splendidly layered story about art, romance, war, truth, authenticity, writing, acting, and filmmaking. It's classically shot and rendered with excellent old-fashioned period detail. And for a movie that focuses on themes about storytelling and performance, it fittingly showcases a great screenplay itself, along with some wonderful acting. The script is full of snappy, clever, subtextual dialogue, and the narrative gracefully blends humor and solemnity.

Gemma Arterton gives a tremendously well-rounded performance of a well-drawn character, carrying a creative savvy, confidence, vulnerability, and a well-wrought emotional core all at once. The supporting cast is impressive too. Sam Clafin solidly serves as Catrin's arrogant, bickering co-writer who eventually exhibits a likable turn as the two form a bond (all that time spent in the writers' room together, I guess). Then there's the always great Bill Nighy who plays an eccentric aging actor, often stealing the show as he provides a lot of the film's comedic moments. It is he that also delivers the line, "We'll have them weeping in the aisles!" You might feel the same way about Their Finest.

* 8.5/10 *


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Saturday, April 29, 2017

[Review] The Void


Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie's The Void is a buzzing VOD horror flick that has a lot going on. It's part monster movie, part body horror, part cult mystery, part sci-fi. It isn't exactly my preferred style when it comes to the horror genre, but I know there certain are fans out there that'll eat this up.

One night, a slacker police officer (Aaron Poole) happens upon a badly injured man in the woods. After transporting him to an understaffed hospital, he begins to witness gruesome events inside and outside the quarters. As if the crazy monster running through the halls wasn't bad enough, the hospital is surrounded by mysterious hooded figures. Let's just say things get really, really weird.

Sound like an interesting premise? It is. Does the movie deliver on it? Well, sort of. It starts off solid enough, but eventually warps into a mess--like an experimental Frankenstein hodgepodge of genres and ideas that never quite mash. There are some gnarly sequences though, featuring grisly bouts of gore and gross-out imagery. The film frequently uses disorienting flashing lights, and the '80s inspiration is really strong. It's a little bit The Thing. A little bit Hellraiser.

But it can't help but feel haphazard, with its lack of narrative explanations, jarring shifts, and as many plot holes as puncture wounds. And it never really captures the scary, look-over-your-shoulder, flip-on-the-light-switch eeriness of similar low-budget horrors, like, say, the recent (and underrated) Last Shift (which is on Netflix, if you're wondering). Still, I give The Void credit for its swinging ambition and stellar use of both practical and special effects. I'll be keeping an eye on these directors.

( 7/10 )


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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

[Review] The Lost City of Z


Based on real events, The Lost City of Z is a sweeping epic of exploration and relentless desire.

Set in the early 1900s, James Gray's film tells the story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British soldier-turned-explorer who's hellbent on discovering a mythological city in South America (which he calls "Zed"). He teams up with a fellow comrade (played by a funny and heavily bearded Robert Pattinson) and they, along with a native guide, embark on a quest deep into uncharted Amazonia.

It's slow-going at first, but once the crew enters the jungle, this transforms into an intense and engrossing journey, especially as they're faced with the unforgiving elements of the rainforest--dangerous animals, infection, terrain, weather, and the uncertainty of how the native tribes may react to their presence. The picture is steeped in a sepia haze, giving the film a layer of humidity and an old-fashioned grandeur, and it displays some exquisitely stunning photography of lush, scenic nature.

Charlie Hunnam, who I've found to be a bit bland in the past, gives a towering performance here. It's easily his best to date, as he commands every single scene with a steadfast vigor and a major sense of dedication. It's also a richly complex character, too. Percy has peaceful and knowledge-seeking intentions, stressing the importance of respect for the natives, their culture, and their history, despite the backlash he receives from the bigoted British aristocracy. And yet, at times he can come off as harsh and neglectful to his own wife (Sienna Miller) and children (one is played by Tom Holland, who's having a breakout as the latest Spider-Man). Percy's commendable ambition and passion for discovery is the very thing that drives him away from his family. These same themes came up in a great film from a few years ago called Kon-Tiki (check out the director's cut if you haven't).

The Lost City of Z is a beautifully shot, sprawling expedition that hearkens back to classical adventures of the past. It's a film that shouldn't just be hidden away, so go seek this one out.

* 8.5/10 *


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Monday, April 24, 2017

[Review] Free Fire


I'll start by saying I've pretty much loathed Ben Wheatley's last few films--the overstretched alt-horror of Sightseers, the sloggy A Field in England, and the thoroughly unappealing High-Rise. I figured, maybe I'm just not a fan Wheatley's style. Then along comes Free Fire. While it hasn't converted me to Wheatleyism, it's at least a relatively raucous caper of flying bullets and a gritty cesspool of scummy characters.

Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Jack Reynor and a few others play a bunch of low-level criminals of varying backgrounds, egos, and tempers. When the smarmy crew meets up for an arms deal, things go terribly wrong (to put it lightly).

With shades of Guy Richie, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese (who serves as executive producer here), the situation escalates and erupts in a nasty clash of mayhem. Equipped with scattered editing, countless BANGS, and quick, freewheeling dialogue--the script seems to be aiming for a record of most gunshots and F-bombs dropped during a single film. What's interesting about this pulpy flick is that it's essentially one big scene in one location. In other words, it's a really long shootout in an abandoned warehouse. The warehouse holds plenty of places to hide behind--almost acting like a makeshift paintball course, except the guns are deadly, and the floor is littered with asbestos and heroin needles.

Unfortunately, the relentless execution of the concept is also Free Fire's downfall. Once you've witnessed the first 20 minutes or so, you've pretty much seen the rest of the film. And while this thing is billed as a "biting critique of the insanity of gun violence", I think this happens to be a case where the film's press synopsis is giving the film more credit than what it actually conveys. And whether the critique is effective or not, the duration of this thing is still exhaustingly repetitive and it long overstays its welcome. And even though it's greatly acted all-around, we don't really care about the fates of any of these characters, aside from maybe Brie Larson's.

So, Free Fire is exactly like the situation it presents--messy, violent, prolonged, pointless, and sometimes sadistically amusing.

( 6/10 )


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Saturday, April 22, 2017

[Review] After the Storm


If you're familiar with the work of director Hirokazu Koreeda, you know that his filmography consists of quiet familial dramas like Our Little Sister and Like Father, Like Son (to name a couple). His latest, After the Storm, unsurprisingly, is in the very same realm.

Ryota (Hiroshe Abe) is stuck in a rut. Once a successful award-winning author, his career is now dwindling, he has a gambling problem, and he's further alienated himself from his ex-wife (Yoki Maki), his son (Taiyo Yoshizawa) and his elderly mother (Kirin Kiki, who delivers one of the film's best lines: "New friends at my age just means more funerals"). The story essentially swirls around Ryota's attempts to become a bigger part of his son's life and rediscover his own self-worth.

This is a very breezy and relaxed film. You can literally hear the birds chirping. Its narrative - more of a character study, steeped in symbolism of plants blooming and caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis, mirroring the arcs and transformations of the people here. One scene sees Ryota chasing after lottery tickets in the wind, as if he's chasing lost dreams. It is a slow-moving duration, though. A couple of times I found myself drifting in and out of my own daydreams.

Still, with some patience, After the Storm is a rewarding experience, thanks to the subtle yet rich details, the wise dialogue, Abe's stellar central performance, and the heartfelt moments of bonding.

( 7.5/10 )


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Thursday, April 20, 2017

[Review] Smurfs: The Lost Village


As I dazed off into the slightly trippy world of Smurfs, a major sense of déjà vu came over me. Then I realized it - Smurfs: The Lost Village is A LOT like last year's Trolls movie...but with Smurfs.

After ~the only girl in the village~ Smurfette (voiced by Demi Lovato) discovers a mysterious map, she and her friends Brainy (Danny Pudi), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer), and Hefty (Joe Manganiello) embark on a journey through the Forbidden Forest in order to search for--as the title says--a lost village. But the nasty wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson) is on their trail and ready to mess stuff up.

I wasn't really expecting the script to have much humor, but the script really doesn't have much humor. And I wasn't really expecting the story to be very engaging, but the story really isn't very engaging. When you think of "generic animated kids movies" this one fits the bill. While it boasts a few semi-amusing chase sequences (tiny little buggers running from much bigger buggers), the narrative is all over the place, so scattered that it also gets lost in the woods. There also are some well-intended but really basic messages of gender equality and empowerment--the kind of sentiment that makes you go "Well, duh."As for the animation, it's smooth like a balloon. The settings are colorful and whimsical and magical and filled with glowy and spunky creatures and plants.

All in all, this movie is a serviceable, mostly harmless 85 minutes of sweet eye candy. But if anything, it just made me hungry for Sour Patch Kids.

( 5/10 )


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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

[Review] The Bye Bye Man


You either die a Babadook, or you live long enough to see yourself become The Bye Bye Man.

This insanely ridiculous, meme-provoking horror film is a modern marvel of unintentionally hilarity, and I loved every minute of it. After opening with a sadistically grim scene that flips to chuckle-worthy at the drop of a dime, the story flash-forwards to the present where we meet a generic group of college students who move into a decrepit old house that might as well read "Yep, I'm haunted" on the welcome mat. The usual stuff occurs--mysterious noises, doors closing on their own, out-of-control bodily functions... And then the group learns of THE BYE BYE MAN - an imaginary, mind-warping entity who apparently makes people want to kill whenever they say or think its name.

Drinking game: If you took a shot every time someone in this movie says "Don't think it, don't say it," you'd be dead. And if you took a shot every time someone actually does utter "THE BYE BYE MAN," you'd also be dead--from laughter. See, whenever someone spews out the name, they make an amusingly odd face and their eyes roll back, as if they've finally broken a spell of constipation. It's kind of how my face looked the entire time while I was watching this movie. And let me just say that I'm so glad that this thing falls into the so-bad-it's-funny category, rather than the so-bad-it's-just-bad category.

To the film's credit though, the composition of some of the early scenes--between the eerie lighting and camerawork--is effective enough to spook you out if you're watching this at home alone in the dark. But then there's all the absolutely absurd and relentlessly cheesy scenes, like the one where a couple is sitting in a car, and little maggots start squirming out of the girlfriend's eye. This scene is even funnier than the trailer cut (the exchange that takes place is something you just have to witness for yourself). And there's the head-scratching hallucinatory sequences that look like Axe Body Spray commercials gone wrong. And the random Chupacabra that comes out of nowhere. I seriously wondered what the point of any of it was. And then there's the consistently atrocious acting and the hysterically questionable dialogue. When The Bye Bye Man begins to get into the characters' heads, I couldn't believe the stuff that was coming out of their mouths (and how it made the final script). Honestly, The Bye Bye Man is actually a pretty funny guy. He really should be called The Ha Ha Man.

What's also astonishing is how this film is so incredibly derivative, so unwilling to carve out its own path in the crowded genre of haunted house and evil ghoul movies. And yet, I went into it thinking it would be completely forgettable and ended up being wrong. Because I cannot stop thinking about it.

( The Bye Bye Man/10 )


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