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 someone...anyone...to 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 back...as 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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