Tuesday, June 30, 2015

[Review] Escobar: Paradise Lost

Depending on whom you ask, the infamous ruler & drug lord Pablo Escobar was either a ruthless criminal with the utmost power, or a larger than life Robin Hood figure. Benicio Del Toro takes on the role, and aside from his great performance, the overall product falls on the middling side.

It opens amidst Escobar's surrender to authorities, so basically during his last day as a free man.
He's in the process of setting up plans before he goes to prison, which involve putting all his accumulated wealth in the right places and giving kill orders--one of the people he gives an order to is Nick (Josh Hutcherson, most people will probably know him from The Hunger Games), who is also Escobar's niece Maria's (Claudia Traisac) boyfriend. Then, we're hit with an abrupt '3 years earlier' flashback, profiling the events that lead up to that point.

The time bounce muddles the cohesion of an already slightly unfocused story. It's a disjointed mix--part romance between Nick and Maria, part slice of life film for Escobar, which also means part gangster drama. The perspectives seem to switch. You'd think the POV would rest with Escobar, but it's all with Nick. The main problem isn't necessarily that the film flashes back in the first place--it's more-so that the events just aren't overly engaging. For a large amount of the duration, it's Nick being scared to meet the Uncle Pablo, while Maria tries to convince him that Pablo is not a bad guy. "Everything I do, I do out of love for my family," Escobar says. But this isn't really going to sway us his way or give us a new outlook on him. Fortunately, things do gradually pick up as we approach the back half of the film and it enters serviceable crime thriller mode.

Aside from its narrative falters, the film is very well-shot and solidly directed. The powerful, operatic string-driven score adds to the grandiose drama. Del Toro's fully dedicated performance is the most impressive aspect. He plays the part with immense skill and it never gets cartoony or caricature impression driven. It's subtle and nuanced, but a cold-blooded murderer boils just beneath the surface. Del Toro essentially disappears into the role. But unfortunately, he's criminally underused.


Monday, June 29, 2015

[Review] Ted 2

The first Ted was obnoxious, but it might've provoked a few guilty pleasure laughs depending on the type of mood you were in. Either way, it definitely didn't seem like a sequel was needed, but it made a lot of money, so here we are.

Ted and Tamy-Lynn (Jessica Barth) are newlyweds. Flash forward a year later, and they're miserable. There's a shouting match scene between the two, and you can't help but think you'd get more amusement from one of the squabbles in an old "Jersey Shore" episode. Anyway, they decide to have a baby in order to repair their relationship (which doesn't actually sound like the best idea). Mark Wahlberg mostly just hangs around as a sidekick, sounding like a listless idiot until he finds out he's going to be the sperm donor, since Ted can't... (ya' know). This comes after a failed attempt at stealing Tom Brady's sperm in what is one of the only serviceable moments of comedy. But to make matters worse, Ted finds out from the court system that he isn't deemed a human being (who ever would've guessed?), and the rest of the film involves him staking his claim as a legal person.

A misogynistic teddy bear dropping F-bombs and making dick jokes isn't really a great source of humor. And a script full of low innuendos and cricket chirp-inducing gags just doesn't cut it. It all might appeal more to 7th-graders entering puberty, but for everyone else it's eye-rolling. The cameos don't really bite--they're just kind of there. Outdated pop-culture jokes litter the screen, so in a way it feels like The Marshall Mathers LP 2 of movies. And not to delve too deep into the characterization of Ted, but there's a scene when Ted is appalled after coming across Wahlberg's internet porn collection, and it just doesn't make sense for Ted's character to react that way. If you're going to have a movie revolving around a talking teddy bear, you might as well at least be consistent.

The best thing about this sequel is that the pacing is pretty fast and Ted's CGI looks solid, so it isn't a completely excruciating sit. However, much like Seth MacFarlane's last feature-length A Million Ways to Die in the West, Ted 2 is a one-note joke that has been stretched too far.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

[Review] A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

I realize the title "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" reads like quite possibly one of the most pretentious, arthouse/farthouse titles of all time (verging on parody), potentially making for a dull & painstaking viewing that some people might only pretend to like or hurl the "You just don't get it!" phrase around. Well, this isn't exactly that, and it's not as self-serious as it sounds. I'm definitely not saying this Swedish absurdist comedy is for everyone. Most people will be scratching their heads. There are some bits to appreciate, but it simply isn't my cup of tea either.

Self-proclaimed to be "About human beings", A Pigeon is not really an anthology of short films as much as it's 39 very short vignettes. Episodic in nature, it waltzes from setting to setting of banal situations, mining for humor--someone failing to meet someone at a restaurant, a dude trying to avoid getting touched by his dance instructor, and strange deaths that suck the life out of the death scene in general, if that makes sense. The stubbornly static camera displays each (well-framed) stageplay-like setup. Every scene is washed with grays and beiges (some of the humans even look gray), all making for a uniformed aesthetic that matches the droll humor.

The scene changes at least keep things interesting as we try to garner something new from each one. They appear to escalate, getting stranger and more dreamlike as things go. However, it still feels very slow, and I found myself checking my watch, just wanting it to end. Roy Andersson's A Pigeon is an exercise in cryptic minimalism and the mundanity of everything. It's all part of the point, but it isn't necessarily something most people want to see on the big screen.


Saturday, June 27, 2015

[Review] A Deadly Adoption (TV Movie)

What? Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig starring in a Lifetime movie? Is it real? A joke? A parody? Oh it's real, and it might be a joke, but it isn't a super funny one.

Robert (Ferrell) is an alcoholic author, and his wife Sarah (Wiig) is an organic foods vendor, and they're expecting their 2nd child. During a party, Sarah falls off a dock and gets injured, and there are some exaggerated sound effects that make you not sure if you should laugh or not (for the record, I laughed). Later at the hospital, Sarah and Robert learn that she's lost the baby, and they indulge in some bad crying. When the scene cuts, you can imagine them being like, "Are we really doing this right now?" Anyway, they eventually engage in the process of adopting a new child from a young pregnant woman named Bridgette that is planning to give up her baby. Robert and Sarah invite her to live with them until the baby is born, and things get expectedly fishy.

Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig mostly play it serious, and not even in a deadpan or sarcastic manner. So there aren't many hints of self-reflexive comedy or solid parody, and the initial novelty of it all fades pretty quickly. What we have here is basically what it is: Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig in a Lifetime move--almost as if they did it just so they could say they did. And to their credit, they totally nail the Lifetime performance style, which is a bit funny in itself.

The immediately terrible dialogue warrants some chuckles. But aside from a couple of amusing moments and awkward subtext, it's just too bland and monotone to become a "so bad it's good" cult classic. There's a blatant checklist of cliches, but instead of functioning as clever winks, it's just kind of like--yep here it comes. Even though the story gets ridiculous (like most Lifetime movies), you sort of wish it'd launch into straight-up absurdity and corniness.

A Deadly Adoption can't really be a cult classic if you never want to watch it again.


Friday, June 26, 2015

[Review] Manglehorn

After David Gordon Green's big Hollywood run, he returned to his indie roots with the decent Prince Avalanche and the very good Joe. Then when word broke that his next project would involve Al Pacino, it was an exciting prospect for both of them. And while Pacino is great in Manglehorn, the film can't help but feel like a disappointment.

Manglehorn is a lonely Lock & Key store owner, despite all the people he meets day-to-day. During the writing of an eloquent letter, we learn that he's desperately missing someone named Clara, who we assume might be an ex-lover. Manglehorn also has a huge compassion for pets, especially his cat Fanny, so he becomes fairly likable right away.

It's a while before we know where this is going, and it turns out that there really isn't much of a plot. It settles into character study mode, but luckily the character is interesting, and Pacino has the charisma to carry it (it's also adorable to see him interact with a cat). However, the lack of aim still is a disadvantage as it just kind of drifts along, feeling longer than it actually is.

An admirable thing about the film is that it mostly abandons all-out bleakness, especially in a film with a character that could've potentially been an overdose of cynicism. It's not too proud to be sentimental & heartfelt, and this comes as a refreshing breath in this genre. The pretty and optimistic Explosions In The Sky-composed soundtrack lends to the heart. And as expected, Green stages the shots nicely with alluring shades of Autumn sunset colors.

This is one of Al Pacino's best later career performances. It's low-key yet still significantly emotional, proving that sometimes less can be more. If only there was more of a story to go along with it.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

[Review] Dope

The multi-meaning word "Dope" can be loosely defined as either: drugs, a dumb person, or a term of approval (i.e. cool), and Rick Famuyiwa's Dope has all of the above. This is one of those instances when I just have to proclaim: I absolutely love this movie.

Malcom (Shameik Moore) lives in an area of Inglewood, CA referred to as "The Bottoms." Malcom is a narrator-proclaimed "Geek", and he's obsessed with '90s hip-hop. His two friends Jib (Tony Revolori, known as the Lobby Boy from The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are the same. They're all into "white shit" like Manga, the band Trash Talk, and Donald Glover. From day-to-day they have to deal with getting harassed by gang members (one played by Keith Stanfield from the excellent Short Term 12) and possibly being in the wrong place at the wrong time. "Someone needs to invent an app so we can avoid these hood traps," Jib says.

The plot pops off when the trio of friends sneak into a big party hosted by a local drug lord named Dom, played solidly by that P.M.F. A$AP Rocky (up-and-coming Long Beach rapper Vince Staples also makes an appearance). Malcom and Dom both happen to have a thing for a girl named Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), because who wouldn't? (And yes, she's developed further than just being one-dimensional eye-candy.) This sets up some minor conflict, but the party really goes bad when a shootout erupts, and Malcom somehow ends up with a loaded gun and a stash of MDMA in his backpack. What ensues is a twisty rollercoaster of dilemmas as Malcom and his friends try to figure out what the hell to do with the sought-after backpack.

Dope is an exuberant romp of youthful energy, heavily informed and influenced by hip-hop culture and "hip" culture in general. If you're familiar with all the contemporary references in regards to music and the Internet Meme world, you will definitely get a rise out of this. The immaculate casting does wonders (save for the Tyga cameo), and it probably goes without mentioning that there's a great soundtrack to boot. The swift pacing is on point, and it's highly entertaining at every turn. It's all so fresh, hilarious, downright fun, wildly absurd, offensive (the overtly PC crowd might have a tough time with this one), and it has brains.

The script touches upon what it means to be an "outsider" in a cutthroat setting, but it even goes beyond that. It's about the complexity of identity--you don't necessarily have to label yourself as one thing or the other. The film also drives home a message about black youth & education as Malcom stares directly into the camera, reciting some powerful notes from his college admissions essay, in a sequence that is most likely an homage to Spike Lee joints.

With the recent Spy, Jurassic World, Inside Out, Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, and now Dope, I think most of us can agree that it's been an awesome summer stretch of June. Dope is very generational driven and it'll be a hit with niche audiences. So it won't all completely resonate with everyone, but if you're down with this stuff, I have no doubts that you will also love it.

* 9.5/10 *

Monday, June 22, 2015

[Review] Inside Out

After a string of subpar films, a year off from the release schedule, and some stronger outings from other studios, there seemed to be some rumblings that Pixar had lost its animation domination touch. This year the studio returns with the Pete Docter helmed Inside Out, and it relieves all worries.

The film dives inside the mind of a 12-year-old girl named Riley. Within the headquarters of her brain, emotions are personified as characters: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Their main job is to help Riley express her feelings and process her memories. But things get thrown out of whack when Riley and her parents suddenly have to move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley gets caught between missing her old home and having a difficult time adjusting to her new one, which causes Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust to work overtime.

It's really an inventive premise, especially in the context of an animated film, and it's all utilized with immense success. Such clever storytelling and characterization is demonstrated--from the way the emotional characters are projected when they're isolated or when they mix and quarrel, to the correlation between their operations and Riley's actions. The script is pretty fantastic and slick. There's lots of funny bits, but the drama and character motivations come first and foremost. During a brilliant spin on a "disastrous dinner table scene" between Riley and her parents, the emotional characters within all three of them emerge, making for some amusing and clever exchanges.

The headquarters of the mind setting almost seems like it might've been a more minimal and contained plan for Pixar, but that certainly isn't the case. The developed setting in Riley's brain is ultra-innovative, and actually one of the more expansive worlds Pixar has created. It also allows for some of the more dazzling, surreal, and dare I say--somewhat psychedelic visuals that have appeared in a Pixar film. Aside from the headquarters, there are Islands of Personality, which sort of resemble the 3D map styles of the "Game of Thrones" opening credits, but with more color and less death. There's Dream Productions, Longterm Memory Lanes, and Imagination Land--making for some jubilant journeys for the characters with tons of eye-popping aesthetic variation. My personal favorite is a sequence when a couple of the emotions (as well as an imaginary friend) take a shortcut to catch the Train of Thought and they turn abstract, warping into Picasso-like versions of themselves.

Given that this is a film all about emotions, it'd be a crime if it didn't bring some of #thefeels. And there definitely are some tender moments, but chances are it won't leave you a blubbering mess like Up did. Even with all the complexities here, the messages are pretty straightforward: It's okay to be sad sometimes, especially when you're dealing with initially unwelcome changes. And your own family can be your real home no matter where the location is. My guess is that some of the humor and details might go over the heads of younger children, but then again, do we really know what's going on in there?

* 9/10 *

Thursday, June 18, 2015

[Review] We Are Still Here

We Are Still Here (not to be confused with another stunning horror film called We Are What We Are) might be the best scare-fest of the year that you haven't heard of.

Set in the dead of winter, a middle-aged couple moves away from the city and out to a rural house. It's one of those houses in the middle of nowhere that simply just looks haunted. The home has a disturbing history, and it's acting up with things that go beyond simple mechanical repairs. This may sound like well-trodden territory, but in the horror genre, a lot of the territory is well-trodden; it just depends on how well the territory is used, and We Are Still Here does with it terrifying grace.

The camera immediately gives off the impression that someone (or something) is watching. There's a slight shake to it, and it peaks around corners, through staircase pillars, and slightly above the characters. The film is a bit grainy, giving the display an old-fashioned look. The scenes are mostly filled with deafening silence, but sometimes a few notes of uneasy music up the ante.

It's a slow burn that thrives on subtleties, but there's always an eerie edge to it. And when things turn up, they really turn up. Horrifying, shadowy ash figures emerge and some gruesome camp creeps out, but it still feels like it belongs and it makes for an interesting contrast within. The serious tension also breaks when a cooky family friend is invited over to see what the hell is going on. "Nice place ya' picked," he says, sarcastically. The film gains an absurd sense of humor about itself, and the story has a solid mystery to keep the intrigue going, which elevates this above the typically straightforward surface scares of a lot of other bigger films of the type, and sets things up for a more satisfying but still outrageous climax (and a great final line).

We Are Still Here has the indie/arthouse chops, throwback vibes, and mainstream jolt scares in one place. So, horror fans of all kinds should dig deep for this one (it's on VOD).


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

[Review] Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

It's been described as The Fault in Our Stars meets quirky Sundance-core dramedy. But that's too simplistic, and it's a disservice. Let me get even more straightforward: Me & Earl & the Dying Girl is just an excellent film.

Equipped with 500 Days of Summer-esque narration from Greg (Thomas Mann), a senior coasting through high school. Greg's mother (Connie Britton) informs him that one of his classmates Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has leukemia. Greg doesn't really know Rachel, but his mom forces him to hang out with her anyway. The sarcastic and sharp Rachel doesn't want Greg's pity, but he frankly tells her "My mom is making me." So, of course they end up becoming good friends. Great friends. But in defiance of expectations, they DO NOT fall in love. Greg's funny, foul-mouthed, nothing-is-sacred friend Earl (R.J. Cyler) eventually comes into the picture. Greg & Earl make (terrible) films together, 42 to be exact--all essentially parodies of classics in which they spoof the title like: "A Sockwork Orange", "Senior Citizen Cane", and "Gross Encounters of the Turd Kind". Along the way, they decide to make a film for Rachel, and well, it doesn't go as planned.

Even with its heavy premise, this film is absolutely hilarious. The script nostalgically taps into the absurd environment of high school where everyone attempts to find themselves, as well as the significant moments, relationships, and perils that come along with it. There's so many clever and funny one-liners, exchanges, and continuous jokes that provoke much laughter. The frequent narration works well because it allows us into Greg's over-thinking & self-aware mind, yet he still manages to spout off notoriously awkward or offensive things. "I'm innovatively dumb," he quips. And the great script clearly subverts conventions on a number of occasions.

But... there is a constant, underlying sadness here. Some scenes are completely devastating, especially toward the back half when Rachel begins chemotherapy and her deterioration becomes more and more apparent, and the deliveries of bad news rattle the group of friends. The chain of final sequences is incredibly poignant and moving. The film approaches its subject matter with such refreshing honesty, even inserting its own icebreaking moments. It doesn't try to sugarcoat anything either. However, the film stresses that you can't just automatically dehumanize someone or act like they're an elephant in the room when they're diagnosed with the terrible disease, and you don't *really* know what a person is going through on either side. The excellent performances from the main cast inject so much life and authenticity into the already superb story, and there's some amusing supporting turns from Nick Offerman and Jon Bernthal that end up being both goofy and melancholy.

Even though the film runs on humor and emotion, it's also really visually interesting. Aside from its dreary pastel color palette and stellar framing, some Wes Anderson-like idiosyncrasies spice up the screen, such as stop-motion intercuts and miniature artwork shots. And even though Greg & Earl's films are (terrible), they're actually pretty creative and they add some more spunky variety to the overall aesthetic. Personality is abundant, and the camera performs enough whip-pans to give you Vertigo (or 'Ver'd He Go?' as Greg & Earl would spoof). So, the film simultaneously functions as a general ode to cinema itself, and that's a very fun aspect for any fan or cinephile.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and Jesse Andrews' Me & Earl & the Dying Girl is one of the best films of 2015. Some of the humor might appeal more to younger audiences, but there's still enough here to call it essential for everyone. It manages to hit HARD without getting sappy. Best believe you will hear sniffles, tears, and tissues being whipped out. That is, if you aren't already doing it yourself.

Now I need to go hold a pillow.

* 9.5/10 *

Monday, June 15, 2015

[Review] Jurassic World

With all the anticipation surrounding Jurassic World, there isn't much preface needed. It'd be a Captain Obvious statement to say that this sequel doesn't capture the magic of the first Jurassic Park. So the question is: Does Jurassic World roar as an entertaining summer Blockbuster? The answer is yes.

Jurassic World is now a thriving theme park, complete with trains & hi-tech gyro balls perusing the dino-occupied island, safari adventures, virtual museums, and SeaWorld-like displays... Oh and there's even a petting zoo (herbivores only, of course). A pair of brothers, Zach (Nick Robinson) & Gray (Ty Simpkins) are on their way to vacationing Jurassic World and visit their aunt Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) who's the uptight manager of the park. There's foreshadowing galore, to the point where the characters are practically winking through the screen. And the script pulls a 22 Jump Street with its numerous subtextual nods to the tall task of living up to sequel expectations. One of its "Bigger & Better" attractions is a genetically modified T-Rex that has superbeast characteristics.

We also meet Owen (Chris Pratt), a tough & dedicated Raptor trainer who is a "one with the creatures" type. A power hungry prick played by Vincent D'Onofrio sort of takes on the role of Dennis (Wayne Knight) from Jurassic Park. His beady eyes are set on the Raptors. Since the Raptors can be trained ("trained" is a very relative term in this situation), D'Onofrio's character thinks they can replace drones for battle purposes (yes, you read that right). The film kicks into gear when the Super T-Rex escapes from its quarters, and the entire island breaks into a frenzy.

Any semblance of a tight or meaningful story is pretty much tossed into the cages like a sacrificial piece of meat ready to be devoured. There's a lot of screaming and running for lives as the Super T-Rex is out tearing shit up for the hell of it. The body count is high here, and humans get mauled like it's nothin'. The film contains some well-designed actions sequences and it likes to bring about plenty of nerve-wracking close calls for the group of protagonists. But there's such a brevity to the tone that no matter how dangerous and violent things get, it's actually a blast.

It's interesting how director Colin Trevorrow, whose only previous credit includes Safety Not Guaranteed--a sweet indie dramedy (practically on the mumblecore scale) with just a slight element of sci-fi to it--makes the leap to gigantic franchise Blockbuster territory. You don't really get any distinctions here on the big screen (as opposed to Gareth Edwards' recent Godzilla), but he's having a lot of fun with it, and he brings along Jake Johnson (who also was in Safety Not Guaranteed) for the ride, and he actually might be the real MVP in the cast. Trevorrow makes sure to insert a few nostalgic odes to Jurassic Park, as well.

Now for the gripes. While the CGI dinosaurs look pretty good here, they still don't look as captivatingly real as the ones in Spielberg's 1993 classic. And Jurassic World isn't even quite on the same level as other contemporary Blockbusters of the same ilk. It doesn't pack the epic punch of Pacific Rim. It isn't as heavy and brooding as last year's Godzilla. And it doesn't have the heartfelt resonation of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Sure, Jurassic World isn't necessarily trying to accomplish the latter two aspects, but that doesn't mean those elements still can't take things up a notch. I can't go without mentioning how irksomely flat Zach's character is. No, I was not expecting some richly in-depth role at all, but he's basically a piece of cardboard here--like he's half asleep the whole time. The actor was really good in the coming-of-age indie Kings of Summer from a couple summers ago, so he's capable of more. Detractors will be quick to point out the use of deus ex machina in the plot, but I was actually fine with it. I'd go into further reasoning, but I don't want to get too spoilerish.

Jurassic World is still an entertaining romp and it's a great theater experience. Things could have been a lot worse. That doesn't sound like much of a compliment, but with all the pressure the film faces, it successfully delivers the goods.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

[Review] Results

Results, the relative Sundance charmer now has a VOD & limited theater release. Initially, the film seems like it could be light and enjoyable enough, but instead, it's offensively underwhelming and tiring--like an exercise without any endorphins or benefits.

Danny (Kevin Corrigan) is a shaggy dude who wants to get in shape. He visits a local gym in order to get help. The gym staff is full of drama. There's a lot of bickering. During a promotional picture, someone says, "It's like a family Christmas photo, except some of us have slept with each other." Unfortunately, the amusement of this aspect fades pretty quickly, and the film probably could've fared better is an Adventureland-like dramedy. Anyway, Kat (Cobie Smulders) is assigned as Danny's personal trainer and a weird worker/client relationship ensues.

The film is so bland and yawn-worthy, and it takes way too much time showing people doing mundane things at home. Danny watches workout videos on YouTube for extended periods. While it might serve what he's going for, it's not very exciting for us to watch. All of his interactions with people are really boring. Danny and Kat's first few sessions are cliche and predictably pervy (she does look good, but still), but there's no chemistry between the two. Guy Pearce appears in a wasted role as a mostly pointless character in a subplot that has no plot. Let's just say I'm not a fan of films that get to be about 30 minutes in and it seems like nothing of any value or significance has occurred.

Results is like watching a bunch of annoying and miserable people that we don't care about fumble their lives around. Yes, the film does present some observational ironies, and I guess you could say it's really about people not 'working out.' And it might be slightly more interesting than seeing people post #gymlife updates all day on Twitter and Instagram, but that isn't saying much.

With so many flaws, dead weight, and efficiency problems, Results feels like it's unfinished.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

[Review] When Marnie Was There

According to reports, When Marnie Was There might possibly be the final Studio Ghibli film. Your mileage here will mostly depend on your feelings of past Ghibli films. But I will say that this is one of the more accessible (and shorter) ones of the bunch, and it has one of the most potent endings. And frankly, it's just beautiful.

Anna is an independent daydreamer & sketcher. Early on, she leaves her foster home and spends the summer in a seaside town with other relatives. Across the lake, is an enticing, abandoned mansion. Anna becomes enamored with it and has dreams of seeing lights in the windows. Pretty soon the dreams bleed into her reality. One night when she journeys to the mansion, she meets Marnie, a mysterious girl around the same age, and the two form a secret friendship.

The film displays the nuanced hand-drawn animation we come to expect from Ghibli, and there's an enchanting score that stirs up emotions with its gorgeous flutes, strings, piano, and acoustic guitars. The story is intriguing once the boat is set into motion, especially as we wonder what the deal with Marnie is. Sometimes the mansion is occupied and sometimes it isn't. This brings in a bit of a supernatural, almost Twilight Zone-like aspect. The plot drifts into territory that is a little more on the underwhelming side, but there are significant payoffs in the end.

It comes down to a tale of two lost souls finding each other. They're both young kids that have experienced some form of neglect, abandonment, and disconnect from their guardians. And the power of this resonates in the film's final act, making everything that comes before it worthwhile. And yes, the ending is a tearjerker. At times, a couple of the narrative leaps left me a little confused about exactly what capacity and realm Marnie functions in--Is she a ghost? A dream? An imaginary friend? But I guess in the hands of magical realism, you don't really need to ask those questions.

* 9/10 *

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

[Review] Love & Mercy

The music biopic is a tough thing, and the mere thought of it has become played out, especially when last year alone there were at least 3 or 4 of them released and they all came up flat or had mixed results. Now we have one revolving around Brian Wilson, the complex mastermind of the The Beach Boys. And in a relief, the film avoids most of the biopic pitfalls and is a very interesting portrait.

The narrative alternates between two different time periods. One takes place in the '60s during the making of the brilliant, innovative all-time classic album Pet Sounds. Paul Dano plays a young Brian Wilson, and the film delves into his complicated and demented psyche--including the voices in his head and his trips with drugs. The other period is set in the '80s and details Wilson (now played by John Cusack) & Melinda's (Elizabeth Banks) romance and eventual marriage. Wilson's assumed paranoid schizophrenia continues here, as he battles with medication cocktails and his manipulative doctor/manager/guardian (Paul Giamatti).

Judging by the trailer, it seemed as if though the alternating timelines might be an awkward strategy, but it works pretty well. The back & forth jumps inform each other and the seams are somewhat tied together so it doesn't feel disjointed. And aside from being very well-shot, the film never is cartoony or caricature-y like some music biopics. There's an apparent genuineness to it, and it stays rooted in the character drama, never getting glossy. In fact, this film is really dark, melancholy, and unsettling for the most part. It actually gets real weird with its editing techniques toward the end.

Fans of the band will surely enjoy the jam sessions. It's quite riveting to see the reenactments of Wilson sporadically yet specifically orchestrating future Pet Sounds songs and purveying the radical departure in style. And there's one extremely poignant scene when Wilson performs a new song he's working on in front of his cantankerous and abusive father. His father essentially trashes the song... And the song in question is "God Only Knows".

Paul Dano and John Cusack are both tremendous. Dano is delirious and trance-like with his speech, but he manages to do most of the work in silence, conveying a lot of stuff going on in his mind through his eyes and facial expressions. John Cusack skillfully demonstrates a worn out man who just has something "off" about him. Of course, general opinions on Brian Wilson's real character vary depending on whom you ask, but here we witness someone who is intriguing and sympathetic.

Love & Mercy is definitely one of the better music biopics out there. It doesn't just run through the motions--it spins them on their head and adds bicycle bells and dog whistles.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

[Review] Insidious: Chapter 3

I didn't expect to say Insidious: Chapter 3 is one of the must-see horror films of the year, but here I am. While it isn't as stylized and metaphoric as the excellent It Follows, it works as a good companion piece, believe it or not. And no, it isn't necessary to have seen the first two installments.

During the surprisingly intriguing opening scene, Quinn--a young Selena Gomez-esque aspiring actress shows up at psychic medium Elise's (Lin Shaye) door (who, you'll recognize from the other films). Elise has recently gotten out of the communicating with dead people business, but she reluctantly makes an exception for Quinn, whose mother just passed. When the intense session begins, Elise gets in touch with someone, but it turns out to be the wrong person (or thing). She wearily expresses, "When you speak to one of the dead, they all can hear you." Afterward, Quinn is abruptly struck by a car, and sustains multiple bone fractures. Then, she begins to see a shadowy, waving entity everywhere she goes.

Director Leigh Whannell stages such a still and quiet atmosphere that any little movement or sound sets off the scare alarm. Each scene is scarcely lit, creating plenty of unnerving views of basements, hallways, and under the bed. Figures lurk in the peripheral, and the top-notch jump scares are out in full force. A couple of terrifying scenes involve a helpless and immobile Quinn as hideously creepy demons crawl toward her. Quinn's injuries function as a literal crutch in the story, but it makes for some anxiety-inducing sequences.

With a lot of contemporary big studio horror films, you usually expect an element (probably more than one) to turn you off, whether it's an obnoxious character, a ridiculous turning point, subpar effects, major plot holes, or just straight-up awfulness. But in the case of Insidious 3--that soiled moment never arrives, and that's obviously a good thing. I'm not suggesting that the script is a masterpiece, but the film is certainly a competent paranormal thriller from scene to scene. Insidious 1 brought some scares but fell apart in final act, and Insidious 2 had even better fright tactics, but the story muddled with its realm hopping. In Chapter 3, when Elise enters the other realms, it's a lot more simple & straightforward, and the sequences are just plain frightening.

The performances certainly help. Stefanie Scott, a relatively unknown newcomer does a swell job as the film's central (passive) protagonist. The dad (Dermot Mulroney) seemed like he could've been cheesy at first, but he slides into a finely convincing albeit thin role. The real standout is Lin Shaye. She's always been solid in these movies, but in Chapter 3 her character is developed more and she's the main force in the story in a "get out of the way and let me take this" fashion. And she actually has a really badass arc. It's important to note how rare it is to see a widowed "woman of a certain age" portrayed in such a way on the big screen, especially in a Hollywood horror film. That might be the biggest and best surprise here. The ghost hunter partners who brought some delightful comedic relief in Insidious 2 also return again, and the two probably deserve their own spinoff at some point.

It's easy to scoff at Insidious 3's sequel stigma, but give it a chance and I'll be surprised if you regret it.


Monday, June 8, 2015

[Review] Spy

Melissa McCarthy is a great comedic talent, and lately she's fallen into a few one dimensional caricature roles in really bad movies *cough* Tammy. Then came the better St. Vincent where she was able to display depth and emotion but still went underutilized without having much to do. And now, thankfully, we have the big comedy Spy, which finally has some McWorthy material.

Susan (McCarthy) works for the CIA behind a desk, speaking commands into the earpiece of her cool secret agent partner (and crush) played by Jude Law (oh, to be a fly on the wall when the filmmakers told Jude Law he needed to wear a hairpiece). Anyway, Susan's a bit of a klutz and she belittles herself around her co-workers. But after one of Jude Law's missions goes awry, Susan is called upon. We learn that she is well-trained, but has no experience out in the field. When she's assigned to gather information about a powerful criminal organization, she gets pulled deeper into the mission than anyone intended. A hilariously angry Jason Statham joins the team, and the two get into each other's way more than anything.

Early on, while funny, Spy is awkward and seems more sitcom-like, but the humor and plot ratchets way up during the later half of the film, especially when Susan is forced to interact with one of the key players in the crime scheme (played by a stellar Rose Byrne). The script is full of goofy dialogue & slapstick, and it isn't too proud to delve into vomit and poop humor. And hearing McCarthy and Byrne hurl foul-mouthed, demoralizing insults at each other is truly a thing of beauty. Even though the film places comedy first, the story is actually a pretty clever spy tale--creating a lot of identity toss-ups and questions of who is setting up whom. There's also a light touch of self-esteem and self-worth transformations regarding McCarthy's character.

Given the CIA nature of the film, Melissa McCarthy wears many different faces throughout the performance, and she definitely carries the film, proving to be a great lead. Rose Byrne is also a standout. Her character is generally a villain who is supposed to be despicable, but she puts so much impressive attitude and relentless snark into it that the character actually becomes really endearing. It's also amusing to see Jason Statham hoisted into a role where he isn't necessarily the one saving the day. There's some entertaining turns from Allison Janney, Miranda Hart, Peter Serafinowicz, and a cameo that I won't reveal.

A couple of missed opportunities crop up along the way, and Spy isn't quite as gut-bursting as the recent 21 Jump Street films, but it belongs in the same league, and it's sure a hell of a lot better than The Interview. McCarthy & Byrne's performances alone are more than worth the price of admission.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

[Review] San Andreas

You could throw most obstacles at Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and he'll handily destroy them in front of your face. So, you might as well toss an entire record-breaking earthquake at him. I suppose San Andreas could fall into the 'so bad it's good' category, but that's too simple. San Andreas fully accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do--no more and no less--and that is being a high stakes CGI slaughter of action-packed crisis, as well as a showcase for The Rock's awesomeness.

Ray (The Rock) is a mountainous LA firefighter and pilot, making the world a safer place one mission at a time. But with tectonic shifts rumbling up & down the West Coast, things are about to get crazier. Meanwhile, a seismologist played by Paul Giamatti is tracking the inevitable destruction. It's pretty clear that Giamatti was brought here specifically for his yelling voice ("GET BEHIND THE BARRIERS!") The film attempts to inject some personal drama and possible metaphors in Ray's life: The divorce between him and his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) has been finalized, their daughter (Alexandra Daddario) is caught between the split, and there's a new jerky boyfriend in the picture... But honestly, ain't nobody got time for that.

There's a toppled skyscraper's-worth of cliches and and tropes embodying the whole film, but the thing is--as cheesy and cringeworthy as they're delivered here, they feel right. The dialogue is so stock-ish that it seems like it was plucked directly from other films, or maybe even the cutting room of other films. Either way, it makes for some laughs whether intentional or not. The narrative follows a by-the-book formula. In fact, the first sequence involves The Rock saving a teenage girl after her vehicle falls into a crevice, and the only shocking thing about is that there wasn't also a cat in the car. But because of this tried & true formula, all the beats land with precision, and the climax and resolution are built for the utmost effectiveness. So, even though you know exactly what's coming all the time, there's no room for muddle, confusion, or soiled expectations and disappointments. As messy as Southern California is here, the superficial aspect of the screenplay is a well-oiled machine. And anyone complaining about the legitimacy of the science needs to get a sense of humor and just accept the suspension of disbelief... or get a life.

The Rock has become a true action star, and it goes beyond his excellent knack for ass-kicking. There's a sophistication to his beatdowns. And aside from being an astonishing physical specimen, we have to acknowledge that he looks a little more exotic than most action staples populating the screen. Even when he has to deliver terrible dialogue, his full commitment and charisma makes it not so insufferable. A lot of action stars do their work with a stone face, but The Rock, on the other hand, brings some welcomed emotion. His facial expressions are severely underrated. And he's demonstrated that he's capable of displaying some heart. The stone face works great for some actors, but in The Rock's case, his charm actually makes him huggable, even though he might accidentally send you to the emergency room after that hug. He's just impossible not to root for.

A trailer could release, and there could be a 95% chance that the movie itself will be awful, but if The Rock is in it, it's practically still a must-see. If that isn't a true action star, I don't know what is. Can you think of many examples regarding current actors (no matter what genre, actually) that will provoke you to see an awful movie just because "so and so" is in it? I try hard, but I can't think of many. And people who used to be in that category have fallen out of it lately.

Even though San Andreas is as generic as a disaster movie can get, it really doesn't have anything to live up to. It stands on its own. This isn't a sequel. It isn't a remake or a reboot. And it isn't based on a book (or a theme park). So with all things considered, in some ways San Andreas will probably go down as one of the summer's most satisfying *Blockbusters.*