Wednesday, December 28, 2016

[Review] Fences

Death. Taxes. Baseball.

Denzel Washington directs and stars in Fences, a big screen adaptation of August Wilson's strikingly powerful stage play of the same name. The results? Pretty damned good, thanks to some excellent lead performances from Washington and Viola Davis.

1950s Pittsburgh. Troy (Washington) is a hardworking garbage collector with a weighty past. He also once was a talented baseball player, and depending on whom you ask, he was rejected by the Major Leagues either because of his age or color. The slow-burning story delves into his relationships with his wife Rose (Davis), estranged grown-up son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), his mentally impaired brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), his longtime best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and his high school aged son Cory (Jovan Adepo), who's being scouted for college football.

Now, the film definitely feels like watching a stage play. It's packed with heavy, longwinded rants of dialogue and it all takes place in minimal, contained locations. But August Wilson's words are so strong. So very strong that Fences still compels with its deeply developed characters, its snappy and loaded subtexts, its sharp lean on symbolism and metaphors, and its narrative of rich themes like race, class, family, and duty. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are absolutely stunning (no surprise there). This is an environment made for them to thrive in. The duo engages in a handful of intensely emotional scenes together where you might find yourself thinking, "Yep, Oscar nominations..."

Troy Maxson is a character that leaves such a haunting impression, as he walks a chalk-dusted line between noble hero and problematic villain. He's remarkably flawed, complicated, and he wears his mistakes on his sleeve. He's as funny and playful as he is mean and stubborn. He's both wise and head-scratching. Charismatic and clumsy. And even tragic. As the film progresses, it becomes harder and harder to stick by his side, especially considering the way his actions affect his family. But I was still in awe as I witnessed Denzel's committed, flesh and blood portrayal of such a boldly complex character. And as Troy himself would say, "What law is there saying I got to like you?"

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, December 26, 2016

[Review] La La Land

"Here's to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem..."

My heart aches, but I LOVED this movie.

After the breakout, drum-driven Whiplash, talented director Damien Chazelle goes for a full-on musical with La La Land. It's a passionate love letter to the joys and pains of Tinseltown. An exuberant homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. A stylish CinemaScope marvel. It's as unabashedly vintage as it is rejuvenating. As escapist and surreal as it is genuine and now.

Setting the stage is a brightly jubilant opening number amidst L.A.'s infamous traffic (the sequence garnered cheers from the audience during my showing). From there, over the span of four seasons, we follow the blossoming romance of Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who, yes--works at a coffee shop, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a struggling jazz musician. While the film takes place in the smart phone present, it recalls the spirit of classic musicals from the '40s, '50s, and '60s like Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin' in the Rain, and The Music Man. It's a glorious fusion of time and panache.

Every frame: Gorgeous. Every song: Wonderful. Between the glowing splash of primary colors, the rich layers of sounds, the starry spotlight illuminations, the waltz-y camerawork, and the gleeful dance choreography, La La Land is the epitome of an elaborate production. It's enchanting. It's magical. And it's incredibly delightful to the eyes and ears. The film's main leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling have an undeniable chemistry (it's their third film together!). Gosling is endlessly charming, capturing an old-fashioned eagerness. His vocal delivery is nasally and imperfect, but it's forgivable. It's human. Stone often steals the show with her immense magnetism, big beaming green eyes, wide range of emotions, and impressively good singing voice. It's the stuff made for Oscars.

But La La Land is not all sunshine and smiles. Beneath all the glitz and glamour is a swirling tone of sadness. The nostalgia for bygone eras and dying genres... The closing of landmark theaters... The push-and-pull between holding onto tradition or changing with the times... The relationship strains and harsh ironies that arise from diverging career paths... The conflicts in chasing your fantasies, sacrificing your values, or settling into "the real world"...  The hurt and heartbreak of rejection...

However, there's also the perks of perseverance, the importance of an uplifting nudge (or a "Honk"), and the power of dreams. In La La Land, the best endings aren't always happy--they're bittersweet.

* 10/10 *

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Friday, December 23, 2016

[Review] Things to Come

Isabelle Huppert gives a ravishing performance in Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come, a fresh and adept character study of latter-life changes.

Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) is a passionate philosophy teacher, married with two kids, and doing her best to keep her ailing mother from going off the deep end. One unassuming day, her longtime husband tells her that he's leaving for another woman. What a jerk! From here, Nathalie navigates how to move forward. There's pains, but also newfound freedom. "I'm taking it very well," she says.

The film comes with a talky sense of realism. There's a lot of navel gazing and food for thought--while the characters literally eat food. I'll be honest, this isn't the most cinematic or engrossing stuff to see on the big screen. However, the film deserves appreciation for its portrait of a character that isn't usually explored in this way. Nathalie refuses to wallow in self-pity. No woe is me montages... No tearful breakdowns... She even takes a chance on new opportunities. Isabelle Huppert plays it with a flawless reserve, and by the end of the film, we feel like we've gotten to know an actual person.

Things to Come is a rich snapshot, drifting along--just like life. Oh, and there's an awesome cat.

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

[Review] American Honey

Youth. Rebellion. Crime. Lust. Dreams. In many respects, Andrea Arnold's brash, raw, and vibrant American Honey plays like a modern-day Easy Rider--but with teenagers and a lot more rap music.

Star (Sasha Lane) is an 18-year-old hoping to break free from her troubled home situation. On a whim, she joins a door-to-door magazine sales crew, led by a smooth-talker and possible psychopath named Jake (Shia Labeouf, sporting a ratty ponytail that someone should call Pest Control on). The pack of rowdy, scummy, and impoverished youngsters set out on a road trip of hustling and hardcore partying across the heart of the US. Newcomer Sasha Lane shines with her central performance as the group's conflicted moral compass who's still desperately in search for a new way of life.

American Honey is one of those rare films that manages to feel mesmerizingly surreal and vividly authentic at the same time. Beautifully lit and filmed under sunrise and sunset colors, the picture is presented in a squarish aspect ratio, rather than the usual widescreen views. But instead of conveying narrowness or confinement, the handheld camera captures an epic sense of intimacy, as well as a clear-eyed focus on slyly symbolic views of nature: A bee staying afloat in a swimming pool. A jumping spider zipping across a crayon drawing. A school of tadpoles on the verge of transforming. Then there's the scene of the squad cruising through a very wealthy neighborhood, ogling at MTV Cribs-style homes that don't even fit in the frame. It's depressing. It's hopeful. It's inherently plotless. It's contradictory and problematic--but in an observant it is what it is sort of way, similar to the gaze of 2014's Rich Hill documentary or a Viceland look at under-the-belly countercultures.

The film flaunts a vital diegetic soundtrack that becomes a star in its own right, whether it's enriching the themes, tapping into the zeitgeist, or sounding just plain wonderful. The anthemic splendor of Rihanna singing "We found love in a hopeless place" as Star and Jake first lock eyes in a K-Mart. The early morning motivation of Kevin Gates' "Out the Mud". E-40's boastful "Choices". The change of pace that comes with "Recharge & Revolt" by The Raveonettes as the Star rises out of a sunroof against the backdrop of city lights. The straight-up party jams of Rae Sremmurd and Migos.
There's even a Bruce Springsteen croon for good measure: "C'mon we gotta keep the fire burnin', c'mon dream baby dream."

* 9/10 *

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

[Review] Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

"Rebellions are built on hope."

The extravaganza levels sure do skyrocket whenever a new Star Wars film releases into theaters, don't they? The latest installment is Rogue One, a sweeping side-story that operates as a lead-up to 1977's A New Hope. It's technically the first "standalone" film in the anthology. No iconic opening crawl. No screen wipes. However, the events are very much an integral piece of the whole. And while the film isn't an absolute triumph, it's undoubtedly a thrilling and crowd-pleasing blast of a blockbuster.

Meet Jyn (Felicity Jones, a great lead), a scrappy maverick who's developed a knack for defying orders and doing things her own way, which of course makes her character all the more intriguing. After some chance meetings and jailbreaks, she teams with Rebel officer Andor (Diego Luna), blind warrior Chirrut (Donnie Yen, purveyor of the already famous "I am one with the force, and the force is with me" line--which will probably get mixed up several times in the future.), heavy artillery wielder Baze (Jieng Wen), and cargo pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed). The rugged crew sets out to retrieve the plans in order to blow up the Death Star. And in operatic fashion, Jyn's own father (Mads Mikkelsen) is the keeper of the superweapon's secrets (I promise that's not a spoiler), as he's unwillingly been taken in by director of destruction, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn getting his villainy on).

The beginning involves a lot choppy of planet-hopping. But at least it's some interesting planet-hopping, immersing us into the vivid textures of the landscapes, and the eccentric production design, costumes, and creatures of this universe that we've come to know and love. Once the narrative finds its true path, the film launches into an elaborate heist mission containing loads of heavy exposition followed by grand spectacles of chaotic space combat (I mean, this is a Star Wars movie). And when the picture isn't shrouded in shadows, Rogue One proves to be one of the more visually striking films in the series--from the ethereal skies to the shots of the brooding Lord of the Rings-esque towers (I was almost waiting for Saruman's beard to pop out from somewhere). Speaking of darkness, the tone is mostly on the serious side this time around, even though the spunky K-2SO droid provides a source of comic relief, delivering plenty of chuckle-worthy wisecracks along the way.

Just like J.J. Abrams did with last year's spirited The Force Awakens, director Gareth Edwards (who's responsible for the fairly well-received Godzilla reboot) makes sure to give the fans what they want here, leaving little room for any colossal disappointments--even if there's a bit of a retread factor. Personally, I enjoyed the nostalgic nods and the connective tissue to films of the past (if you pay close attention, you can spot unused footage from original trilogy). I'll also go ahead and say that seeing Donnie Yen take out a squad of Stormtroopers by himself with nothing but a staff is worth the price of admission alone. And as the trailers hinted, there's even some good ol' Darth Vader action. At one point, he utters a polarizing pun (I'm still trying to decide if I like it or not). Dialogue beef aside, the film's biggest flaw is that the ensemble of characters aren't developed very deeply, and we don't totally sense their bonds or camaraderie as much as we'd like to, because they're thrust into action so quickly. That said, it's still cool to see such a diverse and charismatic group on screen together.

Rogue One ultimately ends up being a worthy addition to the Star Wars cannon. It's a tale of sacrifice, trust, and joining forces against seemingly insurmountable evils. That's certainly something to root for.

* 8.5/10 *

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

[Review] Demon

Ah, there's nothing like a demonic possession on your wedding day.

If you're a fan of this year's great, slow-burning horror film The Witch, then the late Marcin Wrona's Demon should be right up your alley. Based on Jewish folklore involving an entity called "The Dybbuk", this Polish film is an artfully shot, sharply written, and straight-up insane tale.

Set in a drab, hazy frown of a town where it definitely seems like some kind of evil could manifest, the film follows Peter (Itay Tiran), a man on the verge of marrying his fiance Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska). While surveying land for the house they plan to fix up, Peter stumbles upon a pile of bones, and let's just say he begins to experience some very strange symptoms during the wedding celebration. Either he's possessed by a malevolent spirit or it's the worst case of cold feet ever.

Given the dark and serious setup, it's surprising how funny the tone of this thing actually is--from its wry dialogue to its mirthfully absurdist humor. When the sickness first starts coming on, it plays more like a sweaty bout of the diarrhea runs, or the result of way too much vodka (or both at the same time). The film isn't all that intense or scary, per se. It's more of an exercise in intrusive madness, although the creepy factor does ramp up a bit during second half. Much credit goes to the screechy musical score and Itay Tiran's committed performance as he goes into full lurch mode. It's just really amusing to see how this whole debacle unfolds. Talk about wedding horror stories...

But buried deep beneath the surface of it all is a solemn spell of tragic history and old haunts that continue to linger and linger. Demon, indeed.

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

[Review] Nocturnal Animals

Fashion designer and movie director Tom Ford unleashes the strange beast that is Nocturnal Animals for his second feature-length film. It's a flawed but gripping endeavor--as ugly as it is stylish. Part modern noir. Part gritty southern detective story. Part relationship drama. Part lurid WTF.

After a bold and provocative opening credits sequence, we meet Susan (Amy Adams), a discontent art gallery owner who dwells in a cold and drab mansion with her dashing but conniving husband (Armie Hammer). Out of the blue, she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Foreshadowing is abound when she slices her finger opening the package.

As Susan begins reading the novel, the film transitions into a movie-within-a-movie of sorts. Thank God the story is shown and not told--can you imagine going to the theater and having to watch/hear someone scan through a book? Anyway, the novel sees a stand-in for Edward (Gyllenhaal with a beard), his wife (Isla Fisher, bearing an uncanny resemblance to Susan), and their daughter as they get caught up in a highway tussle with a group of greasy scumbags, led by a notoriously nasty Aaron Taylor-Johnson. It's a masterfully tense, stressful, and sweaty scene that unfolds into something that I won't spoil. In fact, there's no sense of catharsis until a hard-nosed detective played Michael Shannon gets involved. From there, the film jumps around between past and present, the novel and the real world--all while reveling in both the power and potency of fiction, art and life.

Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are definitely solid leads, but it's the secondary cast that stuns. Michael Shannon absolutely steals the show in a role that's almost too perfect for him. What a legend, that guy is. Also impressive is Aaron Taylor-Johnson. He plays a maddeningly despicable character, but it actually seems like a real breathing person, as opposed to his aggressively bland leading role in the recent Godzilla reboot. It's a turn that's so committed, dirty, and under-your-skin that it will make you feel the need to take a shower. I also have to mention how amusing it is that well-known look-alikes Amy Adams and Isla Fisher have finally appeared in the same film. And even after this, I'm still not fully convinced that they aren't the same person. (Kidding, of course.)

In contrast to the film's lush cinematography, sublime wardrobes, and pristine frames, the narrative can't help but feel a bit messy. I was disappointed by the lack of payoff and the abrupt ending. On one hand, it's as if Tom Ford crafted a stream of engrossing stories and couldn't figure out how to properly conclude them. But on the other hand, the ending proposes a creepy and spiteful element that's consistent with the film's relentlessly dark tone.

Either way, you'll be thinking about it long afterwards, and well into the night...

( 8/10 )

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

[Review] The Monster

Bryan Bertino's The Monster quietly crashes in as a decent late-season horror entry. It's not a game-changer or anything, but this minimally told tale is one that avid genre fans won't want to miss.

Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is a disheveled and neglectful single mother, basking in empty beer bottles and constantly oversleeping. Her precocious daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) seems to be the more responsible one, making breakfast and packing (for the both of them) in preparation for a road trip to see her estranged father. During the hostile drive, their car breaks down and the two are left stranded on a secluded backroad. But they're not completely alone... There's an elusive beast lurking in the forest, and this broken mother and daughter relationship must come together in order to survive.

The first 12 minutes or so are a bit obnoxious, as our two main characters awkwardly yell a bunch of really forced dialogue at each other. But once the catalyst takes place, and the ominous mood sets in, the film builds some eerie suspense--initially concentrating on what we don't see rather than what's there. Is the threat just their imagination? The wolf they accidentally hit? A creepy criminal dwelling in the woods? Or an actual flesh and bones monster? Things eventually get physical and bloody and gruesome. And in case you're wondering, we do end up getting a clear look at the evil force in all its nasty glory, even amidst the film's murky, rain-drenched setting and deep, dark shadows. While there might be a metaphor to dig for, I perceived the story's antagonist in a very straightforward and literal way, as opposed to recent spooky and symbolic gems like The Babadook or Under the Shadow.

Unfortunately, the narrative gets bogged down with melodramatic flashbacks that come off as filler, and the film doesn't reap the emotion and poignancy that it seems to be aiming for. Basically, The Monster isn't going to shatter your world, but it's at least a good VOD choice for a stormy night.

( 7/10 )

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Monday, December 5, 2016

[Review] Manchester By the Sea

I'm not saying you should bring some tissues to Manchester By the Sea, but you should probably bring some tissues to Manchester By the Sea. This film is a commendably adept character study and stirring rumination on the rippling complications of a family death, as well as a crisp and cinematic postcard of the picturesque New England harbor town.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a lonely janitor and repair man, spending his days un-clogging toilets, trying to fix leaks that won't quit, and shoveling endless piles of snow (cue the baggage metaphors). After the sudden death of his brother (Kyle Chandler), he reluctantly inherits custody of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). The narrative follows them as they cope with the haunts, burdens, and messy aftermath of a tragedy, all while they straighten out their lives going forward.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me) pens an excellent script, full of blunt and snappy dialogue, all-too-real human conflicts, and genuinely affecting emotion. The multiple flashbacks enrich the story and give the characters depth, while adding a heart-wrenching undercurrent of unspeakable tragedy. It's sad stuff indeed. But even amidst the somber circumstances, the film doesn't forget its sense of humor. This thing is actually really funny. You'll laugh in between the tears. It's fully dimensional. Just like life. Lee and Patrick's relationship isn't of the blatant warm and fuzzy Hallmark variety. It's awkward, pugnacious, and full of ribbing. But they're cool with each other, and we know they care deep down. They're both in the same boat (pun definitely intended).

Casey Affleck gives a seriously tremendous performance. Lee isn't the most likable character, but we still sympathize with him. It's as if his distressing numbness, self-resentment, and repressed feelings have all transferred to his hunched shoulders and the darkness beneath his eyes. It's quietly devastating and nuanced, and Affleck nails it. Award nominations are certainly on the way. Michelle Williams is also stunning with her supporting role as Lee's estranged ex-wife Randi. She's only in a few scenes, but they're crucial scenes that leave a weighty impact. Newcomer Lucas Hedges is impressive too, seeming like an authentic high schooler dude who's going through some stuff. In fact, the entire cast is top-notch here, as you'd expect from one of this year's Oscar frontrunners.

There is a slight shred of uplift in the end, but it's still the type of story that'll make you want to go off and have a good cry in the movie theater parking lot afterwards. Manchester By the Sea is a film that hits hard no matter what, but it's especially poignant if you've ever lost someone close to you.

It's one of 2016's very best.

* 10/10 *

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

[Review] Moonlight

"Who is you, Chiron?"

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is a special film. Revolving around a young man's struggle to find himself in the thick atmosphere of a poverty-stricken Miami, this artful portrait is as sprawling as it is intimate, and as raw as it is technically marvelous. It's truly a transformative experience.

The story is divided into three distinct chapters, which all follow the life of Chiron, a quiet and scrawny kid who's constantly picked on by his peers. Unfortunately, he finds no solace at home because his mother (Naomie Harris) is a drug-addict. One day, he meets a supportive father-like figure named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who ironically makes his living as a drug kingpin. A complex and vicious cycle, to be sure. But Juan and his caring girlfriend (Janelle Monáe, terrific) practically begin to raise the boy themselves in their welcoming household. And from here, the film spans across Chiron's adolescence (Alex Hibbert), his high school stint (Ashton Sanders), and matured adulthood (Trevante Rhodes), all while he attempts to form his identity, battle with toxic masculinity, and ruminate on his sexuality.

The film exudes with life and bursts with heartbreak. The rarely-represented characters are fleshed out in a manner that isn't often witnessed like this on the big screen, and the performances are absolutely flawless all around. It'd be a crime to pick a standout in the cast, because they all shine in their own vital way. Everything is so richly detailed and beautifully captured amid the vibrant lighting, crisp editing, and stylized camerawork that frequently boasts 360-degree views, which breathes dimension into the scenes, while also creating a sense of the world spinning. The musical score flaunts piercing strings and somber piano keys, but it's really the deafening silences that have the most impact.

It's a film of defining moments, fateful connections, and memorable faces. A poetic character study. It's blue. It's black. It's glowing. It's Moonlight.

* 9/10 *

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

[Review] Loving

With acclaimed southern tales like Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, director Jeff Nichols has established himself as a big-time talent in indie cinema. Earlier this year, he continued the streak by shifting slightly with the sci-fi tinged Midnight Special. His latest film, Loving, is a more grounded, based-on-real-events historical drama entailing a supreme court decision on interracial marriage.

Beginning in Virginia 1958 (not that long ago, is it?), the story revolves around Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), a kind and reserved couple who are building a house and expecting a child. Their content life is maddeningly interrupted when authorities break up their marriage and throw them in jail. From there, the two fight the legal system just to be together.

Suiting for the spirit of the central characters, Nichols takes a quiet but distressful, understated yet affecting approach. The lead performances from Edgerton and Negga are superb--both displaying impressive sensitivity and gracefulness. As far as their emotions and thoughts, so much is shown strictly through the eyes and facial expressions, and in a film of this nature--that's all that's needed. In a surprising casting choice, oddball comic Nick Kroll takes on the role of a freshman civil rights lawyer, and he does a solid job. In a not so surprising casting choice, Michael Shannon shows up as an earnest, likable magazine reporter (because it wouldn't be a Nichols film without him).

Some sections of the narrative feel more like lulls than story developments, as they mostly work to convey passages of time. But it all eventually builds to something major. Something only rightful. The film's themes of division, injustice, and changing the system still resonate during current times.

Loving. How apt a last name. How apt a title. How necessary a film for today.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, November 28, 2016

[Review] Moana

She's not a princess. She's MOANA.

Disney's latest surefire hit is a dazzling South Pacific adventure that splashes and beams with jubilance. Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho) is a wide-eyed independent soul with her heart toward the sea, despite her Chief father's insistence on keeping her rooted at shore. But when an ancient darkness threatens to destroy their island's livelihood, Moana secretly sets out to find a shape-shifting demigod named Maui (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), and the two must sail across the ocean in order to return a mystical relic to a powerful island goddess, in hopes of breaking the curse.

The journey is exciting, dangerous, and memorable, as Moana and Maui encounter Kakamora pirates, cantankerous sea monsters, and a hot-headed lava goddess. It's all so visually gorgeous: The tropically lush, green and mountainous island scenery... The bioluminescent coral reefs... The splendid sparkle of the clear, starry skies... Maui's creatively kinetic tribal tattoos... Then there's the glistening blue ocean--in addition to being wonderfully animated, the endless body of water is also rendered as its own character, serving both as a majestic guide and an ominous and stormy force.

And of course there's a lot of playful humor. A guaranteed fan-favorite is a loopy stowaway rooster named Heihei, who seems to be a distant relative of Becky from this year's Finding Dory. The bickering, head-to-head dynamic between Moana and Maui is quite a treat as well. They roast each other, they bounce off of each other, they learn from each other, and they complain about each other. At one point Maui utters something like, "You're not gonna start singing are you?" ...Which brings me to the film's catchy soundtrack. Opetaia Foa'i and Lin-Manuel "Hamilton" Miranda (he's everywhere!) blend traditional Hawaiian melodies with Disney's trademark of ear-wormy pop sing-alongs and power ballads to boost the film's buoyancy and forgivably on-the-nose themes. The main theme song "How Far I'll Go" is pretty much destined to become the new "Let It Go", so enjoy it now before it gets played to death. (Interesting how both tracks embrace the word "Go".)

There are a few scary moments to contrast the sunny vibes, but for the most part, this is a really light and breezy film. Maybe too light and breezy for some audiences' preferences. However, it's without a doubt a genuinely uplifting and applause-worthy tale of bravery and forming your own path. It also enthusiastically explores and celebrates a vibrant Polynesian culture and mythology that's not often seen like this on the big screen.

Moana will warm your body, your spirit, and your heart.

* 9/10 *

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

[Review] The Edge of Seventeen

Oh, high school...

The Edge of Seventeen deserves to be praised for its sheer sense of genuineness. Wonderfully written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, this teen dramedy is up there with some of the best modern coming-of-age films in recent memory. It's refreshingly frank, funny, heartfelt, and yes--relatable.

Hailee Steinfeld plays Nadine, a frequently bullied outcast who's stuck in a constant state of awkward. She's also brutally honest and unapologetic, spiting the "winners" of the world. Luckily, her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) is always by her side. But their tight relationship shatters, and their social statuses fluctuate when Krista begins dating Nadine's popular, tight shirt-wearing older brother (played by Blake Jenner from this year's lively Everybody Wants Some!!).

Driven by a terrific performance from Hailee Steinfeld, the story navigates through Nadine's growing pains, angsty confusion, and new endeavors. We're with her the whole way, flaws and all. Her dynamic interactions with her surrounding peers and family reveal a lot about her character, whether it's the chats with a friendly classmate who shows interest in her, or a clumsy encounter with her elusive "Too cool for school" crush who has yet to accept her Friend Request on Facebook. Seriously, it's just out there waiting in the abyss! The snappy bouts with her messy mother are a hoot, and the conflict reaches boiling levels when she fights with her rival of a brother, especially as the two still are coming to terms with the recent death of their father. Best of all, are the lunchtime conversations (she avoids the cafeteria) with her brash and apparently non-caring history teacher (Woody Harrelson in perfect form). He's one of my favorite supporting characters to grace the screen this year.

Kelly Freemon Craig's (I was going to abbreviate it as KFC but that sounded weird) script is hilarious, effectively uncomfortable, and rounded out with emotion. The sharp dialogue and comical raunch is fitting and in-touch the generational zeitgeist. The story taps into contemporary technology debacles like accidentally-sent text messages, as well as prevalent gut-punches like that sinking feeling of cutting ties with longtime best friend. Sure, there are a lot of familiarities and genre tropes here, but who's complaining when this flick is so immensely watchable and greatly intended. Some of the elements are freshly spun too, like its brief scene that casually de-stigmatizes antidepressants, or its well-drawn and stereotype-free depiction of an under-represented Asian character (Hayden Szeto in a breakthrough role). There's also a handclap slaying of skeezy dirtbags for the ages.

The Edge of Seventeen will make you cringe. It'll make you nostalgic. It'll make you wish you could go back to when you were a Junior and change stuff... or completely block that time out of your memory. Nadine just wants everything to work out and go her way--just like all of us did during those formative years.

* 9.5/10 *

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Monday, November 21, 2016

[Review] Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

One of my many favorite aspects about the Harry Potter film series was the quirky and mystical creatures that inhabited the wizarding world, you know--the things that good ol' Hagrid liked to hang out with in the forest. So when I heard J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was making its way to the big screen, I figured there'd be room for some cool potential. Of course it's unfair to expect this spinoff prequel to capture the same magic, heart, and overall fandom of Harry, Ron, and Hermione's now iconic journey. However, it's still a decent piece of fantasy fare.

Meet Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a shy and timid magizoologist--his fluff of bangs practically a shield against eye contact. He travels to an impressively rendered 1920s New York City for some secret business, with nothing but a small suitcase at hand. After a run-in with a local muggle (or "No-Maj") named Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a few magical beasts escape from the suitcase, and the mismatched pair must track them down before the city goes into a frenzy. Meanwhile, an investigator (Katherine Waterston) plans to turn Scamander over to MACUSA, a security organization headed by a wizard with a shady agenda who goes by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).

Even with its colder tone, the film makes sure to keep some playful humor intact. Kowalski is a primary source of laughs, basically functioning as an amusing ball of slapstick who gets swept up into the mischief. Then there's the Niffler--a little platypus-like critter with a taste for the finer things in life (it darts toward every gold coin and piece of jewelry it can find). But what's disappointing is that we don't actually learn a whole lot about these beasts, or where they come from, or where to find them. Maybe that'll be covered in the FOUR upcoming sequels. The closest we get to that feeling is when we step inside Scamander's suitcase, yes--step inside. In classic Rowling fashion, the suitcase contains its own expansive world, like a whimsical wildlife refuge with countless rare creatures basking about. It's definitely the most wondrous and visually astounding moment in the film.

What weighs Fantastic Beasts down is its less-than-interesting subplots that move on a much slower plane than the central story. The threads eventually converge in a chaotic cluster of action in the big city, not entirely unlike this year's Ghostbusters or the recent Doctor Strange. Fortunately, the cute twists that the resolution provides at least make up for some of the climax's lack of uniqueness. I've also seen some complaints about Eddie Redmanye's lead performance, but I found him to be fittingly cast. I think the only surprising thing is that he isn't a Weasley. But seriously, the real problem is that--aside from his immense compassion to preserve misunderstood beasts--the character itself just isn't developed very deeply here. Again, probably more of that in the FOUR upcoming sequels.

Despite its flaws, Fantastic Beasts is still a fairly fascinating place to slip into for a couple of hours. Let's just hope there's more to discover next time.


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Thursday, November 17, 2016

[Review] Little Men

Attentive humanist Ira Sachs is the director of intimate and observational adult-geared dramas like Keep the Lights On and Love Is Strange. With his latest film, Little Men, he keys into the perspectives of--as the title suggests--two young boys, and it's his best work to date.

Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) are new best friends in Brooklyn. Their opposite personalities truly complement each other. While Jacob is reserved, stately and studious, Tony is brash and rough around the edges (he throws down during a cafeteria fight at school). But they do share a common dream--they both want to be artists when they grow up. Oh yeah, and they love playing video games. Their warm bond is tested when their parents engage in a legal battle (that becomes personal) over the lease of a struggling local dress shop.

It might not sound like the most compelling plot, but there's a lot of nuanced emotion and impressive realism here, displaying the power in subtlety. The tone is expectedly low-key and serious, however there's a particularly riotous scene that takes place at an acting class when Tony gets into an extended shouting match with the course's eccentric teacher. It's one of the most amusing scenes of the film, and it's by far the loudest. The rest is immensely quiet, mining for drama in muted moments, especially as the conflicts of Jacob and Tony's respective parents sadly trickle down to them.

The performances are all really good and natural. The kid actors Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri are easy standouts, while Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia (who was terrific as a lead in the Chilean film Gloria), and Alfred Molina round out the solid supporting cast of adults.

Little Men hits some delicate notes of poignancy in the end. It's small business. But it's significance business.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

[Review] The Handmaiden

Director Park Chan-wook puts his wicked spin on a Victorian crime novel by Sarah Walters. Retitled as The Handmaiden and set in 1930s Korea, the films works as both a gothic suspense tale and a creeping erotic thriller, or more frankly--it's an epic doozy, and I mean that in a good way.

A young woman named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is hired to be the maid of Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), an extremely wealthy heiress who dwells in an opulent mansion (it's huge!). But Sook-Hee is doing more than just dusting furniture and zipping up dresses. She's actually part of a seductive scheme led by a snide con-artist who goes by "The Count" (Ha Jung-woo). Basically, the guy wants to steal Lady Hideko's inheritance. However, nothing goes as planned. And nothing is as it seems.

The slow-burning madness, along with its exquisitely grand settings and lush scenery, is gorgeously shot with really marvelous framing. The active camera glides, zooms, scans, and slithers like a snake. This twisty tale of jealousy and deception is fittingly layered with a dark yet giddy sense of humor. It's perverse. It's sensual. It's disturbing. It's luxurious. It's sweeping. It's intimate. It's classy. It's trashy. And it's all terrifically performed. The characters brim with a chemistry that alternates between cold and smothering. And an extravagant musical score cranks up the high melodrama.

The duration can be a bit long-winded, and I got the impression that it would probably be best when watched in separate chunks (the film is even divided into two distinct parts). With that said, the events still remain interesting, as the narrative back-tracks and unfolds, playing with the presentation of what's initially revealed and what isn't. So as nasty as things get, The Handmaiden is a film that keeps on giving and giving.

( 8/10 )

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Monday, November 14, 2016

[Review] Arrival

Where did they come from? Why are they here? What do they want?

Arrival director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) expounds on these questions in this brainy, urgent, and deeply emotional UFO visit drama that instills hope in the good of humanity.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor, reeling from losing her daughter to cancer. Louise's world (and the rest of the world) shifts even more when a dozen extraterrestrial spacecraft touch down across the Earth. Given Louise's renowned skills in language, she's abruptly recruited in an attempt to communicate face-to-face with the aliens. Whoa, right? Along for the mission are a US Army Colonel (played by Forest Whitaker) and a theoretical physicist (Jeremy Renner).

Don't go into this film expecting the explosions of Independence Day, the horrors of Alien, or the sweetness of E.T. Instead, Villeneuve opts for a tone of hushed chaos and hypothetical realism, administering heady concepts of language, science, perception, and time. How does one even process, let alone approach first contact with beings from outer space? (They're classified as "Heptapods" here.) It's complicated, to say the least. But impossibly intriguing.

Villeneuve and buzzing cinematographer Bradford Young capture it all with expansive shots of grandeur, as well as more focused and minimal views through a Terrence Malick-esque lens. The stunning sets defy what we usually come to anticipate in alien invasion flicks. Rather than blinking flying saucers, the spaceships appear to be more like bold, colossal, vertically crescent eggs. The Heptapods convey their complex messages with gloriously cinematic ink blots from the other side of a bright and smoky wall of glass that seems to be specifically designed for a big, wide movie theater screen. The film is cut with beautifully intimate flashbacks of interactions between Louise and her daughter, contrasting the brooding greyscale of the military bases, alien craft, and ominous skies.

Amy Adams delivers an excellent performance that will be a surefire land for an Oscar nomination, if not a win. She convincingly captures the distress and awe of how someone might react when coming face-to-face with strange and unpredictable extraterrestrial creatures. There's a significant bravery and determination there, especially when everyone around her (mostly men) questions her methods and threatens to derail her careful strategies. Jeremy Renner is solidly cast too, functioning as form of comic relief within the serious, solemn tone. He names the Heptapods "Abbott & Costello", whom, by the way, kind of look like more monstrous versions of the Kang and Kodos from The Simpsons.

As Jóhann Jóhannsson's stirring musical score crescendos, the film unfurls a remarkable revelation. Like the best twists, it rattles your mind, pierces your heart, and makes you rethink the entire story while begging for a second viewing (and possibly crying). The narrative also explores some relevant and important themes regarding patience and understanding, as opposed to forceful conflict.

I truly believe that this operation deserves to be mentioned as one of the best sci-fi films of the decade. Arrival is out of this world. Literally.

* 10/10 *

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

[Review] Trolls

Like a sneeze of sprinkles or a fart of glitter, Trolls is a rainbow-blasted romp with a high concentration on dazzling visuals and sugary pop songs, but it's low on savory story.

It opens with a cutesy paper cutout sequence about the hug-y dance-y sing-y history of Trolls, as if South Park overdosed on Starbursts and kindness. In the present, we meet the exuberant Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and a party-pooper named Branch (Justin Timberlake). The two opposites must team up in order to save a bunch of captured Trolls from the evil, warty ogre-like BERGENS.

This animated universe of smooth and fuzzy textures and pastel colors is stocked with an abundance of wedding reception dance floor tunes (the often-played tracks will either bring joy or annoy, depending on your mood and preferences). But if your ears aren't pleased, at least the musical montages pop with some wildly creative (and sometimes trippy) imagery. Like a swirling sugar rush of designer flair, the film bursts with various aesthetics of neon and Day-Glo tinted patterns. The screen virtually warps into a big and busy Candyworld-esque feast for the eyes.

As for the script, the humor is decent at best and the narrative is slightly soured with its unmemorable characters and well-intended but run-of-the-mill exploration of optimism and pessimism. Happiness and sadness. Naivety and realism. Of course I wasn't expecting a whole lot from the story. It isn't a bad one, however it didn't really tickle my fancy either. But look on the bright side. Your kids will probably like the movie, and the runtime is only 80 minutes long. Now I'm gonna go eat a cupcake.

( 6.5/10 )

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

[Review] Hacksaw Ridge

With Hacksaw Ridge, Mel "Maniac" Gibson delivers his first directorial effort since 2006's Apocalypto. Based on the real life of Army vet Desmond Doss, this visceral World War II film is full of conflicts and contradictions, but at its heart is a moving tale of unconventional bravery.

Early on we're introduced to a deeply Christian fellow who goes by the name of Doss (Andrew Garfield). His ear-to-ear smile practically screams "Aw shucks!" Shortly before proposing to a lovely nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), he enlists in the military as a combat medic. But there's one glaring exception: He refuses to pick up a rifle. After overcoming some litigation hurdles and enduring harsh mental and physical ridicule from his higher-ups and comrades, Doss enters the frontline to not only prove his competence, but also his unwavering heroism.

It's both glossy and gruesome. The first half wallows in melodrama with its schmaltzy love story, lit with classical Hollywood sheen. But once Doss heads off to the Battle of Okinawa, the film trudges into some intense and harrowing war sequences. Gibson doesn't shy away from hurling blood, guts, headshots, and severed limbs into our face. (At one point someone uses a dead body as shield.) Oh yeah, and there's flamethrowers. In fact, the filmmaking tactics are so jolting and brutal that, stylistically, they feel more like stuff that's straight from the horror genre. A certain scene that takes place amidst underground tunnels is particularly heart-racing. And as expected, the story oozes with heavy emotion, piling on the stirring moments. Toward the end as I started to feel a lot of feelings, I briefly glimpsed around the theater and noticed each and every audience member wiping tears away.

The performances, for the most part, are terrific. Andrew Garfield, who's mostly known as the new Spider-Man and for his great roles in The Social Network and 99 Homes, is a tour de force here. He captures a relentless tenacity, as well as a modest sense of altruism. The English actor's southern accent even seems more convincing than a lot of American actors (at least to my ears). As for Vince Vaughn, although no stranger to darker and straight-faced roles (#TrueDetectiveSeason2), is awkwardly miscast. His comedic quips are amusing, but it's difficult to take him seriously as a hard-nosed Sergeant, especially within the tone of this film. The rest of the cast are fully game, though.

With all that said, the film is not without its controversial elements: There's the almost sadistic and exploitive views of violence. The sketchy depiction of the Japanese characters. And well, Mel Gibson. Still, we can find solace in our noble protagonist, who happens to be the antithesis of all those issues: He's adamantly against any form of violence. He aides the Japanese soldiers' wounds too. And well, he's not Mel Gibson. When the conclusion of the film arrives, it's pretty clear that Desmond Doss is no "everyman"--he's an extraordinary human being.

Hacksaw Ridge is an undeniably powerful film that serves an unbelievable story.

* 9/10 *

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Monday, November 7, 2016

[Review] Doctor Strange

Doctor who? Doctor Strange.

The titular character is the cerebral focus of Marvel Studios' latest installment. It's part Inception. Part The Matrix. Part Harry Potter. And it's definitely a multidimensional experience.

After a bad car wreck, an arrogant brain surgeon named Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses feeling in hands. So in an act of desperation, he travels to Kathmandu to seek out a sacred and mysterious healing temple, but he gets way more than he bargained for. Under the intense guidance of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Strange learns the mystic arts: magical spells, astral projection, dimension-hopping and time-bending powers. Eventually, he's forced to use them against a bad apple named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen with stellar eye makeup).

Doctor Strange employs the usual formulas of the Marvel cinematic machine. You know--the prolonged origin story... the bombastic climax in a big city while stuff gets sucked into the sky... the obligatory setups for sequels... But these methods have never quite looked this visually astonishing before. Flaunting its impressive plethora of special effects, the film sees buildings shift, invert, and reflect--like an elaborate kaleidoscope of escalators and conveyor belts. Vibrant colors glow, warp, and dazzle, as if the universe were one humungous lava lamp. There's even an acid-driven oddity sequence that gives us a taste of what might happen if Terry Gilliam ever got ahold of a Marvel superhero movie. The script also brings the laughs, from physical bloopers to new age humor, and by 'new age humor' I mean jokes about Wi-Fi passwords and Drake references.

But there are some plot holes and leaps in the story that don't really flow all that well, and sometimes the action setpieces can be a bit confusing and incoherent. What shiny thing does what? Which portal leads where? You kind of just have to go with it. At one point Strange says, "I don't even know what this is." I often wondered the same thing. But whatever this is, it's pretty frickin' cool.

( 8/10 )

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

[Review] Certain Women

Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, and Lily Gladstone star in director Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women--a quiet portrait of loosely connected lives in rural America.

Well-shot with it's painterly frames of barren landscapes, this minimal film takes place in the small town of Livingston, Montana. Dern plays a lawyer tasked with being a mediator for her disgruntled client who winds up in a police standoff. Williams is a hopeful homebuilder looking to negotiate a deal to obtain a mound of sandstone. And Stewart is a teacher juggling day & night jobs and long drives. In the meantime, she befriends a timid rancher named Jamie (Lily Gladstone).

The ensemble piece functions as a set of the (mostly) separate chapters--all containing similar themes of simply (or not so simply) trying to make a living, the strains of overtime work and the loneliness that comes along with it, and the empathy that arises when dealing with struggling customers. The whole thing is very meditative, observational, and subtly devastating.

All the performances are really solid across the spread, but it's Kristen Stewart that truly stands out with her intensely nuanced realism and magnetic eyes, further proving that she's low-key one of the greatest actresses of this generation (don't let Twilight fool you). Not only does she embody the most interesting character here, but it also happens to be the most intriguing story out of the three. In fact, this final chapter is so deeply felt that you almost forget about the two that come before it.

This film won't please everyone, though. It moves at a tedious pace and lacks the dramatic punch and resolution that most audiences are used to. At times I even wished there were a little more happening. Because let's be honest--daily mundane tasks and prolonged silences aren't always the most compelling events to witness on the big screen. Still, there's a lot to admire about Certain Women.

( 7/10 )

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

[Review] The Girl on the Train

Adapted from Paula Hawkins' bestselling novel of the same name, The Girl on the Train has frequently been billed as "This year's Gone Girl." And not just because Girl is in the title--or the fact that it also released during a first weekend of October--but it, too, is a twisty whodunnit enhanced with clever POV narration and steeped in themes of voyeurism and the general descent into the depths of suburban sadness. With that said, there's a glaring difference between David Fincher's Gone Girl and Tate Taylor's The Girl on the Train--One of these films is great, and it's not this one.

Disheveled and recently divorced Rachel (Emily Blunt) is yes--the girl on the train, observing the lives of a "perfect couple" in daily passings and becoming insanely obsessed along the way. Stalkerish even. Okay, beyond stalkerish. She eventually gets entangled in the mystery of a missing woman named Megan (Haley Bennett). Turns out, they share some significant connections...

The story's told in non-linear fashion--bits and pieces of foggy memory flashes. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work very well. It's muddled with humdrum exposition and fractured time jumps, like it can't decide which pieces it wants to show or tell (and when). And for being considered as a psychological thriller, the film really doesn't elaborate a whole lot on the psyche of any of the characters. They're all virtually walking flesh and bones of one-dimensional misery.

Initially, The Girl on the Train at least holds enough intrigue to make you want to see how this mess transpires. But after a while it just grows tiresome--like a Lifetime melodrama but with better acting. Or "Dateline"-inspired fiction on the big screen. The climax is certainly dark and maddening, but it isn't really anything surprising, highly revelatory, or mind-blowing. Emily Blunt gives a strong and emotional lead performance, and emerging star Haley Bennett is quite impressive in her supporting role, but they both get lost in the film's flat tone and dull unraveling of the narrative.

In addition to Gone Girl, this film has even drawn comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock's classic Rear Window. But honestly, the only rear window I wanted to see The Girl on the Train through was when I was driving away from the movie theater.

( 5.5/10 )

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Monday, October 31, 2016

[Review] Under the Shadow

If you liked 2014's Australian horror masterpiece The Babadook, then you'll definitely want to check out this year's internationally-produced Under the Shadow. Iranian director Babak Anvari delivers a truly nerve-wracking experience that skillfully blends real-world horrors with supernatural terror.

Set amidst the Iran-Iraq conflict in the 1980s, we meet the world-weary Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) as they cope with the turmoil and daily blasts in war-torn Tehran. One day, a missile crashes into their apartment complex (an image that evokes Guillermo del Toro's brilliant The Devil's Backbone). Soon after, Dorsa's behavior shifts and she begins speaking of an evil and possessive wind spirit called Djinn. Shideh stays in skeptic and denial mode, but when she witnesses some frightening occurrences herself, she realizes it's not just a child's imagination.

While most of Under the Shadow's fears thrive on anxiety and dread, there are still a couple of shocking jump scares that nearly caused my heart to leap out of my chest. Along with its alarming sequences of startles, the film is so engrossing because it's rooted in solid drama, doused in sociopolitical overtones of Iran's post-revolution stresses (especially for women), and focused on sympathetic and well-drawn characters. It's very human, and it's a great mother and daughter story against hostile circumstances. The film has a slim runtime of 80 minutes, leaving little room for filler or empty scenes. Every drab frame is precisely rendered, and the ominous mood is crafted with unnerving sound design and backed with an eerie musical score that stuns and reverberates.

Under the Shadow casts darkness on an ill-omened intrusion. A potent and lingering fear. A devastating hole that tape won't fix.

* 9/10 *

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Sunday, October 30, 2016

[Review] Inferno

Holy smokes! Not even Tom Hanks can salvage Inferno--the third piece of the Ron Howard-directed Da Vinci Code trilogy. This historical-religious conspiracy thriller is not only convoluted, but it's also relentlessly boring.

Professor Langdon (Hanks, taking a break from his Captain duties) wakes up dazed with amnesia in a hospital in Florence, Italy. There, he meets the extremely enlightened Dr. Sienna (Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything) and the two abruptly team up in order to foil a population control plot of billionaire Doomsday theorist (Ben Foster), who plans to unleash biological warfare.

The cast are fine with what they're given to work with. Felicity Jones continues to be a magnetic screen presence, but I couldn't help but just look forward to her leading role in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Tom Hanks makes the best of the confounding material. His most charming moment comes when he politely asks for a cup of coffee after learning that assassins are on his trail.

But the film is essentially one long, windy, sigh-inducing chase--burdened by muddled sections of exposition and scenes of people staring at symbols. The narrative is painstakingly chopped with disorienting memory flashes and hellish hallucinations. It's puzzling, but not intriguing. Cryptic, but not gripping. And the setups aren't compelling enough to give the bag of twists any power.

Inferno is such a slog that you might find yourself drifting off into your own purgatory.

( 4/10 )

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Friday, October 28, 2016

[Review] In a Valley of Violence

Acclaimed indie-horror master Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers, The Sacrament) deviates from his usual scary tricks and tries his hand at a Western with In a Valley of Violence. The film stars Ethan Hawke, Taissa Farmiga, Karen Gillan (Oculus), and yes--John Travolta. And it's a pretty doggone decent time, even if it isn't as distinct or memorable as West's past work.

The drifting ex-soldier Paul (Hawke) and his trusty sidekick--a sweet pup named Abbie, are heading toward Mexico. But on the way, they have to pass through the town of Denton. Paul swears he doesn't want any trouble, but trouble seems to find him as he butts-heads with the town's slimy tough guy (played by James Ransone) and his father (John Travolta), who happens to be the town Marshal.

Set amidst crisply wide 35mm views and some far out zoom-ins, In a Valley of Violence is a fairly straightforward homage to classic spaghetti Westerns. All the genre elements, beats, and tropes are there--from the cartoon credits sequence to the orchestral cues. It's populated with shady characters, typical scenes that slowly escalate into predictable confrontations, and the sweet smell of revenge. For those hoping for a few horror twists, there's not much to be found here, aside from one flashy nighttime dream sequence and a somewhat heavier lean on blood and brutality.

In fact, the film doesn't stray too far away a'tall from Westerns of past, or even some of the more recent ones. The story is simple but effective with its John Wickian theme of don't come between someone and their pooch, especially if said person is trained to swiftly blow your head off or slit your throat. The lead-up to the film's pulpy climax is easily the highlight, flaunting some seriously funny shouting exchanges between Hawke and Travolta during the heat of a standoff.

I wish there were more style and panache In a Valley of Violence, but at least it's not a bloody waste.

( 7/10 )

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

[Review] Men & Chicken

Do you like weird? Do you like Mads Mikkelsen? Then you'll love this oddball Danish black comedy, Men & Chicken. It's a mirthfully unappealing film, if that makes any sense at all.

Gabriel (David Dencik) and Elias (Mikkelsen) are two outcast brothers with "abnormal" facial features. Gabriel is a weary professor, while Elias is an unsavory scoundrel (he jerks off in a bathroom stall after a meeting with his therapist). But if you think that's bizarre, wait until you meet their estranged half-brothers!

After their father dies, Gabriel and Elias discover some surprising truths about their family and set out to find their reclusive siblings, who are a cranky and unhinged bunch. They frequently beat the crap out of each other with blunt objects (some of which include taxidermied creatures), and I doubt they've gone through concussion protocol. They also dwell in a giant, run-down mansion that's populated with livestock. It's like an indoor farm. Oh yeah, and some of the animals are hybrids.

For all its intentionally pukey and nauseating tendencies, this thing is greatly filmed and framed--sporting some provocative shots of the junkyard landscapes and exquisite views of the rustic mansion. Between the dimly-lit, deteriorating interior and its cold, antiquated, and uncomfortable qualities--it's more of a dungeon than a home. But it's highly detailed and somehow artful, sort of like the foreboding living quarters in Taika Waititi's vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows.

Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, Men & Chicken is definitely a one of a kind experience. It's a darkly funny fable with hints of gross-out horror, warped scientific experiments, head-scratching antics, and twisty mysteries. There's even a tragic layer of sympathy and heart beneath it all. And Mads Mikkelsen--he's no stranger to audacious roles, but this is certainly one of the quirkier ones, and he does it very well. I think it's safe to say that it's probably quite different compared to his upcoming blockbuster turns in Doctor Strange and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Anyway, you might actually enjoy spending some time with this family. From a distance, of course.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

[Review] The Wailing

Director Na Hong-jin is the unleasher of The Wailing, a South Korean horror-thriller. This epic film is a blended concoction of doom and spooky subgenres, and the result is wonderfully terrifying.

When mysterious and brutal murders begin cropping up around a small lake village, a local hapless officer named Jong-goo (played by Kwak Do-won) attempts to investigate the root of the problem. But when wildlings, ghosts, demonic possessions, and infection outbreaks come into play, he concludes that the savage sickness is more than just some bad mushrooms.

As disturbing as this stuff is, the film actually dons a surprisingly amusing tone, especially during the first half. Between the slapstick acting, comic reaction shots to the jolts, and the goofy breaks in the madness, there's definitely a splotch of humor. In other words, the film doesn't take itself too seriously (I think I even heard a pronounced fart at one point). But don't get it twisted. This is still genuinely scary and designed to freak you out. And the story grows increasingly frightening as it progresses.

Crafted with plenty of gusto--from pulsating shaman rituals, dreadful face-to-face encounters with flesh-hungry beings, and a deep splash of East Asian mythology and archetypal folklore--the film rivets as much as gets under your skin. There's even some hints of "True Detective" Season One type of stuff--only way witchier and hellish. What's also impressive is the film's grand runtime. It clocks in at nearly 160 minutes, yet it never feels like a slog--thanks to its great pacing, consistent engagement, and a major sense of unpredictability. A lot of other films should take notes, to be honest.

The Wailing is hysterical. It's manic. It's creepy. It's bloody. It's dark. It's a real scream.

* 8.5/10 *

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