Friday, April 29, 2016

[Review] Miles Ahead

The sentiment has been reiterated time and time again: Music Biopics often fall flat. And it certainly doesn't help that there's so many of them each year. In fact, at least three have released within the past month or so. Legendary jazz (or as he likes to call it, "social music") musician & composer Miles Davis is the subject of Miles Ahead. The film is also Don Cheadle's passion project, in which he directs, co-writes, and stars in. While the portrait isn't a masterpiece, it manages to be an engrossing anecdote of the renowned trumpeter.

Filtered by a smokey grain, there the legend sits in his disheveled home, hitting the bottle and puffing cigarettes. It looks like he hasn't changed out of his bathrobe in weeks. Eventually, a Rolling Stone journalist (played by Ewan McGregor) shows up to interview Davis for "A Comeback Story". And to put it lightly, Davis isn't the easiest interview. The narrative alternates between this era and flashbacks to his more active days, as well as his romance with Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).

First off, Don Cheadle is a tour de force here, swathing Davis with an erratic swagger. The scratchy, whisperous voice is unmistakable. You can tell Cheadle did a lot of research on the cadences and mannerisms. Davis the character is never painted in a sugary or flattering light. His genius is definitely on display every time he puts his mouth to a trumpet or leads a band session, but we also witness the worst of him--he hits his wife and fervently snorts plethoras of cocaine. Ewan McGregor gives a fine supporting performance. He's always better in these shaggier roles. The great Michael Stulhbarg shows up as a shady industry player, and it couldn't be any more fitting. Short Term 12 breakout Keith Stanfield also appears as a young prodigy.

Of course, the film's soundtrack is killer, and it'd be a crime if it wasn't. The script delivers some solid lines of dialogue, and it touches upon the perils of being signed away to a major record label, music ownership, and the idea of a legacy. Oddly, the film culminates in a car chase shootout and an altercation during a boxing match over a stolen demo tape. We question the story's deviations, but they certainly make things... eventful.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

[Review] Elvis & Nixon

"Who the f*** set this up?"

You've probably seen or at least heard of the famously bizarre (and 100% real) photo of Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon shaking hands in the oval office. Directed by Liza Johnson, the new film Elvis & Nixon embellishes the story of the head-scratching meeting to greatly comedic proportions.

It's the early '70s, and the sidearm-obsessed Elvis (played by Michael Shannon) is hellbent on becoming an undercover agent, in order help America by cracking down on The Drugs. He comes up with the crazy idea to secretly meet with current POTUS Nixon (played by Kevin Spacey) so he can ask to be granted with an official Federal Agent badge. After a letter, and a lot of running around and compromises, the cantankerous Nixon begrudgingly agrees to a 5-minute meeting.

Some people were had at "Michael Shannon playing Elvis." I was had at "Michael Shannon." The guy is excellent in everything he's in, and this is one of his best performances to date. For one thing, he gets a King's amount of screen time Shannon playfully and skillfully ingrains a trait of oblivious determination within the iconic, past-prime singer. Spacey is formidable here as well. We've seen a lot of different Nixons on the big screen, but this is one of the more wry versions, and it actually feels like Spacey disappears into the character. Colin Hanks and Johnny Knoxville also lend some pitch-perfect supporting performances. Alt-Pop star Sky Ferreira even makes an appearance (there's not much to it, but it made me excited for her upcoming album).

It's less of a political biopic, and more of an off-the-wall piece of historical fill-in-the-blank. Even though this is based on a true event, we're not supposed to buy into all the details and "facts". We're supposed to buy into how confounding and hilarious the situation is portrayed. When the two larger-than-life figures finally do meet, it's truly something to behold. Shannon and Spacey expertly bounce their best off of each other. The interaction is scrumptiously awkward, quietly monumental, and entertaining as all get-out. There isn't really anything to spoil about how it all transpires, but I'll refrain from going into any more detail anyway. It's just something you have to see for yourself.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

[Review] The Huntsman: Winter's War

The Huntsman: Winter's War should get an award for the best cast in a bad movie. Standing awkwardly as both a prequel and a sequel to the decent but unspectacular Snow White and the Huntsman, the film kills two birds with one stone by being both a prequel and a sequel that we didn't need.

Even with a heavy lean on the narrator, it still isn't crystal clear what's taking place in the plot. But basically (after several time-hops), The Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and The Warrior (Jessica Chastain) team up in order to defeat the reign of The Ice Queen (Emily Blunt) and her sister The Evil Queen (Charlize Theron).

There's a layer of camp that the film can't escape, making the experience verge on parody at times. Emily Blunt's performance is so ├╝ber-serious that it almost becomes unintentionally funny. Chris Hemsworth doesn't do much to switch things up from role to role when he's in the fantasy genre, so it mostly just feels like Thor stumbled into the wrong movie. Charlize Theron is the only one who makes the best out of the substandard material, so of course she has the least screen time of them all. That is, except for Snow White, who isn't even really in the story. Her absence isn't what bothered me though, because it's evident that this thing has gone into full spin-off mode. Not to mention, I'm sure Snow White will be getting her own film again soon.

If you're willing to accept the computer-generated sheen, the settings actually look pretty cool in this realm, but they aren't any more breathtaking than what you might see in the newest "Game of Thrones" episode, which is time much better spent. The fighting and action sequences in The Huntsman are underwhelming and uninspired, so you can bet on how dull the rest of the duration is. The film peaks when Chris Hemsworth wrestles with a horned beast in the forest and gives it the Stone Cold Stunner. And unfortunately even that isn't enough to save this mess.


Monday, April 25, 2016

[Review] Everybody Wants Some!!

The prolific but unhurried Richard Linklater follows up the admirable (but slightly overrated) Boyhood with a "spiritual sequel" to Dazed and Confused. Diving head-first into the 80s, Everybody Wants Some!! is a baseball movie that isn't a baseball movie. And it's a blast (!!)

1980 on the dot. A campus somewhere in Texas. It's the weekend before college classes officially start, and the film's freshman brotagonist Jake (Blake Jenner) moves into a house where the baseball team stays. Jake's fellow jocktastic baseballers are played by mainly unknown actors, and perhaps by design, most of them about 10 years older than the typical college age. Anyway, they all have similar objectives in mind: Party and Get Laid. The beginning packs an onslaught of trash 'stache froth, but these dudes really grow on us by the end.

Much like it's free-spirited characters, the plot meanders without much regard to being considered as a plot in the first place. But it isn't in a frustrating or lethargic way. Linklater's penchant for realistic, zeitgeist-driven dialogue is on display, and it's as snappy and humorously sleazy as ever here. The line-up of characters each have their own goofy quirks, and they emerge as humanized stereotypes. A bunch of funny scenes show them engaging in exactly what you'd expect them to engage in, or as Jake would call it, "Fuckwithery"--getting kicked out of bars for causing a raucous, locker room antics, and hazing (all subjects that have escalated significantly from lighthearted to problematic dangerous over time).

At the surface, it may seem like a usual frat party film, but it manages to wax philosophical on pride, identity and competition. And of course, it carries a heavily nostalgic vibe (and I'm not just talking about the jorts and tanktops). It's like a coming-of-age film, except with guys who are old enough to drink (or close enough). Everybody Wants Some!! doesn't embrace living in the moment--it suggests that that's the only thing you can do. One can cherish and hold onto the good times and glory days, but no matter the stage--there are stretches where fun stuff happens, proceeded by stretches where not-so-fun stuff happens, and so on. Life is full of stuff, man.


Friday, April 22, 2016

[Review] Hush

Over the past few years, some of the best horror has arrived by way of VOD: Grand Piano, We Are Still Here, Creep, Southbound, The Invitation, and even the excellent The Babadook initially appeared on the platform. Now, Mike Flanagan (director of the surprisingly effective Oculus) adds Hush to the club.

Amidst the cold and hazy opening, we take a voyeuristic trek to a secluded house in the woods. A young author named Maddie Young (Kate Siegel) lives here. Apparently, she lost her hearing at the age of 13, and has chosen a life of isolation, aside from her online presence. Things don't take long at all to get crazy when a masked serial killer shows up at night on her front porch.

Of course the dread levels are way up, especially because we're given an omniscient view. Some of the early scares take place behind Maddie's back, and it's enough to make you want to yank your hair out. And once she does catch wind of what's going on, a tense and jumpy cat & mouse game ensues. But much like Michelle from this year's 10 Cloverfield Lane, Maddie is no pushover. She performs a swell amount of craft and quick-thinking of her own to combat the psycho, making the story more of a brooding and potentially bloody high-stakes chess match than a helpless hide-and-seek screamfest.

The film actually loses a bit of its punch during the midsection of the brief 80-minute duration, but don't get it twisted, Hush is still a mostly uneasy and frightening experience. Flanagan creates a dark ambience and once again proves to have the technical chops to produce a solid horror flick. There's a lot of jarring shifts between silence and alarms. And it's really the quiet moments that make the heart race: A twist of a door handle, a sudden power outage, a nervous peek out the window.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

[Review] Barbershop: The Next Cut

Brush up the clippers! Barbershop: The Next Cut revisits the old spot for the third installment of the Barbershop series--12 years after the release of Barbershop 2. Has it really been that long? This one just so happens to be the best of the bunch. The film maintains its comedic roots, but it trades in some of the laughs for a tone that is more serious than the usual.

Ice Cube, Cedric the Entertainer, and Eve are still at it. And this time they're joined by Regina Hall, Nicki Minaj, and Common. Once the jokes fly, the gossip ensues, and the occasional roasts are laid, it feels like we never left. The crew is still prideful of their Southside Chicago community, but things haven't been so great lately, as gang warfare and murder rates have risen to beyond-alarming levels. Calvin (Ice Cube's character) now has to focus on straying his own son away from the guns and drugs lifestyle (or randomly getting caught between it). Calvin even contemplates packing up the whole shop and relocating. But before that, the influential hair joint strives to promote a #ceasefire weekend.

Aside from the hilarious banter about social media antics and pop culture (and by 'pop culture' I mean Kanye West and Kim Kardashian of course), there's a lot of relevant commentary on modern relationships, double standards, racism, politics, and violence in the streets. The timely dialogue and narrative is carried out in a thoughtful and progressive manner. Director Malcom D. Lee, along with writers Kenya Barris (creator of ABC's "Black-ish") and Tracy Oliver, seem to have more clearly and successfully accomplished what Spike Lee attempted in last year's divisive and operatic Chi-Raq.

The Next Cut is mostly smooth, but it's not without a couple of slip-ups. Lamorne Morris plays a rookie barber who is primarily used as comic relief amidst the "ish just got real" moments, which would be fine if the majority of those lines didn't fall flat (which isn't all his fault). Tyga is miscast here as a prominent gang leader. The cartoony cheese and the shades of his ridiculed rap persona can't help but bleed through. Fortunately, even Tyga can't bring this great film down. Ice Cube's hearty performance, as well as Cedric the Entertainer's consistently funny presence make up for the mishaps.

What's so striking about the film is the way it faces Chicago's rampant murder crisis. It places the topic at the story's forefront and hits hard with heartfelt emotion. The film also manages to shine a light of hope amidst the ongoing tragedies, and gives powerful testament to keep up the fight for peace.

* 8.8/10 *

Monday, April 18, 2016

[Review] The Jungle Book

Certified hitmaker Jon Favreau (ElfIron Man, Chef) comes strong with a new version of The Jungle Book. I know, I know... Hollywood and their remakes. Disney is currently a prime culprit. And sure, most audiences are tied to their fond memories of the 1967 original, but this is a remake that's worthwhile. It's actually a fresh, visually spectacular enhancement in many ways.

First-time actor Neel Sethi plays Mowgli, "The Man-cub". The voice cast includes Ben Kingsley as the stoic panther guide, Bagheera. Idris Elba is scary perfect as Shere Khan--an angry and scarred tiger with a grudge. Scarlett Johansson hypnotizes as the python Kaa. Bill Murray is the goofy and huggable bear named Baloo. And Christopher Walken stands out as King Louie--The Godfather-esque Gigantopithecus. Amusingly, King Louie is the second mobster mammal to grace theaters within the past two months--the other being the hilarious little shrew in Zootopia.

The premise keeps with the fairly straightforward story of the original. After being raised in the wild, Young Mowgli sets out on a journey through the jungle in order to join a village of his own kind. But this time the narrative is fleshed out, and there's a significant push and pull between where Mowgli truly belongs. While the original version was light and easygoing, this one is heavier on peril, obstacles, and enemies. And in turn, it's a darker and more emotionally involving experience. But it isn't all scary claws and fangs. The cute critters, along with Baloo, provide some levity and comic relief. The film also holds onto a couple of the musical numbers from the original, although they aren't nearly as gleeful here. There's also a bold change to the ending, which I won't go into any further.

What the film ultimately will be recognized for is its marvelous visuals. The digitally animated animals look better than the majority of digitally animated animals that have ever been on the big screen. They're realistically detailed down to the fur strands, texturous scales, and glossy feathers. (The monkeys and elephants are particularly striking.) Whirling tree branches and vines, crisp blades of grass, pounding waterfalls, and rigid mountain formations practically overflow into the theater. It's an immersive endeavor, making great use of the space and covering miles of ground. Instead of just seeing a couple of angles, we get the fully-rounded heart of the jungle views. The imagery is so crisp that I was half-expecting to see dried scat dangling from Baloo's bear butt.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

[Review] The Invitation

Doesn't it seem like a lot of movies are titled with the word "Invitation," or various forms of it? There are a few within the horror/suspense genre alone. And the slow-burning, tension-filled gathering in a single location is practically a subgenre of its own now--the dinner disaster. That's exactly the case with this year's modern as hell VOD release, The Invitation.

It's good not to know much past the initial premise, so I'll keep the plot details to a minimum here. Basically, a group of thirty-somethings (some of them are old friends) all show up to a social event in the Hollywood hills. And that's where I'll end it. Told you I wouldn't give away too much.

Between the dimly lit home, the eerie music, and the suspicious characters (including the occasional weirdo), it's safe to say that the vibes just aren't right at this party. The film steps at a deliberate and quiet pace, but the conversations go beyond small talk. The interactions between the attendees ever-so subtly hint at torn pasts, veiled secrets, and bad intentions. In other words, you know that ish is going to hit the fan eventually. Dread and paranoia pour in like a fine red wine--for the characters, as well as the audience, and we question which situations actually warrant it or not.

The lengthy introduction and mundanities might be off-putting for some viewers, and there comes a point in the film where you can guess what's going to happen, but it's still a matter of exactly why and how it goes down. Director Karyn Kusama's craft at building tension and playing with POV is something to appreciate, and when the climax does indeed finally arrive, it does not disappoint.

If The Invitation sounds enticing to you, then you'd better RSVP.


Monday, April 11, 2016

[Review] Midnight Special

After delivering a trio of excellent Southern Gothic tales--Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, along with a whole lotta Michael Shannon, writer-director Jeff Nichols makes a genre leap to sci-fi with Midnight Special. No, he hasn't gone full Jurassic World or The Force Awakens (even though Adam Driver aka Kylo Ren plays a pivotal role here). In fact, Midnight Special is still a relatively small and subtle film, very much rooted in Nichols' usual themes of parenthood and deep south settings (Guns, Terrain & Automobiles), but this time there's a surreal and supernatural pull to it.

The story opens amidst an Amber Alert. Watching that report on TV from a grungy motel room are the subjects in question: Roy (Michael Shannon), Lucas (Joel Edgerton, The Gift), and an 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). But this is a different kind of abduction. Much different. Even though the two men are strapped with rifles and bulletproof vests, we get the impression that their intentions for Alton are more heroic than criminal. We also learn that Alton possesses a special ability, as well as telekinetic-like powers. Depending on whom you ask, the boy can transmit information from either the Lord or the government. Roy and Lucas plan to deliver Alton to a specific location, where a celestial event is due to occur. But it isn't a smooth journey, especially with Alton's health deteriorating, and not to mention, all the authorities on their trail.

Midnight Special works well as an on-the-run, chase & hide flick, as well as a paranormal mystery. The film never gives too much away. In fact, it hardly gives anything away at all. This keeps the intrigue high, always making you wonder what exactly is up with Alton, how it will all turn out, and what the film itself is conveying. Is it a religious parable? An extraterrestrial spinner? A plight against NSA conspiracies? And the thing is, Nichols goes out of his way to make sure that it doesn't fit into any of those boxes, and that seems to be the major aim. It's a strangeness with elusive meaning--not entirely intended to be figured out our categorized.

2013's Mud (one of the best films of this decade) dwelled in winding creeks, crooked tree branches, and murky river bottoms, and ironically it was infinitely more clear and straightforward with its coming-of-age ambitions and neatly bittersweet ending. Midnight Special on the other hand, looks toward wide open highways, vast fields, and views of the endless sky--literally leaving everything up in the air. Despite the vague and confounding narrative, Nichols manages to coax greatly convincing performances from the cast. Is it even a Jeff Nichols film without Michael Shannon? (He's already slated for Nichols' next film, Loving.)

The ambiguity, unanswered questions, and lack of a fully resonant payoff might frustrate some. Still, I'd say Jeff Nichols is 4/4, creating something here that is both grounded and mystifying. Midnight Special is a difficult one to pin down, but that's also what makes it fascinating. And that might be the film's most lucid point--there are just some things that we don't understand.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

[Review] Hello, My Name is Doris

Sally Field is wonderfully quirky as she essentially plays the human embodiment of a motivational cat poster in this indie comedy Hello, My Name is Doris. It's nearly impossible not to like.

"Are you lost? Do you feel empty?" 

Doris (Field) finds herself nodding yes to these questions as she sits in on a life coach speech. Her hodgepodge attire matches her sporadic personality. She rocks double glasses. Not bifocals--I mean two pairs of glasses at the same time. The next day at work, she has one of those awkward face-to-face encounters with a stranger in an elevator. This stranger is John (Max Greenfield), a young and hip *millennial* (His favorite band is "Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters", a fictional version of Jack Antonoff's Bleachers project). Anyway, Doris catches major feelings for John. Like, steamy daydream fantasy sequence feelings. She decides to pursue him, and some modernized You've Got Mail shenanigans ensue.

This film is quite a pleasure to watch. And you'll rarely see me use a word like this in a film review, but it's... cute. There's a nice amount of humor throughout, especially during a couple of squirmy scenes that evoke nervous giggles. It's filled with a cast that consistently delights. Max Greenfield turns the charm levels way up. Natasha Lyonne ("Orange Is the New Black"), Kumail Nanjiani, and Beth Behrs also appear in likable supporting roles.

But it's absolutely no secret that Sally Field is the tour-de-force here. She's comical, spunky, sympathetic, and fervently emotional. Doris simultaneously chases youth and attempts to hold onto her past. We're always rooting for her, even though her stumbles might make us facepalm or experience vicarious embarrassment. This demographic of lead character is not common in mainstream Hollywood, although there seems to be a slight increase lately, and it's welcome.

The film packages some sugary and agreeable themes that are wound together pretty clear and succinctly. Move on when you need to. Embrace fresh beginnings. Go for what you want. It's still okay to be sentimental. You don't need to only be one thing or the other ("Fresh Vintage!"). Loosen up and enjoy a movie like Hello, My Name is Doris.

It's never too late!


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

[Review] Eye in the Sky

Much like last year's under-the-radar Good Kill, this taut and well-wrought suspense thriller explores the drastic complexities of drone warfare. Eye in the Sky enlists Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips - "Look at me, I am the captain now"). The film also contains the legendary Alan Rickman's final on-screen performance, which of course is a good one.

Operating from a UK military base, Colonel Powell (Mirren) commands a top secret drone mission in an attempt to thwart a suicide bombing in Kenya. Powell works earpiece-to-earpiece with General Benson (Rickman), the pilot tasked with executing the strike (Paul), and an inside man (Abdi). They've got a terrorist safehouse under surveillance--tiny hidden cameras masquerading as birds and insects buzz through the quarters, searching for new intel. "Well that changes things..." Alan Rickman's character says in the most Alan Rickman way ever.

As if things weren't already dicey enough in regards to a capture or kill debate and the varying degrees of collateral damage, the military crew learns that a sweet little girl is in range of the kill zone (there are repeated shots of her hula-hooping to drive home the innocence). This raises the heavy moral questions and dilemmas for everyone. Take the life of one in order to save hundreds, or...? Things get to the point where the ultimate say is passed around like a hot potato between multiple higher-ups, because no one wants to take responsibility for whatever the outcome may be.

It'll make you sweat, it'll make you think, it'll make you want to look away. Not a moment is wasted in this film, as every seat-gripping scene steadily escalates to uncomfortable and heart-racing levels. Director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert do a terrific job with exploring all of intricacies, political and emotional conflicts, and the technological tactics of the situation. The performances are great, as well. Helen Mirren is stern but stressed. Aaron Paul seems to be taking roles that will stop people from forever referring to him as Jesse from "Breaking Bad", even though he carries over some of the same teary-eyed compassion. Alan Rickman is ultra serious and he expertly delivers some stellar lines. There's also an amusing bit near the very beginning of the film that involves his character awkwardly going doll shopping for his granddaughter. But things get so intense afterward that you completely forget about that wonderfully deadpan scene by the end.

Eye in the Sky is extremely timely and manages to be propel its own ambivalence amidst the unfortunate realities. The only conclusion is that there is no easy conclusion.

* 8.5/10 *