Wednesday, August 31, 2016

[Review] War Dogs

Miles Teller and Jonah Hill team up in War Dogs. It's part stoner comedy, part unruly take on the American Dream--containing elements from contemporary flicks like The Interview, Pain & Gain, and The Wolf of Wall Street. But it never reaches the audacious lengths of any of them.

Narrator David (Miles Teller) is sick of wasting away as a massage therapist. His prospects change when his childhood friend Efraim (a sleazy, parachute-pants'd Jonah Hill), who is now an entrepreneurial arms dealer and isn't content with being slapped around (and yes, there's a Scarface mural in his office, because of course there is), makes David a partner. So the two embark on a high stakes mission to ship a load of weapons to the US military in Baghdad. Sounds legit.

There's a lot of exposition to deal with early on, but the weird thing is, once business starts booming the film actually loses most of its potential steam. The midsection is never as comical, dark, or crazy as I'd hoped. It's a middling Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese-Lite. There's even a brief holiday scene that's backed by Darlene Love's classic "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", and it's so uninspired that it doesn't even deserve to be chalked up as a nod to Goodfellas. There is a pretty cool slow-motion sequence of Efraim testing out assault rifles during Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here", though.

A subplot about David's pregnant girlfriend being left in the dark attempts to add some emotional heft, but it's eye-rollingly half-hearted. Some late-narrative moralizing, betrayals of friendship, and the obligatory "crime doesn't pay" message come into play, but we've seen this sort of thing done so much better in the past. I rarely use this as a criticism, but it rings entirely true here: The best parts of this film were shown in the trailer, which makes War Dogs a high stakes disappointment.

( 5.5/10 )

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

[Review] Southside With You

Here's a modern biopic that is so well-made that it probably shouldn't even be called a biopic. Inspired by Barack and Michelle Obama's very first date, Southside With You is a lovely, moving portrait about finding that special someone, even if the first impression is rocky.

It's the summer of 1989, and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) and her colleague--some guy named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) link up to attend a city council meeting. Michelle ardently claims it's not a date, but Barack lightheartedly jokes about not being so convinced. In fact, in addition to the meeting, he's got a couple of plans up his sleeve--like a museum trip and lunch in the park, all leading up to a screening of Spike Lee's buzzing Do the Right Thing.

The whole film takes place over the course of one day, and the Before Sunrise comparisons are fitting (Chris Rock's underrated Top Five also comes to mind). It's a lot of walking and talking, but it's good walking and talking. Terrific, snappy, and subtextual dialogue fills the air on everything from food to college, art to race, and employment to family. Tension and uncomfortable silences even arise when the pair call out each other's contradictions, which also emphasizes their humanity.

Sumpter and Sawyers both give tremendous performances while displaying a convincing chemistry, which is crucial for a film like this. They get the mannerisms and vocal inflections down with a youthful angle in mind, but there's less concentration on spot-on impressions and more focus on establishing fully dimensional characters, and this works to the film's advantage. Michelle is business-driven yet wholesome, idealistic yet well aware of the challenges she faces as the only black woman in a predominantly white law firm. Oh yeah, and she's not easily impressed--even considering Barack's smooth charisma and sporty, poetic charm. Don't think Michelle hasn't noticed his underlying unkemptness, his tendency to arrive late, his chain-smoking habit, and the hole in his car.

There's one scene in the middle that drags on a bit too long, and I also wish the film made more of an effort to develop the backdrop of Chicago as a third character, so-to-speak (especially given the film's title), because I didn't really get a major feel for the city here. Still, Southside With You is an intimate and insightful, well-shot little film with a soulful soundtrack. You get the impression that the story would work pretty well even with iconic names aside, but of course it's the prospective views that lend it tons of significance. It's like a subtle glimpse into the budding romance of power couple. A subtle glimpse into what will become monumental American history.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, August 29, 2016

[Review] Don't Breathe

If this year's home invasion flick with a deaf protagonist Hush and the hostage suspense-thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane (save for the last 10 minutes) had an insane baby together, you'd get Fede Alvarez's impressive new horror film Don't Breathe.

A thief trio comprised of Dylan Minette (Goosebumps), Jane Levy, and Daniel Zovatto have their own Bling Ring operation going on, except instead of glitzy LA they're robbing places in the crumbling Motor City. They set sights on the house of an old blind Army Vet (Stephen Lang) who's sitting on a large sum of settlement money, but it turns out the guy is beyond prepared for a night like this.

Once in the house, Alvarez keeps the tension and stress high with engrossing long takes (or at least the illusion of long takes) through dark and glaringly silent hallways. No paranormal activity will be found here, but it's still a primed atmosphere for shocking jolts and eerie, heart-racing beats. The film utilizes intense sensory details, such as amplified sounds in hollow rooms and disorienting visual tricks. A sequence when the lights go out and the characters have to navigate through a pitch-black (hazy grey to the audience) basement is particularly unnerving. A pair of disturbing reveals in the narrative really up the stakes and set off the slasher/torture genre alarms. There's one divisive and triggering scene that reminded me of a sickening story that could've been ripped from the headlines, reiterating how real-life atrocities can be more horrific than supernatural fiction. But when the tables turn during that scene, it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "Stick it to the man."

Director Fede Alvarez's main credit is 2013's Evil Dead, which I wasn't a huge fan of--mostly because it simply suffered from remake syndrome. But now with him at the helm of a more original feature, he makes a convincing case that he's a horror director to watch out for. It's also intriguing how Don't Breathe is set in a decaying Detroit, which is becoming a notable location for many horror films as a desperate and forgotten ghost town, whether it's the indie vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive, the creepy and much-praised It Follows, this year's jump scare fest Lights Out, the promising Keith Stanfield-starring short King Ripple, or even Ryan Gosling's stark fantasy Lost River.

Don't Breathe is a skillful exercise in ratcheted tension, proving how a few major obstacles and significant twists (and a relentlessly vicious dog) within a confined setting can go a long way. In fact, there are several moments in the final act when you think the film might end, but it doesn't. ("Just when I thought I was out... They pull me back in!") The terror just keeps coming and coming, so much so that even after the screen cuts to the credits, it still doesn't quite feel like we're in the clear.

( 8/10 )

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

[Review] Wiener-Dog

Todd Solondz's Wiener-Dog is essentially the anti-sentimental pet movie. It's dark, strange, deliberately edgy, and straight-up grotesque at times. But just because it's deeply subversive - doesn't mean it's good filmmaking.

After opening with a view of a cloud that looks like a wiener, the story follows the odd path of a Dachshund aka wiener dog who bounces between eccentric owners, including a dysfunctional family (comprised of Tracy Letts, Julie Delpy, Keaton Nigel Cooke), a concerned veterinarian (Greta Gerwig), a screenwriting professor played by Danny DeVito, and more.

Human misery and the thought of inevitable death looms over every single dreary and deadpan vignette in Wiener-Dog. The pseudo-shock humor isn't just offbeat--it's off-putting and pitch-black, whether we're talking about the elegant tracking shot of a trail of diarrhea, or a scene entailing the absolute worst bedtime story ever told in cinema (which involves a rapist dog and a name-drop list of diseases, and that's only scratching the surface). There's a cold, stilted stink to this film. It's like Napoleon Dynamite if all of the mundane absurdities warped into drastic morbidities.

Even as putrid as this thing is, its perverse style is sadistically entrancing for a while. However, it wears out its can't-look-away welcome after the ironic in-movie intermission, which displays a cartoon montage, a country song ode to the wiener dog, and a cue to to take a trip to the lobby for concessions--as if you'd actually want to eat a hot dog at this point.

( 5/10 )

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Friday, August 26, 2016

[Review] Morris from America

"It's kinda slow... It's got no hook," a teen says to his dad after being introduced to "Come Clean" by Jeru the Damaja. His dad responds "Get out of here with that no hook shit... This is music right here," and then only half-jokingly sends him to his room. The classic generation gap argument about rap music endearingly sets the tone for this coming-of-age dramedy that you have to check out.

Morris (Markees Christmas) is a 13-year-old African-American kid adjusting to his new and confusing life in Heidelberg, Germany after his dad Curtis (Craig Robinson) relocated for work. We follow Morris' growing pains and his first-time "experiments", all while he crushes on a super-blonde German girl named Katrin (Lina Keller), who is a couple school grades ahead of him.

Fittingly, the film boasts a smooth rap soundtrack that practically bumps whenever someone isn't talking, almost creating a headphone Pause & Play effect. There's also a whimsy quality to the aesthetic--filled with whip pans, zoom-ins & zoom-outs, and daydream sequences. During a scene when Morris gets lost in his music at an art museum, the sculptures trippingly nod their heads to the beat.

And while we're mostly used to seeing Craig Robinson in straight-up comedic roles, here he's warm, understated, and even a bit melancholy, as his character reflects on his recently passed-away wife. He's also trying to find a balance between being a cool dad and a disciplinary mentor as Morris gets involved in some rebellious shenanigans. But don't get it twisted, the comedy chops are still present and ready to unleash at any minute, and the funny script makes sure it happens.

Morris from America is a little light on conflict and story, but it's a worthwhile watch. Easy listening. The film serves as an affectionate ode to hip-hop, a sentimental father/son story, and a sweet romp of young love and blending unique perspectives. Oh, and there's plenty of Jay Z references. You gotta have the Jay Z references!

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

[Review] Maggie's Plan

Indie staple Greta Gerwig leads the way in this low-key romantic dramedy with a scholarly twist.

The self-anointed "bridge between art and commerce" Maggie (Gerwig) is anxious to become a mother and has an artificial insemination plan all lined up. Meanwhile, she falls for an anthropology professor named John (Ethan Hawke). 3 years later, Maggie and John are now married, but Maggie regrets it. So, she attempts to get John and his haughty ex-wife (Julianne Moore) back together.

It takes a while to get going, and the initial flash-forward is awkwardly abrupt and disjointed, but eventually the narrative settles (kind of) as Maggie engages in an unconventional and freshly spun matchmaker/love triangle role. The script wields around large words, as if it's browsing through the glossary in a college textbook or scrolling through a list of advanced courses with long-ass titles. It's impressive, but also unnecessarily sesquipedalian(!)--like you've been thrown into a random lecture hall against your will. So it'd be completely understandable if the stuffiness was a turn-off for some.

And even if it's by design, Maggie's Plan still can't help but feel a little too confused about which direction it's going in and what exactly it's attempting to achieve, story-wise. It also lacks the utter charm, humor, and heart of, say--Frances Ha or Mistress AmericaHowever, the early screwball scene of Maggie injecting the sperm and then crab-walking across her apartment to answer the door is hilarious. Greta Gerwig is great as always and a little less loopy than usual, while Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph lend some amusing supporting roles as a bickering couple.

Maggie's Plan isn't going to change lives, but if you're a Greta fan, it's worth enrolling in for 90 minutes.

( 7/10 )

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

[Review] Imperium

With Daniel Radcliffe front and center, the new limited/VOD release Imperium delves into the ugly and despicable subculture of white-supremacists. It manages to be different from American History X and even this year's Green Room, but it isn't nearly as potent as either one.

Inspired by real events, Nate (Radcliffe), an introverted and empathetic FBI agent with little experience out in the field, is recruited to go undercover as an informant in order to infiltrate a neo-Nazi organization and thwart their terroristic plots. It's a premise that actually sounds a lot like the Melissa McCarthy comedy Spy--until the skinhead part. Oh, and it's obviously not a comedy...

The film totes a fairly keen screenplay that mines for teetering conflict and dilemmas in every situation that Nate is involved in: The task of deeply establishing a false identity--even getting permanent ink, while attempting to keep any notion of his real self concealed... Being forced to engage in criminal activities that are obviously against his beliefs on multiple levels... The nerve-racking perils of being one slip-up away from death amongst such a ruthless group of people... At one point, he's interrogated for wearing a pair of Levi's, or as his skinhead boss calls them - "Jew Jeans".

Between playing a farting corpse and now a neo-Nazi, it's safe to say Daniel Radcliffe has chosen a variety of audacious roles lately, and even though his English accent sneaks through a bit here, he still does a swell job--essentially playing two multi-dimensional roles within the same film.

Unfortunately, the film itself is not as gritty or impactful as I'd hoped. It loses some tension toward the end, and it takes a really formulaic way out that we've seen dozens of times in undercover fed movies. Still, watch it for Radcliffe.

( 7/10 )

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

[Review] Hell or High Water

Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, and Ben Foster star in this modern western crime drama that sneaks up on you and lights your expectations on fire.

Hell or High Water opens with an exhilarating, rubber-burning sequence that involves a rugged duo of mustached brothers going on a bank-robbing spree in West Texas. Chris Pine plays the in-debt Toby, and Ben Foster is the ex-con Tanner. Meanwhile, an aging Ranger on the verge of retirement (Jeff Bridges) and his partner (Gil Birmingham) are deliberately on their trail.

The midsection sees a lull in the action, but it isn't a bad break. It's more of a calm before the showdown. A waiting game of sorts. We also get to witness some mighty fine acting along the way (and Chris Pine smashing a dude's head into the door of a brand new Mustang). Ben Foster is an absolute goon in this, perfectly playing the scuzzy hothead brother whose life is fueled by trouble. Chris Pine is solid, as his character is a little less rambunctious and more conflicted about the crimes he's committing. At one point, after Tanner causes a scene in a casino, Toby asks "How have you managed to stay out of prison for over a year?" And Tanner responds, "It's been difficult."

It's no surprise that Jeff Bridges is superb here in a notable later-career role that at least deserves to be mentioned alongside Crazy Heart and True Grit. And even though the film carries a fairly serious tone, he's down to shoot some of his scruffy humor into the mix. But on a more somber note, there's a particularly memorable conversation where his weary yet dedicated character ponders when his own time will be up. In a movie with wild chases and ammo exchanges, one of the most striking scenes is a quiet heart-to-heart talk in a motel room. That said, the climax does bring the heat, erupting with a sweaty intensity and a standoff sequence that reminded me of the 1941's Humphrey Bogart vehicle High Sierra, but with a couple of tweaks and Ben Foster shifting into an unhinged gear.

Directed by David Mackenzie (Starred Up) and written by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), Hell or High Water isn't a film where all the ends are neatly tied up. And given the bullet-holes-in-the-windshield nature of the story, it's all the better for it.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, August 22, 2016

[Review] Kubo and the Two Strings

LAIKA Entertainment has built quite a reputation with their signature stop-motion style and significantly darker animated features like Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. And now, the bold and mystical Kubo and the Two Strings valiantly continues that impressive streak.

The journey revolves around our title character Kubo (Art Parkinson), who spends most of his time telling stories with a shamisen and taking care of his ailing mother. The young boy's life dramatically shifts when a twin pair of malevolent, cloaked-in-all-black spirits are awakened with a vendetta. Along with the help of a charmed Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a Beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey), Kubo sets out on a dangerous quest in search of his late father's magical armor.

After a relatively subdued beginning, the film warps into some thrillingly fearsome sequences. When the evil twins first attack, it's the stuff that nightmares are made of. There's also an eerie underwater scene where Kubo is helplessly surrounded by bottom-dwelling cyclops creatures. A sword retrieval mission in an ancient temple occupied by a gigantic skeleton is one of the pinnacles, playing out like an Indiana Jones or Lord of the Rings scenario. But there's an abundance of beauty to balance out the menacing darkness, too. The visuals boast a series of gorgeously framed imagery, filled with stunningly unique production design: Candle-lit tributes to the fallen floating down a stream between mountains, a flourishing romp of energetic origami figures, and a tall ship made of leaves sailing in a mirrored sea and sky that looks like something from Life of Pi. And that's only during the first half!

McConaughey's Beetle character is a huge source of comic relief. The guy is a scream. In fact, the film itself is much funnier than what the trailers hinted at. As expected, the narrative also conveys some poignant notes that deal with the loss of family and holding onto memories. It all culminates during an intense and scary climax that recalls the themes of Coraline and ParaNorman in which a young child must confront a destructive supernatural opposition. The protagonist's true power is driven by heart and courage, and this is greatly uplifted with a glorious and chilling musical score.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a wonderfully told tale about the importance of wonderfully told tales. It's creepy, humorous, exquisitely dreamy, and highly emotional. It's my favorite animated film of 2016 so far.

* 9/10 *

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Thursday, August 18, 2016

[Review] Pete's Dragon

Between The Jungle Book, The Legend of Tarzan, Captain Fantastic, and now Pete's Dragon--there have been a lot of boys being raised in the wild this year. Director David Lowery remakes Disney's 1977 musical with live action and CGI, and the result is fairly lovely, for the most part.

After an off-road car crash, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is left alone in the woods until he meets a friendly, furry dragon (he's basically presented as big green dog with wings) who we'll come to know as Elliott. Eventually, a skeptical forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World) and her legend-telling father (Robert Redford) discover the hidden secret and work to preserve the beast.

It's part fish-out-of-water (more appropriately, boy-out-of-woods) adoption story. Part familiar E.T. and Iron Giant territory. Part Monster Quest. Part "FREE ELLIOTT." Along with a couple of majestic scenes of the dragon pal flying above the attractive horizon, there's also some pleasant montages of Pete curiously navigating his newfound life in town. The sequences are boosted with a prominent folk soundtrack, which often lends the quality of a narrative music video to the movie.

But amidst the beauty, there's a lot of bad dialogue and cringeworthy acting put up with. Karl Urban, who has displayed some great turns in stuff like The Lord of the Rings and the new Star Trek reboots, plays a one-dimensional prick of a hunter in this. You'll likely want to punch him in the face or hope that Elliott tosses him into the distance. That said, Isiah Whitlock Jr. aka Clay Davis from "The Wire" shows up here as a sheriff, and when he first lays eyes upon the dragon, he pauses and intently utters, "Oh my word..." If you've seen "The Wire", you'll probably imagine him saying something else. Whether it's a conscious nod or not, it's one of the better line deliveries in the film.

So despite some of the cheesiness in the midsection, Pete's Dragon is still a sweet and fantastical film for the family. (It could've used more Redford though.) It's all about bonding and friendships. I even got a bit of dragon mist in my eyes at the end. We sure love our creatures, don't we?

( 7.5/10 )

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

[Review] Indignation

1. strong displeasure at something considered unjust, offensive, insulting, or base; righteous anger

Logan Lerman (you might recognize him as Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is the bright freshman in James Schamus' poised debut feature, Indignation--an engrossing time bomb adaptation of Philip Roth's novel of the same name.

Dusted with a soft glow and steeped in genuine period detail, the film follows Marcus (Lerman), a young Jewish man working at a Kosher butcher shop in Newark. As Marcus' friends are shipping off to the Korean War, an academic scholarship saves him from battle. At school, he meets the radiant, inquisitive, and complicated Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon, an "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" alum).

What begins as a somewhat typical first year of college tour with a surprisingly good amount of subtle humor (and an awkward BJ), ends up taking a dark and dramatic turn when Marcus learns Olivia Hutton has a suicidal past and is a former psychiatric hospital patient. The narrative approaches the tough topic of mental illness, the drawbacks of conformity, and the complex chains of fateful events and choices that ultimately lead people to their death--all viewed through an early 1950s lens.

The story deliberately burns with talky, lengthy scenes--stacked with astute dialogue and escalating conflict. This is most prominent during the film's brilliant centerpiece--a sprawling conversation between Marcus and the Dean (an excellent Tracy Letts). It's likely one of the longest scenes of the year (it pushes toward 20 minutes) and it'll be a major point of discussion for those who see this. You'll be wondering if it'll ever end--but not in a bad way. It's a damned good scene. A real forehead sweat-wiper. It goes from small talk to serious business to heated arguments to interrogations to outbursts and to--yes, puking. It also produces some golf clap-worthy exchanges of sharp and loaded diction, exhaustive exercises in fundamental logic, and breathtakingly sustained tension.

Given the film's literary nature, it sure helps that this thing is so well-acted. There's some remarkable supporting turns from Tracy Letts and Linda Emond (Marcus' mother). And Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon's leading performances are beyond skin-deep, exhibiting inner turmoils that mesh with the film's drab and somber tone. Indignation finishes as a major downer--the type of conclusion that would leave you feeling empty if you didn't already have knots in your stomach. It probably isn't a film you'd rush to watch again--not just because it makes you feel bad, but also because it'll linger with you long afterwards. 

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

[Review] Florence Foster Jenkins

Another year, another potential Oscar-driven role for Meryl Streep. Here, she plays soprano Florence Foster Jenkins in this Stephen Frears-directed film that finds delight within off-key moments.

Music is the livelihood of Florence Foster Jenkins. The only problem is that she can't sing worth a darn. The sour notes she hits are enough to raise demons from the depths of Hell, and her husband and personal assistant St. Clair (Hugh Grant) refuses to tell her the truth. After Florence hires a young, skittish piano prodigy Cosme (Simon Helberg, "Big Bang Theory") to accompany her for an opera concert at Carnegie Hall, the levels of sympathetic embarrassment shatter the windows.

The film contains a merry and pleasant script, but the real comedy comes from all the emphasized facial expressions--whether it's Cosme trying to keep it cool when he hears Florence "sing" for the first time, or when the audience witnesses her belt out a wretchedly piercing "Ha-Ha-HAAA..." But Florence's kind personality and clear obliviousness eventually makes us feel bad for her. Not to mention, she's secretly dealing with a troubling disease, which certainly adds an underlying sadness.

It's no surprise that Streep is terrific here, and it's a perfectly Streepish role. Hugh Grant brings his usual charm and he forms his character with a decent amount of dimension. Simon Helberg is amusingly nervous and awkward, and a nice source of mirth. All that said, the one who often steals the show is an eccentric socialite played by Nina Arianda (Broadway's Venus in Fur) in a hysterically comedic turn. A particular post-party morning hangover sequence, as well as a riotous scene where she audaciously lashes out against the audience, are both a hoot.

Florence Foster Jenkins isn't quite a primetime encore, but it's a nice afternoon crowd-pleaser.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, August 15, 2016

[Review] Sausage Party

You can almost picture Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and collaborator Evan Goldberg sitting around smoking copious amounts of weed together and then creating the ludicrous script for the raunchy hot trash that is Sausage Party. Yeah, it's a rare R-rated animated comedy. And yeah, the buzzing trailer prompted a lot of Facebook posts. But this subpar gimmick isn't nearly as clever or spicy as it thinks it is. The movie reminds me of when someone tells you the plot to a story idea that they randomly came up with, and it sounds awful, but they go through with it anyway. Or when someone tells you about their dream from last night, but they're the only person infatuated with it.

The film revolves around a grocery store and the anthropomorphic food items that occupy the aisles. Seth Rogen voices a Hot Dog named Frank, while Kristen Wiig plays his love interest--a bun named Brenda. Frank's single motivation is to get his wiener into Brenda's buns, which is about as humorous and imaginative as a pervy uncle writing popsicle stick jokes. Anyway, every food has hopes of being picked out by the "Gods" (humans) to go off into the light that awaits beyond the automatic doors. But instead, reality hits as the produce is tortuously sliced and chopped, cooked and boiled.

Rounding out the list of groceries is a Hitler-esque jar of Sauerkraut that hates "Juice" (Ha, get it?), Bill Hader as a Native American bottle of booze, the Salma Hayek-voiced taco, Craig Robinson as Mr. Grits, and a Jersey Shore "Guido"/ Boston Bro mix who doubles as an actual Douche. That's one of the characterizations that initially had chuckle-worthy potential, but the guy is ultimately too rapey to laugh at. Edward Norton as a bagel and Michael Cera as a little sausage are the only true highlights, lending some amusing voicework to the least obnoxious incarnations of the bunch.

For the majority of the trip, Sausage Party spoils and rots with overstretched one-note gags, predictable puns, juvenile innuendos, and bottom shelf stereotypes. During the messy climax (which involves a food fight, food sex, and bath salts--yes, you read that right), the film attempts to flip its possible offensiveness with a half-hearted "We should all put aside our differences and come together" sentiment, as well as a big dose of self-awareness. However, it feels more like a frat boy version of the "I'm not racist... I have a black friend" response. The movie also smashes you over the head with a "RELIGION IS BAD!" message in such a constant and on-the-nose way that even people who agree might be thinking, "Okay, we get it dude."

And even if you look past the not-PC alarms, the film's problem is that it's just not very funny. South Park has been doing this sort of thing for years (years!), and in a more effectively caustic manner, even during the show's less-than-savory phases. I mean, at this stage in the game, watching animated food engage in a smang fest is one of the least outrageous things we could witness. The script is littered with F-bombs to once again remind you that you're watching an R-rated cartoon (isn't it CRAZY?!), but it just comes across like a bratty elementary school kid who just discovered swear words.

Sausage Party isn't fresh at all; it's fucking expired.

( 3/10 )

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

[Review] The Little Prince

"Growing up is not the problem. Forgetting is."

This animated gem came out in several countries last year, but it had difficulties landing a stateside release, for unfortunate reasons. However, we can now thank the almighty Netflix for picking up The Little Prince and making it available to watch in the US. I highly recommend seeking this one out. You don't even have to leave your couch! But this adventurous film might inspire you to do so anyway.

Adapted from a beloved French novella, The Little Prince fleshes out the story through the eyes of The Little Girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy), a curious soul with an overwhelmingly structured life. She befriends her next-door neighbor--an eccentric old Aviator (Jeff Bridges) and learns of his whimsical tales about a magical Little Prince (Riley Osborne) who resides in outer space.

The film alternates between impressively vivid, sleek 3D-style animation and wondrously charming stop-motion that appears to be as light and delicate as paper figures. It's all enhanced with a sweet, soothing, and melodic soundtrack. The narrative lifts off to some poignant and heartfelt levels, propelling toward a few clever and revelatory twists in the second half. The stacked supporting cast, who refreshingly sound almost unrecognizable, includes: Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, James Franco, Marion Cotillard, Benicio del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Paul Giamatti, and Albert Brooks.

The Little Prince is a gentle yet magnificent film about escaping all the hustle & bustle and stopping to smell the roses. Appreciate beauty. Look toward the stars. And don't leave your imagination behind.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, August 8, 2016

[Review] Suicide Squad

As the film's showdown approaches, the smooth sniper Deadshot (Will Smith) gazes up at a destructive force summoned by the story's witchy villain Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), and he reluctantly says: "We're going into the swirling ring of trash in the sky." Now, I'm not going to call Suicide Squad a "swirling ring of trash", but it's definitely a poorly assembled waste of resources.

After the sloggy match between icons Batman v Superman dropped into theaters with thuds of disappointment, there was a shred of hope that Suicide Squad might at least inject some spunk into the DC Cinematic Universe, even though the teasers hinted at a lesser version of Marvel's phenomenal Guardians of the Galaxy. The frustrating thing about the final product is that there's a notion of some cool stuff going on here, but the film fundamentally screws itself over.

Hard-nosed government official (Viola Davis) devises a plan to put together a task force of incarcerated supervillains in order to fight crime in the streets. Aside from the already mentioned Deadshot, the unhinged bunch of criminals include: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Boomerang (Jai Courtney), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

With muddy editing and haphazard tampers running amok, the narrative spends tons of time on intros. And while it's nice to get some background on these goons, it can't help but feel like a disjointed dump of exposition. Some flashbacks drag too long, while others are insanely rushed. A prime example of a misstep is the video game-like descriptions that appear on the screen with each character--the graphics literally whiz by too fast to even read, so they might as well not be there at all.

That said, the Suicide Squad boasts a deliciously vile crew. Harley Quinn is a standout and is guaranteed to be a fan favorite with her sly and conniving wit, comic timing, disheveled sexiness, and yes--her self-proclaimed craziness. She flaunts a dollish aesthetic but will bash your head with a baseball bat in a heartbeat. Margot Robbie seems to be having a ball (pun kind of intended) in this role. Will Smith gets a solid amount of screentime too. The charismatic action veteran thrives well in this setting and delivers plenty of attitude when given the chance, and we get to see him light up a glut of targets while "Black Skinhead" by Kanye West plays. The rest of the squad is just kind of there.

The much-hyped Jared Leto is fine as this maniacal and flamboyant version of The Joker, but he's seriously only in the movie for a total of 10 minutes. More peripheral than pivotal. And it goes without saying that he doesn't capture the dark, fear-inducing sad clown vibes of Heath Ledger's notorious turn (R.I.P.). Enchantress, while supernaturally powerful, isn't a great villain. She's conceived with cringe-inducing scenes of special effects that make it look as if a ghoul from 2016's Ghostbusters teleported into the wrong movie. The putrid cinematography and lighting doesn't help matters either. The entire picture is cloaked in a dulling darkness, and not in a slick shadowy way. Sometimes it's difficult to make out facial expressions, let alone see what's going on. At one point, I actually thought to myself, "Wait, did I accidentally wear sunglasses into the theater?"

Director David Ayer has helmed some heavily intense films like the gritty cop drama End of Watch and the gruesome tank thriller Fury. Unfortunately, none of that intensity or camaraderie comes across here, even amidst all the combat and forced teamwork. The arcs and moments of "bonding" toward the end fall flat. The word "Family" is risibly tossed around, and I'm like "Yo, you guys have barely even interacted... and wait, which one are you again?" Those glaring pitfalls show just how much Suicide Squad lacks in the heart and endearing character department compared to Guardians of the Galaxy. There's an underlying theme about the dangerous prisoners doing something worthwhile with their potent skills, but it's still unearned and underdeveloped.

Suicide Squad is a Hot Topic-core spectacle. A moving Halloween costume on steroids. A Slim Shady fever dream. A spark of Tumblr .gif fandom. Fun and stylish at times, but too flawed and messy to fully rock with. It's basically the cinematic equivalent of that fedora "What you think you look like" vs "What you really look like" meme. It isn't as brooding, edgy, funny or entertaining as it's aiming to be. What could have been a sharp kick of sadistic badassery, ends up being a significant miss.

( 5.5/10 )

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Thursday, August 4, 2016

[Review] Born to Be Blue

One of two fictional renditions from this year about a famous jazz trumpeter (the other being Miles Ahead), Born to Be Blue sees Ethan Hawke playing the "Prince of Cool" Chet Baker.

It's 1966--about a decade after the heyday musical career of Chet Baker (Hawke, soft spoken and donning gapped teeth) and in the heat of his decline. The film covers the artist's intense heroin addiction, his money problems and run-ins with drug dealers, and his steamy relationship with a supportive woman named Jane (Carmen Ejogo)--all while he attempts to mount a comeback.

Ethan Hawke is impressively melancholy and vulnerable here--he plays it like a finely tuned mess of someone who just can't get it together. Carmen Ejogo is exceptional too, and the pair displays some convincing chemistry. The picture is remarkably well-shot and framed, dwelling in an old-fashioned layer of sepia tone, interspersed with smokey black & white flashbacks scenes. During a tremendously awkward stay at Chet's parents' home in Oklahoma, the initially confined world unfolds to pretty views of wide open, natural-lit scenery of countrysides under skies of fluffy billowing clouds. And of course, all of this is backed with a terrific jazz soundtrack--as it should be.

The film moves at a patient rhythm, almost too patient. And the story wanders mellowly without a major key to any direction or build, which is often the case with music biopics. Despite the pacing issues, Born to Be Blue is still a well-performed and fairly rich portrait of a brilliant musician troubled by an all-too-common addiction.

( 7/10 )

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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

[Review] Kung Fu Panda 3

I know, this one is a little late. But according to the "Panda way", oversleeping is a requirement. Anyway, Jennifer Yuh Nelson & Alessandro Carloni's Kung Fu Panda 3 gracefully continues a solid streak for the well-liked franchise.

In the opening sequence, the film's villain Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons) is unleashed, and this long-horned Yak warrior is one powerful dude. Then, we catch up with our unassuming panda--the roly-poly Po (Jack Black), who is now a Dragon Master. Early on, Po reunites (and by "reunites" I mean "bumps bellies") with his long lost biological father (Bryan Cranston), who leads him toward a sacred place to get his 'Qi' up, which is the only possible way to kick Kai's butt.

This beautifully animated film renders itself a cut above most of the big studio modern 3D-styled products. It displays a textured look, rather than that smooth balloony stuff. The wonderfully detailed backgrounds, vibrant colors, and frenetic frames make for some dazzling sequences: An epic battle between Kai and Oogway (a Kung Fu Tortoise) in the abstract spiritual realm. An ethereal trip down a glowing hall of heros and treasures. A magnificent introduction to a secret panda village that's located where green grass, waterfalls, and snowy mountains converge. The visuals employ a variety of aesthetics--The "ancient tale" sequences break into attractive 2D sketches, and the eye-popping training sessions kick through a series of different color schemes (Hero comes to mind).

And in addition to the voice actors mentioned earlier, the cast includes a bunch of notable names like Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Kate Hudson, James Hong, and Jackie Chan. The legendary Guillermo del Toro is on board as executive producer, and the ever-consistent Hans Zimmer provides the spirited and enchanting musical score.

The jovial story moves at a really swift pace, and it possesses a low key sense of humor that never tries too hard (looking at you, Secret Life of Pets and Angry Birds). It also carries a big, big panda heart. During a poignant reflection on the past, we witness the tragic scene of Po getting split from his parents amidst a fiery war. The film fully embraces the importance of Po's adoptive father and his biological father. And mostly, it's all about rising to the occasion and "Being the best you that you can be." I wanted to give Kung Fu Panda 3 a big, big panda hug.

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

[Review] Captain Fantastic

No, Captain Fantastic is not a Marvel superhero movie. But it is an under-the-radar indie gem that certainly deserves an audience. With shades of David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche, Joe) and Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), writer/director Matt Ross' first major feature is a road trip movie that carves out its own unique identity. And it stars Viggo "The King" Mortensen.

The story revolves around Ben (a grizzly Mortensen) and his six kids who live off the land and reside in a shack deep within a Pacific Northwest forest. They're extremely equipped for the wilderness and impressively book-smart, but they have no social experience with the densely populated world. After their mother passes away, the family decides to journey into the city in order to attend the funeral and carry out her last wishes, despite the opposition of Ben's stern father-in-law (Frank Langella).

The scenic, exquisitely shot film sports some great views of mountain ranges. And thematically, it explores both sides of the off-the-grid / capitalist society spectrum. The culture clash creates some painfully uncomfortable sequences: A dinner at Ben's sister's house... The oldest son's first sexual encounter... I won't mention the huge one that comes late in the game. The script weaves in thought-provoking topics of philosophy, religion, politics, parenting, education, lifestyle choices, and mental illness. And instead of getting too absolute in any direction, it more-so touches upon the intricacies of each.

Viggo gives a terrific performance, fully embodying the rugged, flawed, and complicated character while demonstrating a wide scope of emotion. At times, we question his judgement, and other times we respect the heck out of him. There's a sympathy there, especially because of how strongly he believes what he's doing is right, along with the revelatory motivations behind it. (Also, be prepared to see Aragorn's sword.) All the kids are great and fully convincing too. They act exactly how you'd think they would, considering the environment they've been raised in. George MacKay (the oldest son) in particular is a breakthrough. And while some films may have portrayed Frank Langella's character as an obstructive villain, Captain Fantastic is too richly complex to go that route.

Captain Fantastic is poignant, humorous, bizarre, and fascinating ("interesting" isn't allowed).

( 8/10 )

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Monday, August 1, 2016

[Review] Café Society

This year's Woody Allen film takes a dive into throwback-era Hollywood, and sees Adventureland co-stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart reuniting for the third time. Café Society is light, charming, and fluffy stuff that also looks glamorous.

1930s. Bobby (Eisenberg) travels from the Bronx to Hollywood, in hopes to break into the entertainment industry with some help from his hotshot agent uncle (Steve Carell). In the process, Bobby falls for the company's secretary and aspiring actress, Vonnie (Stewart). Starry-eyed melodrama ensues, a sticky love triangle forms, and there's even some Goodfellas-lite mafia activity.

The setting and story is indeed remarkably familiar territory, but this is still an enjoyable romp. As you'd expect, the script is sharp and talky--containing bundles of Tinseltown lingo, chuckle-worthy exchanges, and juicily awkward moments. The film's refreshingly vintage period detail is showcased with a fittingly polished sheen under glitzy, flattering light. The tone is drenched in nostalgia, similar to the way that Midnight in Paris captured old Paris.

The performances are great across the board. Jesse Eisenberg thrives within the Woody Allen aesthetic. Kristen Stewart is stellar with her alluring expressions (I think a lot of people are still sleeping on her post-Twilight talents). Steve Carell continues to transform into a serious chameleon. I also had to fist pump when Tony Sirico aka Paulie Walnuts from "The Sopranos" made a brief appearance.

About midway through, there's a turning point where Café Society loses most of its conflict and intrigue. It's still watchable, but it goes through a period of meandering before it picks back up during the final act. The payoff and conclusion might underwhelm some audiences, but it's consistent with the film's straightforward themes: People change. Places change. But some feelings never die.

( 7/10 )

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