Saturday, May 27, 2017

[Review] Hounds of Love

Ben Young's Hounds of Love is a tortuous, difficult-to-watch crime-thriller from way Down Under. And let's just say there isn't much love or friendly puppies involved.

It's set in Perth during the mid '80s and the plot sees a young woman named Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) suddenly get kidnapped by a deranged serial killer couple (played greatly and creepily by Emma Booth and Stephen Curry--yes you read that right, and no it isn't the NBA star). From there, Vicki is chained up, abused, and held captive in a fight for survival and escape.

It pretty much goes without saying, but this is a sinister and sadistic film. There's a major sense of dread and helplessness. But it's engrossing. And gripping--enough to make you want to see how it all turns out in the end. I've seen this billed as a horror film, but that's a little misleading. It's definitely horrific and disturbing, but it isn't a *horror film* in the traditional sense. Its stark realism and overall grittiness reminded me of another grisly Australian crime story called Snowtown (or The Snowtown Murders). There are a bit of a post-It Follows vibes to it though--the slow-gliding voyeuristic camera pans, the static-y synths, and the fact that a lot of the ugly stuff takes place in broad daylight.

The pace can be on the slower side, but the great performances from the three mains always keep things interesting. And that ending, oh that ending.

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

[Review] Norman

Richard Gere gives a great central performance in the otherwise convoluted Norman.

Gere, of course, plays the title character. Norman is a low-level wheeler and dealer in New York City. He's more of a cold-shot than a hot-shot. The guy who "knows a guy" but no one really knows him. He'd hand you his business card twice during one meeting. But when Norman befriends the future Prime Minister of Israel (played by Lior Ashkenazi), he gets in over his head. And well, the film is exactly what its subtitle entails: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.

Disappointingly, like Norman, the film never really finds its own identity, as it dabbles in many directions and isn't very successful in any of them. It wants to be a drama, but despite creating some high-stakes conflicts and complications, it never really feels that urgent or emotionally engaging. It wants to be a comedy, but it's just not that funny, save for a couple of psshhh moments, at best. And it wants to be a character study, but it never really dives past the one-note layer of Norman. It's also extremely dialogue heavy (and not in a snappy way), comprised of countless phone calls and meetings that just aren't that interesting, making this film frankly difficult to invest in.

On the bright side, Richard Gere is the best he's been in years, disappearing into this role with finely-tuned skill. Lior Ashkenazi is pitch-perfect and should probably be in the underrated actors discussion. The always welcomed Steve Buscemi adds a bit of levity, playing an F-bomb dropping Rabbi. Charlotte Gainsbourg has a brief, but effective appearance. And Hank Azaria even shows up in a small role.

But unfortunately, the solid cast doesn't really bail out Norman in the end.

( 6/10 )

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Monday, May 22, 2017

[Review] Alien: Covenant

Ridley Scott returns to the bleak and futuristic outer-world of the Alien franchise with Alien: Covenant, which operates as a sequel to 2012's Prometheus (a film that I liked more than most people did, it seems). The results are mixed, but this space excursion still has enough exhilarating elements to make it an engrossing cinematic experience in its own right.

Daniels (Katherine Waterston), Oram (Billy Crudup), Tennessee (Danny McBride), and synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender) are the notables comprising a space crew aboard Covenant, a colony mission ship bound for planet Origae-6. But along the way (a very long way) they stop at a surprise planet. What initially looks like a habitable environment, turns into an absolute nightmare.

The film is a little slow-moving at first, but after the planet touchdown, it dives into a nerve-wrecking and grotesque tale of discovery with plenty of nasty run-ins with face-crushers and chest-busters. The alien attack sequences are frankly horrifying to watch, like squirm-in-your-seat horrifying. Amidst the journey, there are a couple head-scratching moments, some stilted dialogue, and uneven pacing that's as clunky as the spacecraft landings. But the thrills and visual splendor are undeniable--from the grandly stark scale of the settings, to the precise framing, to the aesthetic threads of mythology and zoology.

Narrative-wise, the film doesn't exactly cover uncharted territory, but what it does do really well is establish a scary-good antagonist. And honestly, you can't always say that about high-concept genre films nowadays. The cast is solid, too. Fassbender displays his restrained excellence, essentially playing two different roles. Waterston, while a bit bland, emerges as the emotional backbone of the duration. And then there's the highlight Danny McBride, amusingly being Danny McBride in space. Early on, he pulls out a bottle of whiskey to honor a fallen crew member, because of course he does.

So even though it's burdened by a few flaws and the weight of past comparisons, Alien: Covenant isn't a bad ride. It's truly an extraterrestrial gothic. A provocative rumination on gods and creation, humans and artificial intelligence, monsters and life.

( 7.5/10 )

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

[Review] A Dark Song

Mounting as the directorial debut of Liam Gavin, the Irish indie film A Dark Song is an utterly drab exercise in black magic horror. It's quite the epitome of a slow burn, but unfortunately it possesses more 'slow' than 'burn'.

After hiring an ornery occultist named Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram), the determined Sophia (Catherine Walker) purchases a big old house in the middle of nowhere--the type of place that "We Buy Ugly Houses" wouldn't even want to touch. The two use the home as place to conduct a dangerous and exhausting ritual in order for Sophia to get in touch with her son on the other side.

Unlike most horror films of this ilk, A Dark Song focuses more on the build-up and process of the ritual, rather than what happens after the ritual (aka the breakthrough). It's an interesting spin, but not the scariest or most exciting. The film is full of painstaking preparations and meticulous mediations that test the patience of both us and the characters. Talking to the dead, apparently it's a lot of work! Everything has to go perfectly. The list of details is practically longer Mariah Carey's tour rider.

But the film does nail it in the mood and atmosphere section. The ominous musical score scrapes against your nerves like an untuned violin. The scenic views of the strange skies and countrysides come as a breath of fresh air from the claustrophobic bleakness within the house. And the quick-cutting flashes of the supernatural during the film's climax are really unsettling.

So I appreciated the film's relentless commitment to its craft, even if it isn't entirely worth it in the end.

( 7/10 )

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

[Review] Snatched

Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer are the goofy mother-daughter duo in Snatched, a vacation-gone-wrong film that unfortunately goes wrong itself.

After losing her job and getting dumped, the unabashed adventurer Emily and her extremely cautious mom Linda embark on an impromptu trip to Ecuador. The expected fish-out-of-water follies--or more specifically--American blondes-in-the-tropics follies ensue. But things get treacherous when the two vacationers get kidnapped and held for ransom by a gang of criminals.

It does come with a bit of self-aware humor, playing into ditzy and uncultured tourist tropes, even winkingly implying that the main characters might be worse than the actual kidnappers. With a tongue-in-cheek line, Emily says "We're not just white assholes." By the way, didn't The Chainsmokers recently say something similar? Anyhow, the self-poking doesn't necessarily make this raunchy comedy an appealing or enjoyable getaway. Schumer and Hawn totally have the potential to be a fun team, but the material they're given is so haphazard, ill-advised, and over-the-top in some of the worst ways. This is a case where the stars' series of promotional appearances on talk shows were funnier and more likable than anything in the actual movie.

The first 30 minutes or so aren't bad though, diving into some mother/daughter dynamics and humor that actually lands. (Okay, so one of the bits is a fart joke, but I laughed.) However, once the kidnapping plot kicks in, the film--aside from an amusing appearance from Christopher Meloni as an inept explorer--devolves into streaks of eye-rolling action, gross-outs, and crude humor, pushing things to the edge only to come off as a shallow romp of foreign country fears. I got the impression that this film could've been a lot better if it had gone in any other direction than the one chosen. I mean, not ANY direction, but you get what I'm saying. Like its characters, it probably should've just stayed put.

( 5/10 )

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

[Review] Small Crimes

Netflix Original films can be hit or miss. This year the streaming platform has released some great ones like Burning Sands and I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore, and some dismal ones like The Discovery and whatever Adam Sandler has been up. Small Crimes falls somewhere in between.

Nikolaj "The Kingslayer" Coster-Waldau plays Joe, a disgraced ex-cop who gets released from prison, striving for a second chance and an opportunity see his daughters again. But trouble follows him just as much as he follows trouble, and he digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole of corruption.

While its title is vague and indistinct, the film's dialogue and visual cues come across as a bit too on-the-nose for their own good--like the way the script rattles off clunky exposition of past events, or the scene where Joe grips an AA sobriety coin while he tosses back a couple shots at the bar. Still, it's an okay little crime drama and a mildly serviceable story of a botched attempt at redemption. It contains some surprisingly pulpy violence, messy dilemmas, and memorable performances from secondary characters--most notably from Macon Blair (Blue Ruin, Green Room, & director of the aforementioned I Don't Feel At Home...), who also serves as a co-writer here.

Nikolaj is competent enough in this shaggy role if you can forgive his Danish accent that often sneaks through. But compared to how great he is as Jaime Lannister in "Game of Thrones", he sometimes can seem sort of stilted and uncomfortable in other things, and this film is no exception. And if the filmmakers were trying to make his character sympathetic, well, it doesn't work. A lot of Joe's problems are of his own doing, and he pretty much effs over everyone he comes in contact with. But maybe that's the point. Some people are just too far gone, and redemption isn't even an option.

( 6.5/10 )

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

[Review] My Life as a Zucchini

The French-language film My Life as a Zucchini (also known as My Life as a Courgette) is an animated picture of a darker, sadder, more somber variety. But don't let that stray you away, because this Oscar-nominated film is truly a bittersweet gem in the rough.

We follow the young Courgette (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) as he moves into a foster home--the blue shadows under his eyes--an all-too-poignant form of baggage. We witness his ups and downs--from his bouts-to-bonds with a bully named Simon (Paulin Jaccoud), to his crushing on Camille (Sixtine Murat), a precocious new resident of the foster home. During the stay we also learn about the backstories of the other children, and in turn, wonder where they'll end up in the future.

Aesthetically, the film is molded with quirky, artful, and meticulously detailed stop-motion animation. The character designs are sort of Tim Burton-esque, think Frankenweenie but with a lot more color. There are some really cool-looking sequences throughout that display a childlike sense of wonderment, even amidst the melancholy tone and unfortunate circumstances in the story.

Emotionally, it's the type of film that'll cause you to well up within the first 10 minutes. Depressing, tender, and heartfelt all at once. "There is no one left to love us," one of the kids says. The narrative carries themes of belonging, lingering trauma, and the complicated push-and-pull between foster life and family life. It actually has a lot in common with an excellent indie film from 2013 called Short Term 12. All of the characters are so well-developed that we really get a significant hint of their personalities and feelings, even within the short amount of time we spend with them.

And I mean very short. In fact, the film's runtime barely eclipses an hour. My Life as a Zucchini is a small but moving, sad but charming film that leaves a big impact.

* 8.5/10 *

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

[Review] The Age of Shadows

Kim Jee-woon's epic spy thriller The Age of Shadows has a lot in common with Park Chan-wook's recent The Handmaiden. Not so much in story, but very much in setting and style. Both take place in the1920s during Japanese-occupied Korea. Both flaunt a grand duration that's full of twists and turns. Both are lavishly cinematic. And simply put--both are excellent.

The plot sees an elaborate cat-and-mouse game ensue between captain of the Japanese police force Lee Jung-chool (Song Kang-ho, Snowpiercer) and resistance fighter Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo, Train to Busan). As with espionage tales, the best thing to do is to expect the unexpected. This is a high-stakes chess match. A deceptive who's who. A strenuous exercise in which side are you on?

Director Kim Jee-woon has some great films under his belt (including A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw The Devil), and he wields his strengths here, running the gamut between slow-burning drama and rousing setpieces---from hot pursuits across rooftops, to mafia-styled street shootouts, to a suspense-filled clash on a moving train. The film's big montage of a climax even reminded me of a film called The Godfather (maybe you've heard of it). Anyway, it's all captured with remarkably lush cinematography--you know, it's one of those films where you just have to admire how grand and polished everything looks. The technical aspects are all top-notch--the careful period detail, the fittingly high-contrast lighting, the immersive sound design. It's not afraid to get ugly and graphic either. In one of the opening scenes, a guy rips off his own dangling toe during a battle.

The runtime for The Age of Shadows clocks in at nearly two and a half hours, but it feels justified. Sure, there are slower moments, but there are never DULL moments. In fact, you really need all the time you can get in order to keep up with this dexterous, head-spinning story.

( 8/10 )

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Monday, May 8, 2017

[Review] Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Let me just say that I absolutely LOVED the first Guardians of the Galaxy film. So much so that it landed at the #1 spot on my Top 25 Films of 2014 list. So of course I was excited for the sequel, but also very cautious. However, with James Gunn back aboard as writer/director, I should've let my worries rest, because Vol. 2 is another blast. And while it by default doesn't match the sensational surprise and freshness of it's predecessor, it's still a rollicking, gooey, extraterrestrial fun time.

The crew of ragtags-to-lovable heros: Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) all return for another round of space escapades and interplanetary battles. But this time Star-Lord is faced with some dad drama when he finally meets his long lost God-like father (played by a perfectly cast Kurt Russell), who almost seems too good to be true. Hmmm...

This thing is endlessly entertaining and gleefully crowd-pleasing. The dazzling visual effects... The charming, sometimes Looney Toons-esque camp... The well-curated soundtrack of classic rock & soul songs that pop against the film's arcade colors and cosmic splash aesthetic... The zany sense of humor that sprouts and exudes from the eccentric characters--most notably Rocket and the hysterically gooney Drax... Oh, and then there's the overall adorableness of Baby Groot, a surefire fan favorite. It all truly is an awesome mix!

Early on, the narrative is sort of all over the place, but it eventually solidifies itself toward the latter half, not only giving the story a mostly clear focus and conflict, but also weaving its tentacles into the roots of the first film, making this sequel a worthy extension of this universe. It doesn't leave its heart and sentimentality behind either. There are some sweet moments throughout, along with universal themes of friendship and family--almost giving The Fast and the Furious franchise a run when it comes to reiterating the family aspect...almost. The cast here is great as expected, but the one who impresses the most is actually the least expected one. I'm talking about Michael Rooker as Yondu (a complicated former father figure to Star-Lord), who plays a significant role in this installment.

So yeah, even though I still love the first film more, I enjoyed the heck out of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and I'm glad it's here. I am Groot. We are Groot. *double fist bumps chest*

* 9/10 *

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Thursday, May 4, 2017

[Review] Sleight

Sleight is an intriguing crime drama with low-key glimpses of sci-fi...and magic. Think of it as a minor concoction of Dope, Win It All, and Marvel's "Luke Cage".

Meet Bo (Jacob Latimore), a Houdini-worshiping street magician by day, a reluctant drug dealer by night. The kid has some unique tricks up his sleeve, and by that I mean he literally has an electromagnetic-infused arm, giving him the ability to make small objects levitate. But when Bo gets caught up in a life-threatening debacle, he must pull out all the stops he can in order to escape.

Skilled director J.D. Dillard stages some really cool sequences, gripping thrills, and high-stakes dilemmas that all give the narrative a constant sense of gusto and gravitas. The low-budget flick is often shot under natural lighting and amidst shade and shadows, painting L.A. as a silhouette with varying color tints. Jacob Latimore gives a great lead performance, occupying every scene with his own magnetism, along with a radiating smile, despite the tough hand he's been dealt.

Bo's character is well-drawn too, with enough dimension to be the film's main driving force. He's heavily conflicted about his lifestyle, but after losing both of his parents and having to walk away from an engineering scholarship, it's the one way to keep a roof over him and his little sister's heads. Not to mention, he's trapped within the abusive grasp of Angelo (Dulé Hill), the menacing drug kingpin that he has to kick up to. All the while, Bo attempts to conceal his illegal activities from his brand new girlfriend Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), which brings me to my only major gripe about the film. See, Holly is just a shell of a character, essentially functioning as a convenient stand-in. And Bo and Holly's relationship is just too haphazardly developed to be fully convincing. A gaff, if you will.

Still, the film's jaw-droppingly awesome climax almost makes you forget the shortcomings. I hesitate to call Sleight a superhero movie, because I don't want to lump it into that crowded category, especially considering how different it is. But if that gets more people to go see it, then so be it.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

[Review] Truman

This Spanish-Argentine dramedy has finally gotten a US release, and it's an absolute gem. Directed by Cesc Gay, Truman is as funny as it is emotional, and as sad as it is life-affirming.

Separated by an ocean, Tomás (Javier Cámara) pays a surprise visit to his estranged best friend Julian (the always great Ricardo Darin) to rekindle their bond. And that's when we learn that Julián has terminal cancer, and is forgoing any more treatment. Taking place over the course of four short days, the film sees Tomás stay by Julián's side as he makes final arrangements and such--one of which includes a quiet yet heartbreaking scene when he researches where to adopt out his beloved dog.

The poignant subject matter is handled with compassion and honesty, organically drawing emotion from the richness of the characters, their complicated relationships, and the difficulties and complexities of the somber circumstances. It's so refreshingly human, and it possesses a warm and chuckle-worthy sense of humor along the way. It's also a thorough and thoughtful examination on coping, and how the people around someone with cancer begin to act differently, for better or worse. Then there's the all-too-true factor of people not knowing what to say. Julián's character notices that many of his acquaintances deliberately avoid him altogether when they see him, as if he's walking death. But as Julián importantly states, a simple "Hello" makes all the difference.

Truman is superbly acted, terrifically written, and genuinely affecting. It's a testament of friendship and companionship that will most likely bring tears to your eyes. A heartfelt hola and a heartfelt adiós. Oh, and if you're wondering why it's titled Truman - well, that's the name of Julián's dog.

* 9/10 *

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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

[Review] Colossal

If you were to take the prototypical indie movie about a millennial getting their life sorted out, and smash it together with a creature feature, you'd get Colossal. At least, that's how to seems at first... Starring Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, and Dan Stevens, Nacho Vigalondo's peculiar film dives into unexpected places, and it's all the better for it.

After being ousted from her boyfriend's (Stevens) New York apartment, the messy and directionless Gloria (Hathaway) returns to her humble hometown, reconnecting with her childhood friend Oscar (Sudeikis). During a night of reckless alcoholism, news breaks of a monster repeatedly attacking Seoul, South Korea. Gloria realizes that she might be the cause of it--discovering that every time she walks through a local playground--the monster appears, mimicking her exact moves. She now must figure out why her actions are creating a gigantic beast on other side of planet, and how to stop it.

It's strange, but intriguing. The absurd premise is enough to make you want to find out what the heck is going on, what the solution is, and if there's any particular meaning behind this high concept. It's all a bit shaky early on, but it gets a lot clearer and more substantial as it progresses, especially as the odd tone finds its footing and Gloria's character develops. Eventually, a feud erupts between Gloria and Oscar, who emerges as a villain--basically a walking robot of toxic masculinity. The narrative then pulls itself together and tackles heavy themes of bullying, destructive behavior, and abuse. I don't want to give too much away, but Gloria's character comes through with a cheer-worthy arc.

It's a genre hybrid that'll make you scratch your head, then pump your fist. And while there are some nagging flaws that cloud the film's overall vision, Colossal strikes with lightning in the end.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, May 1, 2017

[Review] Their Finest

Somewhere between Hail, Caesar! and Hidden Figures, Lone Scherfig's Their Finest is an equally delightful and tragic picture of a movie-within-a-movie amidst wartime. It's led by a fantastic performance from Gemma Arterton as the film's driven, empowering central character.

That character is Catrin, a talented writer in 1940s London who lands a gig at the Ministry of Information (the Film Division) as a scriptwriter. There, she plays a vital role in the turbulent, bomb-blasts-in-the-background production for a film about the Dunkirk evacuation. Coincidentally, this comes right before Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, a highly-anticipated film on same subject.

Anyway, what unfolds is a splendidly layered story about art, romance, war, truth, authenticity, writing, acting, and filmmaking. It's classically shot and rendered with excellent old-fashioned period detail. And for a movie that focuses on themes about storytelling and performance, it fittingly showcases a great screenplay itself, along with some wonderful acting. The script is full of snappy, clever, subtextual dialogue, and the narrative gracefully blends humor and solemnity.

Gemma Arterton gives a tremendously well-rounded performance of a well-drawn character, carrying a creative savvy, confidence, vulnerability, and a well-wrought emotional core all at once. The supporting cast is impressive too. Sam Clafin solidly serves as Catrin's arrogant, bickering co-writer who eventually exhibits a likable turn as the two form a bond (all that time spent in the writers' room together, I guess). Then there's the always great Bill Nighy who plays an eccentric aging actor, often stealing the show as he provides a lot of the film's comedic moments. It is he that also delivers the line, "We'll have them weeping in the aisles!" You might feel the same way about Their Finest.

* 8.5/10 *

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