Saturday, September 30, 2017

[Review] American Made

Tom Cruise puts his aviator shades back on for American Made, a giddy cocaine-fueled crime-comedy of American Dream exploits and foreign policy loopholes.

Cruise plays Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot living a banal existence. But that changes when he meets Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), a sketchy CIA agent who practically appears like a devil on Barry's shoulder and convinces him to quit his job and rake in the cash by transporting mass amounts of drugs and weapons. And that's exactly what Barry does.

There's a manic energy to the whole thing - think Reagan-era Wolf of Wall Street or War Dogs in the sky. The picture even has a daydreamy haze, as if the endeavor is one big binge of danger. A big greedy blur. And it all comes with a wink of self-awareness. It's definitely no secret that this is effed up stuff. But it's so crazy, that you just have to sit back and laugh at how crazy it actually is. Tom Cruise revels in this role, essentially playing an ecstatic and egotistical sleazebag. There's hardly a scene in the entire film where he isn't grinning ear-to-ear or where his eyes aren't flashing dollar signs.

But like all stories of this nature, what goes up most come down. The highest of highs plummet to the lowest of lows. And well, you know how the deal goes: Crime doesn't pay.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

[Review] Brad's Status

Ben Stiller is at the center of Brad's Status, a low-key character study that scratches at some thoughtful topics within its fairly mundane plot.

Brad is a middle-class man amidst a midlife crisis. He's bitter and jealous of his college buds (played by Mike White, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, and Jemaine Clement) who are all currently "living the dream" and more financially successful than him. And by "financially successful" I mean multi-multi-multi-millionaires. So Brad's case for making us feel sorry for him isn't really a good one. Anyway, when he embarks on a trip of college tours with his son Troy (Austin Abrams, who nails a certain stage of unenthused growing-pains), he's faced with a question of whose 'wants' are more important.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the dynamic between Brad and Troy. They clash and they bond, then they clash and they bond some more. The script ruminates on different ideas of happiness and fulfillment, generational gaps, and jaded vs optimistic ideals. Ben Stiller goes into serious Ben Stiller mode here, and it's a seriously great performance, even though his character is far from likable. In fact, he's kind of insufferable, incredibly self-absorbed, obnoxiously overthinking, and frankly oblivious to his own privilege. Along the way, we wait for him to become more enlightened or at least get called out on his #firstworldproblems. And those moments do come, and they're deeply satisfying, and they also let us know that the film has a worthwhile point to it.

The ending is abrupt, but it leaves you with some things to ponder. And while the main character still has some learning to do, the film itself isn't too proud or cynical to say "Let's put hope in the youth."

( 7/10 )

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

[Review] The Little Hours

Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Micucci play a group of horny, conniving, foul-mouthed nuns in The Little Hours, a medieval comedy that tosses its morals (and 14th century dialogue) out the window.

Their banal existence is interrupted when a runaway servant (played by Dave Franco) who has to pretend to be deaf and mute, takes refuge at their convent. And let's just say that revelry and sin ensue while all the characters attempt to keep their dirty secrets from each other.

The film is pretty much just one extended joke, but it's a fairly juicy one. And while it isn't always laugh-out-loud hilarious, the deadpan chops of the fantastic cast are enough to keep the scenario amusing. Crowd favorites John C. Reilly and Nick Offerman even show up for some goofy supporting roles (the image of them dressed in medieval garb was enough to make me chuckle).

But even though The Little Hours is entertaining, it never really rises to greatness. Despite its devious premise and wild third act, the story itself just isn't quite as audacious or fresh enough to leave a memorable impression. In the end, it just kind of peters out.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, September 25, 2017

[Review] Stronger

Jake Gyllenhaal gives another tremendous performance in Stronger, an undeniably affecting portrait that focuses on one family's story from the aftermath of 2013's Boston Marathon bombings.

This film revolves around Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal), a man who lost both of his legs in the explosion at the finish line while cheering on his on-and-off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany). We follow Jeff as he copes with his life-altering state and as he embarks on his recovery--on physical and emotional levels. All the while, Erin remains by his side, taking on an unsung weight.

It's the type of tragic-to-inspirational biopic that could've ended up being hokey or overly melodramatic in the wrong hands, but the film strays away that route, thanks to director David Gordon Green's commitment to a grittier, blunt, and deeply humane tone. There's a dark reality amidst the surface glory and all the "Boston Strong" chants: The media and public bombards Jeff's life with prickly politics; his family practically uses him as a token; he experiences post-traumatic flashbacks while being honored at a noisy Bruins game; and he quietly battles with alcoholism and depression.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany both give resoundingly convincing performances, and they have plenty of intensely emotional scenes together that are so impressive that it might just place them in the Oscar race. Also great is Miranda Richardson, playing Jeff's brash mother who doesn't quite know how to handle the complications (Melissa Leo in The Fighter came to mind).

When it comes down to it, Stronger is all about love, loss, pain, and hope. Ironically, it's less concerned with the general definitions of strength and heroism, and more concerned with what it means to do the best you can under really shitty circumstances. And it's better for it.

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, September 18, 2017

[Review] mother!

The always provocative Darren Aronofsky returns with mother!, a sweaty and smothering chamber piece that takes the idea of "unwelcome guests" to the next level, and then some.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a couple living in a big fixer-upper house in the middle of nowhere. I'm not going to say they're happy, because there's a notable disconnect between the two, and not just in age. When a flock of strangers (including Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) start randomly piling into their home, the situation goes from uncomfortable to tumultuous to batshit insane.

This thing thrives on unpredictability and the uncanny. It's the type of film that constantly makes you wonder "What the hell is going on?" The overall craft makes it a total sensory experience. It broods - the drab, dimly lit setting comes off like a dungeon, and every creak and knock is amplified, to the point where even just someone appearing around a corner can create a jolt. It pierces - the claustrophobic soundscape is filled with door bells, smoke alarms, phone rings, and teapot whistles that raise the anxiety. It boils - the nasty tension is so thick and steamy that you could slice through it with a box-cutter. It haunts and confounds - hallucinatory and supernatural elements creep in, conveying the impression that something sinister is going down. The plot births so many visual symbols and character allegories that it essentially becomes a demented "I Spy" puzzle.

I pretty much loved everything up until the third act, which is guaranteed to be divisive and discussion-worthy. What we end up with is a chaotic clusterfuck of biblical proportions and worldly ills. But things get so dense, ham-fisted, and over-the-top that my initial investment in the film began to diminish the deeper that it dove. You know in high school when you had that house party and things got out-of-hand and you just wanted everyone to leave? mother! gives you that exact feeling. And you know when you're having a nightmare and you try to yell but nothing comes out? mother! gives you that exact feeling too. In these ways, the film succeeds, for better or worse.

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

[Review] Little Evil

Ah, evil kids. From The Omen to Orphan, those little buggers have been a seminal staple in the horror genre. So who better than Eli Craig (director of cult horror comedy Tucker & Dale vs Evil) to take a stab at some comedic ribbing for the devil-children? That's what Netflix's step-horror spoof Little Evil sets out to do, and for the most part, it nails it.

Adam Scott plays Gary, the unlucky stepdad in this picture. He's happily married to the love of his life Samantha (Evangeline Lilly, The Desolation of Smaug), but he's having a difficult time bonding with her anti-social son Lucas (Owen Atlas). Things escalate quickly when the creepy kid starts doing demonic activities and making Gary's life a living hell. While Samantha remains oblivious, Gary attempts to figure out if Lucas (some symbolic names there) is indeed the frickin' antichrist.

The film doesn't exactly flip the tropes on their head, but it playfully works them in while avoiding the overt tackiness of, say, the Scary Movie series. It's fun to identify the references--from The Shining to Poltergeist, as well as the traditional shock techniques--from the abrupt zoom-ins to the screechy music jolts. Adam Scott is perfectly cast here, and it's amusing to see his character go through the ringer (he's buried alive at one point). The batshit plot takes many twists and turns, and it builds to a campy fireball of a climax. But I must say, the film's funniest scene isn't even horror-related. It takes place when Gary enters a support group for stepdads of troubled children, where each member bounces some hilarious stories off of each other (like finding poop in dresser drawers).

Little Evil won't really shatter the world, but it's the type of ridiculously enjoyable horror fare to throw on in-between the spookier, heavier stuff in your Halloween playlist.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, September 11, 2017

[Review] IT

If you're like me, the "IT" miniseries traumatized a portion of your childhood. Looking back on it, it really wasn't even that good, but it had a few scenes that stuck. And while it didn't instill a fear of clowns in me personally, it did make me afraid to go to the bathroom by myself and look down the drains. I mean, I got over that eventually. Obviously. Anyway, Andrés Muschietti (Guillermo del Toro protégé and director of Mama) brings Stephen King's iconic scary clown tale and horror portrait of anxiety-ridden Americana to the big screen, and the film delivers splendidly.

It's the summer of '89 in the fictional town of Derry, and children are going missing at an alarming rate. The town's interconnected sewers and creeks--a swirling cycle of waste, evil, and mystery. A tight-knit group of misfits take it upon themselves to get to the bottom of these stranger things.

The film certainly sets off the jump scares, and it doesn't skimp on its grim and bloody R-rating. This thing is stuffed with ominous visuals and grotesque imagery, as it essentially dives into a series of disturbingly nightmarish sequences, skewing the lines of what's real and what isn't as the kids get caught alone in the dark. It's a terrifying tunnel of tricks. A funhouse of fears. A carnival of creepiness.

The youngster cast is so impressive, and they're the ones that really make this thing work, relishing in classic coming-of-age elements, you know--friendship and escapism, encounters with crushes, and spats with nasty bullies. They're strikingly naive with their unfiltered quips and wide-eyed worldviews, yet more keen and in-tune with their immediate surroundings than the adults. As for Bill Skarsgård's Pennywise, he does a swell job in all his teeth-y, drooling glory--his facial expressions slipping from playful and jolly to maniacal and sadistic faster than you can press open a switchblade.

As far as I'm concerned, the film presents pretty much everything you'd hope for in a modern IT re-imagining. It's a well-crafted adaptation that deftly juggles multiple layers and meanings. And overall, this thing proves to be an affecting experience, no matter what incarnation of it you see.

* 8.5/10 *

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Saturday, September 9, 2017

[Review] Band Aid

Starting a rock band always solves all your problems, right? Right??? At least that's the idea in Band Aid, an angst-filled relationship clash with a riffing twist.

Anna (Zoe Lister-Jones, who directs) and Ben (Adam Pilly) are a notoriously unhappy, constantly bickering couple on the verge of calling it quits. But after a therapy session, they decide to pick up some instruments and turn their fights into songs. Along the way, they're joined by their awkward neighbor (Fred Armison) on the drums, while they work through their grief and crank out some jams.

It's clear from the opening's epic showdown that this is a film that runs on snippy back-and-forth dialogue. It piles on the zingers, running the gamut between caustic, clever, and annoying. For a while, the film maladroitly stumbles along like a Duplass-lite dramedy without the messily endearing characters. In fact, Anna and Ben are both a bit on the bland side, and frankly, they're sort of insufferable most of the time (no wonder why they're always arguing with each other!).

But to my surprise, Anna and Ben began to grow on me. As did the film, especially toward the second half when the comedy hits harder and bits of affecting emotion ring in. And you know what? The songs they come up with are actually kinda good. Raw indie-rock with some catchy hooks. Like, can I purchase an album by The Dirty Dishes somewhere (that's their band name)?

Band Aid still can't escape some of its own obnoxiousness, but it ends up transforming into a decent tune.


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Thursday, September 7, 2017

[Review] The Hitman's Bodyguard

Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson are the bickering duo in The Hitman's Bodyguard, a padded romp that gets caught up in flurries of mediocre action and never really forms its own identity.

Samuel L. Jackson plays the Hitman, Ryan Reynolds plays the Bodyguard. 25 minutes go by before the two actually meet, which is odd. Really odd. Anyway, the two begrudgingly team up for a fist-throwing, bullet-flying, car-chasing jaunt across Europe, with an end game to take down a Gary Oldman-played Eastern European dictator who might as well be called "Stock Villain."

Of course, the two leads possess enough appeal and charisma to make this thing watchable, and there are plenty of great Samuel L. Jackson lines along the way, like "I am harm's way" and "Tick-Tock, Motherfucker!" And this is exactly why it's an absolute crime that the two don't have more screentime here. Instead, there's a lot of surrounding sub-plotting and humdrum sceneage, as if the film, for some questionable reason, was hellbent on reaching a two-hour runtime. A head-scratching move, for sure.

As for the action, it's packed, but it's all kind of ugly, and not in the *good* ugly way. Between the sloppy editing, the mostly unmemorable fight sequences, and the stunts and effects that often leave much to be desired, it never rises above standard parking lot production, save for a crazy setpiece where Jackson busts Reynolds out of a seedy, hellish torture dungeon.

The Hitman's Bodyguard clearly wants to get the job done, but not much else.

( 6/10 )

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

[Review] Patti Cake$

Actress Danielle Macdonald and director Geremy Jasper burst onto the scene with Patti Cake$. It's a hard-not-to-root-for underdog story and a precious love letter to loving hip-hop.

Meet Patricia (Macdonald) - aka Killa P - aka Patti Cake$, a larger-than-life personality and aspiring rap star who's desperate to get out of her rundown New Jersey town (cue the Springsteen song, but really--there is a Springsteen song in this movie). Along the way, we follow her struggles to get her music career off the ground, all in the face of her haters.

Like its main character, this film is brash, fun, and full of creativity. It flaunts a visual flair that maneuvers between gritty and flashy, stylish and sublime. And as unabashedly silly and purposefully tacky as things can get, there's an irresistible energy and wide-eyed spark to the story, as well as a surprisingly heartfelt emotional core--especially as the narrative explores Patti's messy home life and her complicated relationship with her mother (Bridget Everett).

Macdonald is a revelation, giving a praiseworthy performance. It's a role that could've easily gotten cartoony or overly stereotypical, but she embodies it with a fully dimensional humanity. She feels real. She feels genuine. We believe her when she looks into the mirror and says "You're a boss bitch." And we also believe her when she doubts her self-esteem and wonders if she's a complete failure.

Patti isn't alone though. The film also has a great supporting cast of oddballs, including Patti's best (and only) friend Jheri (Siddhart Dhananjay), who works as a pharmacist by day and a turn-up R&B crooner by night. Then there's the mysterious "Basterd" (Mamoudou Athie), a Death Grips-inspired experimental artist who claims to be an anarchist and the antichrist. When these three form a group together, their misfit dynamic is truly a sight to behold. Even Patti's wheelchair-bound, chain-smoking Nana (played by Cathy Moriarty) lays down some sick vocal samples.

When it comes down to it, Patti Cake$ is all about the dreams in life that are chased and the dreams in life that are crushed. It's a feel-good film with a bittersweet flow. Don't sleep on it.

* 8.5/10 *

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Saturday, September 2, 2017

[Review] Death Note

This decade, director Adam Wingard has helmed some stellar horror hybrids like You're Next and The Guest. But then there was last year's humdrum Blair Witch rebirth, and now this year's Death Note (which can be viewed on Netflix). The film is based on a popular Japanese manga & anime series, which I'm not familiar with, so I can only go by what this film itself conveys. And what I see is an awful piece of work and a horrendous waste of time that falls way short of being both a worthwhile conspiracy thriller and a high-concept genre piece.

Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a high school student who finds himself on the end of bullying. One day, he finds a mysterious notebook that has a beady-eyed demon (voiced by Willem Dafoe) attached to it. The demon sort of looks like what would happen if the tree creature from A Monster Calls bred with a sea urchin. Anyway, turns out when you write someone's name in this notebook, they'll automatically die! Sometimes in Mortal Kombat fatality fashion, depending on what you specify. When Turner starts taking out society's worst, a stealthy organization zeros in on his trail.

With all its camp, moody teen melodrama, and gruesome kills, this film comes off like a sour and deranged concoction of Final Destination, bargain bin Donnie Darko and "13 Reasons Why". Flaws litter just about every department, and you'd have to reach to find any redeeming qualities. The plot is severely rushed. The dialogue is stilted. Nat Wolff's lead performance is never that convincing or even interesting. Its love story couldn't be any more banal. And sometimes the shifts in tone are so jarring that I almost wondered if I accidentally sat on the TV remote and Netflix switched to something else. It's one of those movies where just when you think it can't get any worse; it does.

I gave it a chance, because Adam Wingard has proven to be an exciting filmmaker, and a couple of my current favorite actors--Shea Whigham and Lakeith Stanfield--show up, but if anything, they just feel frustratingly wasted. This thing is such an overstuffed mess. Like a head exploding. An idea that should've been crumpled up and tossed in the trashcan...then set on fire.

( 3/10 )

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