Wednesday, November 29, 2017

[Review] Wonder

With his latest film Wonder, writer-director Stephen Chbosky (best known for The Perks of Being a Wallflower) once again exhibits his compassion for the experience of youth and what it means to find your way in the world, as difficult as it may be. This time he focuses on one of the harshest and most emotionally brutal places on Earth: the hallways of an elementary school.

The story revolves around Auggie (played by Jacob Tremblay, who made waves in the Oscar-nominated Room). He's a Star Wars fan and aspiring astronaut. Oh yeah, and he was born with a facial deformity. 27 surgeries and several years of homeschooling later, he's embarking on the lofty mission of beginning 5th grade at a big school. But it isn't an easy liftoff for him, as he deals with endless stares, name-calling, and bullies (there are some heartbreaking scenes here). We follow him through the ups and downs as makes his mark and opens the eyes and hearts of many.

This is material that could've been majorly sappy, manipulative, and straight-up cheesy -- but it's so watchable, likable, and well-intentioned that it's worth rooting for and embracing. I'm not saying it doesn't get schmaltzy, but it's a good kind of schmaltz -- if you know what I mean. The film also does something interesting with its narrative. Instead of just sticking to Auggie's point-of-view, it switches to the other people in his personal solar system, which adds dimension to these characters and stresses the importance of connections and the ways we impact each other's lives (and vice versa).

The supporting cast is a solid one -- including Julia Roberts as a warm but stern mom, Owen Wilson in cool dad mode (or so he thinks), Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) as a hip and caring teacher, Mandy Patinkin as the school's stoic principle, as well as Auggie's sister (played by Izabela Vidovic) and his on-and-off-again new best friend (Noah Jupe).

When it comes down to it, Wonder understands that everyone is fighting their own battles, whether it's on the inside our outside. And its message is simple, agreeable, and universal: Be kind.

( 7.5/10 )

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

[Review] Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three cheers for the ornately titled Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Martin McDonagh's film is a darkly comic, potently tragic, and thoroughly entertaining display that features a prominent, tour de force performance from the great Frances McDormand.

The plot revolves around, yes -- three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Igniting the cause is Mildred (McDormand) -- a bold, brash, and relentless mother seeking justice for the rape and murder of her teenage daughter Angela. Mildred slyly uses the billboards to send a message to the local police (greatly played by Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell), and a hostile, ongoing dispute shakes the town.

It's a film that'll make you angry. It'll make you laugh. And it might make you well up. It's so well-written, and the rough-around-the-edges characters are developed with striking personality and vivid dimension. This is a film of jarring surprises and poetically harsh ironies. Each scene crackles with conflict, tension, and sharp and snappy dialogue that usually consists of Mildred certifiably roasting her counterparts. Frances McDormand is phenomenal here. It's a legendary performance in my eyes --  it's as serious as it is hilarious, and as tough as it is emotionally wrenching. John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, and Lucas Hedges (Manchester By the Sea, Lady Bird) round out the superb supporting cast.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a small-town story, but it burns with resonant and relevant themes, sending smoke signals of scathing commentary on abuse of power, racism, predators, hypocrisy, and misplaced priorities. At a time when it seems like some people are more upset about what NFL players do or don't do during the National Anthem than they are about folks spewing hatred and raising Nazi flags, Three Billboards points to a much bigger picture.

* 9/10 *

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Monday, November 27, 2017

[Review] Coco

Pixar's latest gem Coco is a vividly-tuned celebration of music and passion, as well as a magnificent look into the tradition behind Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) -- an annual Mexican holiday in which people pay elaborate tributes to their loved ones that have passed on.

Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is the story's main character. He's a young dreamer and aspiring musician. The only problem is -- music is banned in his household, due to a sour note in their family tree. Through a curse, Miguel winds up in the Land of the Dead -- a vast and intricately designed realm where he meets his late family members in all their face-painted, rattling skeletal glory. From there, he embarks on a quest to find his elusive great-great grandfather, whom he believes has the power to send him home with blessings to pursue music.

We get some pretty spectacular views of this world. The film's impressive animation is a feast of sugar skulls for the eyes. The visuals burst with vibrant colors and dazzle with an effervescent glow. The voicework is stellar too, lending an enthusiastic authenticity to the tale with pitch-perfect performances from the likes of Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor, and Jaime Camil (the hilarious Rogelio from "Jane the Virgin"). And while the Wizard of Oz-like narrative covers ground similar to 2014's The Book of Life, it still possesses some wonderful storytelling in its own right. The plot is stacked twists and turns and amusing characters. There's a funny bone here, but it becomes quite apparent that everything is connected by the film's dramatic and emotional spine.

There's also a heart-tugging musical sequence that features the film's sweet and catchy headlining song "Remember Me", and it certainly will be remembered. Oh, and that ending. It's a tearjerker -- the kind where it seems like someone is slicing onions right in the movie theater.

Coco is so rich with themes of family, legacy, memories, and yes -- death. But for a film that does approach the subject of death so often, it's incredibly full of life.

* 9/10 *

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

[Review] Mudbound

Netflix's Mudbound is a sweeping and richly-detailed 1940s period piece that trudges into the deeply rooted conflicts and racial tensions under the cloud of a troubling Jim Crow shadow.

Directed by Dee Rees, this particular southern saga digs into a dispute between a black family and a white family who are pitted against each other over neighboring land stretched across the Mississippi delta. The film has quite a literary feel to it, as it pages through chapters and changes perspectives with the guide of multi-character narration.

Of those perspectives are the McAllens (played Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke) and the Jacksons (Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan). Each family has a member returning from war -- Garrett Hedlund as Jamie McAllan, and Jason Mitchell as Ronsel Jackson. It's these two that happen to form a forbidden friendship, and their bond is devastatingly tested amid the lingering effects of shameful history, slavery, and the hatred that still runs throughout town. And then there's Jamie's extremely despicable and racist father (played by Jonathan Banks, "Breaking Bad"). Let me just say: No one would blame you for wanting to punch this guy in the face.

It's a painful, maddening, and moving portrait of an ugly time. Like 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation before it, this is often a difficult and harrowing watch. How tragic to see a black soldier return from war only to be persecuted by townsfolk, and to see his closest, most confiding friend suffer similar punishments just for associating with him. A lot of the heft here comes from the powerful performances. The cast is more than solid all-around, but it's Hedlund and Mitchell that emerge as standouts, especially as the story shifts most of its focus toward them. I was also very impressed with Mary J. Blige -- she's almost unrecognizable in this heavily dramatic role.

Even though Mudbound takes place nearly 80 years ago, it holds themes that still echo today, reminding us that we've come far -- but not far enough.

( 8/10 )

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Friday, November 24, 2017

[Review] Lady Bird

The great Greta Gerwig makes her directorial debut with the comedy-drama Lady Bird. It stars Saoirse Ronan, who's coming off of her Oscar-nominated performance in Brooklyn. And let me just say: everything about this film is brilliant.

Meet Christine (Ronan), or, excuse me -- "Lady Bird" (that's what she demands to be called). She's a Catholic high school student with a streak of defiance (and I'm not just talking about the pinkish hair dye), aspiring to leave her hometown of Sacramento to attend college somewhere on the East Coast, despite her parents' wishes. The story follows Lady Bird though her senior year and all the complications, uncertainties, and revelations that come with it.

This gem is spunked with a consistently delightful energy, and it's immensely well-written -- the characters are wildly memorable and the dialogue is clever and chuckle-worthy. It's the little details too -- like the Christian homecoming dance scene where you can hear "Crossroads" by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony in the background. And speaking of crossroads, the narrative tackles plenty of familiar coming-of-age conundrums. It actually reminded me a lot of last year's The Edge of Seventeen and even 2013's Enough Said, and that's definitely a compliment. This is a love letter to home, family, friendship, first loves (or so one thinks), and the things we take for granted. The film is especially affecting when it explores Lady Bird's crackling and complex relationship with her mother, who's terrifically played by Laurie Metcalf. The ever-consistent Tracy Letts plays Lady Bird's father, while Lucas Hedges (Oscar nominee from last year's tearjerker Manchester By the Sea) plays her theater boyfriend.

And then of course there's Saoirse Ronan, who's sensational again here, displaying her magnetic versatility. This character is so vibrant, and so chalked with bold personality and dimension. There's that almost intangible element, where she constantly reveals layers and experiences transformation -- but still retains exactly what makes her who she is. That's Christine, er, I mean Lady Bird. Or is it both?

* 9/10 *

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

[Review] The Florida Project

After making waves with the iPhone-shot indie Tangerine, buzzing director Sean Baker returns with The Florida Project, a spirited and empathetic juxtaposition of childhood wonderment against the backdrop of working-poor struggles within the fractured cracks of America.

The story revolves around the exuberant Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mischievous young friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) as they spend their summer break (with minimal parental guidance) splitting time between two rundown motels -- ironically named The Magic Kingdom and Futureland. The film follows their adventures in mundanity -- spitting on cars, spying on guests, sharing ice cream cones, exploring 'Do Not Enter' rooms, making fart noises...

It's all winsomely captured with an observant, almost documentary-like eye -- the garish pastel colors pop through the Kissimmee humidity and the characters beam with realism, personality, energy, nuance, and life amid their very much lived-in environment. The kids are absolutely terrific here (especially Prince, who becomes the main focus). In fact, their performances are so natural that it doesn't seem like you're watching actors (maybe they aren't, at times). Willem Dafoe is at his very best as the property's cantankerous manager with a tough-loving, caring heart of gold beneath his raspy exterior. Also impressive is Bria Vinaite, who plays Moonee's messy and temperamental mother who just can't quite get it together. Her character isn't meant to be the most likable, and she definitely frustrates at times, but she feels so real -- like someone you might know.

Naturally, this transient film isn't built on structured plot. It constantly meanders, drifts, and shifts attention -- just like the kids at the center, but it remains thoroughly absorbing. It's as enchanting as it is harsh, and it takes a couple of deeply affectionate and heart-wrenching dives in the latter half. The last 10 minutes, in particular, breathtakingly set off fireworks of swirling emotion.

By the end of our stay at The Florida Project, it feels like we know the place pretty well.

* 9/10 *

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Monday, November 20, 2017

[Review] Justice League

You know when a bunch of popular musicians come together to form a band or a project, and the results are almost always disappointing? Uninspired. That's basically what happens in the much-hyped Justice League film. The Justice League unites Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). But despite the fresh collaboration of versatile all-stars, this supergroup ultimately underwhelms as a whole.

It isn't until over halfway through the film when the heros eventually (and reluctantly) team up to save the world from an invading army of extraterrestrial flutterbugs (they kinda look like vampire mothmen), led by the story's heavy and horned main villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds).

For a while, it feels like you're watching chunks from several different movies spliced together. Director Zack Snyder stages the action sequences with a murky backdrop and a jarring overload of CGI -- so much so that the picture seriously looks like cutscenes from a video game. And if things weren't already overstuffed enough, we still have to deal with a few humdrum scenes of Amy Adams wasting away in the nothing-to-do role as Lois Lane, while we wait for the inevitable resurrection of Superman (Henry Cavill), which is handled in a tremendously clumsy manner, by the way.

As for the good, Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman carries over the awesomeness and optimistic humanity from this year's earlier, fantastic Wonder Woman movie. Jason Momoa's Aquaman lends a general badassness and cool seafaring aesthetic to the crew. And Ezra Miller (who's been great in everything I've seen him in) as Flash is the film's electric source of comic relief, delivering the script's best lines and zapping a spark of levity and wide-eyed enthusiasm into the brooding tone of the film. Unfortunately, the neglected newcomer Cyborg is as one-dimensional and robotic as his armor.

And given the way these characters are thrusted into battle together, there's never a sense of camaraderie or chemistry between them. It doesn't help that their mission is plagued with clunky pacing. For a film brimming with so many dynamic powers, it's glaringly void of any true momentum. Then there's the bad villain. And I don't mean "bad" in the evil way -- he's just bad. Faceless. Personality-less. Generic. Stock. He might as well have been a walking statue with a temper-tantrum. In turn, when the climactic showdown arrives, it isn't as exhilarating as it should be, and it feels incredibly low on stakes. At least BvS had a maniacal and memorable Jesse Eisenberg calling the shots.

Justice League does possess some redeemable elements and displays glimmers of hope for future DCEU films. But while it might be a step in the right direction, it definitely isn't a leap.

( 5.5/10 )

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

[Review] Murder on the Orient Express

It's no secret that Hollywood is a prime culprit for producing remakes. But even the decision to revisit something like the whodunnit puzzle Murder on the Orient Express is a curious one from the get-go, especially considering that Agatha Christie's famous novel already experienced a pretty great on-screen adaptation with its 1974 version. But here we are...

All aboard the lavish train is the all-star cast of Daisy Ridley (in her first major role outside of The Force Awakens), Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Olivia Coleman, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp (using another unidentifiable accent), and Michelle Pfeiffer. Things get tense when a passenger suddenly turns up stabbed to death, and all the characters in the coach are enlisted as suspects. On the case is Hercule Poirot (played by Kenneth Branagh), who proclaims himself as "Probably the greatest detective in the world." I like how he says "probably." It keeps him honest. Anyway, what unravels is a shifty-eyed murder mystery.

Branagh serves as director too, and to the film's credit, it's winsomely shot and it confidently achieves the old-fashioned mood and aesthetic its heading for. But narrative-wise, it has a difficult time building up much suspense or arriving at a compelling payoff, especially for those that have seen the original. It's an inherent problem, really. And the revamped cast is definitely a proven one, but with so many players involved, they all just kind of get shuffled into the mix, like cards in a deck vying for their moments at the top. Aside from Branagh (and his glorious mustache) standing out by default, Michelle Pfeiffer (who was also fantastic in mother! this year) impresses in the only other memorable role.

2017's Murder on the Orient Express is a faithful and fateful film... maybe a little too much. It's a competent remake, and exactly that. Nothing more. Personally, I wouldn't have minded if this thing had decided to deviate off the tracks.

( 6.5/10 )

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

[Review] A Bad Moms Christmas

The Bad Moms are ringing again, and this time it's Christmas! Thankfully, this film's fun cast presents just enough spirit to decorate this middling comedy sequel with some joy.

Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn return as the threesome of bad moms, and they're ready to
take on the stress of the season and pull off the perfect Christmas for their kids, and maybe even enjoy a little bit of it themselves. "Take Christmas back!" they say. "Put the 'ass' back in Christm-ass..." But things get even crazier when their own bad moms roll into town for the holidays, including the uptight and hard-to-please prude (played by Christine Baranski), the oversharing and overbearing care bear (Cherly Hines), and the freewheeling gambler (Susan Sarandon).

The cast is fully game, and they all bring a lot of life to to the festivities, even if their characters are a bit one-note. The film is stuffed with raunchy, brash, awkward, and self-deprecating humor. Not all of it will kiss your mistletoe, but it definitely has its moments, like the tension-filled dodgeball match at Skyzone, or the amusing scene at Hahn's character's spa when Justin Hartley (also known as Kevin from NBC's hit "This Is Us") comes in for a wax, and things get...close. Very close.

Not to anyone's surprise, but there isn't a whole lot of weight or focus to this thing. Most of the time, A Bad Moms Christmas feels like you're watching a montage-driven sitcom. And it's so overtly formulaic and the territory is so well-worn -- that if you've ever seen a Christmas movie or one about parental drama -- you can practically pin down every single story beat before it even arrives -- like, swifter than Santa.

( 5.5/10 )

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Monday, November 13, 2017

[Review] The Killing of a Sacred Deer

After 2016's bizarro The Lobster, provocative director Yorgos Lanthimos recruits Colin Farrell once again, along with Nicole Kidman (these two also starred together in this year's The Beguiled) for another beastily-titled film called The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It's a darkly comedic and disturbingly dour psychological drama that leaves a punishing, infectious mark.

Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, an esteemed cardiovascular surgeon and family man who lives with his wife (Kidman), daughter (Raffey Cassidy), and son (Sunny Suljic). Everything is fairly normal until the boy of a former patient (played by Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) begins to infiltrate Murphy's life in obsessively strange ways. And to go any further than that would be spoiler territory.

From the film's opening close-up of open-heart surgery, you know you're in for a doozy. A not for everyone type of flick. But even though it's challenging, it isn't the kind of thing to cause walk-outs. Personally, I was fully intrigued. The narrative perplexes and stuns, practically catching the audience like an actual deer in headlights. The unhinged tone is enough to make your own heart race, especially as the story steadily gets weirder and weirder, and weirder. The picture is shot with a sterile elegance -- the camerawork slowly glides and zooms with Kubrickian-like style, while the unnervingly high-pitched musical score cuts deep like a scalpel. The cast is solid all-around. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman skillfully lock into a coldly deadpan mode, but it's Barry Keoghan who stands out in one of the most clinically creepy on-screen performances in recent memory.

But as The Killing of a Sacred Deer approached its end, I got the impression that there wasn't much meaning to any of it. While The Lobster was a symbolic and substantial examination of dystopian romance, this film is more of a hollow head-scratcher. But whether it's pointless or not -- it still gets under your skin.

( 7.5/10 )

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

[Review] Wheelman

First there was Baby Driver, and now there's Wheelman -- a car chase crime-thriller on Netflix that's well worth the ride.

Frank Grillo plays the getaway driver. After a botched robbery, he receives a phone call from an Unknown number and an ominous voice begins giving him commands. From there, his situation spins out of control as he gets mixed up in a dangerous web of money, mobs, and shootouts.

In an interesting twist, the whole movie essentially takes place within the vehicle. It's like the Tom Hardy-starring Locke, but much more intense -- without being too overwhelming. The route is steadily paced with impeccable speed and timing, and director Jeremy Rush--with a name that's almost too rich to be true--incrementally ups the stakes and infuses a constant sense of unpredictability as the story takes some surprising turns. The car itself practically becomes a narrative catalyst with close-ups of screeching wheels, stops and shifts, flashing lights, and a (keen) use of mirrors. At times the camera even takes a backseat -- quite literally -- as its placed in the backseat of the car. This POV strategy makes it seem as if we're sitting in on the immediate madness.

Frank Grillo is perfectly cast and does an awesome job carrying the story mostly on his own. And the film clocks in at a fittingly swift 80 minutes. It's an exhilarating get in and get out.

( 8/10 )

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Friday, November 10, 2017

[Review] Marjorie Prime

Marjorie Prime is an intimate and low-key sci-fi drama that takes a thought-provoking look at one form of artificial intelligence and its effect on emotions.

Set in the advanced future where 3D computer technology has risen to stunningly sophisticated levels, this story focuses on a woman with dementia named Marjorie (Lois Smith) as she recounts her past with the help of her "Prime", which happens to be a life-like holographic recreation of the younger version of her deceased husband Walter (played by Jon Hamm).

Thematically, it's like Away From Her meets Blade Runner. The film moves at a slower place, and it's definitely on the quiet, non-flashy side, but it pulls you in with its pure elegance, intriguing vision, and deep examination of the memories, love, and loss. The film is actually less concerned with the technology itself or the potential benefits as well the problems and moral conundrums that can arise from such a thing -- and is instead more concerned about what it means to be human.

Unfortunately, some elements get lost in translation along the way, and the narrative focus shifts in frustrating ways. And my guess is that most audiences will find the film to be too confined and talky (it is based on a stageplay) for its own good. Still, Marjorie Prime has strong performances and is a fairly interesting portrayal of the world's ever-changing futurescape.

( 6.5/10 )

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Thursday, November 9, 2017

[Review] The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower is one of many Stephen King properties to hit movie and TV screens this year. And well, it's the unfortunate rubble of the bunch. For the record, I'm not familiar with the source material, but the film itself plays out like a slice of bad YA fiction.

In another realm exists The Dark Tower, a forceful structure that holds the universe together. There, the last Gunslinger (Idris Elba) and the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) are locked in an eternal standoff. Meanwhile, Jake (Tom Taylor), a young dreamer who everyone else thinks is crazy, finds a portal into this place and teams up with Gunslinger in order to prevent the tower from toppling.

This is one of those frustrating genre flicks that manages to feel overstuffed and underdeveloped at the same time. And for all the awkward exposition that's tossed around, everything in this western sci-fi world feels very vague, nondescript, and one-dimensional -- much like the story's main character Jake, who's as indistinct of a protagonist as they come -- with nothing but a blank "chosen one" tag on his head. Idris Elba is great for what he has to work with here, and his character is undoubtedly cool, but his Death in a Suit foil Matthew McConaughey seems remarkably out of place.

Some nice scenery and unique set designs pop up along the way. And there's monsters and demons and people with tearaway flesh and teleporting and prophetic visions, but none of it ever amounts to anything too terribly interesting. There might be a compelling story to tell in here somewhere, but the execution is faulty--making this version an unstable, crumbling dud.

( 4.5/10 )

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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

[Review] Columbus

Columbus, Indiana is where director Kogonada's quaint little film draws its title from. It's a meditative and keen-eyed character study about two drifting, discontent souls.

John Cho plays Jin, a Korean translator who finds himself stuck in Columbus while his renowned architect father is in a coma. There, he meets a local named Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen), whose scholarly dreams are put on hold to take care of her recovering addict mother. The two begin to bond over their shared conflicting emotions about the uncertain structure of their paths.

It's perfectly fitting that this film is shot with a very modernist aesthetic -- its artful frames exquisitely capture the town's prominent architecture and handsome interior design, punctuating the lines and the angles and the symmetry of it all. Cho and Richardson give empathetic and intriguing performances, and the story moves at a gentle pace -- almost serene. But it's so beautiful, so perceptive, and so thoughtful that it sits levels above the dreaded "boring" label. The script ruminates on the complexity of families, relationships, history, physical and mental health, and the roadblocks toward aspirations.

In a striking contrast to its settings, Columbus craftily exhibits that life can't always be carefully measured or planned, despite the blueprints one lays down. In fact, life is anything but symmetrical.

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

[Review] Jigsaw

I don't know if anyone was asking for another Saw film, but a new one has been dumped on us whether we like it or not. The only good thing I can say about Jigsaw is that it's short. But even though it clocks in at just 80 minutes, it's still 80 minutes too long.

Basically the same setup as the others -- a group of strangers trapped in a warehouse are forced to endure and escape a series of tortuous "games". As the victims pop up in grisly scenes around town, law enforcement identifies the killings as the work of the infamous John Kramer. But it can't be, can it? He's been dead for 10 years! The film repeats this in case you didn't get it the first time.

Jigsaw never adds any fresh pieces to the already tattered franchise. It's aggressively more of the same, and it's loathsomely repetitive and void of surprises or shock. Any sense of intensity is dwindled to a shrug. You could probably garner more satisfaction from a "Criminal Minds" episode. And despite all the sharp objects and needles, the story feels more pointless than ever. The face-grinder, throat-choker, and laser contraption setpieces might give hardcore fans a brief rush, but I think most filmgoers are either desensitized to or just plain sick of this sort of thing. And a problem that plagues this series is that there's no reason to really give a damn about these characters. Some of the decisions they make are so stupid that they probably deserve to die a brutal death.

Jigsaw is like an actual jigsaw puzzle - in that once you've done it once, you're probably a lot less compelled to want to do it again.

( 4/10 )

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Monday, November 6, 2017

[Review] Thor: Ragnarok

Dropping in as the third solo Thor installment and the I lost count addition to Avengers universe, Thor: Ragnarok is a wildly warping adventure of cosmic revelry.

Suiting up again in the role he was born to play, Chris Hemsworth returns as Thor, and this time around, the God of Thunder finds himself stranded on the other side of the universe without the help of his trusty and powerful hammer. From there, Thor encounters old faces and new on his crazy journey back to Asgard, as he attempts to save his kingdom from mass destruction.

First of all, this film is all over the place. But I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way. As long as you can get down with all the dimension-transporting, an incredibly loopy tone, and the film's ever-quirky sense of humor, you're in for a mega fun time. Director Taika Waititi, who has a bunch of indie and international gems under his belt (including What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople), makes an impressive leap to blockbuster fare -- his signature eccentricities come through in the film's spunky and colorful visuals as well as the kooky characters. Jeff Goldblum shows up as an amusingly flamboyant persona called Grandmaster, while Waititi himself voices a rocky fellow named Korg (this guy rules), who's one of the film's biggest sources of comedy. The script is stuffed with witty exchanges, hilarious one-liners, and tons of slapstick with gut-busting timing.

Along the way, this jamboree blasts through trippy, psychedelic, fantastical, godly and mythological worlds, as if a mighty set of hands squeezed elements from Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings and pounded them together into a frenzied fever dream. Speaking of Lord of the Rings, a couple of alums show up here, including Karl Urban and Cate Blanchett -- who superbly plays Thor's long lost evil sister Hela. Also great is Tessa Thompson (Creed) as a warrior with a significant past.

This film doesn't exactly subvert the Marvel formula, but it does what people love about these movies really, really well -- and without taking itself too seriously. Simply put - Thor: Ragnarok is a smash.

* 8.5/10 *

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Saturday, November 4, 2017

[Review] Brawl in Cell Block 99

Even though he's mostly known for his comedic chops, actor Vince Vaughn is no stranger to the darker and serious roles, and that's exactly what he pulls off in the rough-and-tumble Brawl in Cell Block 99 -- a ruthlessly violent crime drama of intense prison life, gritty fisticuffs, and skull-crushing.

Vaughn plays Bradley, a former heavyweight boxer turned heavyweight drug-runner. Oh yeah, and he has a huge tattoo of a cross on the back of his shaved head. Anyway, when an exchange turns deadly, Bradley winds up in prison where he must fight to stay alive -- quite literally.

Shot in a brooding light, this thoroughly engrossing film gets off to a deliberate and strategic start before throwing its haymakers. It's directed by S. Craig Zahler, who helmed last year's cannibal western tale Bone Tomahawk, so you know you're in for some unflinching mayhem, especially as the prison setting practically takes on the form of a dungeonous battleground.

It takes a few moments to get used to seeing Vince Vaughn like this, but he does the hardened tough guy part very well here. It also helps that his character is given dimension beyond the exterior. He's a wisecracker; he has a strict moral compass; and he's very matter-of-fact about his situation and self-aware about his own contradictions. And that's essentially what the film is about -- crime doesn't pay, but some people are driven to it and dig deeper and deeper -- until there's no way out.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, November 2, 2017

[Review] The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Indie stalwart Noah Baumbach is back again with another nuanced family dramedy. It's called The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and the film has made its home on Netflix.

Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel star as siblings who are at very different points in life, but they all have one thing in common -- they're contending for the respect of their (sort of) prestigious artist father (played Dustin Hoffman), while also attempting to escape his shadow.

The script delves into bittersweet family dynamics and explores the interpersonal complexities of strained relationships, and like all Baumbach films -- it's full of chuckle-worthy chunks of dialogue and distinctly-developed characters. Adam Sandler emerges as the stand out -- you heard that right. It's ones of those rare roles where you don't want to smack him in the face. This character feels like a genuine human being, rather than an obnoxious ball of over-the-top schtick.

By design, The Meyerowitz Stories does have more of episodic structure, and it can seem a bit meandering at times. And while the film isn't as thematically pointed as the recent While We're Young, and it doesn't hit the emotional notes or achieve overall charm of Mistress America, Baumbach once again proves that greatly detailed writing and lived-in performances can go a long away.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, November 1, 2017

[Review] Only the Brave

Based on the true story of an elite firefighting crew called the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Only the Brave is a high-stakes film that burns with intensity and emotion.

Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, and Taylor Kitsch play the rugged crew of firefighters who bust their butts to ward off treacherous flames in the hilly forests outside of Prescott, Arizona.

The film carries the same gritty, rah-rah spirit that you'd witness in a recent Peter Berg film (Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon). Director Joseph Kosinski makes sure to pull us into the heart of the dangers and dilemmas -- the obvious ones, as well as the ones we might not think about.

The special attention to character development here gives the action extra weight. Brolin's character is so full of pride and love for his crew and he's hellbent on saving lives, but deep down there's something about his profession that's eating away at him. Then there's Teller's well-played slacker, who joins the force to steer away from his drug addiction and to support the surprise newborn daughter in his life. A commanding Jeff Bridges even swoops in to deliver one of the film's best lines: "The only place you'll find sympathy here is in the dictionary...somewhere between 'shit' and 'syphilis'." Thankfully, there's a nice amount of humor in the script to balance out the heat.

Only the Brave is all about dirt, sweat, hard work, and camaraderie. It's a hard-hitting tale that is as inspiring as it is devastatingly tragic.

( 8/10 )

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