Wednesday, January 31, 2018

[Review] Mom and Dad

Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair star in the not-so-wholesome film, Mom and Dad. It's an alarmingly abrasive, viciously stylized, darkly comedic slice of parental horror, and well... it's kind of awesome.

The plot hovers around a teenager (Anne Winters) and her little brother (Zackary Arthur). Everything in their suburban neighborhood is seemingly normal until some type of unknown force causes parents to turn ferociously violent on their own kids. When it takes hold of their own parents (Cage and Blair), the two siblings must face off against them in a fight for survival.

When a movie begins with Nic Cage doing the tickle monster, you know you're in for something batshit. This thing is insane, unhinged, grisly, bloody, and yes--chuckleworthy. The film is very much in the same vein as other subversive humans-gone-wild horror hybrids like the recent Cooties and Prevenge. But as ridiculous as the premise may be, there's also a clever layer to it, elevating the film above shallow shock-driven spectacle (even though it would still be really amusing if that were the case). Thematically, the narrative rips the bandages off of adult disappointments and parental anxieties. It's like a midlife crisis in slasher flick form.

Oh, and then there's Nic Cage's performance. He nearly outdoes himself here (and that's saying a lot). He goes from 0-100 within the blink of an eye, aggressively shuffling through every range of emotion -- from bawling to rage. In the second half of the movie he pretty much launches into a permanent stage of Cage yell mode, dropping F-bombs and shit-bombs left and right, while shooting off memorably ridiculous lines like "It's not a mancave, Kendall!" At one point he even sings a mock version of the hokey pokey. If you've ever wondered what would happen if Nic Cage were cast in The Shining instead of Jack Nicholson, this is it.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

[Review] The Commuter

The Commuter arrives as the latest action adventure in Neesian fare (yes, I dubbed the term). The film comes from director Jaume Collett-Serra, who also helmed the Neesian vehicles Non-Stop and Run All Night. And let me just say: It's absolutely ridiculous. But ridiculously entertaining.

After suddenly getting let go from his job, Michael (Neeson) hops on the commuter train (after several beers at the bar, of course) to head home. During the ride he's presented with a conundrum (by way of a mysterious Vera Farmiga). She vaguely informs him that someone is on the train that does not belong there, and he must find them before the last stop, in order to claim a $100,000 reward. From there, a head-scratching (to put it lightly) series of events unfolds.

This film is like Neeson on the Metro Express. Phone Booth but mobile. And any sense of realism or believable logic is quickly tossed out the window. The Commuter is a movie that blatantly relies so much on straight-up hypotheticals that it's unabashed embrace is actually kind of impressive (the script even winks at the nature of its crazy and unhinged scenario). The plot stacks twists on top of twists and misdirections on top of misdirections. It doesn't shy away from going the violent and grisly route either, and there are a bagful of super sweaty, intense sequences -- including one where Neeson gets stuck UNDER the train!

By the midpoint, the film gets so wrapped up in outside conspiracies, collusions, and corruptions that it sort of sabotages itself and loses its way. It goes off the rails. I know that sounds like such a clichéd and obvious thing to say, but this thing actually DOES go off the rails. By the time it reaches its batshit climax, you've probably stopped trying to figure out who's working for who and who's guilty of what -- all you can really do is sit back and laugh at the spectacle. The film's small bits of humor and subtle self-awareness let us know that the filmmakers aren't too proud to admit that this is bonkers. Again -- it's all hypothetical.

So buckle up for this wild ride. It's worth it just to witness the scene of Neeson swinging away with a guitar.

( 7/10 )

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Monday, January 22, 2018

[Review] Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film Phantom Thread is a torrid and smothering, 1950s London-set portrayal of a highly-regarded fashion designer. It features the (alleged) final performance from the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis, and it's an astonishing note to go out on.

Meet the very hands-on dressmaker, Reynolds Woodstock. He's a cranky perfectionist -- the type of person you walk on eggshells around. The film sees the life-long bachelor become infatuated with a woman named Alma (Vicky Krieps), and what essentially unfurls is an exhausting exercise in getting on each other's nerves. In fact, it would go very well with The Beguiled, and the divisive mother!

Anyway, it isn't a film that's heavy on plot, and at times it can feel a bit unmomentous, but this fascinating character study intently thrives on brewing conflict (a lot of steamy tea is served up), as well as tension that's so thick that you could stick a sewing needle into it or slice it with a pair of scissors. A darkly and deeply uncomfortable sense of humor is weaved throughout, and a repetitious pattern of themes about artistry and meticulous craft, toxic love and admiration, jealousy and vengeance, and poisonous power dynamics -- rounds out the overall vision. Appropriately, the film itself is handsomely framed and ravishingly staged with vivid texture and operatic gusto. It's also backed by a prominent weep of soaringly elegant music that certainly bolsters the drama.

What's also fitting is that -- for a film about achieving perfection -- Daniel Day-Lewis sinks into this role with complete dedication and ever-impressive skill -- alternating between icy and warm, eccentric and focused, humorous and downright mean. It's a performance that captivates every time he's on screen -- you'll be paying attention to every step, every eyebrow movement. And I can't go without mentioning the supporting cast: Vicky Krieps as Alma is excellent -- going from timid to tumultous to vengeful. And then there's Lesley Manville as Woodcock's stern sister and assistant -- she administers a scathing stare that practically shoots laser beams through you.

The final stretch of the duration drags on a while, and it probably could've used some snipping, but this is still one of those films that stays with you. And the final bow (say it ain't so!) from one of the greatest actors of all time is one that you won't want to miss.

* 8.5/10 *

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

[Review] Molly's Game

Esteemed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball) makes his directorial debut with the high-stakes drama, Molly's Game. Despite being a bit overlong, the film is a winner -- thanks to Jessica Chastain's terrific lead performance and the snappy, well-wrought dialogue.

The film shuffles through the true life of Molly Bloom (Chastain), a former Olympic-class skier
who went on to run exclusive, top-level poker clubs -- making big-time deals in more ways than one. As the savvy mastermind keenly blurs the lines between what's legal and what isn't, the FBI tries their hand at busting down her entire organization.

Sorkin, who also pens the screenplay, orchestrates the proceedings with his customary knack for clever, whip-smart exchanges of words and amusing face-offs between characters. Jessica Chastain is absolutely brilliant here, embodying this intensely driven and relentlessly unfolding individual with shifty zeal and attitude. The supporting cast is strong too: Idris Elba checks in as a cooler than cool lawyer, Michael Cera dirties up as a hardcore poker player, and Kevin Costner plays Molly's complicated father, adding some personal heft to an otherwise stone-faced story. But he makes a questionable late-film appearance that unfortunately seems very ham-fisted.

But the film's main problem is that it lapses into a few dense and unengaging stretches, especially if you aren't super familiar with the gambling world. At times it feels like crunched numbers and thick court documents are being tossed at you at a rapid rate. Odds are, the film could've benefited from a shaved-down runtime. But despite the slip-ups, Molly's Game still comes out ahead.

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

[Review] The Post

"Journalism" and "thriller" aren't two words that often appear alongside each other, especially when it comes to the movies, but that's the headline for Steven Spielberg's latest prestige flick, The Post. And while it probably won't blow you away, the film essentially achieves its mission and gets its timely message across with veteran composure and an ensemble of some really good acting.

The story focuses on the true story of journalists from The Washington Post and their risky, strenuous undertaking in publishing the classified Pentagon Papers, which held some very eye-opening information about the United States and the Vietnam War. The film features a top-notch cast, including the likes of Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tracy Letts, and Bob Odenkirk. It's definitely no surprise that the performances are thoroughly solid across the board.

It begins a little slow and procedural, but what eventually unfolds is a taut, unprecedented battle between newspaper and government. Justice and corruption. Exposé and cover-ups. And even though it's set in 1970s (smoky, drab aesthetic and all), what stands out is just how startlingly relevant the narrative is to today's times -- with its themes about freedom of the press (and speech), the power of truth, the importance of being on the right side of history amidst all the conflict and turbulence, and yes -- women breaking down industry barriers. The film is also very reminiscent of 2015's Best Picture winner Spotlight. In fact, Liz Hannah's screenplay enlists Josh Singer as a co-writer here.

Ultimately, it's the little details that make The Post tick: Odenkirk's character clumsily lugging the documents onto a plane and into a taxi... Tom Hanks' raspy delivery of pointed quips ("The President has taken a shit all over the First Amendment!"). And in the end, the film is a vigorous ode to everyday people doing their duty behind-the-scenes.

( 8/10 )

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Monday, January 15, 2018

[Review} Paddington 2

2015's Paddington was an immensely delightful surprise, and thankfully, its sequel (simply titled Paddington 2) continues with that same sweet tradition, and this time it might even be better -- for this film truly is the cinematic equivalent of a warm and cozy hug.

When we reacquaint with our furry bear companion Paddington (softly voiced by Ben Wishaw) he's now well-adjusted (for the most part) to his life in Windsor Gardens. He's even taking on odd jobs in order to save up for a special gift for his dear Aunt Lucy, who's about to celebrate her 100th(!) birthday. But things go awry when the gift is stolen by a villainous con-artist (played by Hugh Grant), and poor Paddington is framed and sent to prison. From there, he must find a way out, while hoping his beloved adoptive family, the Browns (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins), won't forget him.

This lovable and emotionally-stirring endeavor gracefully carries over the irresistible charm that made the first one so great. It's marvelous. It's wonderful. And it's the proper recipe of whimsy, laughs, and heart. At times, the film even reminded me of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel with its old-fashioned quirk and playful verve. The visuals are utterly splendid, and there's a particularly exquisite animated sequence that unfolds in the form of a pop-up book -- it's awe-inspiring, really. Combine all of this with the fun, slapsticky romps of humor, the elegant musical soundtrack, the narrative's good-natured spirit, and you have a real treat for the senses and the soul.

Paddington 2 is that rare family film that delivers equal enjoyment for all, whether you're a few years old or turning 100 like dear Aunt Lucy. It's impossible not to root for. The story's life lessons are agreeable and universal -- without ever being too... *ahem* ...overbearing. The message is pretty simple: Spread kindness like marmalade. It can go a long way.

* 10/10 *

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

[Review] Insidious: The Last Key

It may come as a surprise to some, but I'm a fan of the Insidious horror franchise, especially 2015's criminally underrated and shockingly great sequel Insidious: Chapter 3. The latest installment Insidious: The Last Key picks up directly after Chapter 3, and while its flaws are more glaring this time around, it's still a decent slice of early-year frights.

After an intense (to put it lightly) flashback, we check in with the series' current (and best) main character -- the compassionate, constantly haunted psychic medium Elise (fantastically played by Line Shaye). She's now teamed up with the pun-y pair of paranormal investigators (played by Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson, who continue to add a lot of kooky comic relief to the story) for business. Eventually, Elise receives a call about some ghostly activity, and it just happens to be from the house she grew up in. Let's just say she doesn't have the fondest memories of the place. Anyhow, the crew packs up and heads out to see what's going on, and it's not pretty.

While Insidious: The Last Key explores new realms and unlocks new doors, it doesn't exactly break new genre ground. But it does use some tried-and-true scare tactics. It's hard to go wrong with creepy little ghost children darting around, demonic figures lurking in the shadows, suffocatingly dark basement scenes, and heart-stopping jump scares. With that said, there are definitely things in here that any moviegoer would question or scoff at -- like the jarring coincidences, the nearly unbearable melodrama, the head-scratching logic, the savagely cruel twists, the corny dialogue, and the clumsy exposition chunks that might as well flat-out say "In case you forgot what happened in the previous movies, here you go..."

So even though Insidious: The Last Key won't go down as one of the year's best, you can't say that you've seen many movies that feature a 75-year-old female protagonist beating up demons with a cane.

( 6/10 )

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Saturday, January 6, 2018

[Review] I, Tonya

I wasn't very old when the infamous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan "incident" shattered headlines, but I definitely heard about it for years later -- something about a triple axel and a metal pipe to the kneecap. ESPN's great 30 for 30 documentary series covered the story in-depth with "The Price of Gold", and now, the Craig Gillespie-directed film I, Tonya dramatizes the dizzying life of Tonya Harding with sharp success -- a solid landing, if you will. It's not quite your average biopic. Not your average sporting event. And not your average character.

Margot Robbie laces up the blades and portrays the controversial figure skater, while the film's mockumentary set up glides through Tonya's rough upbringing and hostile relationship with her mother (played by greatly Allison Janney), who's quite frankly a monster, as well as the Olympian's rocky and abusive marriages, her rise to stardom, and yes -- the infamous incident (and the aftermath).

The film moves at a punchy pace, exhibiting a notable Martin Scorsese and current-period David O. Russell vibe, and it definitely does not shy away from being brash and gritty -- much like Tonya herself. And while the crazy, stranger-than-fiction story is told with vigor, the main draw here truly is Margot Robbie's fantastic performance as Tonya. She practically disappears into this role with immensely skilled grace, and she plays the character with dimension, nuance, sympathy, and memorable personality. In fact, the film loses a bit of its momentum during the stretches when the focus shifts toward Tonya's idiotic ex-husband and bumbling bodyguard (played by Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser, respectively) as they orchestrate and carry out the incident.

So, come for the bizarre narrative, stay for Margot Robbie and Allison Janney's shot at Oscar gold.

* 8.5/10 *

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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

[Review] Downsizing

What if we had the technology to shrink ourselves for the betterment of the world and for our own personal prosperity? This is the beyond bite-sized question that Alexander Payne's intriguing but uneven soci sci-fi film Downsizing attempts to explore.

Matt Damon plays the central suburbanite who becomes enthralled by the possibilities of "going small." After much deliberation, he and his wife (played by Kristen Wiig) decide to take the permanent plunge, but one big problem occurs -- his wife bails at the last minute! From there, the now hopeless schlub must adjust to his new lifestyle and discover his true purpose.

It's certainly no Honey, I Shrunk the Kids -- but the story's future-shock angle is remarkable in its own way. This is actually a fascinating, thought-provoking, and imaginative concept for a film (and in general). Think about the benefits of downsizing: You take up less space, so you're helping to reduce the worldly problems of pollution and overpopulation. And you're more cost-effective and need way fewer materials to sustain, so you'd also be wealthy in return! The film addresses these themes (albeit a bit awkwardly) as well as the political and class implications that might arise.

The story definitely takes some strange and unexpected turns as Damon's character befriends a haughty fellow played by Christoph Waltz, as well as a Vietnamese activist named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) from the other side of the small town. It's Chau who injects a new shot of life into the film, as she's easily the funniest and most warmly humane character here.

The film's oblong tone is a difficult one to pin down, but that's part of its charm. At times it feels jocular and satirical, and other times it's serious and schmaltzy. It never pretends to have all the answers either, but it definitely scratches at the surface of some interesting hypotheticals. It also has an undeniable spunk of visual spectacle to it, along with some fun gimmickry. So, I guess you could say -- Downsizing has its pluses and minuses.

( 7/10 )

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Monday, January 1, 2018

[Review] Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Ah, Jumanji -- the board-game-come-to-life classic that held a dear spot in many childhoods of the 1990s. This year's Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has resurrected the ancient relic for -- not a remake -- but a many-years-later sequel, fit for modern times. And the film is exactly what you'd want from something like this: a fun, goofy, entertaining, and transportive adventure.

The plot summons four high school kids who get ahold of an old video game console and magically warp to the jungle while transforming into avatars played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black. From there, they learn that they must finish the game -- something about finding a mystical jewel and placing it in a jaguar mountain -- in order to return home. 

It's everything you'd expect: Frenzied confusion... lots of screaming and running from very large animals... stumbling through temple traps... and strategical solvings of mysteries and puzzles... Cinematically, there's also a couple of levels to it -- it's at once a fully immersive jungle quest, as well as a rousing video game template with built-in virtual attributes and features. It's quite clever actually. It gave me that same warmly nostalgic yet fresh feeling that I had when watching 2015's Goosebumps movie. 

The script is fruitful with funny, well-delivered one-liners (particularly from The Rock and Kevin Hart, who have proven to make a great team in the past). And there's an extra layer of comedy to it as the avatars essentially retain the polar opposite personalities of their original teen characters, which makes for some amusing slapstick and ironic follies. By the way, they have some awesome names too: Dr. Smolder Bravestone, Mouse Finbar, Ruby Roundhouse, and Professor Oberon. The supporting cast also sees Nick Jonas and Bobby Cannavale make some jocular appearances. 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a good time at the movies. And quite frankly, there's a good chance I'll enjoy anything with The Rock (our future president) in it. This is no exception.

( 7.5/10 )

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