Monday, April 30, 2018

[Review] Avengers: Infinity War

"So this is it? It's all been leading to this."

Avengers: Infinity War is now the pinnacle of a MASSIVE MOVIE. If you looked up MASSIVE MOVIE in an encyclopedia, Infinity War would be pictured there, and it wouldn't even fit on the page. But it's also a MASSIVE amount of fun and thrilling excitement. This thing is an epic culmination of Marvel's master plan. It's a superhero extravaganza where the stakes are higher than ever.

The film sees an abundance of Marvel characters join forces, you know -- the usual Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, etc...), Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and much much more (I mean, look at that poster). There's even a welcome return to Wakanda. Here, the valiant heros must do all they can to stop Thanos - their most powerful opponent thus far. If Thanos collects all six Infinity stones, he can virtually end the universe with the snap of a finger (a very big finger).

With so many characters and so much going on all at once, there isn't a completely coherent flow to all the scene transitions and setting hopping, but it's actually juggled better than I anticipated. And frankly, the events are so monumental and so entertaining that it's easy to roll with as we eagerly await what will pop off next. The film erupts with climactic, universe-shifting battles -- whether on Earth, in space, or in different dimensions. And it's just downright cool to see some of the characters -- that we've been watching for years -- come face-to-face and interact with each other for the first time (stubbornly prideful quips and all). This certainly adds a fresh dynamic to the festivities - an aspect that Marvel has always pulled off really well. The film's duration clocks in at a whopping 160 minutes, but to me, it didn't feel that long, because I was enjoying the spectacle so much.

And amidst all the colossal, power-clashing, super-blockbuster elements, it's truly the smaller humorous details (this movie is really funny) that stand out the most -- like Spider-Man and Star Lord's connection over pop culture references, Thor earnestly referring to Rocket Raccoon as "Rabbit", teenage Groot's grungy defiance... And then there's Drax, who's the real MVP of one-liners. The guy is an absolute hoot. Notice how I'm pretty much mentioning all the Guardians? Yeah, they're still the all-stars of the MCU.

But even though there's a lot of fun and games in Infinity War, this installment carries a slightly darker tone. Here, our superheroes are at their most vulnerable and out-matched. Thanos is damn near invincible, practically holding the keys to the universe in his fist (a very big fist). Honestly though -- as scary as he is -- it's his rippled chin that gave me nightmares. Anyway, with so much despair in the air comes some major dilemmas and drastic sacrifices for our heros, which lead to some emotionally potent moments.

So yeah, Infinity War is definitely a chaotic cluster, and it stuffers from the 'Part I' syndrome -- meaning that there isn't a solid conclusion (the cliffhanger ending might leave you feeling slightly indifferent). But up until that point, this massive movie provides most of the stuff that Marvel fans could hope for. And we'll keep coming back. My only question: Where was Korg?

* 8.5/10 *

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

[Review] Rampage

Our greatest modern movie star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson teaming up with a giant albino ape to stop a giant flying wolf? Count me in!

The Rock plays a primatologist at San Diego Zoo. Oh yeah, and he also happens to have a Special Forces background, and was once a member of an anti-poaching unit. Anyway, he has unique bond with the animals, especially an albino gorilla named George, whom he rescued as a baby (it's a sweet story, really). But all hell breaks loose when a dangerous genetic experiment touches down across the country, causing any creature that comes in contact with it to become colossal, mutated, destructive beasts. George happens to be one of victims, and he, yes -- goes on a rampage. So with the help of a scientist (played by Naomi Harris, Moonlight), The Rock sets out to put an end to the madness.

With a movie like Rampage, you pretty much come in knowing exactly what to expect, and that's exactly what you get. It's pure, giddy spectacle -- I mean, this is a film where a flying wolf takes down a helicopter, an enormous crocodile scales a skyscraper, and where an albino gorilla swallows one of the film's villains like a popcorn shrimp. It definitely doesn't take itself too seriously, but it does actually have a lot of heart, especially when it comes to The Rock and George's relationship. They exchange hilarious jabs with each other by communicating through sign language, and The Rock constantly refers to George as his "Friend." It honestly made my heart melt.

This romp is a terrific showcase for The Rock's greatness. When The Rock takes down two armed guards with his own bare hands - we cheer. When The Rock bonds with George - we smile. When The Rock says "You've got to be kidding me" after one of the creatures comes back to life - we laugh. In fact, whenever the film strays focus away from The Rock and dives into its subplot conspiracies, it loses some of its steam. Luckily, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's government agent character helps to keep those stretches afloat. At first, it seems as if it's just Negan from "The Walking Dead" in a suit, but the surprisingly likable character takes some welcomed turns along the way, and JDM plays the role really well.

Rampage is an uproarious, stomping, massive good time. God bless The Rock.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, April 23, 2018

[Review] Ready Player One

After the serious historical pic The Post, Steven Spielberg loosens up and lets out his inner glee with Ready Player One, a retro-futurist romp that blasts off with geeky fun and playful invention.

It's the year 2045. Our main protagonist is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan, Mud). He lives in a towering junkscape in Columbus, Ohio. But like the rest of the population, he uses his VR headset to escape into The Oasis -- a hustling and bustling, advanced gamer-based world where pretty much everything anyone has over known exists. It's there where he embarks on an elaborate mission to collect three keys and an "Easter Egg" before a corporation led by a power-hungry crook (played by Ben Mendelsohn, always a treat) takes over The Oasis.

Early on, there's a lot of exposition and world-building to take in, but once that's all squared this film transports us to an exuberant adrenaline rush of an adventure that's stuffed with throwback wonderment and expansive imagination. The energetic plot jolts us through multiple levels of crazy setpieces -- from a breakneck, pavement-pummeling race through the city (which includes an appearance from King Kong) -- to a creepy, fan-out sequence at The Stanley Hotel from The Shining -- to an all out rumble between everyone and everything on a frozen tundra. The wildly exuberant film proudly wears its '80s-tinged, hi-tech aesthetic on its sleeve, and the abundance of pop-culture references somehow manage to avoid coming off as cheap or overbearing. In fact, the film has a great sense of humor about them, especially as it ultimately becomes an unabashed embrace and heartfelt ode to popcorn entertainment, video games, and the characters and settings that stick with us.

The supporting players are strong too, including Olivia Cooke (Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, Thoroughbreds), Lena Waithe ("Master of None"), Philip Zhao, and Win Morisaki. They're an eclectic, spunky, and funny team that's really easy to root for. And Spielberg's current stalwart Mark Rylance logs in to play an interestingly quirky role as the creator of The Oasis.

I can't attest to how well the film translates from its source material (because I haven't read it), but I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed what I witnessed on screen. Spielberg's sheer enthusiasm and earnestness is felt in every scene, and he's the perfect candidate to handle this sort of passion-spiked inventiveness. Ready Player One is a cinematic joystick.

( 8/10 )

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Friday, April 20, 2018

[Review] Hostiles

Christian Bale leads the way in Hostiles, a harsh and sweeping Western epic from director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, Black Mass).

Set during 1892 in New Mexico, the story revolves around a legendary Army Captain (Bale, huge mustache) as he's reluctantly tasked with leading a cutthroat expedition across dangerous territory in order to escort an imprisoned Cheyenne Chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana.

Along the way, they're faced with unforgiving wilderness, unpredictable enemies, and high tensions within their own party. There are some long, almost meditative breaks between the shotgun action, exemplifying that the strenuous, slow wilt of the journey is just as taxing and treacherous as any immediate threat or ambush. And for as harrowing as this journey is, it' so gorgeously filmed -- displaying crisp and wide landscapes that feel like deep breaths. But the most interesting and compelling aspect of the film is the quiet dynamic between the Army Captain and the Chief. Here's two equally dangerous and powerful opposing leaders with conflict-ridden pasts sharing quarters for the long haul, eventually gaining a significant respect for each other -- and even a sense of comradery.

Bale gives an unsurprisingly gritty and terrific central performance in this type of environment, and the supporting cast is solid too -- including the familiar faces of Rosamund Pike, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet (of Call Me By Your Name fame), Ben Foster, and musician Ryan Bingham (who also played a big role in Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart).

Hostiles builds to a moving, potent, and cathartic conclusion that stomps on the idea of division.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

[Review] Final Portait

Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer are the oddly dynamic pair in Final Portrait. It's an engrossing exhibit of an eccentric artist at work, as well as an adroit rumination on friendship.

Set in Paris during the 1960s, Rush plays famed sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti. He's blunt and unhinged. Seemingly miserable at times, friendly and humorous at others. Early on, he latches onto American journalist James Lord (played by Armie Hammer) and asks him to pose for a painting. But what was supposed to be a two-hour project turns into a month long endeavor -- as the artist's work is never complete until he's satisfied (not to mention all the wine and smoke breaks). Of course, James has other obligations, but he just can't seem to pull himself away.

Directed by Stanley Tucci, Final Portrait unfolds as a unique meeting of minds. On paper, I know it doesn't sound like the most thrilling premise (like watching paint dry, right?). But as the film progresses it becomes an increasingly fascinating character study, demonstrating some keen development and stellar interplay between the two leads. The performances are superb, especially Rush as he becomes the main driving force, soaking into a startlingly lived-in rendition of the erratic artist.

There's some really great and provocative dialogue throughout too, like this quote from Alberto when asked about suicidal thoughts: "It's not like I feel life is bad. It's just that I think death must be the most fascinating experience, you know?" And this exchange: "A real friend should tell me that I should give up painting forever." And James slyly responds, "Whoever said I was a real friend?" But the most memorable line of all might be when Alberto utters a flustered "Oh fugggg" whenever he messes up a small brush stroke.

Final Portrait has a lot to say about the creative process, attention to detail, the idea of perfection, and unorthodox bonds, and as deep as it goes into that stuff -- it's really a solid buddy comedy at heart.

( 7/10 )

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

[Review] You Were Never Really Here

Joaquin Phoenix gives a tremendous lead performance as a ruthless outsider in this grimy crime-drama of violence, revenge, and disenfranchisement.

At the beginning of You Were Never Really Here, we meet a mysterious, hooded figure lurking around alleyways -- this is Joe, a grizzled Gulf War veteran who suffers from PTSD. He now works as a hired gun with a brutal reputation. And his main task in this film is to track down and rescue the missing 13-year-old daughter of a New York City senator, and make the captors pay... big time.

From the get-go, it's clear that Joe is a man on a mission, and what ensues is a methodical sludge through city streets and dirty underworlds where he spends a lot of the duration essentially beating the living crap out of people. With its narrative of voyeurism and vengeance, the film is highly reminiscent of Taxi Driver. In fact, there are a few scenes that feel like direct homages to the Martin Scorsese classic. And speaking of driving (there's a lot of that going on here), the film's Jonny Greenwood-composed musical score reminded me a lot of 2011's Drive with its throbbing and overriding synths. This film isn't overly derivative though, especially because the plot takes some really crazy turns along the way. And in addition to being very crisply shot, the film also has a lot of stylized touches -- like disturbing, fever dreamy flashbacks and eerie bouts of Joe heavily breathing with plastic bags over his head. They're truly images of horror.

Writer-directer Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) makes this tragic story walk the line between reality and hallucination. And while it doesn't move at a breakneck speed (a couple of necks might be broken, though), You Were Never Really Here is still one hell of a ride -- on visceral and emotional levels. And it's a fittingly harsh vehicle for Phoenix's gritty talents. Hammer away, Joaquin.

( 8/10 )

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

[Review] Blockers

Bombarding in as Kay Cannon's directorial debut, Blockers is a hysterical and commendably adept generational clash comedy that brings some major laughs with a remarkably stellar cast.

Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz play a trio of intrusive helicopter parents, and Prom Night is approaching for their respective daughters (Kathryn Newtson, Geraldine Viswanathan, Gideon Aldon), so worries are running high, especially as they catch wind (or should I say - catch eggplant emojis) that their daughters have made a pact to lose their virginities as one last hurrah before they head off to college. So the terrified parents frantically spend the whole night tracking them down and attempting to bust their plans.

This thing is insanely hilarious, tremendously awkward, and explicitly raunchy in the best and most effective ways. It evokes the laughs that make you slouch over and hold your stomach (on a sidenote, it's a really good companion piece to this year's Game Night -- and believe it or not, even Love, Simon). And there are a handful of setpieces that will go down as some of the wildest, most scream-worthy comedy scenes in recent movie memory -- from butt-chugging shenanigans at a party, to a secondhand puke disaster in a limo, to John Cena accidentally getting caught in a role-playing game gone terribly wrong. Speaking of Cena, he's the absolute standout here. In fact, his cargo shorts alone are enough to make each scene he's in funny. But one of the best running jokes of the film is about his seemingly macho character tending to well up whenever something slightly emotional happens. Also great is Geraldine Viswanathan, who plays Cena's daughter in the film. Her comic timing is fantastic and she demonstrates some impressive range throughout. It's really a breakout performance.

Even with all its unfiltered craziness, Blockers builds to a pleasantly surprising climax of heartfelt moments that culminate in three different and thoughtful ways. More comedies like this, please.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

[Review] Isle of Dogs

In the similar spirit of Fantastic Mr. Fox, quirkmaster Wes Anderson returns to the animated world with Isle of Dogs (say that out loud three times), and it's a wonderfully shaggy tale that certainly delivers on the promise of its precious title.

Amidst a bustling Japanese city called Megasaki, a sickness called the Dog Flu has run rampant among the local canines. So the evil Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has decided to banish all the pups to a place called Trash Island (which is exactly what it is). From there, we follow a core group of mutts as their fate drastically changes when a young pilot named Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash lands on the island -- in search of his long lost dog, Spots.

Isle of Dogs is unmistakably Wes Anderson all the way, and the writer-director's meticulously unique brand of eccentric whimsy is injected in high doses. Every frame is remarkably striking and artfully rendered -- from the immaculately detailed stop-motion animation, to the textured and idiosyncratic production design, to the nifty flaunts of aesthetically-pleasing symmetry. In fact, the visuals are so marvelous that they have us as an audience darting our heads around the screen, as if we were dogs with toys and treats being dangled in front of our faces. As for the narrative, it's a fun and odd adventure that's full of spunky obstacles, wild conspiracies, and clever twists.

This film is funny, too. It's littered with plenty of chuckle-worthy moments, consistently fetching a wry and deliciously deadpan sense of humor along the way. The unbelievably stacked cast of canine voices help matters too, including the likes of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, and Liev Schreiber. Even Ken Watanabe and Yoko Ono check in as surgeons and scientists.

In the grand scheme of things, Isle of Dogs is a slyly affecting and genuinely sweet story of dogs finding homes -- and humans finding friends.

* 9/10 *

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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

[Review] The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is a rousing, jabbing, and biting satirical comedy that crackles and explodes with unabashed raucousness. It's an absolute riot.

Following the cartoonish death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, the proceedings dive into the frenzied aftermath and head-butting power struggles between a governing ensemble played by the likes of Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend, and Andrea Riseborough.

The film is greatly orchestrated by writer-director Armando Iannucci -- the guy responsible for 2009's hilarious send-up In the Loop and HBO's hit political comedy "Veep". So as you'd expect, this film is teeming with quick-witted and foul-mouthed dialogue, hilarious spats between eccentric characters, and phenomenal comic timing by a fully game cast (Steve Buscemi in particular, is a hoot!). And there's always something inherently hysterical about a bunch of frazzled and out-of-shape white guys running around in screwball fashion.

It's impressive how this thing hits so many different layers and levels of comedy all at once. It's both mercilessly farcical and shamelessly slap-sticky -- and like the best pieces of satire, it strikes some ugly truths on hyperbolic and operatic levels that you just can't help but laugh at -- it's as if the film is constantly squeezing the chuckles out of you in the best and most effortless way.

The Death of Stalin makes us wonder exactly what goes on behind closed doors during a shaken-up political world, and by the sounds of it, this film isn't that much of an exaggeration...

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, April 9, 2018

[Review] A Quiet Place

John Krasinski directs and stars in the vicious horror-thriller A Quiet Place, and what he's crafted here is an absolutely ruthless experience that thrives on stunning silence and alarming sounds.

Krasinski and Emily Blunt play a married couple occupying a farmhouse in the middle of a dystopian landscape with their kids. The family communicates through sign language, tip-toes around barefoot, and essentially gets by day-to-day with making as little noise as possible. The reason for this is initially kept fairly mysterious, but what we do know is that there's some sort of extraterrestrial presence out there that will -- Hunt. You. Down. -- if they hear you. Making things even more treacherous is the fact that Emily Blunt's character is in the late stages of pregnancy -- that's gonna make a sound!

This film will make your heart race, it'll make you sweat, it'll make you grip your seat, and it never really lets up. Without spoiling anything, some scenes are absolutely nerve-rattling, and just when you think you can take a breather -- something even crazier happens. And thankfully, the film never compromises when it comes to its quiet yet startling tactic of unsettling sound design. There are long stretches of dialogue-less silence, making the anticipation of a noise almost more jarring than the noise itself. It also features a commendably taut screenplay. It's so carefully measured -- every bit of foreshadowing comes back to haunt, every detail and beat is paid off, and it's just downright intense. The cast is tremendous all-around, too. Krasinski and Blunt are as solid and convincing as can be, and they really do a lot with a little. And I'd be remiss to not mention how great the kids (Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, and Cade Woodward) are here, especially as they take on a significant portion of the weighty plot.

A Quiet Place contains shades of Signs, It Comes At Night, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and even Jurassic Park -- so it's a worthy, high-concept genre flick through and through. But it's also a surprisingly human and heartfelt (and terrifying) story about raising a family under extreme and dangerous (and terrifying) circumstances.


* 8.5/10 *

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Saturday, April 7, 2018

[Review] Roxanne Roxanne

Netflix's Roxanne Roxanne is a bouncy, soulful, and earnest biopic that tells the early life story of '80s teenage battle rap sensation Roxanne Shanté.

Meet Shanté (Chanté Adams), a brilliant and confrontational 14-year-old who enjoys kicking slick rhymes and roasting her unsuspecting opponents with the greatest of ease. But in the face of Shanté's flourishing talent, the film details her rough experiences in the Queensbridge projects, money problems, calls from the streets, and her sudden rise to radio fame with the hit song "Roxanne's Revenge".

Despite the funner, celebratory elements at play, there's a constant sense of serious doubt and despair beneath it all. Much like the art form of hip-hop itself, this film is empowering and tumultuous all at once. Chanté Adams is an absolute revelation here, giving a radiant, attitude-driven, and emotionally-stirring performance. Oscar-winner and fan-favorite Mahershala Ali clocks in as a not-so-likable character (that's an understatement) as Shanté's toxic and predatory (and much older) boyfriend -- it's way closer to Ali's villainy role in "Luke Cage" than it is to his mentor role in 2016's Best Picture winner Moonlight.

Roxanne Roxanne's narrative can come off as snap-shotty and fleeting, and there are some abrupt leaps in time that often occur with music biopics of this nature. And because of this, we never quite witness the true, reverberating magnitude of Shanté's impact as a whole in cultural and musical landscapes. But perhaps the best and most encompassing line of all doesn't actually come from Shanté's raps. It's the one toward the end where she says "I just wanted to be a kid, that's all."

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, April 2, 2018

[Review] Unsane

Shot entirely on an iPhone, the Steven Soderbergh-directed Unsane is a deeply disturbing psychological thriller that's like a suffocating nightmare you can't wake up from.

Claire Foy ("The Crown") plays Sawyer, a young businesswomen dealing with the trauma of being stalked. After experiencing a breakdown, she decides to visit a counselor at a behavioral therapy center. But next thing you know, she's committed to the mental ward against her will. And the even scarier thing is -- she's convinced that her stalker happens to be a new employee at the same facility. From there, Sawyer attempts to find a way out, whether it's convincing the doctors that she doesn't belong there, or using more drastic measures.

The idea of a character's "You're never getting out of here!" down-spiral within an institution -- whether a hospital or a prison -- isn't necessarily a new concept in the genre of psychological thrillers and horror stories, but you've probably never seen it done with this type of visceral and bold approach. This thing is radically unnerving, frustrating, stressful, and completely engrossing. The feeling of utter helplessness for Sawyer practically becomes nearly unbearable for us an audience, and the shot-on-iPhone (the 7 Plus, to be exact) tactic gives the film a look of raw immediacy -- the smaller frame also lends to the sense of claustrophobia and disorienting effects.

As far as the narrative, it grips hold tightly from beginning to finish. Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer's screenplay remains truly unpredictable and there's really no telling where it's going to end up. And the impressive thing is that it manages to compel without dropping any major, rug-pulling twists. In fact, the twist might be that there is no twist. See, this story is less about the common, clear-cut questions like "Is she crazy or not?" or "Is it real or all in her head?" and more about the effects of abuse, PTSD, the views of mental illness, the treatment of patients, and a problematic healthcare system. Claire Foy gives a greatly impressive lead performance that is tumultuous, demanding, and extremely emotional. Also good are Jay Pharoah (this was a surprise) and Juno Temple in some memorable supporting roles.

Granted, Unsane is not a film for everyone, nor is it an easy watch, but it's certainly an audacious achievement on multiple levels.

( 8/10 )

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