Thursday, May 31, 2018

[Review] Breaking In

Judging from its vague and generic title, you'd assume that Breaking In is just another trite, messy, and uninspired thriller that will sink to the bottom of bargain bins in the next couple years. And well... that's exactly what it is.

The story revolves around Shaun (Gabrielle Union) as she takes her two kids on a weekend getaway to her late father's sleek and modern vacation house -- it's essentially a Smart Home with an elaborate security system. That security system is tested when the family learns that there are a group of intruders staking out the premises from the outside and within. And before it's made clear, you could easily guess that these villainous goons want access to the house's cash safe.

From the get-go, the film lays on some thick foreshadowing that is so forced and blatant that it might as well flash "This is foreshadowing" across the screen. There's even a morbid phone call between Shaun and her husband as he jokingly asks "How was the drive? Are the kids still alive?" and Shaun answers sarcastically "For now." And every event is so unnaturally abrupt that it's difficult to buy into this situation. It doesn't feel like an actual movie playing out a potential real-life situation -- it feels more like someone checking off obligatory boxes for a stock script. It's as frustrating as it is boring. It's a thriller that doesn't thrill. So it's impossible to care about anything that transpires or how it'll all end up. And things just get more and more absurd as they go, and not in the amusing sort of way.

Gabrielle Union gives a solid lead performance for what she was to work with, and her desperate and resourceful character pulls off some badass moves to save her kids. But she can't save this film. Instead, you just wish she was in a better one.

( 4/10 )

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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

[Review] Solo: A Star Wars Story

If it feels like it hasn't been all that long since a new Star Wars film launched into theaters -- that's because it hasn't been all that long. And the machine doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon. Up now is Han Solo's standalone film -- a blast from the past, if you will. Prolific director Ron Howard ends up taking the reins for Solo: A Star Wars Story, and despite being a clunky ride at times, it's an earnest and exhilarating dive into the early days of the iconic character.

Alden Erhenreich takes on the lofty role of Han. When we first meet the baby-faced, smooth-talking thief, he's getting shaken down in the mean streets of Corellia. Eventually, he teams with a group of kindred souls, including Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, always great) and yes -- Chewbacca. And from there, Solo sets out to steal some interplanetary goods so he can get himself a ship.

This action-packed adventure wastes no time achieving liftoff, as it flaunts thrilling setpieces -- from hometown escapes to audacious train robberies amidst harsh and snowy mountaintops. With all the story's heists and infiltrations, it sort of plays out like a James Bond or Mission: Impossible flick in a galaxy far, far away. And along the way, there's a lot of swindling, questions of who can be trusted, and flips, twists, and surprises regarding allegiances. But it's still very much a Star Wars film, bringing the epic and operatic space battles we've come to know, while introducing bizarre settings, quirky creatures, and droids with a mind of their own (the standout droid here goes by L3-37, and she's a hoot). It also delivers those significantly sentimental, fan-pleasing moments -- like Solo's first run-in with longtime companion Chewie, his first gaze upon the Millennium Falcon, and his first meeting with Lando Calrissian -- who's played by the terrific Donald Glover. Also good is Emilia Clark ("Game of Thrones") as Han's... let's say "on-and-off-again" girlfriend. But her character plays a much bigger role in the grand scheme of things.

As for Alden Erhenreich, he's pleasantly swell. Impressive, actually. Filling the role of a young Han Solo is no easy endeavor, and he gets a lot of the vocal inflections and facial mannerisms down well. As the film progressed, I began to believe in him. He even wears that certain wide-eyed enthusiasm and high-stakes boldness of Solo that's parted with a lick of cockiness and a dose of vulnerability all at once. The film itself carries that same gambling, rough-around-the-edges spirit.

So while Solo won't leave the same impact as the latest two installments of the main saga, nor does it possess the tight focus or resonant themes of the other standalone story Rogue One -- it's still a welcome expansion of this universe where the risks are paid off. I'm all in.

( 8/10 )

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Saturday, May 26, 2018

[Review] Borg vs McEnroe

Borg vs McEnroe serves up exactly what the title suggests. It's an in-depth sports biopic as well as an intriguing character study that highlights the intense rivalry between pro tennis players Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe.

Shia LaBeouf, fittingly, takes on the role of hothead American rising tennis star John McEnroe (when we first see him he's telling the crowd to "Shut the fuck up" mid-match), while Sverrir Gudnason plays the quiet, nearly emotionless (and almost boring) Swede Bjorn Borg, who lets his titles do all the talking. The film's timeline depicts the events leading up to their Wimbledon championship match, while including the match itself.

Borg and McEnroe obviously couldn't be any more different, and the film makes sure to draw attention to their contrasting personalities and lifestyles, as the non-linear narrative alternates back and forth between each of their childhoods as well as their day-to-day activities (curricular and extracurricular) in the present -- the quick-cut editing seems to mimic the effect of an actual volley. There's also a really interesting dynamic displayed between the two -- it's not so much of a blatant mutual respect as it is an obsessive fascination with each other. It's like they're annoyed by each other but can't look away. A "What is this guy's deal?" sort of thing. They genuinely want to know what makes the other one tick.

Given McEnroe's history of antics, and considering the peculiar and unhinged actor portraying him, you'd think the film's ball might drop into comedic territory at times, but it never really does. The tone is dead serious -- more Borg than McEnroe. And I think the film could've benefitted from loosening up a bit -- it probably would've wound up being more memorable that way. That said, Borg vs McEnroe is well-crafted enough to elevate itself above being "just another sports biopic", and LaBeouf's performance as McEnroe is still a commendable effort. He plays him with a solid sense of dedication, rather than settling on a gimmicky impression. He’s fully game.

In the end, the film attempts to reflect the spectacle back onto the spectators by posing the question: "Who am I, the gentleman or the rebel?"

( 7.5/10 )

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

[Review] Disobedience

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams star in Disobedience, a steamy forbidden romance drama from director Sebastián Lelio.

After a death in the family, an artsy photographer named Ronit (Weisz) returns to her hometown -- a strict Orthodox Jewish community that ostracized her many years ago due to her romance with a female friend. That female friend is Esti (McAdams), who still resides in the village and is now married. But once Ronit and Esti reunite, their passion reignites under intense secrecy and scrutiny.

It's a story that's rife with conflict and defiance, especially as the topics of tradition, norms, institutions, gender roles, family constructs, religion, and sexuality arise. Let's just say there are a couple of awkward dinner table clashes. The film also simmers with tension, chemistry, and unrequited love (there's a really well-placed music moment featuring "Lovesong" by The Cure), especially as feelings between Ronit and Esti come to the surface and things get hot and heavy. And unsurprisingly, things get extra risky when the locals begin to catch wind of it. This aspect also adds a major sense of intrigue as thrill, as we become invested in seeing how this will all transpire.

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdam both match each other with terrific performances. Broodingly serious, yet heartfelt. Moody, yet understated. They express so much just through eye glances and body language.

Toward its dragging end, things slow down quite a bit and the film loses a lot of its steam, as if someone turned the temperature down on a teakettle before the whistle. Still, with all its emotional turmoil, gloomy colors, and hefty complexities, this is a fifty shades of grey that rings with substance.

( 7/10 )

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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

[Review] Deadpool 2

Deadpool snaps back again with all his quippy, slashing, foul-mouthed glory(hole) in Deadpool 2. Aren't you a little surprised that they didn't come up with a more creative title? Anyway, this sequel might not pop with the initial freshness of the first one, but it's still a worthy entry to this series, sliding in with that acidic brand of scene-busting irreverence, while continuing Deadpool's story in an entertaining and surprisingly meaningful way. In some aspects, it's actually better than the first one.

Following a shocking tragedy, a jail stint, and another hysterically snarky opening credits sequence, Deadpool finds himself in a sticky situation where he needs to save a young fiery mutant (played by the enthusiastic Julian Dennison, who made an impressive breakthrough in Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople) from the mechanical arm grasp of Cable (Josh Brolin, he's great here), who's a time-travelling soldier from the future. The plot also sees the return of Deadpool's mutant buddies Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), as well as the introduction of newcomer Domino (Zazie Beetz).

Just like its predecessor, Deadpool 2 rolls with fourth-wall-breaking punches and self-reflexive jabs. Some love this, others loathe it, but I thought most of the jokes landed. And the writers seem to know when to pull back enough, so it isn't too overdone. And when the script isn't relishing in meta humor, it unleashes the toilet humor, which is also funny. But the film might be best when it dives into the nitty gritty of things. Director David Leitch, who has helmed films like the excellent John Wick and Atomic Blonde, brings some sharp action sequences and visceral fights.

And one of the most interesting aspects about the Deadpool cinematic franchise and why I believe it works so well is its own set of extreme contradictions. It's shamelessly jocular and even childish at times, but it also never shies away from delving into darker, more serious territory. And Deadpool himself -- scarred exterior and all -- puts on a front as this detached and degenerate character, but when it comes down to it, the guy's heart practically bursts through his suit, especially when considering the tight-knit relationships he forms with those around him. After all, Deadpool says this is a "Family film." And he isn't totally wrong.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, May 17, 2018

[Review] Early Man

The latest from Aardman Animations hearkens back with Early Man, a royal rumble that kicks and head-butts its way into a new dawn.

Set during prehistoric times where cavemen (and cavewomen) roam the earth alongside creatures like wooly mammoths, we follow Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) as his valley is overtaken by a nasty fellow named Lord Booth (Tom Hiddleston), who's the ruler of the medieval Bronze City (quite the culture shock for Dug). From there, the two enemies decide to settle the land dispute by, yes -- a football match (soccer - for us Americans).

Unsurprisingly, the most striking element here is the stop-motion animation. It's so carefully crafted, so utterly charming with its meticulous claymation movements and impressively earthy color palettes. The film presents a unique juxtaposition of settings as the wacky proceedings launch into a clash between The Stone Age people and The Bronze Age people. And while not all the narrative pieces are completely fresh, it's still a fun and warm-hearted little tale of underdogs going up against the almighty (the story is actually quite reminiscent of the Bollywood classic Lagaan).

The film's brand of humor won't make you laugh your fur vest off (although the giant duck fart had me rolling), but it's clever and bone-dry enough to appreciate, especially as it taps into the wide-eyed naivety of the cavemen (and cavewomen). Everything is new to them. And let's just say they aren't the smartest folks on the planet. But no one's judging -- I mean, they haven't been around very long. Every character (even if we don't remember all their names) here is given a distinct personality and set of quirks. The most delightful surprise is a lady named Goona (Maisie Williams, "Game of Thrones"). She's a resident of the Bronze City who develops a soft spot for Dug and his tribe. She's also the best soccer (er--football) player around, despite not being allowed to try out for her hometown's team. One might wonder if the film could've had a little more oomph if the story were told from Goona's perspective instead.

Still, while Early Man won't be etched into history as one of Aardman's best, it's hard not to root for.

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

[Review] Tully

Directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody (Juno), Tully kicks around as an equally funny and somber character drama about someone who's really going through it.

Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a comically blunt mother of two who's expecting a third. She's having a rough go of it though, as she's slipped into a major mode of depression. Things don't get much better after she has the new baby, so she reluctantly decides to hire a "night nanny" to lighten the load. That night nanny is the titular character Tully (played by Mackenzie Davis). She's free-spirited, compassionate, and almost too good to be true in Marlo's eyes. After getting past the awkward stage, the two begin to form a deeply personal bond -- for better or for worse.

What unwinds is a commendably unglamorous and sometimes brutally honest look into the more stressful side of motherhood. It's also an intriguing and deftly modern take on relationships between thirty-somethings and twenty-somethings and how perceptions and outlooks on lifestyle and happiness can be so different -- even amongst the closest of generations. Charlize Theron is absolutely terrific in the leading role. She embodies this character with nuance, depth, and a genuine believability. Also great is Mackenzie Davis, popping in with an impressive supporting performance -- it's fleeting, but impactful. Diablo Cody's pensive screenplay is rich with realism and humanity, and it consistently contains bouts of affecting, thoughtful dialogue that will either make you chuckle or put you in the pits -- sometimes all at once.

Tully moves along with both subtle turning points and drastic turning points, and Jason Reitman seems more interested in exploring these characters' ins and outs, rather than presenting a clean, overarching narrative. In the end, there aren't many clear-cut revelations or major changes in the status quo, and that's okay. It's all about trying to find ways to keep pushing on.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, May 3, 2018

[Review] Mary and the Witch's Flower

From director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Mary and the Witch's Flower is a delightfully animated fantasy adventure that bursts and flourishes with wonder and bemusement.

Mary lives in the country with her sweet great-aunt Charlotte. It's a nice life, but she's simply bored -- itching for something, anything exciting to happen. One day she follows a mysterious cat into the forest where she finds a rare plant nicknamed "The Witch's Flower" and an old broomstick with strange powers. Then, she's abruptly whisked away to a hidden school of magic.

It's a curious, intriguing, and transportive tale -- especially as Mary continues to confront her bewilderment and discover the secrets of this newfound world -- where campuses in the sky, talking mammal professors, exotic creatures, flying carpets, and magical spells and potions exist. Full of weather and wildlife, the animation style is crisp and fruitful with vivid and earthy colors -- embracing nature and relishing in everything that grows. It's all so immaculately detailed -- from the moss on trees to the fog in the atmosphere to the bricks in the buildings.

If this premise all sounds very Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter-esque, that's because it is (the film is actually based on a 1971 book by Mary Stewart called The Little Broomstick, though). And much like these aforementioned stories, Mary begins to find out that this magical place also houses some dark secrets and questionable leadership, and she must take it upon herself to get to the bottom of it.

During the last act, things get a bit convoluted and chaotic, and there isn't a huge emotional payoff that you might be hoping for. But overall, Mary and the Witch's Flower is a cool little journey.

( 7.5/10 )

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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

[Review] Truth or Dare

Blumhouse's Truth or Dare is a fatal horror flick that comes off as eye-rolling and unintentionally hilarious instead of clever or scary.

A group of obnoxious and unlikable college students hit up Mexico for a Spring Break trip. During a drunken night they decide to visit an old abandoned cathedral and fire up a game of "Truth or Dare." (What a good idea!) Things get weird when everyone learns that there's a curse surrounding the game, and it follows them all the way home. Basically, if you don't carry out your given Truth or Dare -- you die.

At one point a couple of dudes get into a squabble and one of them says "How 'bout I punch you in the face?" And well, that's pretty much how I felt about the characters in this movie. Speaking of faces -- every time someone goes into Truth or Dare mode -- they get a weird, demented smile on their face that is supposed to be creepy, but it's actually hilarious. I seriously couldn't stop laughing whenever it happened. But in the long run, Truth or Dare is an absurdly cruel, haphazard movie that just doesn't make any sense, nor does it add anything new to the table despite its game-y template -- which in turn becomes predictable and boring. Like an actual game of Truth or Dare, this thing burns out the longer it goes, desperately running low on ideas. It also lacks the surprisingly clever execution of last year's other playfully-themed Blumhouse release, Happy Death Day.

Truth: This movie is awful.

( 2.5/10 )

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