Thursday, June 21, 2018

[Review] The Breadwinner

One of last year's Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature, The Breadwinner is a harrowing and beautiful tale of strength and family amidst unforgivingly hostile circumstances.

Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) is a young girl growing up in Afghanistan under the treacherous Taliban rule. After her gentle and loving father is wrongfully arrested and taken away, Parvana cuts her hair and begins dressing like a boy in order to work to support her family. Along the way, she embarks on a strenuous quest to reunite with her father, while using her vibrant imagination to persevere.

Undoubtedly, this is an emotionally-wrenching story, and Parvana is certainly a character that's easy to root for. Directed by Nora Towney, the film shares some of the same whimsy and somber qualities, as well as the immaculate craft of more serious animated films like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, which are also told from the wide-eyed, determined perspective of a child. There's even shades of the highly-regarded Persepolis here. The film features some graceful animation, elegantly expressing crisply thin lines and smooth, vivid color palettes. The fantastical fable-like sequences that serve as both inspiration for Parvana and as escapes from her brutal reality are particularly striking with their elaborate designs of grandeur and impressively layered, paper-cutout aesthetic.

The Breadwinner all builds to an affecting climax that is intense, triumphant, tragic, and poetic all at once. It's an honest look at atrocities and turmoil, but there is still courage and innocence to be found, and we can only hope that the Parvanas of the world will continue to shine through.

* 8.5/10 *

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

[Review] Incredibles 2

Everyone's favorite family of crime-fighting superheroes returns for a 14-years-later sequel that somehow feels long overdue yet right on time. Pixar's Incredibles 2 (they dropped the "The" - extra weight, I guess) is an exciting and completely worthy follow-up to its beloved predecessor.

After being condemned and forced underground, the Incredibles have been laying low in a shabby motel room. But it's not long before Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter) is recruited by a top secret agency led by Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) to take down an anonymous evil-doer that goes by "ScreenSlaver." Meanwhile, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) takes on the stay-at-home-dad role. Being a superhero? That's the easy stuff. Staying home all day and changing diapers? That's the hard stuff.

Between its impressively sleek animation, its spunky characters, and its thrilling storyline, Incredibles 2 zips, cruises, and blasts off with a jubilant spark of consistent energy. Whether it's just being straight-up funny, being aww-ingly cute (baby Jack-Jack), flaunting its spectacular powers, or launching into exhilarating and well-designed action sequences -- there's never a dull moment, which puts this film close to on-par with the first one in my eyes. As for the minor gripes -- the villain feels a tad uninspired and predictable, and there aren't any huge emotional punches during the climax, but these aren't total deal-breakers because the film does everything else so excellently.

What also make Incredibles 2 so great is that it's just as human as it is, well... incredible. Sometimes it's the smaller, relatable moments that are the most enjoyable: Dash practically hyperventilating as he runs around their new house and frantically tests out all the advanced remote control features... Violet Parr choking on her water at a restaurant when she realizes her new crush is the waiter... Mr. Incredible's sunken eyes and unkempt appearance after being kept up all night by Jack-Jack...

But of course, the rest of the family, along with fan-favorite Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), eventually suit up and join in on the superhero action too. It would be a crime if they didn't, right?

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, June 18, 2018

[Review] Tag

This film tells the true, inspirational story of... grown men playing tag? Yes, the bro-com Tag springs forward into a real-life tale about a group of friends that have kept a game of tag going for 30(!) years -- mostly to stay in touch. Every month of May, they sneak up on each other at unexpected times, concoct elaborate schemes and disguises, and sometimes even endure injuries in the process.

Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, and Hannibal Buress are cast as the group of friends here, and the plot sees them team up to finally get their "untouchable" buddy Jerry (Jeremy Renner, hilarious) -- who has never been tagged (yes, he has a perfect record) -- before he retires from the game. As you can guess, some crazy, desperate, extreme, and outrageous shenanigans ensue.

The story that Tag is based on honestly pretty amazing -- it's quirky, delightfully innocent, heart-warming, and nostalgic all at once. And while this film's portrayal of the story is a mildly fun romp that has its moments, it doesn't seem to do its source material justice (can we get a documentary?). The script is a bit middle-of-the-road -- it contains a handful of funny lines, but an even bigger handful of ones that just don't connect. The film is best when it embraces its slapstick comedy (after all, tag is a physical game). Folks crash through windows and fall down stairs just to avoid being 'It.' The riotous setpieces include a bumpy high-speed golfcart chase, a strange trap-filled sequence in a dark forest, and a wild confrontation during an AA meeting that turns into a Matrix-style battle with its slow-motion sprints and tossed donuts. It's easily the best scene in the film, aside from the one where of the guy's moms makes them Pizza Rolls. However, the laughs here never reach the heights of Tag's fellow competition comedies Game Night and Blockers from earlier this year.

The cast here is enjoyable, though. Jon Hamm lets loose in a fairly care-free role and still looks dapper and charismatic while doing it. The other two MVPs are Hannibal Buress -- who has some of the best line deliveries here, and then Isla Fisher -- who plays one of the guy's intense wives that takes the game way too seriously and often steals the show because of it.

In the end, Tag stays true to the essence of its beginnings. It's not just about the game, it's about friendship. As Ed Helms' character says "This game has given us a reason to stay in each other's lives." That's it.

( 6.5/10 )

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Saturday, June 16, 2018

[Review] First Reformed

Paul Schrader's latest film First Reformed is a dark, uncomfortable, and tumultuous character drama that has a lot on its mind.

Ethan Hawke plays the deeply introspective and conflicted reverend of First Reformed church in upstate New York. He keeps a nightly journal in which we hear his thoughts through poetic and self-reflective voiceover. The film follows him around as he speaks with and councils various members of the community, and things take a drastic turn when he happens upon a suicide bomber vest in the garage of a local environmental activist (Philip Ettinger).

The picture is presented in a tightly squared aspect ratio, adding a sense of focus and direct intimacy - similar to last year's existential perplexer A Ghost Story. The film displays some pristine framing and cinematography, emphasizing architectural angles and crisp symmetry. The story itself also ruminates on ideas of equal and opposing halves, constant contradictions, and ever-present dualities. Hope and despair. Duty and grace. Pride and humility. Courage and martyrdom. Forgiveness and sin. The narrative is mostly built on long and talky, face-to-face conversations, which might completely bore some audiences. But the scenes are always thematically tense, as they dive into lofty topics such as the state of the planet, future anxieties, and personal and universal plights.

Ethan Hawke is ravishingly good here, and it's one of those roles that is perfect for him. This character is multidimensional -- weary yet stoic, empathetic yet detached, haunted yet faithful. You can see it all in his face. The solid supporting cast includes a superb Amanda Seyfried, as well as Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer) in a mostly straight-laced and serious part that is much different than the highly comedic roles we're so used to seeing him in.

First Reform isn't for everyone, but if you're in the mood for a commendably complicated and complex character study that doesn't offer anything easy, it's a film to witness. By the time it's over, Cedric's line rings true as a church bell: "Even a pastor needs a pastor."

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

[Review] Cargo

Martin Freeman terrifically leads the way in the Netflix Original Film, Cargo (it's the first one in a while that I've actually dug). It's a dystopian zombie flick, and while this is well-trodden territory, Cargo packs a good amount of intrigue, craft, and reward to sink your teeth into.

Set in a very beige and bleak Australian outback where the population has dwindled due to a nasty virus (it turns people into rabid flesh-eaters), the story revolves around a father named Andy (Freeman) as he attempts to protect his newborn daughter and bring her to safety before his days are up.

The film is crisply shot, taking full advantage of its uniquely rugged landscape across dusty prairies, muddy rivers, and rocky mountains. The narrative also has a strong sense of forward momentum. There's never a lull in conflict or drama (unlike a certain TV show that rhymes with "Stalking Ted"). Every scene feels vital, and there are some really eerie, intense, and heart-pounding sequences along the way. Martin Freeman gives a fantastic central performance, carrying most of the film on his back with great emotional range, grittiness, heart, and determination. Also impressive is Simone Landers, who plays a young indigenous girl that Andy meets during the harsh journey.

Cargo also provides a surprisingly poignant ending that hits in a way reminiscent of another well-wrought zombpocalypse film called Train to Busan. So yeah, load this one up.

( 8/10 )

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

[Review] Ocean's 8

Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna(!), and Helena Bonham Carter are the ladies that lead the way in the stylish and sophisticated, high-end heist mission that is Ocean's 8.

Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, a sly thief that is the mastermind behind it all (she's also the sister of George Clooney's character from the Oceans trilogy). After being released from jail, she assembles a group of eclectic and skilled criminals in order to pull off an elaborate scheme that involves stealing a $150 million diamond necklace from the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the Met Gala.

The film begins on the slower side, as it jumps around locations and introduces individual characters, but once the team gets together and finally hits the field, this swanky caper acquires a nice amount of energy, intrigue, and verve. It's cool to watch the clever and intricate plot unfold with such slick precision. Of course, the stacked cast is the main draw here, and their charisma makes this thing click. However, their shine is divided and distributed, and they don't get a whole lot of character development on their own, but we wouldn't really expect that in a big ensemble piece like this. There's even a handful of celebrity cameos that make their way into the star-studded affair.

Unfortunately, considering how high the stakes are, there's never a major sense of danger or edge. Things almost go too smoothly, which dulls some of the potential thrills. And despite showcasing a few amusing moments, the humor here isn't anything gut-busting, even though this cast has proven to bring the laughs. That said, Ocean's 8 is still a fairly fun romp that mostly gets the job done.

( 7/10 )

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Monday, June 11, 2018

[Review] Hereditary

Hereditary is a family horror film. And I don't mean in the family-friendly sense -- it's a horror film about a family that isn't very friendly. Crawling with anxiety, hysteria, and effective frights, this thing is so terrifyingly demented and disturbing that it'll leave you absolutely shaken -- or stiff, depending on whatever happens when you get the crap scared out of you.

After her unstable mother passes away, Annie (Toni Collette), her husband (Gabriel Byrne), and their two oddball children (Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff) attempt to cope with the toxic aftermath and insidious turmoil, as they're haunted by a sinister curse that seems to be embedded within them.

With hints of demons in the house and demons in the mind, it becomes a continuous mystery as to what the hell is going on with this family. The story's ghostly images exude power in their subtlety and faintness -- it's like if you were to actually glance upon an apparition in real life (spooky!). Hereditary boasts some of the scariest, most nearly-unbearable scenes you'll ever witness in a horror film -- the type of scenes that will make you hold your breath and sink down into your seat.

Just like Annie's miniaturist artwork, director Ari Aster crafts the film with meticulous detail. The overall atmosphere is so tense and somber that it actually feels as if you're sitting in on a funeral - a very twisted and deranged one. The picture is impeccably framed, donning a dollhouse-like aesthetic and placing focus on uneasy views through box-y doorways and windows. It's almost like if Wes Anderson went Satanic. The camerawork is noticeably active, exhibiting slow pans and zooms, rotating shots, and upside-down shots -- which all increase the anxiety. And the sound design here is so unsettling -- every click, slide, or scribble might make you think twice about every any you hear long after you go home. Then there's Colin Stetson's stellar musical score. It's brooding, unhinged, and hair-raising as it floods every scene with dread.

Toni Collette's performance here is captivatingly tumultuous, to the point where it's actually uncomfortable to watch, yet extremely impressive at all once. Her range is commendable, and she goes into some really dark places here. Collette seriously deserves an Oscar nomination for this role. The supporting cast is great too. Milly Shapiro, in particular, gives one of the creepiest creepy child performances in recent memory. The cast's across-the-board devotion is crucial, because there's some pretty weird stuff going on with the characters in this movie, and we don't often see these types of things pulled off with this much conviction.

Hereditary joins the ranks of modern, artful horror classics like It Follows, The Babadook, and The Witch. It's suffocating until the severed end.

* 9/10 *

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Saturday, June 9, 2018

[Review] Marrowbone

The gravely titled Marrowbone is a horror film with a promising premise but disappointing results -- mainly because it's never as much of a horror film as you'd want it to be.

The story revolves around a young man named Jack (George MacKay) and his four siblings (one of which is played by Charlie Heaton from "Stranger Things") who make a pact to stick together in a rustic mansion out in the country while keeping their beloved yet disturbed mother's death a secret. As you can probably guess, the family finds themselves haunted by a sinister presence (and a raccoon), and the townspeople begin to question what exactly is going on in their manor.

One thing that's definitely apparent is the film's striking cinematography -- it exquisitely captures the woodsy settings, picturesque beaches, and the dry and dusty creepiness of the home. Unfortunately, the disjointed narrative and oblong runtime should have been shaved way down. The story is much more interesting when its exploring the madness of this family and diving into the supernatural evil in their home -- eerie and jumpy suspense sequences and all -- rather than when it deals with all the outside business. Kyle Soller plays a local lawyer who checks into the house for legal reasons, and not only is this character incredibly grating, but he also kills any scary momentum. Great horror frequenter Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Split, Thoroughbreds) plays Jack's love interest, but this subplot is so underdeveloped and unnecessary that she ends up going under-utilized. 

Marrowbone's plot unleashes a late-game twist, but it's not enough to save the film as it devolves into shattering nonsense.

( 5.5/10 )

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

[Review] Wildling

Wildling is an intriguing but bafflingly uneven psychological terror flick that scratches and gnaws, thriving on a killer performance from Bel Powley as the film's central outcast.

It revolves around Anna (Powley), a teenager who grew up confined to a bunker in the woods by her creepy father (played by Brad Dourif). It's safe to say she's pretty messed up, and we follow her as she adjusts to the outside world and temporarily stays with the local cop that discovered her (played by Liv Tyler, who's wonderful here - it's also her first film appearance in four years). All the while, Anna believes she's being stalked by a "Wildling" that eats children.

Aside from its disturbing opening sequence, the film is lighter on horror early on and heavier on the fish out of water (or girl out of forest) antics -- which is pretty interesting in and of itself. Bev Powley (who was great as the main character in 2016's Diary of a Teenage Girl) convincingly exhibits a strange, wide-eyed naivety, which actually turns out to be slightly comical. But eventually this thing ramps up with bloody scares and definitely brings the wildness promised in the title. The cinematography evokes some sublime visuals with its deep, forest-y and majestically moon-lit imagery. There are also a couple of big plot turns, which double our sympathy for Anna.

Unfortunately, the film itself seems to have an identity crisis toward its third act, especially as it throws in a questionable romance story, crooked cops, and subplots that feel more like filler than worthy threads to what the film's premise initially established. It's like it can't decide whether it wants to stay grounded in reality or go for more supernatural, urban legend-like elements.

Things get even more and more ridiculous and off-putting as it goes, and by the end I began to check out. Wildling loses itself in the woods.

( 6/10 )

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

[Review] Upgrade

Upgrade punches in as a brutal revenge action-thriller with a biomechanic twist, and it's a surprisingly down-and-dirty, futuristic stomper.

Set during the near-future in a hi-tech society, we meet an everyman named Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), and the guy is having a really bad today (to put it lightly). First, he gets into a self-driving car wreck, then his wife is murdered! In an act of desperation, Grey decides to undergo an experimental implant procedure called STEM, performed by a weirdo genius (Harrison Gilbertson) who looks about the same age as Harry Styles. As a result, Grey can not only walk again, but he also gains bionic strength. And if that wasn't enough, there's also a supercomputer operating inside his mind. From there, Grey sets out to seek vengeance. Bloody, painful vengeance.

Writer-director Leigh Whannell (who helmed the underrated Insidious 3) injects this provocative film with ultraviolent and pulpy wiring. Jaws are ripped off, people are electrocuted, and wigs are split. Between its high-concept sci-fi scheme and berserk mayhem, Upgrade comes across like a "Black Mirror" episode on steroids. It's also reminiscent of 2014's hybrid flick The Guest with all its sneaky twists and unabashed boldness. The film also exudes a neo-scum visual flair, blending the juxtaposed images of gritty underbelly settings and Daft Punk aesthetics.

Grey isn't invincible, though. There's an ever-present risk of STEM malfunctioning, shutting down, or worse -- turning against him. In addition to that, there's also a detective on his trail (played by Betty Gabriel, Get Out), plotting to foil his revenge spree. These aspects render the stakes intense. But the film also possesses a great sense of humor -- both in general and about itself. This keeps things consistently fun and amusingly visceral. The narrative's cautionary themes pretty much speak for themselves, but Upgrade isn't here to convince anyone of anything. It's here to deliver some butt-kicking and stylish thrills, and it does so with surgical success. It's technically a blast.

( 8/10 )

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Monday, June 4, 2018

[Review] Lean on Pete

Lean on Pete is a heart-tugging story of a boy and a horse, as well as a stark yet beautifully-filmed portrait of a struggling-class rural America.

Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a teenage loner, living a discontent existence with his shaggy drifter of a father, who's hardly ever around. But things change for Charley when he takes a summer job working for a disgruntled old horse trainer played Steve Buscemi(!). There, Charley becomes attached to a horse named Lean on Pete, while learning the ropes of work and life in general.

Director Andrew Haigh takes the reins of this film and leads it with a sensitive hand of compassion and bluntness. The film is fraught with emotion and pathos (in fact, it's devastating at times), but not in the melodramatic sort of way. Its tone is raw, organic, and unflinching, and we feel deep sympathy and encouragement for Charley as we learn about the hardships he's endured and is currently dealing with, as well as the strength he's used to trudge through it -- unfortunately, it's all he's really ever known.

Newcomer Charlie Plummer gives an impressive central performance. It's nuanced and natural - a brilliant portrayal of a boy having to grow up too fast. Steve Buscemi is terrific as always, too. He plays the cantankerous part to perfection (no one can fire off several F-bombs quite like him), but his character has other dimensions too, as he takes on a mentor-like role for Charley -- he initially treats him well, but with a sense of tough love. However, their relationship isn't all smooth riding. Many conflicts arise as Charley realizes the guy's practices aren't the most legitimate, which eventually pushes Charley further away -- another escape off into the windswept fields and the wide horizon.

Lean on Pete is an excellent film, but it made me physically sad, so watch at your own risk.

* 8.5/10 *

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Saturday, June 2, 2018

[Review] Fahrenheit 451

Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon star in Fahrenheit 451, an HBO Films adaptation of Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel of the same name. At the helm is director Ramin Bahrani, who directed 2015's intense housing economy thriller 99 Homes (which also starred Michael Shannon). And despite falling flat in some aspects, the film's stellar cast and interesting themes are enough to make you want to stick with it, at least for the first half...

Set in a future-shock society (aka Cleveland) where every known book is banned, we meet Beatty (Shannon) and Montag (B. Jordan) who lead a crew of firemen that work to track down and burn every piece of written media (seems a bit dramatic, doesn't it?). But during the process, Montag experiences a remorseful change of heart and begins siding with an underground rebellion of literature preservers, which ultimately pits him against his captain.

Michael Shannon and Michael B. Jordan certainly make a dynamic duo, and they play their roles very well. You've got Beatty's older, colder, rough-edged ruthless alongside Montag's more reflective, curious, and sympathetic soul. The film does move it a slower pace though. It's drab tone becomes overly monotonous. And there isn't a whole lot of striking visual flair, aside from some VR and holographic imagery that recalls Netflix's disappointing hi-tech flick Mute. The narrative also gets messy and muddled toward the latter half, coming off like a mediocre sci-fi series rather than a satisfying cinematic experience.

The film's messaging is quite on-the-nose, covering the importance of the written word and freedom of expression, as well as how these things inform cultures and civilizations between the past, present, and future. It also warns against the dangers of a surveillance state and a monolithic world. However, the film never fully pays off the topics it raises. In other words, this version of Fahrenheit 451 seems to have few pages missing.

( 5.5/10 )

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