Thursday, September 27, 2018

[Review] A Simple Favor

Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are the dynamic counterparts in the darkly comedic mystery film, A Simple Favor.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is bubbly, down-to-earth, and sweet, while Emily (Lively) is haughty, rich, and scathingly blunt. Despite being total opposites, the two hit it off (or at least apparently so) after meeting at their sons' elementary school. But things get peculiar when Emily suddenly goes missing, causing Stephanie to dig deep in order to uncover the surprising truth.

Even though A Simple Favor might come off as Gone Girl-lite at times, it's still an enthralling tale that keeps us wondering and wondering what happened. Director Paul Feig (who's known for big studio comedies like Bridesmaids, Spy, and the Ghostbusters remake) gets more serious than usual here, sparking interest with provocative twists and a methodical sense of secrecy. But even amidst the film's more straightforward thriller elements, it's definitely spiked with a shot of strong humor, like the cinematic equivalent of a chocolate martini.

The cast is fully game, giving pitch-perfect performances all round. Anna Kendrick anchors the story, walking a conflicted line between innocent and scandalous. And despite a briefer screentime, Blake Lively makes a startlingly moody and greatly potent impression. Henry Golding, who a made nice splash in this year's hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, does a terrific job playing Emily's husband with questionable motives.

A Simple Favor's runtime might drag out a little too long for its own good, and its final act gets complicated and overwrought, but it's still a film worth investigating.

( 7/10 )

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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

[Review] The Predator

Writer-director Shane Black tries his hand at the latest installment of the Predator franchise, and the result is a haphazard, and sometimes straight-up lousy jumble of unnecessary sci-fi puke.

A mismatched crew of ragtag ex-soldiers, including Boyd Holbrook (Logan), Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight), and Keegan-Michael Key, along with a keen biologist (played by Olivia Munn) are tasked with hunting down and extinguishing an invasion of rabid space beasts, and things don't go very smoothly. In fact, nothing in this wildly convoluted plot goes very smoothly.

The film carries a campy sleaze and deploys a low-stakes tone that is more head-scratching than it is endearing. This is one of those awkwardly expired sci-fi flicks that somehow feels like it wasn't even made during this decade. There's even some extremely unfunny, 5th grade-esque humor (and a strange obsession with derogatory jokes) in this monstrosity of a script that you could almost hear the sound of a swing and a miss if it weren't for all the crickets chirping. And the fantastical elements totally out of place -- it appears as if Shane Black wanted to inject some Marvel magic into it, but it just doesn't work. Keegan-Michael Key seems oddly miscast, and at certain points it feels like we're watching a skit of a Predator movie instead of an actual Predator movie.

The Predator just never finds its feet and it drastically fails to expound on the alien outbreak genre. The action doesn't any compelling or fresh thrills, either. Even when mutant dogs and a Super Predator show up, it just had me going, "Oh look, there's a thing." 

Aliens may exist. But this movie didn't need to.

( 4.5/10 )

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Thursday, September 20, 2018

[Review] Mandy

Nicolas Cage stars in Mandy, a trippy and metal AF revenge horror film that's rife with slaughter and mayhem, while featuring a reliably batshit perfomance from the Caged manimal. As you can guess, this isn't related to the Barry Manilow song.

Deep in the wilderness sometime during the 1980s ('83 to be exact), Red Miller (Cage) and his rocker girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) spend their nights peacefully stargazing from a rustic cabin. But that changes when Mandy is abducted and sacrificed by a sinister (and insanely weird) cult. From there, Red crafts a nefarious battle axe and sets out to eff shit up.

This monstrous concoction moves at a brooding pace, establishing a hellish and unhinged atmosphere. It's definitely the type of film that could cause walkouts for unsuspecting audience members. Along the way, we witness disturbing satanic rituals, mutated hornets, and loads and loads of blood. Oh yeah, and there's a fucking demon creature that cruises around on a motorcycle.

It also has a tremendously warped visual flair. The provocative images bleed into one another -- displaying acid filtered visuals, abstract skies, feverish nightmare sequences and surreal lava lamp-like colors of bloody and fiery reds. There's even a couple of short animated scenes tossed in. The madness is all backed by the late Johann Johannsson's eerie musical score of melty synths and creeping bass.

As for Nic Cage, it takes a while for him to unleash here, because his character doesn't actually leap into action until after the midway point. But when he finally does, oh boy... His manic rampage essentially begins as he frantically paces around a bathroom screaming and crying profusely only to sit on the toilet and guzzle a bottle of liquor, and you can't help but wonder if that's what his real life is like. He also flaunts some pretty demented facial expressions throughout, and at one point he snorts a mysterious powder off of a shard of glass. And if I had to pick his best line, it would be when he says "That was my favorite shirt!" after being slashed with a switchblade.

Mandy gets crazier and crazier as it goes -- sort of reminiscent of last year's strange horror flick The Void. And its climax virtually takes us to the gates of hell, and by that point, we wouldn't expect anything less.

( 8/10 )

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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

[Review] Hearts Beat Loud

Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons star in Hearts Beat Loud, a music-driven dramedy that sings a delightful tune.

Offerman plays Frank, a humble record shop owner at a crossroads in his life. He's decided not to renew his shop's lease after 17 years of business, and his musically gifted daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons, Dope) is heading off to college. During that significant summer, Frank and Sam's songwriting duo -- which they cheekily call "We're Not A Band" -- starts to gain radio attention, and in turn, it causes some conflict between the two of them.

This film carries the same creative, wide-eyed spirit as John Carney's Begin Again. And fittingly, it flaunts a killer indie soundtrack, featuring the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Jason Molina, and Mitski(!!), as well as the catchy music that Frank and Sam perform -- most notably the title track "Hearts Beat Loud". The story is fairly easygoing with a light and jangly tone, but it does hit some emotional beats in the second half, especially as they contemplate their futures and reflect on the past. The leads here are terrific, and there's also a great supporting cast assembled, including Toni Collette, Sasha Lane (American Honey), Ted Danson (amusingly playing a bartender who's high off the reefer all the time), and Blythe Danner.

Hearts Beat Loud is one of those films that's impossible not to like. This jam wears its heart on its sleeve and it puts a smile on your face, while celebrating the power of music and family and love. It also has one of the most genuinely sweet endings in recent memory. Play on.

( 8/10 )

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Monday, September 17, 2018

[Review] American Animals

According to its opening, American Animals isn't based on a true story... it is a true story. And this wily heist thriller shocks and engrosses with the rumble of an impending stampede.

The plot revolves around four young men (played by Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, and Jared Abrahamson) who attempt to pull off one of the biggest and most audacious heists in U.S. history. The film covers its bases from the character historys, to the inception and preparation of the heist plans, to the heist itself, as well as the aftermath.

The dramatized events are intercut with documentary-like footage and talking heads of the real-life perpetrators, which gives the film a sense of insight and immediacy, as well as a "Holy shit this really happened" vibe. Like the heist plans, the narrative is as methodical and calculated as it is nerve-wracking and unhinged, and it's all fittingly backed by a freewheeling rock 'n' roll soundtrack. Of course, the intensity really ramps up during the actual heist and grips hold tightly. And while the film, revels in the amusement of this high-risk situation, it doesn't deny the story's darker undertones (there are victims here) or its crime doesn't pay themes. In addition to that, these are fairly privileged and affluent characters driven by toxic greed, so we aren't exactly feeling much sympathy for them. But fortunately, the plot still manages to be very engaging, no matter what.

With its unique format of being a documentary/thriller hybrid, I guess you could say American Animals kills two bird with one stone.

( 8/10 )

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Friday, September 14, 2018

[Review] The Nun

A priest, a nun, and a local farmer walk into a haunted church... That's pretty much the premise for The Nun, a creepy and chaotic spinoff from the infamous cinematic universe of The Conjuring.

After a terrifying opening sequence (these movies are really good at opening sequences) involving a demonic nun and a 30-foot hanging, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, whose older sister Vera stars in The Conjuring films), Father Burke (Demian Bichir), and a delivery guy named Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) go to the ancient monastery to investigate the freaky happenings. From there, the story plummets into the hellish depths of unholy madness.

This thing definitely has an eerie atmosphere to it, and much is due to the bone-chilling settings -- from foggy graveyards, to wicked sanctuaries, to dungeonous corridors, to decrepit catacombs. There's a grotesque feast of gruesome, gory, ghastly, and ghoulish imagery, along with plenty of heart-pounding sequences that hit you with effectively merciless jump scares. The film tosses any sense of restraint or subtlety out the stained glass windows, even delving into campy territory. This could be a turn-off for some audiences, but what would you expect from a movie about a demonic nun? Thankfully, the movie is never boring though, and it actually remains engrossing from beginning to end, even if things get quite ridiculous and sloppy toward the final stretch.

Now, forgive me while I go dive into a pool of holy water.

( 6.6/10 )

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Thursday, September 6, 2018

[Review] Searching

Logging in as the striking directorial debut of Aneesh Chaganty, Searching is part online-drama, part missing persons thriller, and it's so well-rendered that it'll have you completely engrossed until the credits roll.

After losing his wife to cancer (which is conveyed through one of the saddest opening sequences since Pixar's Up), David Kim (John Cho) and his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La) attempt to carry on a normal life. But things go awry when Margot disappears one day, so David sets out to track her down by desperately scouring her social media contacts and web history. In the process, he learns some surprising secrets...

The whole film takes place on a computer desktop via iMessage, FaceTime, and Google searches -- not unlike the Facebook horror film Unfriended. And the platform is used impressively well. Not only is it engaging visually, but through its mood and rhythm it also builds a major feeling of suspense and intensity that'll have you clamoring to find out where the mystery leads leads, while asking all the pertinent questions: Did Margot run away? Was she abducted? Is she dead or still alive?

Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian concoct a narrative that stacks on twists and misdirections like pop-up windows, but never to the point of being cheap or too overwhelming. In the film's crazy conclusion (which of course I won't give away), every piece fits together like a revealing and meticulously crafted puzzle. John Cho (who has been killing it recently between Fox's under-appreciated season two of "The Exorcist" and the meditative film Columbus) anchors the film with another great performance, displaying a convincing air of distress of whirl-winding emotions.

Along with prickly themes of parental worries, Searching pointedly dives into the idea that the online world can be just as resourceful as it is dangerous. If we can't fully trust the people we do know, then what about the people we don't know?

* 8.5/10 *

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

[Review] Alpha

Alpha is the primal story of a boy and a beast, strength and survival. And while at times it might come off like a nature-based motivational poster that sprung to cinematic life, it's an undeniably thrilling and heartfelt journey.

Set somewhere in Europe during a prehistoric era, this tale revolves around a young boy named Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) being raised in a tribe that's led by rugged father (Johannes Haukur Johannesson - there's a name). Let's just saw Keda isn't exactly following in his father's footsteps. The kid can't start a fire, he has a difficult time hunting animals, and the other members of the tribe view him as a weakling. Anyway, after a brutal accident involving a buffalo and a cliff, Keda is separated from the group and left to fend for himself. Along the way, he befriends a wolf, and the two attempt to get home, wherever that may be.

This is a film that boasts a stunning palette of wonderful wilderness scenery -- from the sprawling hillsides, to the rushing rivers, to the swaying valleys. It also contains some exquisite views of the sky, whether it's the bustling storm clouds, the painterly sun, or the Northern Lights and Milky Way at night. It's all backed by a hauntingly beautiful musical score. And there's a particularly intense sequence set amidst a frozen lake that really gets the heart pumping.

As for the wolf, whom Keda names "Alpha", the creature is rendered with impressively convincing CGI. And as expected with a movie like this, we grow attached to the furry canine, just as Keda does. Its teeth are sharp, but it also looks pretty cute and pettable. Keda and Alpha display a unique dynamic -- they share a mutual respect for each other, and they both have two major things in common: they're from their packs and they're dealing with significant injuries. And yet, there's the ever-present sense of fear and danger that either of them could potentially kill one another at any moment. Kodi Smit-McPhee gives a great central performance, and most of it is done without dialogue. I've found him to be a bit vanilla in past films, but he's genuinely good here.

If you're wondering if I cried during this film, I definitely did. There are many emotional moments, and there's something so incredibly stirring about seeing someone carry a wolf on their shoulders through a snowy frozen tundra. The film is also commendable because the narrative thoughtfully alters what it usually means to be an "alpha" on a number of thematic levels. As Keda's mother describes him: "He leads with his heart, not his spear." 

( 8/10 )

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Monday, September 3, 2018

[Review] Crazy Rich Asians

The cast dazzles in Crazy Rich Asians, a blissful tour through luxury and excess, complicated romances, and the prickly pressures of family ties. It's like one big party.

The story begins in New York where meet Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese immigrant with a working-class background who has begun a career as an economics professor. Rachel and her charming boyfriend Nick Young (not to be confused with the NBA player), played by Henry Golding, plan a trip to Singapore to visit his family. Little does Rachel know that Nick's family is very rich. Like, crazy rich. Like, royalty rich. And well, his family doesn't take too kindly to her, especially his mother (played by an intimidatingly cold Michelle Yeoh), which makes things quite uncomfortable.

Directed by Jon M. Chu, the first thing you'll notice is the film's glamorous and grandiose settings -- from the elaborate mansions to the lavishly ornate ceremonies (there's a wedding scene that is quite exquisite, even for people who don't always like wedding scenes). There's definitely a Baz Luhrmann vibe to the ravishing aesthetics. It's all really visually appealing. As for the story, things start out on the fairly light and easygoing side, but the proceedings eventually dive into some juicy and not-so-classy drama that threatens Rachel and Nick's tight-knit relationship. And by this point, we're definitely rooting for them to pull through it.

And while the narrative doesn't necessarily subvert the usual rom-com and family saga tropes, it is delightful all the same, thanks to the brilliant cast. The two leads light up every scene with their glowing charisma and sheer likability, while the quirkier secondary characters add some decent comic relief, including some familiar faces like Ken Jeong and Awkwafina (Ocean's 8), as well as some not-so-familiar ones like Jimmy O. Yang and Nico Santos.

In the end -- with its wealth of fun, along with all its sentimental and cultural value -- Crazy Rich Asians is a multi-generational, multi-level event that is worth celebrating.

( 8/10 )

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