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Reviews

Review: The Hitman's Bodyguard

Aug 18 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221830:43734:0[/embed] The Hitman's BodyguardDirector: Patrick HughesRated: RRelease Date: August 17, 2017 The Hintman's Bodyguard ain't nothin new. It's one of those buddy cop assassin movies in the vein of 48 Hrs. where a straight laced guy, Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), needs to escort a loudmouth criminal, Darius Kincaid (Jackson), in order to take down an ever worse criminal. In this case that criminal is Gary Oldman playing a dictator with a funny accent, which only adds to the cliche of the whole plot. You know how this goes. Things don't go to plan, wise-cracking occurs, friendships are made, cars blow up, Salma Hyak curses a lot in Spanish. If you really must know the story, Kincaid is a professional assassin who must get to the Hague to testify against Oldman's villain, and after INTERPOL is infiltrated Bryce, a down on his luck professional security agent, is the only man for the job. With films like these its much less about the story and much more about how the two leads play off each other, and if the screenplay gives theme enough to work with. Will they get to their goal on time? It's almost a certainty. Are we going to enjoy the trip is the real question. Thankfully the casting choices for this movie are perfect because it basically just needs Reynolds to be Reynolds and Jackson to be Jackson. The two play off each other fantastically and are charming as hell. Any scene with them bantering is at the very least fun to watch and at the best times hilarious. They both play well in their overly cliche roles and at times seem to be reveling in the stupid simplicity of every action movie trope they walk into.  Those tropes are actually handled acceptably by director Patrick Hughes, who won't be winning any awards for his action direction, but also can keep a car chase coherent. That probably shouldn't be high praise, but after this summer where even the Fast and the Furious failed to hold its car chases together, I'm all set to give him an Oscar. The movie doesn't have the creativity of Baby Driver, but it at least keeps its pace going and never feels overblown. Part of that might just be the fact that its a lower budget action flick that falls squarely into the B-grade range of film, but credit where credit is due. The fight sequences don't suck either, though again, they're just above par. We're not talking The Raid or anything. The film does have some tonal problems that stem from the fact that everyone involved is a killer of multiple people in one way or another. While the banter and near-parody love story try to keep things light, there is a running background of a mass-murdering, psychopathic dictator with no qualms about shooting children in the face. It's no fault of the film's, since I'm guessing they didn't plan to have Nazis all over the news the week before release, but set against the backdrop of current events it often seems flippant with the idea of genocide. It will shift dramatically in tone within a single scene, especially near the end when one-liners interrupt photos of mass graves.  I know I may seem like I'm flopping back and forth on this movie, but that's just because it is such a terribly cliche action flick, and yet it works as it needs to. Maybe I was just let down so much this summer that a return to the tried-and-true action movie formulas of summers gone by just hit the spot. Whatever the reason, I found The Hitman's Bodyguard to be enjoyable despite the highest compliment I am able to pay it is that it is competent.  Darius Kinca [embed]455494:69246:0[/embed] The Hitman's BodyguardDirector: Patrick HughesRated: RRelease Date: August 17, 2017 The Hintman's Bodyguard ain't nothin new. It's one of those buddy cop assassin movies in the vein of 48 Hrs. where a straight laced guy, Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), needs to escort a loudmouth criminal, Darius Kincaid (Jackson), in order to take down an ever worse criminal. In this case that criminal is Gary Oldman playing a dictator with a funny accent, which only adds to the cliche of the whole plot. You know how this goes. Things don't go to plan, wise-cracking occurs, friendships are made, cars blow up, Salma Hyak curses a lot in Spanish. If you really must know the story, Kincaid is a professional assassin who must get to the Hague to testify against Oldman's villain, and after INTERPOL is infiltrated Bryce, a down on his luck professional security agent, is the only man for the job. With films like these its much less about the story and much more about how the two leads play off each other, and if the screenplay gives theme enough to work with. Will they get to their goal on time? It's almost a certainty. Are we going to enjoy the trip is the real question. Thankfully the casting choices for this movie are perfect because it basically just needs Reynolds to be Reynolds and Jackson to be Jackson. The two play off each other fantastically and are charming as hell. Any scene with them bantering is at the very least fun to watch and at the best times hilarious. They both play well in their overly cliche roles and at times seem to be reveling in the stupid simplicity of every action movie trope they walk into.  Those tropes are actually handled acceptably by director Patrick Hughes, who won't be winning any awards for his action direction, but also can keep a car chase coherent. That probably shouldn't be high praise, but after this summer where even the Fast and the Furious failed to hold its car chases together, I'm all set to give him an Oscar. The movie doesn't have the creativity of Baby Driver, but it at least keeps its pace going and never feels overblown. Part of that might just be the fact that its a lower budget action flick that falls squarely into the B-grade range of film, but credit where credit is due. The fight sequences don't suck either, though again, they're just above par. We're not talking The Raid or anything. The film does have some tonal problems that stem from the fact that everyone involved is a killer of multiple people in one way or another. While the banter and near-parody love story try to keep things light, there is a running background of a mass-murdering, psychopathic dictator with no qualms about shooting children in the face. It's no fault of the film's, since I'm guessing they didn't plan to have Nazis all over the news the week before release, but set against the backdrop of current events it often seems flippant with the idea of genocide. It will shift dramatically in tone within a single scene, especially near the end when one-liners interrupt photos of mass graves.  I know I may seem like I'm flopping back and forth on this movie, but that's just because it is such a terribly cliche action flick, and yet it works as it needs to. Maybe I was just let down so much this summer that a return to the tried-and-true action movie formulas of summers gone by just hit the spot. Whatever the reason, I found The Hitman's Bodyguard to be enjoyable despite the highest compliment I am able to pay it is that it is competent.  Darius Kinca
Hitman's Bodyguard photo
I won't always love you
It's August, and that means we're entering the second span of doldrums for movie releases for the year (the first being the beginning of the year). From now until late September, when all of the horror films start rolling in,...

Review: Detroit

Aug 04 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221783:43719:0[/embed] DetroitDirector: Kathryn BigelowRelease Date: July 28, 2017 (Limited); August 4 (Nationwide)Rating: R It takes a while for you to realize that Detroit has main characters. The characters introduced in the aforementioned opening have no significance to the rest of the plot, and to some extent seem to exist primarily to show an African American police officer breaking things up. It's unique in the film. Aside from John Boyega's Dismukes, a security guard (his second job) who gets caught up in the whole thing and is referred to as an "Uncle Tom" for believing in the fundamental goodness of the police (for a while anyway), there isn't really anything like that. Once the riots are underway, white folks become the pretty clear enemy, and they stay that way from beginning to end. Spoiler: This is no white savior narrative. But before I get into that (and believe me, I'll get into that), it's worth discussing what Detroit is actually showing: war. Kathryn Bigelow's last two films, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, were set in actual warzones, and this feels like a natural progression. The movie feels like it's documenting a war. The camera shakes in close up throughout, and it's disorienting and violent. It's a literally dizzying reflection of the feelings of its characters, the ones who eventually come to the forefront. As the riots progress, we begin to see some of the same faces over and over again, though we also see new ones who have little significance but add to the constant tension. But because of this, I genuinely wasn't sure if we would ever have a "protagonist." It's an ensemble film, so in a sense we don't, but the film does ultimately end up following one character in particular, and it wasn't the person I expected. (It's not a spoiler, but I'll leave it anyway.) The film's key sequence, when everything comes to a head and you finally learn what the movie is about, is the better part of an hour spent at the Algiers hotel. With an almost exclusively black clientele (minus a couple of white out-of-town women, whose presence is important for a whole host of reasons), it becomes the site for a disturbing case study in police brutality. After someone fires a starter pistol at police and the national guard on the streets, the hotel is swarmed. Now, considering this is a place with literal sniper fire, it makes sense that they would take a threat like that seriously. But what happens is more complicated than that. As a white guy, I'm not particularly concerned about or by the police. I feel safer with police around than I do when they aren't. I know that is not the case for everyone. I know some people feel the exact opposite way. They will walk out of Detroit and say, "Yeah, pretty much." (History has a habit of repeating itself.) But to someone like me, the film is a genuinely frustrating one. The characters, based on real people from stories about an actual event that took place during the riots. Its development was not unlike the one that begot Zero Dark Thirty, though the methods for information gathering on ZD30 are arguably suspect, what with its particular depiction of the use and efficacy of torture... but I'm getting off track. I trust the events as they are depicted in this film. Bits and pieces may well be fictionalized, as sometimes they must be, but it seems not only plausible but probable that something like this would happen. And that leads to a person who looks like me to feel really gosh darn conflicted. Because as the events occurred, nearly none of what happens "had" to happen. There was an "easy" way to deal with the police, who came in screaming and violently throwing people up against the wall. People could have told the truth, and I wanted to believe so badly that it would have made a difference. And the thing is, everyone was telling the truth, but no one was telling the whole truth. The not-real gun is mentioned only once; by that point, it's way too late.  But here's the thing: If I told the police what had happened, I have every reason to believe that they would trust me. And maybe that's foolhardy, but I genuinely think so. I also have every reason to believe that the men depicted in Detroit (and perhaps many police officers working today) wouldn't have believed them. If they said, "It was a toy gun and not a sniper rifle," would that have made a difference? Certainly they didn't seem to think so, otherwise they presumably would have brought it up in the first place. But even after the building is torn apart looking for a weapon and them finding nothing (including said starter pistol), do I think the whole truth would have saved anyone? No, not really. And that is infuriating. But as much as it's infuriating, I genuinely think it's vital. And I think it's particularly vital that white people watch it, because it's not a movie about them. White people are not the protagonists, and their experience isn't the focus; they exist primarily as foils to hammer all of this home. There's not a lot of that, certainly not enough of it, but unlike a film like Moonlight, this confronts whiteness. Get Out did that in a very different way, and it was critically acclaimed for that (and everything else about it). And it stirred up bullshit controversy from folks who didn't see it and claimed it was racist. Get Out took aim at the more subtle racism that pervades our modern society, whereas there's nothing subtle about the actions of the police in Detroit. But you know what? There's overt racism all over this country, bubbling barely underneath the surface. (Source: Seth Steven-Davidowitz's Everybody Lies) To really grapple with Detroit and what it portrays is not a pleasant thing. It dramatizes a barely historical version of the events that we see played out in the news all the time, and the inherently visceral nature of cinema (in comparison to police dash cam footage) makes you think. It makes you think about where we've been. It makes you think about where we are now. It makes you think about how far we've come, and how far we haven't. It makes you think about what the President of the United States said seven days ago. It makes you think about what the Justice Department has made moves towards doing earlier this week. And whether it ultimately changes anything or not, working to connect those dots and contemplate some truly unsettling conclusions is an important first step. It's certainly changed the way I approach certain things, as I think the past however many words has made clear. I have no doubt that parts of this review are problematic, and I only scratched the surface of everything this film brings up (regarding the aforementioned white women and John Boyega's characters in particular). And those are things I hope to talk about with people as they see the film (because they really, really should.). Detroit won't change the world. It won't fix racism or even put a chip into its armor. But maybe it can start a dialogue with people loathe to talk about these kinds of issues. I hope so.
Detroit Review photo
History, but not really
In the opening scene of Detroit, a large group of African Americans are rounded up and arrested en masse for having an indoor party; their crime: not having a liquor license, supposedly. They are put in the backs of...

Review: The Dark Tower

Aug 04 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221796:43721:0[/embed] The Dark TowerDirector: Nikolaj ArcelRelease Date: August 4, 2017Rated: PG-13 The Dark Tower is one of those movies that you're going to get a lot more out of if you've read the books despite the fact that it is really only loosely based on them at all. There are hints and allusions to bigger things that readers will pick up on, but much of the massive quest that Roland (Idris Elba), Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) and their ka-tet (those bound by fate) go on in the books as they confront the Man in Black/Walter (Matthew McConaughey) is missing. The film pieces together key parts here and there, dropping entire characters in what feels like an attempt to put much of the quest into a 90 minute running time.  In our world we find Jake having dreams of the Dark Tower and the Man in Black/Walter, a powerful wizard who can kill simply by telling people to stop breathing. He is nigh-invulnerable and more akin to a comic book super villain than the mysterious trickster of the books. Using the "shine" of children kidnapped from the many worlds that are all connected by the tower, Walter is attempting to destroy it in order to let the blackness in from the outside. Enter the gunslingers of Mid-World, of which Roland is the last one. His sole quest is to kill Walter in order to get revenge for the death of his father and the fall of his homeland Gilead. Eventually Jake, who is gifted with the most powerful amount of shine ever, finds his way into Mid-World and the two set off on a universe-hopping quest to stop Walter. That, my friends, is the least complicated way of explaining the plot that the film has attempted to cram into a 90 minutes. There's a lot of lore and other items that get shoved in here and there too, but instead of opening up the story all the different themes and myths make it more obtuse and unfocused. As a reader of the books I understood a lot of the background that was going on and where ideas came from, but coming from an outside perspective it must feel more like idea vomit -- a bunch of tropes pushed onto the screen one after the other. It makes for a flat film that peaks the few times it focuses on its characters and not the world. Those characters do work, but thanks to the limited running time we never really get to know them. Idris Elba's gunslinger shows hints of the depth behind his fantastically stoic front, but he's never able to turn it into anything thanks to the movie heavily focusing on the far less interesting Jake and overplaying Walter. McConaughty is fantastically slimy as the wizard/magician/evil-person, and a far better choice of casting than I thought he would be, but instead of an air of mystery about the character they turn him into a big bad that plays generic. Taylor meanwhile plays Jake well enough for a child actor, but as the linchpin for the film his character feels more like a McGuffin than an actual person.  This isn't all to say that The Dark Tower is a bad movie, but instead of the tent pole of a large franchise it feels like a half-baked standalone. In that light it could be seen as a moderate success, delivering some interesting concepts here and there. Roland's gun fighting shines every so often as interesting, and Walter's ability to have people do anything he wants is played up for effect pretty well. The action itself is pretty interesting, but limited as well. Roland's expertise with the six-shooters delivers some memorable moments, but Arcel can't piece together a coherent enough action sequence to make anything truly stand out. There's things that work here, just not in a big picture way. They work in a single scene way. Walter's nearly unlimited super powers are a great example of this. They seem immeasurable and unstoppable, which makes for some enjoyably evil scenes, but on the whole make more of a mess. They raise questions about why a man who can hurl massive chunks of buildings that could easily crush our hero doesn't do just that the second he wants to. Roland is supposedly a bit immune to Walter's magic, but he's clearly not immune to being crushed, stabbed, or run over by large objects, which in turn are not immune to Walter's ability to hurl them through the air at Roland.   This leads directly to the biggest issue the film may have. Since Walter is turned into a super villain instead of the enigmatic torturer of Roland he no longer acts as a convincing foil. The great metaphorical duel between the two characters is nothing more than a shootout since the film doesn't spend any time developing the cat and mouse game it wants the two to be playing. There is no true tension there. Roland and Jake's relationship is a bit better, with the replacement father/son story line giving charm to the two, but it again often feels forced thanks to the movie's breakneck pace to get to its conclusion. I do have to applaud the film for avoiding a direct adaptation. While King's first book in the series could have maybe kind of been turned into a film it would have been a mess from there out. Instead The Dark Tower takes a cue from the books and presents the story as the last time around the wheel (another reference fans will love, but newcomers won't understand). It's a good move that means the film (and still in the works TV show) can forge their own path that isn't bound by the idiosyncrasy of the books, and if the movie was anything other than dull it could have worked. I stress this because I'm not upset that the film isn't like the books, but that it isn't that good on its own. The Dark Tower series has some magic in its world that is engrossing, but this movie can't find it. It's not an issue with ignoring the source material, it's an issue of making a good movie. 
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The elevator pitch of an epic
If you've read Stephen King's prolific Dark Tower saga you know it's a weird, wonderful, flawed, brilliant, mess of an epic that touches so many genres it's hard to classify it at all. It bounces from western to sci...

Review: Atomic Blonde

Jul 28 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221777:43713:0[/embed] Atomic BlondeDirector: David LeitchRelease Date: July 28, 2017Rated: R Atomic Blonde definitely comes from the same school as John Wick. It's director, David Leitch, is a stuntman turned director (he'll be helming Deadpool 2 as well) and it involves a trained killer who is better at their job than anyone else. The kind of action hero who can easily dispatch a group of henchman quickly and easily. From there things are different. Atomic Blonde unfolds in Berlin the week before the wall comes tumbling down. As such it is cram full of double crosses, unreliable narrators, and complex plot points. We find British secret agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) being sent off to Berlin after an important list full of all of Britain's spies falls into a corrupt Russian spy's hands. Lorraine meets up with David Percival (James McAvoy) in Berlin to solve what's happened. Of course no one is what they seem, twists and turns abound, and at one point or another you'll be scratching your head because the plot isn't making sense... yet. Like any good spy thriller (and the graphic novel the film is based on) Atomic Blonde plays its cards close to its chest. And like any bad spy film Atomic Blonde thinks its a bit more clever than it actually is. It lands somewhere in the middle of greats like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and needlessly complex messes like Mission: Impossible 2. Some of its turns make complete sense, and the film's structure help deliver them wonderfully, while at other points the plot seems forced, with direction only confusing the mess. The best spy films leave you realizing that you could have seen it all along if you'd been paying attention, but Atomic Blonde's story is delivered without enough panache to do this. It all leads to a plot that feels like it has a few too many endings, and not enough actual resolution. Thankfully, almost every other aspect of the film makes up for this. We can start with the fights and the action sequences, which are savage to the point of cruelty. The very first hit in this movie is a man getting a stiletto heel to the neck (a fantastic wink to the bucking of the normal gender of action heroes), and it just gets more brutal from there on out. Every punch, hit, kick, gunshot, crash, slap, and stab feels as painful as it actually is. This isn't James Bond where a ten minute fist fight leaves him looking fresh as daisies. These fights land blows and they leave their combatants gasping for air, staggering around and eventually dead. A positively ferocious stairwell fight scene tumbles into an apartment then out onto a street and then into a car chase, all in "one" camera shot and over the course of 20 minutes or so. It's probably the best action sequence I've seen since The Raid 2. The fights alone make this movie worthwhile. However, Leitch actually has an eye for direction outside of fisticuffs as well. The almost hyper-sexuality of the film is handled in ways that don't feel exploitative thanks to direction that makes everything feel matter of fact, and while the plot is complex and often does no favors to itself he at least keeps the scenes coherent. He may lose the overall picture at times, but from scene to scene things work. There's a wonderfully 80s feel to the way he shoots and lights everything, with a glowing neon color scheme infusing half the film, and dull greys dominating the other so as to visually represent the pull between the crime and drug fueled east with the totalitarianism west. Leitch's direction is a hell of a lot smarter than many are going to give him credit for even if he can't keep the film's story feeling clever. And then there is Theron, who plays her role with a cool, steely iciness that you rarely see in female characters, in or out of action films. Even in brutal fight sequences that have her character bleeding and near death she seems in complete control. There's no questioning her ability to take on even the largest, most "manly" opponent because that's not the character and that's not how Theron plays it. Much like her Imperator Furiosa, Theron imbues her character with an awesome that makes you think not about her sex, but about how much of a badass she is. It helps she did the majority of her own fights as well, and doesn't look out of place doing them. It lets Leitch keep his camera still for the most part instead of cutting constantly to mask inefficiencies in her ability.  Atomic Blonde is definitely worth seeing if that's all you're wondering. It's a great action movie, and a decent enough spy thriller. When it falters the action is there to pick it up even if it sometimes takes a bit of time to get to said action. We may not have a new classic on our hands, but there's 20 straight minutes of action in here that should go down in cinematic history.  
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Charlize Theron can fight
Atomic Blonde looks like one of those scrappy little action flicks that has a slow burn of success. Think of things like John Wick or Taken. Films that succeed because they're cram full of action and their...


Review: The Emoji Movie

Jul 28 // Drew Stuart
The Emoji Movie tells the tale of Gene, a 'meh' emoji who unbeknownst to his fellow emoji's in Textopolis, can experience more than one emotion. Unfortunately, when he's called upon to make his 'meh' face at the users request, he freaks out and makes the wrong face. Gene is then forced out of Textopolis, and embarks on a quest with his buddy Hi-5 and hacker Jailbreak to become normal like all the other emoji's. The setup is trite from the very beginning, and becomes more mundane the further along the story progresses. You already know all of the beats; our characters form a plan to solve their problems, the villain sends a force to stop them, they clash, one of the characters gets separated from them, the main character decides to rescue them instead of heading straight for their goal, blah blah blah. I could go on, but it's honestly not necessary; if you've seen a kids movie in the last 20 years, then you've seen The Emoji Movie. I've heard some people say that The Emoji Movie borrows steals lot of ideas from Inside Out, and that's just not true. Emoji also rips several ideas from Toy Story, The Lego Movie, and even Shrek. Situations are recreated almost verbatim from these movies, only serving to bore and annoy the audience even further. And it's not like Emoji needs any help with that; the humor and is so atrocious that I almost feel guilty calling this film a comedy. Here's what the 'comedy' amounts to; emoji's simply calling each other by their emoji names, or acting slightly different to each other depending on what emoji they are. That's really it. There's no humor that's so bad it becomes funny, or dialogue that you can ridicule. I didn't hear a single laugh from any of the children in the theater. Nothing. This movie is shamelessly hackneyed and vapid; it cannot be laughed at because it can't understand that it's being made fun of. It is impervious to snide criticism and witty retorts. All you can do is embrace The Emoji Movie, before shoving a pillow into its face. Without comedy, and without plot, the element that is thrust into the forefront of the viewers minds is the concept. And if you'd like me to elaborate on that, now's the time where I'd like to inform all the passengers along for today's flight that, as the title entails, this is in fact a review for The Emoji Movie, and you should be well aware by now that the concept is, on it's face, a bad one. I understand the motive behind it; The Lego Movie made more dough than a Three-Star michelin bakery, and Sony wants a piece of that pie, but it isn't gonna happen with something like Emoji's. The reason being that kids and adults alike adore Legos for their inherent creativity and playful, easy design, which incidentally lends itself incredibly well to a kids movie based around the theme of creativity and being yourself. The other reason being that no one cares about emoji's. Trying to make an emoji movie is such a blatant consumerism-driven cash-grab that I'm astounded Sony had the balls to even try it. Hell, in the opening narration, the movie acknowledges that emoji's only exist because people suck, specifically because they're lazy and don't want to type out their complete thoughts in a text message. So why would anyone even consider making a movie like this? I don't know. The point is, the concept of an emoji-based movie sucks.  Now, here's a weird bit of criticism I never thought I would have to say aloud: Did the entire cast phone in their performances? Sure, you might know that T.J. Miller, Steven Wright and Patrick Stewart were coaxed into this movie, but did you know that, *ahem*, Anna Faris, James Corden, Maya Rudolph, Jennifer Coolidge, Christina Aguilera, Sofia Vergara and more lend their voices to this project? No? Neither did I, until I glimpsed the cast list as I sulked out of the theater. Why do none of these people sound like themselves? Why even hire them if their voices are that unrecognizable? I just don't know. On top of the terrible plot, the terrible concept, and the terrible acting, all of the sensory elements in this movie suck too. The animation lacks any style or visual flair, (as is to be expected) but worse is how little detail there is in the animation. There are points where characters look blurry or unfinished, and nearly all of the backgrounds are painfully copied and pasted as needed. You can see this quite plainly if you compare the trailers to the movie; there are scenes in the trailer that occur in other settings in the final cut of the movie. It feels borderline amateur. Even worse has got to be the music. You'd think that Sony with all of it's music rights would plug today's pop-radio garbage into The Emoji Movie, but that's not the case. Instead, they plugged 2012's pop-radio garbage into The Emoji Movie. Did Sony not believe in this movie either? Why does this exist? Why am I here? You don't need me to tell you this movie is terrible. Just look at it. Some asshole at Sony actually thought this would be a good idea, and somehow convinced a bunch of other assholes to make this putrid movie. The Emoji Movie was farted into existence for the express purpose of seeing if they could do it. And now we all have to sit in its stink. 
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To live is to suffer
You know, for the longest time I thought that this movie was a joke. Something invented by film producers to have a laugh. A prank that writers bounced around, but never dared to seriously consider, lest their career be stamp...

Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Jul 24 // Drew Stuart
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is, once boiled down, a sci-fi adventure. The story is set in the 28th century, where humanity has created a gigantic metropolis in space known as Alpha. Over hundreds of years, aliens from all over the galaxy have come there to thrive and prosper, creating a cornucopia of cultures that mingle with each other every day. Alpha is home to everyone, and the heart of Valerian is exploring this strange world with our main characters, the titular Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevigne). The problem with Valerian is how they explore it. The plot has our two agents racing against time to stop an ever-expanding radiation zone at Alpha's core, but that sense of urgency is seldom felt in the actual plot. There are chases, sure, but they have no tension. There's a mystery, but if you're paying attention even slightly, you'll know exactly where the story is going after 20 minutes. The driving point of the plot is supposed to be mystery, but it completely deflates once the movie starts rolling. The best aspect of Valerian is the world, and I'm sure that sentiment will be shared amongst anyone who sees this movie, whether they thought it was good or bad. There's a scene early on that depicts the genesis and growth of Alpha, and is one of my favorite intros of 2017. It's humorous and magical, friendly and dazzling. The various creatures and aliens on Alpha are diverse and interesting, taking that nuanced world-building from Star Wars and executing it with style. Yet, that's about all that Valerian seems to get right. Nearly every other aspect is fundamentally flawed, and I wish that were an exaggeration. Take our leading actors for example. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne have both given their worst performances in their careers in Valerian. No, I'm not exaggerating. DeHaan is in no way a believable federal agent, and his gruff mumbling throughout the film makes the whole thing feel like a fan-film. He's painted as a ladies man at the beginning of Valerian and I nearly burst out laughing when Delevigne referred to him as a 'lady killer'. It's like pointing to a turd and calling it Toblerone; good for a laugh, but I'll be damned if you try and get me to swallow it. I just couldn't stomach the blatant wish-fulfillment when the lead is far from being suave or charismatic in the slightest. Delevigne has never actually given a good performance on film before, but in Valerian her acting stands out as particularly cardboard-esque. Seriously, look at any of these images I have in this review and behold the only face she makes on camera. What makes these performances even worse is that Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be attracted to each other, and they seem anything but. Their interactions are stiff and stale, and even the dialogue they share is poorly written. Kids might be able to get behind these characters, but if you have a fully developed brain then you're in for a sore experience. As I mentioned earlier, the plot is also all over the place. It's flimsy and dull, failing to interest the viewer in the central mystery presented likely due to how obvious the outcome is. The film opens by almost completely explaining the events that are 'revealed' later on at the climax of Valerian, and yet pretends like the audience didn't see what happened. This, combined with some clumsy foreshadowing and telegraphing by the villain spell out the plot for the rest of the film, leaving little to enjoy besides the beautifully designed world. And, call me crazy, but Valerian seems to know this, considering that it takes significant breaks from the plot for trivial side-stories. There's a point midway through where the film drops the little momentum it had to rescue Laureline from some bumbling space creatures. This sequence is pretty to look at, and has moments of fun sprinkled here and there, but serves no purpose whatsoever. In the end, this section of the movie only makes it more painful once our heroes return to the story at hand. Look, I don't hate Valerian. It's a beautiful film, with amazing CG and a set-piece or two that are fun on the surface level. The world it's set in is captivating and unique, something that is so rare today in Hollywood. But no movie has ever become great just by looking good; the plot, the dialogue, the characters need to be written well so the films stunning display can create synergy between the narrative and the visuals. This is how a great sci-fi adventure film is made, and it's something that Besson has completely forgotten how to do with Valerian. Visuals are in service to the writing, and Besson put the cart in front of the horse on this one. The image of Alpha floating in space, filled with interesting creatures and civilizations is incredible, but with a couple of boring humans taking up most of the runtime, you'd be better off watching the trailer and moving on.
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Such a well polished turd.
Luc Besson may not be a household name, but ask any fan of film who he is and you’ll be swept into a drawn-out lauding of his movies. Besson directed both The Fifth Element and Leon: The Professional, both of which foun...

NYAFF Capsule Review: Mon Mon Mon Monsters

Jul 22 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221676:43676:0[/embed] Mon Mon Mon MonstersDirector: Giddens KoRelease Date: TBDCountry: Taiwan
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Something different
Giddens Ko’s You Are the Apple of My Eye remains one of the best films I’ve seen at the New York Asian Film Festival. Café. Waiting. Love, which he wrote but did not direct, is another film I enjoyed immens...

Review: Dunkirk

Jul 21 // Rick Lash
[embed]221733:43672:0[/embed] DunkirkDirector: Christopher NolanRelease Date: July 21st, 2017Rated: PG-13Format: IMAX 70mm Dunkirk tells an early,  yet historic story from World War II when Allied (then only British and French) forces are being pushed back to the sea centering around the town of Dunkirk. The film opens, effectively, on a group of soldiers walking through abandoned French streets when fliers begin to rain down from above. One of the soldiers grabs one and we're treated to a glance of what they see; that is, a German advertisement encouraging the Allies to surrender with a graphic map detailing how bleak their situation is. It's a somber tone-setter which is quickly augmented by the realities of war as a soldier grabs several out of the air in an attempt to collect it for toilet paper. And then, things get chaotic, and never really slow down. Despite several attempts to void his bowels, this solider, our soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) never clearly gets to. The act of surviving becomes so all-encompassing that it's to the point where his body forgets it needs relief. And that's the point: an experience so immersive that nature's calls go unheeded: literally everything but survival is forgotten. It's no accident that immersion is at the forefront of the piece. The action is tightly wrought, like floss wrapped round your fingers too many times: the blood continues to pump, but has no where to go; the flesh turns white; and sensation builds as numbness should set in. Nolan designed the film, from his insistence in shooting film rather than digital, to the carefully orchestrated score by Hans Zimmer (simply amazing), to the avoidance of digital effects and the minimal quantities of dialogue to be immersive. If you were to pass Christopher Nolan on the street today and shout out at him, "Hey Chris! Where should I go see your dope new movie Dunkirk! Dark Knight rules!" He'd probably yell back, "Hey asshole, you don't know me!" Or just pepper-spray you to the face. But if he deemed you with a response, he'd be sure to recommend you take the time to find an IMAX theater showing Dunkirk with a film projector. It's how he intended audiences to see the film. Film is known for feeling more real and alive. And IMAX film formats not only capture more information, but the screen size allows more to be displayed, and using film projectors does this best for the format. Couple this with the use of real, true to life and 'historically accurate' warships, fighter planes, and props (like scale models and stand-ins for large group shots) and you have a movie that pops off the screen like few others. There's a shot from above of three British Royal Airforce fighters flying in wing to wing formation that was one of the crispest, most real feeling moments I've ever seen that I wanted to screen grab live because I knew nothing I could share in a review would do it justice. This is a reference shot, but it's a poor imitation of a cheap knockoff. It's true, not everyone's going to see it in this format--which is unfortunate, but if you're wondering if you can, it turns out Dunkirk's website will help you figure that out. Search here to see if any 70mm showings are near you. If they're within driving distance, I'd consider making the trip: it's that worthwhile. The experience was so immersive that I failed to recognize both Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy (in fairness, his face is obscured for most of his screen time). I was actually lauding Nolan for going with relative unknowns entirely. Cillian Murphy does make a cameo (an early Nolan collaborator from Batman Begins), but it felt well-incorporated and didn't jar. The lack of dialog didn't jar either; it served the purpose of letting the action and tension dictate emotional response and immersion. The film's a triptych, with three non-linear sequences taking place on land, air, and water. Yet, despite this, our lead, if you can pick one out, Tommy, doesn't open his mouth to speak until something like 30-40 minutes into the movie, outside of a single word. The dialog is noticeably reduced and it worked so well. There are no grandiose speeches, no overblown discussions on politics or course of action that can bog movie paces down. It's frenetic. From the first time shots are fired, the pace of the movie builds and carries until the finale. This is all done without enemy soldiers ever really appearing on screen, and with the violence and horror of war (which are quite viscerally present) not being exploited for gore or shock value. The reality is one in which every person present accepts that they may very well be killed at any given moment, but they still operate within the rules of their world while best trying to survive. With the pace not waning, these rules are eventually put to the test and war stretches conventions to the point that they break when individuals survive. Yet in spite of that grittiness, the film focuses on sacrifice and the willingness to put oneself at risk for others. These moments pile up throughout the film so that bleakness is balanced with inspiration and grief with triumph. It's a movie about a retreating army, a defeated group (at least for the moment) that achieves victory through survival, with the one most-noted casualty coming from the unlikeliest of sources. War turns conventions, much as Nolan's committed filmmaking does, and in one microcosm within a this microcosm, we're reminded that heroic deaths need not be grandiose, they only need conviction behind them. It's incredibly resonant. In reviewing this film, I find myself hard pressed to compare it to others. It's a standalone. I say this, knowing that Nolan took inspiration from a variety of sources (for inspiration on total settings in war movies to inspiration for pacing and tonal setting in movies in general). And in trying to score it for two separate websites, I only know that it has no real failures: it is a great film, one that just far outstripped it's summer competitors.
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Take a bow, Mr. Nolan, and cue the appla
Christopher Nolan is a well-known name. As modern-day filmmakers go, his name is near the top of the list of directors that studios will trust with boatloads (literally in this case) of money to bring projects to life. Strang...

NYAFF Capsule Review: Mrs. K

Jul 16 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221713:43663:0[/embed] Mrs. KDirector: Yuhang HoCountry: Malaysia/Hong Kong
Mrs. K Capsule Review photo
Who, What, When, Where, and Mostly Why?
The problems with Mrs. K can, I think, be summed up by the bizarreness of its soundtrack, an eclectic mix that had me thinking in equal measure about the scores of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Blade Runner, and ...

Review: Endless Poetry

Jul 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221699:43659:0[/embed] Endless Poetry (Poesia Sin Fin)Director: Alejandro JodorowskyRating: NRRelease Date: July 14, 2017 (limited)Country: Chile/France While Herskovitz plays Jodorowsky at the start of the film, he's soon replaced by Adan Jodorowsky. It marks a jump in time in from Alejandro's early adolescence into his adulthood, and a move toward adult concerns. It was fascinating to see Herskovitz again, however, who's seemed to age so fast in just a few years. Adan, who was a child in Santa Sangre, looks so much like his father; Brontis, who was just a child in El Topo, looks like he could be Adan's father. Throughout the movie, Alejandro Jodorowsky himself appears on screen, offering a kind of wizened and reflective narration for these moments in his past. If The Dance of Reality was essentially a bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story), Endless Poetry functions more like a künstlerroman (a story about an artist's development and maturation). Alejandro becomes a poet, though it happens too easily, which is where Jodorowsky's flair for surreal and alchemical indulgence butts up against the mundane realities of the writing process, especially for people just starting out. Alejandro is fully formed as a poet the moment he reads Lorca for the first time, like a single book unlocks a preternatural facility with language. There is no struggle with bad poetry, there is almost no self-doubt, and no need to find his footing as a writer. The closest the film alludes to these conflicts is in one early scene at a typewriter. Alejandro pecks out a minor triumph as the giant spectral face of his father dominates the other half of the screen, calling his son a maricón over and over again, deriding the masculinity/sexuality of being an artist. But the film isn't much concerned about that. Alejandro is already great without the essential work to achieve greatness, and always certain about his greatness without a more troubled relationship with language. He's even gifted his own bohemian pad to have parties with all the rakes, wits, and creatives of Santiago. Art has no limitations, but it's part of the artist's journey to discover that on their own, and that journey isn't embarked upon here. We've already arrived at the outset. It undercuts one of the more powerful moments toward the end of Endless Poetry. On a circus stage, Alejandro transforms from a simple clown into a poet and then into a melancholic mime right out of Children of Paradise. This ought to feel like some transcendent apotheosis, a transformation from a fool into a different figure (at least a much wiser fool), like progressing through the major arcana in a tarot deck. Instead, it feels like a tautology. It's not built into the grand arc of Endless Poetry, but a smaller arc of some adjacent scenes in the movie. This sense of being fully formed as an artist extends into Young Adult Alejandro as a sage. He rarely does wrong around his friends, and if he does there's at least some justification for it. In a moment that nods to El Topo, Alejandro happens by the apartment where a dwarf friend is attempting suicide. He saves her life, teaches her a spiritual lesson about the value of living, and sleeps with her even though she's on her period. It's a little too saintly, and maybe even self-congratulatory, which undercuts the deeper sadness of the scene and what it means. This woman is the girlfriend of his best friend, Enrique Lihn (Leandro Taub), who is drunk and violent and asleep on the front porch the morning after the assignation. Alejandro's damaged their relationship, which has been built on their mutual anarchic virtuosity as poets, but Enrique was a jerk and the reason his girlfriend tried to take her own life. This is an autobiographical work, so of course Alejandro's the center of our attention and of this story, yet there's something that feels off to me about making yourself the Mary Sue/Gary Stu of your own life. In a lot of ways, Enrique seems like the classic and perhaps more compelling künstlerroman hero because of how flawed and embarrassing and raw he is as a person. The same guy who clowns with his best friend walking down the street as an aesthetic lark is the same raging drunk who can neglect those he loves. Maybe Alejandro and Enrique could be viewed in tandem as a composite of Alejandro's early life, where the desire to be wise was complicated by an uncontrolled appetite, and where a mastery of language was essential since other aspects of life couldn't be so controlled. But maybe that's my attempt to make this less compelling aspect of Endless Poetry work in context with the multi-film, autobiographical capstone to a career that has changed my life as a lover of film. Like I mentioned in a Cult Club piece on Santa Sangre, I keep finding Jodorowsky's fingerprints on my imagination. There's so much I love about Endless Poetry despite the middling moments and a lot of visual blandness that plagues much of the film. (Like The Dance of Reality, too much of the cinematography seems too flat, too plain, and uncinematic.) There's a strange 80s-deco art-bar like something out of Brazil where Alejandro is drawn to technicolor poet Stella Díaz Varín. She's played by the same actress who plays Alejandro's mother for maximum Freudian impact. There are a few scenes where art seems like the only refuge from the rising Ibáñez dictatorship; I'm missing that cultural and historical context that would enliven the film. There's a moment when Young Adult Alejandro and Old Alejandro must make peace with Alejandro's father. A complicated love emerges when one views a pivotal moment in the past knowing what the future holds. I might have liked more of Old Jodorowsky hopping into the film and commenting about the people and places of his life. He's the center of it all, so why stay outside when there's so much I'd like to know. What did he love about this woman? What did Lorca's poetry say to him as a young man, and what other poets spoke to him? What is machismo in the face of art? What does it mean to him to be a man? What regrets are there and what would he have liked to do differently? I wonder if the next film will be the last one, and what this all might feel like viewed as a single work rather than loose chapters with a looser shape. If this marks the end of Jodorowsky, it's fitting that it also feels like the beginning.
Review: Endless Poetry photo
A portrait of Jodorowsky as a young poet
In what may be the final years of Alejandro Jodorowsky's life, his work has turned inward and become sentimentally personal. He's exploring his own autobiography, but retelling it in his own odd way. Jodorowsky's previous fil...

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Jul 14 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221622:43616:0[/embed] War for the Planet of the ApesDirector: Matt ReevesRelease Date: July 14th, 2017Rated: PG-13 Years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is still struggling with his role in the death of his former friend and rival Koba. With the apes retreating to the forest, the last remnants of humanity have taken a more aggressive approach (sparked by Koba's attack on them years prior) led by the militant extremist, Colonel (Woody Harrelson). When Colonel crosses the line and threatens his family, Caesar decides to travel across the states to hunt down the Colonel and get his revenge.  First things first, War is absolutely gorgeous. Somehow improving on the visuals found in the second film, War gives us flair like snowy fur, wet fur, and several visually distinct settings. This film can often be dark (both figuratively and literally), yet the lighting is kept at such a balance each motion captured ape is still distinct when sitting in caves or walking around during night scenes. And although we've seen it in action two films prior, the motion capture animation is still sublime. Serkis' Caesar is, with just cause, a standout above the rest as Caesar now more closely resembles the intelligent apes found in the 70s films. I personally miss the broken English he spoke in the previous film, but a Caesar without stilted dialogue allows Serkis to evolve the character with a more nuanced performance outside of physical acting.  Each film in this modern Apes trilogy has had its own distinct flavor. Rise has an undercurrent of dread, constantly inching its way toward the expected uprising, Dawn is a clash of violence and ideologies as the new status quo is established, and War is the methodical denouement in which the stage is set for the Planet of the Apes story everyone is familiar with. Because of this, unfortunately, this film has more of a pacing issue than the others. Essentially becoming a revenge thriller as Caesar morphs into an one-ape army, War sort of meanders through the second act until the thread for the final act reveals itself. This slower pace seems entirely intentional as Caesar's revenge arc lacks any satisfactory developments. But regardless of how this deliberately slower act reflects Caesar's core growth toward the end of the trilogy, and conveying Caesar's loss of hope and direction, I can't help but think a brisker pace would make the tone of the eventual ape escape less jarring. If all this talk of a slower, character intensive piece scares you away, no need to worry. I'm not going to go into depth about it here, but there's a extended prison break scene and it's probably the best thing in this entire trilogy. While War loses the grey morality of the previous two films as one side is a clear cut villain -- thus losing a bit of the nuance of the rest of the trilogy -- having a side to truly root for improves the trilogy overall. It's sort of freeing, actually. The tone of the film gets a more lighthearted spin once Bad Ape (Steve Zahn, pictured below) is introduced and the pacing problems of the second act melt away completely. The final third of the film is fun, has quite a bit of metaphorically intriguing imagery, and brings the trilogy to a close in a splendid way.  When all was said and done, I couldn't believe how this trilogy pulled it off. It's rare you'll get one well made reboot film, let alone an entire trilogy. The Apes trilogy has always been a sleeper hit these past few Summers, and because of the smaller attention, Matt Reeves was able to keep a steady vision for the final two films without much interference. War for the Planet of the Apes is a "blockbuster" in name only, and because of this was able to make the many brave choices it does. I mean, it's a film trilogy about monkey business which also includes death, hardship, disease, mediation between warring states, post-traumatic stress disorder, class struggles, and even some poop flinging for good measure.  I'm hard pressed to think of a better modern trilogy, or one that isn't one of the big five (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Godfather, The Lord of the Rings, and Back to the Future), that could measure up to this. War of the Planet of the Apes is the finest end to a trilogy I've seen in a long time. 
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Ape Escape
Combing through nostalgic culture has become the norm, and unfortunately, so have the middling resulting projects. Audiences have, sadly, come to expect reboots to suffer as studios struggle to re-capture what made something ...

Review: Castlevania (Season1)

Jul 08 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221685:43647:0[/embed] Castlevania (Season 1)Director: Sam DeatsRating: NRRelease Date: July 7th, 2017 (Netflix) When the religious town of Wallachia burns Dracula's (Graham McTavish) wife at the stake, he promises to return after a year with an army from hell and smite all of them. Jumping a year ahead we meet Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), the last remnant of a monster hunting family. Trevor's pretty much sick of the entire thing. He's lost faith in people after his family was betrayed, and couldn't care less about the monster attacks. But when he's inadvertently thrown into the action by a secret society of magicians, Trevor finds himself in a bigger battle than he ever could've imagined.  Castlevania's first season is less a television show and more like one of those direct to home video animated films you'd expect to see from the likes of DC Comics or Marvel Studios. Usually I'm not one to complain about the length of a series in reviews, but the four twenty-something minute episodes (nice) essentially act as a lengthy pilot for the actual series. This is fine in concept, but it also cripples these first episodes. It makes sense for Netflix's distribution style, which argues that each show should be binged, but it's not like each episode stands on its own. Rather than episodes having a clear cut beginning, middle, and end, there's only enough time for the general arc of the "season" to carry any weight. It's no help to the series either that the entire plot is predictable (even complete with a big boss fight at the end). There's definitely a feeling here that this season would've been better served without being chopped up into parts.  But even without much to invest in from episode to episode, the other benefit of being a two hour pilot means it's brisk and light. This lightness allows the characters to bask in Castlevania's pulpy vibe, but it's definitely hard to take anything seriously yet. For example, Trevor is a fine main character. He's the standard too cool for school protagonist, and Ellis clearly had a fun time writing for him, but the most intriguing stuff is still a ways away. I'm more interested in what eventually brought Trevor to his low point at the start of the series, and that drama won't be evolved further until the next season, if at all. As a result, he feels thin. There's just simply not enough time to take him further than grizzled warrior archetypes. While he's definitely fun to watch now, it's completely forgettable without anything really juicy to latch onto.  Castlevania's animation isn't great, and is particularly janky when characters are talking to one another, but is ultimately serviceable. There's a nice flow to the action scenes even as the backgrounds tend to fade into oblivion during them. The fights themselves seem particularly anime influenced as one fight toward the end of the season is accompanied by too familiar sword swooshes (the technical term, yes) and angles reminiscent of other shows. Trevor's character design is unfortunately the only one with any kind of personality, but it's not saved by the overall flatness of the art as a whole. But, once again, since this is only a pilot, I'm sure there's room for betterment in the future.  Given how short of a season Netflix's Castlevania is, chances are you've seen it by the time you read this review. If you haven't, however, it's a very easy show to recommend...for now. I wouldn't exactly say it's for everyone since those who don't like the Castlevania games won't get anything of note out of this, but like Shankar's bootleg productions, it's a series made by a fan for other fans.  With that in mind, I do worry this series cannot hold up with a longer structure. This first season is a good watch mainly because it's over before any of its faults truly make a dent. Just as how Shankar's Bootleg Universe shorts seem great as five minute pieces, the minute you really stop to think about the ideas therein ruins the experience. 
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That's four! Four episodes! Ha-ha-ha!
Adi Shankar is quite a cult hit in film circles. He's made a name for himself by fully investing into properties he loves. It's a nerdy demeanor that's absolutely infectious as its led to his famous "Bootleg Universe," in whi...

Review: The Little Hours

Jun 30 // Rick Lash
[embed]221667:43644:0[/embed] The Little HoursDirectors: Jeff BaenaRelease Date: June 30th, 2017Rated: R There's not a ton for me to say about The Little Hours. As usual, good does accompany the bad, but here they don't add up to the sum of all parts. The cast does what they can when they can, but the script is terrible. I'm not sure how most of the powerhouse cast was convinced to do this movie, especially given director Jeff Baena's limited experience. I feel like he pitched them the same synopsis that we got, only ever shared limited parts of the script with the various cast, and kept them in the dark enough that they didn't catch on to exactly what they were shooting. The attempts at humor are there. The opening scene between Nick Offerman as a lord, his wife, and their servant, Dave Franco, is gold and seems to promise much. Offerman, in particular delivers a wonderful turn as an uber-dry medieval lord much beguiled by brutal descriptions of violence and by actual torture (it turns out). He's simply put, perfect for the role. After that, this masquerade of a medieval-set, modern comedy gives way to what is at times an incredibly vested portrayal of medieval nunnery in all authenticity possible. The detail that went in to many of the scenes is incredible. But then, this seriousness is chiseled down to a mere mockery of what it portrayed by the expected outburst of Aubrey Day emblazoned "Fuck yous!" There is horniness, a nunnery, substance abuse and a form of wicked revelry, but not like you'd expect, and it likely won't make you laugh--it certainly didn't make me break a smile. There's very serious, and embraced threeway rape scene where Sister Fernanda (Plaza) has a knife to Masseto's (Franco) throat for the duration, although, granted, he does seem to come to enjoy the moment. There are witches, and people shouting about witches, but it's not funny either. Yet, when they deal with witchcraft in the serious fashion it would have been dealt with (across medieval Europe, hundreds, if not thousands of people were killed as witches), they sort of make a joke of it, but don't. Yet it's definitely not done in full jest. The script doesn't pick either direction, and as such, suffers the worse for it. Which is sad: the cinematography is beautiful--there's real talent behind the lens from a visual standpoint. The team assembled a talented and capable cast. The historical accuracy, at times, is laudable. But it's all wasted due to a lack of identity and understanding of that identity--and a true comedic script. Or not--pick one, and embrace it. You can't have it pretend to be both from time to time. My best guess is that someone had an idea for a film that seemed like it could be fairly funny given a proper script and the right acting panache. They actually got the panache, but don't seem to have had the talent to deliver the necessary script. Halfway through, I was waiting for it to end.    
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I lost two of them.
You're probably as optimistic about The Little Hours as I was; hey, that's why you're here, waiting for me to tell you all about it. You saw the all-star comedic cast: it includes Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Dave Franco, John ...

Review: Despicable Me 3

Jun 30 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221638:43623:0[/embed] Despicable Me 3Directors: Eric Guillon, Kyle Balda, and Pierre CoffinRelease Date: June 30th, 2017Rated: PG After failing to capture former child star turned supervillain Balthasar Bratt (Trey Parker), Gru (Steve Carell) loses his job at the Anti-Villain League. While he's trying to figure out what to do with his life next, his long lost twin brother Dru (Steve Carell) contacts him and tells him about their family's villainous legacy. Now Gru has to decide whether or not to please his minions and commit crimes or do what's best for his family. Also his family is there doing a thing each because that's all there's time for this go around, and the minions are farting around in a prison or something. You can basically take the old "long-lost relative" TV trope and copy/paste its plot here and you'll get the gist.  When a TV show resorts to a long-lost relative plot featuring some guest star, it usually means the show is out of organic ideas and has to force in another entity in order to breathe any kind of life into its husk. It's like continuing impassioned CPR when the person you're trying to save is already gone. Every movement you make is futile, and you're only doing damage to their body. Sitting through Despicable Me 3 parallels this hopelessness all too well. It's made worse by the film's constant allusions to comedies of cinema past. At one point, the Minions are driving underwater and speed past two clownfish that look like Finding Nemo's Marlin and Nemo, only pouring salt into the wound. It was a grim reminder that I could've seen something else, and knowing I still had another 80 minutes to go only exacerbated my apathy.  But so what if I slowly fell asleep, what about the kids? Didn't they enjoy the funny funnies? Well, they did not. I not only noticed a huge group of kids shuffling around in their seats during the super potent Minion rendition of "I Am the Very Modern Major General" from the very timely referenced 1800s opera The Pirates of Penzance, but also saw how they failed to react when the Minions went to prison. But alas, we were all trapped in Despicable Me 3's prison together. At least the kids were still treated as human beings and got brief reprieves from this comedic wasteland every time a Minion made a fart or said boobs or something. I have to admit, even I laughed when the Minions ended up being super successful in prison and acted like some gang from a 50s musical. But was that a laugh out of pure necessity? Did I force myself to react in order to re-affirm my humanity? Then soon, I realized I made myself sick drinking so much out of this small oasis of humor in my perilously dry journey.  One has to wonder how much this cast is getting paid for keeping this farce going. Trey Parker is slightly entertaining as he portrays yet another manchild, but he's clearly just cashing a check here. Steve Carell, bless him, is the one gleaming hope in this dark world and gets the space to emotionally play around with Grudru once the Minions and the family are out of the picture. Seriously, I think Gru interacts with his family, like, twice? It's very odd considering where the series began. As for the rest of the family, the girls are all still cute as ever but they're not given anything meaty to do. Stuck repeating past catchphrases and forever glued to the same age they were seven years ago. Wait, it's only been seven years and we've gotten four of these movies? And Minions 2 is coming out soon also?  I...I just can't do this anymore.  Look, if you're reading this review you're not going to give a shit about what I write here and go see this anyway because you think the Minions are cute. It's fine, I get it. The Minions are oversaturated on the Internet, playing parts in memes with everything from how bad Mondays are to abortion. With how prevalent they've become, it's impossible to not buy into them at this point. So honestly, does it really matter how I end this? I put more thought here than anything Despicable Me 3 had to offer me, so I'll just leave you with one of my favorite quotes in the film.  *fart noise* 
DM3 Review photo
Kill m3
Despicable Me was a revelation when it first hit theaters. A villain choosing fatherhood over his proclivity for evil deeds was a novel idea, and it was much more than the minion flavored marketing would have you believe. The...

Review: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography

Jun 30 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220930:43141:0[/embed] The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait PhotographyDirector: Errol MorrisRating: NRRelease Date: June 30, 2017 (limited) "Nice" is such a loaded word. It's often equivocal, a sly insult hidden in a mild compliment rather than a genuine endorsement of character. Stephen Sondheim parsed the word in the musical Into the Woods, noting that nice and good are two different things. (The latter is always preferable to the former.) It's telling that Dorfman uses it as part of her self-description. She's so humble and self-effacing on camera. It's the sort of goodness that can be passed off as niceness and/or mistaken for mere shyness. I got the feeling that this is how she is off camera as well. Morris' adoration for Dorfman comes through in the way he comments on her work and chronicles her career. These warm feelings wouldn't be possible if he subjected his friend to the Interrotron. Dorfman initially seems more like a friend's mom or an aunt than an artist, as if these identities are mutually exclusive. That distinction is ridiculous. Dorfman hung around the New York lit scene in the 1960s, taking photos of literary luminaries passing through the city. It's there that she started a lifelong friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg. She would take portraits of him and with him for the next few decades. She's wistful when she looks at Ginsberg's portraits, and while I wondered what she was thinking, I didn't feel like prying. It's not as if I could. The large Polaroids shared in The B-Side are a mix of famous people and everyday folks. In addition to Ginsberg, Dorfman has a few images of Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman. Richman's earnest, wonkily cool/uncool music might be the proper sonic equivalent to Dorfman's portraiture and personality. The intimacy is palpable throughout The B-Side. Morris recreates the experience of hanging out with a good friend and looking at their body of work. If not looking through a portfolio, it's at least the experience of flipping through photo albums and mementos with a live commentary. This sounds merely nice, but there's more to it. Like the little details in a photo that bring it to life, there's an ineffable humane quality to The B-Side, and I think it has as much to do with Dorfman's personality as  her chosen medium. Polaroids are a "nice" format. There's a retro-chic about them, which explains their appeal--cooler than a disposable film camera--but they're impractical by today's standards. What's more, they're intended for common images and not the domain or typical format for high art. Dorfman is essentially offering a Polaroid photobooth experience (photobooths = nice), but she magnifies the internal life in her images. In her own self-portraits, there's an overwhelming domesticity, but her hand-written captions are revealing in the way that diaries and journals are revealing. The portraits themselves are art in plenty of ways: in how they play with expectations, in the way they hint at some story or feeling beneath the surface, in the way their material (Polaroid film) made me rethink the common uses of the material. When the meaning of the film's title is explained, the whole collection Dorfman's shared gains new and endearing meaning. There's something so likable about this nice Jewish girl who's been doing this since the 1970s. There's something charming about these imperfect images in this mostly dead format. There's something so delightful about The B-Side. It's not Morris' best film in terms of scope or depth, but it's also not just nice. I think The B-Side is Morris' most generous movie, and it's generous in a way that only friends can be to one another.
Review: The B-Side photo
There's something about Elsa
The B-Side is an atypical Errol Morris documentary. He doesn't use the Interrotron at all, his tool that allows interviewees to stare directly into the camera. Instead, the camera's just off to the side. The score is delicate...

Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Jun 29 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221639:43619:0[/embed] Spider-Man: HomecomingDirector: Jon WattsRelease Date: July 7th, 2017Rated: PG-13 Spider-Man: Homecoming isn't concerned with re-telling Peter Parker's origin story. Instead, we're introduced to a Peter (Tom Holland) that's already been established around his borough of Queens, NY. But after getting a taste of Avenger-like action during Civil War, Peter's been anxious to fight some big time crime. Stumbling on Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton)'s band of thieves powered by alien technology (left behind after The Avengers), Peter's out to prove to his mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that he can handle it. But the 15 year old Peter finds he struggles with balancing his Spider-Man duties, school life with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), love life, and home life with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).  The Homecoming subtitle is both a play on Peter's newfound high school age, and a "homecoming" to the MCU. With how prevalent Downey Jr.'s Iron Man was featured in advertising, I was worried poor little Peter would take a backseat to all of The Avengers craziness. We've seen the result of universe building bogging down some of the Marvel properties, but thankfully Homecoming doesn't concern itself with that too much either. The events of the MCU proper have informed some of the character motivations for sure, as Adrian gets his villainous start after the Battle of NY, but there's been a great effort to ground Spider-Man in his own little pocket of the world. Thus, Homecoming is free to not only tell its story at its own pace, but isn't afraid to explore Peter as a character.  Director Jon Watts takes great pains to make Homecoming feel more intimate. From the opening scene featuring Peter's video diary, to the pacing of conversations between characters, there are plenty of scenes given time to breathe and fully flesh out the film's extended cast. Tom Holland is a dream, and his awkward yet full-hearted take on the hero is much different than we've seen in the past. Holland portraying a teenage Peter is not only believable, but incredibly refreshing. When Holland's Peter jokes around, or accidentally saves the day, it always comes across as natural. Because of this, the threats to him become even more engrossing as a literal child is now fighting to save his loved ones. It's a tonal balance we've yet to see from Spider-Man, and I'm very curious as to where it can go from here.  But it's not like Holland steals the show, either. Homecoming has an incredible cast, and the script is laid out so every character has time to shine. Michael Keaton playing a birdman after, well, Birdman, may be ripe for jokes, but Keaton's soft spoken menace gives him a presence we've yet to see from other MCU villains. Spider-Man's villains are probably the most famous in Marvel Comics, so it feels so right to see Keaton stake his claim. Adrian is complex, has a reasonable motivation, and seems better written overall than a good chunk of Marvel's other baddies. Peter's classmates are all fabulous as well. Zendaya shines as a brilliant loner, Tony Revolori's Flash is the right kind of bully, it's great to see Jon Favreau's Happy Hogan again, and Jacob Batalon's Ned is so damn adorable I can't wait to see him again. The cast is just so well put together, and Queens has such a lived in feel, Homecoming absolutely nails the "neighborhood" in "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man." We haven't experienced Spider-Man like this before.  And, uh, Marisa Tomei is a goddess and I'm so glad Homecoming addresses the shift in Aunt May's age.  Now Spider-Man: Homecoming isn't a perfect film, as the plot tends to get lost during the deliberate pacing of the second act, and it's still an origin story thematically, but it's still entirely successful. I mean, we finally get an action scene that isn't about fighting a bad guy, but saving people. I can't believe that hasn't happened yet. Even if I'm reviewing Homecoming in the comic book movie bubble, I feel like this world is so well established that the film's weakness are a reflection of its central character.  This new Peter is flawed, but attacks his flaws head on. Homecoming has so much fun just living and swinging with Spider-Man, it's hard not to accept those flaws and just go with the swing of things. Spider-Man has come home, and I can't wait to see what Sony and Marvel do with him next. 
Spider-Man Review photo
Third time's the charm
Spider-Man films have been through all sorts of ups and downs. What was once the biggest comic book property on film has since been the victim of studio craziness, failed attempts, and just an overall bad reception by th...

Review: Okja

Jun 28 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221603:43630:0[/embed] OkjaDirector: Bong Joon-hoRating: N/ARelease Date: June 28, 2017 (Netflix, limited theatrical)Country: South Korea/United States Okja opens with a press conference as preface. CEO Lucy Mirando announces the creation of special mutant super pigs made to address the world's food shortages revamp its brand. She's played by Tilda Swinton, who looks and acts like a character in a Christopher Guest movie. Those bangs, those braces, and later, that twitchy, insecure overbite. The initial super pigs have been given to farmers around the globe, and in 10 years the best one will be picked to publicly launch a line of tasty, savory mutant food products. Okja, the only pig we follow, was raised in the mountains of Korea by Mija and her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong). The film lingers with Mija and Okja a while as they spend afternoons in the forests eating persimmons in sun and swimming by a waterfall. Bong builds the kinship between his lead and his digital warm-cuddly; there's a shorthand for 10 loving years in 10 or so lackadaisical minutes. The lush mountaintop idyll also works as a counterpoint to the madness that follows--colors darken down below as our characters descend. Okja is taken away, and the movie becomes a series of pursuits. A daring chase through the streets of Seoul is one of the highlights of the film. In America, Okja goes through a series of upsetting and disturbing events that reveal the ugly side of Mirando's shiny new product. A little past the midway point of Okja, I can see some people souring on the movie because of what happens in the plot. Rather than make a family film for all ages, Bong's story gets much darker than the initial fun in the sun would suggest. (More Babe: Pig in the City than Babe.) This darkness follows logically and diegetically, however, and it's the point. This mutant movie, among other things, is an indictment of factory farming and corporate culture. It's why Mija just wants to bring Okja back up to the mountain, above all of those concerns. Like any CG creature, Okja looks better in some scenes and worse than others. When it works, she's got the expressiveness of an actual animal, with mannerisms less like a pig and more like a lumbering puppy/hippo. (She even poops like a hippo. Okja is the sort of movie in which the bowel movements of an animal figure into the plot. Glorious.) Something about Okja's eyes and snout, and maybe a certain floppiness or articulation of her ears, communicate a fair amount of emotion. When Mija is there to react, she complements and enhances the CG performance. Other times, Okja is clearly just a big digital thing dropped into a shot. I was generally able to stay with the world of the movie even when the CG was obvious. The world of Okja is messy and cartoony, and the CG is never too bad to be totally distracting from everything else that's going on. And there's a lot going on. Mija is an immutable moral center in the movie, and though she's a newcomer, Ahn is good as a determined lead. The supporting characters are varying levels of quirky, and many get to play off Ahn as the straightwoman. Paul Dano is very Paul Dano as Jay, the leader of an Animal Liberation Front group. His misfit band of eco-terrorists squabble over the carbon footprint of cherry tomatoes and suckle on asparagus spears. Bong and co-writer Jon Ronson mock the ideological minutiae of some ALF characters (extremism is inherently funny), but they're careful not to target the core humanity of their beliefs. Jay and his band are goofy, but they're also the good guys. The most overblown performance is surprisingly not Tilda Swinton but Jake Gyllenhaal. He plays Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a nasally TV wildlife personality. Off-camera, he's like an evil Ned Flanders by way of bizarro Ace Ventura and Rip Taylor; a sadistic narcissist who hides his ugly-streak under layers of gee willikers and aww shucks. When the camera is on Dr. Johnny, his persona changes. His voice lowers and slows and he speaks from the diaphragm rather than the nose. The highs and lows of Gyllenhaal's performance may best the representation of Okja's highs and lows. The man contains multitudes, some hilarious and some terrifying. (Jaeil Jung's score also contains multitudes: a little bit of folk, a little bit of traditional orchestral music, and there's also something for the oompah band fans out there.) If the tone shifts and genre-bending don't push away some viewers, I sense that Bong's preachiness might do the trick. Okja isn't particularly subtle about its stance on GMOs and the food business; the subtlest the film gets is a brief and passing implication that Okja is such a healthy and hearty mutant super pig because she is a free-range mutant super pig. Yet subtlety might be unnecessary here, and the same goes for genre and tone conventions. Netflix gave Bong final cut and full creative control over Okja. The result is free-range Bong Joon-Ho, which is, admittedly, an acquired taste, but it's linked to the love people have for their favorite childhood pet. That's a familiar, perennial flavor--narrative comfort food. As Lucy Mirando tells us at the start of Okja, the most important thing is that the mutant super pig tastes f**king good. And it does. Weird but good, sure, but good mainly because it is so weird.
Review: Okja photo
That'll do, mutant super pig, that'll do
Bong Joon-Ho's Okja is a chimera of genre and tone. It's a lovable mutant like its titular super pig--the best super pig, we're told, the superlative like something out of Charlotte's Web. Which makes sense. As a director, Bo...

Review: Baby Driver

Jun 28 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221653:43629:0[/embed] Baby DriverDirector: Edgar WrightRated: RRelease Date: June 28, 2017 Don't worry. Baby Driver isn't a musical in the traditional sense. It doesn't have characters breaking out in song and spiraling into wild, Busby Berkley style dance numbers (unless you count car chases as dance numbers). Instead, it features Baby (Ansel Elgort), an expert driver who is forced into being the driver on a series of heists by Doc (Kevin Spacey). Through a series of events, Baby tries to pull himself away from a life of crime while falling for Debora (Lily James), a charming waitress he meets at a diner. The plot itself is a little thin, but that's because it's not really the point. What Wright wants to do with this film is turn soundtrack into character; make a film that flows as well as its soundtrack. It's a bold effort, and it makes the soundtrack the leading star. It's an absolutely fantastic soundtrack that runs the gamut from classic rock to modern rap, each song cued up with the film's editing and action. The excuse is that Baby has tinnitus so he's always listening to music to get rid of the ringing. What that results in is car chases cued wonderfully to songs, entire scenes edited to the beat of whatever Baby is listening to, and a soundtrack that often informs the film more than anything else going on on screen. It also means that every character is defined by the music, every choice bent around what's playing. Even the dialog is often a diatribe on the meaning of music to people, and in that aspect the film is endlessly interesting. Wright's direction of the action is just as interesting. His shots and editing go beyond coherent, which is a base we shouldn't have to applaud, but will thanks to having just seen The Last Knight. He weaves together brilliant plot, music, and real driving into some masterful sequences. The first 20 minutes of this movie are an almost perfect execution of Wright's "car chase musical" idea form the opening beats featuring “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to the first moment that Baby's headphones sadly come off. Unfortunately, that marks a bit of a stumble for the film. The movie loses its thread a little bit once the full commitment to musical drops. Maybe it was impossible to really keep the entire film moving forward as a coherent whole while remaining faithful to the constant music (most musicals don't do that), but once the film ditches the idea to advance the plot it starts to lose some of its charm. There's still plenty of good to go around, and any time the film kicks back into car chase mode it picks the thread back up. But between these moments things get a little awkward. The movie still works, but it's disappointing it doesn't fully commit to its bold idea. Do not mistake a lack of fully successful execution with lack of quality. Part of the reason the film's inability to fully dive into its soundtrack-is-god style is so annoying is because what it's doing is so challenging and interesting, that when comes together it does it so well. This isn't some cheap gimmick like Suicide Squad tried to do. It's even a step up from Guardians of the Galaxy's use of soundtrack. It's a bold experiment in making music into a full blown character, and as an experiment it both works and fails. But man, when it works, like those first 20 minutes, it works so well.  I wish as much could be said for the story itself. While Baby and Deborah's story arc is pretty well flushed out, the rest of the characters lose a bit of push. This is especially true for Doc, who wavers between all out evil and a paternal gangster. With the focus on the music and action, the characters and their motivations get lost. The end of the film explodes into a bloody action flick that feels at odds with the almost charming tone of the rest of the film. Maybe this is a repudiation of the musical genre in general, and a wink at the soundtrack-as-character itself, but it feels almost like a cop-out. It's as if Wright realized he couldn't carry on his brilliant weaving of music and action so he just didn't. Baby Driver should be seen simply because it is such a bold and wonderful idea. It really does execute it well for most of the movie. That's why I kind of hate to say that it doesn't pull it off fully. That makes it sound like it has failed, but just trying to do this is a success. I'd rather have films that try something incredible and fall just a little short than ones that don't try at all.
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Fred Astaire meets Bullit
Edgar Wright is a director with a specific vision, and it's led him to make some of the most genre-bending films in the past decade, and some of the funniest. It's also led him to leave Ant-Man. How do you bounce back from so...

Review: The Bad Batch

Jun 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221600:43618:0[/embed] The Bad BatchDirector: Ana Lily AmirpourRating: RRelease Date: June 23, 2017 (limited) Don't get me wrong. There are things about The Bad Batch that I love, but they're undermined by boring self-satisfied self-indulgence. In the film's post-apocalyptic world, prisoners are released at the Texas border and left to fend for themselves. Arlen starts the movie wandering the wasteland but is soon kidnapped by cannibals. She loses an arm and a leg before she escapes to a makeshift town called Comfort. (On the way she meets a mute and nearly unrecognizable Jim Carrey.) Comfort is run by a charismatic cult leader surrounded by an army of bodyguards/brides. He's played by Keanu Reeves, who seems to be doing his best impression of Edgar Allan Poe doing a bad Keanu Reeves impression. At night, Comfort becomes a small scale post-apocalyptic Burning Man, complete with a DJ bumping tunes in a giant, light-up boombox. In all that I've written, what's not to love? The answer is Arlen. After about 30 minutes in a two-hour movie, my patience and goodwill dissipated because of her and the film's unwillingness to do anything interesting with her. Maybe it's odd of me to expect character from a moody would-be cult movie, but Arlen's lack of character causes The Bad Batch to implode around her. She doesn't want anything, doesn't need anything, has no sense of motivation or an internal life. She just kind of wanders around. For a movie with such a strange world, it's too content with being listless. Arlen is a non-character surrounded by more interesting supporting characters. There's no compelling story to tell in The Bad Batch; it's just a bunch of sets, locations, a primary cast, and a little stunt casting. In one of the early moments of The Bad Batch, Arlen meets a scavenger and her daughter. They both come from the cannibal colony that Arlen fled, but she's never interacted with either of these characters before. She murders the mother in cold blood even as she begs for mercy, but spares the daughter, Miel (Jayda Fink). The little girl mutely follows her mother's killer. It's done out of revenge, I get it, and yet Arlen doesn't seek further revenge on those who actually amputated her limbs. She just hangs out in Comfort and that's it. Miel would have made a more interesting main character. Miel's father, Miami Man, could have carried the film as well. He's a hulking bodybuilder cannibal played by Jason Momoa doing an impression of a good Keanu Reeves doing a bad Cuban accent. Like really, really bad. Momoa's at least a driven presence on screen since I knew what he wanted (i.e., to find his daughter... and maybe eat someone). Arlen and Miami Man meet and strike up a bond that verges on attraction but, like so much else about the movie, goes nowhere. They hide beneath a sheet during a sandstorm, intimately close, Miami Man unaware that his companion is his enemy. In a different film this moment could be filled with a edgy or even erotic charge. In The Bad Batch, it's just two attractive people under a flapping white sheet. In my head, I keep thinking of The Bad Batch in terms of El Topo since they're such opposites. Everything in El Topo feels meaningful because Jodorwosky builds his movie around a character's spiritual quest and obsessions. All objects are symbols, actions have cosmic consequence, the finale is apotheosis. The Bad Batch reduces its symbols to objects, strips actions of their greater meaning, turns dialogue into babble. A rambling Reeves monologue late in the film is tedious nonsense about seeds and plumbing. Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain summed up the gist in just nine words: "You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold." Though beautiful, The Bad Batch is a tautological movie rather than spiritual or philosophical: a meaningless wasteland about a meaningless wasteland. It's not gold, that's for sure.
Review: The Bad Batch photo
What if El Topo was about nothing?
Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was a sparse yet stunning debut that overflowed with languid cool. So much of Girl Walks gets by on its moody/artsy posturing, which had shades of Jim Jarmusch's early work...

Review: Transformers: The Last Knight

Jun 21 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221624:43613:0[/embed] Transformers: The Last KnightDirector: Michael BayRated: PG-13Release Date: June 21, 2017 Transformers: The Last Knight doesn't so much have a plot as it has a bunch of action sequences attached together by people saying words that make no sense. If you recall from the end of the last film, Optimus Prime launched himself into space to find the Autobots' creator. In his absence more Transformers have come crashing to earth and humanity has started to be dicks to them and rounding them up. Cade Yaeger (Mark Wahlberg) is hanging out with the Autobots from the last film, including Bumble Bee, as an outlaw who is trying to protect as many of his robot friends as his can. Then... I don't know... some things happen in no logical order. Anthony Hopkins shows up along with Laura Haddock, and everyone stands around spewing incoherent exposition until the next action sequence is cued up. My ongoing complaint with these movies has always been that these Transformer films aren't about the Transformers, and The Last Knight is the culmination of this. The first three quarters of this movie is almost entirely "human" interaction. I put human in quotes because no actual humans interact like the characters in this movie, unless I've missed some universal memo where we're all supposed to speak as if we're delivering important one-liners every other sentence. There is so much illogical plot in this film and none of it involves the Transformers we're coming to see. I'm not sure who thought that Cade Yaeger (god, could that name be any douchier) was an interesting character, but he's not and none of the other characters are either, and I CAME TO A TRANSFORMERS MOVIE TO SEE TRANSFORMERS! The saving grace of the previous films was always Optimus Prime, voiced as wonderfully as ever by Peter Cullen. Cullen somehow made stilted dialog into into epic speeches, and Prime's constant Saturday morning cartoon proselytizing somehow made the idiocy of the films more palatable. So what does The Last Knight do? Removes him from the plot until the third act! Any hope that the end of the last film signaled that we'd get a Transformers-focused film for once are instantly dashed in the opening scene as Prime is basically tied up and not mentioned again for the next hour and half. When he does return the movie instantly moves from "stab me in the eyes for the love of god kill me now" to "OK, just put me in a coma," but that's not much of an improvement, obviously. I will say that the action is actually better than the last film in terms of execution. Age of Extinction was a directorial mess in this department for a variety of reasons, but Bay seems to have put his brains back in his head this time around, and edited together some crisp sequences. The last battle actually pulls you to the edge of your seat, and you can follow what's going on instead of being lost in a blur of cuts. However, being better than the last film in terms of action wasn't a high bar to jump, and this one barely clears it. Action sequence aren't put together to be complete scenes, but instead more of a series of ideas that Bay clearly thought would be cool. At one point there's a time freezing gun, and at another gravity just randomly disappears. Sure it makes for some cool shots, but the action itself becomes illogically incoherent -- a series of camera swoops mushed together into explosion porn. Another not-actually-impressive feat is that the film somehow goes on (and on and on and on) for two-and-half hours. I know these films make a lot of money, but could someone please reign Bay in just a little bit? Even a tiny modicum of restraint in terms of action sequences, slow motion pans over a woman's body, or hapless exposition could have saved trillions of theater goer's brain cells. As it stands Bay and the screenwriters are basically allowed to do whatever the hell pops into their head. Entire characters are introduced and then ignored for most of the running time of the film, and most of them aren't even needed in the first place. At one point a WWI tank Transformer just sort of rolls up, makes a random explosion and then is never seen again. It's like Star Magic Jackson Jr. walked into a room of 4-year-olds and green lit whatever the hell they wanted.  It's also hard to honestly express just how many plot holes are in this film. Plot hole is too light a term. Plot black hole? Plot hell hole? Using the word plot anywhere near The Last Knight just seems wrong. There are literally moments in the movie where they just make a joke about not caring about a coherent plot. I suppose they hoped poking fun at their inability to develop logical reasons for the characters to progress from one point to another would distract us from that very fact, but none of the humor is that funny either. Everything comes straight out of action movie screenplay 101, and it couldn't feel more contrived. Romance. Check. Family. Check. Old guy saying a bad word. Check. It's all so pandering that I can't believe that audiences can't see what they're doing. We can't be this stupid to eat this up and laugh at tired jokes. There is always a defense of films like this that we're just supposed to shut our brain down and enjoy the ride. But this isn't a ride, it's a death trap. Yes, there are films that are great for just enjoying. Michael Bay himself has directed many of them, but Transformers: The Last Knight should not be enjoyed. Giving this movie money is re-enforcing everything wrong with the industry, and possibly everything wrong with the world. It is a mountain of turgid garbage. It is elephant vomit expelled into a pile of rotting corpses. If it was a person it would be going to a very special circle of hell. It is, for lack of a better word, bad.  You got us, Kaufman. You got us good. 
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I'm running out of synonyms for bad
Transformers: The Last Knight is proof that Andy Kaufman is alive. When the first film arrived it was a classic Michael Bay film. Yes, it was dumb, and full of stupid, but it had awesome action, and Optimus Prime, and it...

Review: Cars 3

Jun 19 // Drew Stuart
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Here in my Car(s 3)
Pixar has made a name for itself these past few decades by delivering quality kids films that everyone can enjoy, regardless of age. Yet among those films, the Cars series is rarely included, and for good reason. The storytel...

Review: 47 Meters Down

Jun 16 // Rick Lash
[embed]221613:43604:0[/embed] 47 Meters DownDirector: Johannes RobertRelease Date: June 16, 2016Rated: PG-13 By and large, director Johannes Robert managed this film masterfully. Little is wasted, and most stays true to form. The opening title sequence of a dark, ominous underwater scene proves to be the inside of a swimming pool. And one girl overturns another on a raft, causing a glass of wine to hit water and spread in pure imitation of blood. It’s one of the few times the director gets too heavyhanded: we know it’s a shark movie; no portent necessary. It’s then that we’re introduced to sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt). Lisa’s the stick in the mud whose boyfriend has left her because she’s too boring, while Kate’s the sort to tell her sister to get over it by banging the first bar fly she can find their side of the border in Mexico. When said bar fly recommends the sisters go cage diving with great white sharks, our story is set in motion. Writer Anthony Jaswinski admits the film follows the 127 Hours format—he means that you’re predominantly with one (or in this case, two) character for the duration, after some early introductions. But the similarities don’t end there; the format also calls for a sticky situation to keep your character alone, and we’re quickly provided one when the cage the girls go diving in proves to be of less than reliable quality and ends up on the ocean’s floor. That’s the premise. The cage is separated from boat. There are hungry, 25-foot sharks in the water. And our sisters are stuck in said cage with limited air supply. The film’s stars have said that this is not just a shark movie; it’s more than that. It’s a movie about being stuck at sea. This is true. It’s not just a shark movie; it’s really a movie that draws on and capitalizes on the many primal fears inherent in mankind: fear of being adrift at sea; fear of being adrift and immersed at sea; fear of the unknown (either under the water, or in the dark); fear of drowning; fear or suffocation; fear of being trapped; the fear of the immensity of everything else versus your own insignificance; fear of being at the mercy of forces greater than you; fear of being eaten alive. Where The Shallows began, 47 Meters Down continues, and ups the ante, allowing murphy’s law to dictate events. In an underwater cage surrounded by massive sharks? The cage will fail and leave you stranded. Have air tanks? Your supply is low. Have radios in rebreathers? You will be out of range. Reconnect the cage to a winch? The cable will fail. Get extra air tanks? You will face sharks. You get the idea. It’s a litany of what can go wrong, will go wrong, to the point where it borders on association with torture porn. These girls cannot catch a break, up until the film’s conclusion. And maybe not even then. The twists and turns deserve to remain in tact, in the dark, for you to enjoy unspoiled. But what can safely be said is that 47 Meters Down plays on your worst fears and delivers psychological terror. I had to detach myself to the ninth degree to watch it passively in order to write about it now. But if you allow yourself to be immersed in the dark of the theater, you’ll find yourself helplessly dragged in the film’s jaws, kicking and screaming, for the duration. The emotions are real; both Moore and Hoult spent more time underwater filming than is normal, and it reads. Robert directed them from above the water’s surface and had underwater crew on a different radio channel so that only he could communicate with the girls. They got a small taste of what they portrayed, and this was captured wonderfully and transcribed expertly. While, as noted, this is a shark film, the director must know the material well; where other films would get lost in the violence, Robert uses tension to perfection, and deaths, when they come, are impactful, but not focused on, and the tension is instantly restrung, meaning that you’re never quite off the hook. With few miscues—an unnecessary camera spin in one ascending shott--the film succeeds independently of the its sister film from 2016—even if you’ve seen The Shallows, you should still see 47 Meters Down.
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Measures Up
47 Meters Down is a shark movie—if shark movie is a genre. No, not the campy, so-good-they’re-bad shark movies we’ve been getting for a decade and a half now [ask anyone I know—my favorite of these is ...

Review: Rough Night

Jun 16 // Rick Lash
[embed]221612:43603:0[/embed] Rough NightDirector: Lucia AnielloRelease Date: June 16, 2016Rated: R Rough Night is the story of four college friends who promise to always be there for each other, and of how life sometimes has a way of getting in the way of the best laid plans. Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is a state politician of some sort (or on her way to becoming one) and is also getting married. Alice (Jillian Bell) is her overeager friend planning her bachelorette party. The gang is rounded out by Blair (Zoe Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer). Oh, and then there’s Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jess’s college friend from semester abroad, and a convenient Aussie accent to add to the mix. The friends convene in Miami for shenanigans, but, after drinking, weed, coke, puking, and penis shaped paraphernalia, things go awry with the arrival of a male stripper. If you’ve seen the film’s marketing, you may be aware of what comes next. I was, and I’ll admit that I was quite curious about how writer / director Lucia Aniello intended to deal with this twist. SPOILER ALERT: the stripper is killed; another senseless victim of bachelorette party extravagance and overindulgence. It was obvious from the same marketing, that the film wasn’t going to hide from this plot point: it was going to own it. This movie might even revolve around the death of a stripper: it’s, at the very least, the major plot point development in the movie. Stripper-based humor and even dead stripper humor is nothing new, and yes, it’s refreshing that the tables are turned here, reversing what have become standard gender roles: all good—like I said, I was really curious how this would be dealt with, as it’s a bit dark for comedy dealing with a bachelor / bachelorette scenario. Unfortunately, the answer is, poorly. Going back to that fine line between a rough night and a my life is over night, this moment is clearly filmed as the later. Aniello never makes light of the seriousness of what’s happening, while it’s happening. The music shifts, the action plays out all to graphically and convincingly, and I, for one, found myself wondering if this was actually a comedy, or was going to reveal itself to be quite a dark drama disguised under opening volleys of laughter and comedic humor. Thankfully, mercifully, it is a comedy, and the seriousness given to a woman accidentally killing a man in a moment quite reminiscent of the defining murder from Unfaithful (in which Gere slams a snow globe over a man’s head, killing him). They’re visceral deaths, blood is not spared, and they’re not humorous, in any sense. It’s jarring, to go from jokes about swimming in a sea of dicks, to involuntary manslaughter, and back to dick jokes (putting dick-nose sunglasses on the corpse to cover its creepy, dead eyes). The theater became quite silent when it happened. People were groaning and turning away even. Like I say, we are not in the midst of a drama, it’s a comedy, and after Jess and gang make every wrong decision you might possibly make in their situation, we’re steered back towards comedy. But it’s always a little off from that moment on. It’s irreconcilable how the characters react to having taken a life, through that jarring transition, to how they deal with the body and crack light of it afterwards—not enough time has elapsed, consequences are still unfolding rather quickly in rather frightening, real terms (as Blair calls her criminal defense lawyer slash uncle and learns that by moving the body and altering the crime scene they’re commiting serious crimes—no shit—but they are all on drugs and booze, so understandable). It would be OK, if this were a dark comedy and this was just the moment where it goes dark--but it's clearly not. It’s not that there’s something wrong with characters forgetting what’s morally center, or committing crimes and laughing about it, it’s the inconsistency of mood from Act I (weekend away in Miami) to the Turning Point (Stripper’s head is cracked on fireplace hearth before he bleeds out) to Act II (disposing of the body and consequences). They just don’t gel. And, to be fair, if one of the Hangover films had dealt with the guys killing a stripper and then going through the emotional impact of what that really means immediately after, that wouldn’t have been funny either. Those characters do incredibly stupid things, highly illegal things, and do sometimes face unnervingly real consequences, but it never goes full dark comedy. It finds the line, hugs it, and then drunkenly walks it just well enough to pass the sobriety test (there’s a great scene in Rough Night dealing with one of these moments—more on that later). There's just something about cleaning a crime scene, and toweling up liters of blood, as a musical montage that didn't quite work. In another film sure to draw comparisons, Weekend at Bernie’s (and its eponymous sequel), we don’t get too real. The protagonists never deal with Bernie’s body voiding the contents of its bowels and how the guys deal with that while cops and potential witnesses linger nearby. Rough Night delivers laughs, don’t get me wrong. Act I is full of them. Bell and Glazer are at their usual best and do not disappoint. Clearly, pairing them with their known collaborator and director of Broad City was a win-win. It’s their standard best. Kate McKinnon is also great in her role as outsider, bringing just the right amount of wrong throughout. Johansson is more inhibited by her role as (maybe) uptight-wannabe-politician; she’s never able to fully break loose of her character role to sling banter with the comedic regulars. She does her best in whoo girl moments, but her biggest wins are born from clever writing that pokes fun at tiny everyday moments like a politician’s forced smile in a political TV spot and the difficulty in holding it naturally; or in great post-coke snorting tirades. In fairness, her character is a passive one, who’s more out there friends take actions that dictate her own; in American Pie terminology, she’s the Kevin of the group. One of her more genuine comedic moments may have been when the movie opens in full-on college flashback with the four friends gathered around a beer pong table. It’s a fun scene, one carefully reconstructed from a college frat house a decade passed as they even have J-Kwon’s Tipsy playing in the background. Let’s be clear, it was humorous, in of itself, to see Johansson, Glazer, Bell, and Kravitz pretending to be college-aged. Kravitz is great, perhaps seeming more natural than in other turns (the Divergent series, Fantastic Beasts), but isn’t able to flex true comedic muscles as her role is relegated to satiating an odd plotline with some hedonistic locals (and a random cameo from Demi Moore). Then too, there’s an unexpected parallel series of events unfolding as Jess’s fiancé, Peter (Paul Downs, co-writer) has an incredibly mild “bachelor party.”These asides to the men enjoying a quiet wine tasting, or Peter and co. buying adult diapers (for a reason I won’t spoil) are pleasantly interjected in a way as to add levity to the seriousness of unfolding events in Miami where people are literally dying. These deft touches, throwing convention on its head, or alluding to those things we all know to be true (a drunk girl bursting into the flashback college dorm room to pee on the floor--something she does on a weekly basis), are the bread and butter here and in earlier successes from this team--successes that have made Broad City and all associated with it so wildly popular. It’s a stellar cast being directed by a comedic powerhouse based off a script by that same powerhouse and her writing partner: it’s not unfair to expect great things, and they do deliver laughs, and a good number. There’s just one hell of a downer right in the middle of it; a downer that sours half the movie.    
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Dead Stripper > Dick Jokes
Maybe I should have taken a cue from the title. After all, Rough Night is fairly self-explanatory. I'm a fan of irreverent comedies where protagonists can behave the way less ideal versions of ourselves might, all with n...

Review: The Mummy

Jun 09 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221584:43585:0[/embed] The MummyDirector: Alex KurtzmanRelease Date: June 9, 2016Rated: PG-13 The Mummy has very little to do with the classic horror film from 1932 because that is a classic. Nor does it have much to do with the Brendan Fraser led (words I'll probably never type again) The Mummy from 1999 because that was fun. Nor does it really have anything to do with any mummy that you're thinking about unless you're thinking about a mostly naked Sofia Boutella with some rotting skin.  We find Boutella, playing the ancient and evil Princess Ahmanet, being buried alive because she's evil. Flash forward to modern day and tomb raider Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and his pal Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) discover her tomb after calling in an air strike because they're also in the army. From there the movie makes a lot of illogical leaps that basically lead Nick to become the chosen one, which means the evil god Set will inhabit his body after ceremony is performed by Ahmanet wherein she stabs him. Add in Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) to say a lot of exposition, and hint at the bigger Dark Universe as a whole, and a love interest for Nick (Annabelle Wallis), and you've got yourself... nearly nothing.  That is basically what The Mummy amounts to. By the time the film is nearing its ending it literally feels like it hasn't even started. You would think that issue would stem from the fact that they've shoved too much universe building into the film, but it is actually the opposite. The movie never seems to be able to establish any universe at all. We're supposed to care about Nick and his love interest, but she's such a 90s action movie MacGuffin that I've completely forgotten her name. We never get a true feeling for what Nick is going through, and Ahmanet's powers are so wishy washy and illogical that it creates plot holes that are hard to ignore. It's a superhero origin story where the superhero never shows up.  I will give credit where its due. I'm excited to see more of Russel Crowe's Jekyll/Hyde. The actor actually imbues his exposition with a bit of panache, and Jekyll's brief appearance is the most fun the movie has. In fact, aside from that the movie is just bland. Universal wants to establish a "dark" universe, but there's nothing dark about this movie at all except for its instance to mute every color in existence. It plays the same note throughout, feeling more like a dated action movie than a modern blockbuster. The DC Extended Universe may have its issues, but at least its got a tone and feeling of its own. The Mummy can't differentiate itself from the myriad of other action flicks released each year. That may come from Alex Kurtzman's directing. Why Universal would take the risk on a guy only known for producing is beyond me, but his first big studio movie lacks any character at all. His action sequences are competent enough, but rely a bit too much on unremarkable CGI, and he routinely wastes the charms of Tom Cruise, who wavers back and forth on whether he's really committed to playing the role. In fairness, if I saw the way the movie was unfolding, I'd probably stop caring too. Finally, Kurtzman just can't keep the pace. The film lulls and then picks up randomly and then lulls again. Part of that probably comes from the screenplay-by-committee (six credited writers) production, but Kurtzman could have made it flow better. The sad fact is that The Mummy isn't truly terrible. It isn't really anything. There's some decent action sequences with some clever gimmicks sprinkled in. There's a plot that's illogical, but passable, and actors who, under the right circumstances, could make something interesting happen. But nothing interesting does happen. The Mummy is two hours of nothing, and at this moment that means that the entirety of the Dark Universe is two hours of nothing. Universal better pray for a big bang soon or it'll keep on being nothing, and none of their stars will shine. 
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Don't universes get started with a bang?
Everybody wants a superhero movie universe now. Thanks to Marvel's insane success at stringing together a cinematic comic universe, every movie studio out there wants a piece of the pie. You can't really blame them. Cinematic...

Review: Wonder Woman

May 31 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221570:43578:0[/embed] Wonder WomanDirector: Patty JenkinsRelease Date: June 2, 2017Rated: PG-13 Diana (Gal Gadot) is the Princess of Themyscira, an island inhabiting an ancient Amazonian race put on the Earth by Zeus to stifle mankind's need for war. Molded from clay and birthed by Zeus, Diana has always been a little different from the rest of her Amazonian sisters and put to the true test when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an English spy, crash lands on her home and brings news of a great war happening around the world (WWI). Figuring it to be the work of Ares, the god of war, Diana demands to be taken to the front line. But when in the outside world, Diana has to come to grips with her own humanity as she learns the real driving force behind the war.  Let's get this out of the way first. Wonder Woman is an origin story. The plot follows a lot of the standard beats you've come to expect from origin stories (complete with a sequence introducing the flashback in question), but unlike other films of its ilk, rather than a character slowly becoming a mythological being, Wonder Woman essentially works backwards. As it's introducing Diana and her world, the film takes an already established higher being and challenges her infallibility. Always being sure to treat her as a goddess, the narrative instead veers away from the stereotypical physical change and focuses on internal struggle and strife. Momentous scenes in origin stories like first donning of the famous suit, fighting the main villain, and the original call to action, are subdued in favor of zeroing in on Diana's matter-of-fact perspective. Basically, there's no need to have Diana change into a hero since she already is one, and I can't understate how refreshing it is to learn about her humanity instead.  Ambitious as the internal narrative is, it wouldn't have worked without a strong performance from its lead. To be completely honest, I was worried about Gal Gadot's strength as a lead actress going into this. Thankfully, that worry only lasted about 20 minutes. While the first chunk of the film is stilted and full of bad acting and accents (likening it to a more generic version of Xena: Warrior Princess), once Gadot is introduced everything perks right up. She's kind of incredible in the way she commands attention here (befitting the character too). Director Patty Jenkins takes a little time each shot to make Gadot stand out a little more, whether its subtly pointing out the fact she is taller than most of her co-stars, or the costume design making her look just different enough from everyone else. Gadot and Jenkins work together to really nail the fish out of water angle here, and further smooth out any edges Gadot could have in her performance.  But Gadot's performance wouldn't have meant anything without a great script. Wonder Woman may not be perfectly written in all areas (as one big moment diminishes her character), but there's a great balance of levity and drama. What I came to appreciate the most were smaller beats allowing the actors to really dig into their characters. Chris Pine is as charming as he's ever been, so the best scenes of the film are simply subdued conversations between Steve and Diana. These smaller, character intense moments also help to elevate the later generic superhero action taking place toward the climax. There's an added layer of catharsis, but it doesn't mean the climax is safe from gender normative action where Diana is suddenly not the character she was the rest of the film. The climax will need further discussion once more folks see it for sure.  As for the action, it's fine. The action scenes are a bit Snyder-esque as they use slow motion to emphasize movement, but there is a greater sense of fluidity in the motion. Once Diana starts whipping around dudes with a golden rope, the film basks in some very cool visuals. There's unfortunately a bit of unintentional slapstick during some of the scenes, but it gives the film a little flavor not seen in other DC Comics films. I'll give it a pass.  The fear when reviewing superhero films is critically analyzing them within a bubble. Initially, I was worried I'd attribute Wonder Woman's success to being a well made film within the DC Extended Universe (and we've been burned so many times), and just clinging to it like a life raft in a sea of schmaltz. But, after writing this review, I've come to the conclusion it's just a damn good film.  Wonder Woman, the oft-misplaced icon in DC's Holy Trinity, has truly made her mark on cinema. Less Batmen and supermenches, more wonderful women please.  Second Opinion: Wonder Woman gets almost everything right for its first two acts. Its action sequences are impressive, and utilize Wonder Woman's superpowers in unique and awesome ways. Patty Jenkins has a surprising eye for action for a drama director that allows it to flow and build, a feature many directors seem to lack. But more important than the kick ass action sequences is the fact the film works as a character piece. Unlike other DCEU films, you actually care about what's going on, the plot unfolds in a coherent way, and the characters act like they should. Yes, it may hit on a few (OK, a lot) of cliches, but it implements them to a tee. A lot of the charm comes from Chris Pine and Gal Gadot, who turn their relationship into something special. The film actually hits emotionally, which is why it's too bad the third act turns into nothing more than an action brawler. It doesn't fit with the rest of the film's tone, and feels more like a Zack Snyder movie than anything else. This doesn't sully the film as a whole, however, leading to a superhero movie that feels like its own thing. 80 -- Matthew Razak
Wonder Woman Review photo
Some kind of wonderful
DC Comics and Warner Bros have been, well, let's say misguided in their attempts at launching a series of films comparable to Marvel's success. Deciding to push through critical failure (thanks to overall box office success),...

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell no Tales

May 26 // Rick Lash
[embed]221557:43576:0[/embed] Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No TalesDirectors:  Joachim Rønning and Espen SandbergRelease Date: May 26, 2017Rated: PG-13 Both Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightly) have been absent from the franchise since At World’s End, so it may come as a surprise that the first character we meet, a young boy and expert on the sea’s supernatural lore, actually turns out to be their progeny. The opening scene quickly puts him in touch with Orlando Bloom, but my gut worried, watching it play out, that Orlando wasn’t really back for the film, more as a cameo—a nod to the Pirates glory days, and I didn’t expect to see him again until the film’s conclusion. Sadly, this proved true. But this sequence informs us of the driving narrative need of the film: Will Turner’s son, Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) wants to break his father’s curse that binds him to the Flying Dutchman, the ship that Will inherited from Davey Jones, and prevents Will from returning to his family. Let’s be clear about this, while Depp and Rush, in faithful turns as Captains Sparrow and Barbosa, carry the film, their narrative needs do not. This story is not theirs; it’s a story driven by a new, younger generation, Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario (Carina Smyth), and their mutual quest to find the Trident of Poseidon, the only object powerful enough to break all the sea’s curses. This is a problem, to a degree structurally, as Depp and Rush are there to support Thwaites and Scodelario, but the opposite plays out onscreen. Depp and Rush remain instrumental to not only the story, but the heart of the film. Their characters are fully developed, have history and depth, lending weight to what happens. While our new characters are not as emotionally resonant, despite admirable attempts to add depth in the brief time allotted by the script. Scodelario shines as a smart woman immersed in heavy colonial ignorance, whose education, drive, and intelligence are quickly branded and trumped by labels of “witch” at every turn to effective fanfare and laughs. But this imbalance in story and reality carries further. Sparrow particularly, goes through the motions without clear motivation. He’s drinking, wenching, and getting in and out of trouble with the same brilliance-come-ineptitude he always does, but here he has no drive and seems simply along for the ride. One can only assume because a Pirates movie without Depp / Jack Sparrow would not be a Pirates movie—a fact producers must have admitted, despite Depp’s box office woes, massive losses for another Disney vehicle (The Lone Ranger), and owing to his massive pay day for this turn. Javier Bardem plays the villain, Captain Salazar, to appropriate levels of villainy, but in this, he and his crew are weak, third iterations of undead pirate miscreants. They seem very much par for the course, and are feared, inexplicably, by men who have faced the same and worse in Pirates films past. What adds a fresh ocean breeze are the infusion of undead gulls and, particularly, sharks—a nice expansion of the undead monkey theme (little Jack does make his own appearance, to useful purpose as well). Similarly, it’s the undead pirates’ walking and running across the water’s surface (very much biblical in allusion) adding a nice correlation to the pirates from the original when they “take a walk” underwater. In many ways, what works best here is what has always worked for the franchise (including Hans Zimmer’s wonderful orchestral and epic score). The same can be said for the film’s over the top action sequences and elaborate stunts. Almost zany in nature, the stunts are as true to the franchise as ever. And, as usual, they are made to work through humor and well placed gags and jokes. The film is funny, I found myself laughing often, partly just in plain appreciation for the continuation of what made earlier Pirates films successful—and here Dead Men Tell no Tales may even succeed more than some of the other sequels. It is quite funny. The audience I viewed it with were laughing more than many audiences at pure comedies. It was hearty, and again, appreciative. Carina’s misfortune at having studied astronomy and horology (the study of time) are used wonderfully for extended bits. There’s probably room for a more meritorious review to dive deep into the depths of how female protagonists in these films are sexualized, reduced to heaving bosoms (albeit heaving bosoms that continually outmaneuver and perform their male counterparts), and stereotypes quite aware of their misfortune of living in the age they do. And there’s probably something to say regarding how these heroines are denied true independence as men continually feel the need to sacrifice themselves on their behalf, denying them their own narrative decision making power. But we’ll only hint that this imagined meritorious review can do this, and better—for we are not said review. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg purportedly tried to emulate Gore Verbinski’s directing of the first three films, and you do feel it here, but the heart they tried to infuse is meek and only succeeds by forced inclusions of plot developments that seem tacked on and don’t serve the majority of the movie. Here, see twists on why exactly this new female protagonist, Scodelario, has been introduced. Or what exactly happens when Will Turner’s curse is lifted, as you must come to expect will come to pass. What succeeds is what has always succeeded, and here, in film five, with apparent plans for more, pending the financial success or failure of the latest (by no means guaranteed given a $230M production budget), I imagine this franchise isn’t going anywhere. To me, seeing new characters come and go to flesh these vessels out while the underlying bones remain the same is reminiscent of the James Bond franchise; perhaps one day we will get another actor to play Jack Sparrow (though they successfully prove they can CGI him younger here), as unimaginable as that seems, and the franchise will reinvent itself by progression. Let’s just hope Johnny Depp and Disney learn from Sean Connery’s mistakes—once you’re out, you’re out: don’t come back.
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18 pound balls
It’s been nearly 14 years since audiences were first treated to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. At the time, Roger Ebert said that Depp’s “performance is original in its every atom. There has ...

Review: Baywatch

May 24 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221553:43568:0[/embed] BaywatchDirector: Seth GordonRelease Date: May 26, 2017Rated: R Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) is a lifeguard everyone loves. He may take his job a bit too seriously, but in the world of Baywatch, his lifeguard post includes its own arm of the local government (complete with enough of a budget to afford things like ATVs). When confronted with the disgraced, former Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron), he's forced to put his feelings about the new recruit aside when they uncover a larger drug plot at hand that's threatening the entire bay. But when the police won't investigate, Lt. Mitch and his lifeguard crew decide to take matters into their own hands and dicks and boobs.  Like most unfortunate comedies to fall in this category, Baywatch substitutes actual jokes with raunchy humor. Now I don't have a problem with raunch in practice, as dick jokes are as classic as apple pie, but they're only great when they don't disrupt the flow of the film. It's hard to explain, but I'll try and elaborate on my problem with Baywatch's genitalia humor by outlining one of its more problematic scenes. In the first fifteen minutes or so, Ronnie (Jon Bass), the archetypal loser of the bunch, has a crush on the lifeguard CJ (Kelly Rohrback) -- who's only purpose in this film is to be ogled -- and chokes on some food when she runs by. After CJ delivers the heimlich maneuver (complete with thrusting), Ronnie becomes erect. But to hide it from her, he nervously stumbles until he falls and gets stuck, dick first, in a beach chair. Thus resulting in a large crowd of people surrounding Ronnie as CJ and Mitch talk about setting him free. If it sounds like my summary made the scene seem devoid of charm, it was actually much worse experiencing it first hand. Sure it serves the purpose of introducing Ronnie and CJ's dynamic, but paints their friendship in an unpleasant, slog of a light.  It's a shame Baywatch relies so much on low hanging fruit humor, since it can be intelligent when it puts forth an effort. When the film allows itself to be made fun of, it actually makes for pretty fantastic sequences. The film's opening, for example, combines all that you'd expect to see (Johnson diving in slow motion, wide shots of the beach) but injects with a major nod to how ridiculous it all is once the title card shows up. There are even a few inspired raunchy bits (like the talking balls gag), and the fact that Mitch never refers to Brody by his real name. These occasional bright spots in the dialogue only make the rest of the script more disappointing by comparison.  But the major factor at play is how straight it plays the premise. Baywatch, while occasionally winking at itself, also takes things much more seriously than you'd hope. Long stretches are dedicated to plot exposition, or un-interestingly shot action sequences. Rather than laugh, or even question what I was watching, I often found myself having no reaction at all. And with a comedy that clocks in at two hours, that's pretty much the equivalent of drowning in shallow water. It's something that could've easily been avoided had you tried to kick around a bit.  Like the vapid characters of its source material, Baywatch is great to look at but once it opens its mouth you realize how hollow it is. It's almost as if the entire film plays in slow motion.  Baywatch is a bad watch. I know I should feel guilty about not ending this review on a better joke, but that'd mean putting in more effort than the film did. 
Baywatch Review photo
So much emocean
Baywatch is another film in the same vein of nostalgic television reboots like The A-Team, CHiPs, and the crazily successful 21 Jump Street. A show known only for attractive people running in slow motion serving as a sor...

Review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

May 17 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220905:43129:0[/embed] Abacus: Small Enough to JailDirector: Steve JamesRating: NRRelease Date: May 17, 2017 Thomas Sung seems like a model for the Asian-American immigrant experience. He helped found the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown during the 80s to serve the local community. He knows his customers, he does right by them, and the bank has given his kids opportunities for success. His two eldest daughters, Vera and Jill, help run the bank and will eventually take over. Here's a healthy slice of promising Americana served in Chinatown. But then, Murphy's Law: a handful of Abacus employees commit loan fraud, and then the housing crisis strikes, and then the great recession. Rather than go after Chase, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office throws the book at Abacus. Even though Abacus cooperated fully with authorities for a loan fraud investigation and did everything ethically and by the books in the aftermath, they were considered easy prey. At the beginning of the documentary, Thomas and his wife, Hwei Lin, are watching Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. James returns to that yuletide staple again and again, finding parallels between George Bailey's savings and loan and the Thomas Sung's Abacus. Similarly, the Sungs come across as Capraesque heroes--the set-upon optimists, the embattled idealists, everymen and everywomen always trying. This might be why the film doesn't feel like most other Frontline documentaries. Abacus is in many ways a character-driven film. I feel odd thinking about real people in documentaries as characters, but the Sung family is comprised of memorable personalities. Thomas, Hwei Lin, and their daughters are strong in their own ways. They're admirably resilient, to put it politely. (At a certain point, the resilience turns into take-no-shit toughness, especially from the Sung daughters.) James films the family alone and in conversation with one another. The interactions can get nervy and uncomfortable as so many family interactions can, but they're all well-picked given how well they reveal the family's dynamic. James offers another compelling thread in his exploration NYC's Chinese community. Chinatown residents (Abacus' primary clientele) tend to be tight-knit and insular, which goes back to the formation of family-based support groups. The representatives from the DA's office interviewed in the film are baffled by what goes on there. Jurors on the case similarly don't understand how Chinatown operates. I worried that this confusion from non-Chinese people would affect the case. There's such a fascinating contradiction at play. The closeness of the Chinese community gives them a collective strength that they wouldn't have otherwise as a minority group, but the foreign nature of these cultural practices and their minority status make the residents of Chinatown more vulnerable. I mentioned that a sense of Capraesque optimism pervades the film, and yet I couldn't help but read a larger brand of pessimism into the proceedings. The little guy can always get picked on. While it's nice to see the little guy fight, there's a knowledge that this won't be the last time it happens. What about the major banks, who really should have been held accountable somehow for what they've done? But the world isn't so kind to those that are easily trampled. And yet. This reminds me of one the great lines about disillusionment in film: "Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown."
Review: Abacus photo
Mr. Capra Goes to Chinatown
Steve James may be incapable of directing a bad documentary. His films includes Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, and Life Itself. With Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, James continues his record as one of America's most relia...

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Friends. Countrymen. Britons. There are so many places (read: quips) I’d like to begin. From the guy who dated an already older-ish Madonna. Comes the prettiest Arthur you’ve ever seen (seriously, the header image...

Review: Manifesto

May 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221523:43554:0[/embed] ManifestoDirector: Julian RosefeldtRating: NRRelease Date: May 10, 2017 The art installation version of Manifesto takes just over two hours to complete if you were to watch every screen. As a film, Manifesto is only 90 minutes long. Rosefeldt chops up many of the monologues, and only a handful of them get to play out on screen in their entirety. There's only one moment of synchronized harmony at the very end of the film, which probably doesn't make much sense to people who haven't seen the art installation. I couldn't stop comparing the film to the art installation. Yet I think that's a fair comparison since Manifesto was an art installation first and its strengths as an art object are unique to that medium. As a film, Manifesto brings the texts of the manifestos and the brilliance of Blanchett's multiple performances to the forefront. Blanchett leaps from persona to persona seamlessly, playing a Russian vagrant, a garbage crane operator, a punk nihilist, and so on. During a funeral, a veiled Blanchett delivers a stirring eulogy by way of the Dada Manifesto. In a class full of children, Blanchett warmly instructs the minds of future through the words of Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, and the Dogme 95 Manifesto. One of the standouts is her dual performance as a cable news host and a field reporter. Blanchett nails the cadence and rhythms of news, which is all false gravitas, falser sincerity, and manufactured conviviality. Both the installation and the film reminded me a lot of Cindy Sherman's work and how she portrays herself through shifting personas. Rosefeldt's able to do a few fun things with editing that simply couldn't be done with the art installation. One segment features Blanchett as a God-lovin' housewife leading her family in grace before supper. She goes on and on about the ideal art she wants in her life and the lives of others. The film cuts away and returns to this domestic tableau multiple times, drawing out all the laughs it can from the interminable prayer and the bored looks on the faces of her family. And yet while the text and the performances are important, I couldn't help but feel Manifesto is also a work about time, space, and the way its audience organizes and interprets the experience of the installation in their heads. People who see the art installation can wander if they want, and divert their attention to other screens, or to other people, or even to the potential synchronicities of different manifestos being recited simultaneously on separate screens. For instance, standing in the center of the Park Avenue Armory during the harmonious synchronization of all the screens, I noticed a lone voice at the end of the harmony. Cutting through the silence was Blanchett the Dada Manifesto mourner. She said, "Nothing, nothing, nothing" into the void of space. That's an experience that felt so personal and even so secret--as if only I noticed it, and as if Rosefeldt set that moment up just for those people who happened to be there and I was momentarily a co-conspirator, a member of this clandestine treehouse art club. I loved the way that armory space and my own ideological hobby horses played a role in my attention to Manifesto as an art installation. That's impossible to recreate as a film. Rosefeldt's is bound to guide his audience down a set path rather than giving the audience the ability to get lost in the experience of the various screens. Thinking about it in terms of game design and video games, if Manifesto the art installation is an aesthetic and intellectual sandbox, Manifesto the art film is an ideological rail shooter. Given what's lost in the translation, there were times that I felt like Manifesto the film was a supplement to the art installation rather than a fully realized art object in its own right. And yet maybe that's where the dimension of time and space comes back into play. I think what I think about Manifesto because I saw the art installation before the film. A work by an artist and an actress in conversation with another work by the same artist and the same actress. Manifesto the film might be considered a response to Manifesto the art installation. In other words, a 14th screen. Even when I thought Manifesto the film loses the unique aspects of time and space that made the art installation work so well, I am now forced to consider new dimensions of time (the order in which I saw the different iterations of Manifesto, the runtime of each) and space (the venues in which I saw each work, the strengths of the two different mediums). I may have a strong preference for one version of Manifesto over the other, but I'm glad to have been engaged and enthralled by each in their own way.
Review: Manifesto photo
Art installation becomes an art movie
When a work is adapted to another medium, it almost always loses something in translation. Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto started its life as a multi-screen art installation. I had an opportunity to see it here in New York at t...


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