April 7, 2019 at 9:11 am | Posted in 2019 | Leave a comment
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To review this film fairly, I have to review it for what it is, and not for what it is not. I am sorely tempted to see this film through the lens of what I want in a superhero movie, which is darker, more adult, and more complexity of emotions. It doesn’t have to be “Dark Knight” dark. Michael B. Jordan’s performance in “The Black Panther” was a fairly dark performance in a film that otherwise felt vibrant (or “vibraniant”? Sorry. I had to.). I think I just need something adult to chew on. This film has none of that. It is a bright, bubbly, kids’ movie, with laughter and goofiness, and fun to be had in spades. If I can put my superhero expectations aside, I can admit that this was quite enjoyable. The two lead boy actors (Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer) are genuinely charming, expecially Grazer. It would be easy to think he has landed work because of his uncle (famed, powerhouse producer Brian Grazer). But in both this and “It,” he has proven himself to be quite talented. These boys’ easy humor and smart-alekedness (that is not a word, I know) makes much of the film enjoyable to watch. Likewise, Zachary Levi (“Chuck,” the “Thor” films, “Tangled”) plays the goofy man-child superhero well. He is hard to take seriously, but then he isn’t supposed to be. Some of the best humor comes in the interaction between Grazer and Levi. In those moments, the film feels light and airy; a perfect summer popcorn flick. But, I want more. I want emotional weight, moral complexity, a nuanced plot, and compelling characters that I care about. Once you get away from the humor here, there is little else this film offers. The story is ridiculously one-dimensional and without an ounce of tension. The villain is silly (which suits the hero he is facing). And, perhaps worst of all for me, the film is teeth-rottingly syrupy at times. The whole foster family (but especially the parents) were painful for me. They were all so simplistically good and pure that I desperately wanted the villain to rip at least one of them limb-from-limb. This really was a kids movie. And, as I said, I need to remember that. From that lens, it was lovely and charming and a whole lot of fun. In fact, truthfully, by any measure, this movie was better than most superhero movies, including much of Marvel’s fare. It just isn’t what I wanted. But, then, I guess that’s my problem, not the film’s.


Pet Semetary

April 6, 2019 at 12:00 pm | Posted in 2019 | Leave a comment
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Having not seen the original (or read the book), I don’t have much to compare this one to. Though, if I think of it in terms of modern horror, it doesn’t fare all that well. The plot is fairly straight forward: a family in Maine find a cemetery on their land; if you bury things there, they come back to life. All sorts of bad decisions and their consequences ensue. While the first film hewed quite closely to the book, this one takes some small liberties, mostly to good effect. I am putting a spoiler alert here, though if you have seen any trailers, this will not be a shock at all. In this film, it is the older daughter who is killed by the truck, whereas in the book and first film, it was the younger son. There is a clever nod to that original story line and a fun piece of misdirection in this film, when it appears that it is the son who will die. That would have been a great moment, if the trailers hadn’t ruined it. That aside, I do think this switch was a wise choice, because the young actress, Jeté Laurence, is really the best thing about this movie. She plays creepy just beautifully. The film was slow, plodding, and had no energy until she returned from the dead. Her character was just fun to watch in every scene. The film makes another nod to the original (and the book) when it pans over a burning house. We get no explanation, but it was a nice wink to those who knew. I also much prefer this ending to the one in the book or the first film. In fact, I think the final scene was pretty close to perfect. So, overall, this wasn’t a bad film. The things that worked, worked well. There were just too few of them. It took too long for the energy to build. We also got a wholly unneeded subplot about the wife’s sister that was more weird creepy than fun creepy. It provided some jumps early on, but I found it mostly distracting. If we had gotten to the corpse girl sooner and spent more time with her hunting her prey, that could have been a truly good horror film.

Triple Frontier

March 25, 2019 at 6:15 pm | Posted in 2019 | Leave a comment
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This straight-to-Netflix release was directed by JC Chandor, whose other three feature films have been the wildly different “Margin Call,” “All is Lost,” and “A Most Violent Year.” They are all different genres, with differing levels of success. What they have tended to be is more pensive stories, with something to say. In “Triple Frontier,” Chandor just goes straight for the old fashioned heist-genre. And, in doing so, he loses his way a bit. Five former military buddies (Ben Affleck, Oscar Isaac, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund, and Pedro Pascal) are drawn into doing “one more job” by the potential for a big payout with little work. What could go wrong? Needless to say, the story proceeds exactly like you expect it might. The details may be new, but the outline is exactly the same. The buddies face danger and indecision and squabbling and greed and et cetera, et cetera. It does what you think it will do and ends how you think it will. But, that said, it was reasonably entertaining for free on a bored Sunday night. I did not regret watching it, but I also did not regret not paying for it, either. For free, it was pretty decent entertainment, if that’s telling you anything.


March 25, 2019 at 5:49 pm | Posted in 2019 | Leave a comment
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Jordan Peele is on a roll. Two years after his genre-busting “Get Out,” he’s at it again, firmly establishing himself as one of the new horror auteurs. As with all really great horror films (and sci-fi, for that matter), Peele uses the genre for social commentary. Just as “Get Out” was a vehicle to lambaste liberal racism, “Us” has set its sights on something more than just scaring the hell out of you. But, what has it set its sights on? The message of “Get Out” seemed fairly clear, but “Us” manages to feel both in-your-face and obscure, at the same time. I cannot get into what I think it means here, without spoiling all sorts of things. What I will say (cryptically) is this: Peele seems to again be exploring racism in America, and class as well, this time. Although, it appears to be more from a larger cultural and generational perspective. What is the experience of being an outsider in America? One of the invisible who most of us ignore? What could be the end result of our dehumanizing them? What could their pain allow them to do? The movie starts with a TV showing an ad for “Hands Across America.” If you aren’t old enough to remember it, look it up. Because it’s a brilliant metaphor for the naive, condescending way that we perceive those less fortunate and how much effort we are really willing to put into helping them. The metaphor is returned to again and again, and the film ends with the haunting implications of an inversion of that metaphor. Metaphors aside, the film is also a reasonably good horror story. It was very tense at times and genuinely creepy, though there weren’t that many actual scares to be had. The creepiest part of the film was the brilliant acting. Peele clearly hired his main actors based on their ability to play two opposite roles– one person scared shitless, and the other one crazier-than-fuck. Lupita Nyong’o is truly brilliant as Adelaide/Red. She is one of the brightest stars among Hollywood’s crop of young actors, and it shows here. Those two performances were equally as mesmerizing. Though all the actors were good, I have to give another shout out to Shahadi Wright Joseph as the young daughters Zora/Umbrae. As Zora, she genuinely looked terrified. And, as Umbrae, she had the creepiest expression all the time. This was her first feature film, but I can guarantee we will be seeing more of her. The film was also surprisingly funny. Peele had a nice way of making you laugh throughout the film, even during the most disturbing moments. To that end, he choice of music was brilliant. Check out the scene with the Alexa knock-off called Ophelia; those musical choices are full of commentary about race and class, and they are really really funny. This was a terrific film with a really terrific last five minutes. You will be left thinking, “Wait! What just happened? So, what does THAT mean for Peele’s metaphor?” Don’t ask me. I have no idea, and I love that I have no idea. Go see the movie, and then let’s discuss…

Giant Little Ones

March 11, 2019 at 3:49 pm | Posted in 2019 | Leave a comment
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The coming-of-age story is a bit of a trope-ridden genre. And the gay-coming-of-age story can be even more so. So, I was pleasantly surprised when this pleasant little Canadian film managed to do something a little different. At one point, mom (Maria Bello from “NCIS,” “Prime Suspect,” “A History of Violence”) rather earnestly says, “I thought it was supposed to be acceptable these days for kids to experiment.” That idea seems to be a the core of what this film is exploring; What is straight or gay or in between? What happens when those lines get blurred? As such, it seems to be very much dealing with what it means to be an adolescent at this particular moment in time. Though it does not feel nearly as authentic or insightful as last year’s “Eighth Grade,” it is a lot easier to sit through (for those same reasons). In fact, if nothing else, this film is charming. It is also highly sentimental. The music is moody. The kids are impossibly beautiful (every single kid in that entire school). The directing, camera choices, lighting are all sentimental. You are meant to feel something watching these kids. And, by the end of the film, I think you do. It’s sweet and it’s funny. And, while I don’t think you will gain much in the way of insight, I do think most people will enjoy themselves.

Captain Marvel

March 9, 2019 at 7:07 pm | Posted in 2019 | Leave a comment
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With the premier of “Avengers: Endgame” less than two months away, the behemoth that is Disney/Marvel (let’s call them DisMar, for short) has a close eye on the behemoth that is the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). Everything changes after “Endgame,” with the MCU losing at least three of its tent pole characters: Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. But, don’t worry, Marvel president Kevin Feige has things well in hand. The next generation of Marvel will be led by the likes of the Black Panther and the eponymous character of “Captain Marvel.” And the MCU looks to be in fine shape, thanks for asking. “Captain Marvel” is headed toward a $150M opening weekend, making it the highest grossing film of 2019 so far and among the top highest grossing Marvel films. And, in the process, Marvel introduces its first female lead and arguably the strongest hero in the MCU. What helps is that the film is genuinely entertaining. It keeps a fairly sprightly pace, effectively intermixing action and humor. Set in 1995, the film is chock full of every 90s reference it could possibly make; some are obvious, some are subtle, and some made me laugh out loud. Brie Larson’s (“Short Term 12,” “Room,” “Kong: Skull Island”) Captain Marvel has an easy charm and smart aleck attitude that is a natural fit in the MCU. It also helps that she is so powerful and really loves to kick ass. There is something undeniably fun about watch a smart, powerful woman beating the shit out of arrogant men. While not as evocative as “Black Panther,” this film also embraces its role as voice for a marginalized group. The message of being a strong woman in a sexist world runs throughout the film is both obvious and subtle ways, as when a man tells Larson’s character to lighten up and smile. This becomes most obvious, and emotionally affecting, in a scene where we see a fallen Captain Marvel remember all the times as a little girl she got up, got tough, and kept going. The message about how strong girls can be is not even slightly preachy, but it is undeniable, none-the-less. It helps that that scene is followed immediately by Captain Marvel kicking some serious ass while No Doubt’s “I’m Just a Girl” plays in the background. The story line felt a bit overly-convoluted at times, though I understand that they were trying to reconcile the character’s very convoluted origin story/stories into a coherent whole. But that is a small quibble, really. It’s hard to not image young girls getting inspired by Captain Marvel, now and in the future. That’s reason enough to make more films. If they keep being so damned enjoyable, that’ll be the cherry on top.

Everybody Knows

March 3, 2019 at 5:30 pm | Posted in 2019 | Leave a comment
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I could call Asghar Farhadi my favorite Iranian director, but that would be painfully pretentious, as he is the only Iranian director I am familiar with. That said, I do love his work. His films include “A Separation,” “About Elly,” and “Fireworks Wednesday.” To date, they have all explored male and female relationships in modern Iran. For the first time, his newest film takes place in Spain. Laura (Penélope Cruz) takes her son and daughter to her sister’s wedding, while her husband stays home. The first part of the film is carried along by the frenetic energy of the wedding– it is loud, riotous, and fun. Then, as is so true of a Farhadi film, everything suddenly shifts, and the audience is carried along by a very different energy– fear, panic, hysteria, and mounting suspicion. Farhadi has a knack for creating tension in a film, as he did so brilliantly in “About Elly.” His films can be slow to get started, and this one is no exception, but he does a better job of it here. The early scenes are full of their own energy and the characters are all so charming, that it would have been hard to get bored. Once things kick off, they really kick off, and the momentum keeps up until the end. The twists and turns can get complicated and you need to really pay attention to the subtitles, or you will lose the thread. As are Farhadi’s other films, this is ultimately a family drama, and there is more emotion here than American’s would expect in a thriller, which this film essentially is. Cruz’s Laura is coming undone over the course of the film, crying and gasping for air continuously. It’s a powerful performance, but might make American audiences uneasy; we like all of our protagonists to be endlessly heroic. There are no real heroes here, just human beings muddling through as best they can. Also, I suspect the ending will not satisfy an American audience; we like pat answers and clear resolutions. This is another hallmark of Farhadi– he lets us sit with ambiguity. This is not Farhadi’s best work; it doesn’t have the complexity of his other films I have seen. But, he get’s fantastic performances out of his lead actors– Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Ricardo Darín. I was particularly taking with Bardem’s performance, as a deeply conflicted man. It’s still fairly early, and the bar is currently low, but this is the best 2019 film I have seen so far.


February 17, 2019 at 8:39 pm | Posted in 2019 | Leave a comment
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Mads Mikkelsen is a Danish actor who has just not taken off in the U.S. in a way commensurate with his talent. He has made a career of playing the villain in shows like “Hannibal,” “Casino Royale” and “Doctor Strange,” but Americans have never seen him as a lead. This would be their opportunity. In a cast of just two people, and with the other person unconscious for much of the story, the entire film rests on Mikkelsen’s back. Not everyone will enjoy this film. Set in some frozen place somewhere, the story covers Mikkelsen’s character’s struggle to survive. Most of the story happens in silence, as he has no one to talk to. You have just the wind and the bleak landscape he struggles against. There are no poetic soliloquies, no explosive arguments, or explosions of any type for that matter; this is a quiet film. But I didn’t think it was a boring one. There is an unrelenting anxiety that pervades the film that is made more tense by the lack of talking. The landscape is so brutal (and beautiful) that I often found myself literally on the edge of my seat. My one complaint is with the final moments of the film. Without saying what they were, I felt like Mikkelsen’s character made some choices that no real person would have made in real life. He made them because they looked more dramatic on camera, not because they made sense– all in service of a powerful final scene. I found that annoying. It doesn’t really change the outcome and it certainly doesn’t take anything away from the rest of the film. I just thought it was worth mentioning.

Velvet Buzzsaw

February 11, 2019 at 6:05 pm | Posted in 2019 | Leave a comment
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When Dan Gilroy exploded onto the scene with 2014’s “Nightcrawler,” I took notice. This was his first attempt at directing, and he had also written the script. The film was deeply disturbing and was anchored by an amazing performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. It also felt completely real. “Velvet Buzzsaw” is now Gilroy’s third film he has written and directed (“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” was his second one). This one is also dark and creepy, and built around a fantastic performance by Gyllenhaal. But, it strays far outside the realm of the real. Gilroy delves into horror, attempting to explore the genre in new ways. As I have mentioned before, horror has been going through a bit of a renaissance over the past 5 years, as new directors take the genre in exciting directions. You can tell that Gilroy wants to be part of that tribe, but ends up falling short. The idea of placing a horror movie in the art world has brilliant possibilities. The way that world arbitrarily chews up and destroys so many people feels ripe for clever commentary. However, underneath that promising surface, the horror ends up being terribly banal. That said, Gyllenhaal is fantastic as Morf Vandewalt. His every gesture and facial expression informs this character. He is a tremendously underrated physical actor. His characterization of Morf is the best thing in this film. There are also some clever lines and more than a few dark chuckles. Just the names of the characters are sly commentary: Morf Vandewalt, Rhodora Haze, Jon Dondon, Vetril Dease. The film could be so clever when it wasn’t trying to be so predictable. Every time it strayed into the horror, everything happened exactly as it has in so many other supernatural thrillers. As a concept, it seems brilliant and, in execution, it gets most of the way there, only to fall apart around the key element of a horror movie: it just wasn’t scary. It was clever and entertaining in so many ways and, even when people were dying in pools of paint or blood, it was always delicious fun. It just wasn’t scary. I guess it depends on how much that matters to you.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

February 10, 2019 at 6:20 pm | Posted in 2019 | Leave a comment
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What can I say? I have seen three of these Lego movies and I have given them all the same rating. I am nothing if not consistent. I also liked and disliked basically the same things as I had in those films. This film exploded onto the screen with its first scene and kept up that manic pace the entire time. The audience never really had the time to get bored or, more importantly, get invested. Everything was a blur of visuals and in-jokes. Even more than the previous films, it seems, this one was a giant meta-laugh at everything in today’s culture. Nothing in this film will make any sense 30 years from now. It is very taken with how clever it can be. And it can be very clever; I will admit that I laughed out loud several times. Even while kids were laughing in delight at the slapstick visual overload, parents were giggling at the sly cultural commentary. That’s no small feat and definitely worth noting. But that is really the only thing this film has going for it. None of the characters have enough depth to care about, and the “real-life” story occurring above the story was mostly saccharine and distracting. It worked as a clever metaphor governing the plot of the story. But, each time they lifted us out into the real world of real human actors, it felt like they were banging us over the head with the metaphor (“see? get what we’re trying to do?” “Systar System… get it? Like sister… see?”). The lack of faith in the audience all felt a bit exhausting. The animation was interesting at times but never interesting enough to recommend. But, as I said, I did laugh. In fact, I left the theater enjoying the film more than I had thought I would. It was not a great time, but it was an amusing one. In the end, all this film has is its topical jokes, and that is faint praise. It will probably make you laugh out loud a couple of times. If that is enough, have at it.


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