Saturday, December 31, 2016

Grief and pain are central themes in raw "Manchester"



Casey Affleck is capable of displaying quiet, inner turmoil like few actors working today.  Without saying anything, nor creating necessarily obvious facial expressions that capture his pain, his eyes stare blankly ahead, as if possessed by a ghost who's been haunting him forever.  His state of mind is so numb to any affection that he would gladly engage in a pointless fight with two men rather than respond flirtatiously to a girl at a bar who's clearly interested in him.

After his older brother passes away due to heart failure, Affleck's Lee Chandler returns to the little hometown that is the source of a personal family tragedy which tore his family and marriage apart.  His nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), is left in his personal care, and as a parent who's lost his own children, Lee struggles to behave like a father figure to the sixteen-year old boy, whose main interests are womanizing and playing a guitar in a young band.

The performances here are very impressive: Casey is clearly the more talented actor in the Affleck family, and Michele Williams steals every scene she's in with raw, emotional energy that's become her staple of late.  Director Kenneth Lonergan (who here appears in a brief cameo, as he does in all his movies), wisely uses classical music in lieu of an original score, and in that aspect the man is like the modern Stanley Kubrick, able to incorporate familiar tunes of the past to elevate the depth of despair that his beautifully shot and subtly directed scenes evoke.

There is much inner grief and pain in Manchester by the Sea, but don't let that dissuade you from seeing it.  In a year dominated by more cheerful movies, this is tour de force drama.
A-

Friday, December 30, 2016

Dull "Girl" completely misses the Train



Like a woman trying too hard to appear drunk in public, Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) stumbles through the early scenes of The Girl on the Train like she's auditioning for the lead role in The Dresser.  After Rachel's husband leaves her due to her alcoholism and inability to bear him children, he marries Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), only to cheat on her with a sexy nymphomaniac of a babysitter, Megan (Haley Bennett).  When Megan turns up murdered, the shadow of doubt falls on the recovering alcoholic heroine, and the twists and turns that are eventually exposed are almost laughable (particularly the climax, which is over-the-top in its lack of suspense).  The movie badly wants to be Hitchcockian, incorporating elements of Strangers on a Train and Vertigo, but without evoking the excitement of either.  The acting and writing are more reminiscent of straight-to-Cinemax fare, where the soft-core eroticism is more impactful than the predictable whodunit, and nearly everyone in the movie seems to be miscast in some way.  The Girl on the Train is a thriller without thrills, a movie that produces more boredom than Sunday school, and just may become a cure for insomnia for future generations.
C-

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Uninspired "Bad Santa 2" is impossible to bear



Bad Santa 2, released some thirteen years after its predecessor, feels like a thirty-one year old who showed up at his high school prom, only to realize that the music has long ago faded.  The protagonist, Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton), is back as the boozing, profane and angry thief who doubles as a charity Santa Claus with his little sidekick, Marcus (Tony Cox), and he's more obnoxious and disgusting than ever.  We are privy to watching Willy smack his mother (Kathy Bates) across the face, beat up another Santa nearly to death (for no apparent reason) in public, and even curse at the children on his lap as they tell him what they want for Christmas. There is no big, positive change in Willie, at least nothing that resembles an ounce of humanity he displayed at the end of the original movie.  Whereas John Ritter and Bernie Mac added genuine giggles when they squared up against Stokes last time around, this sequel delivers an uninspired laughs (if they can even be called that), return of Thurman Murman (couldn't the writers have created a different character to use in order to humanize Willy this time around?), and pretty much the same storyline, including the same betrayal and same gun-point standoff at the end.  Bad Santa 2 would lead you to believe that a piece-of-shit human being such as Stokes can fuck - and even get a hand-job from - any woman he wants anytime he wants - and in public, no less.  (The montage of testicle shots during the end credits is exhaustingly repetitive and unfunny as well).  The Bad Santa we liked in 2003 has by now gotten worse, much worse, and his once-upon-a-time degenerate charm has become intolerable.
D-

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Too long and unnecessarily crude, "Toni Erdmann" is a mess



I can't think of too many movies in recent years - or ever, for that matter - that were as pointlessly long as Toni Erdmann.  At one-hundred and sixty two minutes, it has a script that would have been tolerable and interesting if it was only a third of that length, and not a second longer.  Peter Simonischek plays Winfried, an old goofball whose main interests are pranks and jokes, and whose daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a successful business consultant, is often embarrassed by him in public.  The film's tone is, I would say, dramatically comedic, and this makes the existence of a strangely crude and out of place scene in a hotel room between Ines and her lover that much weirder (I wish they'd leave cum eating scenes for the porn industry).  Winfried puts on a wig and pretends to be a rich ambassador to his daughter's girlfriends; he grazes cheese on his head in public; he even wears a large hair suit to Ines' all-nude cocktail party (awkward).  He is the anti-Borat: think of that iconic Sasha Baron Cohen character, but take away the laughs.  Yup, exactly like that.  For nearly three hours.  How in the world did this movie get 93% on Rotten Tomatoes is beyond me.  I suppose some things just defy logic.
D

Talents of its terrific cast are wasted in mediocre script in "Trespass"



Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson are most likely two of the better British actors working in international cinema today.  That is precisely why their recent collaboration in Trespass Against Us is so disappointing.  As a crooked team of father-and-son petty criminals, living in trailers somewhere in the English countryside, they never begin to resemble characters worthy of their iconic status.  Fassbender's character is a husband and father, and his only redeeming quality is that he loves his family, especially his son, Tyson.  He drives like a maniac in effort to make police chase him, carries out a jewelry robbery with his goons, and even pours a can of light blue paint on an annoying neighbor, and not once do any of his actions come across as entertaining, funny or fascinating to watch.  What's more, the policeman (Rory Kinnear) who struggles to (rightfully so) bring him in is made to look like a complete fool, when all he's doing is his job.  Trespass Against Us plays like a more serious version of Guy Ritchie's Snatch (2001), but without the fun.  It's never a good thing when a movie is declared inferior to a Ritchie action comedy, but that's exactly the case here.
C-

Saturday, December 24, 2016

"Trolls" is First Class musical & animation entertainment



Arriving late in 2016, a phenomenal year for animated features (Zootopia, Finding Dory), Dreamworks' Trolls is the movie that surpasses everything else before it in pure entertainment.  Its titular heroes, tiny creatures with long, spiky colorful hair, live in a state of pure delight, their lives filled with song, dance and hourly hugs.  When the much larger Bergen community captures most of their population in order to eat them, the ever-cheerful Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) embarks on a dangerous adventure with the grumpy Troll Branch (Justin Timberlake), the one pessimistic voice of the entire bunch, in order to save her people.  The Trolls are cute as it is with their curious eyes and their puffy hair alone, but whenever they engage in song & dance numbers, they simply charm the pants of its audience.  The movie's ultimate message is that we should all strive for happiness every day of our lives, and the movie's happy-go-lucky heroes embody that motto in body and spirit without ever coming across as melodramatic or preachy.  This is the cleverest animated movie in a while, and I suspect that even Pixar may be jealous for not having created it.  In a world of countless comedies and even more feature length cartoons, Trolls is the funniest animated musical in a while.
A-

"La La" recalls Golden Age of Hollywood Musical




The opening musical number in La La Land, set over four lanes on an elevated highway lanes in Los Angeles, is not quite the magical intro I had expected (maybe it's just me, but there's nothing graceful or cool about a bicycle riding over a car).  The movie's two leads, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, are as attractive and talented as anyone in Hollywood, their eyes sparkling with hope and wonder that their voices, as good as they are, simply can't replicate.  Song and dance numbers here take place early in the story, and then, after the first act, there's hardly any singing and dancing at all (watching the movie's trailer, one would thing that the party in La La never stops).  Director Damien Chazelle has made a very good movie (albeit not a great one) that recalls the Golden Age musicals of old, and Gosling and Stone's on screen dancing and chemistry really is mesmerizing.  This is a love story more so than a flick where symphony and melody take center stage, and the romance benefits greatly from its cinematography and the unquestionable charisma of its actors.  The final scene, set in a jazz bar, will make you wonder about all previous romantic "ones who got away", and it'll likely melt your heart.  
B+

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Creepy "Jane Doe" is the spookiest/most provocative corpse ever



With her haunting gray eyes and her pale white skin, Jane Doe's corpse is creepy as much as it is sexy - in some weird, post mortem kind of way.  As the two morticians who are assigned with inspecting her corpse and discovering the cause of death, father-son duo of Austin and Tommy Tilden (Emile Hirsch and Brian Cox) soon find out that Jane's is no ordinary corpse, and that her death is another mystery of altogether different circumstances that science alone can not explain.  Cutting into her body, the two morticians soon hear strange footsteps in the hallway, hear curious songs and sounds coming from their radio, and even start seeing glimpses of strange silhouettes where there shouldn't be any.  Director Andre Øvredal does a good job of keeping the scares and ghouls off screen, and the suspense at maximum level.  The screenplay, by Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing, manages to keep our interest high for the entire ninety or so minutes, without ever dropping a beat.  The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a product of a rather simple production design (the film, for the most part, has only one location/setting) and a wild, vivid imagination.  However, it's the latter that it owes much of its scary success to.
B+

"Les Saisons" explores European wildlife's seasons through many millennia



The recently released French documentary, Les Saisons, by co-directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, comes across like a cinematic version of BBC's Planet Earth, confined strictly to Europe.  As we watch various - you guessed it - seasons change in the wilderness, we witness a birth of a baby deer, wild stallions courting one another, wolves hunting then devouring a wild boar, two beetle bugs battling each other over territoriality, and even mountain goats banging horns in a testosterone heavy duel atop of misty, cloudy alps.  Unlike the world famous, afore mentioned BBC miniseries about the planet's animals, Les Saisons' French speaking voice-over narration is present early on and towards the end, but is mostly absent during a large chunk of the running time in the midsection, and the effect of watching wildlife behavior without additional expert insights feels a bit... incomplete. Perrin and Cluzaud have made a great looking film where animals roam freely and act in an uninhibited manner; its only flaw is that it has to be measured against the much superior Planet Earth series.  Such is life, and the seasons that accompany it.
B

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Sleek production design highlights underplotted "Passengers"



The spaceship Avalon in Passengers look pretty fucking cool.  Like the slickest, upgraded version of a spacecraft in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Avalon zooms through the unending vastness of space like a spiraling drill gone haywire.  Its mission: to transport 5000 passengers and 258 crew members from Earth to a very distant planet where they are to colonize and begin anew.  When a male passenger, a mechanic by trade, wakes up 90 years too early due to a glitch in the hibernation chamber, we are privy to watching a man entertain himself on a gigantic spaceship all alone for eternity, until he decides he'd like some female company, and thus creates a moral dilemma.  Passengers presents us with a story similar with the Biblical fable of Adam & Eve, and it rides that formula as far as it can go mostly on the charm of Jennifer Lawrence's Aurora and Chris Pratt's Jim Pearson, two Hollywood superstars of the present - and hopefully the future.  The movie is never boring, I must say, and its production design and visuals are impressive and exhilarating, but its narrative, as well as a central conflict, is mostly lacking.  The final act, when the characters have to make some "life or death" choices, plays out its conclusion much too safely and conservatively.  It's unfortunate that the movie's screenplay didn't have the imagination of its art director.
B

American Idol-esque "Sing" is all pleasantness and charm



Imagine, if you will, the world of Disney's Zootopia merging with FOX's singing competition, American Idol. That's ultimately what we get in Sing, a new charming animated tale about several different animals - an elephant, a mouse, a pig, a gorilla, and a porcupine - who enter a singing contest that's been falsely advertised by its struggling promoter, a Koala bear named Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey).  Naturally, each character has its own personal dilemma and daily struggles to deal with, but missing is a central plot that otherwise drives such high quality animated fare to much higher emotional heights.  As constructed, the movie feels more like a stretched-out sitcom where everyone eventually gets their shot at fame, without any grand life lessons being learned.  It's not a bad movie, necessarily, but in a year rich with animated films that won the hearts of adults as well as their children, Sing never tries to be anything more than just charming and ordinary.
C+

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Enigmatic "Nocturnal Animals" explores a woman's regrets



As a wealthy Hollywood art gallery owner plagued by questionable choices of men in her life, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) floats through Nocturnal Animals like a woman full of doubts and uncertainty.  When her ex husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her a manuscript of a novel he's recently completed, Susan is instantly moved by the gripping story of a man whose wife and daughter are terrorized by a group of villainous punks, who come across as homicidal maniac rejects from movies such as Funny Games and Deliverance (eventually the movie turns into a poor man's Death Wish).  Part fiction, part literary fiction-within-fiction, director Tom Ford's second feature (after 2009's A Single Man) is an abstract thriller where the true protagonist remains vague, and where losing a wife to a divorce and an unborn baby due to her abortion is equated to them being raped and murdered.  The turmoil and pain that Gyllenhaal's Sheffield goes through are, sadly, never truly externalized the way I had expected them to be (and just how he meets his final demise is, at best, laughable). Ultimately, the movie is a darker version of Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation, infused with plenty of film noir elements, and possessing an atmosphere and tone worthy of David Lynch's most head-scratching work. The enigmatic and open ended final shot will make the audiences wonder whether the 115 minutes that preceded it were just a figment of Susan's imagination.  Or their own, for that matter.
B-

Monday, December 19, 2016

"American Honey" is long on running time but short on convincing drama



Newcomer Sasha Lane is Star, an eighteen-year old wide-eyed girl looking for adventure, so she joins a group of teenagers - all whom feel like the cast of a long-lost sequel to Larry Clarke's Kids (1995) - in order to sell door-to-door magazine subscriptions in Kansas.  She soon forms a relationship with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), the group's shady, conniving salesman who teaches her the ropes of their trade.  The movie's free flowing narrative and hand-held camera work reminded me of Terrence Malick and Jean Luc-Godard's films, but alas, American Honey, at two hours and forty-three minutes, is at least an hour too long.  There are way too many shots from inside the back of the van, the characters dance and jumps aimlessly a few too many times, and do we really need to see the main two protagonists have long, passionate sex not once, but twice??  (We kind of got the idea the first time)  Director Andrea Arnold has now made one too many movies about female teenage angst (2009's Fish Tank is a much more compact and superior film), and if I was her, I'd quit while I was ahead.  American Honey is what one gets when a filmmaker falls in love with her footage to such an extent that she's not willing to sacrifice a single shot for the sake of cohesion. It's unfortunate that it's the audience who gets the short stick in such a scenario.
C

Sunday, December 18, 2016

"Homecoming" expands brutal mythology of Southern Bastards



Continuing and expanding the violent nature of Craw County, writer Jason Aaron and illustrator/writer Jason Latour (with additional artwork by Chris Brunner) take their Southern Bastards saga to new levels with the impeccable Homecoming, the third Trade Paperback in the series.  We meet several new characters who leap right off the page and into our imagination of what a Souther Bastard may really be like.

There's Sheriff Hardy, a once-upon-a-time football prodigy whose future was cut short by Coach Boss' cruelty; Esaw Goings is a brutish, vulgar thug, incapable of showing mercy to a common preacher, and practically beating The Holy God out of the poor guy, just to prove how defiant he is of a deity; the vengeful, homicidal nature of the quiet Deacon Boone is perplexing, as he doesn't care about Runnin' Rebs or even football in general at all, and thus comes across as a Godly Saint who's set to clean Craw County of its human trash and corruption; the conflicting nature of Materhead's conscience, another of Boss' thugs, is explored as he begins to doubt his wicked nature and the poor company he keeps when remorse overtakes him following a beating he administered on a young boy who ends up in a hospital; and last but not least, there's the tough-as-nails 'Berta Tubbs, daughter of the now deceased Earl, a woman who just served a tour in Afghanistan, and having recently returned to Crow County, she's looking to turn it into her own personal war zone.

The above mentioned characters are perfect archetypes for the Bible Belt Universe that Aaron and Latour have created, and they each embody an evolving characteristic trait that elevates its raw narrative's complexity to near poetic levels.  Crow County, where dog shit is a reoccurring motif and blood splatters as regularly as Boss BBQ, is as quintessential and unique a setting for grand storytelling as Twain's Mississippi was.  It's just slightly less apologetic.
A

Stripped of the Jedi charm, "Rogue One" struggles with charisma



Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, for all its hype and unrealistically monumental expectations, is not quite last year's The Force Awakens.  Its storyline is a sub-chapter, in a way, of the George Lucas created space saga, and it focuses on Rebels who are fighting Darth Vader's evil empire with just as much ferocity and resistance as Obi Wan and Han Solo did way back in 1977.  The only problem is, the legendary Jedi element is absent, and the result is an action extravaganza that feels more wooden than we expected (prequels, anyone?).  Felicity Jones and Diego Luna do their best to embody rogue maverick Jyn Erso and the Rebel Alliance Intelligence Officer, Cassian Andor, but the charisma that Daisey Ridley and John Boyega infused back into the franchise only a year ago is, unfortunately, absent here.  The final act is an overblown and less-than-stellar action spectacle that feels as if it runs about ten minutes too long (the movie could also shave at least fifteen minutes off its running time, and still not lose a narrative beat).  Still, this isn't a bad film, per se: just don't expect it to wow you the way Abrams' 2015 revamp did, and you may just enjoy it as a separate inter-galactic action spectacle - albeit free of the goose-bumps element that we've come to associate with sight and sounds of lightsabers and John Williams' legendary score.
B-

Saturday, December 17, 2016

"Rockstars" is a mysteriously captivating charmer



The artwork in Rockstars isn't quite what I expected, but I must admit I was pleasantly surprised.  Artist/illustrator Meghan Hutchison creates a visual world reminiscent of Rock N'Roll imagery infused with the best of Satanic rituals of old, and the result is a debut that inspires a thrilling sense of wonder in the reader.

The protagonist, Jackie Meyer, is some sort of an exorcist or shaman, and he's interested in solving long-since-closed and forgotten mysterious cases of girls who've gone missing after attending a particular rock band's post-concert party.  He's joined in his quest by a blonde reporter, Dorothy Buell, who looks as if she's walked straight out of Rodeo Drive and onto the page of this colorful and hypnotic comic.  Writer Joe Harris imagines a hybrid universe where elements of the darkly supernatural intersperse with the sex, drugs and rock'n roll culture to create something that feels like a depraved episode of A Current Affair meets Moonlighting.   

Rockstars #1 is a fitting debut of a series that promises to scare and intrigue all at the same time, and its characters - along with the evil group of dressed-in-black witches or warlocks or whatever they may be - will, I presume, keep surprising us.  I'm just hoping that Satan himself is eventually revealed to be the biggest Rockstar of all all.  That would be the ultimate spin on the series' title.
A-

Friday, December 16, 2016

"Incarnate" just another run-of-the-mill possession fare



Is there a sub-genre of horror that's been exhausted as much as the possession movie?  Despite the fact that countless movies on the subject of exorcism are made annually, none have, unfortunately, ever topped William Friedkin's 1973 original classic.  In Incarnate, Aaron Eckhart plays Dr. Ember, a unique twenty-first century paraplegic exorcist of sorts, with raggedy long hair that looks as if it hasn't been washed in weeks, who is called to help free an 11-year old boy from a Demon that's completely taken over him.  Of course, it doesn't help that the evil entity in question is the same one that's taken his legs away, in addition to his wife and son, in the not too distant past.  The film is basically a hybrid of Insidious and The Cell, because Dr. Ember's exorcism method involves entering the boy's mind and facing the evil firsthand, like a horror version of Innerspace's protagonist.  Incarnate isn't necessarily as awful as some have claimed; it's simply washed-up horror with nothing left to offer a genre that's already exhausted all possible scares.
C

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

"Motor Crush" is a kinetic and colorful ride to the photo-finish line



As the punk styled young heroine of Motor Crush, Domino Swift is a girl playing in a very dangerous boys' game.  The series of small silver hoops coiled in each of her ears representing her grit and toughness, she possesses an appearance of a bike-gang leader whose racing talents exceed her gender and physical size.  The world she lives in is dominated by "crush": an engine boosting narcotic that can elevate the users' vehicles to unprecedented speeds, and eventual victories.  It also has a fatal effect on humans who ingest it, making them explode in a pool of splattered guts and blood.

Written by Brendan Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr, and illustrated by Stewart and Tarr (these creators are more multi-talented in comic-book writing and illustrating elements than most), Motor Crush #1 is a kinetic, colorful intro to a series that races with style, its blood and guts displayed on Dom's sleeve and multi-pierced ears.  The cover art by Stewart is impactful and engaging, with the heroine practically inviting us to watch her race - and beat - bigger and badder boys than herself in deadly contests that are reminiscent of brutality and carnage in the original Ben Hur's chariot race.

Like Dom's one-legged father, whose old school mustache and cut-off shirt sleeves make him appear as a life-long biker, would (most likely) say to her: "Don't go stealing other people's crush and getting yourself killed, kid."  If only she listened to reason and erred on the side of caution, she wouldn't be half as exciting and interesting.
B+


Monday, December 12, 2016

"Light Between Oceans" puts two honest people in midst of a complex dilemma



A lighthouse keeper off the coast of Australia, Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) marries a young, vivacious bride, Isabel (Alicia Vikander), after World War I.  She soon loses two pregnancies due to miscarriage, so naturally when a strange baby washes up in a small boat on their isolated shore, they have a decision to make: report the child to the authorities, or keep mum and claim the baby girl as their own.  Some years later, the biological mother (Rachel Weisz) of the child enters the picture, and Tom is plagued by guilt to the point of confessing to the authorities what they had done, an admission that puts him in jail.  Derek Cianfrance's adaptation of M.L. Stedman's novel is melodramatic and beautiful to look at, but it never quite finds the emotional resonance and impact that its rather melancholy subject matter deserves.  The two leads are beautiful people who apparently have a lot of burden bearing on their souls, but the screenplay never lets them connect with us accordingly.  The final scene, involving two people who've not seen each other in decades, is anti-climactic in and of itself, because it feels forced rather than earned.  The Light Between Oceans is a half-decent movie whose running time is at least twenty minutes too long, and whose drama isn't as grand as the poster and the trailer would have you believe.
C+

Sunday, December 11, 2016

"Paper Girls" Vol. 2 continues the plight of our four young heroines



They're finally back.  Erin, MacKenzie, KJ and Tiffany return in this Paper Girls Volume 2 retro 1980s sci-fi throwback tale, set in Midwest Americana (Ohio), and they are so in over their heads that they don't even know "when" they are anymore.  There are large prehistoric birds hovering above, monstrous giant worms fighting one another amidst downtown's buildings, and mysterious characters - a bearded man and a dark haired woman - who know more about this time traveling paradox and alternate dimension that has overtaken the community than we do.

Writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist/illustrator Cliff Chiang stay consistent with the tone and the visual world they created in Volume 1 of this series, and the result is more of the sassy dialogue between the girls, elements of the fantastic and the supernatural, and chapter ending cliffhangers, something that Vaughan is well known for.  His titular heroines find themselves some twenty-eight years in the future, and when they arrive in 2016, they run into the adult version of Erin, an event that confuses and perplexes them as well as us.  There is also an alternate Erin, same age as the original, wearing a strange suit and speaking an alien language no one understands.  The group is unsure whom to trust and how to get to safety, which, according to the new mysterious Erin, is "sixty-eight thousand years from now."

Paper Girls Volume 2 delivers great zingers and pop-culture references (many of the home lawns the girls come across have "Hillary for President" ads embedded in them), warnings written on objects ("Don't trust other Erin!!!") hovering in new portals of time/space, and even a helicopter ride that will place the heroines in an altogether new setting.  The narrative may not be easy to comprehend and at times can perhaps be a little confusing, but it is always fun and never boring.  In today's market of oversaturated and overwritten comics, that is certainly no small feat.
B-

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"The Accountant" drags along like a long tax report



In a year when he played a poor man's version of Batman (especially if compared to Christian Bale's version of The Dark Knight), Ben Affleck returns once more in 2016 playing an autistic math genius whose skills lie in managing infinite number of equations for very rich corporations.  Oh, did I mention that he also moonlights as some sort of a super commando-hitman who is an expert at hand-to-hand combat and also firing with incredible accuracy at small targets a mile away?  The movie badly wants to be a drama where its hero shoots most of his adversaries in the face at point blank range, but it sadly never takes the time to explore the souls of any of its characters, including Anna Kendrick's Danna Cummings, perhaps the only one capable of any real emotion.  Even the great J.K. Simmons is misused here; the scene where he has to gratuitously shed tears feels inauthentic and it should be in a better movie that earns its audience's empathy, rather than demand it.  The final act, in which Affleck's character reunites with his long lost, estranged brother, is laughable and ludicrous in its ability to sink the story arc even deeper into the mud.  A thriller this incompetent deserved a better script, director and an actor capable of showing even a flicker of emotion.  In other words, it should've been scratched altogether.
C- 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Intense "Always Shine" is gripping examination of actresses' friendship



Successful female artists are a competitive bunch, and I suppose nowhere is this more true than in the world of acting.  As played by Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald, Anna and Beth are as different in their general demeanor as they are in their distinctive performing talents.  While Beth is the successfully graceful, quiet actress, Anna is a naturally raw talent, full of passion and energy, but still ultimately less successful than her more timid friend.  When two of them venture out into the mountains for a getaway hiking weekend, old wounds are re-opened, as their vastly opposite places in the competitive world of Hollywood television and film eventually lead to an argument which turns out to have grave consequences.  Director Sophia Takal, working from a script by Lawrence Michael Levine (who also appears in the movie) infuses elements of All About Eve with Ingmar Bergman's Persona to create a chilling, unsettling atmosphere that has some ambiguous twists and turns.   I only wish the final act wasn't so David Lynch-ian in its perplexity and vagueness.  Still, Davis is a real star in the making, and I can't wait to see how far she takes her unique talents in Tinseltown's (slightly more straightforward) future narratives.
B

"Southside with you" glides its subtle love story (almost) in real time



Few movies in recent memory have stretched their entire running time to a date between the two main characters.  In Southside With You, we are privy to the first date between our current president Barrack Obama and his future wife, Michele Robinson (her maiden name at the time).  The actors playing the future power couple, Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, are as charming as they are attractive, and their chemistry slowly grows in front of our very eyes, despite of Michele insisting that "this is not a date".  The use of Chicago locations are hardly utilized (probably due to the movie's low budget), and the screenplay by writer/director Richard Tanne foreshadows young Barrack's speechmaking talents appropriately during a vital scene in a local church.  Still, the absence of any real plot or a conflict keeps the film hovering around the made-for-TV-Hallmark-movie mode, and its aura, regardless of how charismatic it may have been, simply doesn't stay with the viewer once the final shot fades to black.
B-

Monday, December 5, 2016

"Beasts" is worthy successor to Harry Potter's world of magic and extravagant wonder



J.K. Rowling's follow up to her world famous Harry Potter series is finally here, and when it comes to grandiose spectacle of sheer awe and magic, it does not disappoint.  As a newly arrived visitor to New York City, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) soon finds his magical suitcase accidentally in the hands of a pastry chef, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), at which point the enchanted creatures that reside in it accidentally slip out and create havoc all over the streets of Big Apple. The Magical Congress of the United States of America, or MACUSA for short, is the Men in Black-esque secret agency that keeps all other-wordly creatures out of the public's eyes and minds: they even wipe out the memories of any civilian witness who should inadvertently see anything they shouldn't.  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is clearly a high-profile blockbuster where the production design, special effects and pure imagination of its creators come together to create a fitting, exciting antecedent to Rowling's little wizard and the Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry.  Particularly charming is the subtle love story between Kowalski and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), a free spirited enchantress who can read people's minds.  The last shot, featuring the two of them at a bakery, is as sweet and wondrous as glances between two people get.
B+ 

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Steinfeld owns the cynicism and the angst in "Edge of Seventeen"



The teenage girl in The Edge of Seventeen, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), is like a modern day cynical philosopher from the days of old: she questions everything, criticizes everyone and assumes she's been given an unfair hand at the card game of life.  When her brother (Blake Jenner) begins dating her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson), her already fragile world comes tumbling down and leaving her feeling abandoned and lonelier than ever before.  Her teacher (Woody Harrelson) is the rare adult in her life who has no choice but to listen to her daily whining, mostly against his will.  The Edge of Seventeen is advertised as a comedy, but I found it to be more of a dramatic, thoughtful examination of a young life suffering from much pain and self-doubt.  Whatever your impression of its tone, one thing is for sure: Steinfeld is a talent of the highest order, and a future superstar.
B

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Kinetic, bloodthirsty zombies invade South Korea in "Train to Busan"



Ever since Danny Boyle's 2003 low budget zombie DV film, 28 Days Later, the undead have been getting quicker and more kinetic with each new movie in this particular genre (remember how fast they were in Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead?).  South Korean new film, Train to Busan, is a zombie horror import on par with 28 Weeks Later and World War Z that is as much about the end-of-times as it is about a family's efforts to reunite after a period of estrangement.  A polished fund manager must take his daughter from Seoul to Busan to see the little girl's mother, and their journey on a cross-country speed train will put them at odds not only with bloodthirsty zombies, but also against other passengers of cold hearted and selfish nature - in other words, people so rotten they're worse than the undead they're attempting to get away from.  Train to Busan does not quite reinvent the zombie genre, but it contains just enough suspense and virtuoso action sequences to keep one's heart rate high for nearly two hours.  In today's mediocre horror movie culture, that is no easy feat.
A-

"Equity" gives insight on the cutthroat world of high finance trading



Resembling a female version of Wall Street's Gordon Gecko in both attitude and ideology, Equity's protagonist, Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn), spews her lines like a a tough-as-nails lion whose starved stomach has been waiting for a meal longer than usual.  She leads an existence where being a woman in a (predominantly) man's world of high finance is not only a frailty, but a reason for other carnivores to take advantage of her any time she lets her guard down.  Equity certainly is heavy on plenty of Wall Street and insider trading jargon, and its screenplay can perhaps be accused of having one-too-many plot lines involving corruption, betrayal and potential of being interrogated and even arrested by a tigress-in-a-suit US attorney general (Alysia Reiner), but what the movie does achieve is an undeniable sense of tension and suspense without having any of its characters physically harmed or bloodied in the slightest.  Meera Menon's film is a subtle and clever thriller of and for today's digital corporate age, a pulse pounding drama where talking to the wrong person about a classified corporate deal carries the same burdensome consequence as taking one's life.
B

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Technology & social media continue to haunt "Black Mirror" Season 3





Thanks to Netflix, the masterful and under-the-radar BBC TV series Black Mirror, from writer/creator Charlie Brooker, is back for season 3.  Just like its preceding two seasons, Mirror continues to push the envelope when it comes to exploring the dark aspects of social culture, technology and our infatuation with social media.  But unlike the first 6 episodes (and the additional Christmas special), season 3 presents us with some of the most daring and heartfelt moments of this series yet.  This season's episodes are different as can be, offering us war, virtual video game reality, a romance between two women, and even a dark foreshadowing of what a world without bees would be like.

In Nosedive, Lacie (Bryce Dallas Howard) has to endure being a social outcast by the world entire when, living in a universe where people rate one another (up to five stars) during any social interaction or encounter, she becomes a social outcast, and sees her life fall apart completely.  Like the Facebook “like” button gone haywire, this dystopian option to rate humans based on their looks, smiles and personality leads to a decimation of a person’s self esteem and psyche entirely.

A virtual world envelops an American backpacker who, while traveling in London, decides to make some quick cash by testing a new horror themed game in Playtest.  The obsession with smartphones - including our willingness to let the phone ring without answering it - eventually catches up to the protagonist, where it has fatal consequences.  It is a terrifyingly real episode, with visuals that even the proudest of horror masters would envy.

Shut Up and Dance presents us with a teenager and an unfaithful husband, both of whom are being blackmailed by a hacker who has incriminating videos of them, and who threatens to release them to their families (and the world) if they don’t do as he/she says.  Naturally, these two men will have their psychological and physical limits tested by this troll, and deeper, darker secrets about them will be revealed.  

A love story between two women, both spending the best times of their youth in a virtual reality world in a decade very reminiscent of the 1980s, is at the center of San Junipero.  When one of them gets old and sick in the real world, she has a tough choice to make: to join her deceased husband and child in the afterlife - the nature of which is ambiguous - or join her female lover in a sunny and peaceful virtual universe where they can both be happy forever.  This episode is at once moving, romantic and captivating.  

The darkest of the episodes is Men Against Fire, where we witness one soldier’s transformation from a “roach-killing-machine” (roaches are people that are deemed a class or two above normal humans) to a conscious being who suddenly becomes wise to his army’s ploy to murder inferior beings for no good reason.  What he finds out is a secret so dangerous and horrific that his sanity is eventually brought into question.

The longest episode of the season, Hated in the Nation, is nearly of feature movie length, and in it, a detective played by Kelly McDonald investigates strange deaths caused by robotic bees.  This season finale explores our excessive internet trolling on social media, and our rush to judge certain people prematurely by sending death threats their way for the entire world to see.  Perhaps no episode presents a harsher punishment for the average cynic than this one.  

Black Mirror Season 3 continues to awe, amaze and horrify us in just the right quantities, and I wonder just how much of their dark prophetic ideas, if any, will ever haunt our society for real.  I just hope that if that day should ever arrive, that it be after the genius of Charlie Brooker’s runs out of ideas.  May that day be a long time from now.

A

Monday, November 28, 2016

Grumpy old man harasses his community in the charming "A Man Called Ove"



Like a hybrid of Bad Santa's Billy Bob Thornton and Dickens' everlasting miser Ebenezer Scrooge, the lead character in A Man Called Ove is obnoxious as he is rude.  Barking at pretty much every member of his tight-knit little Swedish community over cars being driven on forbidden roads, dogs peeing at inappropriate places, and even hating his long-time neighbor for choosing to buy a foreign car over domestically produced ones, the widower Ove finds out that this "hell" of a neighborhood won't even let him die peacefully.  He tries to kill himself several times, several different ways, but alas, he always ends up being interrupted by his inconsiderate fellow residents, and therefore lives to die another day.  As we watch Ove's youth in his self-narrated flashbacks, we see him meet his wife for the first time as a young man, his adolescence so odd and quirky that he gives the impression of a Scandinavian Forrest Gump.  The last act of A Man Called Ove feels a bit forced and sugar coated, but that predictability isn't necessarily a deal-breaker.  Lead actor Rolf Lassgard gives the protagonist of Fredrik Backman's famous novel a unique, understated charm that hides deep within his rough and mean old-man exterior.  It's a story that's been done before, but never quite with a combatant wanting to die this badly.
B

Saturday, November 26, 2016

"The Goddamned: Before the Flood" is an ultra-violent trip to the prehistoric past



The world of The Goddamned series is dark, gloomy and awfully bloody.  There is no order whatsoever, only carnage and violence, and the landscape of the story seems to be a disgusting place where only corpses and rotten flesh fill the air as far as the nose can smell and the eyes can see.  The story takes place about 1600 years after the Biblical story of Eden, but what we see resembles hell a lot more than heaven.

Written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by R.M. Guera & Giulia Brusco, The Goddamned: Before the Flood is a brutal and unforgiving tale of one man inflicting violence against many murderous rapists and cannibals of his time and place.  Claiming himself to be the Man who Created Murder, Cain is almost invincible to violence of any kind, even able to regrow his right arm completely after a villainous version of Noah (yes, the one who built the Ark) cuts it off with his shiny steel axe.  When he decides to help a desperate woman look for her young son, he will, for the first time, show a sense of compassion he didn't think he was capable of.

The artwork by Guera and Brusco is rich in filth, rotten flesh and, most of all, blood.  The world they create is cruel looking and full of ruin and despair, and most (if not all) of the characters that Cain runs into (and eventually slices in half) are deformed or badly scarred.  The illustrations are so strong in carnage and bile that we can almost smell the very same disgusting aura that surrounds the endless amount of corpses.

Aaron creates a strong character in Cain, a (anti?)hero we can admire, in a way, because placed in his situation, we'd probably be doing the same.  The realization that the hero has late in the story about not helping another one-armed boy early on hits him hard, and the regret that soon overwhelms him is only confirmed during the last few pages, where Cain witnesses that violence will only breed more violence, as the young engage in murder early in life due to the absence of parenting and order and morals.

The Goddamned isn't for everyone, but those looking for a bold new take of a bitter, God-hating, and indestructible hero will be in for a treat.  It's a bloody good examination of post-apocaliptic pre-historia.
A

Thursday, November 24, 2016

"Arrival" is a bold - and heartfelt - study of inter-galactic communication



Most movies featuring aliens visiting Earth inevitably present us with an explosion or two (or a hundred) in which our planet is invaded by these unwelcome visitors, usually for no reasons that make sense to a healthy, open mind.  In director Dennis Villeneuve's smart and daring new film, Arrival, the aliens look like the monstrous, multi-legged arachnids from The Mist, but their intentions are of the friendlier kind.  They want to "give us weapon", or that, at least, is what Amy Adams' linguist, Louise Banks, is able to decipher from their circular-shaped alphabet at first.  Struggling with memories of her own daughter, who passed away due to complications with cancer, Banks is faced with visions of confusing nature, and as she slowly but surely learns the meaning of the aliens' visit, she becomes aware that her perceptions are actually her mind opening up to this invaluable education she's been privy to.  The final act may be confusing for some, but it ultimately utilizes science-fiction and genuine drama to produce a conclusion so riveting it may actually stick with you for days.  Or weeks.  Or forever.
A-

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Snowden" exposes US government's dark side



Oliver Stone's Snowden, in a way like his 1989 classic Born on the Fourth of July, focuses on a young American patriot and idealist who thinks that his country is looking out for him and that, as a result, he needs to dedicate his life to it.  Eric Snowden may not be Ron Kovic, but he's this millennium's hero of Stone's choice, a man who stood up against this country and government when he discovered the CIA and NSA's efforts to spy on its citizens' phones and e-mails, and decided to leak said information to the press.  As played by Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Snowden is as mild mannered as they come, a dork whose brain is programmed to decipher computer data, and not to commit moral and unethical acts of voyeurism on a nearly global scale.  Eric Snowden was, naturally, painted as a traitor and condemned as a villain of the United States by the government officials, and for the most part, everyone believed him to be just that.  It's unfortunate that they've been made to look foolish on the part of an inquisitive and curious filmmaker.  I guess it's not the first time that our intelligence has been made to appear like a bunch of asses, and it probably won't be the last.
B+

Doctor is one "Strange" and over-the-top spectacle



Benedict Cumberbatch is a unique actor.  His features, along with his eclectic voice, often combine to produce characters that we as audiences can not shake off easily.  As Doctor Stephen Strange, the titular character of Marvel's new superhero movie, he is a brilliantly arrogant surgeon whose dreams go up in smoke after a car accident leaves him with broken and disfigured fingers, and therefore unable to repair anyone's spine ever again.  Seeking some new form of physical revery therapy through meditation, he ventures all the way to Nepal in search of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who may be capable of teaching him how to access a separate world outside of our own.  Naturally, such experiments seldom lead to pure bliss, and therefore villains like Kaecillius (Mads Mikkelsen) enter the scene, wearing cheesey looking "dark evil eyes" make-up, wanting to open various new portals to some underworld, or whatever all these psychos try to pull off in films of similar ambition.  The special effects here are often over-the-top, the visuals are even confusing (did the city really need to bend and unfold unto itself to that degree??), and the story is just, well... kinda shitty.  It's a shame that all of $165 million went into the film's extravagant production, with very little of it invested into rewriting the script, whose villains are cartoonish at best.  Doctor Strange is the kind of movie where your brain will take a hundred-and-thirty minute break, while your eyes likely will roll right out of your head.
C

Monday, November 21, 2016

"Loving" is gentle and patient drama of racial injustice



A gentle and subtle drama about interracial marriage way back in the 1950s and how the condemnation of the couple prompted the Supreme Court to slightly alter the US Constitution.  Ruth Negga is affectionate and full of hope as Mildred Jeter, an African American woman in Virginia who marries a white man, Richard Loving, played by that Australian actor who has terrific range, Joel Edgerton.  Richard hardly speaks in the movie; with only a handful of the screenplay's lines to his name, he mostly communicates with mumbles and growls.  The movie never explores much of their relationship on a personal level, as we only see them holding one another for long periods of time.  Still, Loving is a considerate movie about a subject that typically gets a rougher treatment, but in Jeff Nichols' hands not even the racist police nor the bigot judge appear as villainous as they should.
B

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Huppert displays grace, humility and wisdom in "L'avenir"



Isabelle Huppert, perhaps more so than any other living actress, seems to be getting younger with age.  In L'avenir ("Things to Come"), she plays a philosophy professor who thinks that her life is completely in her own control, until she loses the grip on her husband, her devotion to her long-time black cat Pandora, and even a contract with a publishing company that's previously sold her scholastic textbooks all around France.  The scenes and quiet conversations she has with one of her former students, who is currently a writer living with some friends deep in the French mountains, away from contemporary society as we know it, are deeply moving and surprisingly honest.  L'avenir is simply an observation of the late seasons in the life of a woman who has to learn to live again at the advanced age of 60, but without the benefits of youth on her side.  This is a much better and complete movie than Huppert's other recent release, Elle, which was entertaining, but did not resonate anything deeper.  L'avenir, however, is one of the very best movies of 2016.
A

Saturday, November 19, 2016

"Pete's Dragon" is charming and magical, but never boring



Summer of 2016 brought us a few movies in which a child befriended a giant, other-wordly being, and Pete's Dragon is definitely superior to the flawed The BFG.  After a young boy survives a car crash in which both of his parents die, he manages to live in a vast green forest for six years with a help of a giant, green and furry dragon, which he names Elliot.  The fire breathing animal is quite charming, and we can immediately sense that he means no harm to anyone, much less a child.  As the community eventually becomes wise of what's really living in the woods near by, the movie has that obligatory scene where the townsfolk come looking for "the monster", pitchforks in hands and all. Despite its rather predictable storyline (whether or not you've seen the 1977 original you should still know how the final act here plays out), Pete's Dragon manages to pull off just enough heartfelt and wondrous moments that should leave most audiences in awe.  It's a family movie that will captivate the child in even the most grumpy adults.
B+

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

BFG's strong visuals can't save its mediocre screenplay



Steven Spielberg's movies clearly aren't what they used to be (Warhorse and Indiana Jones 4, anyone?), but that doesn't mean the man can't still surprise us once in a while.  In The BFG, he returns to the wondrous tales of his cinematic youth, with a story involving a child and an other worldly being who needs to be hidden from society, a la E.T.  The special and visual effects are marvelous, and from a cinematic perspective, the movie looks terrific; the CGI here is so good that the giants actually look more human than animated, which is no small feat.  Still, the movie's third act, featuring a scene at the Buckingham Palace with the Queen and her staff engaging in some un-funny and predictably unnecessary flatulence, is dumbed down for an audience of a much lower IQ than even most Americans can be accused of having (especially given the results of the latest Presidential Election).  The ending, which features the British Army relocating the child eating giants (with nets from their helicopters) to a remote island, made me think that whomever wrote this screenplay (Melissa Matheson) or the original work (Roald Dahl) simply ran out of ideas.  I wish the bolder, more daring (if he ever really was) Spielberg would wow us one of these days with a movie that doesn't compromise, one that isn't concerned with alienating some by injecting more engrossment and provocation into an otherwise childish story.
C+

Two former lovers relieve their youth in the sentimental "Blue Jay"



Love stories are difficult to pull off on the big screen these days.  At worst, they're overly sentimental melodramas that don't earn majority of the audience's emotions in a genuine manner (The Notebook); at best, they're not-quite-perfect romances that just barely fail to reach the next stratosphere (The Fault in Our Stars).  Blue Jay is an exception to that rule, a movie so understatedly authentic it feels like we're eavesdropping on two people's private conversations between one another.  Mark Duplass, that quiet actor from Safety Not Guaranteed - who's also capable of intense displays of emotion - plays a depressed loner who accidentally runs into his old high school girlfriend, portrayed by the charming Sarah Paulson.  As they begin to catch up on each other's last two decades over coffee, wine and while listening to old recordings they made together as teenagers, old passions are reawakened, as well as some old wounds that jeopardized their relationship in the first place.  Like some of the best classic cinema that features (primarily) two people in its cast (My Dinner with Andre, Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy), Blue Jay is that rare love story, filmed in a gorgeous Black&White, that will immediately evoke your own memories of "the one who got away" (does anyone out there not have such an ex?).  Tears may accompany your experience.  You've been warned.
A-

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

"Don't Think Twice" is a heartfelt portrait of an improv performer's trials & tribulations



Mike Birbiglia, that talented actor/writer/director of Sleepwalk With Me, with a kind face that's simultaneously full of self doubt and hope, returns with a moving and funny drama about a group of improv performers in New York City.  As the troupe known as "The Commune" faces everyday challenges both on stage and off, we are reminded how difficult is to climb up the tall and wobbly entertainment ladder without alienating the friends that helped one get there in the first place.  Keegan-Michael Key, from MADtv fame, plays Jack, Commune member who's been promoted to Weekend Live (fictional version of Saturday Night Live).  His overnight stardom is both a blessing and a curse, a luxury his girlfriend Sam wants no part of herself.  Don't Think Twice is hilarious and heartfelt, and the script, much like its storyline, feels like a product of improvisation by talented people whose ears for writing are as good - if not better - than their performing skills.
B+

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Eastwood assigns Hanks as the only quality of "Sully"



After numerous movies about crashes where the pilot and some (if not all) of the passengers survived, Sully arrives four years after the much superior Flight.  Whereas the afore mentioned Robert Zemeckis movie gave us a flawed, conflicted man who managed to (somewhat safely) land an otherwise sure-fire plane crash, this new fare about a real life pilot, Chesley Sullenberger (terrifically played by Tom Hanks), is simply too... safe.  The man is not an alcoholic, nor does he engage in drug consumption while flying a large commercial aircraft with hundreds of people on board.  The biggest conflict he faces is whether or not he'll keep his job as a result of crash-landing his plane (with both failed engines) on the Hudson River in New York City.  As the final act arrives, and as Sully faces a committee which stands to indict him on being reckless rather than following proper procedure in-flight, the movie dumbs down its climax to a happy, Hollywood style ending, where suddenly all those who opposed the recently famed pilot are quickly on his side again.  Clint Eastwood's film is more like a TV movie with A-list stars, with a protagonist so perfect in every way he may as well have a Halo over his head.
C

Friday, November 11, 2016

"Pets" plays like a weaker version of Pixar's "Finding" franchise



Arriving in summer on the heels of the much superior Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets has some of the same elements as the afore-mentioned Pixar gem: cute animals with personable voices, amazing visuals, and a search-centered plot that unites many in favor of finding the few.   What it doesn't have, however, is a narrative strong enough to sustain the interest of adults to the same emotional levels as Pixar's finest fare.  Incorporating elements of classic Disney animation (Oliver and Co.), Fox's Futurama (the sewer underworld definitely reminded me of a few episodes) and several Pixar features (both Finding Nemo/Dory flicks, and even Toy Story), Pets is a colorful adventure whose humor and charm aren't quite where we want them to be.  It's not a bad movie; it's just that it gives us the bare minimum by enchanting our eyes without ever really melting our hearts.
C+

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Best elements of 1970s combine to form the hypnotic "Mayday"



Sex, drugs and rock n'roll.  Fast cars on open oceanside roads.  And even hippies and Russian agents.  First issue of Mayday is an engaging trip to the not-so-recent-past, a time when some women would use public restrooms while completely naked, and when drugs and alcohol and seductively relaxing music were galore.

Written by Alex de Campi and illustrated by Tony Parker & Blond, Mayday #1 features an espionage story involving Russian KGB agents on US soil that is immediately captivating.  When a USSR defector is harboring a priceless microfilm by hiding in America, an agent (Codename: Felix) is responsible for retrieving it and returning it back to Russia.  Along the way, he will meet some free-spirited hippies, and will (accidentally?) trip heavily on a very potent liquid dosage of LSD.  The scene in question is illustrated by Parker & Blond with such hypnotic and trippy imagination that anyone who's ever been high on such a hallucinogenic will instantly be able to identify with it.  de Campi also does a good job of scripting those and other scenes during the Cold War era with just the right amount of homage and inspiration.

The Soviet themed cover design is likewise a cool ploy, and a cosmetic element of this comic that immediately captures readers' attention and curiosity.  Since Mayday is a limited series (there will be five issues in all), it is bound to conclude by springtime, according to my estimation.  Now, in addition to wanting to see the flowers bloom, there is another reason to look forward to the season of rebirth.
B+

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

"War Dogs" is poor man's "Lord of War"



Like a Lord of War lite, Todd Phillips' War Dogs possesses that Michael Bay-ish style and look, a movie so concerned about how it appears to the eye that it completely avoids leaving an impression on the brain.  Jonah Hill, whose weight seems to fluctuate in the last decade, now looks like a large barrel of gunpowder once again, and his large chin crowds the bottom of every shot he's in.  Miles Teller is only slightly less annoying, but not for the lack of talent; the script leaves very little for his character to do than to channel an-average-honest-everyday-guy - a male masseuse with a conflicting conscience about the morality of his new arms-dealer lifestyle - all the while dealing with his girlfriend's cliched storyline, a la Phillips' Due Date. War Dogs isn't so much a drama or a comedy or an action flick with anything insightful to say about warfare or ethics or people: it's simply a two-hour commercial about human excess.
C-

Monday, November 7, 2016

"Colder" is a nightmarish trip into the complex minds of the insane



Colder is like few horror comics I've read.  It contains scenes of such nightmarish, apocalyptic visions of an insane underworld (so to speak) that it occurred to me that the people behind it must've personally participated in such visions in order to be able to illustrate them so clearly.   Like a terrible experience that scares you to death, and whose longing effects stay with you way after it's over, Colder gets under your skin and attempts to - LITERALLY! - feel out your insides.  Just look at the cover of the first issue; you'll see what I'm talking about.

Writer Paul Tobin and artist Juan Ferreyra's ultimate creation is Nimble Jack, a bare footed demon/evil entity/spirit from another world, whose only purpose in ours is to feed on the insanity of those with mental disorders.  When Jack sets his sights on Reece, a woman in an alluring yellow dress, he is opposed by her friend Declan, a former mental institution patient with a body temperature of 32, and a miracle of modern science.  Declan should most definitely be dead, but he is "cold", and has had an encounter with Nimble Jack many decades ago; as a result, he knows how to handle Jack.  Their final encounter is a wonder of the graphic novel art form: beautifully illustrated, deliciously full of carnage, and poetically bloody in just the right amounts.

Colder belongs in the same category as other horrifying comics, such as Severed and Wytches.  It truly challenges the reader by pushing the envelope so far as to tests the limits of good taste, but it is a necessary risk.  Because for a true nightmare to be evoked on the pages of a comic book, limits had better be pushed.
B



Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Erotica + Deception + Perversion = "The Handmaiden"



Park Chan-Wook, that Asian filmmaking prodigy behind the masterful Oldboy, here delves into a bit of a new territory: an erotic period piece-slash-thriller, in essence.  The Handmaiden puts two women - one a Korean commoner, the other a Japanese noblewoman - at odds with one another, both psychologically and sexually, and the result is a film of extreme physical beauty, but also of cruder undertones not often found in such ambitious movies.  The cinematography is lush, the production design haunting, and the content packed with noir elements.  Both actresses embody a certain seductive, dangerous, and unpredictable aroma: their sex scene is even more sensual as the one in Blue is the Warmest Color.  Difference is, when The Handmaiden is over, the immediate reaction you'll likely have is a yearning to experience it again right away.
A-

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Conservatism & old school ideals are resurrected in the brave "Indignation"



A movie that is about the 1950s decade as well as a young man's sexual awakening and first encounter with prejudice during the first year of college, Indignation possesses a few elements we associate with films of this time period: no "Gee golly!" exclamations, no shots of milk-men during their delivery hours, nor beautifully dressed women wearing soft white gloves in middle of scorching summers.  What the movie does possess, however, is an unmistakable sense of point of view, as its protagonist, Marcus (an atheist from a Jewish family) is unnecessarily scolded by his academic institution's dean merely for being a minority without faith who happens to be dating a girl who's rumored to be promiscuous.  The young man is undoubtedly a victim of his time and place, and by the time the tragic ending arrives, we're not sure if the heartbreaking event has actually taken place, or if it's just a figment of his imagination, as several scenes prior to it had clearly been.  Director James Schamus does an admirable job of not shoving the material down his audience's throat; his touch is subtle and very effective as a result.
B+

Saturday, October 29, 2016

"Finding Dory" presents us with an even more emotional sequel than "Nemo" was



Finding Dory, the sequel to 2003 remarkable Pixar feature Finding Nemo, presents us with a similar, albeit slightly different, dilemma.  Whereas Nemo handicap was that he was young and possessing an  unusually small right fin, Dory's handicap is much more disadvantageous: she's unable to form any short memories.  Like a children's version of Guy's Pearce's Memento protagonist, Dory moves through the world experiencing everything and everyone for the first time, not knowing how the thoughts she finds herself having started in the first place.  Featuring additional characters, consisting of a beluga whale, a hammerhead shark and color-and-shape-shifting octopus named Hank, all who have charm to spare, Finding Dory is one emotional trip into its titular heroine's (and our own) past.  The scene near the end, where a large truck full of aquatic life drives off into the ocean, should leave a smile on your face for hours afterwards.
A

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

In "The Ethiopian", Corto Maltese trades the ocean for the dry Northern African desert



The Ethiopian (94 pages, IDW Publishing $24.99), Hugo Pratt's sixth official entry to his Corto Maltese graphic novel/comic book serious, is more humorous and tongue-in-cheek than his previous episodes.  Trading his perennial vast oceans for the dry, equally-smooth and just-as-wavy deserts in the North of Africa, Corto joins Islamic extremists, rebel beduins and even native Leopard-Men in fighting against injustice and oppression from Europe on the Dark Continent during the late stages of World War I.  The setting is a little different than we're used to seeing in this series, but the witty banter and clever insertions of political and social commentary of its time and place is delivered by its hero impeccably, as always.

El Oxford:  You may not know that I studied at Oxford, in London, New York and Paris, but... I prefer the desert.
Corto Maltese: Hmm... why?
El Oxford:  Because it's clean.

The most fascinating of the new characters is none other than Cush, an Islamic devil-may-care, tea-drinking native, a hater of foreign "infidel dogs" (such as Corto) and a man with no remorse when it comes to taking lives of others.  Cush is the anti-thesis to Corto's righteous and all-fair hero, a person whose people have been so oppressed that he's lost all conscience when it comes sticking it to the foreign occupiers of his once-upon-a-time free continent.  While helping Corto rescue kidnapped Arabian princes, introducing him to the Abyssinian wizard Shamael, or impressing him because of the close relationship he has with his mother, Cush eventually warms up to our protagonist.  When they finally part ways, at the end of a long and grueling adventure, their adieu to one another sounds later melancholy.

Cush: There are mysterious things in this land... Tell me, where will you go now?
Corto: I don't know, Cush... far away...

In addition to changing the oceanic setting of previous Corto adventures, The Ethiopian gives us new insight into a different place, but albeit the same war we witnessed in previous issues, most notably Celtic Tales and Beyond the Windy Isles.  Our hero, now slightly out of his element as a "fish out of water", is here privy to the suffering and survival of more primitive tribes in an area he was previously unfamiliar with.  His literal view of his surroundings has changed, but what about the figurative one?  Is he still capable of differentiating between the War at home and the one abroad?  And having now been marked as a future target of the vengeful cult, the Leopard-Men, what fate will await him?  I'm afraid that not even The Ethiopian knows the answer to that.
B



Saturday, October 22, 2016

"Valley" is violent, yes, but also humorous and observant



In a Valley of Violence isn't your typical Western.  For one, it's not really big on style, or gunslinging in general, or even a strong plot.  What it possesses instead is a keen eye for human nature, and ultimately, it may be the first ever Cowboy movie to also double as a comedy of manners.  As a drifter who passes through a dump of a town with his dog, Ethan Hawke is slightly miscast; his lines, spoken in a soft, raspy Clint Eastwood-esque voice, never quite have the impact as the (in)famous Man With No Name.  John Travolta, playing a U.S. Marshall, has perhaps his best role in years as a man who's fully aware that he's been cursed with a complete asshole of a son: an imbecile who pretty much dooms everyone around him with his arrogance and stupidity.  Director Ti West has made a pretty cool Western for the millennial generation; I just doubt that it'll stand the test of time the way previous films in its genre have.
B

"Imperium" walks too cautious of a line on a controversial subject



Mr. Harry Potter has finally done it.  Daniel Ratcliffe, at long last, has shed his young wizard exterior for a tough adult role, in which he shows anger, rage and conviction we didn't think him capable of.  As a young FBI agent who goes undercover in Virginia in order to infiltrate a gang of skinheads, Radcliffe displays some of the similar elements that Leonardo DiCaprio did in The Departed: their boy-next-door personas go through a tough, scarring make-over, in which not only those around them have to believe how gangsta they are, but their own selves as well.  Imperium, however, doesn't quite know what to do with such a touchy subject as Neo-Nazism and other Hitler-like followings; whereas the great American History X pushed the envelope in its protagonist's transformation, director Daniel Ragussis sacrifices not a single character, muting the drama quotient entirely.  It's not a complete failure, but one wonders what it could have been in a more daring talent's hands.
B-