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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.  

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

"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.