Thursday, November 2, 2017

Demented "Ingrid" radiates with unfunny creepiness



Not even a month after I wrote about Aubrey Plaza's last movie (The Little Hours) and her inability to appear in a worthwhile feature - despite her good looks and charisma - she goes on and stars as the titular (anti)heroine in the tonally confused Ingrid Goes West.  Playing a slightly disturbed woman who has recently assaulted another due to a social media faux pas, Ingrid befriends Taylor Sloan (Elizabeth Olsen), an internet socialite who is everything Ingrid wants in a friend.  As Ingrid's past resurfaces in all its ugly glory, the movie quickly turns from an up-to-then quirky character study into a poor-man's copy of Fatal Attraction crossed with Single White Female (a movie which is cleverly referenced by O'Shea Jackson Jr's Batman loving Dan Pinto, the movie's sole source of humor and witty one-liners).

When Ingrid Goes West reaches its preposterous third act, you may find yourself wondering how a movie that was so likable for so long could sink so quickly and unashamedly by surrendering itself to cliched blackmail and violence typically seen in a straight-to-cable late night Cinemax stinker.  The final scene would suggest that Ingrid has finally found her peace and comfort, and thusly won our hearts at long last, but it isn't so.  She's still a despicable psycho, and just because she's finally happy doesn't mean that the movie's confused and misled audience should share her sentiments. It's also never a good thing when the best thing about a movie is its poster, but alas, that's precisely the case here.
C- 


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

"Happy Death" recycles old gimmick w/out new vision





Slasher movies (anything in the horror or the sub-horror genre) are generally rated R - at least, they oughta be.  There's something depraved and joyful about watching blood being splashed and throats cut in an apologetically profane and uncompromising manner (Hatchet, Inside, Dead-Alive). Now, that kind of gore should keep the children away, even if the absence of adolescents means lower ticket sales for the pockets of the film's producers, as some things should not just not be compromised for the sake of financial gain.  This is exactly the problem with Happy Death Day, a new movie that only pretends to be a bold, bloody new take on Groundhog Day (and even the more recent and superior sci-fi action flick, Edge of Tomorrow), but never quite ventures where none have gone before.

When Tree (Jessica Rothe), a college student with a few moral issues, keeps reliving the same day (which happens to be her birthday) after being murdered by a masked maniac, her conundrum is less entertaining and enthralling than previously seen in the cyclical time loop formula.  It's a bloodless, profanity-and-nudity free "slasher" movie that feels strangely out of place: like a WB network episode stretched to feature length. It's perhaps slightly too cinematic for TV, but way too derivative and unimaginative for cinema.  There isn't much here that's scary, funny or clever in the least: it's all been done before.  Twice.  And better.  Way better.
C-

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"Bad Day" explores endless cycle of vengeance



Revenge is a dish best served cold, or so goes the old proverb.  Taking that sentiment to heart tenfold in Bad Day for the Cut, middle aged Donal (Nigel O'Neill) goes on a personal vendetta against thugs, pimps and a mysterious woman called Frankie (Susan Lynch) after his elderly mothered is brutally murdered in their countryside home in rural Ireland.  Along the way, he aids a young Polish man (Jozef Pawlowski) search for his sister, who has been forced into prostitution by the same people responsible for Donal's own tragedy.  The two men soon find themselves knee deep in a complex plot full of murder, betrayal and dark secrets from Donal's family's past that will shine a whole new light on everything we've seen so far.

Director Chris Baugh (who also co-wrote the screenplay) has constructed a thoughtful revenge movie where the line between "good" and "bad" is very thin, since the antagonists and protagonists aren't nearly as different as they would be in a typical Charles Bronson retribution thriller.  Donal's quest is a morally complex one, and the choices he makes will only instigate further bloodshed.  The final shot is particularly compelling: an open ending that hints at more possible violence to come.  If only Donal could go back to the beginning and do things differently.  If only.
B

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Brutality of thug prison life at center of "Brawl"



Early on in director S. Craig Zahler's savage prison drama Brawl in Cell Block 99, Bradley Thomas (a never better Vince Vaughan, looking transformed both physically and spiritually) displays his fierce brutality by practically destroying his wife's (Jennifer Carpenter) car with his bare hands - he punches the shit out of it until it resembles a junk yard prototype - after she informs him of her recent infidelity.  Bradley, a man of principle as much as vicious barbarity, does no harm to his spouse, but instead forgives her and, after being laid off from his tow trucking job, decides to go back to dealing drugs.

The world of Brawl is a cruel and merciless one, a place where gangsters are willing to cut-off an unborn fetus' feet from its mother's womb only to threaten and blackmail its imprisoned father, and where the high security penitentiary warden (a perfectly cast Don Johnson) will just as soon murder an inmate as serve him a meal of shit (literally).  Vaughan plays the former-boxer, turned-drug dealer/criminal, turned-prisoner-of-minimum-security facility, and eventually, turned-convict of the most disgusting-and-lawless-prison ever displayed in American cinema.  To survive it - and to save his wife and unborn child on the outside from gangsters whom he still owes millions - Bradley will resort to such extreme barbarism that his actions will make you both squeamish and relieved (the latter because they happen to vile characters who certainly deserve it).  Rarely have we seen such raw, uncompromising rampage from a central protagonist, and without the aid of a single weapon.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a rare prison movie, an ultra violent masterpiece about a somewhat decent man's descent into hell on Earth where he loses his soul, but perhaps not his humanity.  The Shawshank Redemption may have been a more moving prison movie, but I can't think of any other film in recent memory that portrayed the savagery of life behind bars so unapologetically, and with such vile beauty.
A

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Cruise's charm elevates "American Made" past standard cliches



There's really not much in American Made that you haven't seen before, often in lesser movies, but sometimes in better ones.  Tom Cruise, playing a real life character named Barry Seal, is charismatic as can be, and is really the saving grace of this otherwise very mediocre effort.  As an unhappy and overworked pilot for TWA airlines in the late 1970s, Seal is recruited by CIA for top secret operations in Central America, and is eventually entangled into the Colombian Medellin drug ring that includes the likes of Pablo Escobar.  He also juggles several children of his own, and a marriage to a blonde bombshell (Sarah Wright), whose white trash brother (Caleb Landry Jones) arrives one day at their doorstep and threatens to ruin their up-until-now rather profitable existence.

The movie's Lord of War-meets-meets-Blow structure should be familiar to an average movie goer, but what is disappointing is the somber bummer of an ending, which goes against the movie's rather lengthy comedic tone up until that point (since it's based on true events, I guess they couldn't go against the grain and provide a somewhat more elated conclusion).  Director Doug Liman and Cruise have made better movies before (Edge of Tomorrow is one of the most memorable sci-fi action movies of the last decade), but here they get a bit too comfortable with the familiarity of 1980s archetypes of the smuggling trade.  If nothing else, American Made proves that Cruise alone can still carry a movie, despite his recent struggles to rule the box office the way he once did.
B-


Friday, October 13, 2017

Somber "Song" examines the flaws of grief



Ever since Sophia's (Catherine Walker) young son died, she's lived a life of bitter regret, which has in essence turned her into an unforgivable wench whose existence consists of searching for an occultist who can help her open the door to the underworld.  Hoping to speak to her guardian angel and eventually contact the soul of her deceased offspring, Sophia hires Joseph (Steve Oram) an angry, bitter conjurer, and the two retreat into a large mansion in the middle of Wales, in an attempt to unlock the gates of hell.

A Dark Song isn't your typical horror movie. For one, its first two acts are rather slow, and since the cast consists of primarily two actors and one location, the audience can easily get bored by its lethargic, methodical pace.  However, as the mood slowly turns very dark indeed, and all sorts of mysterious noises suddenly take place off screen, tension soon rises higher than the hairs on your arms.  Newcomer director Liam Gavin gently builds to a horrifying conclusion that will leave you gasping (seriously, watching the movie in the dark, it's an understatement to say that I was scared shitless).  A Dark Song is an original horror gem, and although it may not be a masterpiece, it contains more frights and insight into the power of individual forgiveness that it will leave you shaken for days afterwards.
B+

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Nature's cold brutality serves up quite a life lesson in "Walking Out"



The cold, brutal mountainous nature of Big Sky country isn't quite what you'd expect early on in Walking Out, a new survival drama that explores an estranged father-son relationship like few movies before it. And don't let the "poor parent" connotative title fool you: this movie is essentially a look at two different generations of paternal figures, and how each had a profoundly different effect on their respective offspring.  When young David (Josh Wiggins) arrives in the Montana wilderness to spend some time with his father Cal (Matt Bomer), he gets more than her bargained for when their hunting trip goes completely awry after Cal is accidentally shot, leaving the two stranded in the middle of nowhere, with two enormous grizzly bears potentially on their trail.

Directors Andrew and Alex Smith (adapting a short story by David Quammen) create a chilling, helpless mood throughout, especially in the second act, when David has to carry his wounded father for countless miles through the thick, frozen snow, amid ever increasing exhaustion, hunger and thirst.  Walking Out isn't your typical man-vs-nature movie; if anything, it's the most harrowing look at a boy's coming-of-age in a long time. By the time David finally reaches civilization, he may have lost a very important part of his childhood, but what he ends up gaining will define him for the rest of his life from there on in.
B+

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Confused "Hours" completely misses comedic mark



In the movie world, there's no sin greater than an unfunny comedy, and Jeff Baena's mid-eval farce, The Little Hours, tries too hard to do too much, but unfortunately, it doesn't do any of if well.  As the three horny nuns serving at a convent run by the drunkard Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), Alessandra (Alison Brie), Ginevra (Kate Micucci) and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) come across as too one-dimensional and pretty unlikable characters to hold our interest for the eighty plus minutes of the film's running time (an early scene in which they're mean to the gardener feels out of place, and is as funny as a school bus fire).  When a young hunk, Massetto (Dave Franco), shows up as the new hand at the convent, the three nuns fight for his affection - uhm, his groin area, is what I meant to say.

The Little Hours feels like a failed Mel Brooks comedy, a period piece filled with modern slang and contemporary verbiage, but its heart is clearly in the wrong place, and many potentially funny scenes simply fall flat on their face (Nick Offerman is the only one who generates genuine laughs, but his presence in this movie is, sadly, limited at best).  There's also a late scene involving naked women dancing in the forest, and it clearly belongs in a better movie; no actresses should shed that much clothes only to perturb and disgust the viewer.  And what can one say about Aubrey Plaza? I've yet to see her appear in a movie that's actually funny.  She's better than this material, but I wonder if we'll ever get a chance to see it.
C-

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Revelatory "City of Ghosts" examines revolutionary journalistic methods



Matthew Heineman's audacious documentary, City of Ghosts, explores the rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) like no other movie in the terrorist group's young existence thus far.  Focusing on several different journalists from the war-torn Raqqa, a city overwhelmed by internal and external decay due to ISIS's extremely violent dictatorship, the men at the center of Ghosts risk their lives to bring the world the news about the violence and the oppressed regime that's overtaken their land, much to the ignorance of the rest of the globe. They keep plugging away and exposing the establishment's cruelty (through a channel called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, or RBSS) on various internet sites and social media, even as they watch their family members get slaughtered publicly in the process, as punishment for their kin having defied ISIS.

Heineman's approach is very personal, as the men behind RBSS (Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, Hamoud, Hussam, Naji Jerf and Mohamad) do not resemble heroes any more than you or I, yet their plight is incredibly gallant.  City of Ghosts explores a very controversial and globally relevant topic, and even though its protagonists carry a world of burden of their shoulders for choosing to be the truth tellers at a time and a place where others dare not go, the final impression is that of a very good documentary, but perhaps not a great one.  Nevertheless, that should still not take away from RBSS's noble cause, which in today's divided world, is a revolutionary one indeed.
B

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Magical "Kedi" gives the feline an otherworldly status



Seldom are documentary films as lyrical and as poetic as Ceyda Torun's passionate Kedi, a movie that looks at everyday lives of several different cats in present day Istanbul, Turkey.  Interviewing various men and women who look after them on daily basis, the film is a combination of a beautiful travelogue about a historical European city and an examination of the feline species of all different sizes, colors and various temperaments.  The lush cinematography will take your breath away, while the testimonies of the local citizens will move you the way only a melodic symphony or poetry can.  Kedi is more than just a documentary: it's an ode to cats everywhere, a testament from the heart to that most domesticated of all house pets.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Chilly, silent wilderness dominates ethereal "Wind River"



Not since 2009's The Hurt Locker has Jeremy Renner had a role that called for such subtle humanity and quiet anguish as he gets to display in Taylor Sheridan's superb mystery drama, Wind River.  After a young Native American girl's murdered body is found in the frozen snow of Wyoming wilderness' Indian reservation, Renner's Cory Lambert, a huntsman who tracks predatory animals, joins FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, clearly the most talented actress in the family) in her investigation.  Along the way, we learn that Lambert's own daughter was murdered three years ago, under similar circumstances as the recent victim.

Sheridan, who wrote last year's excellent Hell or High Water, here creates a moody, atmospheric thriller that is more about character and tragedy than it is about actual thrills.  This is most evident in a late shootout that is as kinetically frantic and turbulent as any you're likely to see this year: when you care about characters the way you do for Sheridan's, their pain becomes your own.  Another particularly emotional scene is one where Lambert tells Banner about his daughter's death.  He breaks down in tears, and eventually, so does she (you likely will as well).  Wind River is a visceral, wise and profound drama about death, loss and rediscovery of one's personal inner tranquillity.  After its over, you may find yourself hearing the howling Wyoming wind whistle and blow next to your ears for some time still.
A-

Friday, September 29, 2017

"The Beguiled" premise too thin for feature length film



The women at the center of Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled, led by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), never really come across as complex characters whose paths change a whole lot throughout the narrative's ninety-plus minutes. At the Southern school where they work during the closing stages of the American Civil War, a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) finds himself in need of care, and eventually, against their better judgement, they take him in and nurse him back to health.  Eventually, each girl, especially Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), develops the hots for the young hunk, who begins to play each of them accordingly for his own personal reasons.

The movie's set-up is far superior to its final act, which is tarnished by lots of anger, yelling, and unnecessary threats that fizzle into... nothing, mostly.  The sexual tension we sense early on is hardly explored, and by the time the women decide to commit that deadliest of sins, the result is more of a thud, rather than a bang (I mean, these are times of war, after all, so the final act of doom is hardly shocking).  The problem here is with the original material (based on Thomas P. Cullinan's novel, A Painted Devil), and not with the direction or the actors (Farrell is particularly good, as an alternate version of Odysseus on an island full of seductive sirens).  It's too bad that the narrative never really took a chance to shock us for real, because as constructed, it's a movie that would've been provocative some six or seven decades ago, but hardly today.
C+

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Elliott is the perfect (anti)Hero as the fading star looking for old glory



Sam Elliott will probably always be known as the man whose deep, soothing voice was the quintessential selling element of Coors Light beer for the better part of twenty-first century, and rightfully so. In addition to being a great voice-over talent, he's also one hell of an actor, a performer capable of great range of emotions, and often times within the same scene.  Late in The Hero, Elliott's Lee Hayden auditions for a role of a father who's neglected his daughter for way too long, similar to his own damaged relationship with his estranged female offspring (Krysten Ritter).  Hayden breaks down completely to the point of not remembering the lines he's worked so hard to memorize, leaving the casting director speechless, and the viewer more uncomfortable than they'd be if they had watched Sacha Baron Cohen at his awkward best instead.

The Hero is structured much like 2008's The Wrestler, both thematically and narratively: an aging star, way past his prime, still tries to hold on to glory of days long gone by, and in the process, meets a younger woman (Laura Prepon, doing her best combo of a sexy vixen-slash-comedienne), all the while battling a potential life threatening illness that may take him out of the game completely.  The movie is observant, thanks to Elliott's nuanced performance, and often entertaining, especially in scenes where Hayden gets high with his pot-head buddy (Nick Offerman), but ultimately it falls short of greatness because it doesn't quite reach the emotional depths of the aforementioned Mickey Rourke drama.  Lee Hayden may not be the tragic figure that Randy "The Ram" Robinson was, but he's a valuable American icon nonetheless.
B






Friday, September 22, 2017

"Ghost" transcends timeless tale of unfulfilled life



Lurking from strange corners of every room, like a sneakily disguised Michael Myers (from a particular scene in the original Halloween) in a cloaked white sheet, the central (ghost) figure in David Lowery's new transcendent movie A Ghost Story may just be the loneliest protagonist ever to roam the cinematic landscape.  Spanning countless years - and perhaps even a few centuries into the past, then back to the already witnessed present, in a bold move suggesting the cyclicality of time - the alleged spirit of C (Casey Affleck) observes his wife's (Rooney Mara) mourning of his own passing, until she moves out of their home for good, leaving him in solitude to witness all the tenants that come to occupy it in the ensuing decades.

A Ghost Story is slow paced, consisting of several one-take scenes that last longer than today's audience may be willing to bear, but any other method of style simply wouldn't have done this methodical and ambitious film any justice.  Seldom has anyone's (post)life been simultaneously so mesmerizing and heartbreaking as C's.  When it's over, you may find yourself wondering how in the world didn't this movie find a bigger audience, 'cause in 2017 there isn't another more deserving of one.
A

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Jolie's latest a slight improvement on her previous war-themed epics



For a movie whose central storyline takes place during one of the most horrific genocides of the last century, director Angelina Jolie's latest work about the Cambodian revolution manages to come across as more polished and less mawkish than her previous efforts (In the Land of Blood and Honey, Unbroken) that explored war-torn places outside of her native US.  The atrocities committed by Khmer Rouge mostly take place off screen in First they killed my father, and the result is a polished look at a nightmarish four years for the victims and survivors of said slaughter, reminiscent of Life is Beautiful's bloodless holocaust (missing here, however is the irresistible charm of Roberto Benigni).

The heroine at the center of Jolie's film is a young girl, Luong Ung (played by newcomer Sareum Srey Moch), and as her family is taken from their homes along with countless Phnom Penh residents, she is first forced into a labor camp, then eventually trained as a child soldier for the new regime.  The movie, at over 130 minutes, is definitely too long, and adds few meaningful elements to a genre that has already explored similar subject to better effect (The girl who spelled freedom, The Killing Fields).  In fact, even the title is misleading: the heroine's doomed patriarch doesn't meet his demise until over an hour into the movie, and several scenes run for way too long, but I digress.  Since this is an improvement over Jolie's last several directorial efforts, that certainly is worth some commendation, despite the film's several pacing and content-based flaws.
B-

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Image's "The Realm" resurrects goblins & orcs of old



The Realm #1 takes place in the ruins of post-modern Chicago, its setting a shadow of a city that was once a great metropolis indeed.  But now, where countless Cubs fans and hot dog lovers use to roam freely, goblins and orcs rule the territory, and only killers-for-hire/trackers/guides such as Nolan are able to scout the landscape unscathed.  He's like the hybrid of Constantine and Blade, all morphed into one, and his affliction, consisting of a badly infected right arm, makes perhaps even him a future threat to mankind.
The wicked can rest when they're dead.


Writer Seth M. Peck and illustrator Jeremy Haun (colors by Nick Filardi, alternative cover by Tony Moore) create a ruthless world where not even the surviving humans can be trusted, much less the demonic creatures who rule it, and the result is a series that's equal measure staleness and originality.  For one, Nolan does bear resemblance and character qualities to the above mentioned vampire hunters of both comic book and cinematic screen, but then again the sword he shields is a weapon not before seen in such a sci-fi/horror comic before.  The artwork is sharp and engaging, while the writing sometimes struggles to roll smoothly off the characters' tongues (lines such as, "You got that right, you low-rent motherfucker" come across as tediously sophomoric).

The goblins are fair game in love - and war.


The Realm may not possess the graphic excitement and inspiring writing of Image's Extremity or even the similarly plotted, long running series The Walking Dead, but for those looking to quench their thirst for goblin and orc guts, they must look no further.
B-

Friday, September 15, 2017

"Extremity: Artist" is a bloodily fun-tastic look at revenge driven wars



Resembling a hybrid of post apocalyptic and sci-fi elements of Mad Max, Avatar and Turbo Kid, the recently released graphic novel/comic Extremity: Artist (Image Comics, $16.99, 136 pages) is a gory fun-fest for the eyes and the ears (yes, I say ears, because the battle scenes practically crackle with sounds of combat and the decapitation of heads and every other limb imaginable).  It isn't for the faint of heart, yet there's something almost poetic about the carnage that jumps at us every few pages in this premier Trade Paperback volume.

Thea, the (lefty) artist.


Written and illustrated by Daniel Warren Johnson (the man is a true artist in every sense of the word), and colored by Mike Spicer, Extremity: Artist introduces us to Thea, a girl whose once-upon-a-time dreams of becoming a great artist went up in smoke when a dangerous clan called the Paznina cut off her right arm, and murdered her mother in gruesome fashion.  Since then, she's joined the rebels, led by her vengeful and enemy's teeth-pulling father, Jerome, to exact revenge on everyone responsible.  Her brother, Rollo, however, not possessing the cold nerve that his sister seems to have, or that his father wishes he'd show, seems to be put off by the bloodshed he sees all around him.  The only comfort he finds is in Shilo, a robot whose primary programmed instinct is to inflict havoc everywhere he goes, a sensation he initially welcomes, but soon grows to loathe with all his might.

Jerome, the brutal avenger.


The stunning artwork Johnson creates is on par with Image's other recent works, most notably Saga, Reborn and Seven to Eternity.  The characters are well defined, both graphically and emotionally, and each possess scars and wounds of wars past that keep them well rounded as human beings, and not just characters on a page.  The floating islands of land that house castles and battle-ready forts are reminiscent of James Cameron's aforementioned sci-fi blockbuster, and the colors by Spicer give the visuals a feel of a Tarantino-esque Pixar film.

Shiloh, the remorseful vigilante.


In a sea of similarly styled sci-fi/action/adventure comics, Extremity's revenge-heavy theme resonate deeper than most, and its creators spawn a major tour de force graphic story to an already competitive field, and still manage to tower above the rest.  I've no idea if Thea and her father will ever find peace and satisfaction they so desperately seek, but here's hoping the brutality and raw emotion they bring to this combat doesn't end anytime soon.
A

Thursday, September 14, 2017

"Big Sick" fuses laughs & illness to dramedic effect



In the classic tradition of Judd Apatow movies (here he serves only as producer), the cutesy, charming dramedy The Big Sick once again combines stand-up (Funny People) and a one-night stand between two people who at first seem very different from each other (Knocked Up), then end up challenging both each other and themselves to make their relationship work.  As a comic whose parents migrated from Pakistan years ago in hopes of instilling Muslim values in him, Kumail Nanjiani (boldly playing himself) defies his family's culture and pursues the American dream on his own terms.  The problem arises when the girl he's dating, Emily (Zoe Kazan), ends up in a medically induced coma due to an existing lung infection.

Soon Nanjiani meets Emily's parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, in perhaps his best movie role ever), and the three quickly develop a unique bond as they wait for Emily to wake.  The movie has nice comedic moments, but it's mostly a drama that tries too hard to be funny, and frankly, runs about 20 minutes too long.  There's also a few awkward scenes that are neither funny nor dramatic: in one, Nanjiani unnecessarily berates a drive-thru employee, and in another he tediously appeals to his family's better nature with a few weirdly conceived cue cards.

The Big Sick is hardly the perfect romance-slash-comedy everyone claims it to be, but in a sea of rather tiresome love stories, it at least tries to incorporate a union of two different cultures down Hollywood's generally conventional altar.
B

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Weisz shines as the peculiar "Rachel"



It's not every day that a great performer named Rachel actually ends up playing the titular character of a movie called My Cousin Rachel, but alas, that is exactly what we get in this British adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's 1951 novel of the same name.  Rachel Weisz, that underrated actress whose range is as vast as her timeless elegance, here portrays a woman who, after the death of her husband Ambrose, begins to wrap the deceased's cousin, Philip (Sam Claflin), around her finger to such an extent that the young man's initial loathing of her turns into infatuation that he can not shake off.  Falling head over heels and even giving over his entire inheritance to her, he notices changes in Rachel's behavior and attitude that would suggest she's played him like the most gullible of fools.

Is Rachel a clever opportunist, or a woman whose charm is merely circumstantial, a spell she casts incidentally on the naive men for whom women, up until then, have been an alien gender altogether? My Cousin Rachel doesn't present us with an obviously clear-cut manipulative heroine on par with the recently similarly plotted Lady Macbeth, but its female lead, thanks to Weisz's charm and conviction, is a peculiar marvel nonetheless.
B

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ghastly "It" remake creates only an illusion of danger



The new cinematic remake of Stephen King's terrifying 1986 horror novel, It, opens with a bloodily delicious bang: a young boy is devoured on a peaceful suburban street during a heavy downpour by the demonic clown named Pennywise (played by Bill SkarsgÄrd). After the aforementioned evil entity bites the youngster's right arm off, he drags him into the sewer he's been occupying, the child's nearly mutilated corpse resembling a prey animal carcass that's been conquered by superior adversarial predator. It's a ghastly opening scene that will send chills down the spines of any adolescent and adult alike, and will surely stay with them for days afterwards.

Unfortunately, the movie, which runs at nearly 130 minutes, never comes close to recreating that kind of nightmarish sense of doom, as the perplexing Pennywise proceeds to mostly taunt and bark at a group of tormented and bullied upon boys, without ever actually, you know, biting anyone again. There are plenty of moments of fright, and horrifying visions of corpses and murdered children of years past, but the problem lies in the cushioned sense of safety of all the main protagonists: no meaningful character is ever in danger of actually dying, and herein lies the weakness of King's fiction when compared to that of his other successful contemporary, George R.R. Martin. Whereas the latter wont shy away from unpredictability and his indifference to breaking our hearts, King holds on too tightly to his heroes, even when they're clearly too many, and one would argue, way too superfluous to survive several encounters with Pennywise (the final scene, as greatly executed as it may be with state-of-the-art CGI, is nearly laughable in its insistence that no morally righteous character is ever actually seriously harmed; I, for one, call bullshit). 

It suffers from the same unwillingness to take chances as the other recent throwback to 1980s nostalgia, Stranger Things: the monster is only a threat to bad guys, but seldom to those we can identify with.  It's a great looking movie that inspires terror within - in many ways it evokes the dread of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street - but had it swayed away from King's original narrative, even if ever so slightly, it could've been truly great.
C

Monday, September 11, 2017

MacFarlane's "The Orville" a far cry from FOX's best comedies



Seth MacFarlane is, without a doubt, a valuable talent in present day Hollywood, but that talent is best served when he can be heard without being seen, as his voice work on Family Guy has proven for the bigger part of this century.  In FOX's new series, The Orville, MacFarlane is once again the writer and star as the newly crowned Captain Ed Mercer of the titular spaceship, and the result is, well... disappointing at best.

Borrowing elements from Star Trek and FOX's much superior animated Futurama series, The Orville gets off on the wrong foot from its opening scene, in which Mercer catches his wife in bed with an alien humanoid (a cliche, yes, but an unfunny one? Ugh), a foreshadowing of the marital/post-marital examination that is the underlying theme of this sci-fi sitcom pilot episode.  Right off the bat, we are treated to such juvenile jokes as a pilot maneuvering a spaceship while drinking a beer, the unimaginative introduction of Orville's high command crew (a scientist without charm, a robot with no personality, and an African American character who insists on drinking soda while working), and the eventual inquiry whether or not the new planet will have "bars and strip joints".  TV humor certainly isn't what it used to be.

MacFarlane manages to evoke not a single laugh in a set-up that should've produced several, and the result is an uninspired and unimaginative script that boldly goes where many have gone before (I laughed more during the first 10 minutes of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot than I did in the entire 43 minutes of The Orville's duration).  Not sure what the future holds for this humorless series, but based on its opening episode, I'd be rather surprised if it's still on air by Halloween.
D+

Friday, September 8, 2017

"It" is nowhere to be found... not even at night



As much as the late 90s and early 2000s were bombarded by "found footage" horror documentary movies, spawned by the iconic The Blair Witch Project, the last decade or so has seen its share of post-apocalyptic drama/thrillers (The Road, Z for Zachariah, Into the Forest) where few remaining survivors try to thrive in a decimated world where disease has exterminated some 99% of the population.  The latest entry in this already exhausting genre is the underwhelming It Comes at Night, featuring the always engaging Joel Edgerton as Paul, an overprotective man living in a secluded, boarded up house in the middle of the woods with his wife (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) after a lethal disease has just taken away his father-in-law, one of many to have succumbed to its curse.

As Paul and his kin welcome a new family of three into their home, issues of mistrust and paranoia raise their ugly heads, creating a somewhat tense environment for the household of six that up until then only housed half that many souls.  Director Trey Edward Shults's well realized initial idea starts off well, but after the half-way point, seeing he's got nowhere to go with his thin premise, he succumbs to the cliched old belief that it's "what you can't see" that terrifies you the most (his movie may, in fact, be the only existing exception to that rule).  The final act is a mess, a poorly set up and handled fiasco that results in more and more poorly conceived chaos, without ever giving the audience the proper pay-off they've been waiting for.  So what comes at night, you may ask?  Absolutely nothing.
C-

Thursday, September 7, 2017

"Beatriz" brings ideas and suspense to this dinner



I've never associated Salma Hayek with a serious actress capable of complex emotions.  After all, for most of 1990s, she was Robert Rodriguez's main action movie vixen-slash-heroine-muse, and not since 2002's Frida has she appeared in a seriously dramatic starring role.  But in Beatriz at Dinner, Hayek plays the titular Mexican physical therapist (mourning her recently murdered goat) living in present day Los Angeles, who drives to homes of fancy clients by the edge of the sea, and after her car breaks down, she is invited by the hostess (Connie Britton) and her husband (David Warshofsky) to join them and their big-shot guests for dinner.  Among the guests are the wealthy businessman Doug Strutt (John Lithgow, doing his best rich-prick-who-doesn't-give-a-fuck-about-anything-but-money, a role that Michael Douglas once owned).  The ensuing banter between the middle classed Beatriz and the morally corrupt Strutt is the kind of stuff that would make David Mamet proud.

Hayek and Lithgow, playing characters who stand on completely opposite ends of complex ethical spectrum, have more than a few great exchanges, and despite her fame and (once-upon-a-time) sexiness, Hayek is very believable as an upstanding healer of all things living who naturally can't fathom how any person, even a wealthy asshole like Strutt, can ever boast about killing a rhinoceros on an African safari.  Beatriz at Dinner brings some interesting points about the intricacy of the modern condition, but its convoluted ending is a perplexing thing indeed, and had it settled instead for a more extreme conclusion (Beatriz fantasizes about doing something horrible near the end but decides not to go through with it; such a shame), instead of copping out for a less than memorable ending, it may have resonated with its audience even deeper.
B-  


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A heartless (anti)heroine is at center of "Lady Macbeth"




The young newcomer British actress Florence Pugh, portraying the lady Katherine Lester in the English period piece Lady Macbeth, possesses the kind of deceptive physical naivety and innocence that are mere masks for the real monster that is actually underneath all that oh-woe-is-me girlish persona.  Forced to marry an older man whose idea of passion is to jerk off while watching her stand naked, she eventually begins a passionate affair with a younger stable hand, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), and as their heated union reaches the ears of everyone she knows, things begin to spiral out of control, leading to events initially deemed unimaginable by such a young and lovely maiden fair.

Directed by William Oldroyd, the movie is slow paced, with hardly any musical score, yet its titular anti heroine, based on the cold hearted spouse of Shakespeare's legendary character, is a marvel to behold: the initial pity we feel for her early on, as she's oppressed not only by her husband but also by the chauvinistic society of 19th century England she occupies, is eventually replaced by an abhorrent sense of disgust.  The final image, in which she occupies the very center of a rather evenly symmetrical frame, consumed by her allegedly remorseful conscience, is Godfather-esque in its examination of an Angel fallen deeply into the pits of hell.  It's haunting beyond belief.
A-

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Zagor faces new kind of horror in "Fear"



There is a scene late in 1000 Faces of Fear (Epicenter Comics, 278 pgs, $15.99) when Zagor, a.k.a. The Spirit with the Hatchet and undisputed King of the Darkwood Forest in the North American wilderness, attempts to build a new hatchet for himself using a wooden stick, a common rock and some rope (just where he got rope in the middle of nowhere is beyond me, but I digress) in order to take on two US soldiers who've come to jeopardize the safety of his ally, the Native American Crow tribe.  Surprisingly, Zagor's new weapon falls apart on its own, a product of clumsy and uncoordinated concentration, and for the first time in this Italian comics franchise, our hero comes across as... average.  "Surely", his countless fans across the globe thought, "he's still recovering from the spirituality-inducing potion he drank earlier with his Native brothers, 'cause that doesn't resemble the Zagor we're use to."  

Zagor, The Ambassador of Peace and Public Relations in Darkwood.

Called by the Osage tribe to investigate US military's intention to build an Army Fort on a sacred Native American ground, Zagor's quest is soon complicated by the introduction of Captain Flint, an angry, vengeful and arrogant leader for whom the Natives are nothing more than "ignorant beggars". When soldiers mysteriously begin to get slaughtered in the middle of the night by a monstrous creature who appears differently to everyone who lays eyes on it, The Spirit with the Hatchet realizes that he's not dealing with an ordinary foe, but an otherworldly one.  Perhaps a monster from beyond the stars, as the Natives seem to claim.

Captain Flint, US Military hero and a skeptic of all things Native American.

Created by two late great artists of Sergio Bonelli Editore publishing house - writer Ade Capone and illustrator Gallieno Ferri - 1000 Faces of Fear is a morally complex and horror inducing tale for this particular series, one where the newly evolved violence no longer shies from displays of decapitation and hearts being pulled out of characters' chests.  In Flint, Capone creates an adversary whose past has experienced tragedy similar to that of Zagor, but who's chosen to deal with it differently: to intimidate and displace the Native Americans at the expense his own personal vendetta.  More than just a Wild West cliche, Flint is a fallen angel whose new plight has blinded him completely to his previous morals, and as such he's a worthy antagonist to the King of Darkwood, whose ideology is the complete opposite.
No longer your child-friendly and carnage-free comic it once was.

Ferri's illustrations typically shine in the darkness and shadows of black & white artwork, something that Zagor's readers have grown accustomed to over the decades, since the regular series in its native Italy is published in such color-free format.  However, his faithful fans need not worry, for I can assure you that the ominous tone of the story and Ferri's starry night skies looks just as impressive in color, and lose very little, if any, of the visual tension and suspense.

Stick to heroism and bravery, Zagor; just stay away from crafts.

And as long as Zagor's attempts to build new hatchets with limited materials result in the weapon collapsing to pieces in his hand while his foes prepare to pounce, it won't matter whether it's a b&w or color version of his adventure we're reading.  Imperfection is an underlying trait of any timeless (super)hero, and only by being fallible will Spirit with the Hatchet continue to elevate to the ranks of most celebrated comic book characters the world over.
A-



Friday, August 4, 2017

"Elsewhere" resurrects aviators of the past



Escaping from the clutches of evil Lord Kragen, the prisoner duo Cort and Tavel accidentally run into a woman whose parachute has left her hanging from a nearby tree, leaving her vulnerable as potential prey to any passing predator.  The two men - if in fact they can be called that, since they resemble elf-like creatures from a fantasy novel - are perplexed by her presence and general strangeness.  "You're obviously not from around here", Cort tells her after hearing her speak.  Little does he or his friend know, however, that the lady in question, dressed as a twentieth century pilot, is none other than the famous missing aviator, Amelia Earhart.

Elsewhere #1, the new Image comic from writer Jay Faerber and artist Sumeyye Kesgin (colors by Ron Riley, lettering by Thomas Mauer), is an imaginative and at once captivating debut.  Packed with clever one-liners and eye-popping illustrations, its energy soars from page to page like a visually stunning animated movie, and its juxtaposition of real-life missing aviators/pilots and high octane fantasy, reminiscent of Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy, is a recipe for a promising story arc.

The last page is particularly intriguing, since it sets up a potentially compelling scenario few would have thought of.  Here's hoping that Faerber and Kesgin keep the surprises coming, and that Elsewhere runs for many years.
A-

Saturday, July 29, 2017

"Wakefield" an existential portrayal of a selfish asshole



There's nothing quite so "exhilarating" than watching a sometimes mild, sometimes hot tempered average NY suburban Joe spend an excess of a hundred minutes on screen narrating us his thoughts, all the while receding from society and his own family in an attic of his garage, adjacent to the house where he's left his wife (Jennifer Garner, who admirably does so much with so little material here) and daughters to wonder just what's become of him.  Wakefield, a film by Robin Swicord, is apparently based on a short story by E.L. Doctorow, and having watched the film it spawned, I can only wonder as to why anyone thought it would make an effective feature.

Bryan Cranston plays the titular weirdo, who spends about 80% of the film's running time in voice over (I'm sure that Adaptation's Robert McKee would have a field day with it), all the while eating out of garbage cans during night and day and hiding from everyone he knows because... well, I guess he's just fed up of being taken for granted (damn you, inconsiderate society!).  Cranston is too talented an actor for such a one-dimensional role, and his Wakefield turns out to be a great bore - not only to himself, but to the viewer as well.

And to make matters even worse, the audience, which had suffered throughout observing the lonely, mundane existence of this cowardly prick, is deprived the pay-off moment of him finally appearing before his family after months of exile, as the film cheaply cuts to black before we could see their reaction.  Wakefield is not at all the profound movie it thinks it is, but confused and unfulfilled mess about a man who, once he decided to disappear, should've stayed gone for good.
C-

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Schumer's movie career has been "Snatched"



Amy Schumer the stand-up comic is funny, insightful, and vulgar in just the right amount of doses.  In contrast, Amy Schumer the movie actress is anything but humorous and clever, and following 2015's underwhelming Trainwreck, she stars in Snatched, a movie that is, depending on whom you ask, even of lesser quality than that aforementioned mess.  Playing her usual slutty/unlucky in love young woman (we've yet to see Schumer play any other type) who was just dumped by her musician boyfriend (Randall Park, whose motto is "Others' pussy is inspiring; yours isn't") and therefore has to drag her overbearing mother (Goldie Hawn) to a vacation in Ecuador because, well, it's non-refundable.

The script is, unfortunately, too bland and idiotic for someone with Hawn's comic talents (a scene involving the extraction of a tapeworm out of someone's throat is particularly unfunny and disturbing all at once), and Schumer's act wears out pretty quick, since she only seems to play one character, and poorly at that.  I mean, what can you say about a movie in which Joan Cusack is relegated to a pointless role of a mute whose sole purpose is to.... well, I'm still trying to figure that out, actually.

Snatched is a poor excuse for a comedy, and not even its great looking, exotic locations can make up for its uninspired screenplay's lack of laughs (I chuckled about 3 times; in other words, once every 30 minutes).  Someone should just snatch Schumer out of Hollywood so she can stop snatching our money in exchange for piss-poor "entertainment".
D+

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Caesar wages personal war in "Apes" conclusion



More than any movie franchise of recent past, the rebooted Planet of the Apes is the defining cinematic trilogy of the new millennia, and its hero, Caesar (a CGI heavy Andy Serkis), is the post-modern Mad Max, in a way.  Waging more than a general apes-vs-man Earth-wide battle, War for the Planet of the Apes pits our favorite super-smart chimp leader in a personal vendetta against an army rebels leader, known simply as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson).  In this (allegedly) final chapter, Caesar doesn't just want to save his Ape species; he's also out for blood, literally.

The storyline has evolved quite a bit since 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, when Caesar was a small, curious chimp being raised by James Franco's Will Rodman in his San Francisco suburban home, with its by-now-recognizable star-within-circle design on the attic window.  The sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), ignited the conflict between the remaining human survivors of the simian flu and Caesar's apes, all the while proving that some apes are just as bad and ambitiously flawed as humans.  War for the Planet of the Apes, however, is the biggest, grandest chapter yet, a conclusion that relies heavily on moral dilemmas and ingeniously staged action and explosions (a perfectly timed gigantic avalanche near the end is a cherry on top of the movie's third act frosting climax).

Matt Reeves's film (he also directed the previous installment) is that rare adventure movie, an epic spectacle that wows the eyes and the ears, all the while warming itself to your heart to the point of tears.  I only wish the filmmakers had ended War on a more open note, instead of closing the idea of (SPOILER ALERT!) potential sequels featuring the same protagonist.  Nevertheless, this is one of summer's best entertainments, and likely to be one of top 10 movies of 2017.
A-


Friday, July 14, 2017

Dark Universe off to a slow start in "The Mummy"


Halfway through The Mummy, we finally meet Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russel Crowe), the narrator we heard early on in the prologue.  He told us the history behind Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), the woman who would sell her soul to the prince of darkness and ultimately become the titular evil entity known so well across the horror movie landscape.  Now, as the scene continued to unfold, I couldn't help but think, "What the fuck is the protagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson doing in this present day Dark Universe?" 

The movie, featuring Tom Cruise as a soldier who's more interested in selling off old artifacts for big bucks on the black market than actually serving his beloved country, starts off well enough, but quickly succumbs to a frantic narrative that proceeds with The Mummy being dug out of a large hole in a small desert village, put on a plane, the plane crashing, killing Cruise's character, and somehow, without explanation, bringing him back to life. All this within a fifteen minute window.  Sometimes less is actually more, fellas.

Cruise's charm carries the film only so far, as flashes of demonic spirits of his friend (Jake Johnson) pop up throughout to remind him of his "curse", and Boutella's facial features are effective enough to embody the evil she carries within.  There are also some nice moments between Cruise and his love interest (Annabelle Wallis), sprinkled with comic relief, but the story quickly shifts into bizarre and absurd as the above mentioned Dr. Hyde alter ego reappears and explains the characters' fate to them. Ugh.

I was not a fan of the unimaginative 1999 Stephen Sommers/Brendan Fraser franchise of the same name, and I must say, this new version is a slight improvement, despite its many flaws.  The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman, leaves a lot to be desired, and its final act is a mess that, perhaps, not even an injection of other worldly wit could have saved (I wasn't sure if I was supposed to laugh at or be scared by the countless zombies, both above ground and underwater).  And based on its poor box office performance, I doubt that we'll be seeing additional sequels that the movie's ending would suggest.
C

Thursday, July 13, 2017

"Homecoming" lowers age & elevates humor of Spider Man



More than any Spider Man we've seen so far, Tom Holland's Peter Parker is the first that actually looks and feels authentic and loyal to his source comic book counterpart: he's young, unsure of himself, and, unsurprisingly, convinced that he always has to do more than he really should.  Nowhere is this more evident than in a scene late in the movie, when Peter, nearly buried by tons of cement debris, cries out for help, like a desperate child in pain.  The scene is the official bar mitzvah for this particular franchise's world famous Marvel arachnoid.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts (of the superb low budget Cop Car), combines some of the fun elements from the Sam Raimi and the Marc Webb-directed previous franchises: flying villains, a girl who makes Peter blush on a daily basis, and some virtuoso action sequences spread across Manhattan's high rises.  However, Homecoming incorporates The Avengers's own Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as Peter's father figure, a man who's all too well aware that with "great power comes great responsibility", and he simply doesn't want to see Peter go in over his head.  Their scenes together are expertly written and played to perfection by its two stars, who are Marvel's version of DC's Bruce Wayne and his wise butler, Alfred.

Based on this first installment of the Tom Holland era Spider Man, Marvel has clearly regained the upper hand in the superhero film market, and for many years to come, it would seem.  Here's hoping this Peter Parker's youthful looks stay the same for a few more years, because the last thing we need is another twenty-something year old looking Spidey.
B+


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Wright's "Driver" a combination of old & new gimmicks



As the titular young hero in Edgar Wright's new action/comedy/romance Baby Driver, Ansel Elgort - with his dark sunglasses and his iconic white iPod earphones - spends the majority of the movie letting everyone else do the talking while he mostly listens.  That is, until he meets a charming waitress by the name of Deborah (Lily James) and gets smitten with her completely.  Such is the fate of a young genius behind the wheel whose favorite past time is recording people's conversations and creating music out of them.

Wright has always been an original, exciting filmmaker (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scot Pilgrim vs The World), and here he infuses his typical kinetic style with plenty of good music and some original writing to produce a movie that is equal parts Drive, Fast and the Furious, and pretty much any Michael Mann heist flick.  The likes of Kevin Spacey and Jamie Foxx play charismatic villains to Elgort's thug-with-a-heart-of-gold Baby, but the movie, which is a lot of fun, simply recycles way too many cliches ("this is my last job", "the girl is his weakness", etc) of thieves-behind-a-wheel genre in order to be truly great.  But don't let that keep you from seeing it, because it's still very good as is.
B

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"Alien: Covenant" adds blood & guts, but little else



Traveling through space in a gigantic spaceship with most of the crew in hibernation? Check.  Receiving a distress signal from another planet?  Check. Discovering deadly aliens whose sole purpose is to destroy all life?  Double check. About the only plot element that Ridley Scott's Alien: Covenant doesn't recycle from previous installments of this franchise is the inclusion of not one, but two (nearly) identical androids, David and Walter, one good, the other bad (both played by Michael Fassbender), with the former now representing a much more evil version of Dr. Frankenstein, albeit in a galaxy far, far away (he first appears cloaked in a hoodie, resembling a Jedi from a George Lucas alternate universe).  The movie really is a mash-up of the original 1979 Alien and 2012's Prometheus, with an added touch of ultra-violence and gore, but with far less thrills.

The franchise was much better served when Aliens were creepy monsters that lurked in the darkness of outer space; when we see way too much of them, they kind of lose their mystique.  And we're still no wiser on the subject of "engineers", the large extra-terrestrial humanoids who allegedly created humanity millions of years ago, and are responsible for creating the Alien lifeforms as well.  We see a glimpse of them in a brief flashback, but their motivation and their philosophy remains a mystery.  It would seem that Mr. Scott has made a very generic sequel/prequel whose script is not only short on inspiration, but also on ideas.  There really is no reason for this movie to exist at all, for we've already seen it before.  Twice.
C-


Monday, July 10, 2017

Ideas in "The Circle" as stale as its screenplay



Although I will admit that Emma Watson is a beautiful actress - and rightfully deserved to play the role of Belle in the recent live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast - I still have not seen much evidence of her acting skills being transcendent.  In The Circle, Watson plays Mae Holland, a young woman who gets hired by a conglomerate communications corporation headed by the Steve Jobs-like Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who somehow thinks it's ok to film every single person for every second of every day, using new revolutionary tiny cameras whose video quality is so good that it's mind-bending (and of course, never truly explained) why they would be so inexpensive to purchase.

The movie treads the universal-surveillance-versus-personal-privacy issue with such confidence that one would think it's actually saying something groundbreaking about our technologically and social media dependent society, but alas, its screenplay is way too dull and immature for its themes to resonate at all after the credits have rolled.  A scene involving Mae's friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) being harassed by common citizens as they film him obnoxiously with their smart phones is especially cruel to watch, and even more devastating is the scene's outcome, which is telegraphed well in advance.

The Circle is pure trash - unfunny, unwise, and just plain stale - masquerading as profound social commentary on our modern techno times, and downright laughable all the way to its ridiculously dull climax.
D-

Monday, July 3, 2017

Joon-ho's "Okja" exposes corporate political hypocrisy



The super pig at the heart of Okja (it looks like a larger hippopotamus with flappier ears) is a cute and lovable animal, and the only thing that raced through my mind as I watched it fill up nearly every frame of Bong Joon-ho's (Mother, Snowpiercer) film is, "How much food does that thing eat?" Created through a scientific lab project by the ambitious Mirando Corporation and its CEO Lucy (Tilda Newton, doing her best animated human these days only in Joon-ho's films), Okja, raised in rural South Korea by young Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) and her grandfather, is one of 26 super pigs lent to farmers around the world who are about to be re-possessed by Mirando a decade later in order to cash in on the animals' plumb and juicy meat.  I suppose everything that moves on this Earth is at some point edible.

The creatively bold director assembles a unique movie that is simultaneously two films at once: a marvelous children's adventure about a girl and her pet, and a socio-political dramedy about corporate greed and animal cruelty.  Its characters are also vast: Dr. Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cooky shorts-wearing scientist whose ego has been bruised by his boss; an animal-rights activist leader, Jay (Paul Dano), whose principles are "to cherish every living thing" (but there are exceptions); and last but not least, K (Steven Yeun), another activist whose morality line isn't quite in sync with his boss.  Everyone in Okja has motivation, depth and sympathy, regardless of how few lines they speak.  It's another testament to Joon-ho's talent, whose vision isn't limited just by what we see.

Okja is further proof that some of the most original and compelling cinema in the world consistently comes out of South Korea, and I, for one, can not wait to see what Joon-ho does next.
B+





Friday, June 30, 2017

"Lost City" beautifully orchestrates a forgettable journey



Looking like a resurrected Heath Ledger in his prime - albeit with far less acting talent - Charlie Hunnam storms the battlefields of World War I and swings his machete through the period-piece-and-jungle-exploration British drama The Lost City of Z like a 20th century citizen who is somehow misplaced one hundred years into the past.  It's not that the character he portrays - Percy Fawcett, a young British military officer whose name sounds like a sink in a feminine designed restroom - looks completely out of place as he searches the Amazonian jungles for a long lost city, here referred to only as "Z"; it's just that he never quite externalizes that inner turmoil that characters in such obsession-turned-to-madness movies generally tend to (Aguire: The Wrath of God and The Pledge come to mind).

Perhaps that's the reason that Z mostly comes across as a Merchant-Ivory production crossed with a less-than-exciting Indiana Jones escapade: it simply fails to romanticize its setting, nor does it evoke the action and adventure adrenaline of Steven Spielberg's famed whip wielding American explorer.  The Lost City of Z is a grand looking movie, exquisitely shot and superbly designed from a pure production standpoint, but at nearly two and a half hours, it never quite achieves that epic status.  It comes close, though.
B

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Sharks run around in circles in "47 meters"



Much like last year's The Shallows, 47 Meters Down tries to milk the last remaining ounce of suspense and tension out of a predator-in-the-water genre that has, for the most part, been dead in the water for decades now.  Mandy Moore and Claire Holt are two sisters vacationing in Mexico's resorts, with the former recently heartbroken and in sad spirits, and after they meet two young men during a night of partying, they are talked into scuba diving with large sharks while enclosed in an iron cage.  Can you guess whether or not their escapade will go over well?

The movie's general structure and plot are similar to 2004's Open Water, but unlike that independent original gem, missing here is a sense of danger, as well as the element of realism that made its two protagonists people that we could relate to.  47 Meters Down is a muddy thriller - both visually and stylistically - and had it been a short with only twenty minutes' running time, it just may have been an exciting ride worthy of its exhaustive premise.

The director, Johannes Roberts, isn't quite the creative auteur who deserves having his name appear before the movie's title a la Stanley Kubrick, and the movie's lukewarm box office and critical "success" only further ridicule that ego trip.  His movie is a rarity in today's cinema age: an 85-minute bore that never excels at any aspect of filmmaking whatsoever.
C-

Monday, June 26, 2017

Ritchie's "King Arthur" is an overstuffed two-hour long trailer



Charlie Hunnam, that emotionally flatlined British heartthrob whose career (at least thus far) has been more about style than substance, portrays the legendary Leader of Knights of the Round table in Guy Ritchie's convoluted historical fantasy bomb, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.  It's an umpteenth re-telling of the King Arthur legend, but it has to be the first one where any coherent narrative is secondary to former Mr. Madonna's chaotic editing and over-the-top kinetic directing style (even the special effects look as if they were designed on someone's laptop computer hastily, and at last possible minute).

This is allegedly the first in a series of what Ritchie and his co-writers/producers hope will be a six-part movie franchise, but the overwritten/overproduced movie in question actually feels like six features crammed into one.  Imagine The Lord of the Rings trilogy, all nine hours plus of its running time, trimmed down to a two-hour feature film: it's a drag for the eyes and the ears, but especially the audience's minds, which by the end will surely be fried.

Had Ritchie concentrated on developing Jude Law's villainous Vortigern, or even given Hunnam a human element worth following - instead of practically racing through the entire narrative as if holding the fast-forward button at full capacity - Legend of the Sword may still have been a mess, but perhaps it would've been a memorable mess.  As is, it's an overstuffed turkey that, at a reported budget of $175 million, feels and looks like the cheapest expensive movie ever made.
D


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Dreams of youth & perseverance come of age in "Ballerina"



For a movie with such high production value, I was surprised to find that Ballerina, a 2016 Canadian/French animated feature, has not yet been released in USA (it is currently set to be released on August 30th).  Resembling perhaps a lost-in-the-shuffle Pixar gem, it follows a young girl, Felicie, as she leaves her orphanage in Brittany behind in hopes of pursuing her dreams of dancing on the stage in Paris' biggest opera houses.  With the aid of her DaVinci-like inventor friend Victor, Felicie will soar high above the City of Lights, and I'm not talking just metaphorically.

Directors Eric Summer and Eric Warin bring the 19th century Paris back to life quite impressively, especially in scenes during twilight hours, where the shadows and the street lights combine to produce an exquisite image worthy of admiration.  Where Ballerina doesn't quite soar, for example - especially when compared to other, more successful female driven computer animated films such as Inside Out and Brave - is in its formulaic structure, which, even though it manages to charm, is simply lacking in real surprises.

Nevertheless, Ballerina (its alleged title in American theaters will be Leap!) is an imaginative portrayal of a young girl's dreams coming true against all odds, and its impressive animation should make even Pixar and Dreamworks envious.  Yes, its visuals really are that good.
B



Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"Wilson" protagonist an abomination from hell



Never once does Woody Harrelson's title character in Wilson resemble a human being that anyone could give a shit about.  His goatee-faced, thick-glasses wearing miserable dork waltzes through the movie insulting pretty much everyone in sight: a young man innocently sitting with his laptop at a coffee shop, a businessman trying to listen to music while traveling on a train, even a woman who politely asks to pet his dog.  After a brief existential crisis that follows his father's passing, Wilson discovers he has a long-lost daughter, and, together with his ex-wife (Laura Dern), he tries to get in touch with the girl, who's an even more social outcast than her abhorring father.

Wilson, based on a comic/graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (having never read it, I can only comment on the movie), follows this pathetic lead character through prison, where he also gets beaten to a pulp after insulting Skinhead inmates - and is strangely seen on friendly terms with the same gang shortly after he makes a joke involving a nun; who knew prisoners had such a primitive sense of humor. And the fact that he eventually beds not just Dern's character, but also that of Judy Greer - another woman outta his league - is a preposterous thought for all nice guys out there trying to (unsuccessfully) to get laid.

Wilson isn't a man, per se; he's universe's horrible joke inflicted on his fellow mankind.  Think of Borat, but without the naivety and the self-unaware ignorance, and especially without the laughs.  In other words, a complete asshole from top to bottom.

Ugh.
F

Monday, June 19, 2017

Malick's "Song" hums the same old tune



Ever since 2012's To the Wonder, Terrence Malick's movies have more or less consisted of two lovers staring, caressing and often appearing to be engaged in an extended foreplay with one another. A filmmaker of quiet, visual prose whose movies were once admired far and wide (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), Malick has turned into a director whose works are all photographically beautiful, but are otherwise lacking in heart.  In other words, he's become the art cinema's Michael Bay: all style, very little substance.

In his most recent examination of the Music Festival scene, Song to Song, the reclusive auteur once again lures some beautiful actors in the likes of Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman, among others.  As Gosling's aspiring musician falls for the innocent and equally ambitious Mara, their relationship is affected by their acquaintance of a shady music producer, played by the ever engaging Michael Fassbender.  Their love triangle soon evolves into an orgy of relationships of both sexes (I honestly lost track of all the protagonists' lovers, just the way I did in Malick's last effort, Knight of Cups), and the romance at its center never quite emotes to anything the viewer will hang on to after the credits roll.

A Malick trademark of late is a series of exotic locales (both architecturally and in nature) during twilight hours in which everyone seems to be in a spiritual mood, an element used almost thoroughly for the third straight time here.  Song to Song may not be a great movie, but it's also less pretentious than its filmmaker's last two predecessors.  I just hope that Terrence Malick returns to making movies for his audiences some day, rather than just for himself.
C+