Friday, December 29, 2017

McDonagh's genius as writer shines in "Ebbing, Missouri"

Frances McDormand is an actress more fitting to play a a worried mother than any other one I can think of.  After all, she stole every scene in 2000's Almost Famous, as the matriarch of a teenager-wannabee-journalist touring with a complex rock band in the early 1970s, and in Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, she once again displays complex emotion, and often in a simple glance.  Quick witted and sassy, she insults most people who disagree with her, including the local authorities.  This is not a woman you wanna piss off.

After the murder of her daughter goes unsolved, McDormand's Mildred Hayes publicly humiliates local police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) - a man suffering from a terminal illness, and the only decent officer in Ebbing - by displaying the department's incompetence on the titular billboards in her little rural town.  Naturally, her actions draw criticism from the locals, and soon she and her son (Lucas Hedges) are subjects of much scrutiny.  A flashback scene involving the last day Mildred saw her daughter, including a fight between the two in which nasty words were exchanged, is powerfully ironic and heartbreaking.

Martin McDonagh here proves that - as he did in 2008's In Bruges - he's one of the finest writers in world cinema today, and in Three Billboards, he creates a post-tragedy setting that is equally comical and somber (a virtuoso one-shot sequence follows an angry officer Dixon, played by a superb Sam Rockwell, as he throws a rather innocent businessman from a 2nd floor window onto the street below; its execution will literally take your breath away).  The characters speak real, honest words, not written ones, and there's no villains or heroes - only ... people.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a quiet masterpiece, and one of the very best movies of 2017.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Pixar's "Coco" beautifully juggles life & death themes

The themes of life and death are central in Disney/Pixar's new animated feature Coco, and never has the world of the dead looked so magically ... appealing.  Focusing on a boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzales) who wants to be a musician - in a family of shoemakers where music is forbidden and frowned upon - the movie fuses Mexican culture and its traditional festival Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) with a child's journey into the afterlife, where he learns that to be remembered is to be truly loved (among other things).

Following in similar footsteps as Pixar's Inside Out (2014), Coco takes Miguel into a world of the dead - where he encounters relatives who've long since passed - in his journey to find the legendary musician Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous singer he believes is his deceased great-grandfather.  But there is more to this Cruz than meets the eye, and a twist that follows Miguel's discovery just might move the adults in the audience to tears - a familiar ploy by Pixar for more than two decades now.  There is also some good music - especially a number called Un poco loco, sung by Miguel on a grand stage along with a dead has-been musician, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal).

Coco's conclusion may not resonate the way Up, Wall-E or Toy Story 3 have, but it's still undeniable proof that Pixar has no equal when it comes to animated filmmaking of the highest order, where the visuals and the emotional impact are equivalent to the finest of adult dramas.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Margot sheds all glamour in gritty "Tonya"

As Tonya Harding, the (in) famous American ice skater whose career faced several obstacles and media scrutinies back in the mid 1990s, Margot Robbie sheds all the glitz and glamour that otherwise make her one of sexiest actresses in Hollywood today.  Married to a man (played by Sebastian Stan with an extra touch of ferocious dorkiness) who beats her like a punching bag on a near daily basis, Tonya's also subjected to endless verbal abuse by her chain-smoking mother (a superb Allison Janney) who treats her like a piece of dirt, even when the poor girl's actually doing her absolute best.

Robbie's performance is a true landmark, and she's captures the vulnerable white-trashiness of Harding in ways where many others surely would've failed: her Tonya's not a hero, but an aspiration of a dream shared by many who both loved and hated her for the "alleged" wrongdoings she was (apparently) not guilty of.

Director Craig Gillespie's film is a rough, honest and gritty biopic (made with the same tough-love as 1993's What's Love got to do with it), where the heroine's both successes and failures are measured not necessarily by her own downfalls, but by those close to her.  In a holiday season full of countless crowd-pleasers and wholesome family films, I, Tonya bravely ventures into unglamorous biopic waters, and successfully rises above the competition.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Abstract "Deer" too artsy for its own good

Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who gained fame with 2009's disturbingly original Doogtooth (and last year's The Lobster), makes movies that an average person will either love or hate - I seriously doubt there's middle ground in his approach.  In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Colin Farrell's Cardiothoracic surgeon Steven Murphy resembles a pre-one armed man tussle Richard Kimble, his long, gray-ish beard giving him a medical version of a Grizzly Adams look.  Living in perfectly clean and safe suburbia with his wife (Nicole Kidman) and his two children, Dr. Murphy's existence is thrown into a loop when his friendship with teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan) takes an unexpected turn after his children get seriously sick.  Is the boy responsible for their affliction as a revenge for something Murphy had inadvertently done in the past?

Lanthimos here creates a world  that is interesting to look at (the production design is striking), but simultaneously fills every scene with elongated moments that drag a storyline that should've maxed out at ninety minutes past the two-hour mark because, well... he can (do we really need to hear several different conversations about why adults have more underarm hair than teenagers?).  We're also never quite clear how a despicable boy such as Martin could ever posses powers that enable him to curse anyone, a rare mystery where the absence of a solution actually doesn't elevate the material at all, but instead drags it down the head-scratching hole of pretentiousness.

The final slow-motion scene set in a diner is particularly pointless: it drags unnecessarily on and on, and resolves nothing.  Just like the majority of The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"Last Jedi" explores the psychological dilemma

Rian Johnson is the first filmmaker to simultaneously direct and single-handedly write a Star Wars movie since George Lucas himself, and in The Last Jedi, the second installment of the newly resurrected space-saga, he succeeds more often than not.  Since I am not a fan of his previous works (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper), I did not have high hopes for this movie, but I was pleasantly surprised by his take on the Force in a galaxy far, far away, and the heavy psychological element he chose to focus on.  It is the darkest movie of the franchise since 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, surpassing even The Revenge of the Sith in the department of somberness and bleakness.

Focusing primarily on the mentorship by veteran Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) toward the new protege Rey (Daisy Ridley), Star Wars: The Last Jedi further explores the internal conflict of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), as he struggles to maintain his badness as the second in command of the First Order, serving the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  The scenes where Rey and Kylo are mentally connected while being physically separated by thousands of miles are impressively written and staged, and they'll likely challenge the average Star Wars' fans in ways not seen before.  Another memorable sequence depicts Rey in a hall of mirrors where her reflections infinitely stretch on forever, a moment reminiscent of a famous shot in Citizen Kane.  And of course, the final showdown featuring Skywalker is both exhilarating and melancholy, as his Obi Wan Kenobi-esque journey concludes appropriately.

The Last Jedi proves that there's few modern sci-fi adventure movies that can replicate the excitement and awe of Lucas' universe, and featuring Carrie Fisher in her final role as Princess Leia, it is the last Star Wars movie with a leading (human) character from the original series.  Just how the upcoming Episode IX will conclude this rebooted franchise no one can yet say, but if it's as psychologically complex as Rian Johnson's vision, then we're in for quite a ride.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Winslet & Elba too talented for bland "Mountain"

Romantic dramas are supposed to entangle us in the emotional web of their central lovers, and by the time they're over, our hearts should be as broken and as wounded as the characters'.  This, sadly, is not the case with A Mountain Between Us, a rather bland, unemotional movie based on Charles Martin's novel of the same name.  The great Kate Winslet looks pretty bored in the role (she's way too talented for this mediocre material) as Alex Martin, a photo journalist who misses her own wedding when a charter plane she takes with Dr. Ben Bass (Idris Elba) crashes in the Rocky Mountains. After days go by and no rescue appears to be in sight, the two strangers are forced to claw their way to civilization, despite the extremely cold and mountainous wilderness they find themselves in.

There is very little chemistry between these two British actors, and they appear much more hopeful, both physically and emotionally, for people lacking proper nutrition for days and even weeks.  The writing is also pretty lame and forgettable, and by the time the movie reaches its final act, the decision  that Alex and Ben are faced with is ultimately irrelevant, for we care so little about their cardboard personas that a mountain may have very well been between them.  And rightfully so.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

"The Foreigner" tackles revenge with familiar approach

I can't recall when Jackie Chan starred in a movie more somber than The Foreigner, an action revenge/drama that Liam Neeson's avenging father from Taken might feel right at home in.  Playing a Chinese immigrant who's long ago migrated to London, Chan's Ngoc Minh Quan is devastated after he loses his adult daughter in a terrorist bombing, and quickly turns the tables on the IRA members who are responsible, most notably the Irish government official Liam Henessy (Pierce Brosnan, also playing against his usual English type).

Helmed by bland action movie director Martin Campbell (whose crowning career achievement was 2006's Casino Royale), The Foreigner manages to juggle serious drama (Chan perhaps gives us that sad off-camera look a few too many times) and some well choreographed fight scenes featuring the Hong Kong action movie star (considering that he's over 60 years old, an impressive feat, for sure), but just barely manages to stay relevant at the end.  Brosnan is definitely the more interesting character as the conflicted official whose loyalty and values are challenged, and the final scene between him and Chan doesn't quite work the way it should.  The Foreigner is a somewhat effective action-drama that fuses two famous action stars from opposite sides of the planet into a product that, although entertaining at times, will be forgotten sooner rather than later.

Friday, December 15, 2017

"Kingsman: Golden Circle" radiates with familiar Vaughn-esque thrills

Director Matthew Vaughn may not be the auteur that James Cameron or Christopher Nolan are, but when it comes to pure fun, his movies (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service) continuously prove to be as exciting as anything out of mainstream Hollywood.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle picks up where the 2014 original left off, with protagonist agent "Eggsy" Galahad (Taron Egerton) battling super villains all the world over in high-speed cars, atop of snow covered European mountains, and even in the jungles of Cambodia.  The baddie this time around is Poppy Adams (a more charming than usual Julianne Moore), a drug cartel mastermind so twisted, she runs employees who've disappointed her through a mincing grinder, and does it without ever taking that sunny, happy-go-lucky smile off her face (she also keeps Elton John as her personal prisoner/entertainer, and the legendary musician's scenes are quite funny).

This sequel also introduces a few agents from the American secret service (Channing Tatum, Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges), appropriately called Statesman, whose cover is the manufacture of high-quality whisky in rural Kentucky.  The movie is perhaps about fifteen or twenty too minutes too long, but at least it's action-packed and humorous in just the right doses (an old retiree in the Alps who comes very close to dying says, "That's the best shit I've taken in 3 weeks"; if that doesn't make you laugh, perhaps you have no sense of humor whatsoever), and moves at a kinetic pace despite its length.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle is proof that Vaughn can turn typical action material (that most Hollywood directors would likely botch) into something unexpectedly amusing and appealing, and that is a true testament to his directing talents.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Macdonald shines as against type wanna-be rapper in "Cake$"

As Patricia "Dumbo" Dumbrowski, Australian newcomer Danielle Macdonald is the physical antithesis to the world of hip-hop and rap: she's overweight, white and above all, a woman.  Cruising around desolate and depressing suburban New Jersey with her loyal pharmacist friend - and part-time rapper himself - Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), she writes and raps some truly amazing lyrics, despite the many doubters she faces, including her own boozing mother (Bridget Everett).  But once Patti meet a strange, lonely recluse (Mamoudou Athie) who owns some low-rent recording equipment, they realize their ideas into actual tracks, and begin to capture the imagination of many a naysayer.

Director Geremy Jasper has fused some old ideas from Hustle & Flow and 8 Mile to make a movie that, although familiar at times, still manages to vibrate with true emotion - and some original and catchy music.  The final showdown, in which Patti and her team get to perform in front of a wild audience, is both exciting and moving, and gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "It ain't over 'till the fat lady sings."  Patti Cake$ is an effective independent drama about a long-shot's journey to overcome all odds, and it successfully ends not with a whimper, but with one hell of a bang.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Racial tension & police brutality at forefront of "Detroit"

I suppose 2017 is as good time as any for a movie like Detroit, an intensely gripping, true account of the riots that took place in the now distant 1967 Americana Motown city.  Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) directs an excellent script from Mark Boal, which focuses on a specific incident at the Algiers Motel in the summer of the aforementioned year, when three African Americans were brutally murdered by the police in a scandal that didn't shy away from corruption and major violation of human rights.

Will Poulter is particularly effective as the trigger happy crooked police officer Philip Krauss, and John Boyega - so memorable as Fin in the new revamped Star Wars saga - gives his Melvin Dismukes a subtle humanity that is beautifully understated in its simplicity.  The controversial incident at Algiers, which is at the center of Detroit's narrative, is a dark chapter in America's civil rights history, and watched through Bigelow's eyes, it contains an audacity and tension like few American movies this year.  It is a simultaneously gut wrenching and revelatory examination of a crime that never should have been, if not for the incompetence for a few police officers - a societal issue that still resonates in that same society today.

Detroit is epic-like in its scope of characters, setting and topic timeliness, and, possessing a less-than-happy ending (a major trial does not get the verdict that we all want), it's bound to create discussions both far and wide. It's just such a shame that a movie this good did not find a bigger audience; here's hoping it gets a second life on Bluray and digital streaming.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Religiously allegorical "mother!" pushes the boundaries

Darren Aronofsky's mother! is a nightmarish vision of a post-modern "God" and his muse of a spouse.  Played by Jennifer Lawrence, she is a neglected wife of a famous poet/writer (Javier Bardem) whose strange and unwanted visitors seem to gather at their country home door unannounced, much to her dismay.  Lawrence does an amazing job as a psychologically tortured spouse whose husband seems to give in too easily to his faithful fans, even to the point of sacrificing their newborn son to his followers (the scene in question is not for the squeamish, just like most of the final act).

The movie could best be described as Polanski-esque, with Lawrence playing the part that was once reserved for Catherine Deneuve.  mother! is definitely not a mainstream crowd pleaser, but it's dazzling filmmaking nonetheless, and further proof that Aronofsky is still one of the most daringly original directors in America today.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

"The Babysitter" radiates with boisterously clever gore

Who would've thought that McG, the once-upon-a-time hack behind such mediocre efforts as Charlie's Angels and Terminator: Salvation, was ever capable of making a movie that is as bloodily entertaining as The Babysitter?  Certainly not me. Working from a witty screenplay by Brian Duffield, McG re-creates the nostalgic suburbia feel of teenagers hopelessly fighting otherworldly evil in their small town Americana, a la Halloween and Fright Night, to name just a few apparent influences.

Australian Samara Weaving is sexy, charming and mysteriously eerie as the titular vixen who watches over a needle-phobic youngster (Judah Lewis) while his parents take a much needed sex-vacation.  The teenager both admires and lusts after his easygoing sitter, but when he witnesses her commit an unspeakable crime during a twisted game of "spin-the-bottle" with her friends, he realizes that all is not well with her initial cheerful, sunny persona.  The movie takes a complete 180-degree turn at that point, taking its young, bullied protagonist on a wild ride, and us along with him.

The Babysitter is a rare modern movie that successfully fuses over-the-top campy gore with clever, comedic social commentary (a teenager covered in blood from two different victims nervously exclaims, "This probably means that I now have AIDS!"), and does it all in under 90 minutes, without a superfluous moment in it. McG is clearly in solid form here, but credit should also be given to screenwriter Duffield, whose writing is reminiscent of some of the most memorable horror-comedies of the last 30-plus years.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Branagh's "Orient Express" trudges like a little engine that couldn't

Spectacular from a visual perspective - its production design and CGI dazzle the viewer's eyes instantly - Kenneth Branagh's latest remake of Murder on the Orient Express is a movie that feels about 40 years or so late to the modern-murder mystery party.  The cast is as vast and starry as the landscape and richly black skies of the mountainous nights through which the titular trains zooms during the cold European winter.  After a rich businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is murdered during the night, the shadow of suspicion falls on every passenger who held a grudge against the deceased.

Agatha Christie, a well known mystery writer whose reputation depended on wowing her readers with many a whodunit in her heyday, has had better movies made based on her original works, and most notable of all is the Sidney Lumet 1974 adaptation of this very story, with Albert Finney in the lead role. The energy and elegance of what we see  never once replicates in what we feel.  This is most true of the protagonist, the genial French detective, Hercules Poirot.  Branagh plays him as a man only too concerned with the upkeep of his peculiar mustaches, and hardly as a detective of flesh and blood whose quest we should relate to at all.  But the movie is also incredibly humorless, a flaw that keeps it trudging like an overlong freight train instead of the magnificent locomotive it claims to be.

Murder on the Orient Express continues Hollywood's twenty-first century quest to remake classic cinema of the past to a whimpering effect.  Seldom has a Branagh movie felt this unnecessary and redundant, and I doubt that even Poirot himself could figure out the purpose of its existence.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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".