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 Skarsgård). 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.