Thursday, November 22, 2018

Dull "First Man" hovers aimlessly in limbo

When I first heard that Damien Chazelle, that boy-wonder filmmaker of such exciting, innovative movies as Whiplash and LaLa Land was directing First Man - a fact-based account of man's first trip on the moon - I was mildly skeptical.  In the last few decades, Hollywood has churned out its fare share of outer space astronaut dramas (Apollo 13, The Astronaut Farmer, Gravity, to name just a few), and for First Man to be at all relevant - especially given Chazelle's high expectations from here on in every time he steps behind the camera - it would have to be quite a spectacle.  Unfortunately, the movie arrives with a dull less significant than a pancake on a plate.

As Neil Armstrong, that monumental astronaut who uttered the now legendary "It's a small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" inspirational words as he stepped on the lunar surface back in 1969, Ryan Gosling sleepwalks through the role like a man well aware that he passed on better scripts than this one in order to re-team with his LaLa Land auteur.  He appears bored in the role, because he's too talented an actor to play this charmless of a part; Neil Armstrong is not fascinating enough of a character to be worthy of nearly two-and-a-half hour (seriously, why the fuck is this movie this long???) sleep inducing "epic".  Even Claire Foy, that charismatic actress of Netflix's superb series The Crown, looks to just be going through the motions, recycling the same house-wife worrisome tendencies as Kathleen Quinlan did in Apollo 13 some 23 years ago.

Don't get me wrong: First Man is not a bad movie, not by any means.  But in an over-saturated, late year Hollywood movie surge, it comes across as way too monotonous, and at least thirty minutes too long.  Gosling's Armstrong may have walked on the moon, but First Man never reaches the heavens its trailers promised it would.

"Middlewest's" teenage angst is at front and center

Abel, the young protagonist at the forefront of writer Skottie Young's and illustrator Jorge Corona's new comic book series Middlewest, is a scrawny teenager dealing with several personal issues.  For one, his dad's an angry, alarm-clock-throwing patriarch whose wrath the boy feels firsthand when he oversleeps his Saturday morning's paper route routine.  Abel's friends, a trio of video-game-playing, bicycle-riding shoplifters, also pressure him into stealing from the local convenience store.  And then there's The Wind, an arch-enemy the likes of Superman's Lex Luthor, a towering monstrosity who pierces him through his chest (after which he emerges with only a golden heart symbol on his T-shirt), and promises to be a long-term nemesis and a serious thorn in young Abel's side.

This first episode of Middlewest is instantly engaging, and full of imaginative, visionary artwork by Corona, which is complimented by the coloring of Jean-Francois Beaulieu.  Young promises to keep surprising us in the ensuing issues, and even though he doesn't answer every question we may have (who, exactly, is Abel's pet fox, and why is it able to talk?), this serial seems poised for awe and wonder, and perhaps it's leading to the same thundering conclusion as Image's recent God Country series.  The storm has just began, and I can't wait to see its path of destruction.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Psychedelic "Mandy" gloats in bloody religious allegory

For all the cinematic trash and B-movie excrement that he's put out for the past decade or so, Nicolas Cage remains an actor capable of mad-passion rage like few of his generation.  As Red Miller, in director Panos Cosmatos' religiously psychedelic retribution tale, Cage, his face covered in demon blood, resembles a fallen angel who's out for guts and a couple of heads of a Christian cult members who've burned his girlfriend, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough, her eyes bulging out of her head like a pair of oversized olives).  Needless to say, the carnage and slaughter that follows is a deliciously served cold dish, and the most stylish revenge film since Tarantino's Kill Bill duology.

Cosmatos fashions Mandy with a chilling, surreal look, with many of its scenes resembling a hallucinogenic experience.  Mandy is drugged by the Children of the New Dawn, Jeremiah Sand's (Linus Roache) sadistic cult group, and her perception of his self-indulgent speech will especially be recognized by anyone who has ever dabbled with LSD or magic mushrooms.  The religious allegory is often present, but so are the kaleidoscopic visuals, which dazzle both the mind and the eye.  Mandy may not be a pleasant film to watch, but no one can certainly accuse it of being unambitious, and least of all boring.


Monday, September 17, 2018

The only thing this "Night Eats" is viewers' precious time

Ever since Danny Boyle's 2003 low budget gem, 28 Days Later, zombie movies have been a dime-a-dozen, so to speak.  A genre as familiar to the 21st century cinema as smart phones or Instagram, their post apocalyptic setting has been recycled countless times by now, each new undead film offering less thrills than the one preceding it.  But until now, not one flesh-eating horror flick could at least be called boring, since at least they supplied the audiences with a decent amount of ravenous, human flesh eating bloody gore, if not much else.  Enter Dominique Rocher's latest "horror", The Night Eats the World, a zombie movie so dull and lifeless it may as well be The Undead in and of itself.

As Sam, the aspiring musician who visits his ex-girlfriend to pick up some old audio tapes he left behind - and on a night she happens to be throwing a massive party, no less - Andersen Danielsen Lie brings very little in terms of acting talent, or even general screen presence, to the role of a loner holed up in a Parisian apartment building during a sudden (and naturally unexplained) zombie outbreak.  He spends the next ninety or so minutes playing a set of drums very loudly, shooting the wandering zombies on the street below with a paintball gun, and having cheesy, philosophical conversations ("Dead is the new normal. I'm no longer normal.") with a zombie, Alfred, who's trapped in his building's elevator.  Of course, this is the kind of Paris where no one living speaks French, or even resembles a human being in the slightest amount of their behavior.

The Night Eats the World offers nothing new to the genre that's already exhausted all the good ideas; if anything, it dumbs down (by, ironically, trying to be too dramatic and character driven) and nullifies the horror it's supposed to generate.  The result is a movie that future generations will watch only as a cure for insomnia.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

acestroke's Top 10 Movies of 2017

I know, I know... we're halfway through March of 2018, so why am I just now publishing my list of 2017's best movies?  Well, I wanted to be sure I'd seen everything that was worth seeing, and sometimes that takes longer than I'd like.  Anyway, I strongly recommend everything on this list, so I suggest you see the films on it, if you haven't already.  You're unlikely to be disappointed.

1.  A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
The central (ghost) figure in David Lowery's transcendent movie 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, and eventually all the tenants that come to occupy their house it in the ensuing decades.  Seldom has anyone's (post)life been simultaneously so mesmerizing and heartbreaking as this Ghost's.  When it's over, you may find yourself wondering how in the world didn't this film find a bigger audience, 'cause in 2017 there wasn't a movie more deserving of one.

2.  Your Name (Makoto Shinkai)
Blending a body-switching fantasy between two teenagers of opposite genders with elements of time travel, a natural catastrophe and a years-long search for an enigmatic persona from one's dreams, Japanese animation wizard Makoto Shinkai has created an unforgettable movie that will challenge your intellect and your emotions equally. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  Seldom has an Anime film looked this magnificent, its hand-drawn images brilliantly complemented by modern lighting effects, in which every shot of sunlight and reflective illumination resembles something real and otherworldly.  This is worth watching once a month, for the rest of one's life. 

3.  I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach)
The trials and tribulations of the lower middle class on the English shores are at front and center in Ken Loach's brilliant film, I, Daniel Blake.  Playing an elderly blue-collar worker with a weak heart, Dave Johns gives a subtle, powerful performance full of inner anguish and frustration as the titular protagonist who keeps getting denied his unemployment and disability benefits until he pulls a subdued, British style Howard Beale protest, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!" in form of a graffiti demonstration, spray painted on the side of the very building that's been rejecting him and countless others on a daily basis. I, Daniel Blake is a gut-wrenching ballad about the lost souls barely holding on to the remaining shreds of decency in an establishment that is clearly not interested in their salvation.  

4.  Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)
There is a scene late in Wonder Woman when its titular heroine, Diana Prince (played by Gal Gadot), nearly broken and defeated by her arch nemesis, Ares, The God of War, lays on the ground and contemplates if she can, in fact, ever stop the never ending carnage that he's inflicted on mankind during The Great War.  Her realization, at that very instant, of what exactly needs to drive the human soul is a moment that will forever transcend the superhero genre and elevate it to stuff of action legend. More than any superhero movie that I can recall - DC or Marvel - director Patty JenkinsWonder Woman is an exciting examination of a strong, ideological female's idea of - and eventual solution to - World War I bang-bang-and-blow-shit-up global bloodshed.  Its juxtaposition of spectacle, action, myth and fantasy - with a touching romance at its center - is Hollywood's finest such blockbuster since James Cameron's Titanic.  

5.  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri  (Martin McDonagh)
After the murder of her daughter goes unsolved, Frances 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. Director McDonagh just may be the best writer working in world cinema today. 

6. Brawl in cell block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)
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.  And it features the best performance of Vince Vaughan's career.  That's saying something.  

7.  Kedi (Ceyda Torun)
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.

8.  Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
This bleak, somber Russian drama about the failure of a marriage and the subsequent disappearance of a son of two people (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin) who've grown to dislike one another is surprisingly honest and real.  Not only an examination of cold people whose compassion for one another has been replaced by selfishness and indifference, it's also a parable about life in Putin's contemporary Russia, a place where a people's superficiality and shallowness takes precedent above all else.  There's very few, if any, happy moments in Loveless, and that is precisely the point: as the title suggests, this isn't a movie about love, but about its absence.  

9.  Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)
At long last, Paul Thomas Anderson, that virtuouso auteur of such modern classics as Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love, is officially back!  Once again working with the masterful Daniel Day Lewis, Anderson examines the life of British designer Reynolds Woodock, an eccentric, complicated man who's at once smitten with a waitress, Alma (Vickey Krieps) he meets in a sea-side town, and whom he decides to make his muse. Their relationship soon begins to resemble a union between two people who could not be more different from one another, yet Anderson's film manages to be an ode to love without romanticizing it, with lush cinematography and an enchanting score to match its 1950s, post World War 2 London setting.  A beautiful, understated, and unconventional romance.  

10.  Hounds of Love (Ben Young)
Ben Young's new Australian feature film, Hounds of Love, presents us with a twisted couple who get off on abducting teenage girls, only to chain them to a bed in their creepy house while torturing and raping them, before murdering and burying their bodies in the nearby forest.  The real wonder here, however, is Emma Booth, an actress with raw talent that is heartbreakingly vast in the range of emotions her complex character has to convey.  When Hounds of Love is over, you may find yourself wondering if what you've just seen is just another dramatic torture porn, or a film with unexpected depth that explores the thin line between good and evil in the most original way.  My experience was of the latter kind.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Garland's "Annihilation" is the modern standard for trippy sci-fi fare

The most eerie and memorable element of Alex Garland's new science-fiction thriller, Annihilation, is its ominous, bone-chilling musical score (by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow).  It exudes a spellbinding aura that completely envelopes the viewers' mind and soul with a final act - in which its heroine, Lena (Natalie Portman), faces an extra terrestrial clone of herself - that can only be described as the modern equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey's legendary star-gate sequence.  And despite of what you may have heard about this movie, it's true: your experience of it will greatly be enhanced by either hallucinatory or psychoactive drugs of the soft variety, to say the least.

After her husband (Oscar Isaac) returns from a year long mission and develops a life-threatening illness, Lena, along with four other female scientists, enters an area called "The Shimmer", where strange extra-terrestrial organisms seems to have taken over the local flora and fauna.  Slowly but surely, the women are eliminated by The Shimmer's local mutations, and when Lena, at long last, reaches the Lighthouse where the strange occurrences first originated, the mind bending, head scratching conclusion will surely divide the audiences.  The last close-up is as enigmatic as it is satisfactory, and Annihilation, despite its imperfections, is still an intellect-challenging ride well worth taking.  Just don't expect it to have all the answers, and you just may not hate it at all.