Sunday, August 4, 2019

Tarantino's "Hollywood" an uninspired fairytale

In his 9th feature film, the (arguably) most original living American filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino, has turned the last decade of the 1960s Hollywood upside on his head.  A loose adaptation on the Charles Manson infamous 1969 murders of actress (and wife of then Roman Polanski) Sharon Tate (played by Australian Margot Robbie), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood... mixes real people of the time with a touch of Tarantino-esque fiction (the sort he used in 2009's Inglorious Basterds, but to a much more effective result) to give us a movie that is epic in length but short on bravura excitement that the director's best works are usually known for.

As Rick Dalton, the soon-to-be-over-the-hill star of a famous 1950s Western TV show, Bounty Law, Leonardo DiCaprio does some of his best acting, portraying the frustrated actor with just the right touch of self-aware decline, alcohol abuse and anger.  It's unfortunate, however, that he inhabits a film so absent of plot. Many scenes feel absolutely pointless: Tate watching her own movie in a theatre while dangling her feet on the seat in front of her; Dalton having a heart-to-heart about life with a young female co-star; and the most superfluous of all was the long set-up (minus any payoff): Dalton's stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) asking to see an old acquaintance on a Los Angeles ranch occupied by strange hippies. Tarantino masterfully builds the tension, infusing it with foreshadowing of potential bloodshed, only to deliver us a ... flat tire (a metaphor for the entire film, I suspect).

By the time Hollywood... reaches its blood-filled (anti?) climax, most audiences are bound to be left with a similar thought: "Uhm, was that it?" The movie, sadly, never amounts to anything more than several scenes that feel as excerpts from a TV show of which no one's seen a single episode.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood... is Tarantino as his absolute laziest: a movie that is homage to his own infatuation of a Hollywood era he worshipped as a child, but without a single thought to his audience's patience, for not every fantasy is worthy of 165 minutes of blah blah. 

Thursday, June 20, 2019

"Brightburn" settles for gore, not ideas

A child lands in a small spaceship on a rural farm in Brighturn (also the name of the town), and the Breyers (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), a couple unable to have children, suddenly feel like their prayers have been answered.  Little do they know that the child they end up raising is an evil superhuman whose idea of a fun pastime is gruesomely murdering everyone - be they family or his school crush's mother - who's onto his sinister antics.

David Yarovesky's movie moves at a breakneck speed (it's one of the few instances where a longer running time may have improved it) and, eventually, ends up as an ill conceived combination of The Omen-meets-Superman.  Instead of exploring philosophical what-ifs of a world with a sociopathic, all-powerful Avenger, it settles for cheap thrills where blood is preferable to anything intellectually grandiose.  The movie's ending definitely leaves a door open for a sequel, but unless that sequel has a thoughtful script, this franchise may as well end before it ever really begins.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

"Birds" tells epic tale of greed & pride's downfall

Rarely do modern movies resemble a folk tale about indigenous Colombian people rising from their middle-of-the-desert poverty to vast riches and power like in Cristina Gallego's and Ciro Guerra's Pajaros de Verano (Birds of Passage), a film so subtle and underplayed that it may have been a product of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's unpublished mind.  As Rapayet (first time actor Jose Acosta) attempts to marry the woman of his dreams, Zaida (Natalia Reyes), he ventures on a journey in order to gather numerous goats and cows to present her family as dowry.  This journey will sidetrack him onto an illegal drug trade that will expand exponentially and corrupt him and everyone he holds dear indefinitely.

Pajaros de Verano is a wise movie, one that paces itself ever so slowly to present us with a dilemma of people who are not so much evil as they are easily manipulated by greed and family pride that it inevitably leads to their ultimate demise.  Expanding from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, the film is almost entirely in Wayuu - an old, indigenous form of Spanish, spoken in northwestern Venezuela and northeastern Colombia - but it never suffers in communicating to us the message it so strongly holds dear: that power corrupts, and never more so than when an old tradition conflicts with modern day capitalism.  Pajaros de Verano is a film for the ages, a story that could take place at any point in human history, and still be as relevant as ever.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Us" is a poor man's 'Funny Games'

Unlike his 2017 debut feature, Get Out, comedian-turned-director Jordan Peele's sophomore outing, Us, is as a family friendly "horror" film that you may find in the world of modern cinema.  In this story of a family of four who are terrorized by their own doppelgängers (i.e. apparitions or otherwise doubles of themsleves), the tension and terror that the movie's trailer promised only lasts through the first 40 or so minutes; then, once the heroine's (Lupita Nyong'o) double begins to speak in a tone and prose that resembles a mentally challenged person's version of a fairy tale, the whole thing turns... well... laughable.  Since that clearly wasn't the director's intention, for the next 80 minutes we are left to wonder why no harm ever came to the main characters, while everyone around them is dropping like flies.  Hasn't Peele learned anything from Game of Thrones?  Doesn't he know that you have to kill off at least one (perhaps even two) relevant characters in order to create tension?  And also, isn't he aware that Michael Haneke has (in a way) made this movie already - TWICE??

Us isn't only free of genuine thrills or scares; it's also the most blood-less R rated horror that I can recall (no idea why this got an R rating).  And in the spirit of Kubrick, who loved to photograph his protagonists in a close-up as they psychotically stared into the camera, Peele, in his two-movie filmography thus far, has found a shot that may one day be named after him: a close-up of the hero/heroine in a state of fright as multiple tears flow down their face.  How I wish that I had been nearly that frightened or excited by anything in Us.

Friday, March 15, 2019

acestroke's Top 10 movies of 2018

I've already said that 2018 was perhaps the worst year for Hollywood cinema in recent memory, and the recent Oscar broadcast only confirms that.  Bohemian Rhapsody was a VH1 special masquerading as a meaningful biopic; Green Book tried way too hard to preach about the race relations in America; and Black Panther is, without a doubt, the MOST BORING superhero ever made - and yet it nabbed a nomination for Best Picture when the likes of The Dark Knight and Wonder Woman could not (Hollywood politics work in mysterious ways).  Of the top nominees, only The Favourite, A Star is Born and Roma represented quality cinema in a mostly forgettable year, and neither walked away with the biggest award.  But alas, I digress...

It is, once again, March 2019, and just like the year prior, I needed to give myself extra time to see everything there was to see before I could give my final verdict. These ten films stood out to me more than any other. If you have seen any of them, do seek them out soon. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

1.  Won't you be my neighbor? (Director: Morgan Neville)
For those of us who didn't grow up in America during PBS' timeless children's show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, which aired from 1968 to 2001, this timeless documentary gave us an unforgettable insight into the former-minister turned children's entertainer. Never afraid to explore dark topics, such as death and assassinations of certain political leaders during the Civil Rights years in ways that children could comprehend, Rogers was a pioneer of shaping the minds of American youth without ever compromising his core beliefs and ideals.  We've never seen the likes of him since, and I'm afraid we never will again.

2. A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper)
A story about two musical artists, one on her way up, and the other heading waaaaay down, was the most emotionally resonant movie of 2018.  Bradley Cooper proves to be as impressive of a director as he is an actor (make no mistake, this was the best performance by an Actor last year), and Lady Gaga, well... she certainly holds her own. The songs in this third (and by far the most superior) remake (after the 1937, 1954 and the 1976 A Star is Born versions) are memorable; the romance between the two leads is genuine and touching, and the drama authentic and heartbreaking. If you're not crying after the final act, then you may just have to check your pulse.  This was the best movie-musical of the year, and not the overrated and amateurish Bohemian Rhapsody.

3. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
There is little doubt that Alfonso Cuaron is one of top three directors working on the planet today.  In a span of few decades, he's tackled a variety of genres - astronauts lost in space; horny teenagers coming of age; post apocalyptic England where children can no longer be born; even a Harry Potter installment (coincidentally the best one of the bunch) - and has impressed each and every time.  In Roma, he pays homage to his Mexican upbringing during the early 1970s, and the result is a lyrical, poetical journey through one woman's inner struggles, as she deals with a scorned lover and a frustrated, upper class family that employs her.  Black and white cinematography has rarely looked this good, especially in a movie where not a whole lot is said, but where so much is conveyed.

4. Hereditary (Ari Aster)
Part Rosemary's Baby, part The Omen, and all pure, authentic frights, Hereditary was the most impressive horror feature debut in many a year.  In creating a tale of a family whose descendants have some questionable worshipping choices, first-time filmmaker Ari Aster has helmed a feature that will haunt its viewers long after its last frame has perished from view - but it'll stay in their subconscious for many sleepless nights thereafter.  It's a genuine nightmare disguising in a dysfunctional family's struggle to overcome a late matriarch's recent passing, and it features the best work of Toni Collette's career. That's no small statement.

5. Zimna Wojna (Cold War) (Pawel Pawlikowski)
You won't see a more beautifully composed and shot (in classic B&W, like Roma) movie any time soon (and yes, it is prettier than Roma; sorry Cuaron fans).  Pawel Pawlikowski follows in the footsteps of his 2013 gem Ida, and creates another classically photographed masterpiece about two star crossed lovers in post World War II Poland and examines their on-and-off romance over the next decade and a half, following them around France and former Yugoslavia, through the good times and bad.  Every single scene and composition could be a giant photograph worthy of a world-class museum exhibition; Pawlikowski is clearly the modern day Krzysztof Kieslowski, but with a much better eye.

6. Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)
Greek filmmaker Panos Cosmatos' blood-soaked vengeance movie, in which a mad-as-hell Nicolas Cage plays a lumberjack who goes after a crazy cult after they brutally murder his wife, Mandy.  Led by their sick, twisted leader, Jeremiah Sand (an excellent Linus Roache), the cult group is a strangely disturbing portrayal of lost souls beyond redemption. Mandy looks - and practically feels - like a psychedellic LSD experience, and proves that, once again, Cage can be an effective actor, if cast in material that can maximize his sometimes larger-than-life on screen persona.

7. The Cakemaker (Ofir Raul Graizer)
Thomas is a gifted baker in Berlin whose relationship with an Israeli businessman ends abruptly when the latter is killed in a car accident.  When the German eventually travels to the Middle East to meet his former lover's wife and child, old wounds are opened again, but not without exceptional, uncompromising drama. A quiet, subtle film whose moments are composed mostly of glances and gestures, The Cakemaker will make you crave all things pastry, while melting your heart in the process.

8. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coen Brothers)
This anthology Western of six vignettes about the Old American West was probably one of the more purely entertaining movies that the Coen Brothers have made in over a decade (perhaps even longer, but who's counting).  Featuring the likes of James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits and Tim Blake Nelson, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs charms us immediately with an unexpected opening number where a charismatic cowboy duels his way through an unnamed town, before being fatally shot by another "top dog" gunslinger.  Each story here represents a different iconic aspect of the Cowboy genre: bank robbing, gold prospecting, and even a wagon trail over the American West.  It's unfortunate that its final vignette, "The Mortal Remains", is the least memorable one; but when a movie this artistic and rich with so many ideas and characters blows your mind early on, its

9. Western (Valeska Grisebach)
German constructions workers arrive in a Bulgarian country side, and soon they are at odds with each other, the lack of materials necessary to complete their project, and most of all, the locals with whom they have a major language barrier.  Valeska Grisebach's movie may as well be a documentary that's quietly observing a clash of two different cultures while presenting the Balkans as an area where little economic progress has taken place in the last thirty or so years.  The leading actor, Meinhard Neumann, has the face and demeanor of an average every-man, and his friendship with the local Bulgarian Adrian is touching and authentic, despite the two men's cultural differences.  Western's subtle approach may not be for everyone, but deep down it is an insightful exploration of Western Eueope meeting Eastern Europe, composed entirely of silent moments rather than loud, bombastic confrontations.

10. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Second film on this list by a Greek director, The Favourite plays like the darkest of comedies, as two women (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) compete for the affection of an often ailing Queen Anne of England (Olivia Colman).  The movie is exquisitely shot and lit, and it utilizes the ultra-wide lens more than any movie I can recall.  Weisz and Stone are both terrific, but the this film clearly belongs to Lanthimos (his best work thus far) and Colman, who, at long last, is the most deserving Best Actress Oscar winner of the 21st century.  And that's saying something.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"Romantic" is neither what it claims to be, nor funny 😬😕

Rebel Wilson, with her overwhelming Down-Under charm and in-your-face comical attitude, may yet prove to be the next generation's Melissa McCarthy.  However, in her new "comedy", Isn't it Romantic?, in which she's - for the first time, if I'm not mistaken - featured as the leading lady, she not only fails in that attempt, but also displays a desperation of wanting to star in something - anything - so badly that she never even bothered to read the damn script.  For, you see, if she had, I seriously doubt she'd have appeared in this instantly forgettable attempt at a sitcom-stretched-out-to-feature-length trash.

After a horribly awkward and humorless scene in which she is mugged by a New York City lowlife, she is knocked out unconscious and eventually wakes up in a fantasy world where all the characters and situations perfectly resemble archetypes from a typical Hollywood romantic comedy.  All the men that approach her are handsome, everything looks shiny and clean, and the extent of her problems is which of the two men (the charismatic but egotistical Liam Hensworth, or the funny, down-to-Earth Adam DeVine) will she end up with.  Even though every cliché we're presented with is done with a tongue in cheek self-awareness, the result is, nevertheless, mostly a laugh-less one (Brandon Scott Jones, as the heroine's over-the-top flamboyantly gay best friend, is solely responsible for the movie's biggest laughs, but alas, those are few and far between).

Had Isn't It Romantic? not been advertised as a "comedy" that's spoofing other romantic comedies, then perhaps I wouldn't have been so disappointed.  The movie borrows all the worst elements (literally!) from the rom-coms that preceded it, and then does absolutely nothing with them.  So, to answer its titular question: no, it's not romantic, but even worse, it's not fucking funny, either!

Friday, March 8, 2019

"The Vanishing" leads the 2019 cinematic charge

Like a modern day The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), and with slight shades of Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan (1998), The Vanishing presents us with an-all-too-familiar premise: three friends who are working a three-month shift at a lighthouse off the Scottish Isles find a mysterious boat carrying a chest full of gold.  Where did it come from?  Should they report it or keep it for themselves?  Soon their dilemma turns into a devastating struggle for survival.

Based on true events surrounding the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers on Flannan Isles way back in 1900, Krystofer Nyholm's low key thriller is the first truly great film of a very young 2019 year.  Starring the often overrated Gerard Butler (who does impressive work here indeed) and the underrated English character actor Peter Mullan, the movie pulls you into its spellbinding vortex immediately, and never lets go.  It's also proof that less is more: with only three characters at its center - and a few others who appear briefly - The Vanishing creates genuine thrills while utilizing only one small location and throwing its protagonists into a bloody, tense quandary. It is the most gripping movie I've seen in some time.