Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars: The Force is Waking Up

So first of all: hello again. It's been a while.

Second of all: holy crap, if there was a movie that I needed to write about, this one was it.

In taking in the monumental franchise that is Star Wars, I should lead with the disclaimer that I'm not a Star Wars zealot. My plan was to try and see Star Wars and, if it was sold out, to then check out Sisters. But I will say that in being partially removed from the franchise as a whole (i.e. I had only seen the original 3 movies twice, as well as seeing The Phantom Menace) I was able to watch it a little more objectively.

And it's freakin' incredible.


The story kicks off several decades after we last saw our heroes. The Dark Side has been replaced by a neo-regime called the First Order, which is basically the same thing, and the Rebels have been replaced by the Resistance, which is also basically the same thing. The action begins when a member of the Resistance hides a map to Luke Skywalker's location in a droid unit, who is then found by our main character Rey. After a storm trooper (discovering that life in plastic may not be fantastic) deserts the First Order and crashes on her planet, it is up to the two of them to keep the map from reaching the First Order. Along the way, they bump into some old faces, new villains, surprising family ties (again) and a ton of adventure.

And of course weird names. Like Kylo Ren.

There seems to be a consciousness of what was done wrong in the last trio of Star Wars films, or maybe J.J. Abrams just adds in a much-needed new flavor for this series. In this newest version, there is a balance in everything between the new and the nostalgic. The effects are balanced between CGI and practical, appeasing lovers of the originals, without making them look anachronistic. The characters are both new and familiar, introducing us to new heroes while still dipping back to the most beloved parts of the original films (I'm talking about 4-6, obviously). And the overall feel of the movies has been done cleverly as well: being humorous in a way that is very current while still keeping in mind the lore of the series itself (please see: storm troopers have not improved their aim).

And these two together have a great chemistry!

Honestly, while I'm not going to launch into another diatribe about how movies now like to be annoyingly long, I was pleasantly surprised about how quickly this film moves. There is not a moment wasted on long shots or on anything else that is stylistically "cutting-edge" without adding anything to the plot. The story propels itself forward and the actors in the cast are so marvelous in their roles that two hours and change flew by without me even noticing.

While it must be said that the balance that Lucas finds in this film relies heavily on the fact that a lot of the material is recycled, it's enough at this point to have new characters, however similar their struggles may be to their predecessors.

9.5 outa 10. The effects, acting, story, and everything else were perfect. Check it out.

(As if you haven't seen this, but here you go:)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Crimson Peak: Beware It or Something

I've got to say, Guillermo can nab me on style every time, and his narratives are interesting, but this one fell a little flat.

Beware this place, apparently.

It all starts with Edith being haunted by the ghost of her dead mother, who warns her to "beware of Crimson Peak" when she is only a child. Fast forward a couple years and Edith grows up to become a headstrong woman trying to become a writer, a fact that becomes totally irrelevant to the plot when she meets Baronet Thomas Sharpe. They meet after Sharpe botches a meeting with Edith's father, a rich man who isn't interested in Sharpe's noble status or his made-up contraption for digging clay out of the Sharpe family's grounds. Edith falls in love with Sharpe and, after a series of strange, unfortunate events, agrees to marry him. When she arrives at his mansion, however, things start to become more sinister. Sharpe's sister, Lucille, is always acting like a weirdo, refusing to give Edith keys, acting standoffish, and always making her this gross tea. As Edith encounters the house's ghosts, we learn that Crimson Peak (a nickname for the manor, she learns once she's arrived) is home to some nasty secrets.

Here's what I liked:

Again, Guillermo doesn't not mess around when it comes to aesthetics. Between sets and costumes, the movie is nothing if not lush. Bright colors and beautiful fabrics dominate the entire screen, and even distracts a little from the story itself.

Look at those sleeves. Look at that collar. Good god.

The second thing I liked was the way he did the ghosts. I don't know how he gets away with it, but Guillermo del Toro is one of the rare people who can actually show you the true form of the monster hiding in the dark and still have you effectively scared. It's hard to evoke horror in plain sight, but he does it extremely well. The ghosts are grisly and scary without trying to look overly realistic and the mystical realism there works.

Here's where we had some problems:

The plot gets twisted up in itself a little too much from the get-go and leaves no room for the element of surprise. The movie announces to the audience that the Sharpes are suspicious folk right off the bat with phrases like "There's something funny about those two," baiting you. Which is actually kind of a shame, because without voicing concerns about the Sharpes' characters, things would be much more interesting. Instead of holding suspense and leading us to make our own assumptions about the character of these nobles, we're instead made to wait until the end like impatient kids at Christmas. We don't know what is it that they are doing nor why they are doing it but we know damn well that SOMEthing fishy is going on. Why dangle the surprise in front of our faces? Because of this, a plot twist that may have hit the audience with a bang instead deflates with a lame pffffttt. Additionally, Guillermo decides to stack on ANOTHER surprise because apparently one isn't enough, but it ends up reading as an afterthought.

Lucille, looking very suspicious.

6.5 outa 10. Long story short: Crimson Peak is a gorgeous-looking film full of jumps and scares, but a plodding narrative keeps the movie from reaching its potential.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Suffragette: Tough Watch but Worth It

To be perfectly honest, when I walked into the theater I knew this would be an emotional one but worth it. And I was right.

The movie takes place in 1912, when British women's voices are only just starting to be heard regarding the right to vote. Our story centers on Maude Watts (Carey Mulligan), a respectable middle-class woman, married with a young son, who works in a laundry. Maude's intial interest in the suffragette movement is minimal, but she finds herself being swept into the movement faster than she can imagine. In an age where women have to fight so hard to be taken seriously that they have to resort to destruction of property, how far will they have to go before their voices are heard?

Also look how bad-ass this poster is though, right?

Cinematically speaking, Suffragette was a fantastic watch for a piece of this usually-predictable genre. It's an interesting genre, reading almost more like a political thriller than a stereotypically emotional biopic. That isn't to say that it's not both, but I was suprised at the actions that they put into play, the conditions in the prisons at that time, the perspective of their neighborhood, and a dozen other things that almost made it feel more like an espionage movie than you would think for a movie that takes place in 1912.

In a sense, this movie hits uncomfortably close to home. I feel like it's less rare to find movies of this caliber when talking about developing nations, or about historical events so far behind us that it's hard to take them seriously. The disturbing thing about Suffragette is how this violent fight for women's rights wasn't that long ago.

This is a film that will have you internally screaming at the backwards minds of the greater population at the time. There are too many scenes of women being silenced by men who view them as lesser beings, or who view themselves as being custodial over women in general -- even the ones that they love. The unfairness of it all is enough to make you want to tear your hair out at certain moments, but also has you rooting so hard for Maude to succeed with spreading the women's message, to make it all worthwhile.

That being said, Suffragette serves as a reminder of the power of numbers. Maude says at a crucial moment, "Women represent half of the population, you can't silence all of us." And she's totally right. Especially today, with the technology at our disposal, one can only hope that movements, like the feminist one and others, can gain the effectiveness of organizations back then, who had to rely on eye-grabbing tactics more effective than Facebook Likes.

My girl Maude got arrested like 5 times.

Not like I'm encouraging people to run around blowing up mailboxes. I think to infer that violence is the answer is to misunderstand the larger message of the film. But if there's one message that Suffragette has for women, and for people in general who have a cause, it's to stand up for what you want. If it's for the greater good, you'll find a following. And if you really believe in it, you have to be willing to fight for it.

8 outa 10. Well made, effective, emotional, and moved quickly. Excellent.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Black Mass: A Film to Satisfy Your Mob-Movie Cravings

Let's face it: everyone is into mob movies. They're violent, dramatic, political, and they keep you on the edge of your seat. The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, Donnie Brasco, The Departed. All of them are totally incredible, multi-layered films.

While Black Mass doesn't quite measure up to the rest of these in terms of complexity, it's a wonderfully made movie that sustains a level of suspense and unease and, if nothing else, will satiate your craving for the old gangster flicks of yesteryear.

The plot follows Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger, a crime boss in Boston in the 1970s-80s. While the film spotlights him in particular, viewers are also witness to his henchmen and to a political alliance that went sour, involving a member of the FBI giving him immunity to do whatever he wanted in exchange for tips that were never provided.

And many illegal steaks.

While I'd be lying if I said this movie wasn't fascinating, don't go into the theater expecting to see another Goodfellas or Departed. The pace of Black Mass is steadier than most gangster movies, because instead of following a member of the gang, they're following the gang leader himself, and with this in mind, the movie turns into more of a character study of Bulger himself than of a full-fledged look at gangster life. Also visibly absent is the usual glamour of the mob lifestyle. While these guys are making tons of money, Bulger is only ever shown wearing jeans and a leather jacket with his signature aviator glasses, and each scene is set in seedy bars and old houses in Southy, with the occasional counterpart in Florida.

Doesn't exactly scream "millionare" does it?

But Black Mass doesn't concern itself with the glitz and glamour of the gangster lifestyle as provided to us by the movies that have come before it (with the exception of Donnie Brasco which is actually somewhat similar). It is not so much focused on the glamour of the lifestyle as much as it is focused on telling the story of Bulger himself, speculation on how he got to be so cold-blooded, the circumstances of his disappearance, etc.

Still, it's hard not to compare Black Mass with other mob movies when there are so many memorable ones. I wish that the story gave us a bit more of a perspective on all of the characters, rather than just focusing on Bulger. I'd love to hear Jimmy Bulger talk about how the things in his life affected the things he did, or hear more elaborate testimony from the people that worked for him, and how the things that he did affect them. But I think another thing that Black Mass tries to do is to remain loyal to the portrayal of Boston people, and if there's one thing that the movie makes very clear, it's that they are not big fans of telling whole truths and full stories.

7.5 outa 10.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Straight Outta Compton: A Refreshing Music Biopic

Maybe it's because they take place in the same-ish era, but that old tale of rags-to-riches is something that we've all seen from What's Love Got to Do With It to The Jacksons: An American Dream to Ray to Walk the Line. Not to say that these aren't great movies, but these unbelievable tales end up sounding increasingly redundant.

That in mind, it's no wonder that Straight Outta Compton is such an incredible breath of fresh air.

The movie follows the origins and breakup of NWA and its members (Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, and DJ Yella) from their roots in gang-riddled Compton to their rise to fame. And it's insane.

The cool thing about Straight Outta Compton is its timeliness (not like our nation hasn't had race problems since forever, but especially with things like Ferguson coming to a head recently) and its refreshing time period. As someone who was born on the East Coast in '89, it's not like I knew a lot about NWA or that I heard a ton about the race riots in L.A. during the time that the movie takes place. But seeing the gang violence and the police reaction to it in the film creates a framework within which you can better understand the rap of NWA. The movie makes an excellent case for the art of these guys that commonly got written off as violent, and as encouraging violence. Ice Cube says at one point that their art describes what they've been through, and that their windows look out onto a different world than the typical American.

It's hard to divulge a ton of details about the plot, because their story takes a lot of turns, but the comprehensive picture that it gives you of the group and of each of the artists makes it a biopic worth watching.

Full disclosure: this movie will also make you hate cops. The amount of times that they get arrested for doing nothing makes their resultant song "Fuck the Police" make a lot more sense than it might objectively. And their raps in general are fucking incredible.

8 outa 10. All in all, it was an amazing biopic. Highly recommend.

The Visit: A Surprising Non-Failure from M. Night

Let's all face it: M. Night Shyamalan has become a bit of a joke in the past few years.

He had us on the fence with Lady in the Water, and for most people The Happening just..wasn't...very...good...

Sorry, bruh.

Those (like myself) who have been silently rooting for him to make a comeback though will be pleasantly surprised with his latest film: The Visit.

Shyamalan's obsession with minimalist titles aside, this movie is pretty fresh for ole M. Night. Taking a leap into the popular handheld camera style, The Visit makes a successful scare that Shyamalan hasn't been able to pull off for a few years.

The movie begins with a mother explaining that she had parted ways with her parents when she was a teenager. After they found her via social media, her kids pushed to spend a week with them in Masonville, PA. The kids are a girl, Becca, who's about 15 and obsessed with becoming a film director (a deviance from the regular mold of "found footage") and her brother, Tyler, who's about 10. While the visit starts off as a fun week with their refound grandparents, their behavior quickly begins to turn from eccentric to downright bizarre as each day goes by. While the kids are quick to explain away the situation to their mother as old people just being old people, they quickly need to rethink their excuse. What is up with these old folks and why are they acting so weird?


I read a really interesting piece about Shyamalan using this movie as a return to his roots and it shows. The plot is pretty straightforward, unlike his befuddling The Happening and Lady in the Water stories. There's no mysticism, no over-explained plot points, and no magic. It's just two really nice kids who are stuck in the middle of nowhere with two old people who are acting increasingly strange. And for some reason that creep factor maintains really well.

As an adult, it's rare to be in a situation where you can't just leave somewhere if weird stuff is happening. But this film does a great job of creating an uneasy sense of being trapped. This in mind, along with the kids' desire to reconcile their grandparents with their mom, makes their willingness to explain away their behavior understandable. Everyone knows a senior citizen that doesn't quite have all their marbles, and so it's easy to believe the kids in the beginning when they're shrugging off their grandparents' behavior as "a little weird" and nothing more. The fact that they're in the middle of nowhere helps this sense too - isolation doesn't exactly encourage normalcy. But the more the kids discover, the harder it is to deny that there is something seriously wrong with these two people - and that they have no way out.


There's also just something so fundamentally creepy about elderly people acting weird. Even the best of us can get a little alarmed when they shoot off with inexplicable behavior. I mean, jeez, I used to get weirded out when my grandma called me by the wrong name - I can't imagine some of the things that these two kids have to go through. Adding to that creep factor is the old adage that you should be respectful to the elderly. Maybe the kids' ultimate downfall is the fact that they're good, polite kids trying to spend quality time with their grandparents. This combo backfires big time.

And it wouldn't be a Shyamalan movie without a good ole-fashioned plot twist! If you keep your eyes open, you can see it coming early-on, but the surprise adds refreshing dimension to what could easily be another Paranormal Activity-esque yarn.

All in all, I was happy to see Shyamalan with a triumph for once. I've been rooting for him for years because of his original story-telling skills and his ability to make even scary movies kind of funny at times. He has a very good grasp on characterization and in this movie it plays pretty well. I do think there were a few things that he did stylistically that don't translate well to the handheld aesthetic, such as what I think was a bit of forced intimacy between the brother and sister. While it adds to their characters, I had a bit of a time believing that they'd open up like they do at some points, especially with a camera in their faces.

That aside, The Visit is an admirable horror movie effort from Shyamalan, and I'm honestly so pleased to have a reason to like him again that that makes the movie even better.

7 outa 10.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Digging for Fire: Sometimes It's Okay to Be Lame

I'd like to take just one minute to yell at the New York Film Critics Series, which led me to believe that Jake Johnson and director Joe Swanberg were going to be IN THE THEATER for a Q&A after the movie. At no point during the ticket-buying process was I made aware that this was a simulcast event that was happening in NYC. Shame on you, NYFCS. Seriously.

ANYWAY. Back to the actual film at hand.

Ignore the weird, Urban Outfitters-esque poster

I'd seen Swanberg's Drinking Buddies and I dug his naturalistic, organic style. He seems to have an interesting fix on good people who get tied up in romantic crises and make stupid decisions, but decisions that (in the long-run) make them realize the value in what they already have.

Okay, that's probably a mouthful to read without knowing what the plot even is, so let's take care of that:

Tim and Lee have been married for several years but are by no means old. In their mid-thirties (I think), they have a young son and while they like each other, they're experiencing some bumps in their marriage. As they house-sit for one of Lee's clients, Tim discovers a bone and a gun buried in the hill adjacent to the house. During a weekend away from each other, Tim takes the opportunity to try and dig up whatever's buried in the side of the hill while Lee has her own adventures. At the end of the weekend they each learn a lot more about themselves and what they want out of their marriage.

And what you find when you dig in hills.

There's something really sweet-sad about Swanberg's movies between this one and Drinking Buddies. They're so relatable on such an uncomfortable level. Anyone who has ever gone through a rough patch in a long relationship knows how easy it is to get curious about what you could be missing out there. While Tim "innocently" bonds with a young girl his friend brings along to a house party, Lee's adventure leads her into the path of a man she meets in a bar. There's an undercurrent of danger there. Is it as simple a fix as temporarily finding someone else who has an interest in you? Is it just the intoxicating possibility that you have options?

Lolz I'm bored.

But what's a little creepy, too, is that these are not bad people. And even though their intentions might not be pure off the bat, the walkabout that they go on over the course of the weekend is interesting. While each of them seems terrified of becoming old and irrelevant, they end their journey learning that their life together is a better adventure than the nostalgia that they feel in looking backwards.

I think that there must be a certain level of "oh no, I'm getting old" for anyone as they age, but it must be especially weird for new parents and young couples. One of my favorite clips in the entire movie is when Tim comments on how it's a widespread thing that older people say how they don't think of themselves as old, but how this, in and of itself, is such a byproduct of actually being old. I think another major thing that Swanberg does really well is to subtly show us how nostalgic Tim and Lee are to be young again, but how, once they live life the way they visualize, they aren't equipped for it anymore. Tim unsuccessfully tries to describe to old party buddies the joys of fatherhood, and Lee impulsively buys a leather jacket. It's only by the end of the film, and after their sordid adventures, that they realize how well-equipped and happy they are in the life that they already had, together.

7.5 outa 10. Good stuff, and makes you think. Well-acted by a great cast and thought-provoking without being overly dramatic or in-your-face.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Gift: Lessons in Stalking and Home Invasion

I know, I know, four posts in one week; what is this, Christmas? Lucky for you guys that I had a free soda coupon burning a hole in my pocket, and repeated requests from a friend to go and see this so she could see what I thought about it. So Regal Loyalty Card and Jennifer Lynn: this is for you guys.


Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Bateman) have just moved to California and are settling into their new neighborhood when Simon bumps into an old acquaintance of his from high school, Gordo (Joel Edgerton). Gordo is a little friendlier than most people might be. He gives them gifts, unprompted, and is constantly stopping by the house to chitchat with Robyn. When his advances get a little too close for comfort, Simon abruptly decides that they shouldn't associate with him anymore. But immediately after cutting ties with Gordo, weird things begin to happen around their house. As Gordo's presence in their lives remains mysterious, Robyn digs up some things that explain just why Gordo is acting so strange and why he's so keen on edging into their lives.

"I'm totally normal. I promise."

While I had heard a lot about how shocking the ending of this was, I've got to say, I wasn't very surprised. While the movie twists itself upside down by the ending, there isn't anything that happens that you couldn't figure out from context clues. That being said, the journey to the end holds your attention and the character evolutions are fascinating for all three main characters.

Honestly, too, the whole "EVERYTHING WAS ACTUALLY BACKWARDS!?" kinds of mind-blowing endings have really run the full gamut lately. It was nice to get little surprises along the way instead of it being one huge big bang at the end.

No mind-blowing here.

But really, the most interesting piece of this movie is its commentary on telling the truth and the impact that your past has on your present. So much remains cloudy for the bulk of the movie, and when everything finally comes to light, bit by bit, the whole story makes a lot of sense. It brings up the importance of the kinds of things that we do offhand that end up having a huge impact on the lives of others, and makes itself a reminder of the importance of being authentic both to yourself and to others. And the long-term consequences of when you're not.

The trio of strong actors in this also makes for wonderful watching. And the cinematography/sound editing makes it super creepy.

7 outa 10. While there was no "OMG" moment, there were a lot of whispered "oh woah"s. Very creepy.

Also, fun fact: this is apparently also written and directed by Edgerton as well. Who knew this Welsh man was so talented?

Irrational Man: Sometimes Philosophy Steers You Wrong

Philosophy is weird. Not bad weird but just weird. It's an amorphous field of study. Even Merriam-Webster's definition of philosophy is sort of all over the place, "the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc." (Like "etc."? Seriously Merriam-Webster? That's about as effective as adding "Or y'know, whatever.") There are infinite ways to speculate about the meaning of life, what humanity is, and how we should operate. Woody Allen's latest, Irrational Man, takes a closer look at the moral ethics sect of philosophy and dives right in.

Irrational Man follows a middle-aged college philosophy professor named Abe (Joaquin Phoenix). Abe is in the doldrums when he arrives at his new post at a small made-up college in New England. He's lost his zest for life, all he ever seems to do is drink, and he is completely self-absorbed in a kind of depressive funk. He ends up befriending one of his students, a girl named Jill (Emma Stone), who finds his philosophy fascinating and ends up falling for him over the course of their friendship. But Abe's doom and gloom view of life takes an odd turn one day when they're hanging out at a local diner and overhear a conversation between people that they've never met. After making up his mind to commit an unspeakable act for the greater good, Abe makes a complete 180 and becomes a sunny, upbeat person who embraces everything life has to offer. But will he actually commit the crime? And what are the real-life consequences if he does?

Looks like a totally rational man, right? Well, spoiler alert: he's not.

For someone whose films are generally made for a sort of lofty, educated (one could even say snobby) kind of audience, Allen takes an interesting look at not only human nature but also the nature of philosophy in general. Throughout the movie, we're given snapshots of Abe's talks on philosophy, objectifying human nature and making theories about the way people are supposed to be living their lives. It's speculative. He even says it himself at one point that "Philosophy is mostly just verbal masturbation." But what's even more interesting as the film moves along is the way that this affects his actions. Determined stop being a bystander in his own life, Abe tries to make his own philosophy a reality. But experience steers him wrong.

As a philosopher, Abe makes sweeping, general observations about the human race, but without taking into account what an individual human life really is. In fact, despite his own admission that philosophy is mostly objective, his fatal mistake is over-objectifying humanity. By seeing one person as a scapegoat for a bigger world problems, he's fueled to make a decision that he thinks will better humanity. But he does it without seeing the reality of what a human life actually is, with all of its bits and pieces, its connections, its routines, its emotions. And without realizing the larger futility of the one act itself.

A not-rational man.

Opposite Abe him is the ever-fabulous Emma Stone as Jill, a naive student who ends up having to make some interesting choices regarding her and Abe and their relationship together. Jill is captivated by his stances on human nature, but it's noted even early-on that she disagrees with a lot of what he says as well. As Abe bcomes more tangled in his own ideas, Jill provides the reality check for us all, and Stone's acting is stupendous.

Honestly, even if you don't want to delve into the ethics of morality, the movie is a beautte. Phoenix and Stone are impeccable actors and this movie really allows them to play to their strengths. Phoenix is great as the totally self-absorbed philosophy professor and Stone plays the college student with a staggering amount of sincerity.

These two OGs.

8.5 outa 10. The movie is one of the most thought-provoking I've seen in a while. An interesting delve into the world of moral ethics and how we define right and wrong.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Vampire Movies That Don't Suck (Haaa)

I'm as big a fan of creature features as anyone, but if there's been one mythical being that's come under harsh scrutinty in the past several years it's gotta be vampires.

With all of the potential that vampires have to be creepy and thought-provoking and strange, it's a DAMN shame that pop culture and dumb teens turned them into sparkly, moody weirdos.

I think we all know who we're talking about here...

But, don't fret my friends. There are plenty of vampire movies out there that totally don't suck. And while there are obviously the ole hokey classics that we know and love (please see: Bram Stoker's Dracula, From Dusk Til Dawn, Lost Boys, etc.) there are lots of vampire movies being made lately that are worth your time.

Let's review!

1. Only Lovers Left Alive

I mean these two actors together. Yes, please, amiright?

Ahhh this old gem. The first time I saw it I was mostly surprised that it had taken someone so long to come up with the concept of vampires falling in love with EACH OTHER (gasp!). Instead of being conflicted with the ole usual of "oh no I'm in love with a human, what do I do, halp" plotline, Adam and Eve (seriously) are two vampires, centuries old, who are madly in love with one another. And this is not the cloying, desperate love that we're so accustomed to seeing in overblown paranormal movies. In fact when the movie begins, they're in two completely disparate places: he's in Detroit, and she's in Tangiers. Their lives come back together soon enough and we're shown that instead of being the primal creatures of the night (although Jarmusch never really lets us forget that either), they're mostly just snobs, lamenting humanity's lack of looking over their own history. This is one for lit nerds, philosophy nerds, musics nerds, and basically all nerds. Only Lovers Left Alive is a fresh look at the old vampire tales. Full review here!

Guitar nerds in particular will appreciate this scene:

2. Thirst

You a vampire yet or what?

Okay, lemme do my weird nerdy thing here, as usual, and take this moment to extol the underratedness of Asian thrillers/horror. Thirst takes us through the travels of a priest, who becomes the victim of a failed medical experiment, which then turns him into a vampire. Adjusting to this new problem, the priest finds some different tastes in his vampire life. The movie, done by Korean master Chan-Wook Park (of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance), is a fantastically creepy commentary on what vampirism means for those who are turned, and how they can (or can't) deal with no longer being human. Again, it's Chan-Wook here, so needless to say it gets a little weird. But if you're looking for a fresh look at this old fairy tale, you'll definitely find it in this movie.

3. Let Me In

Nothing to see here...

The American remake of the Swedish hit (I know, I'm terrible, I still haven't seen the original, sorry!) follows a young boy living in New Mexico who befriends a strange young girl who lives in his apartment complex. Both outcasts, they find comfort in each other. But while the boy is happy to have a new friend, the girl becomes increasingly strange, and the longer they know each other, the more demanding her friendship turns. This is a fascinating turn for the vampire tales we all know, with the vampire in this version being very physically immature despite her centuries-old psyche and the young boy who befriends her being about 11 or 12 years old. More a story of outcasts than anything, the movie focuses on the themes of loneliness, and how the life of a real vampire wouldn't be glamorous at all, but horrifyingly boring and sad.

4. What We Do in the Shadows

Omg, yes, all of it.

Yay! A funny one! A documentary crew gains permission from a house full of vampires to get perspective on their every-day lives. Oh my god. This movie somehow manages to poke fun at all of the stereotypical vampire legends at once. I don't even know if I can do this proper justice by explaining it, but suffice it to say, the movie is freakin' hilarious. Just watch the damn trailer:

5. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night


I hope in the near future they find some way for you to have videos that you can hang up on your wall, a la photos in Harry Potter. Because if that were possible, I'd hang scenes from this movie all over my walls. The cinematography is breathtaking. Shot in black and white, the movie almost reminds me of French new wave or something. The tone is meandering but calculated. Nothing in this movie happens by accident. Our plot follows a woman who stalks the people of a small Iranian town. Her story is spliced with that of a young man named Arash, an all-around good guy who meets her and starts to fall for her, not knowing what she is. But this is far from the Twilight-esque exaggeration of teen hormones. Their characters foil one another in a way that's fascinating and every scene that they share is almost totally tense, with a mixture of danger but also that dumb new-love kind of nervous energy.

I don't usually have a ton of patience for movies with this kind of pacing, but I've gotta say that the music mixed with the angles included in each shot make it worthwhile. I could really nerd out for a full post about how UH-MAZE-ING the cinematography, but suffice it to say, if you have an artistic eye, that alone will hold you over for the entire film. It's freakin' gorgeous. And while the film isn't horror per se, it's edgy enough to keep you on your toes!

Screw the trailer, watch this. And keep in mind that SHE is the vampire. Js.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Mistress America: Greta Gerwig Charms Again...Kinda

I've gotta give Noah Baumbach credit: he's very much a film auteur.* In the same way that Hitchcock fixated on Grace Kelly and Woody Allen used Mia Farrow in every damn thing for a time, Baumbach has the same sort of fixation with Greta Gerwig. Much like in Frances Ha Baumbach makes Gerwig a central quirky character of Mistress America, trying to find her way in the crazy city that is New York.
Mistress America (2015) Poster
We're best friends probably!

The plot follows young Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman who has just moved to NYC to go to school, but who's having a rough time fitting in. The boy she likes doesn't like her back, she can't get into the prestigious lit society, and she's having a terrible time making friends. At her mother's urging, she calls her soon-to-be stepsister to try and make a new friend in the city. Instead of an awkward encounter over coffee, Tracy is swept off her feet by the spontaneous and jubilant Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Getting wrapped up in a tornado of amazing city experiences, Tracy and latches onto Brooke and her plans to start an incredibly unique restaurant in Williamsburg. But just when things start looking up for Tracy, Brooke gets the news that she's lost funding for her project. Trying to remedy everything and save the dream restaurant, Tracy, Brooke, and a motley crew of friends work out what's to be done.

So...let me just say right off the bat that I did like this movie, but it wasn't what I dreamed it would be. Thematically, Baumbach maintains the sort of girl-centric themes that make his other films, like Frances Ha and Zoe Versus, so comically endearing and quirky.


But this isn't Frances Ha. And I think it's hard to go from a movie that you really love, like Frances Ha for me, to a movie that's just...similar. Instead of seeing the movie objectively I feel like I got kind of wrapped up in how Mistress America (which is a damn good title by the way) wasn't like Frances Ha.

Principally, I did not really like the main character. While I think we're supposed to feel endeared to Tracy for being so young and so attached to Brooke so quickly, there was something I found mildly weird and annoying about her. I can't tell if it's my annoyance with high and mighty hipster kids or if she's supposed to be that way on purpose but I just didn't really empathize with her very much.

Brooke, too, is a bit of a letdown. While the movie takes efforts to maintain a lightness despite its complex themes (something I want to commend Baumbauch for, honestly), there's almost a lack of heaviness to the movie that makes it read a bit oddly. Like why is Tracy acting so weird towards her guy friend all of a sudden? How is Brooke a high-functioning adult with so much A.D.D. in regards to her lifestyle? Why is Brooke so mad at Tracy? What are the consequences here? What's going on?

"We're not sure either..."

However, I've got to say, if there's one thing that I did enjoy about the movie, it's that Baumbach is again a trailblazer in making women's films. Instead of pursuing predictable tropes like Brooke or Tracy falling in love with some boy and having that be the central driving theme, it's nice to see a plot that centers around girl friendships and girl identity without taking itself too seriously. Tracy and Brooke spend the film trying to find what makes them happy and, while the film ends without any sort of profound conclusion, it's nice to see these themes play out with them in the spotlight. To elaborate, many times we see female characters try and "find themselves" through romance, but this movie gives them the vehicle of female friendship.

I dunno. Cool theme-wise but the character of Tracy seemed a bit too complex for Kirke to pull off without seeming like she was trying too hard.

7 outa 10, mostly for Baumbach. Not bad, but not as good as Frances Ha.

*Sorry, Breaking out the hoity-toity film lingo again. A film auteur is a director with a marked film style who makes the film according to the way they see it. Or, as defined by our favorite lazy source for everything, Wikipedia: "In film criticism, auteur theory holds that a film reflects the director's personal creative vision, as if they were the primary "auteur" (the French word for "author")."

Monday, July 20, 2015

Trainwreck: An Unsuccessful Anti-Romcom

Amy, Amy, Amy. I was counting on you to flip everything upside down, poke fun at romcom tropes, reverse the typical commitment-phobia trend, and have a ton of misadventures with weird guys and too much booze. But Trainwreck wasn't quite the fun-fest I thought it was going to be.

Our plot:

Amy is a (wait for it...) trainwreck. Idolizing her dad, she makes a joke of how her life revolves around sleeping around, smoking weed, and drinking too much.


In typical romcom format, the girl gets swept off her feet by a guy. In this case, the guy is a sports surgeon named Aaron (Bill Hader). And then Amy is forced to reevaluate her life choices.

Um...that's kind of it.

The nice thing about Trainwreck is that it tries to stand the familiar trope of romcoms on its head--that being that the girl is completely taken by the guy and then has to make him see that commitment is the only way to live your life. By contrast, Amy is vehemently against being stuck with someone and Aaron (Bill Hader) is adorable in trying to win her over. As a couple, they are refreshingly normal in a lot of ways. Amy isn't overly emotional or being played by some ridiculously hot actress who ends up with somebody as humdrum as Bill Hader. And it's nice to see that whole thing work out for them in the end.

(I'm sorry, Bill Hader, I'm not insinuating anything here but you are 
really unusually ordinary looking for a romantic lead, bless your heart.) 

But for all the hype that they make in the trailers about how she sleeps around and drinks too much and does dumb stuff like that, the movie doesn't spend a ton of time indulging in Amy's behavior. Honestly the movie doesn't really revel in her terrible ways at all. And unlike movies that just roll in that kind of thing like Bad Santa or Bad Teacher (hmm...maybe they should've called this Bad Trainwreck...), Trainwreck seems to have too much heart to fully endorse its own joke. Amy's bad behavior, on the contrary, comes off as childish and inappropriate as opposed to funny. She has this fantastic boyfriend, a renowned surgeon, and while he's off doing responsible surgeon things she's hungover and smoking weed. It's supposed to be funny, but somehow it's kind of not.

Actually, come to think of it, I think the major problem with Trainwreck is that it tries too hard to be a romance when it should be more of a comedy. Whereas in Appataw's other movies you have ensemble casts building relationships and creating identities of their own, there just seem to be a TON of bit parts in Trainwreck. I barely recognized Tilda Swinton, who absolutely murders it as Amy's boss (I mean, duh, she's Tilda Fucking Swinton, why is she even in this movie?), John Cena has a hilarious bit part as her freakin boyfriend in the beginning, and one of the things I enjoyed most about the whole movie were the one-liners by LeBron James. But none of these characters really end up getting fully developed.


Unlike Appataw's Knocked Up or 40-Year-Old Virgin, there isn't any group of friends huddling around Amy. This seems to be a key component missing, as we're left to judge her behavior ourselves without the sounding board of any other people, besides the watery office colleague (Vanessa Bayer), her silent sister (Brie Larson) and her father (Colin Quin). Without the group banter, which makes Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin work so well, we're left to view Amy as a black sheep against the personalities of the other women characters who are either super conservative or don't have personalities at all.

Juuuust the twooo of uuuus.

Long story short, Trainwreck has too much heart to be a good comedy and too much raunch to be considered a good romance. Caught in the middle, we're left with some heavy character development that seems too heavy for a night of fun, and a lot of small, funny bits that don't quite string together to form a cohesive plot.

Eh. 6 outa 10. There were some funny parts, and Bill Hader is super endearing as the doofy, earnest sports surgeon, but this isn't as funny as I thought it was going to be.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Magic Mike XXL: This Time Strippers Are Just Strippers

Before we dive into this review, before y'all put on your Judgement Glasses, let it just be known that I saw this movie for free and had I not been invited to go see it with a colleague, I'd probably just wait to watch it on my parents' cable at 3am like any self-respecting human being.

Okay, let's do this.

Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) has made his original dream of designing furniture (don't act like you haven't seen the first one) into a reality. Making custom pieces and selling it has become his new employment and his days of stripping are over. Until he receives a phone call from some of his old buddies who are still in "the business." Heading down to Myrtle Beach (of all places??) for the year's national Stripper Convention (I sincerely hope that this is a real thing), Mike decides to make one last hurrah for all of stripperdom.

This poster kind of says it all, doesn't it?

-Sigh-. start....

So...the interesting thing about this round of gratuitous six-packed men parading around with their six packs grinding on things and showing off their six packs, is that they don't even have to pretend that there's a message in this movie.

Except six packs. 
Six packs are a very important part of the message of XXL

I actually genuinely liked Magic Mike, the original, because it had something to say about being in a shitty industry and wanting to get out of it. The stripper part was shoved in our faces, sure, but there was also a lot of exposure--pun only partially intended--of what this kind of an industry can do to you (spoiler alert: bad things). Magic Mike also took pains to have a soul, featuring a sweet romance and letting Channing Tatum show off the adorable awkward-in-love acting chops that all of us ladies melt over.

XXL by contrast owns up to it's commercial, excessive name. Instead of focusing on Mike's actual life, we get to watch as he powers up for one last strippery party of drinking, drugs, nudity, and general debauchery.

Instead of reading like Magic Mike's cautionary tale of what not to get wrapped up in, Magic Mike XXL hits you like a drug and alchohol-fueled night out with a surprising lack of consequences.

The one thing that I did find hilarious about XXL is that it makes a lame attempt at giving these guys the chance to express their dreams for after they're done stripping. But--get this--the way that they express these dreams is through (drum roll): stripping. The huge finale gives these guys the chance to strip in acts that feature their coveted futures.

Spoiler alert: not actual wedding.

This isn't to say that Magic Mike XXL isn't a good time. While I hit my limit at watching these guys grind into women's ecstatic faces (I really don't get it.) there are plenty of laughs and plenty of glorious male eye candy to keep you entertained for the full 2 hours.

Which, let's be real, is probably why people went to go see the original one.

All in all, XXL lives up to its name. Hope you're into well-defined abs and Channing Tatum dance routines.

Reasons to watch:
1. Channing Tatum's dance to "Pony"
2. Channing Tatum's dance at the end
3. Channing Tatum's dance in Atlanta
4. Channing Tatum.

Sorry, not sorry.

5 outa 10. I could do without the male thongs.

I'm embarrassed to show this trailer. But, here you go:

Monday, June 15, 2015

Jurassic World: Because the Park Just Wasn't Big Enough

I don't think I really have to say it, but I'm never insanely jazzed about sequels. The bulk of them lack the flavor of the originals and get caught up in details that are totally irrelevant and don't add anything to the plot, characters, or larger message (see also: remakes).

However, for the obvious theater bait that Jurassic World is, it actually ends up being a really decent film.

Basically, they sidestep the fact that the last three films had made the park abandoned and at this point, in the world of today the park is an insane success a la Disney World with prehistoric animals. This new park is run by workaholic Clare (Bryce Dallas Howard). The dinosaurs are maintained to the point that people don't find them insanely interesting anymore. To combat the public's boredom, they manufacture a new dinosaur to shake things up a bit. Needless to say, the animal is smarter than they've bargained for and they soon have to track it down before it starts killing everything in its path. As Clare tries to find her nephews, who are at the park on a visit, she's joined by raptor research scientist and trainer Owen (Chris Pratt, you beautiful bastard). Together the four of them band together to try and shut down the rogue dinosaur and escape the horrors of the park.


Once more, it's beyond me why you'd want to try and upstage the great Steven Spielberg, but hey, you got your Chris Pratt, you got your genetically modified plot, and you've got a few other tricks up your sleeve, so at least you're not attempting to mimic the insane greatness that was the original. You're doin' pretty good.

Jurassic World's success also leans heavily on the fact that director Colin Trevarro keeps the content pretty fresh. Even though a lot of the movie is given away in the trailers, there's still enough in the actual film to keep you on your toes.

Characterization isn't horrible either. While we see some predictable tropes from the workaholic aunt who finally realizes the value of her family to the kids who are sent away because their aprents are getting to divorced to even the hidden agenda of a certain mercenary, they're vehicles for the plot and effects and that ends up being okay. Dallas Howard and Pratt have a surprising amount of chemistry, which was a nice addition to the movie, and little elbow nudge bits keep the audience interested without getting carried away.

I guess my point is this: Jurassic World doesn't reinvent the wheel, but instead innovates what's already there. We want to see more of this franchise because: 1. The first movie is so good and 2. because dinosaurs are hard to keep interesting outside of this sort of plot. I mean, think about it, besides Disney, who has had the balls to tackle dinosaurs since Steven Spielberg invented that market in the 90s?

But instead of the old characters in new situations like the other sequels have relied on, this one takes a fresh approach with new characters, a modern plot (genetic modification couldn't be more relevant right now), and insane CGI innovations that make them that much scarier.

Like holy crap, do yourself a favor and click on this. The details are insane.

Long story short: Jurassic World is a damn decent sequel. Even if it doesn't live up to the impossibly high standards of the original, it makes the same social commentary that the original does, entertains, and is impeccably executed in terms of special effects.

8 outa 10. I was pleasantly surprised.

Obviously I don't have to show you the trailer at this point, so here's a clip.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Poltergeist: A Letdown of a Remake

Let me just straight-up say that I was not expecting this movie to be a winner. First of all, why anyone would attempt to remake anything done by Steven Spielberg is beyond me. Second of all, when you try to remake a movie like Poltergeist, you can't just slap a bunch of the regular horror fodder on the screen and expect people to be okay with it.

Anyway. Mandatory brass tacks:

The family (don't remember their names) has just moved to some development somewhere because the dad (Sam Rockwell) has lost his job as an executive at John Deere (somehow, the director wanted to get some product placement in there?). Anyway, the fam is freshly moved in and weird stuff starts happening (how craAaAaAazy!) like the little boy's room has a creepy little room in it filled with boxes of old clown dolls, the older daughter's iPhone gets fried, and some other less creepy stuff. Then (as if I had to say it) little Madison gets sucked into the TV and all hell breaks loose (pun intended). As the family tries to get her back, enlisting the help of a university's paranormal investigation team, they learn more about the sinister nature of the land they now own.

Spoiler alert.

Here's the thing: the original Poltergeist is a classic horror movie. And it's not really because of all the freaky stuff that the house inflicts on the family within it: it's the family itself. The chemistry between all of them, the false sense of normalcy that hovers over them, the way they band together when Carol Ann goes missing, the way that the parents love each other, and even the connections that they make with the various people that try to help them. It's great acting. And it's scares that have nothing to do with immediate threats of danger, and everything to do with saving their kids from evil. And that is what's missing from this remake.

There is no chemistry in this family. Roles are played flatly and even bit parts that are supposed to endear them to the audience fall to the wayside as the parents get bewilderingly glib after their daughter disappears.

"Wow, in the TV huh? Weird. We should probably get her out of there. At some point." 

Additionally, and this is a bigger problem with horror movies these days in general, they make everything WAY too complicated. We don't care that the family has no money. We don't care that the dad lost his job. We don't care why you moved here. We actually also don't care that you moved here at all. In fact, I would argue that it is the absence of conflict that makes the original so scary and so unsettling, and the excess of conflict that makes the newer version so boring. The family'd been living in the house for a while in the original, making the scares that much more random and unexpected, while new house horror isn't exactly groundbreaking.

Actually, I think that is my general problem with this movie. It tries too damn hard at something that came across as effortless in the original. The thing that so many neglect to acknowledge about good horror--especially otherworldly horror!-- is that it doesn't demand a lot of complexity. The nature of it is that it's inexplicable, so the goal of the director shouldn't be to make the inexplicable especially complicated. We should have the gist of what it is and then get absorbed by the performances and the scares.

See??? Look at how normal!

The original Poltergeist can be summed up in two sentences: "Our daughter just got sucked into another plane by an evil presence in the house. We will do anything to get her out of there."

By contrast, the new version would go something like this: "We really have no money right now and this house is all we can afford and weird things are happening oh man where'd our daughter go... Good thing we never interact with anyone outside our home. Wait, let's enlist some paranormal experts. Here's some jokes about paranormal things, haha, we are all surprisingly well adjusted despite the fact our daughter is lost in the spirit realm--wonder how she's doing in there--anyway, here's this guy to explain what's happening and give us a haphazard way to get her back, some serious CGI effects, blah blah blah, some thoughts about the nature of fear, aaaand welp that's all folks!"

"Oh also, here's a box of clown dolls. Because normal."
(Wtf, why would you have a box of clown dolls in your new house,
why would you not get rid of those -- NOT NORMAL. ENOUGH WITH THE

4 outa 10. Not the worst I've seen but comparitively just a terrible idea.