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A Monster in Paris

Posted : 1 week, 2 days ago on 8 August 2018 09:53 (A review of A Monster in Paris)

Charming and frustrating in near equal amounts, A Monster in Paris is a likeable animated trifle that tries to find equilibrium between laughs, scares, and musical interludes. Think of it as a baby proof Phantom of the Opera mixed with bits of the Universal Monsters franchise and King Kong. It’s a shame that this brief description is more interesting than the actual film.


A Monster in Paris has a simple, engaging setup, and then never quite populates it with rich characters, memorable songs, or a narrative that requires a feature-length running time. This would have made one hell of strong, smart, wonderful short film. I mean, it’s about a gigantic flea that gets disguised as a human and winds up being the performing partner of a cabaret singer. That’s delightfully weird. That’s more than enough story to function as a setup, yet it often plays second-fiddle to the romantic anguish of a projectionist prone to dreaming and his best friend, a delivery boy.


That’s where A Monster in Paris frequently loses steam as it also provides ample space for a generic villain to wander in and deflate the emotional investment we may or may not have been building in these characters troubles. Frankly, I wanted to spend more time with the singing, guitar playing super-flea and far less with the human characters. Plenty of fascinating and unexplored terrain go by the wayside in favor of love’s labors lost and won. C’mon, give me more of our projectionist’s found footage monster discovery, more of the dream world of his, and far more of the monster skulking about Paris.


In fact, you’ll have a hard time remembering much of the human character’s journeys, but you’ll definitely remember the monster and the more adventurous sequences. Case in point, the opening sequence plays out like a film reel from 1910. Imagine if the entire movie had been animated in that gauzy, sepia-toned manner? Can’t say there’s been too many films like that just floating around. A Monster in Paris is cute, it’s fun, but it could have been so much more.   

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Ratchet & Clank

Posted : 1 week, 2 days ago on 8 August 2018 08:41 (A review of Ratchet & Clank)

Movies based on video games are a rough subgenre to find yourself watching. They’re often incapable of deciding whether they want to straight up adapt the video game franchise, function as their own story, or occupy some strange middle ground between the two. Ratchet & Clank winds up being one of those middle ground movies, but it’s still one of the better video game adaptations.


Shame that it wasn’t more unique as the plot manages to take the quirky, irreverent, Looney Tunes-esque characters from the video game franchise and smooth them out into generic shapes and archetypes. Plenty of animated films showcase shallow characters in their main roles, but the Galactic Rangers, corporate bad guys, and mad scientists on display here feel like loners from the back of central casting. Oh well, at least the animation is uniformly nice, there’s sparks of life and insouciant humor, and a few of the voice actors make a positive impression (John Goodman going gruff but sweet, Sylvester Stallone in self-parody mode, and Paul Giamatti playing oilly even in animation).


The video games have personality and verve bursting from every polygon and double entendre laced title. Frankly, you’d be better served skipping out on this and playing the PS4 game instead. That manages to strike a successful balance between developed characters, nice animation, an engaging story, and providing a sense of infectious anarchy that’s quite pleasing.  

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The Daughter of Dawn

Posted : 1 week, 2 days ago on 8 August 2018 07:15 (A review of The Daughter of Dawn)

The Daughter of Dawn is more of a historical curiosity then it is a successful movie. Populated entirely by Native American actors, The Daughter of Dawn is one of the few dramatic westerns that places them within the heroic and romantic contexts and not as the unseen other descending upon the routinely white heroes. It’s worth watching for this reason, but even at a brisk 83 minutes this thing still manages to plod along.


The problem here is that too much emphasis is placed on the tragic romantic triangle aspect, and even this early in cinema this was a stiff jointed narrative. The Daughter of Dawn is much better and engaging when it relaxes into documentary-style observation. There’s an authenticity to the performances, glimpses of daily life, and smaller moments here that’s absorbing for how specific it is when compared to the broad strokes you’d later on. The indigenous actors get to be active participants and objects instead of mere passive or reactive supporting players and villains.


Yes, it is amateur in many ways, plodding in its narrative, but it’s still worth watching for its historical import. Filmed between 1919, screened in 1920, then languished and long thought lost until rediscovery in 2005, and finally premiering in 2012, The Daughter of Dawn adds another passage to the history of American cinema. It’s just a damn shame that it’s not an all-around better movie.

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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Posted : 1 week, 2 days ago on 8 August 2018 07:15 (A review of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close)

Cloying in the extreme, not just for the ways it exploits a tragedy but for the myriad of ways it treats its protagonist as a bundle of quirks and not as an actual character, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the crassest of Oscar bait. Shameless in its extraction of tears and manipulation of emotions, Extremely Loud demands you cry and feel something, all the while presenting its story and images in the sterile, busily edited, dimly lit house style of questionable Academy tastes. There’s nothing beneath the surface here, and even the surface is insufferable as it wraps up 9/11 in Leave It to Beaver garments. Well, if the Beave was an autistic kid lashing out against his mother and meeting an ensemble of quirky supporting characters played by too talented actors wasting time. Only Max von Sydow’s mute performance and a scene where Sandra Bullock’s frazzled, grieving mother has to explain that sometimes bad things happen without a “why” or reason attached manage to escape the grossly synthetic completely unscathed.

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Posted : 3 weeks, 1 day ago on 26 July 2018 08:29 (A review of Believe)

Cher’s return to dance music, a decision she expressed indifference towards in the run-up to the album’s release, is something of a generic affair on Believe. She sings any ol’ piece of crap thrown before her like her life depends on it, which means she’s a good diva but it also leads to a sense of boredom. She only puts in some personality into her vocals on a handful of songs, “Strong Enough,” “All or Nothing,” and the title song, and the rest get the bare minimum effort. It doesn’t help that a lot of this material is nondescript, like “Taxi Taxi,” a song that sounds like every cliché late-80s club hit grinding together, or “Dov’e L’amore,” a snoozy near-ballad. Hell, “All or Nothing” borrows an unmistakable Donna Summer groove for a bit, and much of Believe is borrowed instead of inspired. Her Royal Cher-ness ends this album with a remix of a near-decade old pop/rock tune, but she at least gave us gays one hell of anthem nearly in spite of herself.  


DOWNLOAD: “Believe” 

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Gold: Greatest Hits

Posted : 3 weeks, 1 day ago on 26 July 2018 04:08 (A review of Gold: Greatest Hits)

ABBA’s never shied away from compilation albums, and if the two-disc The Definitive Collection is too expensive or too overwhelming a selection then Gold: Greatest Hits is the single-disc collection to own. At nineteen songs, this is the best of the best of the best of ABBA’s impressive run of singles.


Their debut album’s, Ring Ring, innocence and camp-adjacent material is ignored in favor of their gargantuan hits like “Fernando” and “Mamma Mia.” Chronological order is jettisoned in favor of a sequence that plays like a glorious concert setlist. We open with “Dancing Queen,” close with “Waterloo,” and find time to revisit all the beloved staples in-between (“Take a Chance on Me,” “Lay All Your Love on Me”).


Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad provide the ice and fire vocals, and frequently harmonize into something absolutely transcendent. While Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus do the heavy-lifting of writing the material and producing it into a smooth finish. What emerges is how masterful their vision of pop music was and remains.


ABBA’s legacy languished post-The Visitors, their final studio recording, and Gold launched them back into pop cultural prominence and placement within the canon. Shimmery and finely crafted, Gold: Greatest Hits is the purest distillation of the agonies and ecstasies of these Swedish pop masterminds. They earn the golden crown emblazoned on the cover.


DOWNLOAD: “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” “Dancing Queen,” “The Winner Takes It All”

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The Singles: The First Ten Years

Posted : 3 weeks, 3 days ago on 24 July 2018 08:01 (A review of The Singles: The First Ten Years)

The best vinyl-era greatest hits release of the Scandinavian quartet is twenty-three songs of pop excellence. Released in November 1982, ABBA would disband in December but what a swan song to go out on! The Singles: The First Ten Years represents the group's various transitions: from vivacious kitsch (“Ring, Ring,” “So Long”) to elegant pop (“Dancing Queen,” “SOS”), from sophisticated artistes (“The Winner Takes It All,” “Voulez-Vous”) to their experimental final singles (“Under Attack,” “The Day Before You Came”). There’s a few glaring omissions, the sensual come on of “Lay All Your Love on Me” and the self-mythology of “Thank You for the Music” are both deeply missed, but The Singles is still pound for pound one of the towering testaments to the power of the pop single. An absolutely essential addition to your vinyl collection – seek this out.


DOWNLOAD: “Waterloo,” “Under Attack,” “The Day Before You Came”

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Tropic Thunder

Posted : 1 month, 1 week ago on 11 July 2018 08:49 (A review of Tropic Thunder (2008))

You ever looked at Heart of Darkness, not the novel but the documentary about making Apocalypse Now, and think but what if it were a comedy? If the answer is no, then you’re clearly most people and not Ben Stiller. Props to Ben Stiller for deciding to take the piss out of the entire construct of prestige projects, auteurs, and ego-centric actors with Tropic Thunder.


It’s an entertaining 107 minutes, one that hurls a string of jokes at you, most of which land, and then rolls off into the credits happy to have entertained. It has no grander ambitions and thank god for that. It’s fun to watch Ben Stiller play a movie star trying to go serious, and perhaps a bit uncomfortably reflective at points given how he’s forsaken these types of films in favor of smaller scale character dramas lately. Same goes for Jack Black playing a comic actor big on fart humor not only trying to go serious but dealing with a massive heroin addiction that leads to some…unique verbal diatribes.


It’s at its zenith when it sits back and lets Robert Downey Jr. rip into overly Method-y actor types, like the great Daniel Day-Lewis, who torture and contort themselves for their art and begin to believe the fantasy is real. His character is a tightrope here, at once a joke about overly serious/earnest artistic types and essentially appearing in blackface. That last bit is baked into the film’s humor and treated with appropriate derision and lampoonery, mainly by a rapper-turned-actor dubbed Alpa Cino (Brandon T. Jackson). 2008 was a glorious return to form for Downey Jr. as an actor, between this and Iron Man, and a reminder of what a great comedic actor he can be when allowed to rapid-fire dialogue and find the truth in the absurdity. I’m sure he had plenty of ammo after working with Val Kilmer in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.


Still, comedy is hard to maintain for a prolonged period of time, and Tropic Thunder’s eventual concession to make goods, happy endings, and brotherly bonds deflates some of its sharper critiques. This is a movie that opens with Stiller’s character being rightly chastised and spoofed for a poorly made film about a disabled character in a clear bid for artistic credibility and awards, then ends with his receiving those exact things. Tropic Thunder wants to have its cake and eat it too, as if it were afraid to maintain its savage tone for too long.


Or the egos got brittle and in the way. They needed some soothing after the lashing they’d been receiving. It’s not earned and ends the film on a curious note after what was a lively, raucous glimpse at actorly self-absorption and a nearly unrecognizable Tom Cruise going beyond “ham” and into something far bigger, broader, and stranger. It can’t dilute the comedic might of what came before, but it’s an unsatisfying climax.

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Little Women

Posted : 1 month, 1 week ago on 11 July 2018 08:49 (A review of Little Women)

Confession: I have never read Little Women. Despite this, the story is one that is so familiar and become such a collected part of the fabric of Americana that I know the story’s general beats, character types, and basic plot. After all, there’s been three major film adaptations, several done on television, and it made a memorable appearance as a topic of discussion in an episode of Friends.


I generally like the warmth, love, and proto-feminist aura that the story provides. Here’s a safe haven for young girls where their intellectual curiosity is not only accounted for but strongly encourage. One where girls band together to make it through life’s various difficulties and grow into the best versions of themselves. Its enduring popularity makes perfect sense to me.


So, here’s 1994’s beloved adaptation with a stellar cast, more emphasis placed on the feminist undertones, and a general vibe of self-esteem, love, support, and nurturing. The warmth found in this movie is intoxicating. It’s a vision of American possibility and hopeful optimism that I want to believe in. It’s also just one hell of a movie.


Walking into this one would expect a soft-edged children’s film made from Louisa May Alcott’s indelible novel of the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Director Gillian Armstrong is instead more preoccupied with crafting the story in as natural a manner as possible. She succeeds from the first frame to the last. When we first visit the March family, huddled together around a modest Christmas Eve celebration during the Civil War, they feel like a real familial unit complete with sibling’s alternating between squabbling and supporting each other and a matron trying to keep it all afloat.


There’s a pleasing, nurturing vibe to this home, and that nostalgic aura projects throughout the rest of the film. Armstrong has managed to make a well-known, well-worn story feel vibrantly alive first through setting an appropriate tone for the material, then by assembling a strong group of actresses for the various parts. It starts with Susan Sarandon as Marmee, who strikes that delicate balance between authority figure and nurturer. It extends to relatively few male figures that appear throughout, such as Christian Bale and Eric Stoltz as the neighbor boy and his tutor, and Gabriel Bryne as a German professor.  


Yet the real success of the film is on the ensemble of actresses in the parts of the sisters. Kirsten Dunst gives another preternaturally strong and lived-in performance as the young Amy, while Samantha Mathis’ older Amy feels like the logical outgrowth of Dunst’s, Claire Danes plays the doomed Beth with underlining serenity that makes her exit from the narrative all the tougher to watch. While Trini Alvarado’s Meg is a glimpse of a young actress giving the type of performance that should’ve led to bigger, better roles. It somehow didn’t, but Alvarado’s work matches that of Winona Ryder’s Jo, and that’s no small feat.


Ryder did several most corset/costume dramas during her 90s heyday than you probably remember, and her Jo is one of the strongest performances from that string of films. She’s headstrong, passionate, and smart. She wants to be more than whatever preconceived notions of femininity the era offers her, and she’s forcible enough to walk that path happily. After the more duplicitous and unnervingly still work in The Age of Innocence, Ryder went for the complete opposite here in a dynamic display of her range. She deserved that Best Actress nomination.


If only Little Women hadn’t forced her into a “happy ending” that feels like a concession to social mores of the time. Jo’s engagement to the German professor feels like an after-thought, as I’m sure it probably does in the book, when it’s clear that she would’ve been perfectly happy to go about her life single, childless, and writing up a storm. At least Ryder and Byrne make several small moments leading up the climatic ending feel like a connection of the mind and hearts, as if their relationship will be built upon something more than station, social maneuvering, or finances.


It’s this home stretch of Little Women that gets a bit wonky as Armstrong’s firm grip on the material slackens ever so slightly in spots. It’s easier to manage four girls when they’re all under one roof, but exponentially harder once they start marrying and moving off into their new lives. Still, Armstrong’s film remains remarkably solid, engaging, and hypnotically innocent until the very end. If nothing else, it also gave a generation of girls these words from Marmee: “Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind.” That’s enough to give this version of Little Women high marks.

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 1 July 2018 05:58 (A review of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For)

One of the graphic novels of Sin City, a collection of short stories involving major and minor characters from throughout the books, is named Booze, Broads, and Bullets. Those three words boil down Sin City to its most basic components, and this reduction is evident in this long gestating sequel. A sequel that’s so bad that it makes you call into question your enjoyment of the original.


Sure, there’s a few moments where everything is flowing along nicely, but they’re incredibly rare. The film is best when it sticks to the older narratives and far away from anything creator Frank Millar has recently penned. The ultimate failure of A Dame to Kill For is that more than half of it is occupied by original material, and it only underscores how far Millar’s writing has fallen in recent years.


A Dame to Kill For is still visually eye-popping, but it’s a world of artifice where sex, violence, and death no longer have any weight or consequences. This is pulpy noir on steroids, and it leaves behind the more important aspects of that genre’s effectiveness: mystery, danger, interesting characters and quotable dialogue. Sin City had real conflicts powering through its narratives, and it took the occasional moments of silence to really power through the visual audacity and mayhem to leave behind something real.


The problems start with the opening short, a patented ludicrous thing taken verbatim from Booze, Broads, and Bullets called “Just Another Saturday Night.” It finds Marv waking up in the middle of a car crash and retracing his steps to figure out how he got his infamous black jacket. It could be fun, but even the short story was more concerned with “cool” looking moments of violence than telling a coherent story, so it translates over. Of course, when you use three of the best storylines in one film that does tend to leave behind some of the weaker ones for a sequel, except the title story is one of the strongest.


So it was on the printed page, so it is in the film. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is frankly sloppy until we get to that particular story, and then things start gelling for a brief period of time. Thank Eva Green and Josh Brolin for finding the right tone of dead-eyed seriousness and joyful kitsch in their line readings as femme fatale and lovable brute. Not even the woefully bad makeup on Stacy Keach and Mickey Rourke can distract from the fun and brutality on display here, but that vibe doesn’t last long enough.


We’re quickly thrown back to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wasted talents in a generic tale of card sharks and a duplicitous Senator. Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe, still dripping oily menace) was an overheated character in the comics, but the two original stories orbiting around him and adding to his evil and powerful overreach transform him into a comical, borderline ridiculously corrupt caricature. Even worse is how much of a livewire, quirky actor like Gordon-Levitt is reduced to another lovable brute, Lady Gaga is sacked with a generic bit-part, and genuine weirdo Christopher Lloyd isn’t given enough to do.


Then we end with the much-teased Nancy revenge story, a storyline that’s been promised since the first one was such a surprise hit. It turns out to be a limp thing that attaches itself to That Yellow Bastard but cannot summon up quite as much pathos and earned empathy as that story did. Jessica Alba is there, once again wearing a bad blond wig and playing a stripper that doesn’t actually take anything off, Bruce Willis cameos, and Marv shows up again. It’s more of things people liked in the first one but rearranged in a way that suggests that Millar’s lost the plot on what it was that people liked about these original stories in the first place.


And that’s what lingers in the mind while watching A Dame to Kill For. Whereas the first film was equally as violent and sexual, it knew when to pause the voiceover narration, the quips, the barrage of bullets long enough to marinate in the atmospherics on display and allows its actors to display some personality. A Dame to Kill For neuters those strengths in favor of doing the opposite, so it all looks the same but doesn’t feel the same. It somehow feels even flatter than the paper the stories were originally printed on.

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