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Upstream Color

Posted : 4 hours, 49 minutes ago on 23 June 2017 04:01 (A review of Upstream Color)

A confession: I eventually had to abandon Upstream Color with 30 minutes left to go. Look, you can bombard me with as much abstract and bizarre imagery as you want, but without a tether or reason to care about the abstract oddities, I will not care or invest my brain power and empathy into it.


Puzzle box movies are something of a mixed bag for me, as I can easily find many of them more in love with their own peculiarity and denseness than being actually involving or engaging pieces of art. Upstream Color is in love with its own impenetrability and vagueness that you could argue that this film is about anything at all. Or, it’s actually not about anything but its own disorienting schisms of time, place, narrative, and character.

 

It’s damn ambitious, I’ll give it that, but I just didn’t care. The first section intrigued me where Amy Seimetz’s character is kidnapped, forced to swallow a mind-controlling maggot creature, undergoes a transplant with a pig, and performs a series of bizarre actions leaving her destitute and battered. Then we skip forward a year, Shane Carruth, not content merely to be a one-man production house on this film, also stars as a love interest. It is here that I stopped caring at quickly accelerating pace. Their love story just didn’t interest me, and the elliptical connections to the first half never paid off despite the obvious bread crumbs.

 

There’s beauty to be found here, and a commendable sense of visual film-making but an antiseptic flavor overpowers everything. Upstream Color doesn’t merely keep you at an arm’s length, but keeps you a distance, confuses you, and then smiles at you with a sense of unearned importance. It doesn’t help that I’m getting seriously tired of straight, middle-class white male angst and romantic troubles overpowering everything. Imagine if we had just stayed with Seimetz’s character alone throughout the journey as she’s by far the more interesting and dynamic personality, both as written and as performed. I wonder if Carruth can make a passionate film and not merely a series of calling card projects. He seems talented enough, so I wouldn’t entirely write him off.



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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Posted : 5 hours, 5 minutes ago on 23 June 2017 03:46 (A review of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night)

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a beautiful nightmare dipped in a silvery varnish. The narrative thrust of the film doesn’t matter, what matters is the evocative mood and daring visual sense of prior and encroaching gloom and doom. It seems only natural that a vampire would thrive among these streets, but it’s a bit of a shock that she looks like Jean Seberg in Breathless and dances around in her room to 80s pop (check the Madonna and Michael Jackson posters in her room).

 

Not only is this a vampire film, and something of a dystopian science-fiction mood piece, but clearly indebted to westerns, mainly the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. Sheila Vand, the girl of the title, stands and swaggers around like she’s the Man with No Name. I guess she would be the Vampire with No Name here, but she radiates a sense of cloistered danger that seeps out whenever her sense of moral indignation goes off. Otherwise, she’s positively girlish, in an abstracted way, in how she spends much of her time in her apartment listening to pop music and applying makeup. Vand’s vampire feeds as much off of the blood of drug dealers as she does on ephemera of pop culture.

 

Then there’s Arash Marandi’s handsome dreamer, so corruptible and dressed like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Marlon Brando in The Fugitive Kind, depending on how you look at it. Marandi frequently becomes something of a damsel-in-distress, and Vand the avenging vigilante swooping in to rescue him and fall into a muted form of attraction and sexual desire. With his kissable lips and soulful eyes, Arash Marandi is an obvious pinup object for any girl, or gay boy, to swoon over and want to protect.

 

It’s consistently fun to witness how the film flips the genders around even if it lapses into full-scale blunt force trauma. No one could ever accuse A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night of being subtle about its politics and machinations, but it does so with a full-bodied commitment that is admirable. Even its strange diversions, glimpses of neighborhood denizens doing mundane actions that have nothing to do with the main thrust of the story, are performed with a theatrical commitment that would make even the most diehard of Broadway babies blush and comment that they maybe should tone it down. 



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Yelling to the Sky

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 26 May 2017 08:19 (A review of Yelling to the Sky)

Is my problem with Yelling to the Sky that it doesn’t have a story, but is merely a formless movie that follows around a character in her emotional development. My problem with it is that there’s nothing to gleam from it. It feels like the result of filming a group of actors going through exercises and scene ideas without any framework to help guide them. There’s plenty of texture but nothing to tether it.


None of this is the fault of Zoë Kravitz, who captures your attention throughout with as much as an impassive glance. Her transition from victim to victimizer could have been a stronger narrative focus, and Kravitz does well in demonstrating what she’s been asked to play. The problem is that writer/director Victoria Mahoney doesn’t let any of this material register as more or less important as any of the other incidents and developments. Emotional resonance is imperative in a successful drama, and Yelling to the Sky’s rage, anger, and emotional heft is all located in the title and refuses to trickle out into any other places.


Mahoney’s few instances of stylisitic excursions provide the only moments of attention grabbing movie-making throughout the duration. When she shakes off the vérité style and adds some flare, not only do we suddenly care about everything going with these characters, but we’re actually absorbed into their interior lives. Yelling to the Sky is more of a disappointment for having a lot of good material to work with on paper, but the lack of energy or emotional feeling leaves it more mutely staring at the sky.



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Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 26 May 2017 03:58 (A review of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day)

Giddy and buoyant, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a modern day variation of a screwball comedy. Picturing players like Carole Lombard as Delysia, Marie Dressler as Miss Pettigrew, and Robert Taylor as Michael should give you an idea about the type of movie we’re talking about. It’s full-throttle and completely committed to its artifice, and that’s not a bad thing even if it doesn’t add up to a lot.

 

Movies and movie stars can get by with a lot of charm, and if awards were given out for charm then Miss Pettigrew would topple Titanic for the most Oscars a film has ever won. Not to say that it’s adherence to joy and warmth is without its own merits, it’s just that it evaporates from the mind and doesn’t linger in the way that classic screwball comedies do. Think of Lombard and William Powell washing dishes in My Man Godfrey, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant sparring in His Girl Friday, and Barbara Stanwyck sexually dominating Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve.

 

Not even the intrusion of World War II’s air raids and sirens can damper the jolly spirit here, and Miss Pettigrew’s few moments of seriousness, of questioning the British class system, of harsh poverty do not gel with the rest of the bourgeoisie gaiety. It’s best to focus on the romance and rapid-fire sexual innuendos, many of them deployed with fizzy, ditzy relish by Amy Adams. Even better is how so much of the movie is about the blossoming friendship and connection between two women who support and help each other.

 

Frances McDormand has displayed a strong hand at darker comedy, look at Fargo, but she’s positively sublime here in her Cinderella-like transformation. McDormand’s grit, dignity and persistent inventiveness and wit keeps Miss Pettigrew from blowing away with the gentlest breeze, and she works well with Adams’ peppy, freewheeling wannabe starlet. If the film ends up being another variation of “love conquers all” pabulum, but McDormand and Adams make the film worth the journey. Sometimes your spirit needs a bit of uplift, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is the perfect remedy for that.     



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Things We Lost in the Fire

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 26 May 2017 03:22 (A review of Things We Lost in the Fire)

Remove the interracial marriage and diversity of the cast and Things We Lost in the Fire wouldn’t have looked out of place as a women’s picture tearjerker from the studio era. It’s a full-blooded melodrama that alternates between forlorn, cloistered emotional spaces and facile, artificial operatic set pieces. Your mileage will vary, and even mine did, someone who is generally a fan of this kind of thing.

 

What’s so damn frustrating about Things We Lost in the Fire is how it wants to operate in both worlds, and ends up becoming some weird hybrid creature that’s generally good but more fascinating for its oddities and unintentional camp. I mean, this is a film about a widow and the junkie best friend forming a strange bond during their grief while deploying cringe lines and soapy moments that handicap the truth of any given situation. Here is a film where a cold turkey session ends with a kid handing someone a cookie.

 

None of this should work, not even remotely should it work, but Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro give the film more weight and intelligent performances then it probably deserves. Berry successfully proves that Monster’s Ball was no fluke, and her generally uneven performing style just needs a certain type of material to flourish. While del Toro has done this kind of material better, he still manages to make us feel empathy for his character and root for his success.

 

The film’s entire ethos boils down to “accept the good,” a New Age fortune cookie platitude that doesn’t mean much of anything in the end. Things We Lost in the Fire just wants to expunge your tears and work your empathetic impulses into a frenzied overdrive. This is basically a Lifetime movie with European arthouse garnishes, and sometimes that’s all you’re really in the mood for.  



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Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 25 May 2017 09:44 (A review of Robinson Crusoe on Mars)

As originally conceived, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was set be another disposable and ludicrously cheap/camp piece of sci-fi film-making from the 60s. Man gets stranded on Mars, fights all sorts of strange lizard monsters, befriends friendly comedic sidekick alien character, and becomes great liberator. It would have far more in common with its decade B-movie brethren than the final product, which functions as something of an intelligent dry-run for something as audacious as 2001: A Space Odyssey in its brightest moments.

 

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is primarily a survivalists tale and incredibly scientifically accurate for what was known or hypothesized about Mars by 1964. There’s an air of authenticity and verisimilitude to the first half that’s most engaging and dynamic. Think of it as Cast Away Goes Cosmic in a sense. These changes created a film that rewards patience and finds the dynamic qualities of silence, until the inclusion of a character dubbed Friday (Victor Lundin) turns into more action-adventure spectacle that’s fairly common for the genre, especially around this era.

 

Prior to that, there’s a suffocating atmosphere of isolation and desperation for survival with Paul Mantee’s Commander Kit Draper struggling to find consistent sources of shelter, air, water, and food. Friday’s inclusion adds wrinkles and complications that the narrative simply cannot hold. Friday is a slave that Kit rescues from his oppressors, and they go on a mad dash across the Martian terrain in the final act. This entire sequence adds a certain coded racial element that may be well-intentioned but is clunky and uneasy in a thematic sense.

 

Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ sense of propulsion and urgency completely changes in this section, and the more deliberate pacing is gone in favor of high octane thrills. Personally, I found the man-against-nature sections more engaging and artistically rewarding. Given the age and general B-movie qualities on display here there can be a certain flavor of camp involved, but there’s also a clear-eyed determination and a serious treatment of the science and theories involved. There’s also the pervasive sense that the attacking aliens here have a strong, near copycat quality to the ones found in 1953’s The War of the Worlds. Not entirely surprising considering both films were helmed by the same man, Byron Haskin, but it does give a general feeling sameness once they arrive that takes some of the menace out of them.

 

Still, for all of the problems, mainly boiling down to its ambitions exceeding its grasp, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is worth seeking out for its wide-eye sense of wonder and general sense of awe in the mysteries of the unknown. It’s refreshing to watch a science-fiction tale that is steeped in warmth, vitality, and a quest for smarts instead of action-adventure spectacle with little going on between the ears. Think of it as the next progression after Forbidden Planet took the first newborn steps towards making science-fiction a serious artistic contender in film medium. 



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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Posted : 4 weeks, 1 day ago on 25 May 2017 05:13 (A review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)

During Dick Tracy’s “More” sequence, Madonna’s Breathless Mahoney sings: “But there’s nothing better than more, more, more/Nothing’s better than more.” If ever a lyric perfectly encapsulated the blockbuster film-making ethos that was it. And so we find ourselves watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Marvel’s impressive sequel to their gang of space rogues and damaged souls banding together as adoptive family epic.

 

The things you liked about the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie? Well, they’re all here, and there’s just more of them. It helps that Marvel didn’t change creative teams between entries, and James Gunn’s insouciant tone and pop culture savvy finds a perfect foil in Kurt Russell’s presence. Lee Pace was a bit wasted in the first film, but Russell was a post-modern action hero before that entire style of acting came into vogue. His Ego is the first truly memorable and pleasing villain in the Marvel super-franchise since Tom Hiddleston’s scheming Loki.

 

Then there’s Groot, the lovable sentient tree creature here in baby form. The film opens with him dancing around as a spectacular battle scene rages behind him. It’s a full-on charming assault, and if you get groove to these opening minutes then you’ll find yourself quickly taken in by the film’s wavelength. I loved it, and was only too happy to watch Groot basically work as an unintentional agent of chaos. A scene where he’s playing fetch for Yondu and Rocket is a loony bit of comedy.

 

Notice that I have mostly mentioned things that are entertaining, mocking, and free from a self-serious tone? That’s because Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wants to provide maximum amount of escapism per minute of running time. Thank god, because the deluge of overly grim superhero films has made heroism feel like a chore. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 never wants you to forget that these can fun, even when things turn serious.

 

Surprisingly, the film handles these more serious moments with some aplomb, especially in the praise of step-fathers or found parents/family connections. Nebula and Gamora’s strained sisterly bonds are further explored, and Nebula becomes a sympathetic figure once you realize just how deep the sources and scars of her trauma go. Yondu gets the redemption arc, and his final scenes are a mixture of laughs, tears, and badass action. Vol. 2 frequently achieves the goals it’s striving towards with the strains minimal or hard to see.

 

There is a strange regression with Drax that shuffles him back into a one-dimensional joke machine for a large portion of the first half of the movie, then the growth he experienced across the first comes back and he’s richer for it. His strange, near paternal relationship with Mantis is refreshing for the emotional spine it strengthens throughout the film. It’s these moments of connection and not the frenzied sock ‘em scenes that linger in the memory. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is more of the first film’s strengths (and a few of its weaknesses), but like the song says, “nothing’s better than more.” The sophomore slump has successfully been avoided, and I’m cautiously optimistic that they can create a successful third outing. Maybe we’ll even get Angela!



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Beauty and the Beast

Posted : 4 weeks, 1 day ago on 25 May 2017 03:43 (A review of Beauty and the Beast)

There was a time when Disney would simply release their films from the vault, either on the big screen or on the home video market, then throw them back after a predetermined period of time. It was a simpler time. Then in 2010 Tim Burton was hired to do a live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland, it made a billion at the box office, and the next thing you know there’s a cavalcade of live-action retreads of their beloved classics.

 

Here we are seven years later, and Disney’s self-cannibalization has transitioned away from the oldies like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella and towards films that are barely old enough to drink legally. Beauty and the Beast is an opulent musical, because Disney spares no expense, and curiously inert in many ways. For all of the razzle dazzle, there’s something strangely hollow at the core of this Beauty and the Beast. It strikes all of the poses, but I’m not sure if it possess the wounded soul of the 1991 animated film.

 

Of course, these live-action retreads are merely the latest in a long line of diminishing the brand. The 1990s Renaissance, one of the most beloved and creatively fertile periods in the company’s history, saw the emergence of never-ending inferior sequels, spinoff TV shows, and the occasional Broadway adaptation. The sheer volume of materials and product released meant that some of it had some value, last year’s The Jungle Book was a solid charmer with incredible special-effects work.

 

This version of Beauty and the Beast is a delight in many ways, most of them for the old fashioned simplicity and outlandishness of its musical numbers. There’s no post-modern winking to the camera, but there are several moments where everyone involved is clearly trying to smooth over some of the more questionable aspects of the material. Or perhaps they’re trying to add in some sense of modernity, but they’re clunky more often than not. For every moment like Mrs. Potts admitting the culpability of the service staff in their master’s cruelty, there’s the entirety of Josh Gad’s LeFou as mincing coded gay sidekick.

 

Beyond this, there’s a general sense of more-is-more bloat that overpowers the material. “Be Our Guest” features visual references to Singin’ in the Rain and Esther Williams’ aquatic musicals, and the number begins to succumb to its own precociousness and weight. “Be Our Guest” was already a dazzling showstopper in its animated incarnation, and I’m not sure it needed more bells and whistles involved. Then there’s the subplots which occasionally turn the narrative into a slog, not only LeFou as emotionally conflicted gay tagalong, but dead mothers as bonding experience or Belle inventing a prototype washing machine.

 

Then there’s everything else going on in Beauty and the Beast, and it’s simply wonderful. The entire cast is game for everything thrown at them, with Luke Evans’ Gaston threatening to steal the entire show. Granted, the likes of Kevin Kline, Audra MacDonald, and Stanley Tucci are underused. Kline is a musical-comedy veteran (he won a Tony for Pirates of Penzance), and he never gets a moment to really strut his talents while MacDonald isn’t given enough to sing and Tucci is simply reigned in too much for my liking.

 

Opulence, inclusivity, and a general sense of warmth and hope pervades throughout, and it feels like a balm for the current times. It may not aim for the artistic heights of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, or even for the emotional depth of Disney’s 1991 film, but it’s a solid entry in the company’s current live-action crop of retreads. It’s pleasingly made if somehow more reliant upon aesthetics than emotional connection, but sometimes that’s all you’re in the mood for.   



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Teen Titans: The Judas Contract

Posted : 1 month ago on 19 May 2017 08:40 (A review of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract)

Fans of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies know that Teen Titans: The Judas Contract was originally announced as the intended third feature from the line. Then it all just disappeared for no apparent reason and remained dormant until the credits stinger of 2016’s Justice League vs. Teen Titans. Now that it’s here, there’s something faintly quixotic about the whole thing. After all, did you ever think that that not only would they adapt this material, but do so as a direct sequel?

 

Justice League vs. Teen Titans grafted newer materials to an older story, an infamous squaring off of the Titans against Trigon, and crafted something that felt misshapen. A similar problem occurs here. We have to reintroduce Nightwing to the group dynamic, discover Terra’s entire personality and background, add in Brother Blood, Mother Blood, Deathstroke, and remember how it all ties back to Son of Batman. In the end, the classic story falls apart as Brother Blood, Mother Blood, Jericho, and several others character essential to the narrative are reduced to mere specters, cameos, or completely written out.

 

Where exactly does that leave The Judas Contract? Well, in a strange spot. Without a build-up of Terra across a different film she comes across a bit limp here. Her ultimate betrayal should sting and hurt more than it does. No fault of Christina Ricci’s solid voice work, but 80-some minutes is not enough time to really develop the nuances of her arch as a character, nor any of the myriad of other plot elements running about in the background.

 

For all of the removals, compression of the material, and necessary edits, they left in the queasy romance subplot between Deathstroke and Terra. Objectionable enough in the comics, even worse seeing it play out in animated form. I’d have gladly dropped that particular thread for a richer approach to Deathstroke and his rivalry with the Titans, Robin and Nightwing in particular. He feels too petulant and entitled here where he should feel battle-scarred and forged in the darkest parts of hell. Still Miguel Ferrer, no stranger to these films and in his last screen appearance here, is terrific with the material that he’s given.

 

There’s still plenty to be excited about here. While DC can’t seem to grasp its romances or female characters in large part with these films, they do manage to make entertaining action sequences. Same goes here, with the final confrontation between the three warring factions being the obvious highlight. Even better is the real sense of comradery and friendship on display here. Damian Wayne goes out of his way to try and connect with Terra, and their damaged souls could almost have a moment of real human connection if The Judas Contract wasn’t a tragedy lying in wait. These films have found a way of leveling off into a pleasant 80-minute piece of entertainment, even if they are deeply flawed.



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Justice League Dark

Posted : 1 month ago on 19 May 2017 07:15 (A review of Justice League Dark)

Maybe it’s just a general sense that dark magic, weird mysticism, and twisted fantasy are subject matters that fascinate me, but Justice League Dark is one hell of a fun ride. Here is a film that dives into a niche group of characters and gives them a chance to shine. Yes, some of that shine is only possible because of an unnecessarily shoehorned Batman, but if everyone in the production felt he was required in order to make and sell it, then I can forgive it. After all, we got a film that features Deadman, Zatanna, and Constantine fighting an ancient evil, and that is worth a lot for me.

 

Not everything works entirely. Despite his prominent placement on the artwork Swamp Thing is a mere glorified cameo reduced to two scenes, but that second one is a dozy. While fighting the big bad demonic presence at the end, Swamp Thing barrels in with twisting and swirling vines and Venus flytrap-like tendrils on the attack. And Etrigan the Demon, and Jason Blood by extension, plays a larger role, but he still feels underused and awkwardly deployed. If nothing else, Etrigan’s origin story provides a perfect avenue to maybe get a Demon Knights film up and running. (How is THAT for a fringe property? I love it.)

 

I still maintain for all of my immense enjoyment of Justice League Dark that time would have been better served removing him from the narrative and redistributing it to Swamp Thing, Etrigan, explaining to non-obsessives just who the Demons Three, maybe giving Black Orchid more of a personality, and really diving into the mythology. A one-and-done Justice League Dark film is not for me. I demand a series of these things. If a brat like Damian Wayne can get a full-fledged trilogy, then give John Constantine’s sardonic, chain-smoking magic wielding presence a chance to explore the worlds of I, Vampire and his own rich mythology.

 

But that is everything that Justice League Dark does not do well, and everything else it excels at. Constantine’s a fun presence to spend time with, and he works well with Zatanna and Deadman acting as foils for his more brazen zingers. For characters that are so tortured in their histories, this league is a lot more fun to spend time with then the major league players. They joke, they have believably lived-in pasts and tensions within the group dynamic. Much credit goes to Matt Ryan’s vocal work as John Constantine which fits the character like a glove.

 

The past few years have not been kind to female characters in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies. Justice League Dark has it at a 50/50 split with Zatanna feeling like a fully realized character and Black Orchid just kinda…being there. After Constantine, Zatanna is clearly the leading presence here. If Constantine is the de facto leader then she’s the bruised heart and soul of the team. She also gets several stellar action scenes where she witness just how formidable she is as a magic user. Camilla Luddington’s vocal work cannot go without praise as the character feels nearly impossible to imagine working without the textures and range she brings to it.

 

In the end, Justice League Dark works so well because it’s briskly paced, unafraid of going dark or completely bonkers, and presents us with a group of characters that are more colorful then some of the big leaguers. Is this one of the best of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies? I would argue that yes, it is, flaws and all. Batman sells, and if his presence introduces more people to characters like Deadman, Etrigan the Demon, Felix Faust, and Black Orchid, then all is forgiven.



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