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All reviews - Movies (1007) - TV Shows (89) - Books (1) - Music (140)

The Assassin

Posted : 1 week, 2 days ago on 5 October 2018 08:40 (A review of The Assassin)

The Assassin is beautiful to behold, but there’s no narrative or character to give you a firm grasp. It’s hypnotic and narcotizing beauty for the sake of it with nothing to tether your interest. Character motivations, relationships, even a coherent story or timeline is all abstracted or diffused to a point where total incomprehension takes over. Are we to believe that this was done to synchronize the main character, an assassin raised to be a killer away from the rest of the world with no connection to anything, and the structure of the story, something resembling a revenge plot merged with family drama and historical epic? I suppose one could argue that, but I’m not about to. Director Hsiao-hsien Hou has crafted some truly splendid visions here, but between the anticlimaxes of the fight scenes, the glacial pace, and a general sense of frustration in grappling with the material, I eventually checked out. Pretty things sometimes just aren’t enough.



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The Way He Looks

Posted : 1 week, 2 days ago on 5 October 2018 08:40 (A review of The Way He Looks)

Taking a short film, in this case I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone and blowing it up to feature-length can have unintended consequences of distorting the might and power of the original. Thank god that The Way He Looks extends that short’s empathy and compassion, and its minute details in which blossoming sexuality is not a hard and fast thing but an organic output of a shared connection. It’s these emotional details that make the warmth and sweetness of The Way He Looks so resonate.

 

It helps that the story is populated by the types of teenage characters that we don’t see often. Less the storybook clichés of American films learning to try and function something like normal humans and instead normal humans trying to gain autonomy and identity through complicated processes. Not only does The Way He Looks make the quest for sexual identity and autonomy one more physically tactile and emotionally nebulous, but it also wraps it around a disabled protagonist. We get a character that’s struggling for independence and authority over his existence on several levels, and it’s a joy to watch him triumph.



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Moonrise Kingdom

Posted : 1 week, 2 days ago on 5 October 2018 08:40 (A review of Moonrise Kingdom)

Whether or not you’ll engage with Moonrise Kingdom will be easily discerned whtin the opening minutes as it’s a free association of Wes Anderson’s numerous quirks and obsessions. We explore a familial home and the complicated relationship therein by viewing everything as if it were a series of elaborate tableaux in an immaculate dollhouse. Personally, Anderson’s brand of formal rigidity and emotional melancholy has always mesmerized me, and Moonrise Kingdom was no exception.

 

The candy-colored bric-a-brac of the home is viewed as though it were a series of comic book panels, and it does quick work establishing not only interpersonal dynamics but a mood of emotional turmoil and confusion. We eventually focus on Suzy (Kara Hayward), the preteen daughter that’s clearly a type of Anderson protagonist: intelligent, emotionally troubled, and preternaturally talented. Anderson’s work is populated seemingly entirely by characters like Suzy, or like her love interest, Sam (Jared Gilman). Sam is an expert in one area but green to crafting interpersonal relationships.

 

Moonrise Kingdom zeroes in their first love, from meet-cute to courtship, from escape from wider society to forced return to their small coastal village. Anderson’s delicate touch finally gets around towards tackling a story of first love, and it’s an absolute delight. Granted, it can flirt with too much with overdosing on Anderson’s formalism and perfect symmetry, with dainty quirkiness and obsessive minimalism. That is to say, Moonrise Kingdom may occasionally flirt with becoming self-parody.

 

Yet Moonrise Kingdom is just so damn earnest in the best of ways, best exemplified by Edward Norton’s scout leader. There’s a loneliness and eagerness to him that’s trying to do what’s best as he believes it will help the troop grow into good men. Norton’s performance is so wonderfully rich and vibrant, and it’s a reminder of how good he can be when he forsakes sweaty Method intensity for more abstract and colorful performing styles.

 

Everything great about Moonrise Kingdom rests upon his character and performance. Ostensibly a villain in any other film about childhood dreamers trying to build a world of their own, here he’s granted the same amount of generosity and empathy as everyone else. He eventually reveals himself as someone that wants to do what’s right and make everything work out successfully, even if his methodology is occasionally rigid or the sight of a round peg/square hole.

 

This leads into another rabbit hole of Moonrise Kingdom’s outlook: it’s nesting doll of love stories where the players inelegantly express their wants, desires, and needs. While most of the story orbits around Sam and Suzy, their parents, caretakers, and adults in the periphery are drawn into their central relationship and secrets are exposed. Anderson’s characters are often lonely and seeking connection and understanding, and Moonrise Kingdom positions the innocence of first love in contrast with parental dysfunction, orphans (both literal and figurative) finding each other, and caretakers providing strident if well intentioned affection.

 

Much like his artistic forebearer Jacques Demy, Anderson’s style is inimitable because it’s not just his series of fetishes cobbled together, but the ways in which he does it. And much like Demy, his best films offset the candy-colored visuals with a profound sense of sadness and longing. They’re both dreamers who express sentimentality as often as they excise it, and Moonrise Kingdom is a solid vision from one of American cinema’s current geniuses.



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Red Dragon

Posted : 1 week, 2 days ago on 5 October 2018 08:39 (A review of Red Dragon)

The hard truth is this: Brett Ratner’s a “for hire” director without any vision of his own. His background is in music videos and this has left him with the distinct inability to let things breathe or rest. A suspenseful story wilts under his eye because of this, and Red Dragon plays like warmed-over The Silence of the Lambs and/or Manhunter, depending on any given scene.

 

You know this story, the subject of the last chunk of episodes in Hannibal’s final season, a prior and better film adaptation, and divulged as verbal exposition for Claire in Lambs, Red Dragon doesn’t do anything special with the material. It’s two hours and never stops or ponders anything for very long. It feels like a longer, better film that’s been trimmed down and stripped bare for television syndication. So that means it’s a generic thriller that gets by the strength of the bare bones Thomas Harris’ story and the too talented cast occasionally slumming it here.

 

I wonder what this would look like under the guiding hand of Jonathan Demme, David Fincher, or any sort of director with an actual vision and this cast. Imagine the more moderate performance they’d nab from Anthony Hopkins, here he’s all camp and completely lost the edge and terror he brought to it originally, or from Edward Norton, who clearly wants to go for sweaty, nervous ball busting Method intensity but is muzzled from achieving this. And maybe we could’ve entirely missed out on Ellen Burstyn’s on-the-nose vocal cameo or found a better way to make it work that wasn’t so painfully, obnoxiously Freudian.

 

Red Dragon is serviceable, but if you really want to see this story done with justice then seek out Michael Mann’s stylish, expressionist film version or the back-half of Hannibal’s third/final season. They allow for silences, tension, and strange emotional textures to rise to the surface of the material. Red Dragon is a very good approximation of Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, but a good approximation is not the same thing as a good film.



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The Canyons

Posted : 2 weeks, 3 days ago on 27 September 2018 03:51 (A review of The Canyons)

Somehow Paul Schrader is behind the lens of this limp-dick erotic thriller? Man, we’re a long way off from the atmosphere and palpable tension of his greatest films, like the screenplay for Taxi Driver or his directorial work in Affliction. Just as two examples of his intellectual movie-making prowess.

 

The Canyons is a thinly plotted short story stretched out to feature length and filmed with a group of actors that deliver performances that feel like amateurs stumbling through it all. It somehow makes perfect sense that the two lead roles are occupied by a porn star trying to go mainstream and a former child star turned tabloid burnout. Well, it makes sense in an intensely perverse way.

 

Eventually The Canyons reveals itself as an awkward subpar softcore. There’s nudity galore, including full frontal shots from two male porn stars and several scenes highlighting Lindsay Lohan’s breasts, and a little bit of violence, but it never plays as anything than provocations without any reason to care about them. The plot is a laughable thing orbiting around four or five characters who all mysteriously have ties and histories that entangle together. Then we’re told that Jams Deen’s disaffected, amoral wealthy elite, Christian (what’s the deal with pop culture ephemera naming dudes like this Christian lately?) is someone to be afraid of and how dangerous he is.

 

It’s all so distractingly, aggressively poorly made and thought out. Part of the problem is that Schrader and writer Bret Easton Ellis are too similar for their styles to properly ignite. Instead they blank each other out by exasperating the same gaps and weaknesses, including a hysterical piece of homophobia best exemplified by Nolan Funk’s faux-dominant insistence of a blowjob with a lecherous producer. Look at that dreamy looking twunk trying to act butch, adorable in a way if you can box it away from the ickyness of straight worshipping bullshit.   

 

But you know what was most shocking about The Canyons? It’s a reminder that beneath those fillers, substance abuse haze, and technical laziness, there’s something charismatic and absorbing about Lohan. She seems primed and ready-made to play a Tennessee Williams heroine, especially one of the most carnal and doomed ones. It’s understandable why she can’t get a job lately, but there’s something magnetic about her merely existing and intensely staring into the camera. She deserves better than The Canyons even at this point.



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Pete's Dragon

Posted : 2 weeks, 4 days ago on 26 September 2018 06:32 (A review of Pete's Dragon)

Disney’s love for orphans-in-the-wild was prominent in 2016 between this remake, their second live-action Jungle Book, and a journey into Roald Dahl’s macabre world in The BFG. All of them are best when detailing the quietest moments of the wild, imaginative lives of their urchins, especially Pete’s Dragon, and at their worst when kowtowing to the demands of special-effects heavy cinema. If I told you that Pete’s Dragon ended in the destruction of a bridge, lots of fire, and children in danger, would you say I was bullshitting? I’m not, but I wish I were.

 

Pete’s Dragon simply cannot hold the weight of thrills and spectacles of that nature. This is essentially a boy-and-his-critter story, one comprised of silence and connection, of exploring and acute observations. Personally, I wanted director David Lowery to go all in on the art film for children vibe that large chunks of the film openly presents itself as and flirts with. The forest and its creatures, most importantly Elliott the dragon, are some of the most intriguing, elegiac, and expressive characters of the film.

 

Think of something along the lines of Steven Spielberg merged with Terrence Malick as Pete gets pseudo-adopted by Elliott, the fuzzy green dragon that emotes and projects better than Karl Urban and Wes Bentley get to. He’s a fully realized creation, even in the moments where his animation goes glaring artificial or rubbery, and one that invites a deep emotional connection. Try not to see a beloved pet, either current or from childhood, in his bodily movements and sense of play.

 

It is in these moments when Pete’s Dragon recalls The Black Stallion that it’s operating at its highest level, and then the intrusion of the outside world collapses the gentle world that Pete and Elliott have built together. These two misfits are restored to their proper societal places, often times through violence and forced removal, and this plot thread is regressive and moralistic. The magic of the fairy tale-like beginning evaporates as the ephemeral becomes solid with Urban’s sudden transformation into a villain and an engine to forcefully drive the story towards its conclusion.

 

I love Pete’s Dragon for its sensitivity and quietness. I love it for its lack of narrative and folksy charms, best exemplified by the fine work done by Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford. I love it for watching the secret world created by Pete and Elliott, and brought to vivid life through the central performance of Oakes Fegley. Fegley often has to act opposite nothing and his final work exhibits a sense of adventure, play, and imagination that bursts through the better parts of the rest of the film. The weaker parts of Pete’s Dragon are forgiven during these bright spots. 



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Ghostbusters II

Posted : 2 weeks, 5 days ago on 25 September 2018 06:27 (A review of Ghostbusters II)

Five years separate the first film and this sequel, both in real-time and in the film’s continuity. And those five years have not been exactly kind to foursome, both in the film’s narrative and the final product. Ghostbusters II is a prime example of a sequel providing diminishing returns.

 

Sure, it has its moments, but they’re few and far between. Much of it just isn’t funny, tonally its all over the map, and several cast members are sacked with limp plots. What exactly do these films have against Ernie Hudson? Why is Sigourney Weaver sacked with a rekindled romance, single motherhood, and a creepy boss? It’s like every 80s working woman cliché rolled into one role. A romance was all they could think to give Rick Moranis and Annie Potts? At least Peter MacNicol is wandering around chewing up the scenery to provide maximum enjoyment.

 

Ghostbusters II feels like two different films vying for dominance and attention at the exact same time. There’s one that’s more akin to mildly vulgar, slightly juvenile original, and another that’s got kid gloves on that plays like a real-life cartoon. These two modes are never reconciled, and the film bounces back and forth between them so often you’re afraid the reels will rip themselves in half as they move towards opposing goals.

 

Who you gonna call? Not these guys.



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Ghostbusters

Posted : 2 weeks, 5 days ago on 25 September 2018 06:26 (A review of Ghostbusters (1984))

The Venn diagram between would-be academics and blue-collar workers is a near perfect circle in Ghostbusters, a near fairy tale of trade jobs thwarting the paranormal. Only in New York would something like this fly. I mean, what other city would find citizens barely raising an eyebrow at the sight of Sumerian demon dogs possessing its fellow dwellers?

 

Here's the thing, Ghostbusters is a charming piece of (creaky) special effects with a riffing Bill Murray as its center. Everything revolves around Murray’s winking and rapid-fire snark, including an unfortunately sidelined Ernie Hudson and a part for Sigourney Weaver that breaks down to “the sexy brain.” It’s this casual misogyny, endemic to films of the 80s, that prevents from enjoying Ghostbusters more than I do. Did we really need to see Dan Aykroyd get head from a sexy ghost woman as a punchline?

 

Where Ghostbusters really shines is in its careful deployment of set pieces and specific personalities rubbing against each other in conflict and humor. It’s just as much in Annie Potts’ deadpan receptionist as it is in transformation of a ghost into vengeful harpy. You remember the smart-ass comments and the ridiculous punchlines just as much as the money shots, and how these two things frequently feed into each other. C’mon, the reveal of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is equally hilarious for something so soft becoming a kaiju as the setup involving Murray’s anxious ramblings about trying to keep his mind clear and failing to think of anything but this gooey mascot.

 

Remember how fun this one without the baggage of the limp sequel, unjustifiably reviled distaff remake (messy but fun), and the never-ending threat of a third proper entry? I know it’s hard, but really try to remember the vibrantly colored spiritual realms, cartoon-ish ghosts, and creepy but silly opening segment. Ghostbusters may be stiff in its joints, but there’s still charm aplenty to be found here.



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Jackie Brown

Posted : 4 weeks, 1 day ago on 16 September 2018 05:58 (A review of Jackie Brown (1997))

Adaptation works wonders for Quentin Tarantino. Sure, he can’t help himself when it comes to populating his film with a sprawling running time and (so much) jive talking, but Jackie Brown remains his most mature, accomplished, and satisfactory work. There’s shocking bits of violence here, but much of it actually (gasp!) in service of a story and not just to foster his juvenile instincts or heavy-handed referential nature.

 

Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch provides a solid framework, one that forces Tarantino does diverge from not only in changing Jackie’s race from white to black but in other narrative details, but it’s also a model of great adaptation work. Leonard’s economical style and Tarantino’s maximalist don’t sound like a match made in cinematic heaven, yet there’s something incredibly juicy and vibrant about their divergent styles meeting in the middle here.

 

Maybe it’s the way that Leonard’s style forces Tarantino to “grow up” cinematically, but there’s honest to god human emotion and recognizable characters here. Led by a stellar Pam Grier in a performance that demanded serious awards attention and a revitalization of her career that strangely didn’t come, Jackie Brown garnishes its entangled double-crosses and crime elements with a center that’s the sweetest, most humane love story in all of Tarantino’s body of work.

 

Unrequited and suppressed emotions run throughout Tarantino’s films, but they usually end in a big bang of violence and artful blood splatter. Think of the Bride’s near phoenix-like origins in the Kill Bill films, of the entirety of Reservoir Dogs turning in on each other, or The Hateful Eight’s long simmering grudges erupting in prolonged scenes of carnage. Jackie Brown is the most complex examination of that emotional state, and it’s most mature.

 

We meet Jackie as a struggling airline stewards for the low rent Cabo Air, and we quickly learn that she doubles as a drug runner for Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson, going near Brechtian but still a joy to watch) once she’s caught by the ATF and its primary detective on the case (Michael Keaton). Her bail bondsman, Max (Robert Forster), is immediately smitten, and their connection is the core of the movie. Everything else, including Ordell’s beach bimbo girlfriend (Bridget Fonda) and thug best friend (Robert De Niro, wincing and grimacing more than acting), is part of a tangled weave to keep shoving these two back together. They are the center that holds it all together.

 

On paper, their affection and blossoming feelings for each other shouldn’t make much sense. Jackie is the world-weary and desperate version of any of Grier’s iconic blaxploitation heroines, while Max is the ultra-buttoned up good cop. Yet there’s visible sparks from the moment they meet, and between the actor’s clear chemistry and joy in playing off each other to the fun of just watching them sit back and talk, their connection becomes our active rooting interest.

 

Tarantino’s always had a strong eye for casting, but he out does himself with the performances he gets from Grier and Forster. Grier is a mesmerizing presence. She’s beautiful, she’s intelligent, she’s resourceful, and she’s got one mean poker-face. Grier’s performance is master class of small bodily movements telegraphing everything for the camera. She never goes “big” because she never has to, and her transition from honest and open communication with Max to staring down danger with an impassive face is demonstrated with a mere eyebrow raising. It’s the kind of performance that would reignite a male actor’s stock and have bigger, better opportunities, I mean, look at what happened with John Travolta before he shot himself in the foot.

 

Just as good is Forster as Max, for which he received the film’s lone Oscar nomination. He deserved the damn thing as he’s the quiet, emotional heart to Jackie’s quick-thinking brain. He’s just as prone to underplaying his scenes as Grier, and his crinkled smile and hint of heartache in their final back-and-forth is a knockout of minute details and specific choices making a moment come alive on camera. It helps that Forster is something of an anonymous character actor, you know you’ve seen him when he pops up but his name frequently escapes you, because a bigger star in this part would’ve titled things out of balance. Forster’s schoolboy crush and conservative demeanor are deeply touching in his elliptical goodbye to Jackie.

 

It’s this kernel of romantic possibilities in the face of middle age that makes Jackie Brown so rewarding. It’s a great hangout movie, even if some of the diversions with Fonda and De Niro prove more distracting than humorous and glaring examples of the director’s fetish for women’s feet. Jackie Brown is also a towering achievement to the cinematic brickhouse that is Pam Grier, and she works hard for the money and adoration.



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A Star Is Born

Posted : 4 weeks, 1 day ago on 16 September 2018 02:49 (A review of A Star Is Born (1976))

Maybe if this had been remade with La Diva Streisand in 1966 instead of 1976 things would be different, but that’s not the world we live in. Streisand’s version of A Star is Born, do you really think the credited writers (including Joan Didion!) and director Frank Pierson actually had a say in this vanity project?, is a towering achievement to Barbra’s ego at the expense of all else. Sure, any version of A Star is Born ultimately boils down to the two leads, but this one jettisons any and all semblance of supporting players and nearly throws out the male lead for good measure. Then again, whom would Streisand have to act against if he died too soon? Props to Kris Kristofferson’s leathery charisma and lived-in alcoholism here, he’s delivering an authentic and true performance in a notably artificial film opposite a co-star in full-on demanding diva mode. Streisand’s a solid actress normally, especially in comedy, but we’re asked to believe her as a mere mortal here, one full of moxie and soft-rock/folkie music just waiting to burst out. The whole thing is false, including Barbra’s leading turn, especially her leading turn. Glimpses of camp itch to escape but they’re buried under the rubble of Streisand’s self-mythology and iconography. The only scene that plays as truth from her is a rehearsal for a television special where she starts barking orders at the crew and says she wants it to be right. That’s the only time a real person is viewable in her Esther, and it’s quickly submerged by more flattering close-ups, including a whooper of a single tear dramatically rolling down her face. Just stick with Judy Garland’s version, that one is just as long but still manages to delivers the goods.



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