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Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 4 February 2018 05:26 (A review of Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017))

Boy, the Academy must love Denzel Washington to sit through this movie long enough to decide that his performance was nomination worthy. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is an unfocused legal thriller, allegedly, orbiting around Washington’s movie star charisma. Often times, this is enough to get its lead actor nominated (sometimes they even win), but it sure does make my dogged yearly attempt to watch the nominations in the major categories every year a slog. Another year, another instance where mega-watt charisma is not enough to sit through a boring mess of a film, but at least this time it’s not for Meryl Streep.

 

There’s about thirty to forty minutes of plot buried in this two-hour movie, much of it about a man selling his soul for the very things he’s worked his whole life to rail against only for it all to crumble beneath him in the end. Except, his choices are made outside of his normal job and done completely at random. There’s no court thriller here despite Dan Gilroy’s attempts to fit this particular square peg into the round hole.

 

Even worse is how so much of the film is just flat out dull and boring. Colin Farrell’s shark lawyer is more sympathetic than we’re initially led to believe, so painting him as some kind of moralistic devil bargainer is a wash. Even worse is the waste of Carmen Ejogo as a love interest for Roman, but there’s no chemistry between the characters or reason for you to believe that they would connect in any meaningful way. There’s a lot of extraneous material added to the center, but the center itself is not strong enough to lull you into its world.

 

Leave to Washington to make you sit through this movie. One of our greatest living actors, Washington’s charisma and talent is enough to sit through even his more questionable ventures, and this is proof positive. He’s given vast amounts of vague political and legal beliefs to espouse without any actual meat being thrown out in the process, but goddamn does he make it sound like important and potent talking points. He’s saddled with playing a movie idiot-savant, so there’s lots of tics, penchant for insulting everyone, and an inability to healthily interact with anyone. He somehow manages to make these almost cohere into a viable persona, but Gilroy’s script never gives enough attention to any particular incident long enough for anything to arise from the mire.  



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The Boss Baby

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 4 February 2018 04:29 (A review of The Boss Baby (2017))

A two word premise that’s been stretched out to 97 minutes with a fair number of borderline nihilistic and confused messages going on, The Boss Baby has got to be one of the worst movies ever nominated for an Oscar. There’s clearly a very muddled message about an older sibling’s feelings of resentment and fear of replacement at the heart of this movie, but it’s far too concerned with cynical jokes to even bother exploring that. It’s as if DreamWorks is the Asylum of animated feature studios in comparison to the more thoughtful and unique boutique studios like Laika, Pixar, or GKids. They get a unique premise and then never bother developing the idea beyond that initial premise, load it up with numerous pop culture references, unearned emotional moments, and then send it out with the established plans for an eventual franchise. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, this is a film that positions there’s only so much love to go around in the world and tries to make us laugh at the concept of a special milk formula that keeps babies developmentally stunted while they engage in office culture. Hard to think that this entertained any kids, but at least there’s a few moments of creative animation to liven things up while it spins its wheels.



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The Fury

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 4 February 2018 04:02 (A review of The Fury (1978))

A clear signpost for Brian De Palma’s transition away from the more experimental early half of his career and towards the more coherent latter half, The Fury still plays out a smorgasbord of ideas thrown against a wall and waiting to see what sticks. Pumped full of so many detours and tonal changes that it’ll spin you around just as violently as John Cassavetes during the final scene, The Fury is an entertaining mess. But it’s never less than a mess.

 

De Palma’s prior film, Carrie, has its own moments of kitsch and twisted comedy, but the brutality and homerun of its ending smooth over any inconsistencies there, and that trick is not repeated here. The Fury is ostensibly about a pair of teenage psychics being studied and trained for weaponized use by a secret government organization during the Cold War, but it takes its sweet time getting not only to that plot point but happily diverts with a plethora of car chases, violent shootouts, and other distracting episodes.

 

The main plot becomes something of an afterthought routinely, and such an afterthought that the third act becomes something of a rush job. The film has teased our two main characters eventually meeting up and unleashing havoc, but there’s no great or satisfying payoff to that tease. De Palma’s sexual hysterics here play out like a particularly horny and gore-obsessed teenage boy struggling to tell a story without getting too distracted by diversions playing into those twin interests.

 

We’re promised a thriller, and we get in spots, but we also get bloody gore, subpar espionage scenes, and misplaced comedic interludes that play in such discordant notes with the rest of the film that make your head tilt in confusion. We open with a psych-out of terrorists storming the beach to break-up a father/son pair, but they forgot to factor in that the father is played by Kirk Douglas. Spartacus won’t go down until the final frame, if he goes down at all. It’s all an elaborate copout, and one made to setup Cassavetes with a dead arm that’s a glaringly obvious symbol for a type of castration.

 

Look, no one would ever accuse De Palma of subtlety, and I won’t even try. Then the son, Andrew Stevens mostly asked to glare and flex, becomes a trained attack dog and bored demigod that is ripe for a rage against the machine, and so it goes on and on. Throw in Amy Irving as the distaff half of the teenage psionics, Charles Durning as a shady institute’s head, and Carrie Snodgress as a rebellious nurse, and you’ll begin to see why this thing is more entertaining than it is coherent.

 

Even worse is how little The Fury makes us care about any of its characters with Douglas’ being a particularly nasty bastard prone to using both Irving and Snodgress at their most emotionally vulnerable to achieve his goals. This is Douglas at his hammy worst, but at least he’s balanced out with a solid performance from Snodgress and an effectively oily one from Cassavetes. I’m just not sure what to make of Irving’s performance, at times she’s delicately vulnerable that she’s deeply engaging, but others she’s strangely flat or awkward.

 

I suppose that carries over into the entirety of The Fury. There’s some daring thematic material at play buried somewhere underneath De Palma’s histrionics. It’s no Carrie, and probably more than enough fuel for several chapters in Misogyny in the Movies: The De Palma Question, yet The Fury is entertaining enough during it. Just don’t think too hard about its abundance of disappearing characters, plots, and needless diversions.



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Best in Show

Posted : 4 months, 3 weeks ago on 29 January 2018 05:12 (A review of Best in Show)

Out of all of Christopher Guest’s mockmentary comedies, freewheeling exercises of improvised comedy with some of the best in the business, Best in Show clearly lives up to its title. This particular style of comedy is the one with the greatest degree of difficulty to execute. If you give too much rope to the performers, you can end up with self-indulgent exercises that isolate the audience by virtue of being performed to an audience of one. Or a desperation for every idea, no matter how good or bad, to get its due. But if you can get the formula right, then it’s a rich and rewarding experience. Best in Show gets it right.

 

What can make or break these things is a solid enough structure to keep everyone operating along a workable track, but also provide a structure that’s bendable enough to go where the laughs are. By introducing us to each of the pet owners individually and reminding us that they’ll all eventually meet-up at a dog competition, Best in Show’s structure of a perfect example of this phenomenon. We get to indulge the weirdest and kookiest of ideas that the actors have in the earliest scenes, and then we watch how those character quirks play out under a pressure cooker situation.

 

Granted, the hit/miss ratio is clearly stacked in favor of hit rather than miss, but there is a certain amount of fatigue and exhaustion that creeps in as it slides towards finish. It’s a forgivable sin, even the best scripted comedies have a hard time keeping up the laughs and pace, but it does become noticeable that the whiffs at bat are more prominent at the end than they are anywhere else. Still, by this point Best in Show has already given you the sight of Eugene Levy with (literally) two left feet, Catherine O’Hara walking with a rubbery knee, Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock using their dog to passive-aggressively battle each other in therapy sessions, and Guest sitting in a car rattling off every type of nut he can think of. That’s a bounty of laughs that any other film would be envious towards.

 

For all of its rapid-fire and cruel jokes, Best in Show still bows down to the triumph of the underdog sports film clichés. Based on the vanity and monstrous nature of so many characters, or their complete obliviousness as in Jennifer Coolidge’s trophy wife, just spot the characters with the biggest rooting interest and you’ll guess how it all ends. Thankfully, this is where Fred Willard’s completely crazed performance pops-up to not just liven things up, but provide a type of colorful commentary that scans as the active ramblings of someone incapable of escaping their own mind. When the plot gets a little routine, leave it to Guest to unleash a secret weapon to not only keep the breakneck pace of laughs going, but to elevate some of the material to kind of surreal genius.

 

It seems almost cruel to even say anything critical about Best in Show when it’s just so goddamn funny, and consistently so. Sure it’s got some structural problems, but the strengths swallow them up. And there’s litany of verbal fireworks, throwaway asides, visual gags, and physical comedy that just makes me tear-up from laughter no matter how many times I watch it. Really, that’s the best the blue ribbon for any comedy.



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The Iron Giant

Posted : 4 months, 3 weeks ago on 29 January 2018 04:11 (A review of The Iron Giant (1999))

A variation of the “boy and his dog” genre, but also something much deeper and more mature than that synopsis would suggest, The Iron Giant is a little movie with a powerful punch. Released in the summer of 1999, The Iron Giant was buried beneath an avalanche of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me blockbusters and sleeper hits like American Pie and The Blair Witch Project. Damn shame in retrospect, but quality will last and a cult quickly developed around the film.

 

I’m embarrassed it took me until thirty to finally watch this from beginning to end, but it holds up incredibly well and perhaps hit me in a deeper way than it would at twelve. Looking back, I don’t remember much of a marketing campaign for this, and maybe a rival studio was still afraid of even trying to compete with Disney’s gargantuan machinery as Tarzan was bound to steamroll anything in its path anyway. Yet, The Iron Giant is something that felt so profoundly engaging and like a direct connection to parts of my obsessions and visual aesthetics that bring me joy that I do miss not growing up with this.

 

No matter, I finally found it.

 

What immediately stood out to me was the delicate balance Brad Bird struck on his debut feature. He manages to tell a story with sincerity and sentimentality, but also to provide equal weight and validity to dangerous, scary moments and a sophisticated tone that never condescends to its family audience. Mercifully free from post-modern snark that was beginning to strangle the life out of these films, The Iron Giant is a smart, mature throwback in numerous ways.

 

Obviously, there’s the setting and all of the complicated emotional baggage it brings with it. 1950s America presented itself in its biggest films as a pastoral of impeccable grooming and booming economies, but a closer inspection reveals that the Norman Rockwell exterior was wrapped around post-war malaise and atomic age anxieties about potential nuclear destruction. The Iron Giant taps into these conflicting emotional states by placing the film in a small-town in Maine. This also provides an excuse for the various artist involved to fill the screen with as many autumnal colors as they can think of, and the entire film glows with the twinge of nostalgia.

 

Then there’s the ways it combines its two most obvious influences, Steven Spielberg and Hayao Miyazaki, in ways that find the commonalities between the two creative titans. The clear artistic progeny of E.T., The Iron Giant continues to explore the sentimentality and hardships of growing up, of making the big decisions in life when you’re possibly ill-equipped to fully understand their ramifications, and the story beat of people encountering the extraordinary and deciding to do something proactive about it. Yet it’s where and how Brad Bird takes these beats that make The Iron Giant so distinct.

 

Other films would lean into the Giant’s existence as a gigantic war machine and liter the film with explosions upon explosions, afraid that scenes of characters talking wouldn’t engage the little ones. Well, they can if they’re well done, and The Iron Giant has several action sequences dolled in sparse incriments that only add to the strength of the narrative or the dramatic tension, whichever is necessary at the time.

 

This is where Miyazaki’s influence is clearest: in the way that this film follows a different pace than most American animated films. It’s slower, it doesn’t beat the themes and messages over your head, nor does it make any single character completely virtuous or villainous. The world of the film resides in a grey zone that pushes back against the “beauty will best evil” reductive nature of so many of these things. I mean, the main bad guy is a Cold War agent who believes the huge metal war machine is a potential act of aggression and needs to be taken out, and you understand exactly where he gets that impression and why. You understand his actions and motivations, even if you don’t find yourself in agreement.

 

Yet The Iron Giant continually argues that we are who we chose to be, and never is that more effectively demonstrated than in the titular creation. His defiant proclamation that he is “not a gun” is a rousing moment of the ghost in the machine taking hold and claiming its own agency. His eventual sacrifice in the face of nuclear holocaust got me as we witnessed this rudimentary lunk of Fleischer-styled metal man grow a personality and perhaps a soul. We are who we chose to be, we can rage against our worst programming, we can grow and change. That’s some powerful stuff to dispel.      



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Queen of Earth

Posted : 4 months, 3 weeks ago on 28 January 2018 11:40 (A review of Queen of Earth (2015))

Two privileged women (Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston) retreat up to a remote cabin every summer, but something’s very different about this year’s trip. Not only do the women learn just how far they’ve drifted from each other, but one of them seems on the precipice of a complete emotional collapse. Through flashbacks, we see that these fissures may have started from last year’s summer trip to the cabin, but there’s something far deeper at play here. It’s as if these two women have been long engaged in a game of emotional friction that they’ve both forgotten how to play, or even what the rulebook or point of it all was.

 

The past and present aren’t merely in communion with each other, but violently and abruptly bashing into each other throughout. The past isn’t a mere prologue here, but vitally alive, vengeful, and frequently rhyming with the present in ways that play out like an occasionally sick joke. Last year, Waterston was the one in an emotionally delicate situation while Moss was occasionally callous towards her, and situations repeat with the roles reversed and Moss’ stability increasingly called into question.

 

Queen of Earth also calls into question the concept of the reliability of its narrative as Moss’ fevered imaginings and hallucinated phone conversations pile-up. Are these slights real things, or is Moss’ character completely losing her ability in remembering what happened when or what is and isn’t happening outside of her overactive imagination? It’s here that Queen of Earth threatens to deflate under its own ambitions, but it keeps things powering through with its beautiful images, chilly but absorbing tone, and the strengths of the two lead performances.

 

Much of Queen of Earth is about how Elisabeth Moss’ character is feeling isolated from everything, including herself, and how severe depression can completely disrupt your life and health. Writer/director Alex Ross Perry and Moss work in tandem to not explain away these concepts or feelings, but to contextualize them. Moss’ character is in such a delicate and neurotic state that she can’t even accept the polite offering of a lunch without feeling like there’s some deeper, sinister portent lurking beneath it.

 

For her part, Katherine Waterston gets the more grounded role, but she has a tricky tightrope to walk herself. We’re never asked to truly feel sorry for these self-absorbed or clueless progeny of wealth and means, and the film often highlights the blinders they wear to go about their lives, but Waterston has to make her role somewhat understandable and her growing concern for Moss feel like it comes from somewhere deep and true. To watch them both work is to be reminded of how they’re two of our greatest working actresses. They make us understand the claustrophobia and despair of depression, and how those who never experience it will never be ever to fully understand or engage with those that do. You may as well be an island in the middle of the lake.



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Looney Tunes: Back in Action

Posted : 4 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 January 2018 09:35 (A review of Looney Tunes: Back in Action)

The general sense I get from this is that Joe Dante wanted to make one film, and the studio just kept muzzling him for whatever reason. Who knows why, but maybe it was a fear that the denizens of Termite Terrace needed to be softer to be more palatable to modern audiences. I don’t know, it’s just a shot in the dark. For every anarchic, free-for-all sequence, I’m thinking of Joan Cusack’s Mother and Area 52 falling into chaos with monster movie cameos galore, there’s another like the Dusty Trails musical interlude, wherein we watch Heather Locklear change skimpy outfits then promptly vanish, that simply feel like half-formed jokes with no payoff or reason for inclusion. Looney Tunes: Back in Action didn’t exactly live up to its promise, but it’s silly, it’s goofy, and it is clearly trying to reclaim the cinematic chaos so built into the brand. It gets points for trying even if the much buzzed return to greatness was more marketing razzle-dazzle than deliverable goods.



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The Last Unicorn

Posted : 4 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 January 2018 09:22 (A review of The Last Unicorn (1982))

I didn’t grow up with The Last Unicorn, so this was actually an entirely fresh viewing experience for me. I knew nothing about it going in, and I was pleasantly surprised by it all. Not everything works, and some of it hampers or outright harms the overall vibrancy and coherence of the tone, but there’s enough good stuff here for me to understand the devotees of this cult classic.

 

It contains the classical structure of a “questing narrative” so baked into fantasy literature and fairy tales that it’s nearly impossible to think of a major property that doesn’t include some form of this. In fact, The Last Unicorn is best when it merely observes this quest in a quiet pace and we linger on the images and absorb the elegiac emotionality radiating from its main character.

 

Even better is the animation style that borrows from medieval tapestries, think Disney’s Sleeping Beauty but without the infinite resources of that studio. Parts of the final animation style are choppy or lacking, battles for instances, but there’s a twinkling, mellowing atmosphere throughout that is quite engaging. Simply watching the unicorn walk through this vibrant forest is enthralling for the pull it provides such angular beauty.

 

There’s also the case of the strong vocal cast, with Mia Farrow, Angela Lansbury, Keenan Wynn, and Christopher Lee getting highest marks. Far from the motherly Mrs. Potts, Lansbury gives her witch a vaguely Scottish tone and a sharp, terse pronunciation style that’s quite aurally pleasing. While Wynn gets a pair of roles, both the rotund Captain Cully and the imprisoned harpy, and he manages to make both of them distinct and unique. While Lee brings his typical professionalism and wonderful elocution to King Haggard, and manages to make us both fear and pity this broken, unhappy man in a scene where he both threatens the unicorn and explains why he stole them all.

 

I haven’t forgotten about Mia Farrow, as she is indelible to making this film work in the central role of the unicorn. The Last Unicorn contains a melancholic core, and a general sense of plaintive longing and belonging throughout. Farrow’s voice doesn’t just blend into these aspects, but enriches them and makes them stronger. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the central role once you hear Farrow, and the ending is only stronger for the emotional reading she gives her final lines. Despite not being able to see her graceful, waif-like visage, you can feel it throughout and it’s a perfect merging of actor and material.

 

Yet for all of these strengths, The Last Unicorn has several things that kneecap it from being an underrated masterpiece. Chief among them is the god-awful songs by Jimmy Webb and America. The theme song is fine, and it works as it plays over the opening credits, but making the cast sing completely unmemorable songs bogs things down unnecessarily. The worst offender is a love song between Farrow and Jeff Bridges. Not every single animated film needed to be a musical, especially if strong or memorable material just wasn’t there to justify its inclusion.

 

There are also several brief moments of juvenile humor that standout from the more mature and rich tone of the rest of the film. I’m thinking of a butterfly singing anachronistic songs and making a series of rapid-fire jokes that recalls Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy blitzing through several animated films with the same shtick at various levels of success. The Last Unicorn is too mature for moments like this, and they made me roll my eyes and sigh in frustration when they would pop-up.

 

Still, I understand where the ardent defenders are coming from, and I won’t judge them for loving this. It is charming in many ways, and I admired how it placed a forlorn, poetic beauty and heavy dramatics over empty spectacle routinely. While The Last Unicorn is imperfect it is still a damn-fine way to spend rough 90 minutes.



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Spawn

Posted : 4 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 January 2018 08:05 (A review of Spawn (1997))

Hey, remember when this was roughly as good as we could hope to get with comic book movies? I do, and thank god the days of Spawn and its far too numerous ilk are long behind us. If anything, Spawn should remain in the 90s when its hardcore, edgy aesthetic was the norm in the medium, and has simply aged poorly.

 

It comes roaring out the gate with a poorly rendered CG introduction that provides an exposition dump before we’re launched into the present day. Pay attention to all of the mythology that’s being dumped into your lap in those opening moments because it will be elliptically referred to throughout, and those visuals will be recycled several times over. It looks and plays like the introduction to a syndicated series, think Hercules: The Legendary Journeys but with more Edge™.

 

The entire thing has an overbearing quality to it that makes it play out as camp or, and for far too often, as the brain-dead juvenilia scribbling of a particularly violent and horny teenage boy. Look at the film’s lone original character, Melinda Clarke’s Jessica Priest, who exists not only as cannon fodder but to linger on the edges of the frame in skintight leather with peek-a-boo lingerie. Or the unnecessary presence of Miko Hughes’ Zack, a homeless child that’s supposed to…I don’t know, remind Spawn of his humanity? Much of his material is poorly conceived and played, and Hughes was no slouch as a child actor if you watch Pet Sematary. The less said about the one-dimensionality and gross sexualization of Theresa Randle’s Wanda, the better.

 

But none of these poor points can quite prepare you for John Leguizamo’s scene-chewing bluster as Clown/the Violator. When left to his worst impulses, Leguizamo can be a manic and maddening screen presence, and no one bothered to tether him to reality here. Not even a fat suit and layers of makeup can slow down this motor mouth, and you welcome the moments when the Violator rips through his corpulent flesh. The puppetry to bring that monstrosity to life has aged nicely while the CGI has not. Guess which one Spawn decides to favor with its money shots and long-lasting glimpses.

 

Maybe if all of this violence and noise was in service of a story that was coherent and contained enough on its own to warrant a sequel, one could be more forgiving. But Spawn clearly thinks and operates like the opening salvo in a noisy, bloody franchise that never materialized. Maybe it’s for the better since the sight of actors like Michael Jai White, Martin Sheen, and Nicol Williamson trying not to embarrass their careers here is the major highlight of the film. Although, there is something to be said for a typically nuanced and fine actor like Sheen going for broke and chewing ALL of the scenery. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but it’s something.



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The Parent Trap

Posted : 4 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 January 2018 06:04 (A review of The Parent Trap (1961))

Personally, my favorite thing about The Parent Trap is how the all-American twins played by Hayley Mills manage to speak in her posh, rounded British tones throughout. Not a dig against Mills’ acting or the strength of her dual performance in making a patently absurd premise work, more of a mere observation of an interesting directorial choice. I’m not sure if The Parent Trap really deserves to remain as beloved a property as it has remained since 1961, either through the original or the Lindsay Lohan remake, but it’s certainly an enjoyable bit of fluff.

 

If you can vibe with the toxic and strange premise, divorced parents hated each other so much that they separated their twins and moved to opposite coasts only for the twins to meet-up at summer camp and switch places to reunite their family, then you’ll be in for a pleasant viewing. It helps that Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith generate an intense sexual chemistry here that threatens to blow apart at any moment. You can easily believe that they would grow to hate each other enough to move as far away from each other as possible when the relationship crumbled. If half of the joy of watching this is in Mills’ dual role, then the other half is watching O’Hara and Keith verbally spare and rekindle their romance.

 

We never get an answer as to why the parents decided to split up the children and never mention the long-lost one ever again, and the film, perhaps wisely, just simply ignores this story beat. We don’t get an answer for what went wrong in the relationship itself, but watching them press each other’s trigger points gives subtle enough clues about it. It becomes glaringly obvious that the parents still love each other once their reunited, and the complication in the way of the happy reunion, a deliciously bitchy Joanna Barnes as dad’s new gold-digging girlfriend, must be swiftly dealt with. It’s a priest played by Leo G. Carroll that lands a stinger when he tells Barnes regarding O’Hara: “Delightful, charming woman…it’s amazing how he let her slip away from him.” Well, we all mistakes, and the mischievous pixies encompassed by Mills are here to restore familial order through trickery and cunning. The Parent Trap is both a description of the plot and a mission statement for the characters.



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