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Posted : 4 weeks ago on 13 November 2018 04:02 (A review of The BFG)

What’s shocking here is that it took so long for Steven Spielberg to finally work for Disney. He the purveyor of the candy-coated family-friendly adventures filled to the brim with a sense of wonder and awe, often with a dash of darkness lurking underneath to keep the tension going. Is he the right choice for Roald Dahl’s topsy-turvy, macabre world of heavy word-play and twisted poetry? I’m not entirely sure, but The BFG makes an unwieldy but compelling argument that he may be.


If there’s anything to knock The BFG for, and repeatedly, it’s the ungainly way the motion-capture work and the live-action material don’t completely vibe with each other. After a period of time of watching a human child clearly interacting with a largely artificial world, you wonder what would’ve happened if they did most of this with camera tricks, heavy makeup, and a minimal amount of CGI. Or, conversely, if they had gone the opposite route and gone all in on the motion-capture CGI look and made a largely animated film, think of the director’s own The Adventures of Tintin.


Or what if they went with a film that mixed the two mediums into separate chunks like James and the Giant Peach? Imagine a human Sophie in the beginning suddenly transformed into a slightly twisted version of herself once she enters the BFG’s world and then reverts back whenever she returns to the human world. Too conceptual you argue, perhaps, but it’s been successfully done before. Audiences were sophisticated enough to accept that Dorothy’s real-life was in sepia toned Depression-era Kansas and Oz was a colorful land of imagination and nightmares.


But they, like so many of Disney’s recent live-action retreads of their own beloved properties, decided to go through this method, and it displays a serious commitment to the “formula.” This is Spielberg doing Dahl for Disney! Money and time shouldn’t have been an issue, and if group of creative types could’ve taken their time to make something “more,” it was this group of power players. Instead we get something that’s pleasing, nice, and well-acted while also being a bit too cutesy for its own good and strangely defanged from Dahl’s typically venomous humor and worldview.


What they left behind is beyond perfect for Spielberg’s filmmaking milieu: a quiet, whimsical creature that spends much of his time bottling dreams to redistribute them as magical confections. Is that self-reflective of Spielberg’s standing as one of the guardians of a “Dream Factory” filmmaking aesthetic that is rapidly drying up as louder, greedier, bigger, dumber goons, here represented by the other giants that eat human children for the hell of it.


Sure, he’s not out to challenge us with this one, here’s in pure enchanter mode and that means The BFG deflates before reaching its end, but he’s smart enough to hand the role over to Mark Rylance, character actor extraordinaire. The BFG was once a passion project for Spielberg and Robin Williams, hard to imagine the manic, rapid-fire pop culture ramblings of his comedy folding neatly into Dahl’s world, but languished for so long that the role passed over to someone else for a variety of reasons. Rylance is a smart enough actor to know that you don’t compete for laughs and world play with Dahl, you merely find the beats and muscularity of his language and find a way to deliver it. His BFG is a winning combination of gawkiness, befuddled speech, and graceful gentleness and elegance.


It’s best to watch The BFG as an excuse to spend with a great actor treating a curious, strange part with the same reservoir of feeling, empathy, and guilelessness that he brings to his stage parts or darker dramatic work. The flimsy narrative and uneven child actor hinder the film from being a richer experience like several of Spielberg’s prior works, but sometimes a quaint dream is more than enough.

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A Tale of Love and Darkness

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 13 November 2018 04:02 (A review of A Tale of Love and Darkness)

Props to Natalie Portman’s writing and directing debut for being such a smartly handled adaptation of a seminal work about Jewish history and identity. Does her artistic ambition exceed her grasp? Absolutely, but this is no mere vanity project by the star as much as it is a truly invigorating work. You’ll forgive her occasional heavy-hand or awkward transition between reality, memory, or story within a story fable.


A Tale of Love and Darkness is an adaptation of Amos Oz’s autobiography alternating between his childhood in Jerusalem and his parents remembrances of pre-WWII European life, all of it marked either with the promise or fulfillment of violence. Much of the film obsesses over Oz’s relationship with his mother and the stories she told him as a child. These memories often end in blood or some strange stalemate where escape or  peace are illusionary dreams.


To counterbalance his mother’s fabulations, there’s Oz’s father with his formal rigidity and structural demands. This eventual becomes a synecdoche of Israel’s creation and the continual controversy and debate about its prominence, creation, and presence on the world stage to this day. Portman manages to treat this section of the material with the respect, integrity, and nuance it deserves.


Yet when her maternal figure must descend and eventually die, an inciting incident so traumatic and formative for Oz that he begins his memories with the word “mother,” A Tale of Love and Darkness becomes maudlin and Portman’s firm grasp on this section loosens. It is here that the stories that she told Oz, ones that clearly formed a lasting impression and formative understanding upon him, begin to go sideways. It reaches an apex of wish fulfillment at odds with the veracity of the material in a sequence where young Oz enters his mother’s stories and performs a succession of rescues of the tragic subjects, all of whom become his mother.


The romantic storytelling between mother-and-son in the first half has twisted into something cheaper here, and something that distracts from the thornier aspects at play as well. It feels too pat for everything that has gone on before and will go on after. Still, as a debut feature film goes, Portman could’ve done much worse and she deserves rousing applause for what she’s managed to accomplish here. I wonder what she’ll do next.  

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The Babadook

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 13 November 2018 04:01 (A review of The Babadook)

For my money, the best horror films are the ones where the horror can be scanned as literal or metaphorical, so enter The Babadook. Jennifer Kent’s debut horror film is a striking work of minimalism and subversion of expectations as the routine elements of a supernatural thriller are lined up then promptly upended in strange, hypnotic, chilling ways. The Babadook is a relentless experience, and one that has me excited about Kent will go from here.


Harried single mothers and bug-eyed socially inept children are but one common thread she weaves throughout The Babadook. In fact, they’re our point of entry. Next come the oblong shadows, the cursed object, the strange noises, the potential for demonic/supernatural possession, and an inky creature lurking about ready to strike. Kent lines them all up, and we think we know exactly where they’re going but something funny happens on the way there.


Kent gives up the setup of a film not dissimilar to say, The Conjuring, but then goes about slowly revealing layer by layer that there may be nothing so damaging and twisted as the human psyche, unprocessed trauma, and untreated mental illness. The children’s book that ushers in the eponymous creature, Mister Babadook, is a homemade object and something of a projection of where the story will potentially lead, and it’s not a pretty sight. But notice that the mother’s fingers are covered in charcoal and that’s never explained or commented upon. Then think back to what the book was drawn with. Kent’s laid out the breadcrumbs so minutely and smartly that absolute attention to detail is needed to catch them all before the grand finale.


What’s also deeply refreshing about The Babadook is its female point-of-view. Plenty of horror films have presented female heroines in distress and collapsing mental stability, but few have had a female auteur to guide them. Kent taps into something primordial and taboo in her depiction of a mother’s love and resentment towards a child, and how one side is clearly winning and damaging the home/child right along with it. If the The Babadook gets a little obvious in its final moments, so be it. It has the guts to go for something truly great. After all, what’s scarier: a mind unraveling due to PTSD and severe depression or a literal monster destroying a family by preying on those issues?

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Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 13 November 2018 04:00 (A review of Ain't Them Bodies Saints)

Less a film on its own merits than it is something engineered to feel like a relic from Hollywood’s revolutionary period between 1967 and 1982. Does it succeed? Well, that’s more of a volatile question, isn’t it? Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a gorgeous ode to a bygone Americana, but it’s limp as romance and dubious as a western.


Simply put, there’s just not much incentive to care about the central couple. We meet them as outlaws, but they’re soon parted. They remain away from each other for the remainder of the film, but we’re led to believe that they have an intense, passionate love affair that’s prone to explosive outbursts of violence and criminality. Since we only view them as existing separately, there’s no evidence or reason to buy in on the strength of their emotional connection. A similar problem undercut Cold Mountain’s pining lovers.


Director David Lowery and cinematographer Bradford Young craft a series of stylistically pleasing but ultimately emotional series of images. There’s no soul to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, just a successive parade of ghostly images that suffocate what little bits of life and vibrancy there was under the weight of their self-imposed importance. It ends up feeling like a pastiche of films like Bonnie and Clyde, Borderlands, and the like.


It seems more obsessed with a crafting a twangy, fiddle-heavy sense of western folklore and poetry, both of which are either too heavy-handed or flattened to pull off the stunt, then it does with telling a compelling narrative. Rooney Mara’s rendered a saintly mother figure, Casey Affleck is a jailbird romantic on a personal odyssey, and the whole thing is so picturesque that it ends up being a pastiche of its influences rather than a natural outgrowth of them. Lowery’s clearly talented, but he needs to let his work breathe instead of crafting laminated paper dolls propped against sepia photographs of the vast plains of Texas.

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Anna Karenina

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 13 November 2018 04:00 (A review of Anna Karenina)

Emotional depth gets lost in Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina, but it sure is beautiful to stare at. Leo Tolstoy’s novel of familial disintegration and the romance that leads to its main character’s eventual destruction is no stranger to film, so you need a new hook to make your version standout. I’m not sure the hook for this one was the right choice.


Tom Stoppard’s screenplay has designed Anna Karenina as taking place within a large proscenium theater with sets that collapse or move to reveal the next section. It’s a neat trick to be sure, but one that calls to much attention towards itself as the film goes on and saps the power away from the drama unfolding. It becomes a distracting exercise in watching actors trying not to fuck up their marks while masking that interior panic. What works on an actual stage production does not always translate to a filmed one.


Sometimes these moments are beyond gorgeous tableaus, but they often exemplify Wright’s limitations as a director. His mind is always working overtime to come up with visual ideas, but there’s often very little “why” behind these ideas as they exist merely to titillate. For every blessed quiet moment there’s five more of strum und drang for the sake of it. Occasionally these flashier moments work well, like a horse race edited to the frantic beating of Anna’s fan, but more often they needlessly call attention away from the already complex interpersonal geometry of the main players and onto the geometric patterns of the production.


There’s also the little matter of treating the setting as a stage leading to an uneven quality to the film’s performances. Some actors go for the more natural route that’s typical of film, a sublime Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander, while others go for more arch, mannered performances that would work better on a stage, Ruth Wilson and Matthew MacFayden spring to mind. It creates a tonal dissonance as two actors will appear side-by-side in a scene yet operate like they’re in two distinctly different productions. Once again, Wright’s central conceit undermines the thematic heft of the material and the gifts of his incredibly talented ensemble.


Yet for all of the film’s water treading, there’s still the joy of Keira Knightley gamely attacking the lead role. Anna Karenina is a part that you requires some work to screw up, and all you really need is a good actress in the part to make it work. Luckily, Wright was smart enough to bring his reoccurring leading lady onboard, wind her up in corsetry, and watch her tackle a stunning array of emotions and scenarios that cover all the bases of her greatest strengths. I’m particularly fond of an emotional breakdown brought on by jealousy, loneliness, resentment towards societal double-standards, and a bit of drink she has late in the film. She swings from manic, desperate highs to twitchy, snarling aggression, stops on a dime, then propels into tear-stained accusations and paranoia. It requires an actress of consummate skill, poise, and strength to manage such stop/start dynamics, but Knightley is one of the strongest working ones around.


Besides the refinery of the costumes, the beauty of the production design, the strength of the editing, there’s always Knightley’s strong central performance to recommend this version of Anna Karenina. Wright’s busybody choices as a director may have handicapped much of the final product, but he managed some smart choices along the way.

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The Paperboy

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 13 November 2018 03:59 (A review of The Paperboy)

I know you could say this about every Lee Daniels movie but what the hell was The Paperboy? Daniels’ films are frequently hot and bothered, highly pulpy explorations of important topics, ones that give in to a Dallas/Dynasty-like veneer of sleaze and suds more often than not, and The Paperboy is no different. From the constant parading of Zac Efron in tighty whities to Nicole Kidman’s trashy woman, from David Oyelowo’s misplaced gravitas to the vision of Matthew McConaughey hogtied and naked, The Paperboy is an excess of shock wrapped around a limp narrative.


Imagine a John Waters filmed stripped of self-awareness and kitsch and you’ll come close to the sensationalist obtuseness on display. There’s allegedly a story somewhere in the titillations, but frankly it’s nowhere near as engaging or hilarious as say, the sight of watching Kidman and John Cusack publicly bust a pair of nuts in front of everyone. I’m not sure how that scene was supposed to be received, but I haven’t laughed that hard in quite some time. Then he turns around and films scenes of domestic abuse, gang rape, and other salacious topics with a dead seriousness that cause tonal whiplash in-between the sun-soaked raging libido and glistening tumescence of the rest of the film.


The real reason to watch The Paperboy is simply for Kidman’s completely committed and bonkers performance. No task is too outré, no scene off limits, and she hungrily attacks her character like a feline predator. Her hair piled upon her head like a low rent Brigette Bardot, her makeup and clothing orbiting tacky, Kidman is nearly unrecognizable foremost, and it’s a heady reminder that for all of her movie star glamour and posing she’s best in dark character parts. All of this, and a scene where she urinates on Efron’s prone body after a jellyfish attack? Goddamn, find me another Oscar winning actress who’d be willing to go so gonzo, I dare you.

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Out of Sight

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 13 November 2018 03:58 (A review of Out of Sight)

Ostensibly a crime movie, Out of Sight is a film that’s obsessed with dialog, behavior, and movie star charisma and sensuality than it is with any particular criminal activity. This isn’t a complaint at all, merely an observation of the structure and emphasis in Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation. In fact, Out of Sight is an absolute delight from start to finish.


We begin with the most lackadaisical bank robbery I’ve ever seen in a film, one that relies entirely on George Clooney’s character’s ability to disarm with his charm and deliver a lie-a-minute with the efficiency and believability of a lifelong con artist. He accomplishes both of these tasks with the ease and charisma befitting a movie star. But Clooney wasn’t a movie star at the time this film was made and released. Primarily known for his work on television, ER making him a star after years of journeyman work to be precise, Out of Sight launched Clooney as a viable commodity on the big screen.


Clooney folds into the world of Elmore Leonard, having a bit of a big screen moment in the 90s, with surprising grace and intelligence. This role would provide something of a roadmap for Clooney’s eventual ascendency: charming rogues with a penchant for smartass remarks and soft hearts. It’s all right there in that opening scene as Clooney’s clear joy in playing with strong, musical language is evident and only reinforces his strengths as an actor.


Yet Out of Sight is also a film built around the premise of a cop and robber chasing each other, and Clooney needed a strong cop to act opposite. Enter Jennifer Lopez in the strongest performance of her career as Karen Sisco. She must walk a fine line between wanting to bag the guy and wanting to bed him. Her character on paper is nearly ridiculous a pistol-packing bombshell that’s gritty, yet Lopez manages to make it look effortless. She’s never been this at ease or layered as an actress ever since. In addition, she must also trade witty and sexy repartee with Clooney, and their chemistry is off the charts. Scenes of them together are a joy to watch simply to observe their verbal and sexual dynamics threatening to ignite the celluloid.


And that’s the film in its entirety, layers of tension as the cat and mouse games switch power dynamics then switch back. Yes, there’s several heist scenes and shootouts in Out of Sight, but what you’ll remember most are long scenes of characters talking because the words and how they’re said are so enjoyable. There’s also a pair of sexy scenes between Clooney and Lopez, one where they’re completely clothed in the trunk of a car and another where we cut back-and-forth between them in a restaurant and undressing in a hotel room.


Orbiting around these two are a colorful cadre of supporting players brought to life by an enviably cast of (then) up-and-comers and aging character actors. Leonard had the same gift that Damon Runyon did for populating his works with colorful characters and giving them all a chance to shine. The journey is good enough when actors such as Dennis Farina, Ving Rhames, Catherine Keener, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, Viola Davis, and Albert Brooks bring it to life.


Out of Sight may not be aiming for any grand pronouncement, but it’s a gangbuster of an entertainment. It’s smart, sexy, and loads of fun. You know, it really lives up to its title.

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The Commitments

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 13 November 2018 03:57 (A review of The Commitments)

Well, isn’t this just a fun, modest movie about a group of Dublin musicians trying to make something of themselves by playing American soul music of the 50s and 60s. there’s no great lesson to impart, which is quite refreshing, just a good time to be had watching a batch of chain-smoking, foul-mouthed Irish lads and lassies try to get it together long enough to maybe get a record deal. The writing’s on the wall from the beginning that it’s probably not going to happen for them, but it’s still a blast to watch them try anyway.


Less glossy than many of Alan Parker’s other films, most notably 1980’s Fame to which this plays as something of an inverse, it still has all of the depth of feeling and thought Parker’s other films do. What does that mean? This is mainly an excuse to force a bunch of professional musicians and neophyte actors to jam, film the results, and pause every so long to add a dash of dramatics to keep things going. It’s got all the emotional resonance of a commercial. 


You’re not watching The Commitments for depth of character, most of them are one-note and prone to arch putdowns filled with promiscuous vocabulary, but for the propolusive, energetic musical numbers. Think of this as an early-90s variation of “let’s put on a show” musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age. While the film is set and shot on location in Ireland, it’s heart and soul, plastic as they are, are squared completely in a Hollywood of yesteryear. Rain soaked streets aren’t compelling drama or a replacement for absorbing story beats, but does that matter in the face of Andrew Strong bringing his brogue to “Try a Little Tenderness” or “In the Midnight Hour”? Not so much, in the end.

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The Haunting

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 13 November 2018 03:57 (A review of The Haunting (1963))

Shirley Jackson’s seminal haunted house novel gets the film adaptation treatment deserving of its artistry and exemplary skill in Robert Wise’s 1963 feature, The Haunting. He captures the emotional unease of the characters, most notably Eleanor, so well and all without displaying a ghostly vision. No matter, the atmosphere of sustained uncertainty and terror he creates makes you somehow convinced that there were spectral presences hidden away in the corners of the frame.


The film follows the novels various character studies and beats expertly. We’re gathered here for academic purposes, those of Professor John Markway to be exact, and the three others we meet are here as test subjects for detecting supernatural phenomena. We’ve got Luke, living heir to the mansion’s property, Theo, a chic, cool woman with an empathy for the supernatural, and Eleanor, a frazzled, mercurial, emotionally unstable woman chosen for her documented experience with a strange phenomena. They’re to stay in Hill House and document what they see, hear, and feel.


All of that is a fun bit of setup for what’s to follow: the complete psychological and emotional collapse of Eleanor. Whether this is by spectral means, she feels “chosen” and compelled to the house by unseen forces, or because of her demonstrable mental and emotional issues is left vague enough to argue either side. What’s for certain is that Eleanor is not a reliable protagonist, and to experience the haunting through her prism is deeply unnerving.


Much like Jackson’s prose, Wise grounds in the proceedings in a recognizably real world and works hard to keep things just out of sight. This makes your mind fill in the blanks as to what is truly going on. Cacophonous banging in the middle of the night, wallpaper that looks like an angry face in the right combination of shadows and light, inexplicably cold spots in the middle of the room – these are the horrors that grip Eleanor and company, and all of them are tangible.


Wise’s film is also armed with a sense of craft that elevates it into greatness and far away from goofy translucent ghosts. The sound design of a late-night banging is all the more terrifying for the pauses that happen in-between them. First they drip out slowly, then manically, then there’s a long agonizing pause as we wait as the characters do to see if it’s over yet or not. There’s also the disorientating nature of the house’s production design as walls are angled curiously, doors lead to bent hallways or into other rooms that they didn’t appear to lead into before. The entire house keeps both the characters and the audience off-balance that heightens the air of mystery and danger about the place.


There’s also the camera work that frequently lingers in tight close-ups of its actors faces as they stare off camera at whatever imagined horrors are turning knobs, closing doors, or writing on walls. There’s one particular bravura piece where Eleanor wanders outside away from the group, looks up at something on the outside of the house, then the camera switches to the perspective of that terrorizing object as it quickly descends onto a screaming Eleanor. It’s a flourish to be certain, but an extremely effective one. We’re never quite sure what Eleanor saw, but we’re unnerved by the suggestion and her frayed response to it.


Finally, there’s the strength of the four lead actors that make The Haunting work so beautifully. Richard Johnson’s appropriately stuffy, academic, and fatherly as Prof. Markway, and Russ Tamblyn gets to be comedic relief that quickly wilts in the face of what he experiences as time goes on. Yet it’s the two leading ladies that make the biggest impression here.


Claire Bloom makes Theo a fetching, icy Mod goddess. Dressed in black, quick with a cutting remark, and subtly playing the character’s lesbianism, Bloom makes Theo a scene-stealer whenever she can. Her quacking in the face of ghostly apparitions, explained away as a sensitivity that manifests as full-body chill, is a tightly controlled bit of bodily acting. Her impassive face rarely displays the terror, arousal, or exasperation that her character feels. It’s all through implication of her body language or a quick glance or change in her eyes.


But it’s Eleanor’s story in the end, and Julie Harris expertly goes about her task of playing an exposed nerve. Much of Jackson’s interior monologue is carried over, and Harris has to find a way to make these passages work without feeling too on the nose. Of course she does, and her near-rational self-possession near the end is terrifying. Harris’ voice obtains a steady pitch that’s marked with a decaying sense of sanity and composure as she makes peace with the house “wanting” her. Horror cinema is filled with films about brittle women cracking under psychological distress, and Harris’ performance must be mentioned near the top of great examples of what that looks like, right next to Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, and Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion.


The Haunting is a horror film of implication, suggestion, and extraction, one that retains much of its power and strength because of these choices. Wise was right to leave as much unsaid and left off-screen as Jackson did, and it makes the speculation over the “truth” of the haunting all the better. This is the horror film as sophisticated literary adaptation.  

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You Make It Feel Like Christmas (Deluxe Edition)

Posted : 1 month ago on 7 November 2018 10:01 (A review of You Make It Feel Like Christmas [Deluxe Edition])

The luxurious retro treatment of last year’s [Link removed - login to see] gets five songs appended in this deluxe edition. Gwen Stefani’s vibrato still sounds energized and comfortable among the Wall of Sound-style live instrumentation, yet the selection of covers still skews too hard on the obvious yuletide choices. I’ll trade you another version of “Winter Wonderland” and “Silent Night” for her to bring her just a girl sass to say, “Sleigh Ride” or “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas.” Yet her version of “Feliz Navidad” is a delight with assist from Chilean artist Mon Laferte adding some cute back-and-forth girl power to the song. The two new songs, “Cheer for the Elves” and “Secret Santa,” are cute bits of retro kitsch-pop and make far more sense as original material for a holiday-themed album than “When I Was a Little Girl” or “Never Kissed Anyone with Blue Eyes Before.”The highs and lows of the original album remain with the five new additions proving uniformly solid. You Make It Feel Like Christmas remains an uneven but overall strong, quirky, colorful blast of season's greetings and warm wishes.

DOWNLOAD: “Christmas Eve,” “Secret Santa,” “Feliz Navidad” ft. Mon Laferte  

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