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Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 18 October 2018 03:07 (A review of DREAMCAR)

Super-group or side-project? Probably somewhere in-between, honestly, when all is said and done given one participant’s inability to focus on anything for very long. Dreamcar is a loving ode to mid-80s synthpop in all of its glory, and something of a reductive compression of the entire genres major players. It’s a razor thin line between enjoyable romp of derivative 80s silliness and a group of rockers engaging in pastel dad chic while sweating to the oldies.


Substituting Gwen Stefani for Davey Havok brings out certain weaknesses in the material. Not for lack of Tom Dumont, Tony Kanal, and Adrian Young banging away with verve and energy, but for Havok’s gothic, edgy lyrics that dip into tortured teenage poetry and “try hard” obliqueness way too often. For all of the excessive fun and kitsch of “Kill for Candy” or storminess of “Show Me Mercy,” there’s way too many regressive moments of Havok’s outsized personality deflating the songs.


Case in point: “Don’t Let Me Love,” a tortured song featuring eyerolling lyrics like “If you hold the razor/I will guide your hand/I don’t want to fall in love again/Please/Don’t let me love.” That wouldn’t pass muster in my high school creative writing class, trust me, I tried it, and it’s even worse coming from a man in his early 40s. At least it was expected of a 16 year old. At least on “Don’t Let Me Love” his vocals are in fine form, as they are throughout the rest of the album. There’s no faulting his line delivery or zany stylistic choices, but those lyrics….


Much better, honestly the crown jewel of the pack, is the groovy camp of “All of the Dead Girls” where Havok’s baroque lyrics settle into a playfulness that the rest of the album needed more of. “All of the Dead Girls” is the aural equivalent of the Cure’s Robert Smith subbing in for Adam Ant around the Kings of the Wild Frontier album. It’s a glimpse of Dreamcar operating at its sleekest, smartest, and wildest.


While Dreamcar’s debut may be better than No Doubt’s last studio album, 2012’s overproduced and half-thought Push and Shove, it’s still not a patch on any of that band’s strongest albums. It’s unclear whether more will come from this as the band’s aborted tour, promotional efforts, and pulled second single all hint at some kind of strife either internally or with the record label. If all we get is this flimsy, fun bit of synthpop pastiche, then it was an enjoyable lark while it lasted.


DOWNLOAD: “All of the Dead Girls”

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The Rugrats Movie

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 17 October 2018 06:49 (A review of The Rugrats Movie)

A popular television makes the leap to the big screen, and the limitations of the medium become greatly apparent. What makes the television show so enjoyable in more digestible form becomes bloated, and the adage that television is merely “a movie, but longer” is proven false. Sitcoms tend to make the bumpiest transition, and cartoons tend to feel merely like three-to-six episodes thrown together where the spots for commercials or edits to separate them for the eventual syndicated airings as individual episodes.


Case in point: The Rugrats Movie, which finds these imaginative children in an adventure involving a newborn brother, a group of circus monkeys, a Reptar Wagon that would make James Bond proud, musical interludes (complete with head scratching but awesome cameos from alternative rock icons), and a general sense of a franchise taking on too much. The cartoon was a joy for its naivety and ramshackle imagination. These babies had vivid imaginings, but they were still delightfully lo-fi. The movie throws that out and shoves CGI in its place, and some of the charm has worn off.


That’s the major problem here, the charm of the franchise is dimmed under pyrotechnics and fancy movie star appearances. The Rugrats Movie’s story didn’t need to be a movie, and this could have easily been an extended/special episode and chopped off much of the flabbiness that keeps things just going and going and going. There’s also an odd choice to try and “edge” up the franchise with a barrage of 90s musical styles and bits of brash humor. The best part of the Rugrats show was its sense of innocence, rapid-fire wordplay and malapropism, and sense of gleeful curiosity about the world and discovering its dangers and beauty. That spark hasn’t gone out with The Rugrats Movie, but it has been buried under a “more is more” aesthetic to justify its existence on the big screen.

Well, at least there’s still the sight of the B-52’s, Beck, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, the Violent Femmes’ Gordan Gano, Lenny Kravitz, and Laurie Anderson as newborns singing a song about the world being new and wonderful. It’s as strange as it sounds, and proof that the soundtrack populated with contemporary New Wave acts of Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, musical director for the show and movie, is much better. Not only do you get that ensemble, but Devo’s twisted take on “Witch Doctor,” Elvis Costello’s duet with No Doubt on “I Throw My Toys Around,” and a bratty toddler version of Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” The soundtrack keeps the weird that the rest of the movie seems a little shy of embracing.

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Dancing Queen

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 16 October 2018 07:40 (A review of Dancing Queen)

In one of her many hilarious moments of self-awareness, Cher proclaimed herself the Lazarus of pop music onstage during her set at the 1999 Divas Live show. It was right before she performed “Believe,” but it could just as easily reflect her seemingly inexhaustible ability to disappear and reappear in the zeitgeist at will. Cher’s been in full grand diva performative mode since Believe, check her limited film and TV roles where she’s essentially playing grandiose versions of her public persona, and her small supporting part in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is no different.


All of that brings us to this moment, and album. Cher, as she tells it, had so much fun during her time making Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again that she thought it would be a lark to record an album of ABBA covers. The results are a mixed bag, somewhere between karaoke and inspired overhauls bound to be worshipped by the cadre of gay men who remain eternally loyal (hi!) and probably no one else. (Hey, not a bad thing. It just means she’s a smart businesswoman playing to her audience.)


As these things go, Dancing Queen ain’t half bad. Sure, some of it sounds exactly like what you think Cher fronting ABBA would sound like, but the part that dares to be different is better. She amps up the club-ready sound on “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” finds that “SOS” and “Waterloo” can handle harder/more modern sounds and not gain a pound, and turns “One of Us” away from its island groove into a stunning string-laden ballad. It’s a moment that produces absolute chills and a potent reminder of what a strong singer she can be with the right material.


While the reinventions are typically solid, a few of the straight choices are quite fetching. “The Winner Takes It All” doesn’t need much to be effective. Really, all it needs is a solid and committed vocal to delivering the tortured lyrics with depth and meaning, and Cher takes to the part like the legend she is. Same goes for “Fernando,” where Cher adopts the narrator’s point-of-view so completely you’re entirely sold on the image of Cher romancing a Mexican revolutionary and reminiscing about the experience.


Still, that can’t account for the flagrantly dull or curious choices like a version of “The Name of the Game” that just falls flat, a “Chiquitita” that bogs down the second half of an album already overburdened with ballads, and a stiff-jointed “Mamma Mia.” Call me crazy, but I’d love to hear Cher (and her Auto-Tune) unleashed on “Lay All Your Love on Me,” or a solo “Super Trouper” after watching her sing the hell out of it with the rest of the film’s ensemble during the closing credits. What Dancing Queen really needed was more mid-tempo or disco-ready songs to balance out the balladry, and ABBA has plenty of choices to fill out those ranks.


Could Dancing Queen have been better? Sure, but it’s Cher doing ABBA with a sense of fun, alternating between tongue firmly lodged in cheek and tear-stained resolve in the face of heartache. Frankly, I welcome the pleasing audio of the gay men’s celestial goddess bringing her sequins and glitter to the Swedish quartet’s sleek, strong pop.


DOWNLOAD: “Fernando”  

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The Assassin

Posted : 2 months 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 : 2 months 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 : 2 months 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 : 2 months 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 months, 2 weeks 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 months, 2 weeks 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 months, 2 weeks 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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