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Out of Sight

Posted : 2 months, 1 week 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 : 2 months, 1 week 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 : 2 months, 1 week 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 : 2 months, 2 weeks 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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Posted : 3 months 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 : 3 months 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 : 3 months, 1 week 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 : 3 months, 2 weeks 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 : 3 months, 2 weeks 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 : 3 months, 2 weeks 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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