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Red Dragon

Posted : 3 months, 2 weeks 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 : 3 months, 3 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 : 3 months, 3 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 : 3 months, 4 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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Posted : 3 months, 4 weeks ago on 25 September 2018 06:26 (A review of Ghostbusters (1984))

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


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


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


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

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Jackie Brown

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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A Star Is Born

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

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

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Posted : 4 months, 1 week ago on 16 September 2018 02:49 (A review of Blackbird)

Is this supposed to be some kind of parody of the hysterical Christian morality plays of Tyler Perry, or some kind of running commentary/satirical take on them? Is there any way to come to Blackbird that doesn’t end in you walking away completely confounded by its flagrant and vulgar mishmash of tones and improbable storytelling?


I have no answers for these questions, and that’s why I’m asking.


Director Patrik-Ian Polk stated that he made the film because we needed more stories of gay men who weren’t white. He’s right, but what we don’t need are movies as Lifetime-esque as Blackbird. I found myself wondering if this was supposed to be taken as camp, but there’s alternately a lack of conviction and a bone-deep seriousness that kneed that theory at several points.


I mean, what else is one to make of a film where a character’s abducted sister is a mere background detail to his coming out journey? Not only does Mo’Nique’s unstable mother (she’s only as crazy as any given scene requires her to be) blame his homosexuality for her daughter’s disappearance, but when the abducted girl is returned after six years, Mo’Nique shrugs off his homosexuality and forgives it all. Just a few scenes prior she was ready to lay hands on the boy to cure him of his queerness.


Yet this still sidesteps the fact that this movie treats the abduction and return of his sister as a mere blip on its radar. It’s so staggeringly inept and offensive that it’s borderline impressive. Who thought this was a good idea? You know they’re going to eventually circle back to this point since it’s a drum beat, incredibly hard, throughout the film, but to toss it off in the last few minutes is astounding. That girl’s been through hell and back, and now she’s a mere prop for her brother’s self-discovery and journey of acceptance? That takes some serious stones.


Blackbird is all over the map, and it’s not helped by Julian Walker’s awkward central performance. A non-actor but one hell of a singer, Walker simply cannot handle the dramatic weight he’s been entrusted with. He’s alternately too mannered, too broad, or just plain too artificial to register as a confused teenager trying to understand and grapple with his blooming sexuality and religious upbringing. It doesn’t help that he’s surrounded by Mo’Nique, very good despite a character that never makes logical sense, Isaiah Washington as his distant father, and Kevin Allesee as his dreamy first boyfriend.


So I ask again, what the hell is going on in Blackbird? They can’t possibly mean for us to take this seriously, and yet they appear to expect just that. Parody, satire, elaborate commentary – someone’s going to have to explain just what they were trying to achieve here. I’m flabbergasted.

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Like You Mean It

Posted : 4 months, 1 week ago on 16 September 2018 02:48 (A review of Like You Mean It)

You know, it seems like writer/director/star Philipp Karner is working through some deeply personal stuff throughout Like You Mean It. Shame he didn’t invite the audience along for his personal journey and mea culpa. Like You Mean It is glacial and opaque, much like its main character, and we’re stranded looking for a reason to care about so selfish a person or insight to expand our view of him. No such luck. We end the movie just as confused about Karner’s character as when we started, and praying that Denver Milord’s nice, solid guy gets as far away from him as possible. It must be said that Karner and Milord deliver naturalistic performances that feel lived in and authentic. The type that frequently elevates the thin material, but there’s so long you can watch a beautiful self-destructive egotist before it becomes tiresome. There’s plenty of craft and potential on display here, just no scope beyond the main character’s solipsism.

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Posted : 4 months, 1 week ago on 16 September 2018 02:47 (A review of Byzantium)

Vampires, Neil Jordan, and Saoirse Ronan looks like a winning combination on paper, but Byzantium all style and no substance. Ronan is customarily subtle, poignant, and nuanced, and Jordan imbues the entire thing with his austerity and low-key eroticism, but there’s just not enough story to justify the length, the narrative withholding, or “surprise!” method of delivering bits of material. It’s all right in front of you, very clearly and obviously, and Byzantium thinks it’s distance and manipulations are smarter than they are.


Problem lies squarely with Gemma Arterton’s Clara, a character with a backstory, profession, and trajectory that deserves her own movie in which everything is fully fleshed out and not dripped out in-between bits of love birds and self-mythologizing narration. Vampirism in Byzantium is a gentlemen’s club and Clara’s transformation from sickly prostitute to vampire femme fatale is more drab than anything. There’s juicy, rich material with vital lifeblood flowing in the veins of that story, but Byzantium treats it as a mere afterthought or as exposition for Ronan’s Eleanor to deliver under the guise of a notebook containing their shared journey to this point.


If you’re wondering why it’s a shared journey and can’t figure out that they’re mother/daughter, then I’m not sure what to tell you. They masquerade as siblings or some other familial relation, it changes depending on what city they’ve escaped to this time around, and remain in constant vigilance and fear of discovery by the brotherhood of vampires on their trail. They’ve been chasing these two ever since their creation, some hundred-plus years ago but what’s time to an immortal, really?


The feminist uprising flirted at within Byzantium is shuttered in favor of a love story between an undead girl and a dying boy. Granted, the scenes between Ronan and Caleb Landry Jones are by far some of the best, quaking with romantic yearning and a meeting of equally doomed kindred spirits. She’s forever a sixteen-year-old vampire while he’s slowly dying from leukemia. I suppose other love stories have been built on worse premises. I’m being pithy, but the scenes between the two of them are uniformly strong, engaging, and a reminder of just how talented these two young actors are.


It’s just such a mild disappointment that Jordan essentially made an art house Twilight instead of the far more interesting girl power fable lurking around the fringes. For all of its flights of violence, slow burning eroticism (check the way Ronan plays with her victims by slowing tracing her long fingernail over their veins), or charismatic love story, Byzantium ultimately boils down to a drab piece of Masterpiece Theater.  

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