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Being Flynn

Posted : 2 months, 4 weeks ago on 14 September 2018 12:24 (A review of Being Flynn)

You’ve got some serious artistic hubris if you’re willing to stick Robert De Niro behind a yellow cab and reference one of his most iconic works, and Being Flynn cannot compare to Martin Scorsese’s sweaty, paranoid Taxi Driver. That was a work of pure daring, an evocation  of numerous westerns gone to rot and sanity in the concrete badlands of New York City. Being Flynn, meanwhile, is a generic adaptation of Nick Flynn’s memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. One that is too safe, too clean, and too hurried to really grapple with and sell the material.


Being Flynn gives in to Hollywood redemption clichés, we know that Nick will overcome his sudden drug addiction to become a well-respected author, we know that Jonathan will eventually find stability, probably at the intervention of Nick, and things will be on their process of healing. What makes it all so frustrating is just how abrupt many of these darker twists are handled. Watching this, you’d be hard-pressed to see just how deep into addiction Nick has spiraled. We only know and get the sense because of Olivia Thirlby’s speaking it aloud. Being Flynn wants to present the warts of Flynn’s memoir, but it doesn’t want its movie star cast to have to get too ugly for their parts.


And what a cast it is! Paul Dano’s distant, soulful face is perfect for a role like this, and delivers a reliably solid performance, but the part never taps into his full talents. It’s as if everyone is too afraid to ask him to go the places and lengths he went to in There Will Be Blood once more. Julianne Moore, Thirlby, and Lili Taylor are all wasted, and they’re about it for female characters. Moore plays his mother, a thinly sketched part that makes you wonder why she signed on in the first place, but at least she gets some stuff to play unlike the others. Thirlby mainly functions as “the girlfriend,” and Taylor has a small part in the homeless shelter where much of the action takes place.


So, that leaves Being Flynn in the hands of De Niro, and he’s in fine form here. After years of wandering the proverbial woods, De Niro’s recently been picking and choosing projects that provide ample room for him to stretch, to underplay, or perform in a very specific manner. His alcoholic with a grandiose self-image and aggressive relationship with his son is such a role. Being Flynn emerges as something of a star vehicle in a roundabout way.


You’re lured in with the prospect of a serious dramatic adaptation of a great modern literary work, but you get bargain basement Sundance material that already felt creaky in 1998. But what did you expect when the material is being handled by Paul Weitz, he of Little Fockers fame. That tells you just about everything you need to know.

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St. Vincent

Posted : 2 months, 4 weeks ago on 14 September 2018 12:23 (A review of St. Vincent)

Indie dramadies about softhearted curmudgeons befriending adorable, precocious moppets is a genre that produces more duds than gems. Case in point: St. Vincent, Bill Murray’s entry in that much-abused genre finds him saddled with babysitting a tween that feels like the embryonic version of Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore. Except writer/director/co-producer Theodore Melfi is no Wes Anderson, and St. Vincent is often left adrift tonally, cliché in narrative, and buoyed by strong performances from the three leads. Murray can do likeable prick in his sleep, it’s his default mode, but he still does strong work here. Melissa McCarthy gets little to do, but she does manage to nail the tricky balance between drama, comedy, and barely concealed resentment in a long freeform monologue detailing her harried working mother’s backstory. While Jaeden Lieberher gives an acting performance that manages to make a real character out of a series of quirks. Lieberher may have a strong, long-lasting career in front of him if he keeps delivering work as uniformly strong as he does here and in 2017’s IT: Chapter One. It’s just a damn shame that St. Vincent gives into such schmaltz and obvious emotional pandering instead of sticking to the pricklier terrain its three characters often find themselves in.  

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Posted : 2 months, 4 weeks ago on 14 September 2018 12:23 (A review of Singles)

The Pretenders had released four albums by the time their first compilation, Singles, hit the shelves in 1987, and it’s a testament to their unique and enduring spin on classic rock. Chrissie Hynde brought a feminine mystique to the classic cock rock sound. From their self-titled debut through 1986’s Get Close, Hynde perfected her pop songwriting skills, married them to a tough-but-tender sound, and Singles is sixteen classics from the New Wave siren and her merry band of rockers.


Singles kicks off with their cover of the Kinks “Stop Your Sobbing,” and Hynde’s steely snarl smartly wraps around Ray Davies’ British Invasion gem. But Hynde’s own songs are quickly revealed as the equals of that smart assed opening shot. “Kid” is a glimpse at Hynde the heartbreak queen, “Talk of the Town” finds her love sick, and “Don’t Get Me Wrong” is pure sass. That doesn’t even cover the elegy of “Back on the Chain Gang,” biker chick tough “Middle of the Road,” or the iconic “Brass in Pocket.”


“Brass in Pocket”’s refrain of “I’m special/I gotta have some of your attention/Give it to me!” captures the magic and mystery of Hynde. She alternates between self-possession and demands for your attention, and she feels authentic while doing both. She’s a tough customer, but there’s a soft center to that leathery exterior. For all her heavy eyeliner and untouchable cool, Hynde’s still capable of expressing a deep vulnerability like on “I Go to Sleep.” It’s in expressing all of her moods and modes that the Singles emerges as a powerful testament to the allure of Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders.


DOWNLOAD: “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Brass in Pocket,” “I Got You Babe”

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Posted : 3 months, 1 week ago on 29 August 2018 08:42 (A review of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again)

Ten years separated the first film and this sequel. The only shocking thing about that factoid is that it took so long. Never mind that the musical sequences rarely had anything to do with the plot, or that the actors couldn’t sing (for the most part), or that much of it was shoddily made, filmed, edited, the original Mamma Mia made a small fortune at the box office. I guess people really enjoyed watching Meryl Streep cavort around a Greek island dressed in boho chic and miming along to ABBA. Frankly, it sounds like a gay fantasia.


Well, here comes Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, a title that sounds both like a knowing joke and a sigh of resignation, feels like the polished, finished product of what the original film could have been. This time around we watch twin stories that parallel as Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie finds herself pregnant and struggling to reopen her mom’s hotel, and Lily James as Donna, Sophie’s mom, in flashbacks detailing just how she ended on that Greek island with that property.


While the first film frequently injected musical numbers seemingly just as a way of marking time, as if every ten minutes another needed to happen, this one manages to actually build them up in a logical way, mostly. For example, Donna and young Harry (Hugh Skinner) dine at a French-themed restaurant and erupt into “Waterloo.” A little on the nose? Sure, but it’s also hilariously joyful and filled with sight-gags that work. The problem of on-the-nose visuals is endemic to the jukebox musical. “One of Us” functions as a music video as it literalizes the lyrics of the song.


At least Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is unafraid to go full camp. I mean, this is a film that features Cher in full-on diva mode wearing a blonde wig and performing “Fernando” while playing Meryl Streep’s mother. Cher’s presence is regulated to the very end, but it’s also a potent reminder of what a talented actress she is. I mean, she’s given thin material to work with, but she manages to land her laughs, project the image that she’s having a grand time, and belt the hell out of some great pop tunes. What more do you need?


It’s garish, kitsch, fun, cringe-inducing, it contains cute British boys (their ability to carry a tune is debatable), and a lot of talented actresses vamping it up. It’s not a great movie, it’s not even a good one, really, but it’s enjoyable enough in its own strange way. I think this is a good place to stop, though. But I’ll see everyone in 2028 when we get Mamma Mia! Take a Chance on Me.   

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Ernest & Celestine

Posted : 3 months, 1 week ago on 29 August 2018 07:01 (A review of Ernest & Celestine)

There’s all the ingredients for something twee – a storybook aesthetic, a curmudgeon and an orphan bonding, and it’s based on a series of Belgian children’s books – yet Ernest & Celestine is a warm, lovely little piece of misfits bonding over their shared love of art. They operate outside of two oppressing societies, and the peaceful idle seems manufactured straight from Celestine’s own drawings and paintings. It’s a sneaky little knockout.


In this world brown bears populate the earth while their enemies, mice (just go with it), live underneath in the sewers. The anthropomorphic citizens of both worlds have a distrust of each other and demand that rigged order by enforced at all times. Why exactly? Who knows, but it’s not like the bears eat the mice, and the mice have a symbiotic relationship to the bears. Or, well, their teeth at any rate.


Yes, I said their teeth. Ernest & Celestine has some incredibly odd story beats and details. The quirk is really garnishing on the main course, the rich emotional vibrancy and artistic expressions we witness blossom when the two remove themselves from both societies and hide away from it all. The higher powers will demand a return to the established order, but Ernest & Celestine is a zippy, smart little movie that will not restore things to how they were but build something new, better, and more hopeful from its ashes.


Ernest & Celestine is a thorough delight, a whimsical, deeply felt animated movie that keeps the simplicity of its style and applies to its narrative structure. There’s more elliptical storytelling here than out-and-out narrative push, thank god. It creates several open moments for comedic gold, quiet reflection, terror or suspense, or touching little interactions between characters.


We need more films like this.

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Finding Dory

Posted : 3 months, 1 week ago on 29 August 2018 04:40 (A review of Finding Dory)

The emotional trauma of the transition from childhood to adulthood is the bread and butter of Pixar’s films. Don’t believe me? Look at Toy Story 3, Inside Out, or Brave’s exploration of the painful growths required to move to the next phase of life or deal with a big change. Finding Dory adheres to the company’s overarching motto, but it also adds to it by opening with a young Dory’s parents teaching her skills to try and cope with her disability. For Dory, these tricks are fun and cheerful, but she’s also bright enough to realize that they aren’t cures or foolproof.


This introduction is both heartwarming for the love and support her parents provide, but also a glimpse of things to come for the rest of the narrative. We’ll get our candy-colored gloss, but that spoonful of sugar is wrapped around some strong medicine. After all, it isn’t long until Dory’s wandered too far away from the safe confines of her family home, gotten lost, and spending her entire childhood searching the ocean for a way back home. Eventually, Dory’s personal narrative is sidelined as she, and we, run right into Marlin and the unfolding story from Finding Nemo.


Finding Nemo was already a movie not lacking in plaintive moments yet this first act is one of the richest and most complex of any from the studio. It’s a spark of a memory that ignites Dory on a quest to return home and find her parents. She was already a rootable figure in the first movie, a loopy side character that we enjoyed making us laugh and wanted to see succeed, and her elevation to the main role deepens that aspect.


We spend a good of time with Dory, Marlin, and Nemo in their daily routine as they try to keep her to a steady, tightly structured path in order to constantly re-center her frequent bouts of complete oblivion. Comedy is found in the frustrations of trying to realign Dory, but it’s never mean-spirited or at the expense of her condition. It takes a while for Finding Dory’s rhythms to develop, but once a series of forced cameos from Nemo’s characters and prominent locations are over, the movie really takes off.


A majority of its running time is spent in a fictional marine life institute that emphasizes rehabilitation and release when possible. (Bonus points for that hilarious Sigourney Weaver cameo.) We also get introduced to a fun new group of supporting players that make the formulaic portions of the film, and there are a lot of them, worth the journey. Sure, the near-sighted whale is cute, but I’m deeply fond of the cantankerous, gooey-centered octopus.


It’s important to note these details that make Finding Dory unique because a lot of it repeating the past success of the original film and the studio’s larger output. The comfort foods of home and family get their usual children’s film callouts, and the adoptive family that Dory meets along the way gets taken into the fold. The reef that the Nemo characters inhabit is something of an isle of misfit aquatic creatures by the time the closing credits are rolling. Not a bad thing, nor is the film’s quiet ways in which it places us in Dory’s daily predicament of loss and confusion. Her motto of “just keep swimming” because something not only encouraging but defiant.    

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A Monster in Paris

Posted : 4 months ago on 8 August 2018 09:53 (A review of A Monster in Paris)

Charming and frustrating in near equal amounts, A Monster in Paris is a likeable animated trifle that tries to find equilibrium between laughs, scares, and musical interludes. Think of it as a baby proof Phantom of the Opera mixed with bits of the Universal Monsters franchise and King Kong. It’s a shame that this brief description is more interesting than the actual film.


A Monster in Paris has a simple, engaging setup, and then never quite populates it with rich characters, memorable songs, or a narrative that requires a feature-length running time. This would have made one hell of strong, smart, wonderful short film. I mean, it’s about a gigantic flea that gets disguised as a human and winds up being the performing partner of a cabaret singer. That’s delightfully weird. That’s more than enough story to function as a setup, yet it often plays second-fiddle to the romantic anguish of a projectionist prone to dreaming and his best friend, a delivery boy.


That’s where A Monster in Paris frequently loses steam as it also provides ample space for a generic villain to wander in and deflate the emotional investment we may or may not have been building in these characters troubles. Frankly, I wanted to spend more time with the singing, guitar playing super-flea and far less with the human characters. Plenty of fascinating and unexplored terrain go by the wayside in favor of love’s labors lost and won. C’mon, give me more of our projectionist’s found footage monster discovery, more of the dream world of his, and far more of the monster skulking about Paris.


In fact, you’ll have a hard time remembering much of the human character’s journeys, but you’ll definitely remember the monster and the more adventurous sequences. Case in point, the opening sequence plays out like a film reel from 1910. Imagine if the entire movie had been animated in that gauzy, sepia-toned manner? Can’t say there’s been too many films like that just floating around. A Monster in Paris is cute, it’s fun, but it could have been so much more.   

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Ratchet & Clank

Posted : 4 months ago on 8 August 2018 08:41 (A review of Ratchet & Clank)

Movies based on video games are a rough subgenre to find yourself watching. They’re often incapable of deciding whether they want to straight up adapt the video game franchise, function as their own story, or occupy some strange middle ground between the two. Ratchet & Clank winds up being one of those middle ground movies, but it’s still one of the better video game adaptations.


Shame that it wasn’t more unique as the plot manages to take the quirky, irreverent, Looney Tunes-esque characters from the video game franchise and smooth them out into generic shapes and archetypes. Plenty of animated films showcase shallow characters in their main roles, but the Galactic Rangers, corporate bad guys, and mad scientists on display here feel like loners from the back of central casting. Oh well, at least the animation is uniformly nice, there’s sparks of life and insouciant humor, and a few of the voice actors make a positive impression (John Goodman going gruff but sweet, Sylvester Stallone in self-parody mode, and Paul Giamatti playing oilly even in animation).


The video games have personality and verve bursting from every polygon and double entendre laced title. Frankly, you’d be better served skipping out on this and playing the PS4 game instead. That manages to strike a successful balance between developed characters, nice animation, an engaging story, and providing a sense of infectious anarchy that’s quite pleasing.  

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The Daughter of Dawn

Posted : 4 months ago on 8 August 2018 07:15 (A review of The Daughter of Dawn)

The Daughter of Dawn is more of a historical curiosity then it is a successful movie. Populated entirely by Native American actors, The Daughter of Dawn is one of the few dramatic westerns that places them within the heroic and romantic contexts and not as the unseen other descending upon the routinely white heroes. It’s worth watching for this reason, but even at a brisk 83 minutes this thing still manages to plod along.


The problem here is that too much emphasis is placed on the tragic romantic triangle aspect, and even this early in cinema this was a stiff jointed narrative. The Daughter of Dawn is much better and engaging when it relaxes into documentary-style observation. There’s an authenticity to the performances, glimpses of daily life, and smaller moments here that’s absorbing for how specific it is when compared to the broad strokes you’d later on. The indigenous actors get to be active participants and objects instead of mere passive or reactive supporting players and villains.


Yes, it is amateur in many ways, plodding in its narrative, but it’s still worth watching for its historical import. Filmed between 1919, screened in 1920, then languished and long thought lost until rediscovery in 2005, and finally premiering in 2012, The Daughter of Dawn adds another passage to the history of American cinema. It’s just a damn shame that it’s not an all-around better movie.

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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Posted : 4 months ago on 8 August 2018 07:15 (A review of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close)

Cloying in the extreme, not just for the ways it exploits a tragedy but for the myriad of ways it treats its protagonist as a bundle of quirks and not as an actual character, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the crassest of Oscar bait. Shameless in its extraction of tears and manipulation of emotions, Extremely Loud demands you cry and feel something, all the while presenting its story and images in the sterile, busily edited, dimly lit house style of questionable Academy tastes. There’s nothing beneath the surface here, and even the surface is insufferable as it wraps up 9/11 in Leave It to Beaver garments. Well, if the Beave was an autistic kid lashing out against his mother and meeting an ensemble of quirky supporting characters played by too talented actors wasting time. Only Max von Sydow’s mute performance and a scene where Sandra Bullock’s frazzled, grieving mother has to explain that sometimes bad things happen without a “why” or reason attached manage to escape the grossly synthetic completely unscathed.

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