Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Swimming In Miami

Year: 2016
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, Naomie Harris
Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Gay movies are tough. It’s difficult when your sexual identity is linked to a cornucopia of hot button issues, because the only wide-release gay movies that squeak by are the ones that interact directly with those issues. And you know where movies about social issues invariably end up? The whirling typhoon of overseriousness we call the Oscars. It’s a vicious cycle that has led to the most notable gay movies being the dour Philadelphia, the terrific but dour Brokeback Mountain, the ambiguously sullen Weekend, and f**king I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

Moonlight is a member of that massively unpleasant genre, coupled with the even more primordially depressing genre of Oscarbait Movies About Black People. So it’s a damn miracle that it ended up being watchable and, in patches, occasionally splendid.

I’ll get through an entire Oscar slate one of these years!

Moonlight is divided into three distinct parts (because you know a movie’s great if it has chapter titles), each depicting a stage in the coming-of-age of Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teen, and Trevante Rhodes as an adult), a young gay man growing up in the mean streets of Miami.

To a lesser extent it is also about the people around him, at least to the degree that they influence the formation of his identity: his mother Paula (the lovely Naomie Harris, giving a performance that will inevitably be called “brave”), the drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, whose transition from “R&B starlet” to “respectable actress” has been terrifyingly, imperceptibly fast), and his best friend Kevin (Jaden Pine, Jharrel Jerome, and American Horror Story: Roanoke’s André Holland).

Sidebar: Trevante Rhodes might hold the world record for Most Impossibly Buff Human Being Who Isn’t The Rock.

Moonlight is one of those movies that’s more fun to discuss than it is to sit through. As a portrait of a boy attempting to form an emotional, compassionate identity in a culture that values toughness and resilience, it’s an alternately warm and devastating character study. And probably the best thing about it is that it’s not explicitly about being gay. Although Chiron’s homosexuality informs every aspect of his stunted identity, it’s about the universal themes of love, self, and human connection. Of course, watching this all play out onscreen is about as exciting as watching an infomercial for socks.

To be fair, my brain doesn’t come equipped with the arthouse gland that allows people to sit through a long-winded parade of human misery and come out declaring it a masterpiece (I prefer short-winded parades with more stage blood). And while Moonlight is more than just misery porn, I find that it struggles to strike a balance between art and realism. 

Most of the film is straight-laced, almost documentarian drama that uses long takes and naturalistic lighting to douse the film in the gritty reality of the Miami ghetto. But it takes random leaps into bold, colorful, almost Italian arthouse cinematography that feel completely disjointed, desperately jockeying for your attention. These movements come too infrequently to be anything other than distracting, and they’re not so gorgeous that the movie couldn’t have gone on without them. Especially in the third, weakest chapter, these intrusions almost feel like the film is mocking us for actually getting into the story.

Take the film’s best scene: A moonlit seaside conversation between two boys that carries oceans of meaning beneath tentative words. It’s stripped-down perfection, using nothing but dialogue and the human face to provoke mounting erotic tension in the audience. Moonlight is at its best when it’s simple, because its delusions of aesthetic grandeur merely remind you that the visual style is mostly less than phenomenal.

Although, who could complain about this shot?

Moonlight is more like a novel than a film, packed with subtext and recurring symbolism that’s a thrill to dissect, but could just has easily have been presented as a text piece rather than a work of cinema. As a story, it’s important and heartfelt. As a film it’s nonessential.

That’s perhaps not very fair to a film that showcases well-etched characters portrayed by a bevy of talented actors and promising newcomers, but it’s so dry you could use it to cure meat. I’m in no way saying that it’s bad. Moonlight is terrific. But it’s not the type of movie I would consider taking a friend to or –Heaven forbid – owning on DVD.

TL;DR: Moonlight is a decent character study that tries way too hard to be Important.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 780

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Once On This Island

Year: 2016
Director: Ron Clements & John Musker
Cast: Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Jemaine Clement
Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Disney is in the midst of what some might prematurely term a Third Golden Age, but let us always remember that following the likes of Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons doesn’t leave newer entries with a high bar to clear. While I loved Tangled and Big Hero 6, Disney’s computer-animated output has never reached as consistent and satisfying a level as its two previous Golden Ages, which produced timeless works like Snow White, Pinocchio, and The Little Mermaid.

If you hold the much-ballyhooed Frozen up to the likes of Beauty and the Beast, the pitiful quasi-musical would melt in a microsecond. And while the box office-gobbling Zootopia is good, it’s an inconsistent allegory that hangs its hat on a Shakira track. So I urge you all to approach the highly praised Moana, Disney’s 56th theatrical animated feature, with a grain of salt, especially as it’s married to the other lavishly praised love object of 2016, Broadway songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is a terrific and talented person, but maybe not the second coming of Sondheim.

Forgive me theatre friends, for I have sinned. I have spoken against the church.

First, the plot. Moana is precede by the cute but inconsequential anatomy-based short “Inner Workings,” depicting the battle between an office drone’s head and heart (his job is a hilariously dour cross between the opening of The Producers and 1984 – the short has a killer electronic score and a cool mixed-medium design, but it’s no “Piper.”)

So, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), the leader of a secluded island village. Moana longs to be an explorer out in the ocean, but nobody is allowed beyond the reef surrounding the island. However, when a dark force begins draining the island of tis resources, she must embrace her destiny, sail past the reef, find the deserted demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), and persuade him to return the Heart of Te Fiti, a mystical stone imbued with the power of creation. She must deliver him to the spot where he stole it (which is guarded by the lava demon Te Ka) in order to halt the encroaching darkness that threatens her island.

It’s definitely an inconvenient truth.

So, I’m gonna make a bold assumption and guess that you’ve seen any Disney movie before. If so, you’ve likely already experienced some element of Moana, which scavenges bits and pieces from Mulan, Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid, Pixar’s Brave, and pretty much every entry in the canon, polishing and renaming them like a regular Scuttle. Failing to carve out new territory isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes Moana uses its Disney ancestry to buff out gaping holes in its character arcs, assuming you already know how these stories go, so they don’t have to put in the maximum effort to have them makes sense this time.

Also, I hope you love adorable sidekicks, because Moana is rotten with ‘em. Moana could start an adorable sidekick baseball team with its roster, including a comically tiny pig that the movie pretty much straight-up admits will eventually be slaughtered, ditto an idiotic chicken named Heihei (Alan Tudyk, for some reason), a magical animated tattoo, and even the Actual Literal Ocean. Not since Aladdin found himself saddled with a genie, a monkey, and a flying carpet has there been such a  surplus of wacky reaction shots and goofy hijinks. None of them are execrable, like Frozen’s Olaf, Prince of Darkness, but it’s an overdose of saccharine at times.

But the best thing about Pixar’s island-themed short “Lava” is that no animated island projects could possibly be worse that that, so Moana is in a very safe place.

Well, that probably wasn’t a strong start to a positive review, but let’s carry on and see if we can’t pick things back up again. Moana is a charming film, even if it’s a little childish at times. Hell, it is for kids, and they’re gonna adore the ever-loving sh*t out of it, so who am I to complain? Although Moana could definitely do better than a frightfully repulsive pun about “Tweeting” that is damnable for its anachronism, but mostly because it’s just the pits, even worse than when Frozen bald-facedly stole the “we finish each other’s sandwiches” line from Arrested Development.

Wow, Frozen is really taking a beating tonight. Sorry, folks! I like “Let It Go.”

But let’s talk about the reason anybody over the age of 14 was excited to see Moana: Lin-Manuel Miranda, who co-wrote the music with Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i. While I will never dispute that the musical orchestration itself is ever less than fantastic, his lyrics always seem to tend toward the descriptive rather than the poetic. Here’s an actual line from “I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)”:
"I am the daughter of the village chief / We are descended from voyagers… I am Moana."
It ain’t exactly Shakespeare. However, a song where he really pulls out all the metaphorical stops is the villainous ditty “Shiny,” sung with gusto by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement. It’s a bombastic celebration of wicked wordplay that sparkles amidst many great pieces of music, including several tracks that are brave enough to include entire verses in native Pacific Islander languages, using the orchestration itself to carry the soaring emotional heft. I’m also partial to the opening verse of Moana’s “I Want” song, titled “How Far I’ll Go,” which is in a challenging minor key that I’ve literally never heard before from a children’s film. It’s a great soundtrack, except for maybe “You’re Welcome,” a solo number which Dwayne Johnson clumsily tumbles through like the Rock that is his namesake.

It’s a perfectly lovely film, even if it isn’t perfectly perfect. It has two charming leads, a solid theme about respecting the past and discovering who you are, and two perfectly horrifying monster designs that I guarantee some kid is having a nightmare about this very second. I have my problems with it (especially the introduction of the sentient ocean, which only deigns to help out Moana when the plot needs a deus ex machina), but I’ll definitely buy the soundtrack, which is the highest praise a Disney movie can ask for.

TL;DR: Moana is a serviceable animated adventure with a mostly great musical soundtrack.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1077

Friday, November 25, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Chokes And Daggers

A set of mini-reviews from movie explored in month 3 of the Scream 101 podcast, all 70’s proto-slashers.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (For the Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.)

Year: 1976
Director: Charles B. Pierce
Cast: Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Wells 
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A hooded maniac known as the Phantom Killer murders couples in various lovers’ lanes of Texarkana while a Texas Ranger and an assortment of kooky cops attempt to track him down.

I was excited to check out The Town That Dreaded Sundown, if only because it was name-dropped in Scream. I should learn to have stricter criteria for my movie-watching, because this inept slasher tested my endurance even more than the previous week’s late 70’s trash fire When a Stranger Calls. Although, I will give it one thing: Much like Golden Era slasher A Day of Judgment, The Town That Dreaded Sundown’s best quality is that it’s a weirdly convincing period piece, this time set in the post-World War II 1940’s.

Other than that, TTTDS (the weirdest acronym I’ve ever had to type) is a plain-jane riff on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. A killer strikes in a rural Southern town, accompanied by foreboding narration that gravely insists this was all based on a true story (although John Larroquette’s gravelly Chain Saw intro easily outpaces Vern Stierman’s jaunty monologue, which carries through the entire film and makes the whole affair sound like a documentary you’d screen in a second grade classroom). There’s also a severe hesitance toward showing any onscreen gore.

However, where Tobe Hooper’s kinetic, gritty direction gave Chain Saw a brutal tang in spite of its chaste gore, The Town That Dreaded Sundown got Charles B. Pierce, an inept at best amateur who was more keen to capture B-roll of his beloved town that actually tell a satisfying story. In his hands, the tone flies wildly out of control, tilting into slapstick comedy both unintentionally (the Phantom Killer tiptoes and pratfalls his way through his own murder scenes like he just stepped out of a Pink Panther movie) and with deadly seriousness.

You see, The Town That Dreaded Sundown has the yuk-yukkiest goofy cops this side of The Last House on the Left. I’m talking characters that would be shunned in the cop movie cafeteria by folks from Police Academy or Keystone Cops. Their staggering ineptitude weighs heavily on this movie, especially the drag-dressing, car-key-forgetting, crash-car-into-the-swamping Sparkplug, played with tooth-gnashing, Barney-Fife-ish glee by Pierce himself.

These characters, who we’re forced to spend the entire movie with, tear the atmosphere to shreds. The killer’s vague positive qualities (i.e. the creepy way his mask moves with every breath he takes, at one point he murders a girl with a trombone, etc.) are hardly strong enough to pull this wacky, boring slasher experiment back from the brink.

Rating: 3/10

Alice, Sweet Alice (For the Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.)

Year: 1976
Director: Alfred Sole
Cast: Linda Miller, Mildred Clinton, Paula E. Sheppard
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

After her sister is brutally murdered at her first communion, Alice is blamed for it and the killings that follow.

Alice, Sweet Alice is definitely an oddity. Not quite a drama, not quite a horror film, and not quite a slasher, it’s sort of a primordial ooze of mood and sleaze that made it essential viewing for this month. It’s basically a 100-minute riff on Catholic iconography and ideology, twisting holy imagery into something devilish and unclean. Considering I’m about as far from Catholic as it’s possible to be without being actively Satanic, this didn’t really do much for me. But I nevertheless respect its gusto.

Alice, Sweet Alice’s focus on image and mood is unfortunate, considering that its director isn’t especially talented, but there are some prop designs that just plain work. The mask worn by the killer is a particular triumph, an opaque plastic, face-obliterating monstrosity with garish make-up that maps perfectly onto the eyes to create a chilling expressiveness despite its blank features. There’s also a three-headed doll that’s straight-up nightmare fuel, though it’s easy enough to make a doll creepy.

And the plot itself isn’t all bad. The reveal of the killer only ever feels arbitrary (especially considering that the plot unspools for a good 20 minutes or so after that no-so-pivotal moment), and the movie doesn’t provide enough red herrings to make it a truly satisfying mystery (we’re meant to believe Alice is the killer, but it’s so transparently desperate to convince us of this that it’s obvious she’s not). But many early sequences feel like an Italian melodrama, reveling in tear-stained close-ups of women on the brink, and you won’t catch me complaining about over-the-top drama. Hell, I was a fan of Empire.

That’s really about it for Alice, Sweet Alice. The gore is slight, although their retractable knife provides some stunning shots, and there’s plenty of Tobe Hooper-esque sleaze filling in the gaps of the story. I’m looking at you, Mr. Alphonso, the cat-owning perverted landlord who is by far the most interesting character in the entire movie. Alice, Sweet Alice isn’t the best proto-slasher, but it was enough to renew my faith in the form after the ignominious one-two punch of When a Stranger Calls and The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

Rating: 6/10

Tourist Trap (For the Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.)

Year: 1979
Director: David Schmoeller
Cast: Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Jon Van Ness
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Five young vacationers get a flat tire and find themselves trapped in a creepy roadside museum stocked with evil mannequins and a telekinetic killer.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if the kids from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre made a pit stop at the Psycho motel, only instead of Norman Bates behind the counter, it was some sort of twisted Pinocchio man? If you aren’t at least a little curious, then maybe Tourist Trap isn’t for you.

However, I’m a devotee of weird cinema, and if there’s one thing that Tourist Trap has in spades, it’s weirdness. It’s not so much a functional narrative, but its deranged nightmare logic is captivating. The use of mannequins as a source of terror is a logical step forward from the classic trope of creepy dolls (one that would likewise be put to good use in the next year’s Maniac), but Tourist Trap does more than just a lazily effective gimmick. These mannequins are a buck wild special effects spectacle that more than makes up for the 70’s-esque lack of gore in the kill scenes.

Tourist Trap throws all logic out the window in favor of pure, off-kilter energy, having its mannequins twist their heads to reveal gaping mouths, motionlessly vocalize in a screaming chorus, and occasionally spring to life for a spot of soup and crackers. It’s unpredictable, it’s incomprehensible, and a truly pure experience unlike any other, all underscored by the unadulterated lunacy of Pino Donaggio’s score, which seems to have been written for a children’s cartoon and is spliced in here at the most inopportune moments.

If you’re not into films that have the singular purpose of knocking you on your butt with pure strangeness, then don’t seek out Tourist Trap, because it doesn’t have much else to offer. The characters are thinner than Donald Trump’s skin, the Final Girl is kind of an asshole, and the killer has an incredible mask but ruins it by flapping his gums a bit too much. There’s a slight feint toward the political potency of Texas Chain Saw with a dropped line about the highway driving away business, but despite having plenty of time to do so in the interminable third act, it never goes anywhere.

But that mannequin material really is some great stuff. And Tourist Trap knows it, hauling them out as often as the meager budget can allow. Which is quite a lot. Turns out mannequins ain’t expensive. Where it’s not a great movie, it’s a delightfully twisted experience, and I’m glad I took the time to sit through it.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1366

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Through The Fire And Flames

Year: 2016
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I have a love-hate relationship with Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, in that they’re terrible but I have an urgent, pathological need to read them and mock them. The art-based puzzle adventures are ludicrous works of revisionist history so transparently indulging in the lusty fantasies of an aging academic that they give pretty unprecedented access to the inner workings of a pulp author’s soul. They’re fascinating, personal stories cobbled together from the gaudiest ingredients of James Bond and Indiana Jones.

The Ron Howard-Tom Hanks film adaptations of said franchise fail to capture this garish self-indulgence (probably because not even the most hard-up individual in the world would consider Tom Hanks as a scholarly but smoldering sex symbol), so they’ve never been of particular interest to me. However, I needed some candidates for my worst of 2016 list, so I went to see Inferno (the third movie, based on the fourth book). You can imagine my surprise when it turned out to be kind of OK.

Even if you can’t, allow me to replicate that feeling now.

Florence, Italy. Real-job-haver, symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in a hospital with no recollection of the previous 48 hours or how and why he is not in his apartment at Cambridge. When people begin shooting at him, he and his new sexy sidekick, ER doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), flee.

Then, for reasons too convoluted to explain in a single paragraph, they must follow yet another path of art-based clues (this time all related to Dante’s Inferno) to discover the location of a world-destroying plague set to be released in 12 hours. This plague was developed by the mad billionaire/TED Talk-giver Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) who killed himself three days ago. They’re also being chased by pretty much everyone in the known world: the W.H.O., assorted double agents, and a mysterious syndicate led by the amoral Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan). But WHO can they trust?


Let’s get this straight. Inferno is goddamn pulp. Adding a vague, age-appropriate love interest into the mix does not improve the source material, so it’s still a garbled, convoluted mess of a story. But it’s also the best of the bunch, opening with a bang by tossing us into the situation at the same time as the amnesiac Langdon. Although this sequence is frustratingly marred by constant reminders of his mental state in the form of nauseating, blurry Paul Greengrass camerawork, it also produces some of the best imagery of the whole series.

I should mention that this imagery is also balls-out terrifying, depicting – in the form of Langdon’s post-injury hallucinations – the grotesque stages of Dante’s Hell in lurid, live-action glory. It’s almost too disturbing, but the disgusting (sinners with their heads twisted around, etc.) blends with the elegant (a building with glass windows that explode into a geyser of blood like The Shining on amphetamines) to create something truly arresting. It’s been a long time since an image in a Ron Howard movie has actually wowed me, and while it might be too horrific for average audiences, I find its boldness refreshing.

What are YOU lookin’ at?

It might sound like I’m just being an easy lay for horror imagery, but I assume you I’m not. I love when a cookie cutter blockbuster takes off in any unique direction, and horror is one of many fringe genres Hollywood should call upon more often in their tentpole flicks. On the flipside of that coin though, I am always an easy lay for synth-driven soundtracks and the delightfully Carpenterian tangents in Hans Zimmer’s score fascinate me to no end.

There’s a lot of unique and interesting stuff going on in Inferno, which pushes it to the head of the pack. But it’s still a Dan Brown movie, so let’s not get carried away. To be frank, the film assumes that we’re drooling idiots. Langdon reads a four-line email to himself about three times while the camera lingers over every word, just to make sure we get it, and every major clue is repeated ceaselessly like this is a kindergarten math class.

"See those N, Y, and C symbols? Those probably point to New York!"

Because it assumes we know nothing about anything (except, apparently, the finer details of Dante’s Inferno, which it completely fails to elaborate on), the film indulges in two of the hoariest tropes of adventure cinema: the magical doctor and the magical academic. Although Langdon’s area of expertise is symbology (still not a real job), he’s also apparently an expert on art, history, architecture, city planning, and –what the hell – probably rocket science. The sheer amount of pseudo-intellectual babble that spills from Langdon, a character who is actively suffering from a head injury, is Hollywood shortcutting at its worst.

Obviously this is a carryover from the novel, as is the dreadfully wooden dialogue (“I can’t believe you have the temerity to ask that I simply decide to…”), but Hanks drowns in the nitty-gritty of the role, which stifles his own natural charm and considerable dramatic talents to provide a truly boring protagonist. But I don’t blame him. Boring is better than irritating, which his constant outbursts about the thematic importance of doorways threatens to have him become.

So, yeah. Don’t think I’m singing Inferno’s praises to the high heavens (the scene where someone is shocked that a European speaks French because she’s – gasp - a woman, was already enough to knock off a point or two). But its daring horrific elements, a killer final setpiece, and an incoherent but reasonably twisty plot fueled by Irrfan Khan’s deliciously banal evil performance make for a decent enough popcorn thrill ride.

TL;DR: Inferno is a surprisingly decent popcorn thriller, possibly the best of its anemic franchise.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 986

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Care Of Magical Creatures

Year: 2016
Director: David Yates
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol
Run Time: 2 hours 13 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Of course the Harry Potter franchise wasn’t dead. Did you think J. K. Rowling would abandon her money geyser to keep writing Robert Galbraith mysteries in quiet cafés forever? I’m just glad the franchise is actually moving in a different direction instead of showing yet another wave of students carve their way through a mountain of Hogwarts homework assignments (The Cursed Child was quite enough, thank you).

I was apprehensive when I learned that the new film would in some way be based on the Hogwarts textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but as a literate human being in my age bracket, I was obligated to check it out.

At least she didn’t pick Quidditch Through the Ages, thank Merlin.

In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, magical creature researcher and advocate Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City in 1926, carrying a case that contains all the creatures he has been studying (it’s much bigger on the inside). After a mix-up at the bank, Muggle factory worker Kowalski (Dan Fogler) accidentally sets loose a couple of the creatures and gets tangled up in a frantic chase to recapture them with Newt and ex-Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston, and if you don’t know what an Auror is, good luck).

Meanwhile, am mysterious dark force has been wreaking havoc upon the city, causing local No-Maj’s (as the Americans call Muggles – get it?  “no magic” – because apparently Rowling forgot how to name things) to become suspicious about magical activity. With the dark wizard Grindelwald still at large, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (which, when the acronym is pronounced, only sounds like “Yakuza” to my delight) feat that this new Salem movement may provoke an all-out war. President Seraphina Piquery (Carmen Ejogo) and Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) suspect that one of Scamander’s beasts is responsible, despite his fervent assertions that they’re harmless. So, he’s also tasked to figure out what actually IS causing this mayhem while he avoids the long arm of the magical law.

What a day!

In fact, Fantastic Beasts is even better than just a change of pace. It’s a light, fun fantasy adventure that erases the dour tone of the last few Harry Potter films, returning us to a world of whimsy and wonder… Mostly. The central conflict of this film, which is thankfully treated more like a B-plot, is prone to rather sudden shifts in tone that don’t suit the movie one whit. One minute we’re pirouetting in a sanctuary for teleporting ducks, and the next Ezra Miller shows up playing a terminally maudlin child that looks like he stepped off the set of a Tim Burton film, but acts like he was written by Charles Dickens on a bad day.

These sequences range from the bizarrely overwrought (a little girl plays hopscotch while chanting a rhyme about witch murder) to the actively bad (there’s a bit of business about a presidential election that seems to be setting up a despotic villain – topical – but randomly vanishes halfway through), so the marriage of these two tones is fraught with tension. These sections are also marked by the absolute worst of James Newton Howard’s generic score, which quotes Saw in the weirdest way possible. Again, luckily the move seems to recognize that this portion of the plot is junk, so it shoves it offscreen as roughly and as often as possible.

Pay no attention to the subplot behind the curtain.

But if you excise that chunk of the movie from your brain, the rest is –in a word – fantastic. Mostly. OK, it’s not perfect, but it’s a breezy bit of popcorn fun that is much needed in this horrifying time we’re living in.

The creature effects range from solid (an instantly plushy-able niffler) to iffy (they never have been able to get house elves entirely right), but they’re all triumphs of colorful, fantastical design. And, amusingly, the single worst CGI creature in the whole thing is a lion. Like, just a straight-up, real-ass lion fro the Central Park Zoo, which really puts everything else in perspective. Where the effects really shine is in creating a living, breathing 1920’s New York City that serves as the perfect nostalgic backdrop for the overflowing magical mayhem of this timeless tale.

It’s thanks to this setting that Fantastic Beasts thrives. Placing a grand tale of wizardry and mystical creatures smack dab in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world is an ingenious juxtaposition that makes the film pulse with lively, jaunty energy. Although some of the humor tips toward the juvenile (Oh my, a man couldn’t possibly deal with talking about tampons! Gee whiz, that dude is much too fat to fit into a suitcase designed to transport enormous magical creatures! Ho ho! What fun!), it sparkles with a joie de vivre that can’t be denied.

And despite being a transparent marketing plot, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell that you won’t exit the theater loving the niffler.

But I’ve been neglecting the human element here, which is uncommonly strong. Redmayne is an excellent addition to Rowling’s wizarding world, providing an exquisitely strange energy to his role. But the real standout here is relative unknown Dan Fogler, whose Muggle bravado (I refuse to call him a No-Maj, because apparently this is how little the Brits think of us) is aced with a sublime cluelessness and whip-smart comic timing. I also couldn’t leave out the Marilyn Monroe-esque beauty Queenie (Alison Sudol), who hides some sharp anarchistic edges beneath her airy façade. Katherine Waterston is the least of our heroes because her role is a bit of a cypher, but she grounds the silliness of her motley crew. It’s a perfect mixture of the funny and the unreal.

So Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has its fair share of flaws (not the least of which is how it makes my fingers cramp up whenever I have to type that full title), but it’s a return to form for spotty Potter director David Yates. It’s not quite at the level of his magnum opus The Half-Blood Prince, but that five-year break certainly put a pep in his step. My advice? Go see Fantastic Beasts. Wipe your slate clean of expectations, and have yourself a plain old-fashioned good time.

TL;DR: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a fun, light fantasy adventure that overcomes its shaky tone.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1107
Reviews In This Series
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Yates, 2016)
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Yates, 2018)

Friday, November 18, 2016

Arrow in the Head: The Wrong Arm Of The Law

Year: 2016
Director: Shawn Crahan
Cast: Kim Coates, Tyler Ross, Meadow Williams 
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Read my full review of Officer Downe at Arrow in the Head.

Additional Notes: There is one great high-angle shot overlooking a city street from skyscraper height. Yeah, that was nice.

TL;DR: Officer Downe is a spectacularly messy film with a couple redeeming elements that are at least trying.
Rating: 3/10, maybe I fudged a little bit in my Arrow review.
Word Count: 796

Friday, November 11, 2016

My, What High Hopes You Have

Year: 2016
Director: Bryan Bertino
Cast: Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Aaron Douglas 
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

I’m one of the few horror fans on this planet to be approaching Bryan Bertino’s The Monster with a blank slate, not having seen his 2008 home invasion hit The Strangers (he’s only made one film between then and now, the direct-to-Netflix Mockingbird, because Hollywood is a fickle, brutal desert of an industry). I came genuinely wanting to experience this particular story, not because I was a fan of his successful, (by all accounts) nasty-minded debut. Did that enhance my experience? Probably. The Monster is, tonally, nothing like The Strangers. But enhancement or not, The Monster is not a sophomore theatrical feature that inspires much confidence.

Although, “theatrical” is a term that stretches it a bit for a film that debuted on DirectTV, because Hollywood just won’t stop kicking this guy.

Here’s the barbarically simple plot: Kathy (Zoe Kazan, who looks 15 but is actually 33) is an alcoholic single mother who is driving her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine, who looks 15 because she is 15) to stay with her father, possibly forever. Their strained relationship is put to the test when they crash, stranding them on a desolate highway in the rain. Oh, and there’s a giant monster outside that wants to devour them.

Cujo, eat your heart out.

There are many, many horror films that have the exact same structure as The Monster (someone is trapped in a bad situation, a variety of potential saviors stumble across them only to be ruthlessly mowed down). It’s all in the way you spice the broth: Inside and Misery ramp up the tension with brutal gore and chilling performances. Knock Knock fails because it’s not very good. The Monster attempts to gussy itself up with a stab at family drama, but it’s more forced than an actress’s laugh at a producer’s dinner party, so the whole thing turns out rather bland.

There is a way to make a genuinely great motion picture out of The Monster. The elements are all there, they just need a little tweaking: The cinematography has a tendency to catch slices of gorgeousness in its rain-drenched greenery, The Monster is a weighty triumph of drippy, low-budget design (even if he looks a little too much like Pumpkinhead got into a The Fly transporter mishap with a gorilla), and the concept really is killer. There are moments of abject terror where a little girl is forced to watch a giant creature destroy adults meant to protect her and consider her own impending doom.

But that f**king family drama, man. It can work well in horror, as proved by the likes of The Babadook, but this mother-daughter rift is a miserable, sputtering dud that fogs up every inch of The Monster. Instead of letting their animosity grow from their perilous situation, the film is littered with intrusive flashbacks that stop the film dead for some grueling, overacted emotional shrapnel that in no way informs the actual story we’re attempting to watch play out. It absolutely shreds the pacing, and the movie miserably fails to jerry-rig even the simplest emotional payoff to this arc. [SPOILERS: By which I mean that Kathy does sacrifice herself for Lizzy, only for the scene to immediately make a 180 degree reversal and scuttle the entire arc by throwing Lizzy right back into the thick of things and immediately forgetting about her mom.]

Although it’s for the best, because I would be truly embarrassed if The Monster actually succeeded in making me cry.

But let’s knock that drama to the side for a minute (gladly) and focus on the lean horror story at the center of this film. Is The Monster scary? In brief, no. In not-so-brief, there are a couple sequences, like I mentioned earlier, that wring something desperate and raw from Lizzy’s situation. But the execution of this simple plot is viciously clunky, even without the flashbacks gouging out huge chunks of time at climactic moments, that the fear engine stalls long before the credits roll.

The biggest roadblock to The Monster maintaining a solid horror tone is its inconsistency. One second the girls can hear every water droplet and snapped twig in the surrounding forest, the net they’re deaf as a post when somebody is being mauled directly under the car. And the monster will strike randomly, be driven away by a single blow, then I guess chill out and watch Netflix in the woods until his prey have had the chance to hold a long heart-t-heart and argue over an action plan.

And, given the truly ludicrous amount of head-start time the monster has given them, you’d think their plans wouldn’t be so idiotic. The Monster sets up false dichotomies like it’s being sponsored by the concept of the logical fallacy: “we must do This Idiotic Thing or else WE WILL DIE(!!!)” Conclusions that are reached with no evidence are immediately disproven within two scenes. These moments are such baldly obvious bids for setting up another fright gag that you can practically see the strings. This unasked-for peek behind the curtain deflates any atmosphere that has held out for this long.

No, some vaguely sinister imagery is not enough to redeem the garishly stupid antics that eviscerate what could have been a taut, emotional thriller. Maybe I should just never have high hopes for a movie ever again.

TL;DR: The Monster is a poor horror film and a poorer family drama.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 923

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Switch Hitters

Year: 2016
Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Maria Bello
Run Time: 1 hour 21 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I missed Lights Out in theaters, but it was for medical reasons (I have photosensitive baby eyeballs) rather than a lack of interest. Expanded from a solid short film by Swedish director David F. Sandberg, Lights Out rocks an ingenious concept. You know the shadows that you see in the corner of your eye when you turn out the lights? The ones that your brain is immediately convinced are evil monsters? Well, what if those were real?

It’s a primal, elemental fear that courses with power in the short. But when it’s diluted into an admittedly tight but still much vaster 82 minutes, how does it fare?

That’s what we’re here to find out.

In Lights Out, a family begins to be tormented by a ghost who only appears in complete darkness. Given that this town seems to share an electrical grid with the Haddonfield Department of Energy, this causes a major problem. Sexy commitment-phobe Becca (Teresa Palmer) and her doting, sorta-boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) are forced to intervene when her younger brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) stops sleeping, afraid to be alone with his mother Sophie (Maria Bello), who seems to be encouraging this ghostly tormentor, who we come to find out is named Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey).

This ignites pre-existing tensions in the family, all based around each member’s fear of being abandoned.

Because, at its heart, Lights Out kinda has a sitcom story arc.

I will say this much. Lights Out has some tremendously creative setpieces and gags that make the most of its concept: a warehouse full of creepy mannequins dotted with pools of motion-sensor light, an apartment with a blinking red neon sign out the window, and a grab bag of light sources as varied as candles, blacklights, a car’s headlamps, and even muzzle flashes from a gun. Lights Out rigorously puts its concept to the test, playing with light in ways that miraculously convert horror’s typical high key lighting into something fresh, tactile, and original.

Unfortunately, what we see when we turn out the lights is always scarier in our imagination. The ghostly Diana provides some solid frights, but she only gets one or two moments in the spotlight (quite literally) before the movie stats dripping exposition onto her like sap, gluing her to a set of increasingly finite rules and restrictions that obliterate her ineffable creepiness.

The film’s slavering eagerness to explain away its monster is its biggest weakness, gleefully contorting Diana into something mundane and explicable. It doesn’t help that, in action, she’s a resolutely corporeal being, slamming her victims back and forth like she’s auditioning for the WWE rather than continuing her reign of elegantly chilling supernatural shocks. She almost instantly loses her mystique, and while she has some jump scare juice left in her, the atmosphere has almost completely evaporated before the end of the first half hour, which clearly cares more about the family drama than the ghost anyway.

It’s like an episode of Dallas, but with more screaming.

Although it could have been much better, that doesn’t mean Lights Out ain’t a fun ride. At a brisk 82 minutes, the time just shoots by, and Sandberg is confident enough at the helm that I’m (tentatively) excited for his Annabelle 2. And Lights Out is yet another modern horror flick like Sinister or The Purge that has every opportunity to get bigger and better in the sequel, which was pretty much greenlit the millisecond it came out.

What I’d like tos ee if more scares and more sustained mystery. We pretty much get exactly what Diana’s about before were even a third of the way through our popcorn, so next time it would be nice to actually be allowed to wallow in the eeriness for a statistically significant amount of time. Lights Out is a solid debut and I hope it heralds a fabulous career, but it’s a film that’ll work best at a party, where you don’t have to pay it too much attention.

TL;DR: Lights Out is a clever horror film bogged down with too much explanation.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 702

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Healing Hands

Year: 2016
Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams
Run Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

We’re two films deep into Marvel’s Phase 3 and going strong. I mean, if Ant-Man didn’t derail the superhero powerhouse’s stranglehold over Hollywood, Doctor Strange certainly wasn’t going to. But still, the other shoe has to drop sometime.

Luckily, Doctor Strange mostly deserves its box office success. It’s probably the best film from director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil), who has made a career out of mediocre horror projects. Although its implications for the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe are worrisome (Doctor Strange joins Scarlet Witch in their cadre of massively overpowered characters with the introduction of straight-up magic), it’s a fun enough kaleidoscope of a film.

Quite literally.

In Doctor Strange, a brain surgeon with the actual god-given name Dr. Stephen Strange is, to put it light, an asshole. He’s a cocky, flagrantly rich genius who cares more about his reputation for greatness than actually saving lives. He shuns the film’s Useless Female Character Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who’s into him for some unfathomable reason, and treats his staff like crap. When he loses his surgery skills in a bizarrely hands-centric automobile accident, he desperately seeks increasingly experimental treatments, eventually finding himself at the Kamar-Taj compound in Kathmandu, run by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).

Although he only wants to learn enough to heal his hands, The Ancient One and her disciples Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong) begin to teach Strange to channel ancient magic, in the hopes that the medical genius can help them save the world from Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), an ex-student who has turned to the Dark Side, and is now attempting to – yadda yadda, big floating evil lights in the sky.

I can’t wait for the inevitable Kaecilius make-up tutorials.

As far as I can tell, the only truly unique thing Doctor Strange has to offer the MCU is its bizarre visual schema. The mystical, otherworldly dimensions accessed by the warriors of Kamar-Taj are an infinitely recurring series of shapes and colors that fold into one another in legible but uncanny patterns.

Sometimes it looks like a back catalogue episode of Rainbow Brite. Sometimes it looks like Benedict Cumberbatch got trapped inside a blacklight poster. Mostly it looks like they saw Inception one too many times. But when this surreal imagery is good, it can be truly great, especially in the film’s most straight-up horrific image: Doctor Strange’s fingers sprouting an infinitum of hands that tear him apart. This imagery is frequently frustrating and generic, but it’s bold and colorful, offering something visually stimulating for once in is godforsaken franchise.

It’s a good thing too, because Doctor Strange is a pretty cookie cutter entry into the MCU for so many reasons. Let me count the ways.

1) The protagonist is a f**king asshole.

Iron Man he is not. Stephen Strange prances through life putting people down and calmly rebelling against the rules. Only, instead of serving an actual character arc, he is allowed to be a raging gaper the entire film and is mostly rewarded for it, even though he’s pretty explicitly following the same path at Kamar-Taj that the villain did. Maybe this doesn’t work because Cumberbatch isn’t as effortlessly charming as Robert Downey, Jr. Or maybe it’s because his performance is handicapped by a strangled American accent. But Doctor Strange is more abrasive than Doctor House and I’m really not excited to spend more time with him.

Also, Tilda, if you don’t want people to read the Super Secret Evil Magic Book, maybe don’t have it displayed right in the middle of the room.

2) The villain is a wet mop.

Marvel villains get a bad rap for being boring and undercharacterized, and Kaecilius fits that description like a glove. Mikkelsen nails a couple tossed-off quips, but he makes next to no impression with his geeky ponytail and Alice Cooper make-up. His motives are murky, he’s onscreen for what feels like ten minutes, and he’s quickly dispatched with the weakest deus to ever machina.

3) Female character? What female character?

Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter, and Jane Foster have all been given a chance to shine outside of being just love interests, but the MCU is also full of characters like Sharon Carter, who exist just to kiss Captain America in a pointless and really gross thirty-second scene. Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer falls squarely in the Sharon camp. She waits offscreen twiddling her thumbs until Doctor Strange has a use for her, after which he immediately ditches her again. They don’t even have a scene together during the last half hour, because the film completely forgets she exists. It’s a massive waste of a talented actress.

Speaking of…

Yeah, as much as I love me some Tilda Swinton, she’s not up to much here other than some exquisitely timed gags. She’s trapped in an Obi Wan Kenobi role, devoid of all personality other than “wise and mysterious,” and the way the movie plays the reveal that The Ancient One is a woman (eek!) is so painfully 90’s. And then the score sounds like it was ripped straight from an 8-bit Legend of Zelda game. I know that’s not related, but this review is winding down. I had to get it out there.

A lot of Doctor Strange is frustrating or mediocre, but since when has any Marvel movie been much different? The gags this time around are remarkably funny, even a bit of slapstick comedy that couldn’t have worked in any other context, and there are two genuinely terrific action setpieces: one an astral battle in a surgical suite, the other a fight through a city street as time races backwards.

Doctor Strange makes some very interesting choices in its presentation and its surrealist aesthetic, and these manage to redeem its severest flaws. It’s another fun popcorn superhero movie, and I guess I’m OK with that.

TL;DR: Doctor Strange is a forgettable superhero flick spruced up with some cool surreal imagery.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1015
Reviews In This Series
Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
Avengers: Infinity War (Russo & Russo, 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed, 2018)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The End Of An Era

And so we reach the belated, belabored end of our Harry Potter marathon. In this review, I shall package the Yates-directed Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2 as a single film, much as the studio should have done. I will split up my analysis and scores because they are, ultimately, very different films, but neither deserves something as grandiose as a full-length piece.

[EN: The grand conclusion to this marathon came much later than I anticipated, so now instead of a finale for the world of Harry Potter, let’s consider this review a warm-up for the impending release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and its battalion of premature sequels.]

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in case you have been frozen in carbonite for the last 20 years and missed this phenomenon completely, tells the story of seventeen-year-old wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). Harry embarks upon an epic camping trip with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), attempting to hunt down and destroy the remaining Horcurxes of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), the mystical objects that contain his shattered soul. Once they’re destroyed, he will no longer be immortal and he can be defeated. This all culminates in a massive battle at Hogwarts, with the forces of Good and Evil fighting for the fate of the wizarding world.

Part 1
Year: 2010
Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Run Time: 2 hours 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

You know that cool part of the plot summary about massive battles and good struggling to triumph over evil? That’s not in this one. Deathly Hallows Part 1 devotes the bulk of its time to that most portentous of occasions: wizard camping. While the subject matter is hardly enthralling, promising director David Yates (who directed the two previous, increasingly delightful, films, the best two in the franchise up to that point) does next to nothing with it, and thus Deathly Hallows Part 1 sinks back into the dull muck of the Harry Potter rank and file.

Other than a mysterious penchant for capturing its leading men shirtless on film (science will never satisfactorily explain preteen girls’ illicit fascination with scrawny British kids), Deathly Hallows’ aesthetic has very little going for it. It’s drab and unremarkable, and its two best sequences are the ones that seem to actively yearn to be any other movie than the one it is. The first is an animated sequence that illustrates the titular folk tale (yes, the title references a made-up folk tale, and would you be surprised if I told you the plot was waaaay too bogged down with explorations of wizarding mythology?). The second is a sequence featuring a magical snake that feels like it was transplanted directly from some halfway decent B-horror film. These peculiar flights of fancy briefly enliven the film before it drops once more into its monotonous slump.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not particularly dreadful, and it’s certainly not as wooden and creaky as one Mr. Columbus’ contributions to the franchise. It’s just sort of there. Occasionally a well-choreographed action scene will rear its head, but it’s largely just a peaky mash of conversations in tents, strained teen melodrama, and befuddlingly complex world-building. And even with the remarkably disproportionate run time it’s given, it manages to bungle simple things like actually introducing characters who only readers of the books will fully understand. It’s a lackluster, inauspicious beginning to an end.

Rating: 6/10

Part 2
Year: 2010
Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Run Time: 2 hours 10 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I always remember Deathly Hallows Part 2 as being the one where things actually happen. Now that I’m coming to it without the breathless anticipation of a lifetime of Harry Potter fandom, I’ve realized that, while this is accurate, the massive swaths of plot regurgitated by the film really don’t hold much meaning.

Deathly Hallows was already a weaker entry in the book series, bogged down by appendixfuls of lore, side quests, and revelations about the history of its characters. It’s J. K. Rowling’s Silmarillion, not necessarily the climactic showdown we’d been waiting for, at least until the very end. Where the film goes wrong is in following that narrative to the letter. If they had been forced to condense this material into just one movie, this could have been avoided, but huge chunks of Part 2 are devoted to endless bone-dry exposition.

The pacing is shot to tatters, and such a large part of the inflated run time is devoted to exactly recreating the worst parts of the book that Yates can barely squeeze in the massive roster of characters who live and die in the climactic Battle of Hogwarts. It sucks all emotion from the film like a Dementor’s Kiss, asking us to weep over the death of characters who only appear for seconds onscreen before their lifeless corpses are draped dramatically across the frame.

Of course, die-hard fans know exactly who these characters are and how they got here, but taken as a piece of cinema it’s nigh-on incomprehensible. The bulk of the film is taken up with a massive battle that is admittedly a worthy spectacle of flash-bang special effects and indiscriminate mayhem, but the character work for everyone but Harry is so disjointed that not a single death holds the remotest bit of impact and a series of action movie quips fall to the floor with resounding thuds.

The dourness and arch mythmaking of Deathly Hallows completely leaches out the subtle imagery and beauty Yates brought to Half-Blood Prince, leaving us with a mess of desaturated, cluttered visuals that rival only Chris Columbus’s as the worst in the series.

Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a whirlwind roller coaster of a film that keeps the same, fantasy movie thrills coming, but it’s yet another bungle in a beloved film franchise that I’ve come to realize only has two or three genuinely great movies to its name.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1006
Reviews In This Series
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (Yates, 2010)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Yates, 2011)