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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

All my aimless thoughts, ideas, and ramblings, all packed into one site!

Monthly Archives: September 2017

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

Boys vs. Girls. Didn’t this stuff stay in the playground?

It was 1972 and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was on top of the tennis world. She was #1, breaking all sorts of records, and oh yeah, had a phone conversation with Tricky Dick. Pretty awesome, right? Well, apparently not that awesome as she was only receiving an eighth of what a man made in professional tennis, leading her, as well as many other pro-tennis females to boycott the league and start their own. Meanwhile, hustler has-been Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was looking for his next and best score, when all of a sudden, it came to him: Why not face-off against a female tennis-player and prove, once and for all, that women are the inferior species? Surely Bobby didn’t actually think this, but he knew that the media would create a swirl-storm, hyping up whoever he played, creating quite the anticipation around the match itself. This happens, of course, with Billie Jean, but it comes at a price for both of them. For Bobby, his marriage begins to fall-apart, whereas for Billie, hers does too, however, with much different circumstances as she’s absolutely afraid of being ousted as “gay”, even though she’s clearly in love with her hair-dresser (Andrea Riseborough).

“So, uh that ten-grand?”

Battle of the Sexes clearly deals with a lot of the issues we’re having in our current day-to-day society, but it doesn’t try to fall back on them too much. After all, creating a modern-day parallel isn’t all that difficult, what with a female candidate and a male candidate vying for the presidency and coming very close to a split-decision (depending on who you ask), and blatant sexism being thrown everywhere you looked. It’s something that makes America, America, and it doesn’t matter if it happens in 1972, or 2016, or 2046, it’s something that’s a problem and needs to be changed.

But then again, there’s no issue with what Battle of the Sexes brings to the table, as it’s much more about these two individuals in general, the people around them, the so-called “conflict”, and oh yeah, that sport called tennis. Co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton are smart in not allowing this material to ever get too preachy, corny, or even melodramatic – along with Simon Beaufroy’s script, they allow for each and every character to have a certain bit of heart and humanity to go beyond their sometimes silly personas.

Case in point, Bobby Riggs.

While he is no doubt a caricature and clearly not meant to be take so entirely seriously, Carell and the movie give him some pathos and show us a softer, rather sad tide to his whole appearance. While he may have no doubt been a hustler, a cheat, a gambler, he was still a nice enough and charming enough guy to make you smile and entertain the hell out of you, even if that came at the expense of all those around him. Carell fits the Riggs-role so well that it’s hard to see anyone else in it, whether he’s cheeking it up for the press, or trying to score a few extra-dollars off of his friends and family, when the cameras aren’t around.

But then again, he does get the short-end of the stick when it comes to Billie Jean King who, as played by Emma Stone, is perfect. Like with Riggs, Battle of the Sexes gives us more to Billie Jean than just a bad-ass, rather tomboy-ish leader of the women’s movement; she was surely troubled, scared, a little lonely, and incredibly vulnerable. We see a softer-side to her that goes well in adjacent with her tough-as-nails skills on the tennis-court and it allows for Stone to give this character more and more depth, as we go along and learn more about her. The movie is clearly hers and she’s more than deserving of it.

Billie Jean is definitely not my lover. But she’s got a mean back-swing. So look out, sexist pigs.

And as for everybody else, the same goes.

Battle of the Sexes isn’t a movie where the immoral people are classified as “villains” – more or less, they’re just seen as pricks, or d-bags. Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer is a perfect example, especially of someone who can be seen as “a baddie”, but isn’t really; he’s just a businessman who has a certain way of getting his dick-ish point across. Same goes for all of those around Billie Jean, like her husband, as played by Austin Stowell, who seems more like a manager, than a passionate, loving-companion. But still, he’s not seen as a bad guy who, when finding out about his wife’s trysts with Riseborough’s Marilyn, doesn’t scream, hoot, holler, yell, or break things – he’s just sad, as anyone would be. Riseborough is also quite great in this role that gives her the chance to show a softer side to Billie Jean that makes us actually feel the conflict and the love, sometimes, both at the same time.

But really, everyone here is great. They’re given something to work with and guess what? They all make their presences known. It’s the kind of mainstream, Hollywood biopic that gets made literally all the time, but doesn’t actually have this much thought or reason to go with it.

It’s rare and I’m glad it’s around.

Consensus: As much of a sports movie, as much as it’s about two sports-icons who made the best of their professional and personal lives, Battle of the Sexes is smart, fun, and entertaining, while also boasting great performances all across its ensemble.

8 / 10

Together. As one. That’s the way it oughta be!

Photos Courtesy of: IndieWire

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American Made (2017)

The American Dream.

It’s the late 70’s and Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is enjoying the hell out of his life. He’s got a nice job, working as a pilot for commercial airline TWA, married to a beautiful woman (Sarah Wright), and is relatively happy with how simple things are in his life. Sure, he could always have a little more money in his pocket, but hey, what’s he to complain about? Well, things change for Barry when he’s contacted by CIA agent, Monty Schafer (Doomnhall Gleeson), who asks Seal to fly clandestine reconnaissance missions for the CIA over South America using a small plane with cameras installed. But why? Well, it seems like Schafer has a little mission of his own, to not just get his name known, but use Barry as the reason for it. Eventually though, times begin to change and Barry begins to get ideas; rather than just doing these missions for Schafer and making a small amount of extra-cash, why not just help out the drug cartel in transporting such things as drugs, guns, and all sorts of other goodies?

“Guys. Come on. Do I have to call L. Ron?”

Most of the negative-press towards American Made has been mostly about the fact that the movie plays fast-and-loose with its facts and takes what is, essentially, a dark, gritty, and sad tale about a dude transporting drugs and weapons across country-borders, and not really having the CIA crack down on him for it. And while this is no doubt a valuable criticism, it should also be noted that the movie doesn’t really care about how serious you, or anyone else, takes it story – it doesn’t, so who cares? All that matters, in the end, is whether or not this story deserves the big-screen treatment and is told in the most efficient, entertaining, and knowledgeable way possible.

And yes, that’s exactly what happens.

As per usual, director Dough Liman knows how to make this material crack and sizzle at just about every second. While it takes some time to get off-the-ground, once we are sprung into this world of drugs, guns, sex, heat, and conspiracies, it never lets up. American Made very much feels like Blow, in that it’s about, basically, a low-level dude trying to achieve the American Dream, while also not settling down to preach or cry about its sadness, but this movie’s a whole lot more exciting and fun to watch – this movie takes its premise seriously enough to know of the very real-dangers, but also doesn’t get too bogged down by them much, either. Much like Barry Seal himself, the movie knows what it’s dealing with, but is willing and able to turn a blind-eye in hopes that it will make things a lot more enjoyable to watch.

And that’s exactly what happens with American Made, the kind of movie that feels like it should be a lot more serious, but gets by entirely on its charm and quick pace. You can focus on the fact that it’s about the government turning a blind-eye and using another middle-class American for their own game, but that’s already to be expected. American Made has very much the same rather jokey, wink-wink true-story aspect that Narcos gets away with, but in this case, isn’t a little afraid to play around with certain facts and anecdotes.

“All of this, Tom, could be yours. Just leave that freakin’ cult, bro.”

It’s still a true story as is, but how many liberties were taken, honestly, we don’t fully know.

What we know about American Made is that it gives us, in what seems like a millennium, an actual performance from Tom Cruise, that doesn’t include much running or fancy stunts, but instead, a character, a personality, and oh yeah, plenty of opportunities to have some fun. And yes, Cruise reminds us all that he is, no matter how many silly blockbusters he does, a movie-star through and through; he can hang with the best of them, take over every scene he’s in, and most importantly, sometimes make you forget you’re watching Tom Cruise, movie-star. Cruise hasn’t been able to do that in quite some time, but here, as Barry Seal, he does actually grow into this character and over time, we start to see less of Cruise, and more of Seal. Both are still charming as hell, but there’s some subtle differences here that makes the performance all the more lovely to watch and marvel at.

Cause honestly, who knows the next time we’re going to get a great performance from Cruise where he, believe it or not, actually acts? Let’s just take our wins when we get them and be happy. And oh yeah, forget about the Mummy.

Everybody else already has.

Consensus: As entertatining and as fun, as it is informative, American Made doesn’t pass itself off as a history-lesson, but feels like it’s pulling double duty, while also reminding us that Tom Cruise is a freakin’ movie-star.

7.5 / 10

“Can’t run from all of your problems, Tom.”

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

The Sense of an Ending (2017)

Life sort of sucks.

Settling into his old age, Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is enjoying the riches and spoils of his life. He doesn’t necessarily have many problems in his life, other than the fact that he’s about to become a grandfather and still talks to his ex-wife (Harriet Walter). But now, Tony’s life just got a tad more complicated when a letter and a diary has been addressed to him, but why? Well, Tony doesn’t really know. However, what he does know is that the letter and diary is from the first love of his life, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), who taught him all that he needed to know at a very early age. And Tony, trying his best, wants to reconnect with her, but she’s just not having it. So now that Tony’s thinking about his early life, he’s reminded of college days, his romantic-life with Veronica, and other fellow people who aren’t in his life anymore, like a good buddy named Adrien (Joe Alwyn) and Veronica’s mother (Emily Mortimer), among many others who have come and gone throughout all of Tony’s sometimes sad, but sometimes happy, life.

Unfortunately, he won’t be the oldest possible-daddy in there.

The Sense of an Ending flirts with the idea of being a lot darker than it actually is. At its heart, it’s a story about death, depression, sadness, lost love, regret, and most of all, suicide. But at points, it still wants to be a rather silly, sometimes charming movie about this old grump of a man named Tony, who gets a flash from the past and is forced to remind himself just what he did. In a way, it’s a rather uneven movie that Ritesh Batra does the best that he can do with.

But it mostly just all comes back to the performances, all of which are great and make the movie better.

Most importantly, Jim Broadbent in the lead role as Tony Webster, an old codger who can sometimes be cranky and a bit annoyed, but mostly, just means well. Broadbent is always great in these kinds of roles, but he gets the chance her to show the darkness and sadness behind the grumpiness, but without ever shying away from going deeper. There’s a real pain in his eyes and it’s hard not to feel for this old man, even when it does seem like he is, above all else, just a grump.

Pictured: The weirdest ex’s ever.

Charlotte Rampling is also great as Veronica, his first love who, after all of these years, still seems to harbor some hurt feelings. There’s a real air of mystery behind her that constantly keeps her compelling, even when it seems like she’s just a writer’s convenience. Harriet Walter also has a nice supporting-role as Tony’s ex-wife who he still gets along with and constantly hangs around. The movie could have made this weirder than it actually was, but it still works because Broadbent and Walter work well together and feel like an aging couple, who are tired of fighting and just want to be civil and remain friends. There’s others who pop-up every so often here, but these are the three that mostly take up the movie and keep it moving, even when it seems to flash back and forth between the present and the past.

And while Batra is a good storyteller, at the end of it all, it’s not hard to imagine: “Well, what the hell was the point?”

Were we being told this story of this man’s coming-of-age to focus on the darker aspects of life, or how, one bad decision, can make permanent scars? Personally, I’m not sure. For me, I was happy to learn more about this man and the sometimes tragic life he had, but when all is said and done, that’s all it is: Memories from an old man. It’s like sitting down with one of your grandparents, finding out about where they come from and learning a little something, but still finding you moving on throughout your life, as if it didn’t really change anything at all.

That’s just me, though. Maybe I’m just an awful person.

Consensus: As dark as it gets, the Sense of an Ending never fully evens out to becoming a fully compelling drama, but mostly remains watchable because of the excellent performances given by everyone here.

6.5 / 10

Pictured: The other weirdest ex’s ever.

Photos Courtesy of: aceshowbiz

The Lunchbox (2013)

Without greasy food, what would couples talk about?

Lonely housewife Ila (Nimrat Kaur) does what she can to ensure that her marriage stays intact, so as a result, she decides to try adding some spice to it by preparing a special lunch for her neglectful husband, so he can get a nice little treat at work and hopefully, come home, be happy and appreciative of the slaving away his wife has done for his own needs. However, that doesn’t quite happen. In fact, the delivery goes astray and winds up in the hands of Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a relatively grumpy and annoyed widower. Curious about her husband’s lack of response, Ila adds a note to the next day’s lunchbox, and thus begins an unusual friendship in which Saajan and Ila can talk about their joys and sorrows without ever meeting in person. But the more and more they talk, the more the two lives’ unravel and, in a way, come together. For him, he starts to open up and come out of his shell a bit, whereas she begins to think of the next step after her marriage and begin to wonder just what the hell it is that her husband is up to.

Everyone just needs a little father-figure in life.

Had the Lunchbox been made in the States, it would have most likely been a cheesy, sappy, and inorganic rom-com with fart-jokes and pop-culture references everywhere you look. Granted, that’s not to say every rom-com ever made in the States shares that kind of ingredients, but it’s hard not to sort of see where things would have gone with a premise as simple and relatively easy as this. But thankfully, the Lunchbox, as done by Ritesh Batra, isn’t just an organic, funny, sweet, and honest rom-com, but it’s a very good one.

And hell, I’m not even sure how much of it is actually considered “comedic”.

There is some humor, as well as some light moments. But mostly, the movie’s rather small, subtle, and dramatic, while moving at a slow, mannered-pace. But it all works; Batra has more on his mind here than just making the line between good food and love. He’s much smarter than that and instead, uses that as a spring-board to talk about aging, regret, death, love, loss, and most importantly, figuring out where to go when you think you’ve done it all. It’s a smart movie that knows what it wants to say, but doesn’t hit us over-the-head too much and Batra is to be commended for that.

Seriously. This woman can’t find love?!?

He’s also to be commended for giving both of these characters more to them than just these notes that they pass to one another and, of course, food. See, Batra uses the lunchbox, as well as the notes the two pass to one another, as a way to sort of go in further to each of their lives and figure out what really makes them tick and why, above all else, they need to do this. Sure, it’s a silly conceit, but given these two characters’ lives and what we learn about them, it makes sense and it works for as long as it goes.

Once again, if it was made in the States, it probably wouldn’t have worked quite as beautifully.

Mostly, too, because Irfan Kahn and Nimrat Kaur wouldn’t have been in the leads. Both are terrific in their own respective roles and a certain amount of color and, well, sadness when needed. Kahn’s expressive eyes can give off any mood in any scene, whereas with Kaur, she’s just so beautiful, it’s hard not to take your eyes off of her. Nawazuddin Siddiqui also shows up in a supporting role as Saajan’s replacement who, at first, seems like he’s going to be annoying comedic sidekick, who shows up, acts silly and helps us laugh and get through some of the pain and sadness of the material. But nope, there’s actually more to him and the connection he builds with Saajan isn’t just nice, it’s beautiful.

Maybe the romance should have been between them?

Consensus: Cute and sweet, but without trying too hard to be either, the Lunchbox works as a rom-com that deals with a lot more than just two lonely people falling in love and much more about life itself.

8 / 10

“Please stop eating my hubby’s food, dick. Thanks.”

Photos Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Classics

Hush (2016)

Don’t speak. I know just what you’re saying.

Maddie (Kate Siegel) is a deaf author who’s best-known work is some hard-boiled crime novels that garner her all sorts of fame and fortune. Some of it’s wanted, some of it isn’t. In this one case, when she’s got her friend’s house in the middle of the woods all to herself, that’s especially so when a masked-fan (John Gallagher Jr.) begins to reign down all sorts of terror on her. Maddies’ inability to fully her is one problem in this situation, of course, but she uses her smarts and her wits to, hopefully, get the better of him whenever the opportunity comes around. But yeah, being deaf in a situation like this isn’t ideal and it’s why Maddie, no matter how far she gets, she’s always got the cards stacked-up against her. All she’ll have to do is see if she can wait out the night and survive.

Hopefully.

Okay. Maybe the freeze-frames don’t do this performance the justice it deserves!

Hush was the little movie that could a year or so ago. It literally came out of nowhere, hit Netflix right away, and oh yeah, was pretty great. It doesn’t feature many big-names at all and the director, Mike Flanagan, before this, didn’t have a whole lot going for him, except for Oculus which was, at the very least, interesting. But what worked best about Hush is that it was so sweet, so simple, and so straight-forward, that it was somehow perfect for Netflix.

It’s the kind of quick, swift and entertaining-viewing that’s worth being seen, regardless of if you can handle home-invasion thrillers or not. For me, while the premise is as conventional as you can get – albeit, with a deaf-woman twist – Flanagan finds smart, small, and interesting ways of turning it on its feet and making it, well, pretty fun and exciting. Just when you think you know where the material is going to wind-up, how sick it’s going to continue to get, or what twists and turns it takes, it somehow goes a different way.

And even when it doesn’t do that, it’s still entertaining enough to the point of where it’s too hard to fully and completely care.

After all, it’s a home-invasion thriller that’s unpredictable, at the very least. It doesn’t really try to break any new ground at all, but what it does do is offer up a new fresh, exciting, and smart voice within the world of horror in Flanagan. Flanagan’s style isn’t necessarily anything ground-breaking, but what he does do that’s smart is constantly keep us experiencing this whole movie through the eyes and, uh, ears of Maddie, never letting us forget that we are just as helpless as her here and it’s going to be really rough to get through it all. Flanagan never quite makes the material as sick or as decrepit as someone like, say, Eli Roth would have, but in a way, he’s much better off for that; there’s a certain respect he feels for this character, as well as the general rules and conventions of telling a horror-thriller story like this and allowing for it to unravel the way it does.

“Delivery for, uh…yeah I’m gonna kill ya.”

It also helps that in the lead role, Kate Siegel is pretty great. Being Flanagan’s real-life girlfriend, it’s a no-brainer to see her here, but Siegel deserves this role, because so much of what she has to do here is emote and use her face to show off whatever she’s going through and it’s effective. It could have easily been over-the-top or hammy, but it never gets to be that way, as we always believe whatever she’s going through, right from the very beginning. It does also help that Flanagan gives her some interesting shades of character to make her more than just a damsel in distress, caught-up in this unfortunate situation and it proves to go a real long way.

Man. Who would have thunk it? A smart, interesting, and well-rounded female character in the lead role of a horror flick?

Also here is John Gallagher Jr. who, surprisingly, seems to be having a ball as the crazy and deranged stalker here. The only issue with this character is that he’s nothing more than just this; Flanagan’s fine and content with giving Maddie the development she deserves, but never really bothers with this creepy stalker. Maybe that’s purposeful, considering it’s not his story in the first place, but it felt like something was missing in the much larger-piece of this actually rather smart and entertaining horror-thriller.

Consensus: Surprisingly smart and unpredictable, given its simple plot, Hush effectively takes genre-scares and turns them around, while also giving us a star-marking turn from Kate Siegel.

8 / 10

That face you make when you get caught shopping for new linens. Happens to the best of us.

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017)

Love the large, hate the small. The American Way.

Thomas Sung was just like any other immigrant who navigated over the United States: He just wanted a fresh, bright start in the land of opportunity and promise, when that actually meant something. And well, he did just that. By the time he was 40, he opened Abacus, a small family-run bank, that helped out those who were in the same position as he was, within the Chinatown community. After many years of working and serving, all of a sudden, the bank is hit with an indictment on cases of fraud money-laundering, both of which seemed to have happened under shay circumstances. But the Sung family fights it and goes to trial and, as a result, find their names and reputations tarnished in the media. But why? One step closer to what’s going on and it turns out that despite these top-level banks causing the financial crisis of 2008, that we’re all still paying for, somehow, it was this small, family-run bank that had to face the music when the time came around for some jail time.

Interesting, right?

Always got to have the daughters in daddy’s corner.

Well, yes, it is. That’s because director Steve James has an eye for these kinds of stories and isn’t afraid to go the extra mile and distance to find out what’s really at the root of the source. Granted, Abacus is a relatively safe and conventional movie, considering the ambitions of grandeur James showed with Stevie and the Interrupters, but it’s still well worth the watch because of the story behind it and well, what this says about us, as a society, and of the U.S., a country.

Without saying too much, Abacus is probably a perfect movie to be released right about now. A film about how an immigrant came from, essentially, nothing, to make a life in America and live the dream, is what we need to hear more of. America, as we speak, is in a bit of a stand-still, where it’s apparent that immigrants who come to this country are becoming more and more ostracized and hated for, well, taking absolute advantage of what America has to offer.

Ah, the courtroom. A lovely place that almost EVERY. BANKER. SHOULD. HAVE. SEEN.

Meaning, yes, hopes and boundless dreams.

That used to be something lovely and proud to stand by, but sadly, it’s all changed. You have to give credit for James shining a light on this story, at this point in time, and never forgetting that at the center of this supposed-scandal, is just one man, trying to do right by his family. That’s all and nothing else to it.

Of course, the story goes deeper and this is where Abacus really works. It goes to the top and deals with all sorts of conspiracies that, despite being dense, are still easy to follow. As I said, this isn’t James’ best, or even his most challenging, but the man knows a good story when he sees one and isn’t afraid to shine his camera’s light where it deserves to be shined.

If only there were more of them out there just like him. Especially in office.

Okay.

I’m done.

Consensus: While not necessarily the game-changer we’re used to seeing from James by now, Abacus is still a compelling, interesting and heartfelt look at a small family, in a big country, doing whatever they can to survive. So yeah, it’s also relevant.

7.5 / 10

It’s okay. Just retire and get away. Us Americans are a pain. I know.

Photos Courtesy of: Abacus Movie

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Creepy dolls? Eh. I’ve seen worse.

Sam (Anthony LaPaglia) and Esther Mullins (Miranda Otto), used to be the happiest couple around. He, a toy-maker, her, just a lovely housewife, with the whole community behind their backs. Then, tragedy struck and all of a sudden, they pushed away the outside world. However, they are still kind enough to let a nun (Stephanie Sigman) and a couple of orphan girls to stay in their big old house for a certain amount of time, so long as they follow a bit of rules. The main one: Don’t go into Esther’s room. Do you think these kids listen? Hell no! This obviously starts a lot of bad stuff, including the constant appearance of an even freakier doll named Annabelle, who the girls all seem entranced by, but don’t know exactly why. Is it a demon? A prank? Or just their little imaginations running wild?

“Let me have a decent meal in peace!” – Annabelle

The first Annabelle movie was, in all honesty, a piece of crap. It was slow, boring, and felt like it had really know story, was written over a weekend, and given all sorts of money for the sole sake of tying up with this horror-universe that the Conjuring practically created. That’s why a sequel, in my eyes, just didn’t sound all that enticing.

Then Lights Out director David Sandberg showed up and suddenly, I was color interested, and with good reason.

For one, Sandberg knows how to shoot this kind of horror; the camera tilts and constant swoops, may be a bit nauseating, but they help what could have been a very easy and tame horror flick, hit a lot harder. We’re always left in the dark with what’s going to happen next and rather than taking its good old time, Sandberg starts off from the flood-gates and keeps on going. In a way, he keeps the horror fun, if not all that terrifying.

Yup. Crosses save the day.

Which is to say that Annabelle: Creation is a much more “fun” horror movie, than actually a “scary” one, and that seems to be the case with me and most horror movies out there nowadays. It isn’t that I can’t get scared, or even jump a little bit during horror movies, it’s more that I can’t quite get scared by the ghosts, ghouls, and creatures that lurk somewhere in the dark. My thought is that the real world is scary enough, with an even more threat to my life, so how are these evil characters from a movie supposed to genuinely scare me even more?

Well, they don’t. That’s why when I go to a horror movie, it’s just for some fun. If the scares happen, then so be it.

With Annabelle: Creation, the scares never quite came for me, but that doesn’t mean Sandberg doesn’t at least try his best. You can tell that he’s sort of working with a relatively weak and unoriginal script, as well as part of a franchise that’s being used to just set everything else up, but he makes it all work by just showing us a knack for telling horror stories that may not always be terrifying, but know how to have a good time.

And in today’s day and age, I think we all need a little bit of that. Right, people?

Consensus: While maybe not entirely frightening, Annabelle: Creation is still, heads, shoulders, knees, and toes above its predecessor in terms of quality and overall entertainment-value. Too bad it feels so damn corporate.

6 / 10

“Ready when you are.” – Annabelle

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

A Ghost Story (2017)

Man. Ghosts really do have it rough.

A young, loving couple (Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck) who, despite their issues, seem to get along enough that they’re willing to make it work. Then, an unexpected tragedy happens and all of a sudden, both of their lives are changed forever. But somewhere, in the backburner, lies a ghost, who is constantly hovering and watching over every little thing that happens in this house. Over time, the house changes and we start to see new people come into this house, with all sorts of new lives and adventures. But through it all, the ghost remains. Alone. Sad. And without any clue of what the hell is actually going.

In other words, the life of a ghost is a pretty sad one.

Rooney.

The real beauty of A Ghost Story isn’t that it was shot in secret, made for $100,000, and featuring a very recent Oscar-winner, but that it literally goes everywhere and anywhere, and we literally have no idea what to expect from it. It’s the kind of small, mysterious movie that even going on further and further about it, what happens to the story, where it goes, what it wants to do, or hell, even what it’s trying to say, would almost be certain to spoil the movie.

The only thing that I can truly speak of is to the true talent of writer/director David Lowery who, so far, is really proving to be the top-tier talent in film. Cause with A Ghost Story, on paper, it seems simple and easy – a ghost literally hovers around from one life, to another, essentially. But it’s so much more than that. It’s sad, tragic and upsetting, sure, but there’s also bits and pieces of unexpected humor, heart, light, and yes, believe it or not, fun.

Not to mention that, oh yeah, this movie’s beautiful.

Casey.

Not just through the way it looks, sounds, or even feels – it just is. Considering the small budget, you can tell a lot of the money went into the way the film is presented and it works; the very tightly-round aspect-ratio, at first, is distracting and probably unnecessary, but ends up being another weird addition to an already original movie. The movie takes on a lot of different and crazy ambitious themes about life, death, love, afterlife, and existence as a whole, but no matter what, Lowery doesn’t get too bogged-down by trying his best to discuss this, time and time again, hammering it into our heads. He lets the story breathe, move at its own pace, and be as surprising as humanly possible.

And like I said before, the story does go to some truly unexpected and wild places. To say anything more would be a problem, for both you, as well as myself. Just know that wherever Lowery goes, it works. A Ghost Story is the kind of movie you make when you have the absolute drive and creative inspiration that you just can’t settle down anymore. Lowery, even after making the studio-heavy, audience-friendly Pete’s Dragon, didn’t need a whole lot of money, financial back-ups, or even all that much help to get this out and it shows.

He wanted to make something weird, original, and damn beautiful. And guess what? He succeeded at that.

More of this. Please.

Consensus: Despite being an awfully odd movie, A Ghost Story is still a mannered, smart and interesting take on all aspects of life, with a pitch-perfect direction from Lowery.

8 / 10

And ghost. What more do you need to know?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

Well, maybe Bond is a lot cooler.

It’s been a year since we last caught up with Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and well, let’s just say, things are still kind of the same. Baddies still want to kill him and he’s still got to find ways on how to not only kill them, but save those lives around him. And while he’s definitely looking forward to living a life on the straight-and-narrow, he’s pulled back in when a new threat arises in Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a dangerous, but very light and happy drug-dealer who’s trying to end this war on drugs as we know it. Back with his usual band of misfits, like Merlin (Mark Strong), Eggsy is ready to stop Poppy once and for all, but this time, with the help of another spy company, Statesman. And if that wasn’t enough for Eggsy, it turns out that his mentor Harry (Colin Firth), who he had long thought was dead, is still alive and trying to get his skills back. But that’s obviously going to be a lot harder than he expects, especially what with this mission continuing to threaten more and more lives.

Somehow, it works.

The first Kingsman, while definitely in poor-taste, was no doubt a Matthew Vaughn film, for better and for worse. It was stupid, loud, dirty, dark, violent, and oh yeah, pretty fun. It’s the kind of movie that didn’t really know if it wanted to be smart, or just plainly dumb, but either way, it was fun and got by mostly on the charm of its game-cast, as well as Vaughn himself who takes this kind of material, makes it his own, and doesn’t allow for us to forget about that. There’s something actually kind of awesome and relatively brave about that, because while so many people will get on his case for his mistreatment of women and other issues within society, he still doesn’t care; he takes it in stride, moves on, and continues to make some fun movies.

That’s why the Golden Circle is a bit of a disappointment, especially coming from his side.

For one, it’s a sequel which, already, causes some problems. Meaning, it’s louder, more over-the-top, longer, and densely packed with so much stuff, it’s almost overkill. I get Vaughn’s enthusiasm for having the opportunity to hang with these characters again and in a way, it makes it feel like less of a hack, studio-job, and much more of a passion-project, but there’s so much going on here, it can’t help but feel stuffing. At nearly two-and-a-half-hours, Vaughn may have a lot to say and a lot to do, but in all ends up jumbling together, making the first one seeming like a tight, well-paced adventure.

This new one, unfortunately, takes too many weird side-roads to get where it needs to go, especially since the script isn’t nearly as smart as it may think it is. The first one ran into that same kind of a problem, where it’s almost like it thought it had something neat and smarmy to say about intelligence movies of its nature, but really, just wanted to shoot people and objectify women. Once again, if that’s your bag and you can pull that off, then good for you,

Hey, everyone. See this? It’s Julianne Moore having fun. Let her have more of that!

The first one could and did. This one? Maybe not so much.

Still, every opportunity I get to think of the problems I had with this movie, in terms of its story and jam-packed story-line, I still remember that there’s a lot of fun to be had with it, too, in particular with the action-sequences that Vaughn has no problem with making so absolutely insane and crazy, it’s hard to expect it anywhere else. There’s just a certain bit of flair and energy to these sequences that aren’t found much elsewhere, and it’s hard not to get swept-up in it all, even if you know that when they’re done, it’s time for 20-25 minutes of more random bits of dialogue.

But hey, the ensemble seems to be having fun with it, so is that entirely a problem? Well, not really. Taron Egerton fits this role of Eggsy like a glove; Firth shows back up and gives us a bit more depth to a character that I think we already had enough of; Strong comes back and brings some heart and fun to a character that deserved more depth and, finally, got it this time around; Julianne Moore gets the opportunity to vamp and have fun here as Poppy Adams, and yes, makes every moment worth it; Pedro Pascal proves to be a bad-ass as another secret-agent, Jack Daniels; Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, and Halle Berry, despite a whole lot of promise by the ads, aren’t in this whole lot, although they make the best with what they can; and oh yeah, there’s a secret musical-guest that’s a pretty nice addition and a whole lot of fun. Don’t know if it’s a spoiler or not so I’ll just shut up and say that this person, along with everyone else, made the experience a little bit better.

Not a whole lot, but a little bit. And that’s all that really matters.

Consensus: Bloated and overly ambitious, the Secret Circle, unfortunately, suffers from a great deal of sequelitis, but due to Vaughn’s knack for exciting action and a fun cast, it still works.

6 / 10

Somehow, skiing just got pretty bad-ass.

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Stardust (2007)

Better than Goldust’s brother.

Tristan (Charlie Cox), a young man from the town of Wall, a small, quaint and lovely little town on the border of Stormhold, a magical kingdom where all sorts of crazy things happen. To hopefully win the heart and the hand of his girlfriend Victoria (Selma Miller), Tristan enters the magical world to collect a fallen star, in hopes that he’ll obviously win her over, but prove that he is quite the man that he always thought he could be. After little issues here and there, Tristan eventually collects the star who, to his surprise, is a woman named Yvaine (Claire Daines). However, Tristan isn’t the only one who’s looking for Yvaine; numerous witches, Kings, Queens, Princes, and Princesses also want this star and will do anything to get it, by any means. So now, Tristan’s job just got a whole lot harder. Not to mention that he and Yvaine, while initially not being able to get along with one another at all, start to see each other as equals and even, well, connect. In possibly more ways than Tristan has been able to ever do with his possible future-wife.

A pretty hot star.

Matthew Vaughn is probably the perfect director for a Neil Gaiman book, because no matter how strange, or action-packed, or even tense things get, Vaughn remembers not to take everything all that seriously. Meaning that we do get a lot of jokes aimed at the material, but it’s also very funny in the same way that the Princess Bride was – it respects the fantasy-genre up until the point of where it realizes how ridiculous it truly is. That’s a lot of Gaiman’s material and while there’s been plenty of attempts at recreating the same kind of odd-style that he has, Vaughn’s perhaps the closest one to achieving that.

And yes, it also helps that the movie is buckets of fun, reminding us that, when he isn’t trading quips and smart-ass remarks, Vaughn knows how to keep the action moving and exciting. Cause Stardust is a little over two-hours and about a bunch of silly witches and knights battling it out for a star, it can be a bit too much to ask for a non-lover of the fantasy genre. And yes, I am one of them.

However, Stardust is a much different tune.

It’s in on its own joke, it never really relies too much on exposition, or world-building, or certain other tricks and trades of these kinds of stories that can tend to make them a bit annoying. The story itself is already pretty straightforward and thankfully, Vaughn doesn’t try to over-complicate things; he keeps it simple, effective and most importantly, fun. He could have done anything he wanted with this movie and I wouldn’t have cared, because he knows how to keep it fun, even when you least expect it to remain as such.

That’s Michelle Pfeiffer? Uh. Yeah. Time has not done well for her.

And a whole bunch of that fun extends to the cast, too, who are, as expected, game for this kind of silly material. Charlie Cox, in a pre-Daredevil role, shows a great deal of charm as Tristan, a dork-of-a-man who we like right from the get-go and sort of stand-by, no matter where he goes, or what he does. Claire Danes is also quite great as Yvaine, the star with a whole butt-load of personality. Danes knows how to make this wacky material work and come-off not so wacky, and yes, her and Cox have a neat little bit of chemistry that transcends most other movies that are just like this.

In that we actually care and want them to get together in the end.

The rest of the cast is, thankfully, having a ball here. Michelle Pfeiffer shows up as the main evil witch, vamping it up and having an absolute ball; Robert De Niro may seem out-of-place, initially, as a pirate, but really blends in with this goofy-world; Mark Strong is, as usual, charming and a lot of fun as Prince Septimus, Tristan’s ultimate foe; and well, there’s plenty more where that came from. The real joy is just getting a chance to see everyone here show up, have a good time, and not make us feel like we aren’t involved with it, either.

We are and that’s the greatest joy of all.

Consensus: Despite its silliness, Stardust wears its heart and soul on its sleeve, with a fun and exciting pace, matched by an even more charming ensemble.

8 / 10

There were a lot of Italian pirates back in those days, people! Come on!

Photos Courtesy of: Paramount Pictures

Ruby Sparks (2012)

Secretly, all men want a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to spend the rest of their lives with.

Writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is sort of like the literary definition of what it means to be a “one-hit wonder”. The guy had that one book that practically took the whole reading world by storm, and then somehow fell off the face of the planet without a clue or idea of what his next book might be. As his fans continue to wait more and more desperately for what he has next to bring to the table, he can’t seem to get his head around the fact that he simply has nothing. That is, until he starts writing about the latest creation in his head: Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan). At first, Ruby only appears to him in his dreams and in his writing, but suddenly it becomes all too real and Calvin realizes that he actually has a real-life girlfriend that goes by the name of “Ruby Sparks” and will do anything and everything he writes about her doing.

And there you have it: The male fantasy, given to one geeky, antisocial writer. What a waste!

"Hello? Police? Yes, I have an intruding-hipster in my house that won't stop making all my meals vegan and telling me how the man is wrong, man. I need back-up assistance!"

“Hello? Police? Yes, I have an intruding-hipster in my house that won’t stop making all my meals vegan and telling me how the man is wrong, man. I need back-up assistance!”

Ruby Sparks, like a lot of other indies of its own kind, deals with an originally wacky and quirky idea, but you know what? It milks it for all that it’s worth. It’s hard to take it entirely seriously, until you realize that, after awhile, the movie itself is in order to deal with the greater aspects of life, like, for instance, love itself. Ruby Sparks shows us how no matter where we go in life, no matter who we date, or no matter how much we try to change the other person, that idea and sense of love will always be there, as much as we may injure and toy around with it. A person can change their look, style, views, friends, favorite places to eat, etc., but they can’t change the inner-self that makes them a person, especially one that deserves to be loved by anybody or anyone. People forget about that because you think about that one person not being with you and how much he/she has changed without you around to talk or be with, when in reality, they are still the same person, just with some changes here and there.

In other words, the bolts and crannies may be loosened, but the gears are still turning and moving the way they once did.

 

So yeah, Ruby Sparks can be funny and a little silly, but it’s also very deep and has something to say. Where it begins to run its unfortunate course is within the actual characters themselves of Calvin and Ruby. You see, the double-edged sword behind Calvin and Ruby is that you love them when they’re together and being all cute with one another, but once they get away from all the cuteness and start getting semi-serious, mad, and sad, then, you begin to realize that they aren’t as likable as you had once imagined. I don’t know if Ruby can count since she is practically a character that was made on the page and does next whatever Calvin rights her to do, but he sure as hell can since he’s not a real nice dude to begin with.

Maybe I’m alone on this boat, but I’m not always there rooting for the “troubled-soul of a writer who can’t come up with an idea and treats everybody around him like crap”-aspect of most movies. I do get that writers going through writer’s block tend to be awful to those around them, no matter who it is around them, but Calvin turns out to be just an unpleasant guy that you can’t really seem to be happy with when he’s happy, or even sad when he’s sad. You just sort of don’t care. Or, if you do care, it’s mainly for Ruby since the poor gal actually loves the dude for who he is, rather than what he should be in her mind, something he can’t seem to avoid with everybody he runs into.

Prefers long walks on the beach. Wow, that Ruby girl is so unique....

Prefers long walks on the beach. Wow, that Ruby girl is so unique….

That’s not to say that Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano aren’t good in this movie, whether they be together or separate, it’s just that their characters aren’t written as well as the ideas and thoughts of the premise were. That’s especially surprising since Kazan wrote the screenplay herself, and you’d think that there would be more to her characters than just stock, but that’s sadly not the case. Dano does what he can to make Calvin a nice, charming-enough dude to stand to be around, but it doesn’t amount to much other than another case of a guy who can’t seem to check himself into reality just yet. Kazan is good as Ruby, which also helps since the chick is literally as cute as a button that I hope to see more of in the near-future.

But not like a hipster. Please, no more of that.

Though the leads don’t knock anything out the park, the supporting cast is at least better and worth mentioning. Chris Messina plays Calvin’s slightly jealous, envious brother that wants to have the same advantages that Calvin has in his easy-going life, but just can’t because he’s married, has a kid, and a little thing called “responsibilities”. Messina is great at these types of roles and always finds a way to make them the least bit likeable, even if the characters he plays do seem a bit dick-ish, at a first glance. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas play their parents that are the old-school, stoner hippies that haven’t realized ‘Nam ended some time long ago; it’s nice to see Elliott Gould working again, even if it is just a small-role as Calvin’s just-as-inspired therapist; and Steve Coogan, once again, plays a dastardly character.

Consensus: The idea behind Ruby Sparks is smarter and more thought-out than the actual characters, but Kazan’s writing always remains compelling and interesting, even when it does detour in obvious territories like the fight every couple should have, or the thing that’s keeping them from really loving each other. However, this time, it’s with a twist!

7 / 10

"The girl of his dreams", or, "A girl he can't see because the sun is practically beaming down on his face."

“The girl of his dreams”, or, “A girl he can’t see because the sun is practically beaming down on his face.”

Photos Courtesy of: Fox Searchlight

Undertow (2004)

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After his wife tragically dies, John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) moves with his sons Chris (Jamie Bell) and Tim (Devon Alan) to rural Georgia in hopes of getting away from their pain and agony, and instead, focus a life on raising pigs. Both Chris and Tim themselves are dealing with this awful amount of grief in the only ways they know how; Chris constantly rebels and fights with his dad, whereas Tim, who looks up to Chris, wants him to stop being such a jerk and just get along. Then, life for the family changes a bit when Uncle Deel (Josh Lucas) returns from a long-stint in jail. While Deel seems like a charmer to have around, he’s still got a great deal of resentment towards John, for not just stealing the woman that he loved, but possibly being the favorite of the two sons. It’s because of this that Deel sees an easy way out tries to steal a stash of gold coins, but then, another tragedy happens, breaking the family apart even more and forcing both Chris and Tim to fend for themselves.

It’s hard to hate someone this handsome.

Undertow isn’t David Gordon Green’s worst, nor is it his best. It’s somewhere slap-dab in the middle of being just mediocre enough to be seen, but also, a little too dour and disappointing, considering all of his other work. It’s still small and gritty, like we know best from him, but it’s also got this darker, more sour-feeling that’s not always seen and because of that, it can be a little off-putting. Granted, nobody really expected to have a good time from a David Gordon Green film before the arrival of Pineapple Express, but still, it goes without saying that Undertow is a pretty morbid movie.

And usually, yes, that’s a good thing.

But not here.

One of the main issues with Undertow that no matter how hard he tries, Green can’t seem to get past, is that it never quite picks-up the momentum it wants. Going for this dirty, dark and gritty Southern-Gothic look and feel, Green really sinks himself deep into a tale about murder, family-issues, and the loss of life. But what does he do with any of that?

Rather than having anything smart to say about grief, or death, or anything of this nature, the story mostly relies on the two kids, on-the-run, trying their best to keep away from their cartoonishly evil Uncle. It’s supposed to be an exciting, almost adventurous piece of thriller, but really, it never goes anywhere we either don’t see coming, or really care about. It’s as if Green set-out to make something smarter and deeper, but really just get all wrapped-up into the beautiful scenery that he could kind of care less about really exploring certain stuff.

It also doesn’t help that, unfortunately, the performances aren’t all that good, either.

As I just mentioned before, Josh Lucas’ Deel is a pretty over-the-top and wild character that, from the very beginning, is so evil and dastardly, it’s almost no shock what he begins to do next. The movie does attempt to give him some development for being the way that he is, and why he’s so bitter, but it doesn’t quite register – it almost feels like Green trying to make up something for him being an evil bastard, rather than just having him be an evil bastard. Even Lucas himself tries, however, he can’t quite get past how thinly-written this script and this character is.

Yup. There’s that sour-puss look we all know and adore.

Same goes for Jamie Bell and especially Devon Alvan as the two youngsters here. Bell fares better-off because he’s actually a very good actor and is capable of being both intimidating, as well as vulnerable, at the same time. But Alvan just doesn’t quite have it. Like was the case with Lucas, the script doesn’t quite help them out, but Alvan’s delivery and performance is in a much goofier and sillier movie than is offered here and just feels absolutely out-of-place. You can almost feel Bell trying his damn best to carry each and every scene he has with him, which makes it just a bit harder to watch.

But not for the intended reasons, though.

All that said, there’s still something about Undertow that’s worth watching and it’s that Green has a knack for finding beauty in even the darkest of stories and yes, he finds it here. Even when it seems like the story, the characters, or hell, the conflict is ever going anywhere, Green keeps things moving as best as he can, making it, at the very least watchable. Is it more of a disappointment because he followed All the Real Girls with this? Most likely, but he has done worse, so maybe time has been sort of kind to this.

Sort of.

Consensus: Without much of a narrative-drive, Undertow can sometimes feel like a predictable slog, but is at least helped out by Green’s need and want for trying something new and invigorating, even if it never fully pays off like he wants it to.

5 / 10

Nothing like an annoying little brother to ruin the older brother’s adventure.

Photos Courtesy of: MGM

Strong Island (2017)

Has much changed?

Despite a relatively rough upbringing, Yance Ford’s family was a pretty simple and lovely one. Her parents got along and were clearly in love, she got along well with her sister, and oh yeah, she was incredibly close with her older brother, William Ford Jr.. And while everything was looking all great and wonderful for them all, it all changes when William is shot and killed in a parking-garage. But why? What lead up to all of this? Could it have been prevented? If not, then what else could have happened? And well, how did the guy who shot and killed William, get away with it? These questions, as well as many more, are all brought up and, possibly, even answered.

But probably not.

The one thing that keeps Strong Island away from being the most perfect documentary I’ve seen this year, is that it really does leave a lot left up in the air when all is said and done. For some odd reason, it’s being advertised as a true-crime documentary, on Netflix, which means that tons and tons of people will be flocking to see this great injustice being done and how they can come up with their own theories about it, much like they did with the Jinx and Making a Murderer. Sure, while there’s a murder in the center here, the movie doesn’t just keep its focus solely on looking at the facts and thinking of other conclusions, as much as it asks questions, gets the answers, and then continues to ponder them, over and over again, until it’s all burned and etched into the ground.

Happy days. They never seem to last.

But still, the fact that it’s kind of a true-crime documentary, does make it feel a bit disappointing, when we get to the end and realize that there’s a lot left to discuss. It may be deliberate and probably the point, but it’s hard not to feel like there’s something more just waiting to be explored and taken another look at. When we will get that, who knows?

Honestly, though, it really doesn’t matter.

Strong Island is still, all issues aside, a very powerful and moving documentary that will take you by surprise with its methodology. Yance Ford goes out of his way to ensure that we get the full story and nothing but the truth, which helps us not only trust him, as a film-maker, but also all of the facts that are being thrown at us. Some of them may be bull-crap, but for the good part, Ford has gotten together a real rag-tag group of smart and trustworthy people who leave their souls out here on the line, with each and every interview. Having them talk directly to the camera, too, may seem like a bit of an Errol Morris rip-off, but it still works and seems like the only way you could tell something as tragic and as upsetting as this: Without ever shying away one bit.

Remember the name. Remember the face. Please.

And with Strong Island, while Ford talks about the murder and the botched investigation into it all, really, it’s a movie about forgiveness, regret, guilt, and above all else, family, the bonds that are created by it, and how, when push comes to shove, blood is thicker than water and it’s all we’re going to have. Ford gets the chance to interview two of the last surviving-members of her family and not only do they offer a lot to the whole product, they also genuinely make us think long and hard about our own families, as dysfunctional and/or weird as they may be.

Then again, every family’s got a little something weird going on, so it’s okay.

Like I said, though, these interviews take up the whole film and while they can sometimes get a little long-winding and especially, repetitive, we soon find out that, oh wait, that’s the point. The movie isn’t trying to be the most polished or assured piece out there as much as it’s just going where the stories and the interviews take it; the fact that it’s a beautiful movie to look at is helpful, but still. It’s the kind of movie that takes time to get used to, but it’s worth it. Each and every sigh, tear, and painfully awful silence.

Consensus: Even though it leaves a lot up in the air by the end, Strong Island is still a powerful and incredibly emotional doc about family and an injustice, giving us a fresh, diverse voice in Yance Ford.

8 / 10

Like any family: Happy and loving. Man, what a world we live in.

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

First They Killed My Father (2017)

What a world we live in.

Loung Ung (Sareum Srey Moch) is just like any other 5-year-old girl. She loves her Ma (Sveng Socheata), her Pa (Phoeung Kompheak), and the rest of her family. Her father’s a government worker, so of course they live a relatively cushy, pain-free life where they get to have all sorts of food and watch all the TV they want. It’s a pretty nice life for a five-year-old, but it all changes when the Khmer Rouge assumes power over Cambodia in 1975 and forces Loung and her family out on the streets. For the next year, Loung’s life will consist of travelling to camps across the country, where they will be interned and forced to work, follow rules, and do whatever those with all of the power say they have to do. Loung has no clue what’s going on, nor should she; however, her family does and it’s why she ends up getting split-up with all of them, and sent to a child soldier camp. There, she learns the gruesome art of killing and all of the fun tricks and trades that come with it. But Loung wants her family back and she’s absolutely determined to find them, wherever there may be. But in Cambodia, at this point in time, danger lurked everywhere you looked.

Five-year-olds – they never have a clue what’s going on! Damn kids!

First They Killed My Father is probably the best movie Angelina Jolie has directed so far. Granted, that’s not saying a whole lot, but it still proves that there truly is some talent and skill underneath all of that obvious ambition and passion fully on-display. Whereas her past three movies have all felt like she had something to say and didn’t quite know how to get it out onto the screen, or better yet, what to even do with it, First They Killed My Father shows Jolie getting her point across, but in the most simple way possible:

By just letting the story play-out, exactly as it would for a five-year-old like Loung.

And that’s the actual beauty of First They Killed My Father – everything we see, hear, feel, is all through the eyes, ears, and gaze of Loung. In this sense, the movie almost feels like a dream, constantly swishing and swooshing from one event, to the other, but it’s effective. It gives us a human look and feel on the true brutality of the Cambodian Genocide, but doesn’t ever feel like it’s dramatizing it; it feels like we are in her head and because of that, it’s hard not to look away.

And yes, for the first hour or so, First They Killed My Father is a small, somewhat quiet, and incredibly subtle picture about a very large, very disastrous, and very disturbing part of our planet’s history. Jolie doesn’t seem to be in any particular rush to tell this story, or get any point across – she just tells the story, like it’s meant to be told, without her getting in the way and ruining everything. That seems to have been the problem with mostly all of Jolie’s flicks, as she constantly finds herself somehow getting in lost in translation, or not really knowing how to make certain stuff work, but this time around, she’s got it down well enough to where it registers and never lets us forget that, oh yeah, she’s quite talented.

Waste of perfectly good bamboo.

That said, still not a perfect movie.

If anything, it’s a very impressive one that shows us Jolie is capable of making a good movie, if not a great one. But for now, First They Killed My Father will have to stay in the group of the former, especially with the final hour. See, what happens about halfway through, is that when the story does escalate into becoming something far more violent and action-packed, it feels different; we still see everything through the eyes of Loung, but the movie’s pace picks up and it’s a tad jarring.

Rather than remaining a quiet, almost meditative flick, everything’s all ramped-up, with blood, guts, limbs, bombs, and weapons flying everywhere. It’s still somewhat effective, because it never takes us away from the true tragedy of what actually happened, but it does feel like a different movie entirely and because of that, it can’t help but feel a little messy. It took me out of the film a bit and had me forgetting about the previous hour I just saw, where a director was truly soaking in the material, not getting in the way, and not being too over-the-top about it.

That all changes, unfortunately, and shows that we’re still a bit away from getting Jolie’s masterpiece. Maybe someday very, very soon.

Consensus: Artfully and surprisingly tastefully directed, First They Killed My Father is a dramatic and moving improvement on Jolie’s past flicks, but also keeps her a slight bit away from achieving true greatness.

7.5 / 10

With this and Beasts of No Nation, maybe Netflix’s niche is child-soldiers? I don’t know. Just saying.

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

American Assassin (2017)

American Assassin

After a devastating terrorist attack kills the woman of his dreams, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is pulled into a dark, unrelenting world of tracking these terrorists down and getting his own sort of revenge. But just as soon as he gets close enough to do so, he’s whisked away by the CIA who, having tracked all of Mitch’s actions in the past year or so since the attack, like what they see and feel as if they can use it to their own advantage. However, Mitch is a bit of a hot-head and while he has the skills to shoot a gun and kick all sorts of ass, he needs to know how to control his temper so that missions can be completed, without any issues whatsoever. That’s when Mitch is sent to an isolated boot-camp, headed by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a former Marine who is quite the ass-kicker himself. Together, Stan and Mitch track down a terrorist (Taylor Kitsch), who has plans of starting a global war, but once again, it all comes down to whether or not Mitch can control himself, when the push comes to the shove.

Do they allow those kinds of hair-do’s in the CIA? Or should I say, hair-don’ts!

The first 40 minutes or so of American Assassin are actually pretty good. Director Michael Cuesta, who, oddly enough, has made quite the name for himself in small, rather disturbing indies, doesn’t really speed things up, as much as he lets it all play out in front of our own eyes, in a very mannered-way. In a way, that makes the violence all the more shocking and graphic. Sure, having an R-rating attached certainly helps things, but rather than seeming like an action set-piece in a big-budgeted movie, American Assassin‘s action, in the first-half at least, feels like it’s going for something colder, darker, and deeper, than just blood, guts and terrorists doing bad thing.

Then, it all goes away.

At about the half-way mark, the movie then realizes we need a mission, we need a story, and oh yeah, we need some sort of conflict that isn’t just Mitch and Stan constantly dick-measuring – there needs to be a baddie, a reason, and oh yeah, way more action. When this happens, American Assassin eventually turns into a very dumb, over-the-top, and surprisingly safe action-thriller that wants to keep on being dark and meaningful, but is just too silly for its own good. It’s as if Cuesta may have gotten thrown out of the director’s chair about halfway through production when the powers that be eventually realized he wasn’t making the Bourne rip-off they so desperately wanted.

Cause even in something like Bourne, at least the politics of that movie, while challenging, at least feel fully realized. The action happens for a reason and while it is no doubt played-up for thrills and chills, it still comes from a very dark, realistic place, in a world where these sorts of things happen each and every day. In American Assassin, the politics are way too troubling and one-sided, almost to the point of where I wonder whether it was made before, or after Trump got elected.

In other words, it’s so jingoistic that it borders on xenophobic.

Kick some ass, Mikey. Do it for ‘merica!

Then again, the villain is a disillusioned and paranoid former-soldier from the South, so I guess that kind of saves it? I’m not sure, actually. What I am sure of is that for the final hour or so, American Assassin gets pretty rote and well, boring. It’s action isn’t all that exciting, it’s script continues to get sillier, and yeah, we see where it’s always going. The first-half had at least some surprises and excitement to it, because it felt a little fresh, but once that goes out the window, we’re back to crazy action-sequences that you can see perfectly fine, but do you really want to?

The only real saving-grace above this all is Michael Keaton, who feels like he’s way too good for the material and may have signed-up for something else entirely. Still, as the strict and mean Stan Hurley, Keaton gets a lot of mileage out of being the angriest and possibly, toughest guy in the room, despite himself being quite tiny and over 60-years-of-age. Still, it’s a testament to the kind of actor Keaton is, because he helps this thing move, probably when it shouldn’t.

As for Dylan O’Brien? Yeah, the verdict’s still out on him.

It’s not that I see him as dull, either, it’s just that the material he’s given here either doesn’t give him enough room to stretch, or he himself doesn’t know how to take this character. He’s jacked and handsome, but when you get down to it, there’s still this kid-like vulnerability to him that doesn’t quite register and makes this character feel like Jr. Bourne.

But hey, as long as he doesn’t get injured again, at least he’s got the Maze Runner to fall back on, right?

They still make those, right? Somebody help me.

Consensus: Despite a very promising start, American Assassin soon turns into a full-blown action-thriller, that’s never as fun, or as smart as it clearly wanted to be.

5 / 10

Baby Looney Tunes are taking over the CIA! Help us, foreign nations!

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

Mother! (2017)

The older the house, the creepier the s**t in it is.

Grace (Jennifer Lawrence) is a stay-at-home wife who dreams of being a mother very, very soon. However, her poet husband, Eli (Javier Bardem), is a bit too distracted to really get up on that supposed promise. If anything, he’s too distracted to really focus on his young and beautiful wife, as he’s searching for inspiration for whatever work he can come up with next. He starts to find that when two strangers (Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris) show up and make the house their own. Of course, he has no problem with this, but Grace does and because she’s constantly dealing with some sort of mental-health issues, as well as the duties of keeping up this new house of hers, she can’t help but feel a little off about this all. Eventually, weirder and weirder stuff begins to happen, almost to the point of where Grace doesn’t know if she’s safe where she’s at any longer, or if it’s time to leave the house, her husband, and the life she was supposed to be living.

Put a shirt on, dammit! You’ve got company! I think….

Mother! is definitely not for everyone. Hell, I’m not even sure it’s for me. It is, however, a Darren Aronofsky flick, which means that it’s going to be weird, creepy, out-of-this-world, ambitious, and oh yeah, ridiculously disturbing. But that’s what we’ve come to expect from him now, nearly 20 years into his career, so why should we expect anything different? Can we really criticize a person’s work for being exactly on-par with everything they’ve been doing for the past two decades? Or do we have to hold them up to a certain candle where they have to sort of get with the times and make their rather hard-hitting style, well, work for others?

Say, like the norm?

Well, not really. And that’s why Mother! works; it seems like another case of Aronofsky sticking the middle-finger up to everyone who thought he sold-out with Noah, as well as one to those who think he’s almost too weird for his own good. This time around, Aronofsky’s taking what is supposed to be a relatively conventional story about a woman, probably, losing her mind, then turning it on its head, its side, and on its back, almost to the point of where we don’t really know if it can be turned anywhere else, anymore.

In other words, Aronofsky’s not playing around here and it’s an absolute delight to watch. Sure, it’s a slow-burn for quite some time, with all sorts of visual and literary metaphors to chew apart and piss us off, but it’s also a visceral ride through a possible hell. Aronofsky’s not afraid to go that extra mile into the dark and cruel abyss that some directors like to stray away from – he could care less and it’s hard not to be excited by this, but also put-off by just where this goes and where this ends up.

Cause in all honesty, I’m not even sure what the movie means.

Actually, scratch that. I sort of do and I sort of don’t. The movie’s final-act is so twisted, so disturbing, so messed-up, and so insane, that it’s hard to actually put into words. But just like the rest of the movie, it’s in-your-face and absolutely hard to look away from. This may put a lot of people off, as well as it should, but for someone like me, it was hard not to be mesmerized by what was going on, even if I couldn’t pick my finger on what exactly it was.

Long hair, clearly cares.

Meaning, yes, Mother! deserves and will probably benefit from multiple viewings. But that aside, it’s still a very creepy movie, with Aronofsky himself taking advantage of this tight and confined space, where it seems like there’s a nightmare every corner you turn, as well as his sounds. There’s a dark and brooding rhythm that’s constantly felt throughout, almost to the point where even the light-hearted and rather sweet moments, are still impossibly rough.

Once again, Aronofsky’s not afraid and it’s not hard to love that.

Also, Jennifer Lawrence puts in another great performance here, but also, her most demanding and grueling to-date. She’s never charming, or even lovely – she’s dark, twisted, and sad, seeming like she’s about to break-out into insane fits of anger and rage, at any minute. Aronofsky keeps the whole movie squarely on her, with her face covering up the screen for about nearly an hour of the run-time, making it hard not to sit there and dissect her every move. And she’s up to the task, too; she never lets us forget that there’s something simmering deep down inside of her, but also, because she’s Jennifer Lawrence, we sort of trust her, too.

Is that a smart move? Or a bad one? After all, this is an Aronofsky flick, we’re talking about and nothing’s to be trusted.

And man, more movies need that danger.

Consensus: Hard-to-watch, disturbing, and layered with a certain uneasiness that’s hard to shake-off, Mother! will not be for everybody, but those who appreciate it, will also be a witness to one of Aronofsky’s more demented creations.

8 / 10

“Everyone is waiting, Jennifer. Let’s have some fun.”

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011)

War is bad. But rape is worse. Right, people? Come on!

Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Bosnian Serb police officer, and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Bosnian Muslim artist, are lovers who find themselves dancing and having a great time one night. Then, the Bosnian War breaks out and all of a sudden, there is literally death and destruction everywhere, forcing both of them to be on opposite sides of the battle. And as the conflict and violence engulfs the Balkan region, they find themselves actually coming closer and closer to one another, without either even knowing. And a few months later, while serving in the Bosnian Serb army, Danijel once again encounters Ajla when troops under his command take her from the apartment she shares with her sister. He takes her in under his own and, in a way, protects her. But at the same time, he’s also still taking advantage of her and her desperation to live and save the lives of those around her. What will keep these two together? Or better yet, what will separate them?

“Always stay warm.”

No matter what, you have to give Angelina Jolie some credit. She’s one of the biggest names in Hollywood and yet, for some reason, when she gets behind the camera, she doesn’t go the usual route you’d expect. Instead of taking safe, relatively light, star-studded pictures (like she could easily do), she takes these dark, disturbing, and rather queasy tales of violence and the ugly sides of humanity.

Have any of these movies really been good? Not quite, but hey, at least she’s got some spunk and in ways, that’s sort of all that matters, right? Kind of. But for her debut, you can’t help but notice that there’s a lot that needs to be worked on.

Anything that does need to be worked on, however, isn’t from behind the camera.

As usual, Jolie knows how to frame a shot and, of course, has an eye for detail. This may sound like obvious and faint praise, but it really isn’t; being able to ensure that your movie looks, sounds, and feels like it’s a top-notch production, is pretty hard. She allows for everything to come together, in front of the screen, that doesn’t make it seem like it’s coming from a newcomer, but from someone who has been watching, studying, and waiting, desperately. That passion, that inspiration, and yes, that drive, is worthy of being commended for.

But then you get to the script that she worked on and yeah, that’s where the problems really show. Because while this is no doubt an anti-war movie about the inhumane actions that took, and continue to, take place in the Bosnian War, it also, at least, attempts to be a love story about two people, torn apart by war and violence.

The perfect love. According to Angelina Jolie, that is.

But is it really?

See, what’s odd about this so-called “romance” that we spend all of five minutes seeing develop, before literal bombs explode and we’re all of a sudden, off to war, is that most of what we see developed between them, has mostly to do with rape and violence. There’s no love, no heart, no passion – just a lot of kicking, screaming, and well, I’ll say it again, raping. It’s actually really off-putting and while you could try to make the assumption that Jolie’s trying to make some sort of statement, all of that gets chucked out of the window when, after being forcibly held down and raped, Ajla begins to draw Danijel a loving little portrait of him, as he lays on the bed and looks on.

And this doesn’t happen once, but numerous times, almost to the point of self-parodying. And it’s weird, because Jolie doesn’t seem to ever realize that none of this works, or even registers as much as she may want it to. She thinks that there’s a sweet, almost universal point being made about how, no matter what sort of conflicts exist in this world, true love will overcome all.

Silly, right? Well, also, take into consideration that at least half of this movie is dedicated to watching people suffer, be suddenly killed, and better yet, thrown off ledges. It’s the kind of movie that’s dark and disturbing, and in that sense, Jolie nails just what she’s going for. However, when it comes to the “love” side of the story, just nope, it doesn’t register.

Better luck next time, right?

Consensus: Definitely a surprisingly admirable and noble effort on the part of Jolie, In the Land of Blood and Honey also doesn’t quite work as being both an anti-war and love story, making it seem like a hard swing and a miss.

4.5 / 10

“So in this next scene, I want you to kill people. But also be sympathetic and sweet. Cool? Thanks.”

Photos Courtesy of: IndieWire

12 and Holding (2005)

Small towns are way too weird.

Jacob and Rudy (Conor Donovan) are identical twins, in terms of the way they look and sound (sort of), but they are different in their own ways. Rudy is far more outgoing and considered “the golden child”, whereas Jacob, mostly due to a birthmark covering a large portion of his face, is forced to mostly stay indoors and keep to himself. However, they both get along well enough to where they spend as much time together and even build a tree-house, for them and all their friends to hang. But disaster strikes one night when, after messing with some bullies, the tree-house is lit on fire, with Rudy inside, trapping him and, as a result, killing him. Now, it’s up to Jacob to take most of the attention from his brother and he uses that attention to make a name for himself. Meanwhile, Leonard (Jesse Camacho), another friend, is overweight and trying to lose it all, while Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum) tries to befriend an adult named Gus (Jeremy Renner), who is in town and doesn’t quite know what to make of this new friendship, as inappropriate as it may be.

Uh, like step away?

12 and Holding is another odd movie from the likes of writer/director Michael Cuesta and I mean that in the best way possible. Granted, compared to his debut, L.I.E., 12 and Holding doesn’t quite hit the same emotional notes, but it’s still interesting in that it focuses on a small, core group of people, gives them some development, a sense of conflict, and allows their stories to just be told to us. Sure, the stories don’t always work, but at least Cuesta’s trying something, right?

Well, yes. And no. Sort of.

See, one of the issues with 12 and Holding is that it tries a lot harder to be an outright comedy this go around, unlike L.I.E., that was far more serious and disturbing. There’s still that sense of dirt and grit here, but not nearly as in-your-face as it was with Cuesta’s debut; this time around, the disturbing-features are played up more for cringe-inducing and awkward laughs. Occasionally, Cuesta will hit a high spot for comedy, but often times, it can feel as if he’s maybe trying a tad too hard, as if the material itself wasn’t, on the surface, funny enough.

Which is odd to say, I know, considering that in the first 15 minutes, a kid literally gets burned-to-death, but still, you can tell Cuesta is going for the darker-laughs this time around and he doesn’t always hit his mark. He does develop these characters and give them enough to work with, however, he also can’t help but give us the occasional quirk, too. It would have helped if these quirks were, at some point, funny, but they aren’t and because of that, it can feel straining.

“So, how’s the food?”

That said, the drama still works and had the movie just been with that, then yeah, it probably would have been a slam-dunk.

If there’s one thing that Cuesta gets right, is the small-town, suburban malaise that, in a way, American Beauty dealt with. Sure, that movie did it a whole lot better and effortlessly, but 12 and Holding does something interesting in that it shows how grief messes with each and everyone of us, regardless of if we are willing to accept it or not. Cuesta shows that we all deal with it on our own terms and because of that, we act out in somewhat rather outlandish and insane ways; we can’t really diagnose it, or even excuse it, as it’s just in our human nature.

If anything, 12 and Holding is much more sad and depressing than anything, and had the movie focused on this much more, it would have been better. However, it didn’t and it dealt with comedy a tad too much. Still, the ensemble is pretty great with nearly all of the child and adult-performers putting in solid work. Perhaps the most shining star in the whole thing is Zoe Weizenbaum as Malee, the incredibly curious and sexually vivacious teen that makes a good half of this movie pretty uncomfortable. However, she’s so charming and lovely to watch, with Renner’s Gus helping out, too, that it makes these scenes go down a lot easier.

Not like L.I.E., of course, Nothing can quite be as disturbing and as off-putting as that.

Consensus: Uneven to a fault, 12 and Holding tries to be way too funny, when it probably didn’t need to, but still works as a small, sad and thought-provoking indie about small-towns and grief.

6 / 10

Gonna grow up to be some awfully weird adults. Just like the rest of us.

Photos Courtesy of: IFC Films

L.I.E. (2001)

Get out of Long Island the first thing you do.

Still affected by the death of his mother, Howie (Paul Dano) has been having a bit of a rough go at life, for the time being. His dad (Bruce Altman) doesn’t seem to get him and is too busy spending time with his new girlfriend, who Howie obviously detests, and his best-friend Gary (Adam LeFevre), who he also has a love for, plans on moving out of their small suburban town in hopes of achieving his dreams of being rich and famous. Howie wants to profess his love for Gary, but he finds it easier to just go around causing all sorts of shenanigans with him, like for instance, robbing random people’s houses. One person that they rob is Big John (Brian Cox) an older, very charming man who has a certain affinity for young boys and immediately takes a liking to Howie. The later, all confused as to who to love or care for, immediately takes to Big John, too, and they both forge something of a friendship that gets dangerously close to being something much more. But will the two take the plunge, or learn to just respect one another?

Did Howie get his candy yet? You know, like he was promised?!?

A part of me feels like a great deal of the positive reception and, dare I say it, hype around L.I.E. has to solely due with the fact that it was touching on some really disturbing taboos that no one could get away with. Sure, the movie got slapped with an NC-17 rating nonetheless, but mostly that was due to the fact that it dealt with homosexuality, pedophilia, and sex in general, all featuring characters who seemed to be clearly underage. You could make the argument that the movie’s just another case of Larry Clarke’s Kids, but that would actually be an insult to L.I.E.

This movie’s much more thoughtful, whereas Clarke’s was just over-the-top and disturbing, for the sake of being so.

But still, L.I.E. isn’t quite nearly as good as it should be. One of the main aspects holding it back is that it’s the directorial debut from Michael Cuesta and in ways, you can tell. The movie’s dark, dirty, gritty, and grainy look, while giving it a realistic-look and feel, also feels amateurish, especially when the movie decides to stylize itself up a bit more with random, floating montages. You could say that it’s “pretentious”, but it isn’t entirely; a good deal of the movie is small, contained and actually, subtle, but there’s the other deal that also seems like a first-time director having a bit too much fun with a budget and a script in his hands.

That said, when the movie does settle down, L.I.E. works as a thoughtful and smart character-study of two troubled people coming together in a surprisingly believable way. It helps that we get to know each character very well before they meet one another, however, it also helps that Cuesta was able to get both Brian Cox and a very young Paul Dano in these lead roles, because they don’t just work well together, but they are actually the heart and soul of the whole picture.

Which is saying something, considering that the movie itself is pretty damn dark.

Don’t do it! Or do. It’s okay!

As Big John, Cox has the really troubling job of making a despicable and disgusting character seem somewhat sympathetic. And well, it works – not only do you come to care for this heinous wreck-of-a-man, but you also actually seem to get charmed by him. A part of the charm is his act and how he reels people in, and Cox gets by on this in spades, while all still seeming like one creepy individual. There’s more to this character that, in all honesty, deserved to be explored, but as far as portraits of actual monsters go, Cox’s Big John remains one of the more fully-realized and well-done.

Which is a shame because despite him trying very hard, Dano’s Howie doesn’t quite resonate as much. See, one aspect behind Howie’s character is that he’s a whole bunch of things that teenagers at that age are; confused, naive, angry, upset, and constantly fluctuating between emotions and how it is that they feel at any given moment. We get to see a lot about Howie and Dano makes it all work, but then, Cuesta comes around to making there more to Howie, like how he writes poetry, understands certain pop-culture references, and watches old movies, that don’t quite work. The movie wants to make Howie more than he actually is – which is just another upset teenager – and because of that, it takes away from what was already a smart and understandable character to begin with.

Oh well. Both Dano and Cuesta would continue to go on and do much better.

Same is obviously said for Cox.

Consensus: By touching on some disturbing themes in a very in-your-face way, L.I.E. can often times seem a little cloying, but still works because of the smart, understated and thoughtful performances from both Dano and, especially, Cox.

6.5 / 10

Love at first face-piercing.

Photos Courtesy of: Alter Ego Entertainment

Year of the Dog (2007)

Save the animals. Don’t save yourself.

Peggy (Molly Shannon) seems to have a pretty normal and relatively safe life going for her. She’s surrounded by friends and family, as well as her beloved beagle that she cares for each and every chance she gets. She’s not married and doesn’t have any kids of her own, so basically, it’s her one and only responsibility. But after the beagle dies, Peggy soon begins to look for all sorts of ways to fill the void in her life. This leads her to getting involved with people she doesn’t quite care for, watching over her friends’ kids, and also doing other monotonous tasks that only a person in the sort of funk she’s in, would ever be bothered with. But then, Peggy gets the grand idea: “Save” all of the dogs in the world. Meaning, it’s time that she doesn’t just adopt one dog, or hell, even two, but maybe like, I don’t know, 15 at a time. Why, though? Is it grief? Or is just because Peggy literally wants to save every dog in the world and believes that she can, slowly by surely, dog-by-dog?

That’s how it all starts: With just one dog.

One of the great things about Mike White and his writing is that no matter how zany, or silly, or downright wacky his characters and their stories can get, he always has a certain love and respect that never seems to go away. In the case of the Year of the Dog, with Peggy, we see a generally goofy, sad, lonely little woman who seems like she could easily just be the punchline to every joke. And, for awhile at least, that’s what she is; Year of the Dog is the kind of movie that likes to poke fun at its main protagonist, while also realizing that there are people out there in the real world just like her and rather than making fun, maybe we should just accept them.

While, of course, also making jokes at their expense.

But still, that’s why White’s writing is so good here – he knows how to develop this character in small, interesting and actual funny ways, without ever seeming like he’s trying too hard. The comedy can verge on being “cringe”, but in a way, White actually dials it back enough to where we get a sense for the languid pacing and it actually works. We begin to realize that the movie isn’t really as slow, as much as it’s just taking its time, allowing us to see certain aspects of Peggy’s life and those around her.

Hey, guys! Here’s Peter Sarsgaard playing a normal human being! Wow!

It also helps give us more time to pay close-attention to Molly Shannon’s great work as Peggy, once again showing us why she’s one of the more underrated SNL talents to ever come around. It’s odd because when she was on that show, Shannon was mostly known for being over-the-top and crazy, but in almost everything that she’s touched since, including this, the roles have mostly stayed down-played and silent. You can almost sense that she’s maybe trying to prove a point, but you can also tell that she’s just genuinely trying to give herself a challenge as an actress and show the whole world what she can do.

And as Peggy, she does a lot, without it ever seeming like it. It’s a very small, subtle performance, but there’s a lot to watch here, what with the character’s constant quirks and oddities, making her actually a very compelling presence on the screen. We don’t know what she’s going to do next, or to whom, and for that, she’s always watchable and constantly keeping this movie interesting, even when it seems like nothing is happening.

But that’s sort of the beauty about a Mike White film: Nothing seems as if it’s happening, but in a way, everything is.

Consensus: With a solid lead performance from Shannon, Year of the Dog gets by despite some odd quirks, but also remembers to keep its heart and humor.

7 / 10

I think everyone aspires to have this car, with all these same types of furry friends in it.

Photos Courtesy of: Plan B Entertainment