Advertisements

Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

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

Category Archives: 7-7.5/10

The Transfiguration (2017)

An actual vampire in Brooklyn.

Milo (Eric Ruffin) is a troubled young teen living in Brooklyn. After he walked in on his mother’s dead body, he and his brother (Aaron Clifton Moten) are doing their best to get by. Milo spends most of his time reading, watching movies, and planning stuff in his countless notebooks, whereas as his brother, absolutely depressed, can’t seem to get off the couch for anything. Milo’s life is changed, however, when he meets a fellow troubled teen by the name of Sophie (Chloe Levine), who just moved in a few floors up with her grandmother. She’s already pretty messed-up, but the two find solace in their own little screwed-up lives, where they sit around, occasionally talking, drinking, reading, going to the beach, the amusement park, or just being in one another’s company. It’s actually very sweet, despite the fact that Milo also happens to be a vampire and needs to feast almost every other Wednesday, or else he’ll, as expected, die. Which may sound easy to find and do when you live in the hood, but believe it or not, it really isn’t.

Eat your heart out, Edward Cullen.

Writer/director Michael O’Shea pulls something off incredibly interesting here in that he combines elements of a hood movie, with a vampire-tale. And it’s kind of weird because even without all of the horror-stuff of Milo having to trap people, to find blood, and start chowing down, the movie’s already pretty scary and dangerous; just watching Milo get picked-on and teased by the local gangs is more than enough to create an air of tension. But nope, O’Shea doubles down and at times, it can almost be too much.

But when you’re doing a horror movie, isn’t that kind of the point?

Hell, isn’t that the point when you’re trying to make any sort of movie?

And with the Transfiguration, it’s a job well-done on O’Shea’s part because when he isn’t focusing on the hood, or horror elements, he’s focusing on these two, sad, lonely, and utterly depressed teens who couldn’t be any more adorable in their own misery. O’Shea isn’t afraid to keep things slow and mannered, giving us all we need to get to know and understand where these two kids come from, why they would ever become friends in the first place, and it grows us even closer to them. Cause we know that no matter how much fun they may have, falling in love and becoming the best of friends, we know that there’s always a world of violence, hurt, anger, depression, and oh yeah, vampires.

So young. So sad. So in love.

Like I said, it’s a bit too much and it can get a tad bit jumbled. But like I said, too, O’Shea doesn’t forget about the characters here and they’re the main reason why the Transfiguration works so well: They actually matter. Eric Ruffin is stunning as Milo, because he seems so creepy, so out-of-place, and so aloof, you couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. He’s a cute kid who you desperately want to love and adore, but there’s also a great deal of danger and weirdness to him that’s hard to look away from, or deny, and it takes over the role. Ruffin himself, as a young talent, does a lot with very little and it’s a solid showing on his part, never allowing us to fully trust or love this character, because we never fully know when the other shoe will drop and the fangs begin to show.

Chloe Levine is also equally as charming and lovable as Sophie, mostly because the movie never dumbs her down for our own sake. She’s screwed-up, a little crazy, and altogether twisted, but she’s also just in desperate need of a friend and her scenes with Ruffin never ring a false note. They have a sweet little bit of chemistry that feels honest and beautiful, which is a nice diversion to get away from the pain and destruction that takes over the rest of the movie.

But hey, it goes to show you that the best horror, whether all that scary or not, always works best when there’s actual emotion behind it all.

Consensus: Though it jumbles a bit much, the Transfiguration is an interesting, compelling, well-acted, and altogether upsetting piece of horror that also doubles as an effective coming-of-ager, set in the harshest and most unforgiving of lands.

7.5 / 10

Yup. Not weird at all.

Photos Courtesy of: Transfiguration Prods.

Advertisements

Mayhem (2017)

The higher-ups just need to know what they’re dealing with.

Derek Cho (Steven Yeun) is having a pretty crappy day. After being unjustly fired from his job, he discovers that the law firm’s building is under quarantine for a mysterious and dangerous virus, in which people start acting out in violent ways and killing one another, but for some reason, no cause for punishment is to be found. So Derek, who now has the virus, begins to act out too, taking down people who have done him wrong and have pissed him off to the high heavens, with the FBI outside, trying their best to contain the violence to this one firm’s building. And along with co-worker Melanie (Samara Weaving), Derek plans on attacking and taking down the executives, once and for all. Issue is, they’re on the top floor and it’s going to take a whole lot of violence to wade through, just to get to one of them, let alone all of them.

Level up. Get ready…

Mayhem is a crazy movie, but it’s also actually grounded enough in reality to where it works better than you might expect. Director Joe Lynch seems to take this idea of absolute and total carnage, but rather than just trying to one-up himself, each and every chance he gets, he actually gives us a story, with characters, and a real sense of tension in the air. It’s not just sick, disgusting, and sometimes disturbing violence, for the sake of shock-value, but sick, disgusting and disturbing violence, with a reason and a cause.

Which is, yes, to disgust us. But it works.

Lynch and co-writer Matias Caruso also do something else smart with Mayhem in that they set all of the carnage and brutality in a world that isn’t too unlike ours. While the mayhem-inducing virus itself, may be a bit silly, the movie uses it as a way to act out all of its craziest, most violent fantasies of taking down the higher-ups within a corporation, who don’t care one bit about the bottom or those below them – instead, they’re just more concerned with more money, more power, and more control, regardless of who they stop on, or kill, when they’re up to the top. In the context of what Mayhem is doing, this is actually taking literally and because of that, the movie feels a lot more honest and realistic than you’d expect.

It’s still over-the-top and crazy, but it is, once again, grounded to give it a sense of time and place. Also, not to mention that the violence is pretty crazy and fun, making Mayhem a nutty movie that has some social-context, but also doesn’t spend too much time preaching, but instead, just chopping all sorts of limbs off. It’s not afraid to get weirder, deeper, and darker, and it’s a brave take on this kind of a movie that we’ve seen many times before, but in this case, doesn’t feel like a drab.

Take. Them. Down.

Not unlike the Belko Experiment, which was already way too depressing for its own good.

It’s also nice to see Steven Yeun get a leading-role like this immediately after his stint on the Walking Dead. As a Korean-American actor working in Hollywood, it will be interesting to see where Yeun’s career goes; he fits perfectly both as a supporting-player, but also, as we see here, a rather rough and tough leading-man who has charm and bravado, sometimes in the same scene. There’s some depth to this character, but Yeun generally seems to be embrace this character’s more sinister-themes lying underneath everything else.

Same goes for Samara Weaving who, from what I’ve seen so far, is becoming more and more of a powerful and likable presence on the screen. She’s absolutely beautiful, but she’s also the kind of beauty that isn’t afraid to dirty herself up, play around with her image, and get down in the mud, to roll around a bit. Here, she has to play something of a stickler that begins to lose her uptightness and just let loose, and it works – she’s lovely, charming, sweet, but also a little scary.

In other words, a dangerous beauty. So look out, people.

Consensus: While it is no doubt a nutty movie, Mayhem also brings in some social-context to go hand-in-hand with all of the violence and over-the-top features.

7 / 10

What happens when you literally mean “unpaid intern.”

Photos Courtesy of: RLJE Films

Beach Rats (2017)

Some places are still behind with the times.

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is just another young teenager, living in Brooklyn, with his mom, his sister, and his dying father, aimlessly getting by another summer. He spends most of his time with his friends, drinking, smoking, running around, playing hand-ball, and generally just doing whatever it is young guys do nowadays. Frankie also has something of a girlfriend (Madeline Weinstein), who he doesn’t quite know if he wants to make into something more seriously, or just keep doing whatever it is that he’s doing. Cause whenever no one is looking and he’s all by himself, Frankie also likes to go on men-only chat-rooms, find men, talk to them, meet up with them, and oh yeah, hook up. It’s something that Frankie is still confused about, but it’s also something that he’s doing his best to keep to himself, particularly because his friends would probably hate him and his girlfriend would break up with him. But honestly, Frankie doesn’t know what he wants yet.

Boo ya sell-out!

As she did with her first movie (It Felt Like Love), Eliza Hittman perfectly captures the teenager’s gaze, where everything surrounding you is big, bright, beautiful, shocking, and surprising. While her direction is definitely aimless and in ways, a little meandering, it’s worked for her so far because she’s getting us inside the heads of these young characters, who don’t really know or understand the world quite around them just yet, but look and listen to everything with amateurish eyes and ears. It’s a brave directorial-style to work with, but especially so since this is her second flick so far and shows that she’s got a niche and going to stick to it.

Does it help that her story is a little wonky?

Probably not, but Hittman’s able to get past that, cause Beach Rats is less about the story, the twists, and the turns, as much as it’s about the mood, the look, and the overall feel. The constant images flowing past our eyes, while carefully crafted and put together, also feel a little random, but work; putting is closer in the mind-set of it being summer, where anything and everything is possible. It’s a moody flick, for sure, but it’s the kind of mood that has you longing for youth, while also hating youth, too.

So yeah, it works like that.

It’s okay. Make-out with that dude. Please.

But no matter what happens with the story, Harris Dickinson is pretty great and it’s through him that Hittman is able to get the most mileage out of this movie. Dickinson, despite being British, fits into this role perfectly; he’s hunky, chiseled, handsome, and ridiculously masculine, just like the guys around him. But he’s also rather sweet and sensitive, and Dickinson shows us a real raw and sympathetic edge to a character who could have easily been conventional and boring. Rather than just turning out to being the self-loathing guy gay who acts out violently because he doesn’t want to like what he likes, he turns into a much more sad character who doesn’t know what he wants to be and is constantly being told to look, or be in one way that he can’t quite relate to just yet.

It’s a smart direction from Hittman, but an even smarter performance from Dickinson, because they both cancel each other out. We never know exactly what he’s thinking, or what’s going through his head, but his body-language shows it all. Hittman seems to love and respect this character, warts and all, and it helps us see him for just another lonely, confused, and rather depressed kid who’s constantly having to hang out with all of these rough, tough dudes, when in reality, he just wants to be himself.

Damn. Growing up sucks. But being young is even worse. Glad I’m past that.

Consensus: Not much of a real story, Beach Rats plays out more like a compelling mood-piece, capturing youth, angst, and self-identity, with a great performance from Harris Dickinson in the lead.

7 / 10

Put a shirt on dammit! Making us all look bad!

Photos Courtesy of: NEON

Novitiate (2017)

Trust in God. Not the nuns. They’re a little mean.

Once she turns 17, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) decides that it’s time to leave her old life behind and join the Catholic Church to become a nun. It’s a decision that her mother (Julianne Nicholson), who is agnostic, doesn’t quite understand or fully support, but she doesn’t have much of a say in the matter – Cathleen believes that she’s had a calling from Jesus and has fallen in love with him. Cathleen enters a Catholic convent as a postulant under the tutelage of the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who is known for her passion and grace in the world of religion. While there, Cathleen meets fellow nuns who are doing their best to stick with it, even if the responsibilities and rules are quite demanding and not all that understandable. But specifically at this point in time, during the early-60’s, the Catholic Church itself was going through a bit of a change, what with the planned reforms of the Second Vatican Council, in which the Church would show a much more open and accepting image to all those who wanted to have faith in God. Most within the Church got behind these rules right away, whereas Reverend Mother doesn’t, fearing that it may change the community forever and for the worst.

Still looks like Andie Macdowell, in a nun outfit.

Novitiate doesn’t necessarily come off as a scathing indictment on the Catholic Church, or even faith in general, and it’s much better off for that. Writer/director Maggie Betts, making her directorial debut, seems to understand and respect those who actually fall in love with God, or whoever they praise, are willing to throw their whole lives completely away, and devote everything to prayer, abstinence, and spreading the good word of the Lord. While it may sound like a boring life to a normal layman, to those who are involved with the Church, it’s the greatest honor they can bestow and Betts doesn’t seem to be making fun of these people, as much as she easily could have.

Instead, she shows a certain sweetness to these people who devote their lives to God. But then again, she also realizes that there are a few bad apples who either, misinterpret the word of God and act out in heinous ways, or can’t keep up with their sacred notions and never seem to give up. Betts seems to be saying that while having God in your life can be a good thing, having it run your each and everyday life, isn’t, and it can drive people to pure insanity.

And as we all know, living in the world that we live in, this isn’t much of a stretch for Betts to make.

That said, Novitiate is an overall smart movie that doesn’t necessarily have an agenda, but shows us the Catholic Church during a transnational period, that they don’t even know or understand is quite as severe as it’s going to be. It’s not necessarily a stylish, or fully exciting movie – there’s a lot of walking, praying, sitting in silence, crying, and hushed-tones – but the movie creates a certain uneasiness just by doing this, that it’s easy to get compelled by. The movie is deathly serious and understated, therefore, never quite goes overboard or as insane as you’d expect it to be with some of these religious types, and it feels a lot more realistic for that. It’s less of a sympathetic-portrait of the Catholic Church, and much more of a humane one, where we see all the good, as well as the bad, within it.

Uh oh. Someone’s talking during prayers.

The only pure instances in which the movie goes slightly a bit overboard is with Melissa Leo’s performance as Reverend Mother, but it still works. Leo’s presence here is a little shocking because you can always tell that she’s about to crack loose, but because she’s a nun and has to set a good example for the fellow nuns out there, she has to stay cool, calm, and collected. There are instances in which we see Leo lose all control and it’s scary, but not in the horror movie kind-of-way – it just seems like a person slowly losing grips with her own form of reality, and coming to terms with the all-too real one.

It’s a scary and powerful performance, and from Leo, I wouldn’t expect much different.

Everybody else is quite good in this supporting-cast, but really, it’s Margaret Qualley who remains the heart and soul of the whole project. As Cathleen, Qualley gives us a sad, somewhat scared character who keeps to herself, but is so in love with God and the Jesus, she can’t hold it all in. Through Cathleen, we see just how one can misinterpret The Word and it’s Qualley that keeps us on-edge, not knowing whether she’s going to crack and lose all control, or if she’s going to stay her meek and mild self. Through it all, we still sympathize with her; we know that she means well and even if she is throwing her life away, it’s her life to throw away. We just want her to realize that there’s more to life than the Church and to stand outside, in the real world, if only for a bit.

Consensus: Slow and a little languid, Novitiate surely follows its own pace, but is also a well-acted and compelling look at the Catholic Church, that’s neither judging, nor entirely sympathetic. Just honest and realistic.

7.5 / 10

“God? You spoke to Madonna. Why can’t you speak to me?”

Photos Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Classic

Brigsby Bear (2017)

Some shows we just never want to end. Looking at you, Freaks & Geeks.

For as long as he can remember, James Pope (Kyle Mooney)’s life has been run on “Brigsby Bear Adventures”, a children’s program that teaches James about recycling and not masturbating more than twice a day. Weird stuff like that, but hey, James loves it so much that he doesn’t care or even see the weird message. Then, the series abruptly ends and James doesn’t know what to do with himself. And to make matters even worse, he’s moved into a new house, with a new family, and doesn’t quite know how to fit in with the rest of the world around him. Still though, everybody pretty much already accepts him for what he is and they decide that it’s time to help James finish up Brigsby’s final adventure. James hopes it will bring him some closure on the TV series, whereas everybody else hopes that it will allow him to move on and come to terms with the real world.

Blow it up, Brigs!

So yeah, I’m being a little coy about Brigsby Bear because there are some parts of the plot that are kept secret and with good reason: It’s dark. But in a way, it’s shocking and it works; it gives you the idea that this movie’s going to go far and beyond just being another silly, over-the-top indie-comedy about a childish man-baby trying to finish off the final episode to a cult-followed TV show.

It also helps allow for there to be real some tension in the air, even when in reality, there isn’t. There aren’t bad people, or insanely good people in Brigsby Bear and it’s kind of sweet. It’s the kind of movie that cares much more about characters, their relationships to one another, and how they treat the outside world, as opposed to just being all about the plot and riffing on everyday life. Had this movie been taken in the hands of someone like Will Ferrell or Steve Carrel, who knows how centered and focused it would have been.

But without them, and instead, with Kyle Mooney, it’s much far better off.

Never break character.

And that’s why Brigsby Bear, while it could have easily just been a spin-off of Mooney doing goofy and crazy things, like he does on SNL, it’s much different. He has this character that, despite having the general facade of being a weirdo, is actually kind, earnest, and so innocent, he could literally kill a cat and you wouldn’t be upset with him. He’s just getting used to a new world and it’s Mooney’s performance that really works wonders, enthusing a great air of mystery of this character, but also a great deal of sympathy too.

And of course, the same sentiments transcend to the rest of the characters, too. Matt Walsh is funny as the dorky dad who tries to relate to James; Michaela Watkins does the same; Claire Danes, playing probably anything resembling a villain here, is fun to watch; Greg Kinnear’s nice cop role gets better once we discover he’s got a bit of the acting bug; Ryan Simpkins plays James’ sister who seems like she’s going to be an embarrassed pain in the rear-end, but eventually lightens up; Jorge Lendeborg Jr. plays one of James’ friends who seems lik he’s going to be a deuche, only to then not be and probably be the best character in it all; and Mark Hamill and Jane Adams, well, the less said about them, perhaps the better.

Either way, just know that they’re all good, because they’re given characters to work with and not just the sitcom-y kind, either.

Real people, who also seem to be kind of funny to watch.

Consensus: A little odd, but overall, Brigsby Bear is a very funny, sweet, and well-acted comedy that actually takes its time to work.

7 / 10

Brigsby’s mid-life existence.

Photos Courtesy of: Sony Pictures Classics

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Who gave Kevin Feige acid?

The God of Thunder, also known as Thor (Chris Hemsworth), after finding out that he and his evil adopted-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), have an evil older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett) that they never knew a thing about, is sent away to an awful planet where all of the universe’s trash and undesirables are dropped off and sometimes, even sold. Thor becomes one of those items and is forced to face-off against an old pal of his, Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who, after leaving the rest of the Avengers to fend for themselves over two years ago, has been hulking out, beating the crap out of all sorts of foes. But Thor thinks that he can get through to Hulk and, hopefully, bring him back to Asgard, so that they can take down Hela, as powerful as she may be. Of course, though, Thor’s going to need some more help than just a Hulk. This leads him to Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), a bad-ass bounty hunter who gives a Thor a run for his money, in terms of fighting and drinking, but also in the ways of the heart.

Brotherly love.

Ragnarok is probably one of the weirder Marvel movies out there, which I don’t say lightly. The first Guardians of the Galaxy and even to a certain extent, the sequel, were both so incredibly odd and crazy, that they almost didn’t feel like products of a huge corporation, made for the sole sake of mass-consumption. In ways, they were original and electrifying enough to stand on their own terms and not just be another installment to the already-expanded Marvel Universe that we hear way too much of.

But yes, Ragnarok comes pretty close to being even weirder and it’s both great, as well as a little disappointing. It’s great because it shows that even with a character like Thor who, in all respects, may be the least interesting Avenger of the bunch, can actually have his story told and go to crazy lengths that we don’t expect. Due to Ragnarok being set in the galaxy, where everything is already nutty and wild, director Taika Waititi, who is already an inspired-choice, gets the opportunity to go as far and as deep into this insanity as he wants.

Which is great and all because the movie’s funny.

Like, really funny.

“Uh, yeah. Like, Thor, uh, you’re a uh, you know, pretty crazy guy.”

And it’s why the one-half of Ragnarok works so well; it’s not afraid to be silly, weird and meandering, even when we know that there’s a story to be told and a much bigger-universe out there. Most of the humor and fun of the movie comes from just making fun of these characters, their characteristics, and how exactly they’re all just a bunch of comic-book characters, literally made to function as fully-dimensional human beings. It’s a joke in the sense that it’s not really a joke, because it’s all taken seriously and still gives us glimpses of actual character-development, but man, it can be so funny to watch.

But then, the other-half of Ragnarok, the one that takes primarily on Ragnarok, is a bit of a bummer. And it’s not like bits and pieces of this half aren’t interesting and/or fun to watch – watching Cate Blanchett vamp and go way over-the-top is more than worth the price of admission – but it’s so slow and expository, it just feels like a bit of a drag. All we really want to do is get back to Thor, Hulk, and whatever the hell Jeff Goldbum is, because they’re where the real party is at.

However, you also can’t fault the movie all that much because they sort of get this idea real quick and decide to keep things with Thor for a good portion. It makes sense why we have all of this villain-building, but it could have done better. That, and also, the Thor-stuff is just so much fun that we almost never want to leave it.

It’s just a weird and crazily fun time. Something I don’t say too often when it comes to Marvel movies.

Consensus: Not afraid to get a little weird and silly, Ragnarok proves why we deserve to see Thor’s story again, with a great bit of fun, exciting supporting-players to keep things always entertaining.

7.5 / 10

LET. THEM. FIGHT.

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

City of Ghosts (2017)

We. Need. Journalists.

A bunch of Syrian rebels who call themselves “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” risk their lives to document the atrocities committed by ISIS in their homeland. And what happens next is that not only do their guerrilla-style journalistic-ways get the rest of the world to notice just what the hell is going, what ISIS is all about, and what’s to come of many more cities/countries to come, is that their lives are put in-danger. After all, ISIS’ big support is social-media and the persona that they have created heaven on Earth – distort that in any way, or basically, tell the truth, then they will find you, hunt you down, and kill you. It’s why the original-members/editor-in-chiefs of RBSS have to be constantly aware of their surroundings, at all times, and not necessarily sure of what’s to come next with their lives. But at the end of the day, it’s all for a good-cause, but at a cost.

“Can you cut-off another limb, please? Didn’t get a good shot of it the first time around. Thanks.”

I’m a little torn by City of Ghosts because while I’m happy that director Matthew Heineman was able to make a movie about citizen-journalists, doing their jobs, but also doing it for the better of the world to come, it also feels a tad bit messy. It’s the kind of movie that wants to make a statement about how awful and evil ISIS is and, if we don’t wake up sooner or later, then they may become more of a threat than we could have ever imagine, but at the same time, also talk about these journalists and their lives. Neither viewpoint is wrong to be focused on, but in the same movie?

It kind of doesn’t work.

And it’s why City of Ghosts, while I appreciate the story it is highlighting, the subjects, and its cause, as one whole production, it can’t help but feel like it’s attempting to do a few things at once. There’s no denying that Heineman himself keeps things moving, interesting, informative, and most importantly, compelling, but even he struggles a bit with what, or whom, to focus on. The editor-in-chiefs of RBSS are worth spending a whole movie about, which is what Heineman does; he sees these people as nearly flawless, yet fragile human beings who are willing to risk it all, for the sole sake of informing the world. They deserve our tribute and Heineman, while not one for shying away from the ugly details of their sacrifices, also can’t help but paint these fellas as true angels of the world.

Just an everyday guy here, people. Nothing to see.

That’s okay, though, because they deserve it. What they probably don’t deserve is a movie that seems to want to also talk a whole lot more about ISIS, too, but just doesn’t know how to do so in a cohesive manner. And I get that it’s a rough trick to pull-off; being a history-lesson about ISIS, their origins, and just what the hell they are, is a whole lot more extensive, than just focusing on a news organization and its members. But like I said before, together, it just doesn’t quite work out.

Still, it deserves to be seen. Not because it’s a movie about the evil sadists that are ISIS, but because it’s a movie about good journalists, doing good work, reporting on news, sharing everything to the whole world, and oh yeah, not being made-out to be liars or “fake news”.

And this is all in 2017, people. Just take note of that.

Consensus: The two story-strands of City of Ghosts doesn’t fully come together, but as a look at journalism done right, in today’s day and age, it deserves to be seen.

7 / 10

But seriously: F**k ISIS.

Photos Courtesy of: Amazon Studios

Wheelman (2017)

Just drive. And don’t ever get out.

A getaway driver (Frank Grillo) is hired to do a job that consists of picking up two random criminals, who aren’t the best sort to have around. But the driver doesn’t care about that because he’s just in it for the money, so that he can, hopefully, save his marriage and keep his daughter from getting taken away from him. But as expected, the job that he takes ends up not working out and now, all of a sudden, he’s on-the-run, with the police, as well as these baddies, after him and looking to get rid of him, any way that they can.

And yup. I think that’s about it.

Still should have been the Punisher in my eyes. Oh well.

Wheelman is a lot like Locke, in that it’s all presented in real-time, takes place mostly within the confides of a car, and deals with a lot of talking. Sure, it’s a lot dumber and more action-packed than the later, but what the former gets correct is that it knows how to keep the tension going, without ever showing us everything. Most movies, especially action-thrillers, tend to forget that, often times, simply hearing or imagining something happening off-screen is far more compelling and exciting than having to always see it, in all its finest glory.

Granted, that’s not a rule that every film has to follow, but it’s one that Wheelman follows mostly throughout and because of that, it’s a lot smarter than what we’re used to seeing.

It’s still a B-movie, through and through. But a good one, at that. It knows what it is, it doesn’t make amends for itself, and just continues to get going and moving, at a rapid-fire pace, never really settling in on one plot-development too much, and always giving us a great idea of where we’re heading. Sure, it’s about a guy driving around, trying not to get killed by a bunch of faceless, and sometimes, nameless figures, but the movie always keeps us along for the ride. There’s a small sense of dread, but there’s always a breath of fresh air and excitement to be had and that is, above all else, nice.

“Frank Grillo with a gun”, is a lot more scarier than “Frank Grillo without a gun.” But it’s still pretty intimidating either way.

Writer/director Jeremy Rush deserves to be commended for his skills here because he knows what he’s making and gives it to us, without trying too hard to go deeper. Wheelman does eventually attempt to throw Frank Grillo’s family in the mix and while it may feel a tad bit obvious and unneeded, it doesn’t take down the whole movie. If anything, it’s an extra strand of plot that Rush himself probably thought that he needed, but honestly, really didn’t.

All it really needed to do was depend on Grillo, doing what he does best: Acting like a bad-ass.

And considering that the whole 80 minutes of Wheelman are spent with Grillo, it’s great that we get so much time to spend with him and realizing that he is one of the better actors out there today. As we’ve seen before in other movies, or the unfortunately just-ended Kingdom, Grillo plays these rough, gruff, tough, and rather angry guys, but he isn’t also afraid to give them a sense of vulnerability, either. He understands and knows that what makes most of these bad-asses tick and feel real, is that they actually do have a heart, soul, and tender soft-spot in their bodies. They don’t have to be crying at SPCA commercials, but they just need to have a little some form of humanity to make them not only compelling, but at the very least, sympathetic. Grillo does all of that here and we, as well as the movie itself, are much better for it.

We need him in more stuff. Please.

Consensus: Without trying too hard to be something that it isn’t, Wheelman is a fun, fast, and relatively tense B-movie.

7 / 10

“Come sail away! Come sail away with me, lads!”

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

Alps (2011)

We all get the grief we think we deserve.

A bunch of free-spirited and desperate actors get together and form something of an acting coalition. In it, they’ll impersonate dead people, for the living family-member’s who are left to pay for this kind of service. It’s made to help out with the grieving process and for awhile, that’s all it seems to be. It’s a little weird and creepy, but most people seem to be getting stuff out of it, so there’s no problem with that, right? Unfortunately, it all begins to change when even the actors start to lose loved-ones and begin using the same business, to help out their own grieving-process. Others, like a gymnast (Ariane Labed), go so far as to completely inhabit their “roles”, almost to the point of where they can’t really decipher between what their actual lives are, or what are the lives they’re being paid to live and reenact are.

Fix that mascara, girl! Get in the role!

They say that half of comedy, isn’t the joke, or even the meaning, but more of timing. And if that’s the case, then co-writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos has perhaps the most wicked sense of comedic-timing ever seen. Sure, his jokes, what they mean, and what they represent, are dark, messed-up, cruel, and generally upsetting, but the way in which he tells each and every joke, where the jokes are placed, how they come-up, and the general feel of the jokes, are what matters most and where he is at his most effective.

And with Alps, Lanthimos never once forgets to make every joke land and connect. Sure, it’s funny as is, the jokes themselves, but really, it’s his timing that’s a thing of beauty and puts it beyond just normal, everyday humor – it’s much more subversive and, in a way, brilliant. Does that make Alps, as a result, a great movie?

Well, not really.

It’s definitely funny and what Lanthimos is trying to get across with his many jokes, is smart and interesting, but at the end of it all, it is just a one-joke premise and movie. It talks about and even pokes a lot of fun at the grieving-process, the lies we tell ourselves to get over loss, and how it doesn’t really matter whether that person is lost or not, because we’ll always find ways to forget about them, or better yet, replace them, and it’s smart with it. Lanthimos isn’t afraid to mock ordinary life and make us not just laugh at ourselves, but hate ourselves at the same time.

Method?

It’s quite brilliant, like I said before, but really, it’s all that Alps can handle and maintain throughout its very short run-time of 90-minutes. And with those 90 minutes, all we really get is the same joke, over and over again, although, of course, with different iterations each and every time. It still works and oh yes, is very funny, but that’s all it is: Jokes. Again and again.

Is there any heart? Not really and that’s probably where the one issue comes from.

Of course, Lanthimos isn’t setting out to make a heartfelt, or even sweet tale of regret, grief, and loss, but it definitely wouldn’t have hurt, either. To just have your movie being darkness and subversiveness, throughout the whole time, honestly, can only go on for so long. The only idea of a sense of conflict we get is guessing who is paying for this service, who isn’t, and just whether or not what we are seeing is actually a joke, or not. It’s interesting, sure, but if that’s all you’ve got, there needs to be a tad bit more. And it’s not as if I’m the kind of movie-viewer who can’t handle disturbing stuff like this – trust me, I’ve seen far, far worse – but really, there comes a point in the movie where there’s no real plot, no real conflict, or even any real movement.

It’s just one joke, again and again, told in different forms, ways, shapes, or fashions.

It’s a good way to spend a stand-up bit. But for a whole movie? Not really.

Consensus: While poking fun at grief and loss in a very funny, almost too disturbing way and manner, Alps gets by on being original and quite different, but also feels a tad bit too long because of the limitations of the material itself.

7 / 10

Always hug it out. Even if it is with your pretend-relative.

Photos Courtesy of: Haos Film

Prince of Broadway (2008)

Who needs to be the King?

In New York City’s Flatiron District, Lucky (Prince Adu), newly arrived from Ghana, hocks fake designer products out of back rooms with his partner, Levon (Karren Karagulian) and seems to be making something of a living with it. Even though his living-quarters have him spaced to just one tiny room and the business itself can be very dangerous, what with the feds constantly sniffing around, Lucky seems to be doing fine enough as is and not really having to worry about much in his life. But then, it all changes when his toddler son comes to live with him – the same son he had no idea really existed, until a former-flame of his can’t handle the child anymore and basically just drops him off on Lucky’s doorstep. Lucky isn’t ready for this and he doesn’t quite know what to do, and after a few attempts to pawn the child off on somebody else to make their responsibility, Lucky realizes that it’s up to him to take care of the child. He does, however, it all comes at a cost.

Daddy knows best. Especially with the coats.

As usual, Sean Baker takes a look at the small working-class of America and doesn’t ever seem to lose sight of the realism. In Prince of Broadway, what’s so interesting about Baker’s approach to the material is that he could have easily made this into a sort of broad comedy, with wacky hijinx and silliness abound, like how, for instance, Lucky can’t really father this child and doesn’t know much of anything. Actually, you know what? That sort of does happen here.

But it’s done in such a smart way that you almost never know. Baker starts off with a conventional plot-line about a long, lost father trying to take care of his child the best way that he knows how, and while you can tell that it’s going to be all easy yucks and jokes, eventually, it turns into something far more serious and meaningful. Sure, it’s funny to laugh at Lucky for being ill-equipped at this whole father-thing, but it’s also nice to see him grow into something of a loving, caring, adoring, and passionate father who does what he can, for the kid he hardly knows.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg with Prince of Broadway, which is also a bit of a problem.

Can’t even walk? Ugh! Long way to go!

See, so many of Baker’s films are best when he’s sort of just coasting his movies along, not really giving us a plot, nor demanding anything of us, either – he just wants our attention and to never have our eyes wander away from what’s going on. It’s how Baker does best and I think it goes without saying that, often times, it seems like plot may not be his best thing. In the case of Prince of Broadway, this seems especially clear; the whole subplot concerning Lucky and his boss, while well-done, also seem to pad the movie’s run-time a lot longer than it probably needed to. Baker is clearly making a statement about the United States cracking down on the everyday, normal American citizen just trying to make ends meet, by any means, but it seems a tad preachy and a little bit murky, considering we get so much other stuff with Lucky and his kid.

But at the center of all this, is Prince Adu as Lucky who not only gives us a very charismatic performance, but the kind that would make someone a star. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened just yet for Prince Adu, but if that doesn’t ever happen, it’s okay, because his role as Lucky proves that the guy has the chops to be both funny and a little sad, sometimes, in the same scene. Baker doesn’t really demand much of Adu, but he’s willing to give both Baker and the movie, more than they probably bargained for.

Damn. I wish this guy did more.

Consensus: Prince of Broadway gets bogged-down a bit in plot, but still benefits from a heartfelt, lovely, and compelling story of a father coming to terms with his life and responsibilities, without ever seeming all that ham-fisted.

7.5 / 10

Man Push Baby Cart.

Photos Courtesy of: Elephant Eye Films

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

Paris was burning.

Marsha P. Johnson was a legend in the transgender world. She was loud, flamboyant, proud, and not afraid to speak her mind when it came time to. She wasn’t a revolutionary in the sense that she fought day and night for her community’s rights, as much as she stood side-by-side the many others who were there with her, hoping and wishing that one day, America would fess-up to realizing that transgender person’s rights matter. But sadly, Marsha’s life came to a tragic end when her body was found floating in the Hudson River. While nobody really had any clues just yet, the NYPD jumped on it real quick and determined that it was clearly the case of a “suicide”. Why? And with what evidence? Turns out, none. In fact, many years later, Marsha’s death is still a mystery and it’s one that old friend of Marsha’s, Victoria Cruz will spend the remainder of her days, invesitagating and uncovering as the tragedy that it was.

And now we bring Native Americans into this situation!

I’m a tad torn about Marsha P. Johnson, the movie, because while I agree with everything it says, presents and ultimately ends on, it also feels like a bit of a mess. On one hand, it’s this true-crime, murder-mystery tale of a botched investigation, conspiracies, and possible links to a mob. That right there is already interesting and more than enough to fill a whole movie.

However, that’s not where it stops.

Instead, we continue on to focus on, obviously, Marsha’s life. Then, we begin to focus on those who knew and loved Marsha, their trials and tribulations. Okay, fine. Then, we get a bunch of information about the gay-community leading up to Marsha’s death and how it was all being ran and funded by the mob. It’s a lot for one movie to take in and it’s why Marsha P. Johnson can’t help but feel like it’s got a tad too much on its plate.

But then, at the center of it all, is this notion that Marsha’s life wasn’t just one, but many, many others who were just like her; sad, lonely, and confused, but fully in-love with herself regardless of the constant scrutiny she may have faced in her life. Director David France is able to cobble-up a lot of footage from Marsha, over the years and growing up, but really, it’s the fact that Marsha represents the lives of many transgender people in this country, as well as many others; like her, they too may not have the right time or place to actually come out and be themselves, so they wait patiently for that day to come.

The 70’s did have a certain style to it.

But when they do, do their lives get any better?

Marsha P. Johnson is an emotional movie when it shows how much the LGBT community has suffered throughout the years and for literally no reason. It’s understandable to be enraged by this story and its overall outcome, which is probably the feeling France was going for. After all, this isn’t something that happens every so often – it’s nearly every day. It’s ridiculous, awful and yes, above all else, sad. When will it end, people?

But like I said before, the movie’s heart and emotion is clearly here and it almost never goes away, even though it does falter and hide a bit here and there. This, though, has mostly to do with France’s busy direction and the overall fact that he doesn’t quite know how to stick with one angle or story-strand. His approach to this material is the same kind of crazy scattered-board that we see cops use to track down serial-killers who have been alluding them for way too long – it’s sort of all over-the-place, with one clear goal in the middle, but everything else connecting to it is just so darn much to take in and comprehend. But once again, it’s a story about the rights of a human being being violated.

And why? I think we all unfortunately know the answer. So if anything, see it for Marsha and the countless other people just like her. They all deserve so much better than any of us can give them.

Consensus: While the direction may be a bit too sporadic, Marsha P. Johnson focuses in on its total subject and gives us a sad, but hopefully empowering tale.

7 / 10

We’re sorry, Marsha. Rest in piece.

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix

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

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

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

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

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

Little Evil (2017)

Every dad gets static from their kids. Especially the ones that aren’t even their DNA.

Gary (Adam Scott) is doing the best that he can as step-dad to Lucas (Owen Atlas), but as most step-dads know, it’s not all that easy. For one, he loves Lucas’ mother (Evangeline Lilly), but also knows how hard it is to compete with the father of Lucas, whoever the hell he may be. Also though, Lucas may be, what we call, “evil”. In fact, literally so. It gets quite scary for Gary, who does whatever he can to connect to the kid and become something of a father-figure, but for some reason, it just doesn’t seem to work – there’s something about Lucas that is weird and dangerous. It’s something that Gary, along with a fellow league of bewildered step-dads investigate just to find out what’s really going on Lucas’ head and whether or not he can be saved/helped. But when someone’s possibly the descendant of the Antichrist, it’s very hard to save them.

Yup. Toates normal.

Like, at all.

A few years ago, writer/director Eli Craig made a snappy, funny, and intelligent little horror-comedy called Tucker and Dale v. Evil. It’s hard to say what was so genius about it, other than that it turned the horror-genre on its ears and used a one-joke premise to its fullest extreme. Just when you thought the movie was done making jokes at its own expense and was going to run out of stuff to do, say, or even work with, guess what? It went that extra mile. But it was also funny, too, and not in that kind of smarmy, look-at-me kind of way – it was a genuinely funny and interesting horror-comedy that kind of had something to say, but better yet, had something to do.

Which is why Little Evil still kind of works, but seven years later, also can’t help but feel like a bit of disappointment.

It’s still a funny movie, though. Like Tucker and Dale, it’s very much a one-note premise that constantly reinvents itself in goofy, even wackier ways that honestly didn’t even seem imaginable. Craig seems to be parodying the Omen, and other “demon-child” movies, but also seems to be having a good time exploring the facts of life when it comes to being a step-father.

Which is to say that the movie has a heart and something on its mind, although, by the same token, doesn’t go as far as it possibly wants to, or even should. It’s literally under 90 minutes, and because of that, it can’t help but feel a little too quick, a little too swift, and most of all, a little too rushed. It’s still funny, with the jokes both making fun of the premise, as well as benefiting from, working, but there’s still something there just not fully connecting. Don’t know what it is, but yeah, you can sort of feel it.

But then again, the ensemble is so much fun to watch and be around that, at the end of the day, does it even matter?

With a mother like that, would a demon-child even matter?

Adam Scott, as usual, plays a perfect every-man as Gary, the stepdad who tries so desperately to be loved and respected by his stepson, yet, just can’t seem to catch a break. There’s some heartbreak to be had there with what I just said, but the movie doesn’t bother to go as deep as it probably wants to – Scott does, though, and it’s why, the performance comes off any better than it probably should have. He’s funny and knows when to tell the best joke, but there’s something deeper and darker there that makes the movie a bit more interesting, rather than just being a barrel of silly jokes about demons and children.

As his wife, Evangeline Lilly is charming and as cute-as-a-button, as usual, whereas Owen Atlas, when he’s not being terribly scary, also has some nice little moments as Lucas. The real stand-out, however, is Bridget Everett as Al, another stepdad that’s along with Gary for this wild ride. Yes, it is a joke: Having Everett play, basically, a man, but it’s a joke that works, time and time again. She’s easily the one having the best and most fun, constantly cracking jokes and seeming like the life of whatever party is being held. It’s nice to see Everett get a chance to be funny, as usual, but also have it pay-off in a movie that’s so deserving of her.

You know. Unlike Fun Mom Dinner.

Consensus: While a small step-down from his debut, Craig’s Little Evil is still a funny and relatively enjoyable piece of horror-comedy that doesn’t quite have the stamina to go as deep as it perhaps would like to.

7 / 10

Yeah, it’s okay, man. Just look at the mother.

Photos Courtesy of: Netflix 

Band Aid (2017)

Who says music can’t save lives?!?

Ben (Adam Pally) and Anna (Zoe Lister-Jones) have been married for quite some time, but from what it seems like, they may not totally last. They can’t stop fighting about whatever is on their mind, nor do they ever seem to have any enjoyable times together. That all begins to change, however, when they both realize that maybe, just maybe, they can use their skills as musicians as a way to cope and mend the fences between them two and hell, maybe even use it as therapy. But to start working on that all, they need to get a band together, which then eventually adds neighbor Dave (Fred Armisen) who, despite being a little weird, means well and is there to not just help the band out on the drums, but to help both Ben and Anna out, too. But with the songs working and coming together in a solidly-catchy fashion, does that mean that everything’s all peachy-kin for the couple? Or, are they back to their usual screaming and fighting-bouts that seem to come out of nowhere and end up at about the same place?

Pictured: Their only moment of happiness together.

For awhile, Band Aid seems like it’s going to be one of these kitschy, awfully cutesy movies about a bunch of young, happenin’ hipsters getting together, forming a band, and performing even kitschier, cuter songs about love, life, and well, sex. But then, writer/director/producer/star Zoe Lister-Jones throws us a curve-ball and keeps the focus on the characters, their relationships, and just what’s at the core of everything that’s going on. Sure, the catchy music is there to be used a device to help us navigate through the story, but really, it’s about this relationship, no matter what.

And yes, it actually works.

In fact, it works almost too much. Lister-Jones has a knack for writing smart, honest dialogue that doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard to be raw and gritty, but just make us think a little bit. The fights these two have, while sometimes long and over-winding, are also entertaining and interesting to listen to, because they feel like the kinds of arguments actual, real people would have. You could almost go so far as to say it’s all “relatable”, but I feel as if that’s already a given; it’s the kind of movie that makes you love these characters because you identify with them, but also hate them for the same exact reason, and in return, hate yourself.

It’s the kind of writing that isn’t flashy, but real and it’s what kept me so interested in Band Aid. Even when it seemed like some of these characters were a little too insufferable and the whole music-angle was a bit too obvious of a way to show us, the world, that the cast can ACTUALLY PLAY THEIR INSTRUMENTS, the dialogue kept drawing me back in. It actually goes towards some very dark and sad places, and while for any lesser writer or director, it would be a severe misstep, it actually comes together and works here; the songs themselves may be poppy, light and awfully catchy, but behind them are painfully hurtful feelings of anguish and depression that don’t ever seem to go away, no matter how many choruses are sung about them.

“TURN IT DOWNNNN.”

Just makes you want to pick up the guitar and start beltin’ out some tunes yourself, eh?

Anyway, yeah, Lister-Jones is incredibly talented behind the camera, but is also equally just as talented in front of it. She’s a smart director to not keep the focus solely on her character, but it also makes you want to see more of her; she has this kind of presence where she seems like the smartest person in the room, what with her perfect deadpan, but also isn’t afraid to get vulnerable here, showing us some slight weaknesses to a strong persona. Her chemistry with Pally also helps, because they not only work as a couple who seem to be in love, but also as a couple who can’t seem to stop hurting the hell out of one another with their non-stop insults. Even Fred Armisen shows up here and plays what could have been an awfully conventional and one-note character, actually turns out to be rather sweet and kind, even if, yeah, he’s a bit creepy.

There’s more to every character here and it’s just like the way it is in life.

Consensus: Band Aid may present itself as another “let’s make a band”-sub-genre of kitschy indies, but actually prefers to dig deep into its characters and relationship at the center of its well-acted ensemble.

7 / 10

Power trio. I give ’em two months.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

The Trip to Spain (2017)

I’d take these guys on a trip to the beach over my family any day.

After their first two trips together, people can’t get enough of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan together. So, to give the people what they want, they are put together for a third time, to travel a different country, chow down on some of the finest meals, drink some of the best liquor, see all of the sights, meet interesting people, and oh yeah, do all of the impressions that they can think of. And honestly, since their last trip to Italy, things have changed for both guys; Steve was nominated for an Oscar and can’t stop talking about it, meanwhile, Rob’s popularity has only gotten bigger and better, with him starring in various mainstream flicks. The two have a lot alike, but they also have more differences, too, meaning that, at times, their trip can sometimes be light and fun, while other times, can be a little dark and intense. Mostly though, they’re just happy to be together, hanging out and waxing on about life, if only as a way to get away from the mess of their personal lives.

Smile, you’re in good company.

It’s actually interesting that both Rob and Steve continue to do these Trip movies, because as famous as they both each seem to get, they still find ways to sort of blend in with the real world around them. In fact, the more famous they each get, the better these movies get, as it helps us not just understand what the hell they’re talking about more and more, but it gives it this sort of no-holds-barred feeling that these conversations would, and should, take.

And some goes for their ages, because as weird as it may sound, the older they get, the more interesting it is to hear what they’re talking about. They’ve accepted old age, the ideas from society, and certain responsibilities that come along with it, and while they may not be all that happy about it, they’re going to live on and do whatever they want and can. It’s rather nice to see a movie that accepts growing up and aging as an honest fact of life, without embracing it too much to where it’s trying to be silly and cute.

People get old. Case closed. No shut up and move on.

And yes, for the third outing, the Trip to Spain works, even if it does feel a little bit more tired this time around. Then again, that’s probably on-purpose; these guys, as humans, are beginning to slow down. Nowadays, they can’t bother to go on and on with all of the non-stop impersonations of Michael Caine, Richard Burton, John Hurt, Pierce Brosnan, Roger Moore, Sean Connery, and oh yeah, Mick freakin’ Jagger (although the best one is done by Coogan, singing as David Bowie), and they let it be known. Rather than just laughing and going along with it now, they sort of just ignore it and move on. That’s how life is, as a whole, and it’s interesting to see these two guys, who more than likely made the script up as they went along, don’t really hide from that fact.

NO. MORE. IMPERSONATIONS.

And really, the only way to critique this movie is to critique how Rob and Steve are in it, because really, they’re the movie. And yes, they’re fine, funny and always lovely to watch, no matter where it is they are, or what it is that they’re doing in their lives. It’s actually rather sweet to see these guys still palling around, hanging out, and enjoying the good days, even when it seems like they’ve both gone in two different directions with their own respective careers; how close they are in real life is already known, but the movie gives the perception that they never actually see one another, except for only one of these yearly trips. That said, they’re still charming as ever and without one of them, who knows how these movies would do.

Cause honestly, the story’s can get a little odd and melodramatic, especially with Spain‘s. Late in the third act, there’s supposed to be a twist of sorts that doesn’t fully fit together, nor does it really matter – we’re supposed to care about these certain truths being brought to us, but honestly, it doesn’t wholly matter. The last movie actually had a few shocks and twists that worked, this time around, there aren’t many. And when there are some, they don’t quite nail.

We just want to hear the impersonations. That’s all.

Consensus: Like its stars, the Trip to Spain may be showing its age with this being the third outing for both Steve and Rob, but still, they remain as funny and as charming as ever.

7 / 10

Pictured: Leaked set photos from Terry Gilliam’s “Don Quixote”.

Photos Courtesy of: IndieWire

Logan Lucky (2017)

NASCAR just got actually, well, fun.

West Virginia family man Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) has got a lot of issues right now in his life and money’s just holding him back from everything. He just lost his job, he’s got a bunch of child-support payments to pay, and oh yeah, may lose his house. Basically, he’s in a pinch and the only way he can see of getting out of it is walking in on a large sum of cash. But how? Well, that’s why he decides to team up with his one-armed brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and sister Mellie (Riley Keough) to steal money from the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. Jimmy also recruits demolition expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) to help them break into the track’s underground system. But of course, this takes a lot of planning, not just with Joe Bang being in the slammer and needing to be broken out, but because the heist is supposed to take place during the most popular NASCAR race of the whole year. How the hell can they pull this off? Will the Logan family-curse continue to live on?

It’s all in the facial-hair.

Though he technically hasn’t been out of the game since his so-called retirement after Side Effects in 2013, there’s just something nice and sweet about having Steven Soderbergh back to making movies again. Sure, it helped that Logan Lucky is a solid movie and a return-to-form for Soderbergh, but even if it wasn’t quite the joy it turned out to be, it would still remind us why it’s a good thing to have Soderbergh around in our world, making movies, as opposed to not having him around and making movies. The man is an artistic genius who finds a way to make what he wants, when he wants, however he wants, regardless of fame, fortune, or budget constraints.

Basically, he’s what any aspiring film-maker hopes to be. And Logan Lucky is, like I said before, a solid reminder of that.

And it’s not like Logan Lucky is a perfect flick; the comedy bits can be a bit straining and stupid, the pace meanders for awhile, and the characters, other than the Logan brothers, don’t feel as developed as they should be. But that said, it’s still a fun movie that shows us the lighter-side to Soderbergh that hasn’t been seen in quite some time. No, he knows breaking down genre conventions, or boundaries here, but what he is doing is offering us a good time, no alcohol or illegal substances required, which is a nice thing to have in the late-summer movie season, when it seems like everything’s getting a whole lot dumber and more dull.

Bond who?!?

But nope. Logan Lucky is anything but dull. It shows that Soderbergh isn’t afraid to goof on himself on a bit, while still giving us all of the trademarks we’ve learn to love and expect from him. The score is still jazzy; the pace is still breezy; the camera-work is still tight and efficient; and the performances, while not always working, are still surprising. Sure, Driver, Tatum, and Keough are great as the dynamic trio, but it’s pretty cool to see the likes of Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes, Jim O’Heir, Sebastian Stan, Seth MacFarlane, Katherine Waterston, and most of all, Daniel Craig, show up here and try to bring some light and fun to these proceedings.

Once again, not all of these performances work – Seth MacFarlane’s role as a British manager who loves social media, for some reason, feels incredibly out-of-place – but it’s a nice ensemble that reminds us all what Soderbergh can do when he’s just having fun. It helps that the story plays out in an exciting, thrilling manner, with the heist itself continuing to get more and more compelling to watch, but it’s all about the tone and the mood, and in Logan Lucky, it’s a fun one.

That’s all it needed to be and that’s all it is. Stop asking for anything more, people!

Consensus: Stepping away from his much more serious pieces, Logan Lucky is a solid return-to-form for Soderbergh who shines, utilizing a talented ensemble and having an overall good time.

7.5 / 10

Finally. A bright new future with Stevie back.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire