Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

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Category Archives: 7-7.5/10

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Life is depressing, then you die. It’s that simple.

Despite the big house and even bigger bank account, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is still incredibly sad about something. Her second husband (Armie Hammer) constantly leaves for business trips, when in reality, he’s just having sex with other women; she doesn’t keep in-touch with her teenage daughter; and she’s still feeling some sort of guilt from having cheated on her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). But for one reason or another, he sends her a transcript of his latest novel and it absolutely haunts Susan’s life – in her dreams, at work, at her house, seemingly everywhere. And why is that? Well, it just so happens to be a random tale about a husband (also Jake Gyllenhaal), a wife (Isla Fisher), and a daughter (Ellie Bamber) who get ran-off the road by a bunch of mean, dirty and foul Southerners. What does this novel have to do with Susan’s life? Well, she doesn’t quite know, but the more she continues to read, the more she starts to think about her own life and all of the countless decisions she should have, or shouldn’t have, made.

It’s been nearly seven years later since famed fashion-designer Tom Ford’s A Single Man and well, he’s been sorely missed. While that movie not just proved to be a great acting showcase for the always underrated Colin Firth, it also proved to the world that Ford was more than just one of the biggest, most notorious names in the fashion-world. His aspirations and ambitions with his career went further beyond designing pretty clothes and making a heap-tons of money – he had a skill for directing movies and guess what? It all showed.

I don't know, so don't ask.

I don’t know, so don’t ask.

But what’s so interesting about A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals, his latest, is that Ford shows he doesn’t just have a knack for crafting beautiful visuals, but also knows how to make, well, a movie, with a good story, good acting, and most importantly, emotion. This time around, however, Ford’s creative-skills are put to the test in that he takes on what is, essentially, two movies into one; there’s the dark, depressing character-drama about sad and lonely rich people, and then, there’s the even darker, but far more grueling and violent Southern-revenge thriller. What do the two have to do with one another?

Well, I’m still trying to figure that all out.

However, there’s no denying that Ford crafts a very interesting, if at times, hard-to-watch movie. While it’s easy to give him credit for making the one story about the sad and lonely rich people and making it somehow work, it’s not as easy to give him credit for the Southern-fried revenge-thriller. The two are very hard movies to make, side-by-side, but somehow, he pulls it all off; both stories and compelling and also seem like they could have been their own movies.

Which is also the very same issue with Nocturnal Animals, in and of itself. For one, it takes a lot on, and handles it well, but also runs into the problem of having one story-line be fare more intriguing than the other. It happens to almost every movie with countless subplots, but here, it feels more disappointing, because they’re both very interesting to watch; it’s just that one clearly has more juice than the other.

Shave up, Jake. And possibly shower.

Shave up, Jake. And possibly shower.

And yes, I am talking about the Southern-fried revenge-thriller, although, it doesn’t make me happy to say that.

See, with that story, Ford is able to transport himself into far more deadly material, where anything can happen, at any given time. Just the introduction into this story, with the couple getting pulled-off to the side of the road and essentially terrorized over the course of ten minutes straight, still plays in my head, just by how truly disturbing it is. But it continues to get better and better, asking harder questions and not giving all that many answers, either.

But then, there’s the other-half of Nocturnal Animals and it’s still good, yet, also very different. It’s slower, more melodic and and far more interested in building its characters. And is it successful? Yes, but it just so happens to be placed-up, side-by-side with this other movie and it makes you wonder whether or not they should have been put that way in the first place? The book in which Tom Ford is adapting does, but I don’t know if it transitions well to the screen, where we literally have two entirely stories being told to us, with two very different styles.

So yeah, as you can tell, I’m still racking my brain around Nocturnal Animals.

If there’s anything I’m for sure certain about, it’s that Tom Ford is no fluke of a director and has, once again, put together a pretty great cast. Amy Adams gets a lot to do with very little, as the very cold and mean Susan Morrow who, through certain flashbacks, we do see develop over time and become more human to us; Jake Gyllenhaal plays her ex-husband as well as the daddy in the book very well, even if they are, two different performances, both seeming to be emotionally draining; Aaron Taylor-Johnson has always been fine in everything he’s done so far in his young career, but here, is absolutely bone-chilling and scary as the one psychopath from the story; Michael Shannon pops up as the Texas Ranger from that story and is clearly having a ball, yet also, showing off a great deal of heart and humanity in a story that, quite frankly, could have used more; and others seem to pop-up, like Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Isla Fisher, Michael Sheen, and Andrea Riseborough, and do whatever they can, but sometimes, have such limited screen-time that it’s a bit of a shame.

But hey, maybe that’s just me being extra needy.

Consensus: By working with two movies at once, Tom Ford expertly crafts Nocturnal Animals into being a dark, dramatic and sometimes disturbing emotional-thriller that may not fit perfectly together, but does offer up some really great performances.

7.5 / 10

It's love. Or is it?

It’s love. Or is it?

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz, Indiewire

Allied (2016)

WWII looked like it was a pretty wild time.

It’s WWII and intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) literally gets dropped in North Africa where he is stationed for his next mission. Working alongside French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), Max tries to finish this deadly mission behind enemy lines still alive, which also means that he’ll have to fend-off any sort of sexual feelings for his fellow spy. However, that doesn’t quite happen; somehow, the two end up getting together, sharing relations and now, a whole lot more serious than either of them ever expected in the first place. Now, reunited in London, their relationship is put to the ultimate test when it comes out that Max may not know everything there is to know about Marianne and is pressured to choose love, or his country.

Believe it or not, Allied is directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Stephen Knight. I say, “believe it or not”, because it’s simply an odd combination; Knight is known for his dark, sometimes heavy tales of violence and betrayal, where Zemeckis, well, isn’t. Hell, if anything, he’s been more well-known as of late for letting CGI and today’s technology get the best of him a tad too much. Sure, for a director who has been working for as long as he has, to dabble so much with CGI, special effects, and motion-capture, is admirable, but it doesn’t always mean that his movies, in and of themselves, are all that terrific.

Who said gals can't shoot?

Who said gals can’t shoot?

Which is why Allied still isn’t terrific, but also may be the right step in the direction for Zemeckis to come back down to Earth and to make solid, well-told and simple human tales, without so much computer-magic being used.

What works best about Allied is that Zemeckis approaches the material in a very slow, but melodic and dialed-down manner that helps allow for the story to develop over time, without just jumping to conclusions, or twists, or turns automatically. It’s actually a very simple and straightforward plot, and because of that, the movie doesn’t necessarily aim for the stars and try to be anything it’s not; it’s an old school, old-fashioned and above all else, relatively easygoing spy flick taking place in London during WWII. Knight deserves credit, too, for not making his story seem more important or overblown than it actually is – it’s literally a tale of two spies, falling in love, doing spy-stuff and possibly coming apart at the seams. What else is there to know?

That’s why Allied, above all else, is a refresher, especially in today’s Oscar-bait world we are currently going to be living in for the next month or so. It may flirt with the idea of being a really heavy, powerfully emotional tale about love, sex, betrayal, war, violence and death, but really, is just another spy movie in which someone has to be killed, or not. Zemeckis does clearly want for the story to be a romantic-tale, but none of that quite registers; Pitt and Cotillard have good chemistry, but the movie needed to focus more on them actually falling head-over-heels for one another, then just showing them having hot, sometimes sweaty sex and automatically assuming that that means they’re “in love”. It doesn’t quite work that way in real life, nor does it work here, which is why Zemeckis and Knight’s small, but noticeable attempts to try and make it at that, don’t really register.

Okay, maybe there's some CGI here.

Okay, maybe there’s some CGI here.

If anything, we really just want to see spies be spies, in WWII, of all times and places.

And that aspect of the movie definitely works. Allied has a slightly different take on WWII in that it wasn’t just a terrible time to live in, what with the constant death and heartbreak occurring almost everywhere you looked, but also a time in which people just had to live through. Because of this, we get a small, but interesting look at the lives that these characters create for themselves during this time, where it isn’t just sadness, tears and constant depression, but some small, fleeting moments of happiness. We see people have sex, drink, have picnics, go to bars, do cocaine, and yes, have even more sex. Why does any of this matter? I’m not quite sure, honestly, but it shows that maybe that there was more to the times of WWII than most of us care to know or focus on.

Still though, at Allied‘s heart, it’s a tale of two spies, falling in and out of love, over a certain amount of time. And because the movie can be so intimate and focused, the performances can also seem so raw and gritty, which helps because Pitt and Cotillard are two of our finest actors working today and give it their all. Pitt gets the most spotlight and focus out of the two, with his character having to grappled with a lot of upsetting, conflicting emotions over a period of time and making us feel more for this person. We don’t really get to know much more about him other than that he’s a spy, is from Canada, and can speak French, but that’s sort of fine – the fact that he has no life, other than his spy one, actually makes his tale a whole lot sadder.

Same goes for Cotillard’s Marianne, who is a lot more mysterious and interesting to watch, only because the point of the movie is that we don’t know each and everything there is to know about her. Cotillard has a lot of fun here as the sexy and seductive spy that may be up to no good, but may also just be playing a role to get the mission done – we never know each and everything there is to know about her, and because of this, it’s hard to not want to see more of her. Had the movie been a lot less focused on its plot and a whole lot more attentive to its character, we probably would have gotten more of Cotillard, doing what she does best, but I guess this is what we get.

It’s not bad, just could have been a whole lot better, obviously.

Consensus: With enough focus placed on its two great leads, Allied gets by on being a compelling spy tale that could have been far better, but keeps its aim so low that it’s fine enough as is.

7 / 10

Can't see why Angie was so threatened.

Can’t see why Angie was so threatened.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Dick Tracy (1990)

What a Dick that guy is.

Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) is the type of detective all men of the law aspire to be. He’s charming, smart, inspired, always on the good side, gets whatever lady he wants, and always finds a way to catch the baddies before they cause anymore harm in the world. But he might just have met his match with “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino). Caprice has practically taken over the crime world by himself, and made almost every sort of illegal activity occur. With Tracy on his tale, though, times may change for Caprice.

I’ve never fully understood why this thing didn’t become a series of movies rather than just a movie that seemed to promise one. Apparently, Beatty has been hyping one up for a long time and is still fighting producers and creators as to whether or not he still owns the name/title Dick Tracy. Who knows? Maybe 26 years later ain’t too late?

Regardless, Dick Tracy came to us back in the day when comic book movies used to not be so serious and dark, and instead were just goofy, campy, and over-the-top. However, they were also knowing about it so it wasn’t just a strange movie from start-to-finish, it had reasoning for being so silly. That’s the smart approach Beatty thankfully takes here and is one of the key aspects to Dick Tracy being more than just another conventional comic book flick.

"Go fish."

“Go fish.”

Cause we’ve got way too much of that now.

It all starts as soon as we’re introduced to the character of Tracy, what he does, how he does it, and where he does it. He gets a call on his watch about somebody missing, leaves the play he is at with his gal, comes back five minutes later after scoping the scene out, and acts all natural and cool. If that doesn’t at least have you chuckle, then don’t even bother with this movie because that’s all there is here. Just goofiness, through and through, and that’s what keeps it relatively fun.

The only time the movie does seem to lose its sense of “fun”, is when it decides to focus its story on so many other elements that weren’t needed. Throughout the whole movie, we get to see Tracy’s miniature-sized side-kick, “The Kid”, pal around, hang out, and help Tracy solve crimes. The only problem is that he’s an orphan and orphans are supposed to be thrown into the orphanage as if they were garbage. Most of the movie concerns whether or not Tracy will end up falling for the tricks and keeping Kid, or getting rid of him and doing what the law says. It’s a dilemma that we’re supposed to care about, but just don’t. Kid is actually sort of annoying because all he does is yell, scream, and shout that there is some crime needing to be stopped. He’s a joyful, little lad, but it got annoying, real quick. And yes, is having “the Kid” loyal to the comics? Of course, but sometimes, it just doesn’t work.

But as the film goes on, it continues to entertain but bore at the same time. It’s very confusing actually because you never know what type of film Beatty is trying to go for. You know he’s trying to make a wacky, wild romp that’s based on some nutty source-material, but he never quite goes all out. Certain parts of Dick Tracy are really silly and weird and seem like the perfect fit for the kind of over-the-top, wild romp that comic books seem to promise. But then, there’s a bunch of subplots that continue to complicate the story and make it seem like we’re supposed to be caring about this more than we actually are.

After all, what everyone comes to Dick Tracy for, in the first place, is to have a little bit of fun. Take that away and what the hell is the point?

The ladies love Dick.

The ladies love Dick.

Thankfully, the cast always keeps things together. Despite being nearly 53 at the time and initially seeming like an odd fit, Beatty works well as Dick Tracy. There’s always been something about Beatty’s cool, calm and breezy charm, that makes you trust and like the guy, but also never feels like he’s macho-posing for the hell of it. It works for the character and makes Tracy seem like a good guy. Granted, in a time where superheros reign supreme and show up almost every, single summer, it’s a bit unexciting to get a superhero that just shoots a Tommy Gun and figures out predicaments pretty easily, but it’s simple. You don’t need a superhero that has some sort of inner-problems going on with his life, or something taking away what he can and cannot do with his special talents. You just need a guy that does right for the world he loves, does whatever he can, continues to fight until no more, and leave it at that.

Simplicity at its finest, folks.

But really, it’s Al Pacino who walks away with this all here. As “Big Boy” Caprice, Pacino spends literally each and every scene yelling and acting way over-the-top. But, it works. Pacino loves to scream and shout himself through a role, but while that can sometimes feel unnecessary in mostly everything he does, here, it works for the whole movie. The tone, whenever it’s focusing on him, is played for laughs, so we never need to take him seriously. Pacino’s in this crazy, little pulpy world that doesn’t care how much he screams, or how loud it is – it just cares how much fun he’s having.

Everybody else in this movie deserves a pat on the back for the same thing as well, even if they only show up for a good couple of minutes. James Caan is here for five seconds to look cool, mobster-ish, and intimidating, only to walk off and get blown-up by a secret car bomb; Paul Sorvino shows up in tons and tons of make-up, only to be betrayed and thrown in a tub of concrete underneath the ground; the late, great Charles Durning is playing a cop that Tracy can trust no matter what; and last, but sure as hell not least is Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, who does exactly that. It’s funny to see, especially because you know Hoffman is enjoying himself while doing so. Oh and Madonna is quite the sexy, fiery presence that the movie oh so promised on in all of its advertisements, proving that she could definitely act, given the right material to play around with.

Consensus: Beatty’s direction may be too all-over-the-place for such goofy material as Dick Tracy to make it work wonders, but it always stays fun, light, goofy, and knowingly over-the-top, without ever making apologies for being so. It’s just pure, unadulterated fun.

7 / 10

All these gangsters and no pasta?!? What the hell?!?

All these gangsters and no pasta?!? What the hell?!?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Den of Geek

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

Growing up blows. But hey, drinking in bars is pretty cool, right?

Growing up, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) didn’t always have the best time. She was a casually awkward girl, who couldn’t quite make friends, hit puberty at a weird time in her life, and most importantly, lost her beloved father while she was in the car with him. Now, at 17, Nadine has hit peak awkwardness when her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) starts dating her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). It’s obviously a weird and downright terrible situation for Nadine, who has gotten so comfortable just hanging around with Krista. Now, she feels alone and in desperate need to find some way to take up her time; she tries to get in with Darian and Krista’s friends, but just can’t talk or relate to any of them. Most of her time, to be honest, is spent bothering and ranting to her English teacher (Woody Harrelson), who clearly has a lot better things to do then just sit around and listen to a teenager whine about how life gets her down. But now Nadine thinks she may have found an outlet for her sadness through thoughtful teen Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto), who not only gives her a glimmer of hope with her dating life, but also shows that she’s not the most awkward teen in the area.

Come on. Who hasn't tried to look like Pedro at least once in their life?

Come on. Who hasn’t tried to look like Pedro at least once in their life?

The Edge of Seventeen, on paper and through all of the countless ads, trailers and posters, seems like nothing more than your average, run-of-the-mill, downright nauseating teen-comedy that goes for the raunchy laughs and false modesty that could have only been written by a bunch of people who never knew what it was like to grow up in high school, or be socially awkward, and are trying so desperately hard to connect with “the kids”. And no, after having seen the movie, I can’t say that I’m far off from my expectations, either. Except yes, I totally am.

See, the Edge of Seventeen is a pretty run-of-the-mill, conventional teen-comedy, but there’s more to it than that. For one, it’s written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig who is, for one, a woman, and a very talented writer, at that. She seems to know just how it is that kids talk and get along with one another; they’re awkward, weird, sometimes funny, and always trying to impress one another. Watching a casual conversation between two characters in the Edge of Seventeen is not only sweetly nostalgic, but downright cringe-inducing because, well, this is what it’s like to grow up.

While Craig has created this character of Nadine to help channel out all of the angst and embarrassment from her younger years, the feelings of coming-of-age and growing up are universal; that point you get at in your life and in high school when you don’t quite know what you want to do yet, who your friends are, or even who the heck you really are. So instead of sitting down and taking a long, hard thinking-session about it, you just decide to play video-games, watch TV, or go on the internet. It’s typical kids stuff that, while watching the Edge of Seventeen, I myself couldn’t help but relate to.

But of course, there is something of a story to the Edge of Seventeen and while it’s not perfect, it still feels honest and raw, something that’s missing from a lot of other teen-comedies.

In a way, it’s refreshing to hear teenagers cuss and talk about sex without a single care in the world. But it’s also more refreshing to hear actors that know how to deliver it all. As Nadine, Hailee Steinfeld has a lot to do and comes out on top; her character doesn’t always make the best decisions, say the smartest things, or even act rationally, but there’s always this sense that, yes, she is a kid and yes, she may eventually figure it all out. Either way, we see a lot to her character that makes her sweet and bubbly, yet at the same time, raw and vulnerable. It’s the kind of performance we don’t see in teen-comedies and it’s also a greater example of why Steinfeld’s one of our best young actresses out there working today.

Tuesdays with Woody.

Tuesdays with Woody.

She’s not the only one who gets away with the whole movie, however. Blake Jenner is good as her older brother, who shows that there’s a little more heart and compassion to his jock-y ways; Haley Lu Richardson plays her sketchy bestie-turned-mortal-enemy and tries to remain sympathetic, even if it’s hard not to hate her character; Kyra Sedgwick may not get a whole lot to do with the mom role, but makes the best of what she can; Hayden Szeto, despite being nearly eleven years older than Steinfeld, still has great chemistry with her and feels believable as a fellow awkward kid who has a better head on his shoulders, but still doesn’t quite got it all figured out yet; and Woody Harrelson, in what could have been a very thankless role as the sometimes inspirational teacher, brings heart, warmth, and humor, sometimes coming close to stealing the show.

But where the Edge of Seventeen ends is that it does have a tad too much of a happy/sappy ending that, unfortunately, doesn’t quite ring true.

Without saying too much, there’s this feeling that we’re supposed to be left with of having this idea that life is going to get better. However, a part of me is curious just how this is? Life, for Nadine at least, will continue to get more and more awkward, with sex coming into the picture, more drinking, and possibly drugs. Oh and yeah, what about her brother and her best friend shacking up? The movie seems to bring all this up, only to then try and tie it all up in a neat, little bow by the end of the hour-and-a-half and sure, it’s an enjoyable ride, but for some reason, it feels like there’s a much bleaker, much more realistic ending waiting somewhere out in the distance.

Who knows, maybe I’ll just have to wait for the Edge of Twenty-One.

Now that’s going to be awkward.

Consensus: Funny, touching and well-acted, the Edge of Seventeen may cop-out by the end, but altogether, still feels like a raw, sometimes painful-to-watch teen-comedy that has bite and something to say.

7 / 10

I know, right? Awkward!

I know, right? Awkward!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Black Book (2006)

Lord. The Holocaust was messed-up.

After just barely escaping her death, young Rachel Rosenthal (Carice van Houten) goes on the run from the Nazis during WWII and soon realizes that it’s a whole heck of a lot harder to stay alive when literally everyone you know is either dead, or missing. That’s why Rachel decides that it’s best on her to become a part of the Jewish resistance and going undercover, assuming the name Ellis de Vries. One of her first and perhaps, most important mission, is to seduce a Gestapo officer named Ludwig (Sebastian Koch), someone who is dangerous and possibly maniacal, as most Nazis at that time were. While Rachel/Ellis is perfectly fine with carrying out the mission, taking down the Nazis and assuring that no more Jews are wrongfully killed, she also can’t help but bring herself to feel a little something for Ludwig who, over time, turns out to be a whole lot sweeter and kinder than she ever expected. Now, Rachel/Ellis is left to think fast about what she wants to do: Either accept the Nazi and not kill him, therefore, risking the Resistance’s plan, or taking him out and achieving what she and the Resistance wanted?

Tell those Nazis, gals!

Tell those Nazis, gals!

Everyone knows by now that when you get a Paul Verhoeven movie, you’ve got to expect the trashiest, craziest and wildest movie around. It doesn’t mean that the movie itself has to be good (see Showgirls), but what it does mean is that you’re going to get a movie that knows what it is, doesn’t make excuses for itself, and may, or may not, possibly offend you. If it doesn’t, then there’s surely something wrong with you.

That’s why a tale about the Holocaust, coming directly from the likes of Paul Verhoeven, already calls on controversy before the first scene is even shot. And honestly, that’s where some of the genius comes from with Verhoeven – he isn’t afraid to do what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants, regardless of what those around him may feel, or think is “politically correct”. It also helps that Black Book, for better or for worse, is a pretty fun and wacky Holocaust tale that probably didn’t even have to take place during WWII, or deal with Nazis and Jews; it could have literally been a movie about gangsters or cowboys for all we know.

However, Verhoeven sticks with the WWII-setting and well, it works.

Verhoeven doesn’t settle down one bit with this material and that’s where some of the real fun and joy with Black Book comes from. While movies like Basic Instinct and Showgirls love to take their time and harp on the fact that there’s some sort of story being told and built-up to, when in reality, they’re really not, Black Book shows Verhoeven at his absolute peak – never slowing down, pinpointing every plot development, and just always moving. In a way, it’s very fun to watch, but it can also be a bit tiresome; so much moving and running about, for nearly two-and-a-half-hours can really wear a person down, regardless of how many energy drinks are involved.

That said, I’ll take a quick and fun movie, over a slow, brooding and boring one, which is why Black Book works. Verhoeven doesn’t feel the need to settle, or appease anyone, but instead, just tell this movie with as many twists and turns as humanly imaginable. Sure, there’s probably a few too many, but the movie doesn’t really seem to rely too much on whether or not you believe in them – it more or less depends on being able to follow along with the constant action, lies, deception, and lies that take up the whole, entire movie. If you’re able to do that, then yeah, Black Book is a good time.

Cheer up, Nazis. There's more to life than exterminating Jews!

Cheer up, Nazis. There’s more to life than exterminating Jews!

And if not, then well, I don’t know what to tell you. Watch something else.

Where Verhoeven gets most of his criticism from is how he handles his female characters and the actresses in said roles. For one, he isn’t particularly nice to them; every time it seems like he’s got another lethal, smart and conniving femme fatale, he’s always got another dumb female character, making silly mistakes and always letting her emotions get the best of her. With Carice van Houten’s Rachel/Ellis, I’m torn – on one hand, I believe that she’s the heart and soul of the movie, but at the same time, Verhoeven does sort of treat her like garbage. She’s constantly yelling, running about and making silly mistakes, but at other times, she’s doing quite the opposite.

It’s a weird mish-mash of aspects to her character that don’t always gel together well, which makes van Houten’s performance all the better; she’s more than willing to stand up to Verhoeven’s sometimes crazy style and go with whatever pace he needs her to. Same goes for just about everyone else around her. Sebastain Koch is good in a role that, unsurprisingly, caused a lot of controversy for playing a Nazi with a heart of gold, which is odd, but hey, it actually works for a Verhoeven movie.

Consensus: For all of its twists, turns and craziness, Black Book is quite fun and exciting, even if, at times, it can feel like too many wheels are spinning at one time.

7 / 10

Even Nazis need a little sing-a-long.

Even Nazis need a little sing-a-long.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Bleecker Street

Loving (2016)

Love the one you’re with. Screw the haters.

It’s 1958 in Central Point, Virginia and Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) fall in love with one another, are having a child together and you know what? They decide that they want to get married. However, because she’s black and he’s white, they’re not allowed to get married in their own home state, so they decide to drive all the way to Washington and get hitched the right way. When they get back to their hometown, not only do they realize that almost everyone in the town knows about their marriage, but they’re not quite happy about it, either. Most importantly, though, it’s law enforcement who wants both of them out of their town and somehow, find a way to make that happen. So now, Mildred and Richard are forced to move to Washington, D.C., away from the rest of their family and feeling more ostracized than ever before, until they realize that what’s happened to them, above all else, isn’t right and sure as hell isn’t legal. So they band together, pick up a lawyer (Nick Kroll) and decide to take their case to the Supreme Court, against all odds and with some sort of sliver of hope that they’ll be able to stay married and get back to their families, once and for all, like they have the right to.

Love is someone you can literally lean on.

Love is someone you can literally lean on.

Although he’s one of the far more interesting and compelling voices in film today, writer/director Jeff Nichols still found a way to disappoint the hell out of me with Midnight Special. Sure, it was an ambitious change for him and to be fair, the first two-thirds of it are probably great, but man oh man, that final-act and twist? Yeah, just didn’t work for me and felt like maybe, just possibly maybe, Nichols got a bit too ahead of himself and stretched out further than he could go.

But now, over eight months later, and Nichols has got another movie, which in ways, is still a bit of a change for him – a true, fact-based tale about Mildred and Richard Loving. It’s a tale that deserves to be told with absolute tender, love, care and integrity, which is everything that Nichols brings to the material; he’s very much in his wheelhouse of giving us small details about these characters and their lives, without ever seeming like he’s overdoing it or trying to get at something. If anything, he’s just telling a story of two people, who fell in love, got married and for some reason or another, weren’t allowed to.

In a way, it’s a change for Nichols, but it’s also very much what we’ve seen from him before.

And because of that, Loving works in small, glorious ways. Nichols is a smart writer and director in that he knows how these “based on a true story” movies can go – over-the-top, melodramatic, corny – and opts out for the exact opposite. Instead of going overboard with the raw and powerful emotions, he downplays everything, as if we aren’t just watching a movie happen in front of our very own eyes, but life itself. It works, in that it makes us feel closer to the Loving’s than ever before and also helps make us feel more and more for their situation, as if that wasn’t hard to do in the first place.

It also helps that both Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are quite great in their roles, showing off a great deal of sincerity, even when they’re trying so hard to bottle-up all of their feelings and emotions. It’s interesting that the movie paints the them as two separate people who feel differently about the situation that they’ve unfortunately been thrown into; she’s all about the spotlight and believes that the more eyes on the case, the better, while he just wants to be left alone, stay quiet, and sit in the corner, unseen or unheard. It’s an interesting contrast that does wonders for their performances, especially Negga who’s smile and pure beauty lights up any room that she pops up in here.

Love is someone you can get locked-up with.

Love is someone you can get locked-up with.

Then again though, the movie does drop the ball on actually making us feel something for their love and their passion, which was, above all else, the most important aspect. Due to Nichols having to focus on so many other aspects of the story (the court case, the racial prejudices, the other family-members drama), it’s hard not to realize that the Loving’s themselves sort of get shoved away to the side, in that we never quite feel their love, their passion, or their fight for one another. They sort of just dance a little bit, kiss a lot, have babies, hold hands, and yeah, that’s about it.

If that’s true, inspired love, then hey, maybe I’m missing something. But either way, if you’re going to make a movie about a married-couple who love one another so damn much, that they’re willing to beat the odds and take on the man, to ensure that they have those God-given rights, then why not allow for us to feel that said romance?

Either way, Edgerton and Negga always stay good and compelling, regardless of the shortcomings of the script.

Same goes for the supporting cast who are all fine, with the exception of maybe one. It’s hard not to mention Nick Kroll when you’re speaking about Loving, because, as much as I hate to say it, he does stick out like a sore thumb. It’s a bit of inspired casting to have Kroll play the Civil Rights lawyer who does eventually pick up the Loving’s case, but it also doesn’t help that Kroll, for some reason or another, decided to play this character as a fun-loving, somewhat chirpy dude from the 50’s who talks as if he was a deleted scene from Fargo. It’s weird, too, because I’ve seen Kroll really do some great work with dramatic-material, but here, he just doesn’t fit in, especially when you have the likes of Bill Camp, Michael Shannon, and Martin Csokas, and others, showing up and putting in great work.

Consensus: While imperfect, Loving is still a sign that Jeff Nichols is back on the track to telling small, character-driven stories about love, romance and happiness, even without ever seeming preachy or melodramatic, given the true story-aspect.

7.5 / 10

Love is someone who, once again, you can actually lean on. Man, be independent!

Love is someone who, once again, you can actually lean on. Man, be independent!

Photos Courtesy of:Indiewire

Lust, Caution (2007)

Love works in mysterious, dastardly ways.

During World War II, Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is just another young, ambitious and politically-aware college grad looking to make something of her smart mind. Eventually, through meeting up with old friends, she becomes something of a secret agent who is planning to take down the government, or in some ways, just rebel and get her causes voice out there, heard loud and clear for the rest of the world. One of her first and perhaps, most important missions of them all, is to seduce and even assassinate an corrupt political official Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), who also works for the Japanese puppet government in Shanghai. While Wong is initially thrown off by the mission and thinking that she’s not quite capable of getting the job done, she sticks with it, believing that it must be done. However, as time goes on, she starts to find herself falling for the sometimes sad Mr. Yee – a move that may cost her, as well as her fellow rebels, their lives.

This could be us, but we watch Ang Lee movies.

This could be us, but we watch Ang Lee movies.

Lust, Caution is perhaps most notorious and controversial for its explicit sex scenes that, unsurprisingly, led to the MPAA giving it the dreaded NC-17 rating. And to speak of those sex scenes, well, yeah, they’re quite explicit, but most importantly, they matter. In a story chock full of lies, deceit, death, violence, and corruption, the one aspect that really speaks volumes is the actual sex itself; it’s graphic, in-your-face and barely leaves anything to the imagine, but it’s also kind of beautiful, too.

In fact, “beauty” could definitely be said for the movie as a whole.

Surely, this isn’t much of a surprise coming from Lee, who’s definitely been known for his movies to have an eye for the exquisite details in the certain ways his movies look. And it helps – the movie literally transports us all the way to Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II, and never seems phony, fake, or as if any of it took place on a major, Hollywood studio. There’s an air of authenticity that works for the movie and also makes us feel like we’re watching more than just another sick and twisted tale of love and murder, but more or less, a sincere look at a love story in the first place.

Lee is no slouch when it comes to the look of his movies, but at the same time, he also doesn’t back down from giving his characters the best work to deal with and because of that, the two leading performances from Tang Wei and Tony Leung are quite great. Wei’s especially great as she starts off as this young, naive and rather silly college school girl, who is still trying to make sense of her life and what she wants to do with it, yet, gets wrapped up in a situation where she has to act and be an adult, real quick, or else. It’s a transformative performance that shows her range and helps makes us feel more and more for her character, as we always know that she’s doing the right thing, but also question her motives, or better yet, how far and willing she is able to keep up with this mission, even when she knows that it can’t end on any sort of good note.

Yeah, I bet we can all predict what's happening here. Scandalous!

Yeah, I bet we can all predict what’s happening here. Scandalous!

Tony Leung is also quite great in the lead role as Mr. Yee, because he never seems like a true-and-tried villain. Sure, he’s definitely got despicable qualities to him, but the movie doesn’t just make him this one-note villain, who can’t wait to kill or screw anything that walks in his way; believe it or not, he actually is a human being, who has feelings, thoughts and ideas, which in ways, makes him all the more terrifying to watch. The movie may want him to be a villain, but Leung can’t help from making this man somewhat sympathetic, even in the slightest regards.

The only aspect about Lust, Caution that truly keeps it away from being another Ang Lee classic, is its length.

At a little over two-and-a-half hours, the movie more than wears out its welcome, as it is, yes, a little slow and even, at times, meandering. As hard as Lee may try to spice things up with sex, violence and lies, there’s still this never ending feeling that the movie is going to continue to go on and on, even when it should be wrapping itself up. And this isn’t to say that there isn’t anything wrong with long movies, so long as they give us a reason to understand why they’re so long in the first place – Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour version of Hamlet comes to mind, as it’s perhaps the most condensed version of that play and still feels necessary – but for some reason, Lust, Caution never makes a reason for it. Sure, there’s a lot of killing, sex, twists, turns and nudity to be had, but for how long and why?

The movie does eventually give us that answer, but unfortunately, it takes maybe way too long to get to it.

Consensus: With a certain eye for beauty, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is a sensual, well-acted, and rather tense thriller that may also be too long for its own good.

7.5 / 10

Love is so suffocating sometimes.

Love is so suffocating sometimes.

Photos Courtesy of: Roger Ebert, Focus Features, Drama Fever

Ride with the Devil (1999)

Ridin’s better than runnin’, right?

In 1861, two best buddies from the South, Jake and Jack (Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich), are forced to join up with the guerrillas in order to get revenge for the slayings of their families. At first, they seem to be really inspired to be rebellious and start killing whomever they think is on the other side and against them, however, they begin to think otherwise once they realize that they have a future ahead of themselves. For instance, Jack gets together with a widow (Jewel) who’s watching over them for short while, while Jake starts to think differently about the cause that these rebels are fighting for, and what it even matters in the end. Obviously not everybody thinks the same way these two folks do, so they land themselves in hot water, not knowing whether they’re going to die on the battlefield, or behind enemy lines.

"I swear, on my heart, not to pass on the Spider-Man role."

“I swear, on my heart, not to pass on the Spider-Man role.”

Ride with the Devil is an interesting flick in that it starts out as being something very ordinary and conventional, yet, changes around halfway through. Something very tragic happens and rather than getting ourselves a slam-bang Western full of action, guns, broads, whiskey, saloons, and pianos, we get something of a down-to-earth, mellowed-out character-drama that’s concerned more with its acting, than its pure spectacle or anything like that. And coming from Ang Lee, you can’t totally expect much different. The guy has made a living by taking a simple premise, and somehow being able to turn it on its side, giving us something that we didn’t expect to see, or didn’t really want to.

Which normally works for Ang Lee, but is still a bit messy here in Ride with the Devil.

For instance, it mostly all comes down to its plot. At one point, the movie’s about these two buddies who go into the war, not knowing what to expect, and somehow get thrown into the middle of it all. Then at the next point, somehow, the movie becomes a racial-drama, showing us all sorts of hatred and remorse African Americans had to face before they were made free. At one point, the movie becomes something of a war epic that’s made to get us up in the air, with our feet giving out right from beneath us. But then, at the next point, it suddenly becomes something of a romantic-drama, mixed with little bits and pieces of comedy. Oh, and before I forget to mention it, the movie does seem like it’s trying to make a point about the rebels and they’re hypocritical way of going about their business in order to make a point, which was probably the most interesting point the movie had to make yet, sacrificed it for a rivalry-angle between two characters that comes out of nowhere, and yet, they continue to milk it for all that they got.

Always follow Jewel.

Always follow Jewel. Except if your name is Kurt Loder.

So yeah, there’s a lot going on here and Lee, with all of his best intentions, does what he can to make it interesting. And for the most part, he does; this harsh and unforgiving view of the Wild West, that also paints it as an unpredictable hellhole, where any wrong decision can have you shot dead in the dirt, is a refreshing one and shows that Lee never backs down from a challenge, whether visually or structurally. However, the movie does have so much going on, with so much to say and do, that it seems as if Lee himself is having a hard time keeping up with, or better yet, even track of where he’s going next.

Unfortunately, that also keeps the movie away from having the sort of emotional and powerful effect it should most definitely have.

But thankfully, his cast is so good that they really do help it out. Tobey Maguire fits perfectly well as the sweet and quiet Jake; Jewel is actually a nice fit as the fiery, yet somewhat seductive widow who Jake falls for and starts something of a relationship with; Skeet Ulrich is actually a lot of fun to watch as the brash and charming Jack, showing that there was more to him than just his boyish good-looks; Jeffrey Wright, in one of the performances that put him on the map, does a great job as Daniel Holt, a former slave dealing with racism in these terrible and violent times, sometimes, hardly even having to say something to get his point across; and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, despite playing what is, essentially, the conventional villain of the movie, does a good job with it, making us feel like he’s more tortured than just evil, as if the pains and terror of war may never leave him, no matter how many years go by, or how long he stays away from guns and murder.

There’s a whole lot more to this cast that really help Ride with the Devil, but it’s always Lee’s show, first and foremost.

Consensus: With so much going on, Ride with the Devil still works as an interesting and well-acted, if somewhat messy, Western epic.

7 / 10

The West is about to get a whole lot more wild now.

The West is about to get a whole lot more wild now.

Photos Courtesy of: Roger Ebert, Memorable TV, Duke Wayne.com

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Who brings a gun to a fist fight, anyway?

Ever since he was a little boy, Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) has been around and seen all sorts of violence that it’s made him into a far more civilized, peaceful person as he’s gotten older. However, with WWII on the horizon, Desmond feels the need to serve and protect his country. But, how can one do that if they aren’t willing to pick up a gun and kill the enemy? Well, for Desmond, he decides that his true calling in war is to be a on-the-field medic and care for his fellow soldiers, all without having to lift a finger to kill someone. Obviously, Desmond’s fellow soldiers and comrades don’t take too kindly to Desmond’s “conscientious objector” ways, leading them to not just beat him up, but mock him and try whatever they can to get him kicked out of the Army for good. Through it all though, Desmond remains faithful to his true-self and doesn’t let others get in the way of what he rightfully believes him, even when death is staring him clear in the face.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a pacifist.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a pacifist.

For the first hour or so, Hacksaw Ridge is as playful, as entertaining, and as light as I’ve ever seen a war movie start. Sure, there’s a lot of dark stuff about alcoholism, PTSD, daddy issues, and violence that pops up every so often, but for the most part, Hacksaw Ridge starts out like an old school war flick, that soon turns into the bright-eyed version of Full Metal Jacket. It seems as if we’re going to get something so silly and wacky, that it actually makes you wonder whether Mel Gibson directed it, or he just through his name on there and had someone else do the job for him.

But then, after that first hour and the soldiers hit the battlefield, holy hell, it does a total 180 and all of a sudden, it’s a real war flick.

There’s blood, there’s guts, there’s decapitations, there’s severed-limbs, there’s fire, there’s explosions, there’s wounds, there’s cuts, there’s injuries, there’s cursing, there’s screaming, there’s shouting, there’s grown-men yelling for their mommies, there’s bullets, there’s guns, there’s grenades, and most of all, there’s death. Somehow, through some way, Mel Gibson himself was able to fool us all into thinking that this was going to be none other than an entertaining romp on WWII, only to then, turn the other cheek and absolutely stick our faces in it. If anything, it says more about us, than it does him – how can we expect something so lovely and cheerful to come out of so much pain, agony and death?

Well, Gibson answers that by basically saying, “we don’t.” We don’t, in that we spend roughly an hour or so with these characters, getting to know them, their lives, their hopes, ambitions and dreams, and then, with the drop of a hat, they’re shot dead, point blank in the heads. It’s so shocking, so abrupt, and so disturbing, that honestly, it couldn’t have been done any other way. Some may call it “uneven”, which it may definitely be, but still, Gibson surprises us out of nowhere and it works – it has the rest of the movie play-out in a far more serious, albeit more solemn tone.

Now, that isn’t to say that the movie’s perfect, of course.

As usual, Gibson’s movies, always look, sound and feel great, but when you get down to the bottom of them, are they really about much? Not quite. See, with Hacksaw Ridge, it’s obvious from the very start that it’s about faith, religion, and standing against war, with Garfield’s Desmond clearly angled as the Jesus-figure of the story and it’s so corny, that it actually works, until it gets way too obvious, with Gibson finding whichever possible symbolism that he can find and not stepping away from it one bit.

"Yes, Mr. Garfield. We allow you to stay away from franchise flicks forever!"

“Yes, Mr. Garfield. We allow you to stay away from franchise flicks forever!”

Should I be shocked that it’s coming from the same guy who did Passion of the Christ? Obviously, no, but it does make you wonder just what is this story about? Desmond Doss’ acts of bravery and heroism? Or, Mel Gibson’s constant battle with himself and his religion? Either way, it doesn’t keep Hacksaw Ridge from still being a very good war movie, that has something to say, even if Gibson doesn’t fully know what that is, or how to get it all out.

It also doesn’t keep the cast from giving some solid performances, either.

Andrew Garfield, now that he’s done with Spider-Man, can finally go back to making due on the promise he showed with the Social Network and if last year’s 99 Homes was just a starter, Hacksaw Ridge is his next-at-bat. While it’s definitely a thinner role, Garfield’s great in it, displaying a wild deal of humor, heart and personality, even if he does sometimes come off a tad bit too much like a classier-version of Forrest Gump. That said, Garfield handles everything so well, that he honestly does make it seem like he’s a true saint, even if the movie can’t trust him enough to give that impression in the first place.

Others like Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, and yes, even Vince Vaughn, all show up and put in some surprisingly solid work. Gibson has always been an actor’s director, showing each and every player off for what they can do best and never losing sight that they add a little more to the story. Because it’s not just about Doss and his heroic acts, as much as it’s about the aspect of war and the toll it can take on the actual humans themselves. The film’s preachy and obvious, but there’s an undercurrent of some real, hard and honest emotions here that work and make you think twice about war itself, and also Gibson.

Maybe that was his plan all along, that bastard.

Consensus: While heavy-handed, Hacksaw Ridge works as a brutal, well-acted and compelling anti-war flick that shows the return of Mel Gibson, the incredibly talented director that we didn’t know we missed so much of.

7.5 / 10

Hold up, everyone. Private Doss has got to think about his life.

Hold up, everyone. Private Doss has got to think about his life.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Blood Father (2016)

Daddy knows best.

John Link, is an ex-convict (Mel Gibson), who is just trying to get by in life. He runs a tattoo parlor out of his trailer, located somewhere in the outskirts of Southern California, attends local AA meetings, and most of all, hangs around his local trailer-park community, not trying to lose his cool after all of the crazy stuff that he’s seen or done. But now, it seems like life is coming back to bite him in the rear-end and this time, John may have to push back. After he gets a call from his estranged daughter, Lydia (Erin Moriarty), he has to grab her, get her out of trouble, and basically, go on the run from her drug-dealing boyfriend (Diego Luna) and his vicious cartel of ruthless, sometimes toothless gang of thugs who go around the state, shooting anything, or anyone that resembles John or Lydia. Because why? Because why the hell not!

Bearded Mel.

Bearded Mel.

With Taken having ended its franchise last year (even though there’s supposed to be a TV-adaptation out soon), it seems like the “old-guy-goes-around-killing-people” sort of sub-genre is coming to its demise, so to speak. Sean Penn’s the Gunman was a notorious bomb, Bruce Willis had a movie out this year called Precious Cargo that nobody saw and apparently, followed roughly the same plot-line, and now, we have Mel Gibson in the old guy game, with Blood Father. And while that may sound like a running-joke on some sort of annoying podcast, I kid you not, it isn’t.

In fact, Blood Father is quite the real deal.

It’s the kind of stinky, schlocky and silly B-movie thriller that all of those other movies I mentioned tried so desperately hard to be, but yet, were far too serious and “meaningful”, to even come close to. Blood Father is the kind of movie that winks a lot at the audience, knows what it is, doesn’t pretend to be much else other than what it is, and most importantly, get its job done in under 90 minutes. Most of those other movies I mentioned earlier, almost all clock in at two hours and yet, they still don’t quite hit the same highs as Blood Father does in its first five minutes, let alone, its whole 88 minutes or so.

Does that mean it’s perfect? No, not at all. But what it does mean is that director Jean-Francois Richet knows exactly what he’s making and isn’t trying to settle for anything more, or anything less. While it was definitely a huge risk casting Mel Gibson in a lead role, especially when all you really want for your low-budget, independent thriller is recognition and attention, he makes up for it in taking a balls-to-the-walls style that barely lets up. In a way, that can sort of come back to bite him; the moments that the movie does settle itself down to have conversations between daddy and daughter, it feels like it’s checking off something on a list. It’s as if the movie knows that it has to have this stuff, in order to tell a good story and keep the plot moving, even if, to be honest, it doesn’t totally work.

That said, the energy, excitement and absolute craziness of the action here is hard to ignore. Richet knows how to shoot an action-sequence, without doing non-stop cutaways and fast-edits to make it seem more hectic than it actually is – sometimes, a simple close-up or tilt will do just fine and get the same feeling across. He showed the same thing in his remake of Assault on Precinct 13 and not much has changed here, what with Blood Father is always moving somewhere and barely ever stopping, except for, like I mentioned, when it does.

And you know what? Say what you will about him, his personal life, his beliefs, and what he’s said to cops, Mel Gibson is still a movie star, dammit.

Clean-shaven Mel.

Clean-shaven Mel.

Sure, Hollywood may have forgotten about him and shooed-him away as the drunk Uncle nobody really talks to, or keeps in contact with, except for when it’s absolutely necessary, like at Thanksgiving, but Gibson himself hasn’t forgotten about himself, nor has he let go of what made him such a compelling actor in the first place. All that rough, tough and gruff that was there before, is still here and even as he gets older, there’s something inherently charming, even exciting about watching a middle-aged Gibson curse, shoot and kill his way through whatever stands in his way. He looks crazy and you know what? The movie makes him appear as such, too, and it’s hard not to love this character, everything he does, or says, even if you know, full well, that he’s got to get his morals in-check.

The rest of the cast is pretty solid, too, with random bit-players showing up in key roles and making this seem more like a joint-affair and not just “Mel Gibson owns the world”. Erin Moriarty may not be the best actor for this role as Lydia, but her character’s at least more believable than whatever the hell Maggie Grace’s was doing and/or saying in the Taken movies, so she’s already winning; Michael Parks and Dale Dickey show up as Gibson’s former pals from back in his bad boy days and are both perfectly slimy and icky; Diego Luna’s villainous character is cheesy, especially after he suspiciously comes back to life after what seems like a life-ending gun-shot to the dome in the first five minutes, but still does what he can; and William H. Macy, as Gibson’s buddy/sponsor, Kirby, is as perfect as they come and in all honesty, a better movie would have just said “screw you” to all of the violence and killing and just focused on the budding friendship between Kirby and Link.

Then again, probably not, because all of the violence and killing is pretty rad.

Consensus: Crazy, wild and never pretending to be something it isn’t, Blood Father is chock full of B-movie goodies, with a gruff, but engaging Mel Gibson tying it all up.

7 / 10

And oh yeah, intimidating, slightly dangerous Mel. The one we all know and, sometimes, love.

And oh yeah, intimidating, slightly dangerous Mel. The one we all know and, sometimes, love.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Apocalypto (2006)

Can’t trust humans. But can definitely trust Jaguars.

Even though the Mayan kingdom is at the height of its power, there are signs that the empire may be slowly, but definitely surely, crumbling beneath its very own feet. That’s why leaders start to believe that it’s time for them continue on building more and more temples, while also sacrificing certain folks, so that their crops can survive, as well as their people. During this time, somewhere deep in the forest, lives Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a peaceful hunter in a remote tribe, who, along with his wife Seven (Dalia Hernández), already have a child and another on the way. Life couldn’t be better for Jaguar, or all of his other friends and family, until everything all goes to hell when a much more powerful tribe comes by the village and raids it of the strong men, leaving the women and children to rot and, presumably, die. While Jaguar and his friends don’t exactly know where they are being taken to, what lies beyond the journey is something much more powerful and disturbing, and that is the changing of times and how, no matter how hard you try to get past it, your fate will never desist.

It's love when you have more piercings than her.

It’s love when you have more piercings than her.

Mel Gibson is a good, sometimes even great, director. His movies all look, sound and move, great, and for the most part, they deal with certain, troubling issues about life, murder, temptation and faith that we don’t too often see from most directors, let alone those who were most known for acting in movies, and not directing them. And yet, for some reason, his movies always seem imperfect.

While sure, you can definitely say that Braveheart is a great movie (even though it has its fair share of haters), it’s still a relatively conventional film of one gaining his freedom and beating the man, so to speak. The only difference with that movie is that it features a lot of blood, murder, axes, Scottish dudes, and yes, kilts. What Gibson really impressed people with, as he has done in the years since, is that he knows how to stage a big-budget, larger-than-life epic set-piece, where we do feel immersed in this great new world that we’re literally being told about and shoved into.

He’s done it with mostly all of his movies and yes, Apocalypto is another one of those movies.

That isn’t to say that it’s perfect, but it’s got signs of a true master working with all of the tools in his shed, so to speak, and having a grand time. While the movie came out not too long after Passion of the Christ, it is still, in ways, very different; it’s not nearly as self-serious, or as overly violent as that movie. Instead, there is humor to be had, there is a sense of adventure, and yes, there is a whole lot of shocking and disturbing violence that takes place here, but it all feels earned and not just something that Gibson himself couldn’t get enough of. That Gibson literally places us in this fun, breezy village in the first half-hour, only to then throw us into a setting where people are getting beheaded, women are getting raped, and babies are getting flung from trees, shows that, not just as a director, but as a person, he’s continuing to grow. Of course, talking about the year 2006 and Mel Gibson, wouldn’t be complete without all of the controversy that surrounded him at the time. But in a way, that doesn’t matter; a movie like Apocalypto doesn’t necessarily make Gibson out to be an immoral, or suspicious human being, much like Passion did, it just shows that his aspirations go further beyond being a movie star.

But still, does any of that matter?

"Kill him. The gods told us to. I think, anyway."

“Kill him. The gods told us to. I think, anyway.”

Not really. What does matter is that Apocalypto, for all of its action, its blood, its gore, and severed heads, still doesn’t seem like it really has anything fresh to say at all. Whereas Passion, albeit misguidedly, made a comment on faith as a whole, Apocalypto seems to just say the same thing as Braveheart did: “Always fight back. Never give up. Stick it to the man.” Sure, it may resonate with those who have never seen every sports movie ever made, but for those who have seen one, or a whole bunch of other movies, it comes as a bit disappointing. The signs of Gibson being a far more passionate and thoughtful director are here, and definitely show up in bright spots, but they don’t always stay around long and it’s why Apocalypto, with its 138 minute run-time, can’t help but feel a tad long.

Gibson himself spends a little too much time on the torture and murder of these native villagers, but then again, why shouldn’t he? What Gibson’s showing is true to history and more importantly, honest. He’s not shying away from the harsh reality of it all, nor is he trying to sensationalize anything – he’s showing all of the barbarianism, for what it is. Still though, he doesn’t make a comment on it and it’s where Apocalpyto, sadly, doesn’t reach its full potential.

Consensus: Epic, sweeping and surprisingly ambitious, Apocalypto finds Gibson swinging for the fences and, mostly, coming out on top, even if his message doesn’t seem to translate past being your typical, saccharine line about achieving one’s dreams and beating the odds.

7.5 / 10

The look of our savior. No. Not JC. But close enough.

The look of our savior. No. Not JC. But close enough.

Photos Courtesy of: The Fanboy Perspective

Cocoon (1985)

Want to live forever? Or, just be an alien?

When you get old, in most cases, you just get ready and wait to die. For a few folks at a senior citizens resort in Florida, they want to do more with their golden years. Instead of just withering away, remembering the past and dying peacefully, they want to go down loving the hell out of life and enjoying every second of it, as if they were just a bunch of young, ambitious 20-year-olds again. So by doing so, they discover a local pool that, for one reason or another, has a bunch of rocks at the bottom of it. What are they? And what do they exactly represent? Well, the fellas don’t really know, nor do they care. The only thing that they actually do know is that each and every time after getting out of the Cocoon, they disocver that they’ve got new and improved skills to them, where they’re able to move around like they once were able to and, of course, pleasure the ladies like they were still young whipper-snappers. It’s almost too good to be true for the guys and it turns out, that’s exactly the case when they discover that inside the rocks may hold something weird, or even sinister.

Party on, fellas!

Party on, fellas!

What’s nice about Cocoon is that it features an interesting look at age and the idea of growing old, that we don’t too often see in films, especially mainstream ones. While Cocoon is, essentially, a movie about growing old and eventually dying, it’s also a film about living life to its fullest, no matter what age. While that all sounds incredibly corny and schmaltzy (which at times, it can be), director Ron Howard still handles it all perfectly because, well, it’s a movie about old people, with actual old people in it.

Crazy, right?

So often do movies make elderly folks out to be bed-ridden, or wheelchair-ridden old geezers who always have something clever to say for laughs. With Cocoon, all of the elderly characters are given personalities and allowed to be as alive as any other younger person in a movie would get the chance to do. Howard is smart in that he always shows a certain admiration for these characters and never condescends to these older-folks; instead of showing them as old people who need to get on with the times and accept it all for what it is, he shows that they are just like us in ways, and that they need a little bit of spice in their lives to make them feel fully free and that anything can happen.

And as the older-folks, Howard assembled a pretty solid cast. Everyone’s pretty good, with classic-names like Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Maurren Stapleton, Don Amece, and, in my opinion, the standout, Wilford Brimley. Now, of course, Amece won the Oscar for his role here and while nothing against him and his fun, spirited performance, it’s really Brimley who’s the heart and soul of this thing. There’s one key scene he has with his character’s grandson, where they talk about life and death, and what it all means, and it’s all just so beautiful to listen to. Brimley handles what could have been a very awkward moment, with such tender, love and care, that it almost makes us wish that there was a whole movie just about him and his character.

Guess they didn't read the sign that clearly specified, "no large rock-things in the pool".

Guess they didn’t read the sign that clearly specified, “no large rock-things in the pool”.

That said, the whole entire Cocoon is about the old folks and their lives, which is basically where it all falls apart.

Sure, it makes sense that in order for Cocoon to succeed and be financially succesful to all audiences, and not just the old folks, that it would have a bunch of other characters, subplots, and yes, even some young, attractive faces and names to attract all of the youngsters to the cineplexes. In this case, one of the big, young and attractive faces was Steve Guttenberg and while he’s fine, if a bit hammy, he still doesn’t bring much to the movie that felt necessary, as was the case with Brian Dennehy’s alien character. It makes sense to have the sci-fi subplot to go along with everything else and help make sense of all the crazy stuff, but at the same time, Cocoon loses its step when it loses its sight of what it wants to be about.

It wants to be about older people, growing old and accepting the life for what they’ve had, but at the same time, it also wants to be this weird, spooky sci-fi flick about two races and kinds of people accepting one another for what they are, a la Close Encounters. It’s just a weird dynamic that never fully comes together and, if anything, takes away from the older folks and their stories, because, after all, their stories are where the real heart and meat of the movie comes from. Without them, the movie would fail, but with them, then they save the movie.

Next time, more old folks. Screw the sci-fi babble.

Consensus: Even if it’s messy and unnecessarily overstuffed, Cocoon still benefits from a talented cast and an appreciation and understanding of age and life that’s hardly ever seen in movies.

7 / 10

"Yeah. Go fish glowy guy."

“Yeah. Go fish glowy guy.”

Photos Courtesy of: Cinematic Reactions, Indiewire

Splash (1984)

What happens when you get so desperate and hit up M-Date.

After having a brief bout with death when he was just a little kid, Allen (Tom Hanks) has always been a little afraid of life. Mostly though, he’s afraid of the water, in that he almost drowned but thankfully, and miraculously, was saved by a mermaid (Daryl Hannah). Yes, an actual mermaid. While Allen’s friends and family don’t believe him, it’s a truth that he believes in so much, that nearly 20 years later, he meets the mermaid, who is all grown-up and walking on land and in need of some American culture. Allen is more than able to help her out with it all and better yet, maybe even fall in love with her, too. While it’s something that Allen has a problem with, he feels as if he can get past it for Madison’s sake. However, poor Allen himself has no clue that Madison is in fact a mermaid. Obviously, this wouldn’t bode well for any human being, let alone a guy like Allen, who always seems to pick an excuse for not tying the knot and settling down, even when he’s got the greatest girl by his side.

Get it? She's hot!

Get it? She’s hot!

Actual, good romantic-comedies are a dime-a-dozen nowadays that whenever an actual good one does come around, it’s a nice little surprise. It doesn’t mean that the movie is perfect, doesn’t have flaws, and surely doesn’t have all the same predictable issues that usual rom-coms have, because they do – it just means that they’re better than the herd and because of that, are worthy of being watched. That’s why a movie like Splash, as predicatble, conventional, and as imperfect as it may be, it’s still actually good and a whole lot better than what else kind of rom-com schluck that one could be watching.

Does that make it the greatest thing since sliced-bread? Of course not. But hey, it’s a start.

One of the main reasons for Splash working as well as it does is because the script doesn’t take itself all too seriously. It knows that it’s dealing with a fantasy and because of that, it doesn’t try to break any new ground, deliving some hard, honest thoughts and opinions about love, heartbreak, and all of the sadness, as well as happiness that can come with it all – it’s more about some d-bag of a guy, growing up, learning some values, and giving life itself a chance and not just turning his tail whenever tension or something serious may be standing in his way. While having three writers (Babaloo Mandel, Lowell Ganz, Bruce Jay Friedman) for a rom-com about a dude and a mermaid, may seem a bit excessive, it still works, because whatever missteps they make in the process, director Ron Howard is there to pick up the pieces and ensure that whatever mistakes are made, he’ll clean up the mess.

And clean up is what he does. Howard’s a good director – no doubt about that. But what he does well here is that he does keep the energy going along, even when it seems like a worser movie would pay attention to the stupid, silly details of the story. It’s literally a fish-out-of-water story, and while we do get a few jokes using that as a backbone, the movie doesn’t wholly rely on it; it instead focuses on the aspect of the real world and how society would look at someone/something as Madison, and judge her instantly. The movie doesn’t try to say anything about the human-condition, but it comes pretty close and it works.

Every man needs a best friend like John Candy.

Every man needs a best friend like John Candy.

Oh, and yeah, the movie’s funny, too.

The script is good for sure, but it’s honestly the performances that really make it work, what with a solid ensemble to help this material, even when it goes through some choppy areas. Splash is obviously well-known for being the movie that made Tom Hanks into a bonafide star and regardless of all that, it’s still a great performance from Hanks. He’s the typical male protagonist in a rom-com that’s all about him, his life, and his ways, but Hanks has fun with it; he enjoys making this guy look like a bit of an a-hole, as well as an endearing dude who may have actually found the love of his life for once and is finally ready to settle down. It could have been a throwaway role for anyone, but Hanks is better than that.

Daryl Hannah is pretty good, too, as Madison, but a good part of her role does have to deal with, unfortunately, a lot of her looking long, tall, blonde and, yes, naked. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, but there are a few good times during the movie where it made me wonder what the joke was, only to then realize that it was about Hannah’s butt or boobs. Thankfully, John Candy and Eugene Levy show up, showing off their brand for oddball humor, even in something that may seem so straight and ordinary as this mainstream rom-com. Candy definitely gets the bigger role of the two, playing Allen’s best friend, who gets to be goofy, but also sort of the heart and soul to the story. It shows us just what kind of great things Candy could do with the form of comedy, even if he never got to fully capitalize on all of it.

Or, at least, not nearly as much as everyone else here got to in the future and after Splash.

Consensus: Even if it is predictable and conventional to a fault, Splash still works because it’s funny, romantic, well-acted, and yes, even a little sweet.

7.5 / 10

Woah. Tom.

Woah. Tom.

Photos Courtesy of: 30 Years On

Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

One night stands are always the best kind of stands. Anything more is just overdone.

Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Joanne (Tracey Wiggins) are absolute and total polar opposites. He’s a social activist, who believes that each and everything in the world has to be about race, whereas Joanne herself is a professional woman who understands that race matters, as well as standing up for her own heritage, but also has a white boyfriend and doesn’t let these sorts of issues get in the way of her living her life and being happy. That’s why it’s all the more shocking to find out that they, after a wild night of drinking and partying at their friend’s place, they had sex. How? Or better yet, why? Well, neither of them really know; they just both know that they were both very drunk and vulnerable. So, in a way to make it right, they decide to go their separate ways and not be bothered with who the other person is. However, Micah doesn’t want to let Joanne go and somehow, some way, he’s able to spend the whole day with her, learning more and more about her as the day goes by, while she does the same to Micah in return. But how will the day end when she has a boyfriend and he seems to infuriate her so much?

Yeah, don't look to your right, hon. Awkward!

Yeah, don’t look to your right, hon. Awkward!

To be honest, Medicine for Melancholy would be a pretty easy to make. Most film students out there, aspiring to be the next best thing since PT Anderson, probably have made at least one or two Medicine for Melancholy‘s in their lives and that’s mostly because they don’t amount to much other than just a bunch of random people talking in rooms, with the occasional change in setting every so often. That’s about it. They’re cheap, easy and relatively painless, especially if you’re someone who has yet to be established and is just waiting oh so desperately for the world to realize the talent that you truly are.

And that’s why Barry Jenkins, believe it or not, finds a way to make it so much more than that.

Sure, there’s no denying the fact that Medicine for Melancholy is a low-budget flick that must have been pretty easy to think of and make, but it’s not about the actual process of filming, or scripting, or financing, or anything of that nature – it’s much more about telling a true, humane story about two people meeting, sort of falling in love and sort of not falling love. It’s a universal tale and in a way, you could almost call a time-capsule of the “hipster” young crowd it seems to represent so well here, but it’s also just a good tale in general, with Jenkins himself focusing on the right details to make a tale as simple and conventional as this, come off as slightly different.

Because Jenkins has more on his mind than just saying, “Oh, look at these two cuties hitting it off and flirting”, makes Medicine for Melancholy a little bit better. There’s lots of discussions about race in America, as well as the subcultures that surround it and how people, such as African Americans, are able to survive in such a place that doesn’t take care of them. It’s interesting to listen to these conversations, because they’re not only well-written, but they feel like actual conversations two real life people would be having, not just Jenkins getting on his high horse and letting people he knew about certain social issues in society, a la Aaron Sorkin.

That said, Medicine for Melancholy is still something of a love story, and a smart one at that. Shot in nearly all black-and-white, Jenkins allows for the movie to take on a far more old-school tone and feel, yet, still give us the idea that we are watching a modern-day romance transpire. The modern-day romance itself is, well, not all that good, but that’s sort of the point; the non-stop awkwardness and heavy, deep sighs that continuously occur, make it seem all too real of a situation and one that most of us can, for the most part, relate to.

But it’s less about being everyone’s story, and more of Micah and Joanne’s story, and how they do, or don’t fit together.

Is it love, or convenience? The world may never know!

Is it love, or convenience? The world may never know!

And as the two, Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins are fine, if a little weak in some departments. The one interesting aspect surrounding their performances is that they’re chemistry doesn’t just start-off perfectly right from the get-go; because they have literally just met and gotten to know one another, it takes a little bit of time to gradually get things going to where they’re not only building up a rapport, but beginning to understand the other person for what they are. That said, the performances do sometimes feel stilted – something that can only be had when you give inexperienced actors a whole lot of material to work with, and not a whole lot of room for error.

Because of that, Medicine for Melancholy does feel like it drops the ball a bit. It has a good idea, a brain in its head, and a heavy heart in its soul, but the acting just isn’t always there. Cenac is probably the better of the two, because he gets to act like a goof-ball, but honestly, Heggins didn’t always work for me. Someone who was supposed to be as closed-off as she was, does randomly start falling in love and laughing with him a little too sudden and quick, and when it comes to her actually having to show a bit of personality, well, it doesn’t work. She seems stiff and most of that probably has to do with the fact that Jenkins script and direction doesn’t let-up. The camera is on her, almost the whole time, never lets go, and is just waiting for her to trip and make a fool of herself.

Sometimes, she does and it’s unfortunate, because at its core, Medicine for Melancholy does work.

It’s just got the usual issues that mostly any and all film students run into.

Consensus: With a smart head on its body, Medicine for Melancholy is much more than a sweet, tender look at a possible love blossoming, but a snapshot of what it was like to be young, black and living in the city during the late aughts.

7.5 / 10

Symbolism, right?

Symbolism, right?

Photos Courtesy of: J.J. Murphy, Indiewire, Mubi

Miracle (2004)

Who needs a college education when you could just defeat the Russians?

When college coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) is hired to helm the 1980 U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team, he can’t believe himself. At one stage, early in his playing-career, Herb was supposed to be on the same team, but was cut at the last second, making this opportunity seem like a second chance at success. While his wife (Patricia Clarkson) means that Herb won’t be quite the present husband for quite some time, she still supports him enough to where he can take the job and bring all of his hopes, dreams and aspirations to the young, talented whipper-snappers he has to work with. But Herb has a lot to deal with; the team is chock full of hot-heads who think they’re way better than they actually are, and in of their very first games, the team gets their rumps handed to them. So Herb decides to crank everything up a notch and put all of the guys through hell, even if they, as well as some faculty don’t fully support it. That said, Herb’s doing it all for a reason: To defeat the undefeated and incomparable Russian hockey team once and for all.

"Okay, so just get the puck in the net. Any questions?"

“Okay, so just get the puck in the net. Any questions?”

Miracle, on paper, seems like your traditional, syrupy, feel-good Disney sports flick where we know the heroes, the foes, the conflict, and the ending from the very first second of the flick. And on film, believe it or not, that’s actually how it all plays out, but there’s something more to it than just schmaltz and melodrama. Director Gavin O’Connor is smarter than just sitting down and shooting whatever is in front of him, so that he can collect that nice, big and hefty paycheck from the folks at Disney at the end of the day – a part of him feels and appreciates this true, inspirational tale.

And because of that, somehow, there’s more feeling and emotion to it all.

Sure, the movie is still conventional and hits every beat that a sports movie of this nature should indeed hit, but it hits them all so well, that they’re beats that are hardly noticeable. O’Connor does a lot with this sports genre, in that he has a lot of the conventions – like the supportive, but strict wife, or the training-montages, or the tough-as-nails-coach who isn’t loved by everyone, or the brassy, young talent who needs to be coached harder, etc. – and finds a way to put something behind them that allows for them to work. The fact that we already have a sense of nostalgia for this patriotic blend of America at the start of the 80’s sets in right away and hardly ever leaves, making Miracle feel like a cookie-cutter attempt at giving families “adult” entertainment, when in reality, it’s just a typical sports movie, disguised as something far more meaningful and honest.

If anything, it’s just a sports movie that does a nice job of surprising us, even if we know what’s going to happen. Most of that comes with Herb Brooks and Kurt Russell’s great performance of a simple and straightforward man who has a mission in his life, and will not at all stray away from whatever it takes to get him to achieve that dream. Brooks is a soft-spoken man, who has very little to say at all, but Russell does wonders with this kind of role in that he shows a hard, but passionate man who doesn’t seem to care what others may think or care about him – he just wants to win the gold, screw all of the haters. In a way, there’s something so incredibly awesome about that and the fact that O’Connor keeps the focus mainly on him, helps; we don’t normally get sports movies that take the coach over every other character, but here, it works well for the movie.

Uh, who?

Uh, who?

Then again, that does take away from the actual players themselves and, after awhile, does have them feel like a bunch of faceless “nothings”.

It’s admirable on O’Connor’s part to cast mostly unknown and inexperienced actors in these players’ roles, as it allows for us to see them as players, and not just famous dudes trying to play hockey, but he doesn’t help them out much. They don’t get a whole lot of development and the scenes in which they do get even a glimmer of any, they’re so poorly-done, it’s almost too obvious that it was a second-priority for O’Connor and writer Eric Guggenheim. Of course, anytime that the movie gets bored with these kids, it heads right back to the compelling Brooks, but it doesn’t help the movie’s case that it’s supposed to be about this one, miraculous team and all we really care about, or who we know the best and most, is probably the coach.

Once again, nothing wrong with that, but it also does take a whole lot more than just a very good coach, to win the gold.

Consensus: Even with the typical conventions of sports flicks firmly in-place, Miracle gets by on a tremendous performance from Kurt Russell, as well as a heart and emotion to the proceedings that make it feel more than just a soulless, big-budget retelling, destined for ESPN Films reruns.

7 / 10

If Kurt's happy, everyone's happy. It's just a fact of life.

If Kurt’s happy, everyone’s happy. It’s just a fact of life.

Photos Courtes

Tumbleweeds (1999)

tumbleweedsposterAlways count on momma. Even if she doesn’t make good decisions.

Every time something seems to go wrong with a relationship, Mary Jo Walker (Janet McTeer) and her daughter, Ava (Kimberly J. Brown), pack up and move to another city. It’s a routine that Ava is getting tired of as she gets older and, if anything, just wants to settle down in some place, where she can make more friends and have something resembling a healthy, reliable family-unit. But because Mary Jo is such a wild firecracker, who seems to have a knack for always choosing the wrong guys, Ava doesn’t get that. However, after traveling further down South, Ava and Mary Jo feel as if they may have finally found that one and special someone who, yeah, may not be perfect, but may also be the answer that they’ve been looking for. He’s trucker Jack Ranson (Gavin O’Connor), who instantly takes a liking to Mary Jo and does whatever he can to please Ava, but for some reason, she’s just not taking it. After all, she’s way too preoccupied with trying to get the lead in her school’s take on Romeo & Juliet where, of all the roles, she decides to try-out for the role of Romeo.

"We're just taking a ride. Why? Wanna hop on in?"

“We’re just taking a ride. Why? Wanna hop on in?”

Tumbleweeds has that feeling of every Sundance indie-flick you’ve ever seen, but there’s also something refreshing and quite lovely about it. Some of that has to do with the fact that co-writer/director Gavin O’Connor, knows how to handle these small, somewhat gritty tales about everyday people that you’d normally meet on the street and try something with them that’s interesting to watch. They may not be ground-breaking tales, but they’re still ordinary takes on everyday human beings lives and for that reason alone, they definitely deserve a watch.

And yeah, Tumbleweeds is that movie.

O’Connor, as both a co-writer and director, does well here with the material. While he’s treading a whole lot of familiar-ground, he gets by with the material in soft, small and subtle touches that somehow make it feel a slight bit fresher. The fact that Ava is, like so many other movie teens, a precocious kid who has a love for Shakespeare, but an even bigger want, love and desire for the perfect family, not only makes her more believable, but somehow more sympathetic, even when it seems like she’s being a brat. Same goes for Mary Jo who seems like the typical free-spirited lady in one of these movies – the kind who has no rhyme, reason or code for what it is that she does or when she does it, but decides to pack up and leave whenever she feels it’s necessary. They’re both unlikable in certain respects, but because they have such a lovely and nice bond with one another, it’s hard not to love them together.

It also helps that Janet McTeer and Kimberly J. Brown are both pretty great in their roles, showing a nice bit of chemistry that’s actually believable and not at all annoying. McTeer has a certain sense of fun and spunk in her performance that makes Mary Jo an entertaining gal for who she is; while she likes to drink hard, party hard, and have sex pretty hard, she also longs for a solid family-unit, where she can finally settle down and not have to worry about where her life is going to take her next. McTeer keeps us guessing as to when that other shoe is going to drop and when she’s going to get ready to hit the road, but it’s still enjoyable to watch her nonetheless.

And even though she’s playing the kid here, Brown’s also quite good. Sure, she’s the teenager who may have a bit of a chip on her shoulder and may act as if she knows more than she actually does, but there’s still something entertaining in watching all that. Brown feels like a real kid here as Ava, so it’s hard to watch her performance and not think of how we all acted at this age – of course, they may have been under circumstances, but still.

Nothing like a mother admiring her sassy, but soulful daughter. Or at least, let's hope that's her daughter.

Nothing like a mother admiring her sassy, but soulful daughter. Or at least, let’s hope that’s her daughter.

We were all kids nonetheless.

And while it may seem odd that he cast himself in his own movie, in such a pivotal role, O’Connor’s actually pretty competent as an actor that he helps some of his rougher-scenes, actually work. I have no clue why he was doing a New York accent the whole time, despite being a rough, gruff and tough truck-driver from San Diego, but hey, I’ll take it. It’s also nice to see Jay O. Sanders here as Mary Jo’s co-worker who, just like her and Ava, seems to have that same longing for love and a family, but just doesn’t know how to go about actually getting it. It’s a sweet role that works well beside Mary Jo and Ava’s relationship, even if he does randomly pop-up at contrived moments.

But hey, it still works.

Like I said before, though, Tumbleweeds isn’t a perfect movie. It’s hard not to pinpoint just what is going to happen with the plot, where and at what moments, but the movie is less about the plot-structure and the surprises that the actual story itself has to offer, and more about the characters, their relationships, and how they get by in life. Once again, it’s your typical Sundance flick, but that doesn’t always have to spell out trouble. Sometimes, it can just mean that your story and your movie pays more attention to the human heart and characters than most other movies out there and well, there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

So long as you do it all right. Which O’Connor does and has done for quite some time since this flick.

Consensus: Regardless of the conventional plot, Tumbleweeds is a well-acted, heartfelt take on the mother-daughter relationship, without hitting any sappy moments that material like this would seem to promise.

7.5 / 10

Dinner-tables have never seemed so much fun! Even without food!

Dinner-tables have never seemed so much fun! Even without food!

Photos Courtesy of: Nick’s Flick Picks, Superior Pics

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Wait, which movie is this?

Ever since he was a little boy growing up on a slave plantation in the early 19th century, Nat Turner (Nate Parker), has always wanted to be more than just your typical slave. He was literate, could preach the word of God and most of all, saw himself as one with white people. However, little does he know that, outside of his plantation, where everything’s bad, but not awful, lies a cruel, dark and unforgiving world that doesn’t take kindly to black people, free or not. And Nat gets to witness a good portion of it, first-hand, when he and his owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), go out on a few trips where they stop at fellow slave plantations and Nat preaches the word of God. For some reason, the owners see this as a way for their own slaves to get riled up and do the work that they were “supposedly” put on this God’s-green Earth to do in the first place. But after witnessing one too many brutal acts of sadism, Nat decides that it’s time to turn the other cheek, gather up all of the other slaves that he’s come to know and love, and fight back. 

Symbolism? Right?

Symbolism? Right?

A lot of the discussion about the Birth of a Nation, oddly enough, hasn’t been about the title, the movie’s depiction of slavery, its message, or hell, even whether or not it’s actually good and worth watching. Instead, it’s been all about what director/star/co-writer Nate Parker and co-writer
Jean McGianni Celestin did on that one fateful evening, nearly 17 years ago when they were students at Penn State. This review is not about what did, or didn’t happen, and whether or not Parker and Celestin are, or aren’t guilty of their supposed-crimes (even though Celestin did actually plead “guilty”, but that’s neither here, nor there) – in fact, it’s actually going to be about the movie itself, the Birth of a Nation.

And well, it deserves to be talked about. If not exactly for the reasons people imagine.

If there’s anything I have to give Nate Parker credit for here is that you can tell that there’s a fiery, burning-passion deep inside of him that makes this movie hit as hard as it should sometimes. By telling Nat’s story, especially from the literal beginning to the literal end, he’s giving us a small, but important tale of, sure, rebellion, but also of so much more. The tale is definitely about racism and how slavery was terrible, but it’s also a little bit about religion and the way in which slavers back in those days would use it to somehow justify all of their terrible wrong-doings.

Parker could definitely lean into the realm of preaching the masses (which Nat literally does), but he chooses not to; instead, he opts for keeping the focus on Nat, his story and his mission in his all-too short life. It’s a sad story, as most slave-tales are, but Parker shows that there could have been some hope in a dark and foreboding tale such as this. Even for all of his shortcomings as a director, writer and, yes, even human being, he’s still got something here that makes me interested in seeing what he has to do next, because he has a story that he wants to tell here and he doesn’t back down from getting into the nitty, the gritty and the downright vile of it all.

But at the same time, the movie is awfully troubled.

See, for one, it seems as if Nate Parker, the director, has a bit of work to do. A part of me feels the raw and inspired emotion coming from Parker’s direction, but a part of me also notices how much of that emotion seems to be getting in the way of actually creating a good movie, where there’s a nice narrative-flow and a compelling plot-line to make sense of, what with all of the terrible slave-stuff going on. The issue here is that Parker doesn’t seem all that focused; he has a lot to speak out against and say, but it never quite means anything.

There’s one great scene in which Nat has an argument with Mark Boone Junior’s preacher character, in which they literally battle one another with scripture-passages, showing how the other has misunderstood the message of the Bible and Jesus’ teaching. It’s brilliant, smart, tense, exciting, and most of all, important; it shows that the idea of slavery and the business of it all, while a very successful one at that, was based on a huge plain of lies. Parker uses this one scene, to show that he’s worthy of bringing on a discussion about this tale and what he’s got to tale, but the flip side of it all is that he doesn’t quite do much with that.

Friends for life. Until the work needs to be done.

Friends for life. Until the work needs to be done.

Instead, he sort of just leaves the scene there and focuses back on Nat Turner being a hero to us all.

In a way, I don’t argue with the movie in that respect; Nat Turner fought for what he believed in and was going to die if he had to. It’s an admirable act on his part, however, the movie seems to back away from discussing, or even shining a light on some of the more troubling aspects of his story. Like, say, for instance, how he uses the Bible as a way to justify his slaughtering of men, women and children (even if we don’t see the women and children actually killed on-camera here, although it did happen), or how there are literally two rapes that occur in this movie and, for some reason, they all seem to be made-up for the sake of adding some sort of theatrical tension that may not have already been there.

What’s odd about this is that it seems like all of Parker’s emotion and intensity in telling this story, also blinded him to the fact that Turner’s story is a lot more complicated than he thinks. Slaver was awful and Turner had to be around it his whole life, but at the same time, the movie doesn’t ever seem to present anyone, or anything else differently. Every slave-owner, with the exception of Armie Hammer’s Samuel, are dirty, foul-mouthed, drunk and always looking for a fight. Granted, there was quite a number of them in the far-superior 12 Years a Slave, but at least there was some humanity to them in that – here, they just seem like cartoons who haven’t bathed in decades.

That’s why, as a director, Nate Parker has a lot of work to do.

As a whole, the Birth of a Nation has a powerful story to work with, but the execution is surprisingly tame. Parker gets all wrapped-up in actually telling the story, once and for all, that he forgets how to actually construct a whole, feature-length film about it and loses track way too quickly. It’s a movie definitely worth seeing, but yeah, don’t believe the hype.

Consensus: While brave, the Birth of a Nation is a bit too messy to really hit as hard as it wants to, even if Nate Parker’s debut is an interesting one that makes him someone to keep an eye on.

7 / 10

"For freedom! Obviously!"

“For freedom! Obviously!”

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Every kid’s troubled.

Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), is a a defiant young city kid who is preoccupied with the gangster lifestyle. Meaning, that he spends a lot of his spare time stealing, cheating, cursing, rapping, wearing baggy-clothes, and just doing things one little kid his age isn’t supposed to be doing. In hopes of getting that all changed and he may shape-up a bit, Ricky’s sent by child welfare services to live in the country with foster mother Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband, the cantankerous Uncle Hec (Sam Neill). Bella instantly takes a liking to Ricky, as does he to her, but Uncle Hec is a bit of a mystery; he’s not necessarily angry at the world or at Ricky, he just doesn’t care. However, their lives all change one day when Ricky and Hec are forced to spend a whole lot of time together, where they’ll have to learn to survive and depend on each other. You know, typical survival stories, but in this case, between a 13-year-old kid and a nearly-70 year-old-man.

Wouldn't get in a stand-off with him, kid. Sorry.

Wouldn’t get in a stand-off with him, kid. Sorry.

What’s interesting about writer/director Taika Waititi is that it seems like he doesn’t necessarily have a certain style that you can pin down, but it’s twee and quirky enough that it’s still recognizable. In a way, Waititi is a lot like Wes Anderson, in that a lot of his humor tends to stem from editing and visual quirks, and less about what joke is actually funny and how it was delivered. Then again, whereas Anderson feels like he’s actually limiting himself, as well as his comedic sensibilities, by having to stick with his awfully pretentious style, Waititi isn’t afraid to move around a bit, feel for some room, and explore the ever-regions of humor and the comedy world as is.

That’s why Hunt for the Wilderpeople, while not a perfect movie, still shows that Waititi is a talent that needs to be watched.

Even after last year’s What We Do in the Shadows, a lot of people may be surprised about the adoration coming for him only now, but I didn’t quite love that movie the same that others did; in ways, it almost felt like one improv-sketch, after another, with the found-footage format just being a little bit of a bore. It wasn’t wholly original, despite having some nice bits and pieces of inspired humor. Here, that same sense of humor, style, and sense of storytelling is practically lost and with good reason – Waititi gives us a simple story, with a pretty simple execution that helps the movie out because it doesn’t take away from its heartfelt message about, well, love, family and all that sort of thing.

Yeah, it’s pretty cheesy to say a film is “about family and love”, but with the Wilderpeople, it’s true and it works; Waititi has a pretty conventional story on his hands here, but he adds enough heart, warmth and charm to it to where it doesn’t matter what conventions get played out again, or what similar beats get hit. All that really matters is that the beats work, the conventions don’t get tiring, and most importantly, that the movie itself stays sweet and charming. After all, a movie can be as predictable as Sunday mass, but as long as it has a little something more brewing underneath the predictability, then it’s all good.

For the most part, that is.

The only thing keeping Wilderpeople away from being a way better movie is the fact that, yet again, it is still a conventional piece of family-oriented film making. Waititi himself has some nice tricks and trades to make the interesting a whole lot more visually appealing, but other times, he can’t help but succumb to the fact that this story is as simple as you get. The characters work and, of course, the performances from both Neill and Dennison are quite great, but really, they’re all in a movie that’s plain and simple. Waititi may have dealt with the heavier-issues of alienation and sadness in something like Eagle vs. Shark, whereas here, he sort of just hints at them, in hopes that nobody will get too sad or depressed and get taken away from the fun that takes place in the woods with these characters.

When the fuzz comes a knockin', it's time to get a rockin'.

When the fuzz comes a knockin’, it’s time to get a rockin’.

That said, the characters do work and help make this as exciting as it can possibly be. As a child actor, Julian Dennison is not only very cute, but he’s also got some skill, too; a lot of moments and lines could have made Ricky out to be another one of those young, pain-in-the-ass kids that’s just annoying to all hell, but there’s more to him than just that. The fact that he wants to be a gangster and idolizes Tupac and Biggie, makes him more than just your ordinary kids protagonist who just likes to cause a lot of mischief and get into fights about cleaning their room.

Trust me, we’ve all seen it before. But thankfully, Dennison’s a good child actor and can make it all work, while also giving us plenty to adore about him.

Then, of course, there’s Sam Neill who seems like he’s actually enjoying himself here, even if he’s not allowed to show too much of it. Because Hec is such a stern and serious dude, you almost get the impression that Neill himself may be bored and want to live a little, but Waititi gives him plenty of opportunities to do so where he’s more than just an old codger who wants kids to get off of his lawn. Sometimes, all he wants is to be around people for a short while, have a good time, feel some sort of adventure, and then, yeah, go back home to where he won’t ever be disturbed again.

Can’t say I hate him, to be honest. In fact, he’s downright relatable.

Consensus: Seemingly not a very original flick, Hunt for the Wilderpeople works well with its attention to characters, heart, and a visual-style that keeps things interesting and most of all, funny.

7.5 / 10

Can I come? Seriously, guys?

Can I come? Seriously, guys?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Goat (2016)

For a few thousand up-front, they’ll be your friends for life.

The summer before his life changes forever and he starts college, Brad (Ben Schnetzer) goes through a very traumatic time in his life where he is robbed and carjacked by a pack of thieves he knows nothing about. Brad isn’t ready for the real world just yet and begins to have second thoughts about actually going to college, until his older brother, Brett (Nick Jonas), promises him that everything will get better once he joins up at his frat. Brad doesn’t really know what he wants to do, but he wants something to get all of his anger out, so he decides to pledge which, at first, is all fine and dandy. The guys all get to know each other, drink, party hard, and have sex with all sorts of hot chicks. But after pledge week is over, it all gets very dark, very twisted, and very serious, with pledges having to do all sorts of cruel and messed-up things to one another, in hopes that they will become apart of this frat, and most importantly, the brotherhood that the frat promises.

Crazy times with the one relevant Jonas bro!

Crazy times with the one relevant Jonas bro!

Though it’s incredibly hard to find, Todd Phillips’ Frat House documentary truly is an eye-opener for those who never got to experience a real-life frat for what it was, or even actually saw one and only learned of how they were from movies and such. Whereas a lot of movies will glamorize these free-wheelin’ lifestyles chock full of booze, drugs, sex, parties, bro-bonding, and countless other events of full-on debauchery, the documentary showed that there was a more sadistic side to all of these supposed wonderful and great things. Instead of making it seem like a fraternity is the way to go for any college male looking for the perfect set of friends and parties, it showed that maybe, just maybe, going to the library and staying in isn’t such a bad thing.

After all, you won’t have nearly as many psychological issues when you graduate and are ready to actually begin with the rest of your life.

But anyway, the reason I bring up that movie is because a good portion of it feels as if it’s all been brought to film in Goat, even though co-writer/director Andrew Neel has drawn most of this from his real-life experiences in fraternities. And because of that, the movie still feels real; everything we’re seeing isn’t done in the usual, over-the-top manner, but instead, with a keen eye for certain details about this lifestyle that makes you feel like you almost are watching a documentary at certain times. Neel is a smart director though, in that he opts to never really get too close to everything here, even though he definitely could have with all of his experiences in real life; while it would have been easy for him to paint his wild and crazy times in a frat as “rad” and “awesomely awesome”, he opts more for sitting back and saying, “well, maybe it was kind of screwed-up”. But at the same time, he’s not.

See, there’s this detached feeling to the proceedings that take place during Goat and it makes a lot of what’s happening all the more compelling to watch. The movie could have easily gotten on a high horse and made it out to be that frats are the worst things to happen to college life since the cafeteria (which, it may honestly be), but it doesn’t try to get across a message in any way, shape or form. After all, the movie understands that for some of the dudes apart of the frat, it is their lives and without it, they would sort of be nothing; James Franco’s small, but powerful cameo as a former brother who shows up for a little to drink and forget about his wife and kid, shows that this frat lifestyle never goes away, no matter how far away you get from it.

It’s actually kind of scary, but it’s even scarier once you remember that frats still do exist at colleges and they’re still doing a lot of what they’ve been doing since they ever started.

"Don't blink, or take a shot of some warm liquid."

“Don’t blink, or take a shot of some warm liquid that’s totally not urine.”

That said, Goat is also a movie that needs to have a story, and not just be one scene of hazing, after another, and yeah, this is where it kind of falls apart. Neel is great at setting up the scenes for these seemingly unpredictable moments to happen, but when it comes to actually getting across some sort of story, in which there are random acts of violence and even a death, it all comes off as a little melodramatic. Not to say that these sorts of things don’t show the true danger of frats, but they also do so in a way that makes it feel a bit like an afterschool special – albeit, one with a whole lot more cursing, drinking, and nudity.

But thankfully, the performances do help it out. Ben Schnetzer is a very young talent who constantly keeps on showing up in interesting stuff, even if the movies themselves don’t always work. Here, as Brad, he gets to do a lot by showing us this truly nerdy guy who may or may not have a darker side to him, but wants to get it out in any sort of way that he can. Some ways, he reminds me of a few kids I knew going to school, who despite seeming like your normal, everyday geek who came and went to class, didn’t say a word, and seemed to keep to himself, all of a sudden was a part of a frat, bro-ing out, drinking hard, having all sorts of crazy sex, and acting like a crazy and out-and-out maniac. Brad’s that guy and Schnetzer is great at making us wonder just where he’s going to go next. Same goes for Nick Jonas’ Brett, who gets a whole lot more sympathetic as he goes on, showing that this cold, dark and awfully cruel world of fraternities can have some honest souls who don’t want to see their friends roll around in feces and dirt just to get into more parties for free.

Sometimes, they just want everyone to have a good time and not lose their own self-worth.

Consensus: Dark, disturbing and shocking, Goat works as an eye-opener for those who aren’t used to seeing fraternities depicted in this way on the screen, even if its accompanying story doesn’t always seem to be as interesting.

7.5 / 10

If you're waking up to this, it's time to get to class ASAP.

Just bro’s being bro’s.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Billboard, Brightest Young Things

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Find the head and you may get the killer.

Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is a New York City detective whose unorthodox techniques and penchant for gadgets make him unpopular with is colleagues. That’s why, after much time spent on science and all of the ground-breaking inventions being made within that world, he is sent to the remote town of Sleepy Hollow, where they hope he’ll be able to solve a whole slew of murders that have been occurring – as local townspeople have all been disappearing in the woods and dead, only to have their bodies found with their heads cut off. Who is doing this and why, Ichabod hopes to find out and it’s why, despite not having a great idea of the land that he’s about to settle into, he is, at the very least, inspired. Once he gets to this town, Ichabod realizes that there’s a lot more going on between these townsfolk that may or may not solve his crime, but also continue to make the folk tale of the Headless Horsemen all the more grandiose and magical, if also kind of dangerous.

From Hell?

From Hell?

It’s great to watch Tim Burton having fun, because unfortunately, he so rarely does nowadays. While he could have made a drab, dreary and downright depressing version of Sleepy Hollow, Burton instead goes for a fun, high-wire, quick, and exciting version that is also drab, dreary and, yes, depressing. Sounds crazy and almost impossible to imagine or even picture seeing, but somehow, Burton pulls it all off so well, adding a great sense of slick and brooding style to go along with the fast velocity in which the plot is being told to us.

Does it all work?

Sadly, no, not really. However, there’s something to be said for a messy Tim Burton movie that is, in ways, a very fun one. By the year 1999, Burton wasn’t quite as well-known as the imaginative and ambitious creative-mind that seemed to have lost his way, like he is now – back then, he was still seen as the imaginative and ambitious creative-mind that may have had a few missteps along the way (Mars Attacks! and Beetlejuice, depending on who you talk to), but recovered from them quite greatly because he still had a style to work with and wasn’t afraid to get as weird as one can possibly get. That’s why, for the longest while, Sleepy Hollow is quite the thrill-ride; it’s probably not as scary as Burton wants it to be, but with an R-rating, it’s allowed to do a whole lot of things, like stab, slice and splatter all sorts of blood.

It’s as if Burton was given free reign to run wild with whatever he budget he had in mind, with whoever was around, and at the same time, still put something of his stamp on an age old classic. It’s basically the dream that every director/writer dreams of one day actually having, which is what makes it all the more joyful to see Burton getting a chance to live out that dream, once and for all. Sure, he may have already had his dreams lived out before with the Batman flicks, but personally, as dark and as sinister as this can sometimes get, it seems like Burton is really in his zone. He doesn’t have to answer to too many people, nor does he have anyone set in his mind about pleasing.

Except, well, himself, of course.

Who needs lines when you're Christopher Walken?

Who needs lines when you’re Christopher Walken?

That said, Burton does slip up somewhere by the end, once the film relies that it has to actually tell its age old plot and give something resembling a reason for all of the crazy murders and whatnot. It’s not that we needed it, because we sort of do, it’s just that it feels like such a hack-job that Burton himself didn’t even seem to care about, is that it comes out of nowhere and doesn’t hold much meaning. We get an idea of who the villain in the story may be, but the movie isn’t solely depending on the big, final twist of who was really chopping all of the people’s heads off; it’s all about the ride and joy of getting there, which is where Burton works best. Grounding himself in rhyme, or reason, is not Burton’s forte and while he can definitely do it, he doesn’t really need to with a movie as silly and, sometimes, as insane as Sleepy Hollow.

It’s also why the final-product, while still enjoyable, still does feel like a bit of a mixed-bag. There’s no denying the fact that it’s a fun-filled, campy, and over-the-top wild ride that doesn’t ever seem to let up, by the end, it can get a little exhausting. All of the characters in this are, well, exactly that; every actor who shows up here is great, but they’re also working with cartoon cut-outs. Sure, some may not expect this from a Burton flick, or better yet, a Sleepy Hollow adaptation, but it would have been nice, if not, necessary to get some downtime in between all of the craziness to get to know who we’re dealing with and why. Just having talented, good-looking people like Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, and Miranda Richardson isn’t enough.

A little bit more detail and care can go a long, long way, no matter how much style you have going on.

Consensus: Wacky, wild, over-the-top and occasionally nuts, Sleepy Hollow finds Tim Burton having a great time putting his own spin on the classic tale, but also finds him never knowing when to slow down and tell us a little more about the story.

7 / 10

Yeah, time to turn around, I'd say.

Yeah, time to turn around, I’d say.

Photos Courtesy of: Overdue Review