Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

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Category Archives: 8-8.5/10

Volver (2006)

It’s like Paranormal Activity, but you know, actually good.

Revolving around an eccentric family of women from a wind-swept region south of Madrid, Penélope Cruz plays Raimunda, a working-class woman forced to go to great lengths to protect her 14-year-old daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). To top off the family crisis, her mother Irene (Carmen Maura) comes back from the dead to tie up loose ends. But is this just Raimunda’s mind going a little out-of-whack, or is her late mother actually alive, well, and not actually dead?

Surely, something that sounds so simple and straightforward cannot be the work of crazy, envelope-pushing director Pedro Almodóvar. Over his long and storied career, he’s tackled subjects like pedophilia, sexual-awakening, incest, crime, murder, homosexuality, and HIV, among many others, so how the hell can a guy who likes to talk about stuff like that, be tackling a flick that seems like it came straight-from-TV? Well, it’s easy, he’s Pedro Almodóvar and he can do whatever he wants and thank the lord that he can.

It's an Almodóvar flick, so of course people have to smoke when they get stressed.

It’s an Almodóvar flick, so of course people have to smoke when they get stressed.

Even though this easy subject may not seem like a piece of Almodóvar’s work, in a way, it still is. The attention to color and detail is absolutely beautiful (as if that poster didn’t already tell you), and his way of capturing the life and beauty throughout the streets of Madrid is eye-catching and makes you feel at home. I heard that Almodóvar decided to film this movie around the area of where he grew up and you can really tell. There’s a sort of love and fondness for this area and it shines through each and every frame.

So yeah, it’s pretty, but there’s also more to it than just that.

Volver is very different though, because it’s not fully entrapped in its own plot conceits, like some of his other work can be/get. Though there’s a few nifty twists here and there, Volver‘s still a pretty straight-forward family-drama that hits the right notes because we spend time with these characters and get to know them. And in doing that, we also get to understand them and see them for all that they are, and who they are. Meaning, not everybody here has a halo around their head, but that’s what makes it more interesting to watch, because they’re real people.

Just a lot whole lot more attractive and emotional, it seems.

It’s also one of those films where everybody talks so interestingly, that you always want to hear them chat about whatever is on their mind. Whether they’re talking about food, family, life, sex, money, death, or ghosts, I was always hooked and listening and payed close enough attention to what they all were saying because they even give us hints about certain plot-points that pop-up later in the movie. Almodóvar’s always done that with his flicks and while it’s definitely a neat little trick of his, it doesn’t, in any way whatsoever, get in the way of his actual movie.

Definitely not ketchup.

Definitely not ketchup.

Another thing that Almodóvar does best, is also be able to assemble an awesome cast and that is exactly what he has done once again here. Penélope Cruz stars Raimunda and is radiant and as believable as she’s ever been seen before. Yes, Cruz is beautiful, gorgeous, sexy, vivacious, and as perfect of a looker as you can get, but beauty aside, she can still act and especially in an Almodóvar flick, someone who seems to know exactly what her strengths are. Anyway, what makes Cruz so great here as Raimunda is that she feels like a real woman that’s going through a lot of problems that gets to her and ends up taking a lot of that anger and frustration out on the others around her, but yet, also has this sweet and kind side to her that shows she cares for the ones around her, even if her character doesn’t always show it. Cruz is a beauty to watch because she commands the screen every single time she shows up, and also shows that she can bring out any emotions in her act and make it all seem believable.

There are others here, too, so I guess I’ll chat about them, too, although it should be stated one more time that Cruz is great here, as she usually is.

It’s been a long, long time since I saw Carmen Maura in anything, let alone a Almodóvar film, and shows that she’s still got the chops and makes her old-lady character a lot more lovable and understandable than you’d expect. Lola Dueñas plays Cruz’s sister and is very funny, but also very realistic in how she seems a bit more grounded in reality and happier with her life than Cruz may be. This provides a great contrast between the two ladies but in the end, you can still that they are sisters that love each other and care for each other no matter what. These three work well together and show that even though they may have some problems here and there, they are still a family and they still love each other no matter what happens to them in their own, respective lives. It’s a nice message to understand and see on-screen, especially when it comes from the guy who’s most known for making a movie about a priest who touches little boys.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a change of pace, I guess you could say.

Consensus: Considering this is Almodóvar’s way of “playing it cool”, Volver definitely does seem a bit held-back from the explosiveness of a story it could have been, but still has enough heart, emotion, beauty, and well-acted performances to make it an easy-going experience that will probably make you want to hug your mommy or sister. As for your brother and daddy? Tell them to hug themselves!

8.5 / 10

"Hello, agent? Yeah, just keep scheduling me in Almodóvar's flicks."

“Hello, agent? Yeah, just keep scheduling me in Almodóvar’s flicks.”

Photos Courtesy of: The Red List

Paterson (2016)

There’s a poet in all of us.

Paterson (Adam Driver) is a hardworking bus driver in Paterson, N.J., who follows probably the same routine each and every day of his life, with the exception of a few changes here and there. He wakes up for work bright and early in the morning, eats his cereal out of a small cup, packs a lunch, goes to work, listens to the people’s conversations, observes the city around him, has lunch in front of a lovely, relatively soothing waterfall, comes home to his somewhat quirky wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), walks his dog Marvin (Minnie), around the town late at night, stops by the local bar, has a beer, talks to people, comes home, goes to sleep in the arms of his wife, and wakes up the next day to do it all again. However, the one thing that Paterson seems to really care most about in his life is his poetry and the hopes of one day making it big, so that the whole world can see what he’s jotting down in that notebook of his.

Paterson is perhaps the most relaxing and calming movie that I’ve ever seen. It barely follows a plot, there doesn’t seem to be much of any development found whatsoever, there’s no conflict, and there’s no real narrative driving the movie from one scene to the next. If anything, the movie just wanders around, following a familiar pattern that we get used to after the first ten minutes or so, taking its time to tell itself, and barely ever cranking up the energy a single bit. Normally, this would piss me off to high heavens, especially for an indie flick, and not to mention, one by Jim Jarmusch.

Public-transportation employees unfortunately don't all look like Adam Driver.

Public-transportation employees unfortunately don’t all look like Adam Driver.

But for some reason, I came close to kind of loving it for that reason alone.

Jarmusch’s movies, despite them not all being great, all clearly come from a very interesting mind who has a knack for telling stories the way he wants to tell them, regardless of if they actually work in the shown final product, or if they even make sense (the Limits of Control). But no matter what, it’s hard not to watch his movies and think long and hard about what must have been going on through his mind during the creative-process’ of making these movies and with Paterson, I’m probably the most interested in, because while most of his movies are slow, meandering pieces about goofy characters, this one’s a slow, meandering piece about relatively normal characters, with the pace feeling more deliberate and mannered, than just, well, boring.

And I think that’s what separates Paterson from a lot of these other slow-as-molasses indie flicks I see nowadays, especially those from Jarmusch – the feeling, the tone and the aspect that sticks inside of this town known as Paterson, is so calmed-down, that it only makes sense a movie about said town would play-out the same way. There are some brief, fleeting moments in which it seems like Jarmusch is going to step things up a bit, but nope, they go away the next second, and the movie moves on to whatever it wants to do next.

And you know what? That’s perfectly fine with me, because it worked here.

Normally, it doesn’t and can just feel like a director trying something new and it not working a bit, having them come-off as pretentious. Jarmusch has had this problem before, but here, it works in his favor, as he never really gets in the way of the characters, the story, or the mood. It’s just simple, non-stylish and show-offy storytelling that, quite frankly, needs to be done more in the world of indies. So often, film makers working in these independent frame of minds, no matter how seasoned or young they may be, often feel the need to show-off all their skills, talents and ideas into one piece, and actually get in the way of what could have been a very effective, smart story. Jarmusch, like I’ve said before, has done this before and may do it again, but he doesn’t with Paterson and that’s why it deserves to be cherished.

And the Oscar goes to..

And the Oscar goes to..

That, and because Adam Driver’s quite great in the lead role, too. Without sounding too much like Buzzfeed here, Driver is definitely having a moment in today’s pop-culture landscape, but you wouldn’t quite know it. He’s been in a lot of movies over the past few years, some big, some small, but regardless of the size of them, he’s always good in them, trying out something new and interesting, each and every time. As Paterson, Driver dials down a lot of that free-wheeling energy we so often know and sometimes adore him for like when he’s on Girls, but it works for the character and for the rest of the movie. Due to Paterson himself being an actual observer of the world around him, it makes sense that he wouldn’t take over every scene he’s in, but instead, allow others to talk, express themselves, and get us, as well as Paterson himself, a better chance to know them.

It’s sort of like a poem, right?

Anyway, as his wife, Golshifteh Farahani is an interesting choice and one that pays off, because not only is she charming as all hell, but she actually makes his scene’s better. Her character treads this very fine line between being annoyingly quirky and charming, but most of the time, it’s hard not to be charmed by her. The movie doesn’t know how to treat her, which is actually okay, because it just gives Farahani more opportunities to light the screen up and show us not just why Paterson loves her the way his eyes show, but us, the audience, as well.

It’s been awhile since my last screen crush has hit me, but I think that may be about to change.

Consensus: Incredibly slow and melodic, Paterson may drive most people away from its downtrodden pace, but will bring in those more thoughtful and attentive viewers, with an eye for clever detail and interesting storytelling, that never once feels showy.

8.5 / 10

Who isn't in need of a good spot to chow down on their bagged-lunch?

Who isn’t in need of a good spot to chow down on their bagged-lunch?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

20th Century Women (2016)

Women rule. Boys don’t drool, but they don’t rule, either.

It’s 1979 and Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) is going through some growing pains. Now that he’s growing up more and more, he’s starting to see the world for the sort of ugly, sometimes evil place that it can be, but he’s also realizing some beautiful things about it, too. This is mostly through the women that surround him, day in and day out. His mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), stands by him every step of the way, smothering and protecting him from the outside world; Abbie (Greta Gerwig), when she isn’t dealing with her own problems, takes him out to rad-as-hell, incredibly violent and crazy punk shows; and Julie (Elle Fanning), while admittedly a friend, also gives him that idea that they could be together, forever, but she’s also a little too busy having sex with random a-holes who don’t care about her nearly as much as Jamie. There’s also William (Billy Crudup), who tries to be something of a father-figure to Jamie, even if he’s got his own problems with growing up, too. Altogether, they create an imperfect, dysfunctional family of sorts that all love and respect one another, but also find it very hard to get by in day-to-day life.

Beach makes everyone better.

Beach makes everything and everyone a little bit better.

20th Century Women is, thankfully, Mike Mills’ least stylish movie. It also happens to be perhaps his most heartfelt, with fully-realized, smart and honest characters that aren’t hiding behind a behind a bunch of twee style-points and narrative-conceits. Due to this, it often feels like the typical indie we’d expect from one Wes Anderson, however, it doesn’t quite reach those great, emotional highs – if anything, it’s a movie that stays so put in the lows of life, that it’s actually more realistic.

And yet, there’s still a style to this that can sometimes actually get in the way of the story itself.

For instance, we never quite know where the story’s going to go, end up, or even what sort of flow it’s going to follow through with for the whole two hours or so. It’s actually somewhat refreshing to get a movie that doesn’t have any need for such silly things like formula, or convention, but like I’ve stated many times with stylish movies, clearly trying to make their mark, they also can come close to ruining any sort of emotional power that they may have otherwise built on. 20th Century Women is an odd movie in that it constantly interrupts its own flow, but in doing that, it’s constantly telling us more about these characters, their lives, their relationships with one another, and just where America was at the time.

In all honesty, it’s hard to really hold much against 20th Century Women, because even when it does come close to being downright irritating, it still gives something else to chew on, so to speak. It’s not a slow movie and it’s definitely taking its time for unknown reasons – it’s just telling a story, the way it can only be told, shedding light on each and every person we see. It not only makes us feel closer to these characters, but makes us gain a sense of emotional attachment to them, as well as their surroundings.

Because if anything, the movie’s plots a little funky and doesn’t really seem to be all that focused, but a part of me thinks that was the point of what Mike Mills was doing. In life, there’s no clear objective, no one set standard or rules, and there’s sure as hell no just one obstacle to overcome and everything in life is all okay. Life is a constant stream of series of events, happenings and moments that you can’t predict and never quite see coming, which is actually the beauty about life in and of itself.

How many decades is Greta going to conquer next?

How many decades is Greta going to conquer next?

The same kind of beauty that, in its brightest, shining moments, 20th Century Women really harps on.

But Mills is a smart director in that he doesn’t always get in front of camera and let everyone know it’s his show and that’s it – he’s got such a good cast that it would almost be sacrilege to get in their way and not allow them to do what they do best. Annette Bening turns in another great performance as a mother-figure, who may not be a total hippie, but also may not be a pushover, either. It’s an interesting narrative that she constantly plays with this character and shows us that Bening can play all sides to a character, no matter how big, or limited her role may be.

Greta Gerwig also shows up and is quite good as the rather punk-ish gal going through all sorts of issues and problems, yet, isn’t a total sap that ruins every scene she’s in; Elle Fanning continues to get better and better and shows it here as the apple of Jamie’s eyes, who may love him like he does, or may be simply just using him as a total friend and that’s about it; Billy Crudup gives one of his better performances in recent-memory as the bro-y super of the building they’re all living in and feels like he could have had his own movie, but because he’s here, he’s just another one of the great, highly interesting stories; and as Jamie, Lucas Jade Zumann, despite having a lot of talent to battle, more than holds his own and makes it very clear that he’s going to have a bright and shining future in movies.

Especially if he can hold his own in a movie filled with as many heavyweights as there are here.

Consensus: 20th Century Women may bounce around a tad too much with its style, but mostly gets by on the sheer strength and warmth of its cast and message.

8 / 10

Nothing like a slightly over-bearing mother's love.

Nothing like a slightly over-bearing mother’s love.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Down by Law (1986)

lawposterSome of your best friend’s are found in prison. Not high school.

Zack (Tom Waits) is driving out late one night on the town when all of a sudden, he gets pulled over by the cops and brought in on a bunch of drugs. They weren’t his, but the cops don’t want to hear it, so they book him and now he’s forced to spend a certain amount of time in the clink. Same goes for Jack (John Lurie), who was also set-up by someone he thought he could trust. Now, he’s sharing a cell with Zack and while it takes some time for them to get used to one another, they eventually become good cell-buddies, joking around, relating and whatnot. Then, in walks foreigner Roberto (Roberto Benigni), who got arrested for a way different charge: Murder. However, Zack and Jack eventually take to Roberto and altogether, they forge a plan to get the hell out of jail and hopefully, on with the rest of their lives. The only issue is that getting out of jail is the easy part – it’s not getting caught and thrown back in the slammer that’s the hardest.

"Sing something."

“Sing something.”

What’s perhaps so interesting about Down by Law is that while it’s definitely a movie about a bunch of inmates, in prison, and trying to escape, the movie is actually not all that about the escape itself. There’s not all that much planning of where someone has to be at an exact point, who’s going to help out on the inside, the outside, and just how every part of the plan is going to go down. Most movies dealing with inmates breaking out detail this at great-length, but for writer/director Jim Jarmusch, it doesn’t really seem to matter.

In fact, it’s the inmates themselves who provide the most interesting story in the first place and it’s through them, that we get to learn a little bit more about the way Jarmusch sees the world. The one thing that there’s no denying about most of Jarmusch’s movies, is that they’re definitely quirky, sometimes, to a fault, but here, he seems to have dumbed that down a bit; Roberto can get a little silly at times, but that’s mostly because Benigni is such a clown, it’s hard not to, at the very least, chuckle at this character. Nope, interestingly enough, Jarmusch gives us a smart, compelling and sensitive character-study about three odd-balls, meeting up in the worst places of them all, and yeah, making something out of it.

In a way, ensuring to us, the rest of the world, that there is some hope for those inmates out there.

Still though, the movie isn’t trying to preach in the slightest; if anything, it’s just giving us a better glimpse into lives of three individuals, who we either don’t always see get their stories told, or when we do, they’re usually filled with drugs, violence and a whole lot of rape. Down by Law is a very different beast in the subgenre of prison movies, but it’s still a compelling one, even if the movie never does take us out of the one single cell that these guys live in. It’s not suffocating, though and it easily could have been – Jarmusch is working with some larger-than-life characters and cast-members that it helps make his movie pop and excite, rather than just drown in its sorrow and misery.

We get it, Roberto. You love your wife.

We get it, Roberto. You love your wife.

Something that Jarmusch will do in the future for sure, but thankfully, not here.

And yes, with Waits, Lurie, and Benigni, Jarmusch showed his knack for assembling a very odd cast, putting them together, and seeing what sort of odd magic happened. Luckily for him, and especially us, the three all have great chemistry and are more than willing to have us believe in some sort of budding relationship between the three of them. Aside from being together, they’re all very good, too – Waits is cool and bluesy, Lurie is a bit brooding, and Benigni’s as vibrant and wacky as you’d expect him to be, but he is still grounded, so that you do believe in him, as a person, not just another one of his characters.

That said, Down by Law does take a sort of different turn in the last-act and it works, and sort of doesn’t. The movie doesn’t go the conventional route out in ending itself, but by doing that, may have been too subtle for its own good. Jarmusch’s films always seem to have this problem, in that he himself seems to afraid to show any real, big emotion with his characters, that when it comes time for the emotional-button pushing, he backs away. He’d much rather take a hand-shake or high-five, than a hug or kiss, and honestly, sometimes we need that hug or kiss.

Only sometimes.

Consensus: With a talented ensemble and some of Jarmusch’s snappiest writing, Down by Law is a smart take on the prison movie subgenre, aiming more for character-development, than plot-mechanics.

8 / 10

Nowhere to go but East. Or East? Or, well, I don't know.

Nowhere to go but East. Or East? Or, well, I don’t know.

Photos Courtesy of: Generation Film!

A Monster Calls (2016)

Hug the trees. Just not too hard.

At his age of 12 years old, Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is dealing with a lot. For one, his mom (Felicity Jones) is sick with cancer and slowly, but surely, dying. His grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), while meaning well, is also a bit of a stuck-up meanie who doesn’t let Conor have any fun, when at his age, that’s all he should be caring about. His dad (Toby Kebbell) is barely in the picture, now living in the States and occasionally coming back across the pond to visit and check-up on things. And oh yeah, there’s that talking tree in his backyard (voiced by Liam Neeson). The Monster may cause a lot of imaginary destruction and chaos, but mostly what he wants to do is tell Conor stories about life, death and love, making him think longer and harder about his own life, his family, and his whole grieving process. Of course, this makes Conor dream more than he should, wondering what’s real and what isn’t.

A Monster Calls is one of those movies that’s so emotionally draining and dour, that after awhile, you start to think whether or not it’s actually a good movie. Because while it’s definitely good at making it so that every person seeing it has at least one tear in their eye during the two-hour run-time, there’s other elements it seems to be lacking in, like an actual plot development, or meaning to it all. And sure, you could say that A Monster Calls is one, long movie about the grieving process and learning that it’s okay to be sad, but still, does that make it a better movie?

"God? Or, tree?"

“God? Or, tree?”

Not really, but I will say that director J.A. Bayona is a very talented fella who knows how to make a story about a woman slowly dying from cancer, pretty compelling.

That said, it is a pretty sad movie and at times, feels like it’s doing incessantly, to the point of where it seems like it’s got no other card to play. The only moments of actual fun and spirit seem to come through the talking-tree bits, but that’s only because listening to Liam Neeson tell folk tales is like a warm cup of coffee on a cold, winters day. Bayona definitely knows how to set a mood, as he’s done with the Orphanage and the Impossible, but he doesn’t quite know how to go from the mood-setting; to just make people feel sad and depressed is one thing, but to actually do something with that sadness and depression is a whole other thing and I’m still not sure Bayona’s been able to work that out perfectly.

However, this may be Bayona’s best movie in that it does move at a solid pace, all things considered. Being a nearly two-hour movie about a woman dying, could have been a total and complete slug of a flick, but Bayona knows that in order for a story like this to work and actually matter, there has to be something driving the movie along. And sure, while he doesn’t always seem to have it going for him in the story-department, he more than makes up for it in his characters.

As Conor, Lewis MacDougall has got a whole lot to do, but he handles it all well; there are times when he seems a bit too smart for his own good, but there are others where it seems like he’s just a kid, who has no clue of what’s really going on in the world out there, and most of all, hasn’t come to terms with the fact that his mom’s about to die and his life as he’s known it, is about to go through a total and complete change. It’s a weighty role and the kind that could definitely make or break a child actor (see Thomas Horn in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), but MacDougall’s very good here. He plays a kid very well and when the movie really starts hitting the hard stuff, he’s even more compelling to watch.

"It's okay, son. Life goes on. Just without me in it."

“It’s okay, son. Life goes on. Just without me in it.”

Felicity Jones has impressed me before, but for some reason, she doesn’t quite work here, but it may not be her fault. Due to her character literally dying the whole entire movie, we don’t really get many shades to her and instead, only see her sick and in constant agony. It’s a one-note role and unfortunately, Jones just isn’t able to do much with it. Sigourney Weaver shows up as Conor’s strict grand-mom, who may seem like the typically evil mom-mom, but has certain shadings to her that make her probably the most compelling character in the bunch. Toby Kebbell, despite getting maybe one or two scenes, does a nice job as Conor’s estranged daddy and a longer movie would have probably focused on this relationship more.

But nope, of course, we get a talking-tree and dreams.

Not that I’m complaining, because I cried. Then again, how could you not? A Monster Calls seems to have one sole objective on its mind from the very beginning and it’s hard not to let go and just allow for the movie to rip the tears right out of you. The movie’s not perfect, but hey, at least it gets its job done.

Consensus: Pretty sad and emotional, A Monster Calls is an interesting fantasy flick that deals with grief and death, yet, is still somewhat compelling.

8 / 10

Uh oh. Look out evil-doers.

Uh oh. Look out evil-doers.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Cape Fear (1991)

Criminals never forget.

When attorney Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) knowingly withholds evidence that would acquit violent sex offender Max Cady (Robert De Niro) of rape charges, Max spends the next 14 years of his life in prison. And of course, while in the clink, Max has been thinking about that decision each and every day of his sentence, while on the other side of the bars, Sam has been living life with his wife (Jessica Lange) and young daughter (Juliette Lewis), who seems to be getting more and more rebellious as the years go by. But now that the 14 years are up, Max is ready to extract some revenge right from the get-go. However, rather than just beating the hell out of, or better yet, killing Sam, what Max does is spend every waking moment of his life and dedicating it all to stalking Sam, his family, and especially his friends. To Max, no one is safe and after awhile, Sam starts to realize that he’s going to have to come to some pretty drastic decisions if he’s going to protect the lives of those that he loves and wants to keep alive.

Bad lawyer.

Bad lawyer.

There’s nothing like watching an insanely talented director have the absolute time of their lives. It’s like watching a little kid in a Toys R Us, but rather that kid being limited to only buying a few items, the kid’s allowed to have the whole store. They can do whatever they want, however they want, and with all of these wonderful, fabulous and great toys.

That’s what it’s like watching Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear; the kind of movie where a master of his craft knows exactly what it is that he’s doing, having a lovely time with it all, and is barely ever going to let-up. And honestly, when you’re doing a remake on an already-great movie, that’s sort of the way you’ve got to go – you can’t follow the same, beat-for-beat, note-for-note, track-for-track, but instead, amp things up a bit differently. You can focus on a different plot-point altogether, bring out more interesting ideas of the story that may not have been discovered originally, and basically do whatever else you want with the story, so long as you stay true to heart and soul of the original. So few remakes actually abide by this rule, but despite the changes in story and style that Scorsese goes through here, he still sticks true to the original with an eerie tone humming all throughout.

But what’s interesting is that it’s different this time around.

Scorsese approaches the material as if it was an over-the-top, wild, wacky, crazy and unpredictable adventure into one man’s psychotic psyche – someone who doesn’t seem to have a moral compass anywhere to be found and because of that, is taking out the nice, somewhat innocent people. The original touched on this idea, obviously, but Scorsese really hammers it in, allowing for the character of Max to be as depraved and as sickening as humanly imaginable. Sure, it’s campy, it’s wildly insane, and it’s really schlocky, but you know what? It actually kind of works.

A good portion of that has to do with Scorsese’s quick pace, but another portion of that definitely has to do with De Niro’s committed-as-ever performance. Of course, working with Scorsese brings out the best in De Niro, but here, it’s unlike how we’ve ever seen him before – he’s definitely flirted with the idea of being a villain in other flicks before and after this, but never to the supreme extent that he goes with Max. The movie does try some avenues to have us, in the very least, sympathize with him and his stance, but for the most part, the movie knows that he is a monster, and so does De Niro, which makes every scene in which he’s just acting like the creepiest, most erratic person around, so damn entertaining.

It almost makes you wonder where all of the inspiration’s gone in the past few or so years.

Bad housewife.

Bad housewife.

Regardless, Scorsese doesn’t shy away from letting the rest of the cast have their moments, too, especially since they also get to have some development and not just become a typical white, suburban, upper-class family who plays golf and tennis. Nolte’s Sam has got some dark issues to work with, Lange’s Leigh seems to be struggling in her own ways, Lewis’ Danielle, while most definitely a teen, is also a little bit smarter than we’re used to seeing with this kind of character, making her one key scene with De Niro all the more creepy, and Illeana Douglas, in a couple or so scenes, shows true fun and spirit for a movie that seems to enjoy her presence, yet, at the same time, remind us that there’s something dark and grueling really behind all of this fun we’re having.

In fact, where Cape Fear works less is probably in the last-half, when Scorsese really loses his cool here. In a way, Scorsese wants us to see Max as a sort of Christ-like figure which, for a short while, is fine and all, but by the end, becomes such a major plot-point, that it’s almost unbearable to sit and listen through. We get the point as soon as it’s mentioned, yet being that this is a Scorsese movie, faith must be driven into the ground and because of that, the final-act of Cape Fear feels more like wild and over-the-top symbolism, on top of symbolism, and less of a thrilling, compelling and wholly satisfying to a wild ride of thrills, shrills, and shocks.

Still though, it’s one of the rare remakes that rivals the original and how many times can you say that?

Consensus: Wild, a little insane, well-acted, and always exciting, Cape Fear is the rare remake that works just as much as its legendary original does, especially what with Scorsese seeming to have the time of his life behind the camera.

8 / 10

Bad criminal. Or is that sort of obvious?

Bad criminal. Or is that sort of obvious?

Photos Courtesy of: the ace black blog

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Sometimes, you just need to start anew five times straight.

After her husband dies, Alice (Ellen Burstyn) and her son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), leave their small New Mexico town for California. There, Alice is hopeful that she’ll be able to make it big there achieving her one true dream: Singing. However, the town is so small and dry, that there’s hardly any work for a bartender, let alone for a singer. So eventually, Alice and Tommy end up settling for Arizona instead, where she takes a job as waitress in a small diner and Tommy is left to make friends with some mischievous locals. She intends to stay in Arizona just long enough to make the money needed to head back out on the road, but her plans change when she begins to fall for a rancher named David (Kris Kristofferson), someone she can’t help but be drawn to, even if he’s got his own problems going for him as well.

Seeing Martin Scorsese’s name attached to this flick may seem odd, until you actually see the movie and totally get it. For one, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore has the same type of free-spirit, wild and rather chaotic energy that all of Scorsese’s movies seem to have, not to mention that the movie itself hardly ever seems to let-up. It’s part road movie, part romantic-comedy, but altogether, it’s an entertaining piece that would soon show the world what Scorsese could do out of wheelhouse.

alice1

Look out, world! Here’s Alice!

Which isn’t to say that this movie’s perfect, but it’s the first sure sign of Scorsese taking a risk and seeing it pay-off quite well. While I’m most definitely in the minority of feeling like Mean Streets is incredibly overrated, it’s still an enjoyable movie, considering that it’s showing-off what Scorsese could do with a story about crooks, gangsters, cops and all sorts of hectic violence – something that we would see him continue to make movies about for the next many decades. That’s why a movie like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, while seeming like an unabashed and boring chick-flick on paper, moves like a fast-paced thriller, but still doesn’t forget that characters do matter here and they are what make the bulk of the flick so damn good.

That is to say that Ellen Burstyn, in her Oscar-winning role of course, is great.

Then again, when isn’t the gal?

Burstyn’s great here, but it does help that she has such a meaty character to work and play around with; Alice is a very challenging character because she doesn’t always make the right decisions, nor does she seem to apologize for them, either. Scorsese and Burstyn both present this woman as someone who knows that whatever move she makes next, probably won’t be ideal, but she’s constantly thinking about what’s best for her and her son, meaning that every once and awhile, she’s got to make a sacrifice and suck up the stupidity. Even the smart decisions that Alice seems to make, still end-up biting her in the rump by the end, making you wonder whether or not this woman should be trusted with the care of a pre-adolescent boy in the first place. But still, there’s something compelling about this woman, flaws, warts and all that junk, as well as Burstyn’s performance that make it all the more watchable.

The happiest diner in the world it seems.

The happiest diner in the world it seems.

And it’s actually very interesting to see this movie and think about it in retrospect, as we’ve come to see Scorsese’s career grow further and further away from female-led stories, making us wonder one simple thing, “Why?” After all, he handles this story with such delicate care, never shying away from showing this woman for all of who she is, that he not just respects her as much as we do, but he loves her, even. It’s a rare sign that even though Scorsese’s movies tend to gain all sorts of controversy for their violence, drugs and crime, mostly all involving and/or against women, there’s still this small glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, he was curious of taking this road even further.

It makes you wonder, really.

Regardless, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, all things considered, may be a bit too long for its own good, but in a way, that’s okay. We get to see and learn about more characters throughout Alice’s journey, some of whom are really fun and exciting to watch. Harvey Keitel shows up as a slimy dude Alice starts hooking up with; Kris Kristofferson’s is interesting enough of a dramatic-lead to make you want to see more of him around; Jodi Foster shows up in a very early role as one of Tommy’s friends and is very good; Diane Ladd steals just about every scene she’s in as Alice’s co-worker/best friend; and even as a young kid here, Alfred Lutter does a nice job as Tommy, mostly due to the fact that the kid’s not annoyingly written. He’s a little too smart for his britches at certain points, but that’s mostly because his mom makes him that way; there’s quite a few scenes where the two have heart-to-heart conversations about all things in life and while they may seem a little tacked-on, the chemistry between Lutter and Burstyn is so good, that you sort of believe in it.

Consensus: Not his best by any means, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore still presents a very bright and entertaining picture for the whole cast, especially Burstyn, and Scorsese, and the many years to come.

8 / 10

Keep on smiling, Ellen. You'll get that Oscar.

Keep on smiling, Ellen. You’ll get that Oscar.

Photos Courtesy of: The Soul of the Plot

Jackie (2016)

Thanks for the fashion tips. Now, get out!

After the tragic and sudden assassination of her husband, First Lady Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) has to deal with a lot over a certain period of time. For one, she has to ensure that the rest of her family is alright. Secondly, she has to make sure that her husband’s funeral isn’t just one of the most memorable of any other assassinated President before him, but the best ever. And then, yes, she’s also got to do her absolute hardest to hold onto her sanity, even when it seems like this certain situation in particular wouldn’t call for it. However, no matter how bad life gets, all that Jackie wants is for her husband’s legacy to live on, regardless of what sort of mistakes he made in the past.

Jackie may seem, on paper, like your traditional, ordinary biopic of someone that we think we know so much about, but in all honesty, actually don’t, however, it’s anything but. What director Pablo Larrain does here with Jackie’s story is that he frames it in a way where we get to see small, fleeting glimpses into her life, through certain parts of it, as opposed to getting the rags-to-riches story that we so often get hit with. And sure, there’s nothing wrong with the kinds of biopics that take on those structures to tell their story and to tell a little more about their subject, but with Jackie, an odd structure actually works, as it not only has us feel closer to her than ever before, but also see what really lied beneath the legend.

We still see you.

We still see you.

Sure, most people think of Jackie as this reversed, sometimes not-all-that-bright women who was just lucky to marry the man who would eventually be President of the United States, and a fashion icon, but the movie shows us that there’s much more to her than that. We see that she not just cared about preserving the legacy of the past Presidents who came before her own husband, but also wanted to carve out a legacy for herself as well; rather than just being seen as this harpy wife who stood by her husband, even while he was off, strutting his stuff with many other women, she wanted to be seen, be remembered, or at the very least, be thought of as someone who was intelligent and cared all about the appearances of her and those around her. It’s actually very interesting to see this side to her, as we get a clearer understanding of what her real, actual beliefs and aspirations were, and end up sympathizing with her a whole lot more.

Okay sure, it’s not that hard to sympathize with a woman who has literally just lost her husband right slap dab in front of her, but still, Larrain crafts this story awfully well.

It’s odd though, because while even just focusing on her so much may already seem sympathetic, Larrain still asks a whole lot more questions about her, than he does answer. Like, for instance, why did she stay by her husband for all those philandering years? Was it all for show? And speaking of the show she put on, did she actually care so much about past Presidents, or did she just use that all as a way to show that she was so much more than the First Lady? The movie brings the questions up, never answers them, but at the very least, it does show that Larrain isn’t afraid to question his subject more than actually glamorize her and for all that she was able to do while in the White House.

Damn journalists. Always ruining the sorrow and grief of famous widows.

Damn journalists. Always ruining the sorrow and grief of famous widows.

And as Jackie, Natalie Portman is quite great, however, it does take awhile for it to get like this. Because Jackie herself had such a mannered, controlled and signature way of speaking and presenting herself with those around her, Portman has to do a lot of weird and awkward-sounding pronunciations throughout the whole flick. Her first few scenes with Billy Crudup’s character are incredibly distracting and make it seem like it’s going to overtake the whole movie, but it does get better after awhile, especially when we see her actually show emotion and use her persona to make the situations around her better. Sure, Portman gets to do a lot of crying, smoking, drinking and yelling, but it all feels right and not just another Oscar-bait, showy performances that we so often get around this time.

And while it is definitely Jackie’s story, a lot of others still get attention to paid them as well, like with Peter Sarsgaard’s incredibly sympathetic take on Bobby Kennedy. While he doesn’t always use the accent, regardless, Sarsgaard does sink deep into this character and become someone who is almost more interesting than Jackie, only because we don’t get to spend every single waking moment of the run-time with him. In a way, there’s a certain air of mystery to him where we aren’t really sure what his motives are, how he actually does feel about his brother’s death, and just what the hell he wants to do now with his life.

Somewhere, there’s a Bobby Kennedy biopic to be made and if so, Sarsgaard ought to be there.

Although, yeah, that damn Bobby title’s already been taken.

Consensus: Smart, insightful and compelling, Jackie presents us with an interesting look into the life of its famous subject, while never forgetting to show the possible negative sides to who this person may have really been.

8 / 10

You look great, Natalie. You don't need three mirrors to prove it.

You look great, Natalie. You don’t need three mirrors to prove it.

Photos Courtesy of: Silver Screen Riot

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)

Okay, never mind. Board-games are pretty scary.

Way before the Ouija board started popping-up, killing clueless teens left and right, it was actually quite the staple in the home of a suburban, middle-class family from the late-60’s. Recently Alice (Elizabeth Reaser) has been trying her absolute hardest to raise her two daughters, Lina (Annalise Basso) and Doris (Lulu Wilson), and honestly, it’s getting a lot harder with each and every day. So, in a way to not just pay the bills, but give others in her same situation some idea of love and hope, she runs a phony little business where, for a certain price, she will try to contact the dead. Of course, it’s all a wacky and wild show that the girls help their mom with, but it’s something that’s been working for so long, so why stop now? However, it all gets a little freaky when strange and evil things start happening in the house and no one really knowing whether or not it’s real. The only one who does seem to know exactly is little Doris and, well, she’s not been herself as of late.

See where this is going yet?

De Palma or Hitchcock reference? Or just plain creepy?

De Palma or Hitchcock reference? Or just plain creepy?

After the awful first flick, Origin of Evil wasn’t really high on my radar, nor really making me expect any sheer bit of greatness to be found. Then, I looked at the director and realized that I was working with Mike Flanagan, in the year 2016, again. I say “again”, because Flanagan already put out a pretty amazing home-invasion thriller out this year called Hush, where he showed that you can do wonders with an age old and simple premise, but in ways, even liven it up and make it seem fresh for future people to try out.

And that same kind of fun and creativity that he brought to that little gem, he brings to the big-budget, yet, somewhat intimate horror-thriller that is, yes, big on the scares, but is also bigger on the smaller moments where there’s something creepy lurking in the background, sometimes out of frame, but we never quite know. Flanagan actually works pretty well as two kinds of horror film makers; he’s all for the crazy and insane carnage that most horror movies work in, but he’s also all for the much quieter, subdued side that most horror movies seem to stay away from, in hopes that they don’t bore their audiences from seeing all sorts of ghosts, ghouls and creatures. But it works for Flanagan – he’s playing both of his sides here, but they work well hand-in-hand, as opposed to making it seem like the movie itself was done by two different directors.

See, because yes, Origin of Evil is quite freaky, but it takes its time with itself, which probably makes it freakier.

It’s actually a surprise how understated the movie can actually be; rather than just jumping right at us with all of the ghost stuff, the movie actually helps develop these characters, their relationships with one another, and what exactly they’ve been through as a family. We get a sense, early on, that mostly everyone in this movie is a beaten down and broken individual, who has had some sort of tragedy in their life and just trying whatever the hell they can do to get by. Henry Thomas eventually shows up as a priest that takes a liking to the family, and rather than diving into some creepy romance with Reaser’s character, the movie shows how they’re both hurting and maybe don’t need to sex all of the pain away, but probably just be there for one another, get in their pajamas, watch some wacky rom-coms, eat ice cream, and yeah, maybe end the night on some cuddeling.

What a sham! Right, guys?!? Right?!?!?

What a sham! Right, guys?!? Right?!?!?

Okay, maybe it is dangerously close to sex, but so what? They’re grown-ups and they’re allowed to!

Anyway, where Origin of Evil does lose some points is in explaining just what the powerful and mysteriously evil force is, or better yet, what it solidifies. The movie goes for an extra extreme and harsh explanation that, sure, makes some sort of sense, but also seems like it was just being written as it was being explained by the cast. It almost makes you want to see the movie of that, even if yeah, it would be different from what we have here – a much more melodic, but altogether effective horror flick that does hark back to the good old days, but also shows improvement in messing with the formula of the modern-day horror flick.

Even though there isn’t all that much blood, gore, or even violence, Origin of Evil shows that you can still be pretty damn scary by playing it small, but also, attentive. Flanagan is a smart writer and director, in that he knows and understands just what it is that make so many of those older horror-flicks, like Halloween or the Exorcist, so memorable and chilling in the first place – we actually care enough about the people involved that, by the time they start dropping like flies, well, it matters. Most horror movies I see nowadays, not just forget about that, but don’t seem to have any intentions on even trying. If anything, Origin of Evil proves, just like the Conjuring 2 did earlier this year, is that all you need to make a good, solid and smart piece of horror, is just give us people we want to actually see live through the proceedings.

Oh yeah, and a whole bunch of scares, too.

Consensus: While it’s definitely different from its predecessor, Origin of Evil is also much better, smarter, scarier, interesting and thrilling, blending a great deal of “boo scares”, with smaller ones that creep on you a whole lot more.

8 / 10

Silly kids. When they gonna learn!

Silly kids. When they gonna learn!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Miss Sloane (2016)

Sometimes, you’ve just got to stick it to ’em.

Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is one of the more infamous and controversial lobbyists working Washington. That has less to do with the fact that she actually gets her bills passed, as much as it has to do with her brash, cocky and sometimes incredibly arrogant attitude that rubs a lot of people the wrong way. When the company she’s working for decides that they want to get a gun-bill passed, Elizabeth’s good intentions kick in and it makes her realize that she doesn’t like the bill and wants her own gun-reform bill to pass instead. So, what does Elizabeth Sloane do? Well, she joins up with a rival company, gathers up her team of new and old coworkers, and sets out to take down the new bill, garnering as many votes for her own gun-reform bill that can. However, when you’re going up against so many big dogs on the hill, there comes a point where you may have to put up, or shut up – something that Elizabeth doesn’t want to do, and it may as well cost her, not just her career, but even her life.

Miss Sloane sounds so incredibly boring and lame. It’s as if all the grand-parents got together in a room, decided that they needed a movie that only they cared about, gathered together a huge crowd of talented people to work in it, and yeah, just watch the movie for themselves. But Miss Sloane, if anything, is not at all like that; the best way I can describe it is as being a cross between David Mamet, Aaron Sorkin, and Alan J. Pakula.

"I'm not terrible. Okay, maybe a little bit."

“I’m not terrible. Okay, maybe a little bit.”

Intrigued yet?

Well, if not, that’s okay. Miss Sloane, on-paper, doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that would actually work or better yet, be entertaining in the slightest bit, but for some reason, director John Madden and first-time writer Jonathan Perera, come together so perfectly, matching their styles, needs and wants like a couple who’s been together for five decades, that it hardly ever bored me. It’s snappy, quick, jumpy, sometimes random, a little crazy, surprisingly very funny, and yeah, when they decide to slow things down every once and awhile, actually kind of heartfelt. Actually, not really, but that’s kind of what works.

See, Miss Sloane takes place in this all-too-real world where politics is a dirty and unforgiving game, where rich, powerful and corrupt people will continue to always crack down and ruin the much poorer and less-connected civilians who are, honestly, just trying to make the world a better place. It’s the typical worldview we see painted so very much, but it still works because, well, that’s exactly what happens in the sick, cruel and usually evil world of politics.

Because it paints this portrait so vividly, Miss Sloane never for once feels like it’s taking any cheap shots; it’s easy to get wrapped-up in this world of fast money, fast people, and fast crime, and almost forget that, oh yeah, this movie’s actually about getting a bill passed. Madden, as a director, has shown that he usually loves to take his movies as slow and as melodically as possible, actually keeps up the pace here, which as a result, helps ensure that no matter how many times it gets off-course, Perera’s score stays crackling and fun.

Most of that, of course, has to do with the fact that from the very beginning, the movie makes it awfully clear that, yes, these are smart people, doing smart things, in smart jobs, so why shouldn’t they sound smart?

It’s actually a lot of what follows Sorkin in his career and works so damn well for him, which is why I’ve been getting a little shocked by all of the criticism towards this movie. Most of the complaints seem to come from the fact that no real characters have any actual development to them, whereas the plot does, and it’s a pretty lame one at that. For one, it’s a two-hour long movie that, quite frankly, moved by so quick that I hardly noticed and/or cared about the lack of character-development and as for the other, well, yeah, the plot can be pretty lame.

"Man up, dammit!"

“Man up, dammit!”

I’m still not sure whether or not Perera’s original script had as many silly twists and turns in it, or if it was just another case of studio interference, but either way, the ones that do eventually come around in the later-portion of the movie are, for lack of a better term, silly. Sure, it’s hard to not expect a movie such as this to eventually fall into the melodramatic-trappings that it does, but it’s also not hard to expect a movie that’s as smart, that seems to know what it’s doing from the very bat, not roll into them to keep the audience excited and on-edge. It’s hard to talk about these few twists and turns without giving stuff away, but just know this: The twists and turns are silly and definitely keep Miss Sloane away from being an otherwise perfectly solid and exciting piece of thinking-man’s entertainment.

And yes, while I’m at it, I may as well talk about the character-development that I alluded to before, because well, yeah, there isn’t much here, but at the same time, I don’t feel that there needs to be.

Miss Sloane, the movie, from the very beginning makes it very clear that a good portion of these characters have no lives outside of their work; they are utterly and completely consumed by it and it takes over what exactly makes them who they are. In that sense, it’s understandable why we don’t get to know much about these characters, or the way they are, or how they act, outside of the idea of their professions. In a way, it’s kind of sad, but the movie doesn’t harp on that aspect too much and instead, shows us exactly why these characters have no lives, are so dedicated to their jobs, and more importantly, care so passionately about getting this bill passed.

And because of that, the amazing ensemble is better off for it, too. Everyone assembled here, honestly, is quite great, with hardly a single bad apple to be found in the pack – Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, John Lithgow, Sam Waterston, Allison Pill, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jake Lacy, Douglas Smith – but really, the one to outshine them all is Jessica Chastain, playing our titled-lobbyist. Honestly, Chastain has never been better, mostly because her roles have never been nearly as daring as this; here, she gets the chance to play someone who is unlikable, doesn’t make excuses for it, and if someone has a problem with it, always has a snappy comeback, primed and ready to hit back with. The movie does make some attempt to develop her more, but mostly gets rid of that idea once it realizes that it’s sometimes best to just let Chastain do her thing and own every scene she’s in.

More roles like this for her, please. And also, more movies like this, please.

Consensus: Even if it does take some odd twists in the later-half, Miss Sloane is a fun, crackling, and spitfire thriller that may be about something as boring as getting a bill passed, but has just as many explosions and battles than any summer blockbuster.

8 / 10

Fourth-wall already broken?!? This movie has no rules!

Fourth-wall already broken?!? This movie has no rules!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Collider

Little Men (2016)

Adults ruin all the fun!

After the death of his grandfather, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and his parents move into his apartment complex in Brooklyn. There, he meets Tony (Michael Barbieri) a young Hispanic kid who shares the same fun interests that Jake does and also happens to always be around the area a whole lot. It’s a solid friendship that’s built mostly on their shared love of video-games and acting, but beyond them, there’s something far more serious going on. Jake’s parents, Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), have inherited mostly all of what the grandfather had, including the thrift store located underneath them. The thrift store is currently being run and maintained by Tony’s mom, Leonor (Paulina Garcia), who seems perfectly comfortable with her business, even if she knows that her time is going to be quite limited there, what with rent getting higher and higher in the area. Now feeling the push from Brian to pay the necessary amount of rent to stay, Leonor starts to pull Tony further and further away from Jake, leading to the boys giving their parents the silent treatment, as most kids their age are perhaps most known for doing.

"I stubbed my toe!"

“I stubbed my toe!”

The best thing about Little Men is that writer/director Ira Sachs, who I’ve never been quite a huge fan of, never seems to judge a single person in this whole entire movie. Every character here acts in a selfish manner, somehow, none of them are ever seen as “the bad guys”, nor are the others seen as “the good guys”. If anything, everyone here is just a person – they all make their own choices, decisions and matters in life, regardless of whether or not they’re actually the right, or smart ones, to make.

And that’s why, for all of its small, understated moments, Little Men is quite the flick.

It’s the kind that moves at such an efficient pace that you hardly even realize that it’s just barely under-an-hour-an-a-half, but feels way shorter. With his past few movies, Sachs has shown that he’s not afraid to settle things down with his plots and keep them as languid as humanly possible, but because of that, they tend to just be boring. Here, it’s very different; with what feels like it was a very quick-shoot, with barely any time to waste, Sachs creates a very quick, but meaningful tale of growing up and also, getting older.

See, if anything, Little Men is a coming-of-ager that’s actually painfully honest about getting older and trying to see the world, not just through your own, rapidly maturing eyes, but through your parent’s as well. Sachs does a smart job of showing us not only why this situation is bad for the two kids at the center of the flick, but why it’s bad for all of the parents, too; after all, they are the ones who are having this disagreement, not the little ones. How this one situation affects just about everyone around them is important and more specifically, handled so well by Sachs, who seems to give each and every character some sort of detail that makes them more inherently interesting as the time goes by.

It’s also the cast who are all quite great, too, especially the kids at the center.

Cheer up, parents. You've still got the second generation to think about here.

Cheer up, parents. You’ve still got the second generation to think about here.

While I’ve never seen them in anything before, both Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri are great here and not only feel like actual, real life kids, but their friendship is an interesting one that could have definitely been its own movie, what without all of the parents bickering at one another happening on the sidelines. Taplitz is just the right amount of dorky and artsy, whereas Barbieri is just the right amount of brass and sharp, but together, they actually do work as pals; they both have a love for acting that shines through in a great scene, but they also seem to get along whenever they aren’t focusing on acting. Sachs perfectly shows what it’s like to get to know someone when you’re young and just figuring yourself out, while at the same time, figuring out how that fellow person is going to factor into your life as you get older. It’s a beautiful relationship that, yes, at times does seem like it’s going to lean into some sexual areas, but surprisingly, doesn’t.

It’s just sweet and nostalgic.

As for the older folks in the cast, they all do fine jobs. Greg Kinnear turns in a very raw performance as Jake’s downtrodden dad, Jennifer Ehle is good as the psychiatrist mom who may think a little too hard, Talia Balsam is good as the snarky, sometimes mean-spirited aunt, and Paulina Garcia, as Jake’s mom, does a nice job, but her role is the one I had the most problem with, the same as I had with Naomie Harris’ in Moonlight. As Leonor, Garcia has a tough role in that she has to be a little unsympathetic, yet, at the same time, still sympathetic to us, if that makes any sense. The role is there for her to take, but for some reason, I couldn’t help but thinking that Garcia downplays the role way too much; when she should be engaging in some sort of conversation with the characters who are speaking to her, she just sits away, smokes her cigarettes, and then breaks into random, unbelievable monologues.

She reminded me of a femme fatale that you’d find in a noir, as opposed to a small, intimate indie, where real people talk, act and exist. Garcia was great in Gloria and Narcos, which makes me disappointed to see that her role, while clearly important, also feels like the most unbelievable aspect of the whole thing. Maybe I’m expecting too much, but I don’t think that I am: When your whole movie is based on the realistic look and feel, it’s hard to really accept the moments where something doesn’t ring true and just feels like a writer, well, writing.

Consensus: With a smart direction and cast, Little Men is an interesting, emotional and sometimes relateable tale of growing up, not just for kids, but for parents as well.

8.5 / 10

Kids, man. They're literally the future.

Kids, man. They’re literally the future.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

No (2012)

So. Much. Relevance.

It’s 1988 in Chile, and for the past fifteen years or so, dictator Augusto Pinochet has been doing all sorts of things that you would expect some person with way too much power and control would be doing. And for those who don’t like his ways, well, somehow, they disappear and are never heard from again. But the rest of the world’s leaders aren’t happy about this and know that in order for there to be peace and solidarity between all nations, they pressure Pinochet to put the next election to a vote. Against his will, essentially, Pinochet agrees and puts the fate of the office in the hands of the people, once and for all. Those who want him to stay vote “YES,” those who want him to go vote “NO.” In the month leading up to the election, each side is given 15 minutes of airtime each night to promote their cause on television. Running the “NO” campaign is Rene Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a young advertising executive, who knows how to win the election the right way. However, with very few resources and a lot of tension coming from the opposing side, Saavedra and his fellow campaign managers run into all sorts of problems that may take them away from winning the campaign.

There's no sleeping in political campaigns!

There’s no sleeping in political campaigns!

Without sounding too obvious, I think it’s safe to say that a movie like No is pretty damn relevant to what the United States is going through at this very same exact moment. But that’s not to say that the movie is all that specific to just the 2016 Presidential elections, but more or less, every election, in any country ever. This idea about elections in and of themselves have become something of laughing-stocks over the years; everything is planned out perfectly, no candidate really means what they say, and when you get right down to it, all it is is a dick-measuring competition between two people who have more money than they know what to do with.

But No, in a smart way, changes that all up and reminds us why elections, or at least, the very idea of them, are so damn important to begin with.

Director Pablo Larrain does a lot of smart things here, but perhaps the smartest of them all is that he doesn’t lose sight of what matters most in between all of the crazy, sometimes over-the-top commercials, ads and whatnot, and that’s the human element of what was going through Chile at this point in time. No does tell us, at the very beginning, what is going on in Chile, but it doesn’t necessarily rely on a whole lot more than just that to inform us; simply, it uses the way in which these campaign managers all fight for their side to win, as passionately as they do, to drive home the idea even more.

It may not seem or sound like much, but it matters a whole lot. Larrain seems to be making a point about free speech, the idea of it, and why it matters so much in a society, regardless of if said society is run by a democracy or dictatorship, but never hitting us over the head with it. Because his story is about a political campaign, rising up against the more powerful forces that be, Larrain never gets preachy. He’s just telling a story, the way it deserves to be told.

And because of this, No can be quite a thrilling ride.

Some men just want to watch the world be a happy place.

Some men just want to watch the world be a happy place.

I’m not sure if Larrain meant for it to be perceived as that, but hey, it still works. There’s something incredibly interesting about watching and listening as a bunch of very smart, driven people, gather together in a room and figure out how to spin a certain story to make themselves look better, or create the most overly theatrical presentation and sweep the nation with their message and artistry. In a way, it’s a lot like watching the final season of the West Wing, but this time, barely anyone speaks English, is hardly pretentious about their work, and it’s a lot more condensed this time around.

At the same time, however, when No is all said and done, it still feels like a universal tale. Sure, this one in particular just so happens to be about Chile and how its citizens were constantly being held back by a brutal and rough dictatorship, but a good portion of the story can be centered towards other societies and populations as well. It’s not just about spinning a campaign the best way one can do, as much as it’s actually about achieving what you want to achieve and what you think is best for all those concerned. No deals with a lot of hot-button political issues, but it never forgets about the human aspect and knows that in order to make a society great, you have to have great people in it, who want to constantly make it better, and ensure that no more injustices are committed.

Isn’t that what everybody wants though?

Consensus: Smart, interesting and most of all, compelling, No tells a fact-based tale without hitting too hard on the heavy, important issues it’s trying to tell, as much as it just reiterates the fact that political campaigns, when done right, can change lives for the better.

8.5 / 10

Don't tempt them. They have weapons.

Don’t tempt them. They have weapons.

Photos Courtesy of: CTCMR

Captain Fantastic (2016)

Be one with nature. Not with people.

Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen), his wife Leslie, and their six children all live in the wilderness of Washington state. They’ve done so as a way of life for as long as the oldest has been around and because of this, they’ve taught their kids a lot about life. For one, they’ve learned how to survive, read, think for themselves, and take care of one another, without getting bogged down or too distracted by what’s going on in the overpopulated world outside of the woods. However, their lives all begin to change when Leslie suddenly dies and has a funeral back in her hometown, leaving Ben to bring the kids back around to not just see their real family, but the rest that the world has to offer. Of course, not everyone takes a liking to seeing Ben back around, criticizing those he hasn’t seen in years, but Ben doesn’t care – he’s too busy ensuring that his late wife gets the proper burial she deserves and so desperately wanted before her tragic death. But obviously, not everyone believes what Ben wants is the right, or better yet, proper way.

I'm pretty sure using phones is a big no-no when sticking it to the man.

I’m pretty sure using phones is a big no-no when sticking it to the man.

The first 20 or so minutes of Captain Fantastic are, honestly, pretty bad. Most of it takes place in the woods, with Mortensen’s character and his family all living away from the rest of society, loving every second of it, getting by and letting it be known that this is the way of life that ought to be lived. In a way, it felt like writer/director Matt Ross was saying the same thing, only through these characters; that living in an overpopulated society full of people, cars, restaurants, stores, etc., really isn’t what life should be all about. Instead, it ought to be lived vicariously through nature and appreciated for that alone. It was so nauseating to hear and watch that it had me feeling like it was time to just tune the rest of the movie out and hope that the best comes around.

But thankfully, it does.

Eventually, the story changes and all of a sudden, we’re given something of a “road movie”, in which Mortensen’s character and his family are out traveling, running into family-members that they haven’t seen in forever, or met, and trying to get used to these new surroundings. In a way, it’s a fairly more conventional movie than the one originally promised/planned, but it’s one that’s far more likable and well-done as it seems like, believe it or not, Ross has something to say and it’s that maybe living outside of society isn’t what it’s all made out to be. Perhaps, being and living around other human beings, doing things, communicating, interacting, so on, is really what’s the most enjoyable aspect about life in the first place?

Sure, it sounds so cheesy and obvious, but Ross brings this out in a very smart manner that isn’t ham-handed in the slightest. If anything, he gives us great, lovable characters and shows just exactly how they live their lives and get by, without ever trying for anything more. It sounds so simple and easy, and that’s because it is, but it still works so well that it’s hard to really get across, other than just to say, “Yeah, it’s a sweet and honest tale about life, growing up and accepting the world for what it is.”

Well, essentially.

"Freebird? Again?"

“Freebird? Again?”

And in it, Ross has assembled a pretty great cast, especially what with Viggo Mortensen in the lead as Ben Cash. What works so well about Mortensen here is that, underneath all the 70’s mop and beard, you can tell that there’s an earnest, lovely human being, however, he’s also a challenging figure. The movie is interested in exploring the ideals and history of this family, as well as it’s interested in just what goes on throughout this man’s head; he’s a barrel of contradictions who doesn’t always know what’s best for his kids, but at the same time, still doesn’t know what’s best for kids from other families. It’s not just entertaining to watch as Mortensen constantly plays around with what this character “thinks” is right, as opposed to what “is” right, but pretty interesting as you never quite know where he’s going to end-up next, metaphorically speaking.

Surrounding him is a pretty solid cast, though, who all measure up to his abilities. Certain talented folks like Ann Dowd, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, and Steve Zahn are all perfectly cast as the family members that he casually runs into during this trip of his and all bring out a different aspect to this character, based solely on the way that they interact with and react to him. We get a sense that they’re all loving people, trying very hard to connect with someone that they just don’t know how to connect with, mostly because they don’t actually like him. Sometimes, showing us a character and the way they are with those around them, does a better job than just telling us, which may sound obvious, but it’s a rule that seems to be lost on a lot of writers and directors today, which is why it’s great to see Ross utilizing that here.

The only downside of the movie is, unfortunately, the family of kids themselves.

Actually, that’s wrong. All of the kids in the cast are fine, but there’s one who seems like he doesn’t quite measure-up as well and that’s George McKay as the oldest, Bo. McKay is fine and does what he can, but unfortunately, his American-accent is just awful. You can tell that he’s doing one and because this character has a lot of yelling/freak-out moments, it’s not hard to hear it even more and get distracted. Also, not to mention that the character’s subplot can be a little silly at times; the fish-out-of-water scenario is a fun bit, but the idea that this character is casually looking into colleges on the sly and trying to make something of his genius brain, not only feels ridiculous, but a lot like a ripped portion of Shameless. Either way, it doesn’t quite work and because it does take up a bulk of the flick, it can’t help but keep Captain Fantastic away from being great.

Still, it’s a very good movie nonetheless so yeah, see it. Please. It’ll make you laugh, happy and possibly, even cry.

Consensus: Heartfelt, sweet, funny, and well-acted, Captain Fantastic takes what could have been a very annoying plot, turns it on its head and makes something exciting and lovely out of it.

8.5 / 10

Those kids desperately need Netflix in their lives.

Those kids desperately need Netflix in their lives.

Photos Courtesy of: Cannes, Aceshowbiz, Indiewire

Elle (2016)

Women, stand up.

After being randomly raped in her own home, Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) doesn’t know who to trust or what to make sense of. So, the only thing that she can do, without alerting the police, is just get on with her everyday life, as if nothing had ever happened in the first place and everything is peachy-keen. She goes back to her job as the head of a successful video game company, where she gets on her a few employees, but also adores a few others. Meanwhile, she’s dealing with issues from her ex-husband (Christian Berkel), as well as her best-friend/employee (Anne Consigny), and cougar mother (Judith Magre), who spends most of her time and fortune on a much younger man who she hardly even knows, yet, trusts enough to get married to and leave everything to, if she does just so happen to die in the foreseeable future. And if that wasn’t enough for Michèle, she’s also got these new neighbors who are way too stingy for their own good, an immature who won’t learn to grow-up, and a possible affair that may be more and more scandalous, the longer she decides to not tell anyone about it.

Women and video-games?!? Say it ain't so?!?

Women and video-games?!? Say it ain’t so?!?

It’s been a long, long ten years, but you know what? Paul Verhoeven is back, everyone. And honestly, as corny as it is to say and type, he’s better than ever. While from a certain standpoint, Elle may seem like it has way, way too much going on for what it is, essentially, a revenge-thriller, but that’s the actual beauty of it. Verhoeven has made a career off of taking all of these different strands of story, putting them together in one pile, and letting it rip, which is exactly what he does here, but it’s far more than just pure, trashy, pulpy entertainment.

Believe it or not, there’s actually a heart and soul to Elle that may surprise you.

That isn’t to say that Verhoeven himself doesn’t have some fun with the material, because he totally does. In a way, Elle is his excuse to play with genres more than he’s ever done in the past. Thriller, romance, drama, comedy, mystery, nothing is off the table for Verhoeven and because of that, it’s hard not to be excited by Elle. Like he did with Black Book, Verhoeven hardly ever lets up and just keeps on going and going and going, until he needs to catch a breather or two, but even then though, in those very rare, small moments of actual heart and humanity, Verhoeven’s still restless.

It’s basically what he did with Black Book, but whereas with that movie, it felt like he was just sort of running wild, with nowhere to go, here, there’s at least something of an objective in plain sight: Telling the story of this complicated, yet, incredibly compelling woman.

And as this one woman in particular, Isabelle Huppert gives one of her best performances. Crazy, right? One of the best actresses to ever grace the screen, American or Foreign, Huppert gives what is, essentially, a career-defining performance in a Paul Verhoeven movie, and while his track-record with female actors/characters is, at the very least, spotty, he gives her everything to work with and she takes it all with flying colors.

That's not her husband! Oh my! What is happening?!?

That’s not her husband! Oh my! What is happening?!?

Because Michèle is such a difficult character to love and understand, Huppert has a great time; you never quite know what she’s thinking, what she’s going to do next, or even what her reasons are behind most of her odd decisions. But no matter what, her character is inherently intriguing, where she makes one decision, then makes another to contradict that last, and you’re sort of left wondering why? But it doesn’t matter – Huppert runs just as wild with this character as Verhoeven does with this movie and it makes me happy to see her finally, after all of these years, get some possible Oscar-talk.

Even if she doesn’t win, it just matters that she’s finally getting talked about, for what seems like a time coming.

Of course, Verhoeven’s caring and allows everyone else to put in some great work, too, alongside the likes of Huppert. Anne Consigny is great as her best-friend/employee who knows everything there is to know about Michèle and accepts her for what she is, warts and all; Christian Berkel is a nice fit as Michèle’s ex who she still, on some occasions, bangs; and as her cougar-bound mother, Judith Magre is such a blast to watch, playing-up the fact that she is ancient, but also isn’t ashamed of that. Deep down underneath the thriller itself, is a fun, crazy and sometimes thrilling family-drama that in a lesser-movie, would have been the only piece in the pie, but because this is a Paul Verhoeven movie, there’s a whole lot more pieces where that came from.

And in a way, it works and sort of doesn’t. Due to Verhoeven dealing and playing around with so many strands of plat and genres, he can’t help but get twisted up in it just a bit, which is what eventually happens by the end. See, when all is said and done, and we realize that the movie is definitely going to be about the actual rape itself, the movie does go off the deep-end, to where it’s far more sinister and violent than we ever expected it to be. Does it still stay fun? Yes, definitely. But what, at one point, was a cold, dark thriller placed in this believable, detailed character-drama, soon just turns into another one of Verhoeven’s slightly erotic-thrillers that care more about nudity and blood, than actual hearts or humans.

May sound like a little too much to ask for, but hey, so be it. Paul Verhoeven’s back and let’s hope that he’s here to stay.

Consensus: Wacky, wild, twisted and entertaining, Elle is a solid balancing act and return for Paul Verhoeven, while also featuring one of the best performances the legendary and impeccably talented Isabelle Huppert has ever given.

8 / 10

Can't trust that scarf!

Can’t trust that scarf!

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Bleed for This (2016)

Never say never. Even when you probably should.

Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza (Miles Teller) is a local Providence boxer who shoots to stardom after winning two world title fights. He’s also got a bit of a brash, cocky attitude that ticks off everyone of his opponents, as well as makes him a fan-favorite for boxing and sports fans alike. He’s got so much potential to do great things with his boxing-career and he’s trained so hard for it all, that no matter what happens to him, he’s not going to let it slip away. Especially not even a near-fatal car accident that leaves him with a broken neck and ideas that he may not ever walk again. Rather than getting his spine worked on and giving him even better chances of walking again, Vinny decides to go with Halo surgery, that leaves him with this crazy box strapped to his head and shoulders. Why? Because Vinny believes that he’s still got what it takes to get back in the ring and defend his title. However, time starts to roll on and eventually, Vinny gives up, believing that there’s no reason to try anymore. That is, until he starts lifting and training again, even with the harness on his body. This is when his trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), decides to come back to Vinny and mount their comeback, even if absolutely no one believes that it can, or better yet, should happen.

I think it goes without saying that sex with that thing on is practically nonexistent.

I think it goes without saying that sex with that thing on is practically nonexistent.

Bleed for This comes so very close to be the ugly stepchild of the Fighter, that it’s almost distracting. However, what works best about Bleed for This is that director Ben Younger does small, rather interesting things to not just play around with the formula and conventions of a boxing movie, but avoid similarities to far better ones, too. In the Fighter, the movie was much more concerned with the wacky, wild and over-the-top family surrounding the title character, than actually him, whereas the story behind Bleed for This, and the very true one at that, is actually about the fighter himself and barely anyone else.

Just the way a boxing flick should be told.

See, with Vinny Pazienza, though we don’t really get to know much about him in the first act, other than that he’s a bit of a hot-shot and show-boat, the movie still makes up for all of that in showing us just the kind of person he truly is when faced with death-defying adversity. Once Vinny gets into the car-accident, it would have been incredibly easy and also, boring, for Bleed for This to become a run-of-the-mill redemption tale, played to hokey music and even hokier lines like “never give up, kid”, or “never give up”, or something along those lines, but Younger is a much smarter director than that. If anything, Younger knows how to avoid all of those age old cliches of what we expect from the boxing movie and find a way to not necessarily forget about them, but just not really embrace them much, either; he puts less of an emphasis on the fact that Vinny truly is an underdog and more of on the fact that this really happened and well, whether or not we know how the story actually ends, it’s quite a journey to watch.

It also helps that there’s a great deal of fun and lively energy to Bleed for This throughout the whole two hours. Whereas with Younger’s debut, Boiler Room, it sort of felt like all of the fun and wild energy was there, but soon, began to dissipate once a real, actual story started weaving its way into the main-frame, Bleed for This instead takes the story and runs rampant with it; none of what we’re really seeing is fresh or original, but it almost doesn’t matter. So what if everyone surrounding Vinny, including Vinny himself, all speak in ridiculous Boston-like accents? So what if Vinny works out and trains to AC/DC? So what if Vinny’s sisters all look and act tacky? So what if Vinny’s dads a little bit of a dead-beat and only cares about making money? So what Vinny’s trainer, Kevin Rooney, is an alcoholic, who has seen far better years as Tyson’s trainer?

"Come on, champ. Bring us home an Oscar."

“Come on, champ. Bring us home an Oscar.”

So what to all of this formulaic junk? Because really, the movie’s best and at its brightest when it doesn’t care about playing by any certain rules and just telling its scrappy, underdog tale, the way it wants to. Does it get wrapped-up in the usual issues that most sports movies do? Of course it does, but it does such a good job of telling its story in an exciting manner, that it hardly matters because it’s barely even noticeable.

The more sports movies that follow this path, I’m telling you, the better.

It should also go without saying that Bleed for This is helped out incredibly by the cast involved, most in particular, Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart, in one of the best performances I’ve seen either give in quite some time. Teller’s brash, cocky attitude that may be all too real, works well for someone like Vinny, who may not be as much of a d-bag, as much of a tool who loves his body and loves how he can beat people up. In that sense, Teller’s perfect for the role, but also works in other instances when we see Vinny’s true colors and realize that, above all else, he’s still kind of a kid who just wants to put on his gloves and fight.

And come to think of it, aren’t we all like that a little bit?

With this and Sully, it finally seems like Aaron Eckhart is back on the right track to reminding us all why he’s such a talent not to be wasted on crap like I, Frankenstein, or Battle: Los Angeles (seriously, Aaron, what the hell, man?). Regardless, Eckhart’s great as Kevin Rooney, working with an almost laughably cartoonish Boston-accent that works hand-in-hand with his bald head and ever-expanding beer-gut. Is it the kind of showy role that most actors roll with when they’re looking desperately for Oscar attention? Pretty much, but Eckhart is so good here, it hardly matters. You see a certain love, friendship and understanding between him and Vinny that grows over time, making it not only seem like the two understand each other, but possibly even need each other, too. It’s basically a bromance, without all of the excessive hugging and kissing.

You know, typical bro stuff.

Consensus: Even with all the conventions of a boxing movie standing in its way, Bleed for This gets by on heart, good performances, and a great deal of energy that buffs formula in small, but smart ways.

8 / 10

"Yeah, they told me to win the title, so I did. Am I right?"

“Yeah, they told me to win the title, so I did. Am I right?”

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz, Indiewire

Arrival (2016)

If they can’t speak English, can’t trust ’em. Right?

On one random day, for unexplained reasons, multiple mysterious extraterrestrial spacecraft touch down across the globe. What do they want? What are they? And what the hell could they possibly do? No one quite knows, which is why, as expected, the government gets on it immediately. And in doing so they, they put together an elite team including linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), to help investigate these matters and see if there’s any harm going to be done to planet Earth. No one quite knows how to communicate with these extraterrestrial beings, but Louise believes that she’s able to and starts figuring out what they’re language is, how to decipher it and yes, how to figure out all that they’re feeling or saying. It’s not an easy task, and with the rest of the world watching, sitting on pins and needles, not sure of what to make of these things, it becomes extra stressful for Louise. However, she has a plan and knows that it’s always best to treat outsiders with the utmost respect and dignity, especially if they could exterminate your whole population with the drop of a hat.

Hey, Am? Yeah, something weird over there.

Hey, Am? Yeah, something weird over there.

Another year and guess what? Another Denis Villeneuve movie. While saying that may make it seem like I’m discouraging the fact that one of our brighter, more inspired directors of today’s day and age continues to make a movie each and every year, it’s not meant to. As opposed to someone like Woody Allen, who churns out flicks because he’s got nothing else better to do and well, has the money, Villeneueve’s movies seem like they took forever to direct, are handled with care, and yes, for the most part, pretty damn good. Sure, at the same time, they’re dreary, sad, sometimes, violent, and yes, a little disturbing, but hey, they’re mostly all good movies and they deserve to be appreciated as such, right?

Anyway, with Arrival, it’s interesting to see Villeneuve sort of in a new light. He’s tried out the thriller genre by now, so instead of just focusing his sights on that, he goes towards sci-fi and it’s actually surprising how different this flick is from his others. While it’s still thrilling and sometimes unpredictable, it’s not dark, it’s not dreary, and it sure as hell isn’t ultra-violent – it’s actually quite heartfelt and inspiring.

Yes, for a movie about so-called aliens, I’m as shocked as you are.

What it all mostly comes down to though, is that Villeneuve himself never keeps us as informed as viewers, as we ought to be. Like Louise and all of these other characters, we don’t quite know what these beings what, or what they’re put on this planet for – what we do know is that they’re here, on Earth, and they may pose something of a threat. However, it’s interesting to watch as Louise and all of these other scientists get together and try to communicate with these beings in a relaxed, peaceful, and sometimes civil manner.

Most of the time, with sci-fi flicks especially, we see that the alien-beings up in the sky are evil and out to get the human race, but it’s a little different here; the aliens here look different, for sure, but they also have different intentions that we haven’t quite seen, or heard before in sci-fi movies of this nature. Even the layout of the pod is interesting; it’s literally one dark room, with a clear-glass and totally left up to our imagination – it’s dreamy, beautiful, but also terrifying, and seeing this on the biggest screen possible, honestly, the better.

Do scientists really look this sexy and cunning?

Do scientists really look this sexy and cunning?

Oh and yeah, Arrival is quite thrilling, but not in the way that you’d automatically expect. There’s some guns, there’s some explosions, there’s some running, there’s some running, and yeah, there’s some cursing, but it’s not all played-up for dramatic-effect because Villeneuve had nothing else better to do – it all feels earned. The movie’s main source of tension and excitement mostly comes through not knowing what to expect next and constantly waiting for this situation to get out-of-hand and spiral out of control, which it sort of does, but not in the way that you’d expect. Villeneueve and writer Eric Heisserer are constantly flipping the script on sci-fi conventions here that it is, yes, smart, but also interesting to watch, as we never quite know where they’re going next, nor does it seem like they know, either.

They’re just having way too much fun living life in a sci-fi flick and well, I can’t blame them.

The only aspect the movie sort of falls a tad apart in is the fact that it relies a little too heavily on this final-act twist that, for all the red herrings, curve-balls, random dream sequences, and symbolism, is still obvious and doesn’t quite pull the rug from underneath us. It’s hard to really be mad at a movie for not having a solid final-act twist, but there’s also something to be said for a movie that seems to harp on it so much and so often, that after awhile, it becomes annoying. We get what the movie’s getting at and because of that, it feels overdone.

Still, the cast is quite great here. Amy Adams is a sweet and peaceful presence as Louise, but also hints at having something of a darker side to her; Jeremy Renner plays the hip, cool and joking scientist that aids her in all of her work and has a nice bit of chemistry with her; Forest Whitaker shows up as the as the army Colonel, making it seem like he’s going to be the evil, dispirited villain of the story, but surprisingly, doesn’t turn out that way; and Michael Stuhlbarg, despite not being given a whole bunch to do, still has some fun as the coordinator of this mission and it’s just nice to see him around.

Consensus: Despite a weak final-act, Arrival is interesting, thrilling and smart, while also feature another win for Denis Villeneuve, one of film’s more compelling talents who seems to be challenging himself more and more with each flick he does.

8.5 / 10

Yeah, so what?

Yeah, so what?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, TwiCopy

Doctor Strange (2016)

He’s strange, but then again, aren’t we all?

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is, for lack of a better term, a deuche. He’s constantly rude, always showing-off in front of those around him, and throwing around his genius that after awhile, everyone around him learns to just accept it for him being just himself. However, his whole life changes when he gets into a near-fatal car accident that leaves him with career-ending nerve damage. Strange being the ignoramus that he is, believes that there’s a cure that save him and won’t stop at a single cost to figure out just how he can get his life back on-track the way it was before.  life changes after a car accident robs him of the use of his hands. Eventually, he ends up at Kamar-Taj, where he is told that, in order to receive the use and feeling of his hands again, he’ll have to believe in himself and everything that everyone tells him. Strange isn’t up for this, but decides that the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) may know a thing or two about achieving all sorts of crazy powers. And achieve all sorts of crazy powers is exactly what happens to Strange, however, he now has to think about how to use them: For himself, or for the greater good of the world?

He may be strange, but man, he sure is sexy.

He may be strange, but man, he sure is sexy.

Marvel is on a roll. You know this, I know this, Disney knows this, even Grandma Pearl knows this. It’s just a thing that every person in the world, even Zack Snyder and all his cronies, have come to accept and just embrace. Even the movies that are, at the very least, “meh” (Ant-Man), are still fun, entertaining and good pieces of popcorn fun because they’re Marvel – they’ve got a winning-formula and no one will stop them.

That’s why Doctor Strange, for some reason, feels like a breath of fresh air.

It’s not just a good Marvel movie, but close to being a great one. It is, yes, an origin story, but it also doesn’t try to make us understand each and every little thing about its mythology, what it’s all about, or what the tie-ins actually are – in fact, with the exception of maybe one or two mentions, not a single other Marvel character shows up here. Call me crazy, but I don’t mind that; sure, seeing the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, or even the Hulk pop-up, say a witty line or two, and then be off into the sun is nice, but it also makes the movie feel more and more like a product, than less and less of its own, actual thing.

Does that make any sense? Probably not, but it doesn’t matter, because Doctor Strange is a good piece of Marvel. Director Scott Derrickson clearly has a certain love and affection for these characters and this universe and it shines through just about every single shot. The constant trippiness and mind-bending of the visuals and the fight sequences, in 3D no less, make you feel as if you are actually stuck inside someone else’s dream and can’t get out of it; while that may sound absolutely horrifying to some, to me, it worked. Doctor Strange is the kind of Marvel movie that can get away with a lot because of its obvious tie-in, as well as its huge cast, and because of that, it’s better off.

It’s the kind of movie that gets to be all sorts of weird and goofy, but yet, at the same time, still work wonders that most superhero movies aim for.

Because even if it doesn’t want to admit it, at its heart, it is still a redemption story, with Stephen Strange at the center, showing us a person who can be awfully mean and unlikable, but at the same time, because he’s Benedict Cumberbatch, charming as hell. In fact, it’s perhaps perfect casting that even though I was initially thrown off by the awkward-sounding American-accent Cumberbatch uses, after awhile, it’s easy to get used to, because you accept this character for kind of a d-bag who, sometimes does the right thing on others behalf, and other times, doesn’t. The movie never makes him out to be a super, duper awesomely great guy, but more or less, some a-hole who just so happened to get some super powers. It’s a nice, refreshing touch that seems to be lacking in so many of the other Marvel movies, even including the Iron Man flicks.

"People didn't like our casting. Screw them."

“People didn’t like our casting. Screw them.”

And the rest of the prestige cast is quite great, too, even if they do have some silly material to work through. Chiwetel Ejiofor is good as Karl Mordo, something of a mentor to Strange, even if he becomes more of a sidekick by the end; Rachel McAdams pops up every now and then as the only human here and is fun and charming, bringing a nice bit of chemistry and flair to the screen with Cumberbatch; Benedict Wong doesn’t have a whole lot of stuff to do, but he makes the best of what he’s got with Wong (yes, that’s actually his name); Tilda Swinton is pretty great as the Ancient One, making her plea for her own movie, all the more understandable; and Mads Mikkelsen, as Kaecilius, is fine as our villain, but his character is also the main problem with Doctor Strange and Marvel movies as a whole.

See, it’s no shock that Marvel has its fair share of issues with villains; they do such a great job of building up and developing these ultra superheroes, that when it comes time for the foes to show up and act menacing, it feels rushed and weak.

Sure, Loki’s perhaps the only exception to the rule, but he hasn’t been seen in a Marvel movie in nearly three years, so it’s kind of a problem. And while Mikkelsen is as menacing as ever as Kaecilius, the character himself just feels weak and random; the issues that he brings up, or better yet, the reasons for why he’s acting out in evil, maniacal ways, never quite register. It’s hard to really talk about it at great lengths without giving a little bit away, but the realization of what’s going on and why he’s trying to destroy the world, never quite makes sense and feels rushed, as if the writers themselves were thinking of something to make him so mad about. That doesn’t ruin Doctor Strange, but it definitely does keep it away from reaching the heights it so desperately comes close to touching.

Oh well. Maybe Black Panther will hit the nail on the head?

Consensus: Even with the weak villain, Doctor Strange is still a wild, yet fun adventure from Marvel that adds another great superhero to its already stacked list of great superheros.

8.5 / 10

"Wingardium Leviosa!"

“Wingardium Leviosa!”

Photos Courtesy of: The Nerds of Color

De Palma (2016)

depalmaDon’t care. Black Dahlia still blows.

Brian De Palma has been making movies for nearly 50 years of his long life. Some, obviously, are better than others, but he’s still remained one of the more original voices in cinema who, with each and every flick, sees or tries to do something different than what he may have had to try before. So, through one whole sit-down interview, De Palma talks about his life, his relationships, and most of all, his films. No, literally. Every. One. Of. His. Films.

Love him, hate him, don’t have an opinion on him in the slightest, Brian De Palma has been around long enough to have the right to say that he knows a thing or two about what he’s talking about. Or, at the very least, get his point across in a manner that, sure, doesn’t always make perfect sense or justify the fact that some of the movie he chats about downright blow, but they do help clear some things up and make us realize that, “hey, maybe he just wanted to make a movie and try something. Why not?” Anyway, De Palma, the movie, will most likely change your view on the person and maybe, probably less of his actual movies.

Hey, who's that dude to the left?

Hey, who’s that dude to the left?

Either way, it’s a simple documentary in which we literally sit, watch, and listen as De Palma himself goes throughout the whole history of his life, as well as what each and every movie he’s ever made, means to him, or even, means to his artistic-craft. The movie is so incredibly simple and ordinary, that you’d think co-directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow just used their free time wisely, but it doesn’t appear as that at all; rather than us just listening in on a conversation, as if it were some PowerPoint presentation, Paltrow and Baumbach use so much B-roll and clips to help make these stories and little nuggets literally pop-out at us. It would have been easy for them to just have us sit there and listen to whatever De Palma wanted to say, but the fact that they actually incorporate everything else into it, makes it all the more entertaining to watch.

Which, for most people watching who aren’t familiar with De Palma, his work, or even movies as a whole, probably won’t have.

Sure, to enjoy De Palma, you don’t necessarily have to be a “movie-addict”, but there is a certain feeling of prestige, or general knowledge about the film-business, or even movies as a whole to fully understand just what De Palma is getting at half of the time. So yeah, it may be limited in that respect, but for those many who the movie does work for, it works like gangbusters; it definitely helps that De Palma himself is so off-the-cuff and open about every little thing that comes to his mind, that it almost makes you think he’s going to drop some heavy-duty secrets about the biz that may get him banned for life.

Say "hello" to his little friend. Aka, the budget.

Say “hello” to his little friend. Aka, the budget.

Things don’t quite pan-out that way, but they actually get a little closer. Fights with producers, studio-heads, narcissistic actors/actresses who wanted more spotlight than what they were given, etc. – De Palma calls almost all of them out, but it makes perfect sense. The guy’s been making movies since the mid-60’s and say what you will about what he’s churned-out lately, he’s still a relevant name that people look towards and mention every once and awhile. The movies that he’s directed (such as Scarface, or Blow Out), have all gone on to become something of classics, whereas others of his (Carlito’s Way, Body Double), may seem a tad bit unloved, but still get credit nonetheless.

Either way, watching De Palma makes you realize that the guy’s made some pretty damn good movies.

Of course, they’re not all winners and more often than not, they’re stinkers, but the ones that do stink so bad, have a reason for stinking. We find this out and plenty more in our time with De Palma and it’s hard to ever get bored by it. The only times where the movie begins to lag, honestly, are mostly in the moments where we focus on De Palma’s weakest, perhaps far less interesting movies in the later portion of his career, where he doesn’t say much, or if he does, doesn’t really have much to bring to the table. Of course, can’t blame the film-makers for working with what they’ve literally got, but it’s not hard to realize that the movie loses some muster in the final-act, when it has to stray a bit away from being sad and a little depressing, and more towards hopeful.

Even if, you know, a movie like Redacted is awful and the less said about it, the better.

But the more said about De Palma, the movie, as well as the actual person himself, hey, even more better!

Consensus: With a simple approach, De Palma gives us the certain insight we wouldn’t normally get from a legendary film-maker, that touches on all aspects of his life, as well as, more importantly, the hits and misses.

8.5 / 10

See this? Yeah, get used to it.

See this? Yeah, get used to it.

Photos Courtesy of: The Denver Post, The New York Times, The Movie My Life

Moonlight (2016)

Dancing in the…

Growing up on the hard, sometimes unforgiving streets of Miami, Chiron has had to deal with a lot. He’s constantly heckled for being gay, even if, as a young kid, he doesn’t even know what gay means, or if he even is it. That’s why a local drug-dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) makes it his duty to take care of him and be something of a surrogate father to him. Chiron doesn’t know what to think of this guy, nor does he really know what a daddy is; his mother (Naomie Harris), is currently trying her best to raise Chiron, but her drug-habit is so persistent and reckless, that even Juan, the one who is selling the drugs to her, has something to say. Fast forward to Chiron being in high school and, well, not much has changed for him. He’s still getting picked on, he’s still finding himself on the bad end of brawls, and most of all, he still doesn’t know how to talk to people. The only person that he does have some sort of a connection with is Kevin, a kid who may be in the same boat as Chiron, but doesn’t quite know it yet. Then, fast forward many years later and all of a sudden, Chiron is out of Miami, making money as a drug-dealer, and yes, jacked as hell. But how did he get there? And better yet, what’s next to come?

Baptize me in Miami beaches.

Baptize me in Miami beaches.

It’s actually kind of weird to talk about Moonlight, but trying hard not to say too much about it. For one, it’s not necessarily a movie built on the element of its surprises, or its twists, or its turns that the plot takes, as much as it’s just about the story evolving into something that we don’t expect from the first scene. In it, we see a typical coming-of-ager where a young little tyke named Chiron, or as he likes to be named, “Little” (played by Alex Hibbert), all of a sudden is being raised and brought-up by a local drug-dealer.

If this was its own little movie, it would probably get a 10 out of 10 from me. It’s sweet, heartfelt, honest, and perfectly acted by Mahershala Ali who, just saying, deserves something of an Oscar nomination (alongside Shia LaBeouf, but of course, neither of which will actually happen) for his work here, showing that the age old cliche of a drug-dealer with a heart of gold, really can be spun and seem fresh. But somehow, writer/director Barry Jenkins switches things up unexpectedly; the screen sudden fades to black and fast-forwards to a story that’s still about Chiron, but now, he’s older, in high school (played by Ashton Sanders), and somehow, it seems like a smart transition. For a director behind the camera and pen for a second time, it’s actually surprising how many risks and gambits Jenkins tries and yet, still somehow pulls it all off.

It makes me wonder why his directorial debut, Medicine for Melancholy was so, meh.

But that’s neither here, nor there.

Anyway, what Jenkins works with best here in Moonlight is that he tells us an honest, raw, gritty and sometimes beautiful tale of love, finding one’s self, and becoming who you are, through certain periods of your life, but it’s neither sappy, nor sentimental. In a way, it’s a whole lot like Boyhood – not just in terms of its narrative – but in terms of how it depicts real, everyday things that people go through when they grow up, but never sensationalizing them; for someone like Chiron and all of us, they’re just things that happen and help make us who we are. Jenkins is a smart director, as well as a writer, in that every single scene, literally, every frame, there’s not just a certain feeling of inherent beauty lying from within, but we also feel that this is one singular story, and not just our own that we can relate to.

And while, yeah, it’s great if you can relate to a movie, it’s not always a necessity and it’s why a movie like Moonlight, as much as it wants to be a typical coming-of-ager, is still uniquely original in its own kind of gritty way. Jenkins allows us to feel something for this protagonist, through all of the thick and thin, never judging him for who he is, what he does, what he becomes, and surely what he represents, but mostly just gives us a story of one person growing up, in Miami and encountering all sorts of painful hardships that gets so highlighted in so many movies, yet, so rarely feels as fresh and as organic as it does here.

Stay there, kid. It's not even worth it.

Stay there, kid. It’s not even worth it.

That Jenkins doesn’t tell us exactly how old Chiron is through all of the stages of his life, or where certain characters are at when they’re not seen on-screen, doesn’t matter; the movie’s not about the plot intricacies and structure, it’s about its raw, painful emotions that, after awhile, are hard to resist. The movie doesn’t ask for you to cry, nor even shed a tear, but it’s hard not to. Its story is so simple and so easy-to-follow, that it’s almost criminal.

How can so many movies with the same structure and same messages still get everything so wrong?

Regardless, Moonlight may also be one of the rare movies in which its lead character is played to perfection by all of its different players. As a pre-teen, Alex Hibbert gets down perfectly the sheer innocence and sweetness that so many kids are born with and can’t ever shake off, regardless of how awful their surroundings get; as a teenager, Ashton Sanders is also quite great, showing a great deal of intensity and emotion, even without uttering a single word half of the time; and as a grown man who would literally have King Kong turning back for his island, Trevante Rhodes, an actual athlete who competed in the Olympics, is absolutely brilliant, not just displaying the same sense of raw intensity and emotion without saying anything like Sanders did, but going even further and showing us that there’s a small, vulnerable child still somehow trapped in there. It doesn’t get any better than these three and honestly, it makes me wonder where their careers are going to go next, what with all of the lovely attention this has been getting.

But of course, there’s others in the cast and they’re all quite good, too. Janelle Monae shows up as Juan’s girlfriend/possible wife and fits perfectly into this movie’s world; Jharrel Jerome plays Kevin as a teen and does a great job showing a certain personality in a story that can get as bleak as Moonlight‘s; Andre Holland plays an older-version of Kevin and is quite perfect, showing a great deal of the same personality, but with an even better chemistry with Rhodes; and, well, unfortunately, Naomie Harris plays the drug-addicted mother of Chiron’s and she’s just not good. It’s a shame, too, because in all honesty, Harris is good in mostly everything else I see her in, but here, she was just so over-the-top and crazy, that she literally felt one crack-pipe away from Rosario Dawson’s similar character in Gimme Shelter. The movie tries to make her more than just the typical, cliche druggie-mommy, but in all honesty, she’s even worse as she really does carry the movie down with her.

Hence why a 9 and not a 10. Sorry, fellas.

Consensus: Even with a plot as simple as this, Moonlight is still painstakingly raw and emotional, that it reaches for the sky, hits it, and then some, echoing in a new, exciting voice with Barry Jenkins.

9 / 10

Silent, but definitely deadly.

Silent, but definitely deadly.

Photos Courtesy of:

Courage Under Fire (1996)

Who to trust? The hunky guys? Or the gal?

While he was on-duty during the Gulf War, Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Serling (Denzel Washington) accidentally caused a friendly fire incident and it caused him to rethink his military career, even if his superiors were able to look the other way for it. Now, with the war-effort over, he is assigned to investigate the case of Army Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan), a soldier who was killed in action when her Medevac unit was attempting to rescue the crew of a downed helicopter. And while it seems like a simple case of a solider being killed by enemy-fire, the more and more Serling begins to look, the more he realizes that there’s more to this story than just what’s on the surface. In a way, someone on the U.S.’s side could have killed Walden and if so, for what reasons? By interviewing everyone involved with the incident and who worked closely with Walden on that one specific day, Serling hopes to find it all out and then some.

Meg and Matt? What a dynamic duo!

Meg and Matt? What a dynamic duo!

Courage Under Fire is a lot like A Few Good Men in that, yes, it’s a fairly conventional drama-thriller that deals with the Army and a case that needs to be solved, however, it ends on a far more interesting note than it may have ever set out for. With the later, it’s become infamous for its final showdown between Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise and all of the countless conversations to follow, but with Courage Under Fire, that discussion is literally the whole two hours. In a way, Courage Under Fire is a conversation and an argument both for, as well as against the Army and the war-effort during the Gulf War of ’91, that neither pays tribute, nor attacks the soldiers who have, or haven’t participated in it.

Which is to say that it’s a good movie, yes, but it’s also more than just your average war-drama.

Director Edward Zwick knows how to handle a lot of material all at once, but what’s surprising the most here is that he does seem to actually settle things down and focus on the smaller details of the story that make it so dramatic. Sure, whenever he takes a flashback to the actual incident itself, the movie is chock full of action, with bullets flying, people dying, and explosions coming out of nowhere. At first, it may feel a tad uneven, but eventually, the movie, as well as Zwick, begin to find a groove that works in helping for the movie get to its smaller moments, while also giving the action-junkies a little something to taste on.

After all, the movie, from the ads and posters and whatnot, does appear to be promising this slam-bang, action-thriller of a war flick, which is also very far from the truth. However, that isn’t to say that there aren’t thrills, chills and action – there is, it’s just not in the forms of any sort of violence. Instead, it all seems to come from learning more and more about what really happened in this incident, realizing the conspiracy theories and cover-ups, and then, also seeing all of the different perspectives and how those characters shape the perspectives themselves. It’s a whole lot like Rashomon, but there’s a whole lot going on that keeps the similarities at bay, and instead, just feels like an interesting way to tell a mystery that could have been dull, boring and, honestly, uninteresting.

It’s also very hard to make a movie as dull and and as uninteresting as the one it could have been, especially what with the great cast on-hand.

"No blinking!"

“No blinking!”

As is usually the case, Denzel Washington is great in this lead role, showing a lot of dramatic-depth and compassion, without hardly saying anything at all. He’s the kind of actor that gets by solely on a look of his face and totally makes the scene his, and even though his role may not have been as fully-written as he’s used to working with, it’s still a role that Washington himself works wonders with, even if he does have to put in a little extra here and there. It’s also nice to see the likes of Lou Diamond Phillips, Seth Gilliam, and a young Matt Damon, as the soldiers involved with the incident, showing us more into their souls and what they saw.

But really, it’s the performance from Meg Ryan that makes the movie so good, as she shows a rough, tough and brave character who, despite what version of her, we hear and/or see, is still an admirable one. Ryan may seem like an odd-choice for this role, but as she proved in the 90’s, she owned almost every role thrown at her, and it was nice to see her do well with a role for someone who was, essentially, shown in just flashbacks. It honestly makes me wish she did more drama and stayed away from all of the non-stop rom-coms, as she clearly had the chops to pull it all off, but yeah, unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

And now, nobody knows quite where she’s gone.

Consensus: With a timely, smart message about war, Courage Under Fire brings a lot of thought and discussion to its sometimes predictable format.

8 / 10

Just one of the guys. Except, a lot prettier. Depending on who you ask.

Just one of the guys. Except, a lot prettier. Depending on who you ask.

Photos Courtesy of: Writer’s Digest, Teach With Movies, Empire