Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Shallows Review

At the very beginning of the film The Shallows, what we are seeing is coming from the perspective of a GoPro camera attached to the head of a surfer, and director Jaume Collet-Serra wastes no times introducing the audience to the villain of the picture. The shark strikes and we know the gruesome fate of someone in the film, but who?

When we first see a character wearing a camera, we have our answer, but rather than take something away from the experience by eliminating the surprise of his death, instead the tension multiplies exponentially as my mind immediately begins to wonder not if but when? Sometimes the scariest thing is not the unknown but rather the known. What we see coming but cannot stop.

That initial footage serves as a storytelling device meant to briefly flash forward in order to present the grim details of what is about to happen, but then we go back to the start. A young woman named Nancy (Blake Lively) is riding passenger in a vehicle and it's clear that she is a fish out of water (pun intended) struggling with a language barrier with the man driving her to a beach in Mexico. Not just any average location to surf, but a place that holds a significant importance to her. A place Nancy shared with her late mother. A spot to grieve and reflect and do what she loves to do all at once.

Clocking in at under 80 minutes of actual running time, The Shallows still manages to demonstrate patience in order to build tension despite such a short length. Nancy is given ample time to admire the beauty of her surroundings, stand confidently on her board through some picturesque waves and also talk a bit with two young men that came to the very same spot to surf. One of them is wearing a GoPro camera on his head.

We know it's coming. Not if, but when.

Eventually the shark does attack and its bite is ferocious. The screams were ringing through my ears and while not original or unique imagery, the way the water slowly turns red struck a chord with me because I found myself thinking about what a tragic final representation it was for an entire life of a human being. Everything they have already done and everything they were still yet to do, gone. Just a cloud of red amidst a sea of blue. The film itself is, for the most part, a simple story of survival, a woman versus the brutal realities of nature, but rather than just an onslaught of action and carnage, Collet-Serra turns the film itself into our version of what the beach was supposed to be for Nancy. A spot for all of us to grieve and reflect, to ponder the extraordinary value of something as seemingly obvious as being lucky enough to live the next day.

Unfortunately the blessings of this film also ended up being a bit of a curse, as a lot of the power of the minimalist narrative resides in the quiet moments and yet the enthralling first act transitions into a second act that loses some steam and ends up feeling the weight of redundancy. The way the setting is utilized by giving Nancy really fascinating places to find survive, like the floating corpse of a whale or a tiny bed of rocks elevated out of the water just enough to promise her temporary relief from certain death, ends up being the outstanding touches that create memorable moments beyond just fast swimming and underwater shots of a shark. The problem is I eventually started to become a little bit numb towards each new injury and the close calls of each kind, whether they be Nancy just getting her feet out of the water in time or the occasional person or boat in shouting distance that could be her saving grace, but we all know it can't be that simple.

Despite this drag in the middle, everything leads up to a tense and excellently filmed conclusion that had me genuinely wondering if The Shallows would have the happy ending I had expected all along or go in a very different, very dark direction. The only issue at this point in the film is the shark itself, which had otherwise been shot and portrayed very realistically but poor CG rears its ugly head and the creature is suddenly cartoonish. During this final act we are given really poetic and moving moments in which Nancy honors her mother by promising to fight like she did, and even if they are a bit cliche in terms of stirring up emotions, it all works. I found myself moved and rooting for her to fight.

Despite the occasional presence of other actors in the film, The Shallows is Blake Lively's vehicle to prove to the world that she can act and hot damn does she prove it. I'm sure some will pay for a ticket solely for a beautiful woman in a bikini but what they will also witness is easily the most impressive moment of a young career, when she was asked to display pain, fear, strength, and courage all in a small amount of time and completely sold me on every moment. Even when the film loses a bit of its edge in the middle portion, I was still invested in her and trying to figure out a path to safety, lost in that wonderful realm cinema can create where fiction and reality blur.

I only wish the entire film would have had the same bite for me as it did during the first and third acts.

Yes, pun intended.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence Review

"Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. "Mankind." That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it's fate that today is the fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom...not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution...but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!"

Some may roll their eyes and laugh when they think about the speech given by President Thomas Whitmore in Independence Day, but let's be honest for a second: it's a fantastic moment, one way or another. Whether you are emotionally moved by the sequence or find it manipulative and ridiculous, you likely at least remember it. When you hear or read those words, you are brought back to a time when you first watched the film and various scenes and images that are now iconic will likely come rushing back. Whether you love or hate the movie, the fact that it has withstood the test of time and has become a piece of well known pop culture is undeniable.

Fast forward to now, 20 years later, and the sequel has finally arrived. I'm not going to nitpick every silly moment or blockbuster cliche that pops up (although lord knows we could do without the scene in which something inspiring is being said on a radio and we are shown countries from around the world gathered around theirs, you know, being inspired). To go through all the cringe worthy dialogue and recycled tropes in a Roland Emmerich picture is like counting blades of grass to determine if it needs to be cut. The flaws of an Emmerich blockbuster are as expected and certain as the fact that shit grows when it rains.

So I'm not here to bus toss the new film for its performances, dialogue, or the tired feeling of familiarity that comes with a lot of these big summer event pictures. My biggest issues with Independence Day: Resurgence are the pacing and the fact that nothing really felt all the big and eventful about it despite the unwritten promise of such given its predecessor. 20 years in between films provided plenty of time to build chemistry and establish meaningful context to what has gone on over those two decades beyond some quick and clunky exposition dialogue to fill in those gaps. Let some of the moments that are clearly meant to be big and exciting breath a bit, give them a chance to resonate. 20 damn years they had to work with, to give an audience a big and bold sequel to a film that is loved by many, so when I saw the running time was at exactly two hours I knew we were in for some trouble.

Before I felt like I had even settled into my seat, aliens have attacked and the big save the world plan is being fleshed out and I was in shock, and there is my biggest issue with this film, the one thing I keep coming back to when deciding exactly how I feel about it now: nothing felt important enough to remember. Not long term at least. 20 years since Bill Pullman gave that speech and I still feel like I can quote it word for word, and there are quite a few more like it from that film that have stuck with me all this time and make me want to revisit it every damn year around the fourth of July. Silly or not, I keep coming back.

I know for many Independence Day: Resurgence will make a worst of the year list when it comes time to publish those. I just can't go there despite all the glaring and frustrating flaws and missed opportunities present throughout. In the end I had some fun with it, and I am more than willing to watch Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch share a screen together, or hell, even on their own as they spend most of the film, their characters managed to entertain. Had some laughs, enjoyed some action even if it wasn't anything spectacular. Liam Hemsworth is surprisingly charismatic in what is essentially the lead role here, although any chemistry he attempts to share with his fellow newcomers Jessie T. Usher and Maika Monroe is nonexistent. As a huge fan of both The Guest and It Follows, I was excited to see someone like Monroe get a crack at the big budget material but it pains me to say that she was completely under-utilized and much like the entire film, forgettable here. As a connective tissue between the original and now, playing the daughter of President Whitmore, I expected something more relevant than former fighter pilot, current White House employee and girlfriend to the lead. In essence Monroe is that piece of the narrative that is supposed to tug at the heartstrings, cutting to her tear filled eyes when either the former President or Jake Morrison (Hemsworth) are in danger. The movie wasn't patient enough to build up any reason for us to care, and the success and nostalgia from the first, far better film isn't enough.

I'm probably being too kind with my score, but I had a good time at the movies in the moment. Unfortunately down the road, none of it will matter and the resurgence will be forgotten.


Monday, June 27, 2016

O.J.: Made in America Review


Ah screw it. I believe it so I am just going to say the words: O.J.: Made in America is the best documentary I have ever seen. I have watched tremendous docs in the past, some that have resonated with me for years after watching (looking at you, Dear Zachary), but nothing has ever been this carefully and perfectly constructed before. This is 7 and a half hours of the most compelling filmmaking I have seen in quite some time, brought to the screen by producer and director Ezra Edelman. I can't help but wonder if he had any idea just how incredible of an achievement he was piecing together during the process.

Utilizing interviews and a ton of real footage, we are told a story that revolves around O.J. Simpson but covers so much more along the way. During the early portions of the film I couldn't help but take notice that a lot of time was being spent on racial tension and police brutality and society as a whole with very little mention of Simpson, but not a single moment lacks relevancy for the entire thematic weight of this project. Even if it seems to stray from what you might have expected turning on a film about the infamous murder case many of us remember so vividly, every moment matters. Every second is perfectly calculated and ties into a bigger picture systemic situation that made me realize all along I have been asking the wrong question for 20 years, but I will get back to that later.

What really works about this movie is that it plays to everyone, regardless of your prior knowledge of O.J. as a person or the horrific murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. I recall my mother being highly invested in the case when it was going on, and I was 10 years old so easily able to absorb much of what was being shown and said and those memories have stuck with me. Despite this, with the way this film lays out all of the puzzle pieces and then slowly pieces them together and the depths at which they cover it all, everything felt new. Even when I shouldn't have been surprised, I was sitting there in awe of just how immersed I was in the entire experience, and that is thanks a supreme understanding of how to tell the whole story through careful planning and then utilizing editing as a narrative weapon.

If you know nothing or at least only the basics heading into this doc though, O.J.: Made in America will sweep you off your god damn feet. At this moment it's the best film I have seen this year and I had the knowledge going in. I am jealous of anyone who is shocked by every strange twist and unsettling turn throughout the course of this real life masterpiece, a brilliant examination of the domino effect that can happen in society when hundreds of years of prejudice, injustice and abuse can ripple through all the way until the tragic moment when a famous, beloved black man has the blood of two white people on his hands on June 12th, 1994. The course of the trial was determined before it even began, but no one could see it until it was too late.

Earlier I mentioned how I have been asking the wrong question for 20 years. Prior to watch O.J.: Made in America, I had always asked how it was possible that he could have gotten away with those murders. Now I can't help but wonder if there was ever even the slightest chance he would be convicted. The deck was stacked against the prosecution from day one, but eventually that house of cards was doomed to fall.


Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Neon Demon Review

When I was 12 years old, I had a grand mal seizure. An abnormality in the brain. Epilepsy. Two pills a day. Specific amount of sleep. Avoid triggers like flashing lights.

It has been 20 years, almost to the day since that moment and even though I was cleared by my doctor at 18, the desire to avoid those triggers remains. It's ingrained in me. Two decades of closing my eyes at the sight of a strobe light, unable to shake the fear that shook my soul so many years ago.

A red flashing light pulses through the frame in The Neon Demon. The beautiful faces of models in Los Angeles glow with each burst only to disappear a split second later. Jesse. Ruby. Gigi. Sarah. Beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing.

Almost everyone I know loves the film Drive. It's a dream come true for a filmmaker, to make a picture that receives almost universal acclaim and it's the best thing that ever happened to Nicolas Winding Refn. Not because of money or awards, but rather because of the general attention he has received from audiences that would hopefully seek out his future work. Future films they may boo and express anger towards because the man wants to make art that polarizes, which was quite evident when he followed up the success of Drive with the lavish but loathed Only God Forgives, which in my lonely world is a masterpiece.

Two decades of closing my eyes at the sight of a strobe light, but when that light began exploding into my retinas watching The Neon Demon, I couldn't look away. It was the first time I can remember over the past 20 years that I told myself, stop being silly. Something this beautiful, this hypnotic, this unsettling demands to be seen and to be appreciated. I feel like I should include the disclaimer that this movie isn't for everyone, but that's not a warning to steer clear, that's an invitation to come inside and see how it moves you. You may hate The Neon Demon. You may feel inclined to curse at the screen when it ends and demand your money back on the way out, but you will remember that time you cursed at the screen. You will remember the look on the teenage theater employees face when you hold out your hand and wait for a refund. You will remember The Neon Demon and it's shocking, beautiful, deranged imagery one way or another, and that's the type of cinema I want to see.

I'm not going to use this as a platform to bash other films by name, but within the last month I have seen some that I barely remember a single second of. Fun in the moment perhaps, but completely forgettable over time. Embrace provocative cinema that lingers, that titillates, that disturbs because it will live on.

The plot is simple but the way Refn goes about telling the story is anything but. Jesse (Elle Fanning) is new in town. Los Angeles, looking to be a model. She's 16 but when Roberta Hoffman (Christina Hendricks) hires her, she tells her to lie. You're 19, not 18. 18 is too on the nose. She's young and fresh faced and explodes onto the scene and the other models have taken notice, women who pay top dollar to fix what never needed fixing in the first place, their faces and bodies being altered to try to stay relevant in an industry that will chew them up and spit them out. At one point a model is heard commenting that someone they know is 21 years old so she might as well retire.

Beauty isn't everything, it's the only thing.

Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee) take notice, and the tension, anger and jealousy is instantly palpable. Not with Ruby, she sees Jesse differently. She smiles when Jesse enters the room. She stares at her and then apologizes for it. Ruby reaches out to her like a friend but there is something deeper, something more. With Gigi and Sarah, what you see is what you get because their true feelings and insecurities can't hide behind narcissistic words or phony smiles. They are destroyed by the arrival of Jesse. They see everything they have worked for, everything they live for evaporating before their eyes. All because of the beauty of a girl just hoping for a chance to stand in the spotlight, a chance to make a name for herself. They not only want to be rid of Jesse, they also long to taste what she has. Something they can never have again.

Every frame of The Neon Demon feels so carefully and perfectly constructed. The colors, the sights, the sounds, the movement of the characters. It's essential viewing even if it makes you feel dirty by the time it ends. It should make you feel dirty. The photography of Natasha Braier is absolutely electrifying. The musical score by Cliff Martinez is sublime, and the first thing I did after the film ended was look up how much it would cost to buy the soundtrack. The performances aren't always perfect but I'm not entirely sure they are supposed to be. This film walks a very thing line between that familiar Refn style and an absurdist bizarre satire that feels like something from the mind of David Lynch, and I think the acting fell in line with this concept. I was reminded of the first time I watched Mulholland Drive and I was scratching my head over the way the dialogue was delivered so awkwardly at times, only to later realize that I was stuck in some sort of fever dream that I wanted to fall back into over and over.

Including myself, six people were in my theater and I was the only one smiling in the end. I am certain The Neon Demon is destined to be one of those films that is horribly misunderstood, torn down and stepped on by a majority because of it. I have already come across those that want to shit on Refn for his misogyny, for portraying women in such a shallow, negative light, but I didn't find this movie to be a criticism of an entire gender but rather a commentary regarding the unfortunate reality of the way women feel forced to compete in this world by a repulsive, appearance obsessed society, a world that places such a disgusting premium on physical traits that rather than admire the beauty of another human being, instead the instinct is to find a way to tear them to the ground as a means of self-elevation. This isn't something relegated to Hollywood stories, I have seen it with my very own eyes. The hatred that is born of jealousy, the cruel and unsettling ramifications of misplaced anger when a woman I know personally speaks viciously of someone else without even truly knowing her, only because all the eyes in the room become transfixed by the confidence that carries her through it. In a perfect world we would feel good for them and their success, but this is a world where every room contains multiple mirrors in order to ensure outward physical perfection while the concept of inner beauty is laughed at and dismissed. This is far from a perfect world.

Ever since I was 12 years old, I have kept my eyes closed without giving it a second thought. I left them open for The Neon Demon.


Friday, June 24, 2016

10 Favorite Animated Films

It's quite ironic, how much more I love animated films now than I did when I was a kid. I had certain ones that I watched on repeat growing up, sure, and a couple of those will appear on this list, but these days I see so much more beauty in the stories being told by great artists that choose to pour their imaginations into a frame rather than shoot reality.

With the release of Finding Dory a week ago, it got me thinking about how I would rank my favorite animated films of all time. One thing that will be abundantly clear on this list is that because I didn't really take too strongly to animation when I was growing up (Star Wars on repeat was my jam instead), you won't find a lot of the Disney classics on here. It's not that they aren't terrific, as I have since watched some of them and completely understood why they mean so much to so many, but there is no nostalgic value to them so I am simply comparing how all of these films impact me now and what they mean to me as I sit down to watch them with my daughter.

10. Waltz with Bashir

So I talk about how I share these films with my daughter, and then the first one on the list is something I certainly have not shown her. Strange as it sounds, Waltz with Bashir is essentially an animated documentary as it tells the true story of what Ari Folman (who wrote, directed and stars in the film) went through during his time as a teenage infantry soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. It's a beautiful, haunting and horrifying tale that actually feels more graphic and harrowing by using animation rather than showing typical reenactments. 

9. The Lion King

I didn't love a ton of animation as a kid, but lord did I adore The Lion King. Still do. Something about it resonated with me as a little one to the point that I wanted to watch it on repeat, and sometimes the stuff a kid loves seems silly to an adult but when I sit down and experience this movie all over again now, it's still outstanding. Brilliantly drawn and deeply moving, I have probably seen The Lion King 200 times in my life and I could watch it again right now.

8. Princess Mononoke

The first of three Hayao Miyazaki films that will appear on this list (and four from Studio Ghibli), Princess Mononoke is an epic fantasy masterpiece that is richly thematic with a script that is complex and fascinating. I said earlier that I love animated films now more than I did when I was younger, and the work of Miyazaki is a perfect example of why. The films can appeal to kids, as proven by my kid who loves them, but there is no chance she can fully understand and appreciate everything going on. I was 13 when this was released and lord knows I didn't. 

7. It's Such a Beautiful Day

The work of Don Hertzfeldt is something that is difficult to put into words. After seeing It's Such a Beautiful Day and his Oscar nominated short World of Tomorrow, I am fully on board with the idea that the man is a genius. This film is about a stick-figure named Bill whom is experiencing memory loss and is coming to grips with his own mortality after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. It's a darkly funny and tremendously moving picture, and if you have reservations about taking it seriously because of the animation, give it a shot. Please do. 

6. How to Train Your Dragon 2

Yes, a Dreamworks sequel is on my list. Honestly, I was contemplating putting it higher and the hardest film to leave off this top ten was the first How to Train Your Dragon. I can't stress enough how much I love these films, and the sequel is packed with heart, emotion and fun. It's spectacularly animated and when I saw that legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins was a visual consultant, I wasn't surprised. The lighting and the colors and the epic scale of the images, beyond impressive. Add in an impressive vocal cast that added Cate Blanchett here and storytelling that isn't afraid to take a few risks and show that the characters face actual consequences, I can't get enough. I recently revisited this film and it's just as wonderful as it was the first time. I cannot wait for the third film knowing that it could be mentioned alongside another masterful animated trilogy (more on that later).

5. Grave of the Fireflies

Warning: don't watch around children and be prepared to cry. Grave of the Fireflies may be animated but that does not mean it isn't graphic and disturbing. Up above I wrote about Princess Mononoke and I mentioned that four Studio Ghibli films would be on the list, well this is the one not directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Written and directed by Isao Takahata, this movie is about two young siblings trying to survive on their own during the conclusion of the second World War. This is a story that earns your tears. It's so beautiful, so painful and completely unforgettable.

4. Toy Story

It's so difficult naming a favorite Toy Story film because frankly, all three are pretty much perfect. It's an amazing trilogy, and strangely I am becoming more and more convinced that the third film is actually the best of the bunch yet it didn't even make my list. Why not? Because of that very thin line that defines "best" from "favorite", and the original Toy Story has an extremely powerful nostalgic grip around me that I cannot let go of. When I think of Toy Story, the movie that changed animation forever, I think of being a kid and how wonderful it made me feel to see it on the big screen, so no matter how many sequels they release I will always cherish the original.

3. My Neighbor Totoro

A work of art. An absolute treasure. Hayao Miyazaki's beautiful film My Neighbor Totoro is charming, heartwarming and heartbreaking, a fantasy adventure involving two sisters who desperately need a Totoro to rescue them from the harsh realities of the world around them. A hand drawn wonder of animation that feels so refreshingly genuine, it's hard to argue with anyone who believes this movie is the best piece of animated filmmaking ever. Yet here I am ranking it only third and amazingly, not even the best picture from Miyazaki himself. 

2. Inside Out

Okay so it's only been a year since Inside Out was released, so I bet it feels a bit rushed and hyperbolic to rank it so high on this list. On the other hand, I only knew my wife for three months before we moved in together and after just one year we were married, and here we are eleven years later still going strong.

My point? Sometimes you know how deeply you love something and time is irrelevant.

Okay, so that seems pretty hyperbolic now, right? Comparing a Pixar film to the person I hope to spend the rest of my life with? Yeah, of course it is. They don't even play in the same league in terms of what they mean to me, but put only against the backdrop of cinema Inside Out is truly a special experience. I actually believe I showed some restraint by ranking it only second here rather than my favorite overall because truthfully, I don't believe a smarter and more meaningful piece of animation exists. The complexities on display to demonstrate the emotional experience of adolescence are incredible, and the film features one of the most clever ways to portray depression I could ever think of. Inside Out is a masterpiece, and whether it was released in 1975 or 2015 doesn't change that.

1. Spirited Away

The irony of Spirited Away being my favorite animated film of all time is that it's the hardest to write about, where as you would think the deeper the admiration the easier the words would come flowing out. It's just sorta gotten to that point where I wonder what else needs to be said about something so utterly perfect and unique as this Miyazaki dream. Magical, creepy, strange, touching, exciting and funny, this movie has everything. It's a coming of age story about the main protagonist, a young girl named Chihiro. It's an assault on capitalism and greed. It covers the topic of pollution and our environment which is something Miyazaki is clearly deeply passionate about since much of his work trends in that direction. Spirited Away is the perfect example of what is deeply flawed about the concept that animation means the target audience is kids, a film that is so mature and important and drips the wisdom of the geniuses behind it from every frame.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Conjuring 2 Review

The Conjuring was a reawakening for me when it comes to an appreciation for horror cinema. Prior to that film being released I was very much a pessimist of the genre, as franchises like Saw and Hostel and Paranormal Activity had very little substance to them capable of keeping me interested for more than a handful of minutes. I remember being shocked by the positive reviews to The Conjuring as I figured it would be nothing more than recycled jump scares and fatigued tropes, so I went into it with an open mind...and I absolutely loved it. Rather than throw shit at us and pray that it made us jump, director James Wan showed an incredible amount of patience using mood and atmosphere and wonderfully creepy set pieces in order to make my skin crawl by building dread.

A sequel though? Don't horror sequels always disappoint compared to the original?

Well, yes and no. I am absolutely certain I prefer the first film at this moment, that doesn't mean I didn't dig the hell out of The Conjuring 2 as well. The aspects that fell short for me were the fact that Wan seemed a bit more reliant on those jump scares I mentioned before, and also that the haunted home and the characters that occupied it this time around just didn't quite engage me the way the Perron family and their big, creaky abode did back in 2013.

What does make me second guess myself though are when I think about those jump scares, because criticize the reliance on them all I want but lord are they executed masterfully. Often times I am not phased by these attempts to get me flying out of my seat, but goodness Wan did some extremely terrifying stuff here that did in fact make my heart skip a beat. This nun business...I just can't. Absolutely horrifying. The type of figure that will pop up in my mind in a few hours when I am trying to sleep, and next thing I know I will be laying awake in the middle of the night watching a comedy to try to trick my brain into thinking about something else.

One scene in particular involving Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) and a painting of the face of the aforementioned nun...good gravy. I find myself looking into the other room trying to pierce my sight through the darkness because of it, fearing what lurks in the shadows. It keeps playing over and over in my thoughts and I am uncomfortable. I know it's all fake, I am far old enough to recognize the magic of movie making, yet when done right a horror film can trick us into believing in the unbelievable.

Speaking of Farmiga, she and Patrick Wilson as her husband Ed have demonstrated excellent chemistry through both of these films and thank heavens for them here because again, the family being terrorized at the center of this story just didn't win me over. I don't know what it was because there are plenty of pieces in play that I should be more sympathetic towards, like vulnerable kids and a struggling single mom, but they lacked the charisma that I gravitated towards in Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor and their kids showcased in the first film. This could also be because the love of the Warren's is more built up and focused on this time around with premonitions of death causing some second guessing as to whether they should even be involved in the first place, where as the familial dynamic in The Conjuring contained the most emotional depth.

The more I am thinking about it and writing about it, the more I appreciate The Conjuring 2. I recall the first time I watched the first film I was thrilled yet a bit nitpicky, and it played even stronger months later in my living room on Blu-ray. Gut feeling the same happens with the sequel.

Oh lord I just thought about the nun again.

Heaven help me.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Finding Dory Review

The other night I rewatched last years Oscar winning Pixar film Inside Out, and the truth is undeniable: it's a masterpiece. Despite already seeing the movie, I sat there in awe of the screenplay and the joyous characters and just how ingenious the whole experience is. It's a feat that is worthy of more praise than I can heap on it, to balance a story that kids can be thrilled by yet will also bring tears to the eyes of adults because of how brilliantly the emotional experience of adolescence is portrayed. It's a practically perfect work and in my world, Pixar's finest.

Also released last year was another Pixar original, The Good Dinosaur, and while it never had a chance to live up to the pure beauty of Inside Out, at the very least it brought us into a new world with new characters and it featured a spectacular and innovative style of animation that put cartoon creatures against a ultra realistic backdrop. Therefore, it is understandable that the idea of the studio delving into a sequel again was a bit of a letdown for many. Knowing the adventures that the team of animators and storytellers are capable of taking us on, a feeling of familiarity is disappointing.

But this is Finding Dory we are talking about here, and the rich and highly detailed underwater world created by Andrew Stanton (among many other wonderfully talented people) with Finding Nemo in 2003 is a place I am more than willing to revisit. Without a doubt this film never had a chance of playing as strongly as Inside Out, the original Nemo or any of their other modern classics but after entering the cinema keeping my expectations in check, Finding Dory is an absolute delight.

Within minutes we are given a backstory to the Dory character and just like that I knew that the original film would be enhanced with this knowledge. It's a beautiful thing, to not only entertain in the moment but also build upon the groundwork that was laid over a decade ago, and knowing more about Dory sheds so much light on the emotional weight of her plight all along. The film never lets down in this regard either, using flashbacks and current moments to make the audience laugh and also break our hearts in order to add a ton of depth to a tiny blue fish voiced by Ellen DeGeneres (who as expected is terrific here). All the new characters are fun and interesting and perfectly cast, especially an Octopus (or is it Septopus?) named Hank that is just spot on utilizing the talents of Ed O'Neill.

I admired the storytelling balance that was struck in Finding Dory because despite the fact that it's going to be a box office home run for it's bright colors and top notch ability to embrace the fun of going to the movies as a family, there is so much sorrow to be found in these frames and I fell in love with the way it all felt genuine and important. There were a few shots in particular of Dory when the sea didn't seem to be so vibrant and the scenes were dripping with so much loneliness and despite all the laughs and smiles, these were the moments that are sticking with me the next day. Pixar has a terrific handle on telling a complete and nuanced story.

Does Finding Dory suffer a bit from sequel fatigue? Perhaps. I don't mind though. The last time I went on a journey with these characters I was 19 years old. I had not met my wife yet and I was years away from bringing a beautiful little girl into this world. Being able to sit with both of them 13 years later in a movie theater and experience a combination of the names and voices we already love with new locations and new motivations just felt right.


Monday, June 13, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse Review

There is a moment in X-Men: Apocalypse where Jean Grey, Cyclops, Nightcrawler and a strangely underutilized Jubilee are exiting a movie theater in 1983, and the film they just finished watching? Return of the Jedi. This moment is placed here simply to make a joke about the third film always being the worst, and it was made clear by producer Simon Kinberg that it was absolutely a slight towards X-Men: The Last Stand, the atrocious final piece to the original X-Men trilogy.

The problem here is not the concept of making fun of The Last Stand, which absolutely deserves any mockery that is tossed its way, but that even if the characters from the originals overlap through confusing timelines, I view the films starting with First Class as a new trilogy rather than a continuation. Therefore, X-Men: Apocalypse is the third film this time around and yes, it is without a doubt the worst.

Had this been a clever, self-aware piece of writing about their own film, it still wouldn't sit right because you never really want a filmmaker and screenwriter being prophetic about their own picture's critical and audience poor reception, but it's even worse being that it is a knock on the misguided Brett Ratner film from a decade ago because while far, far stronger than The Last Stand, Apocalypse sort of feels like that again to a degree. Coming off the wonderful high that was Days of Future Past, to step down at a time when things seemed to be elevating to something spectacular is disappointing, much like when X2 soared and then Bryan Singer left and the concluding picture was handed to someone else.

I had to make sure I mentioned that Apocalypse was leaps and bounds better than The Last Stand because to associate the two would be dishonest, unfair and hyperbolic of me. The Last Stand was a disaster that was laughably bad early and often where as I was entertained by Apocalypse and I was engaged for most of it, but there in lies the problem: most. Not all. Days of Future Past has me from frame one and it is paced expertly, managing to balance seemingly way too many characters with strong dialogue and relationships that resonate emotionally, and the film proved me wrong in that regard. I recall prior to its release I had expressed my concerns that Days of Future Past would be a mess because it was trying to spin too many plates at once, but I was thrilled to tip my cap to Bryan Singer for not only making it work, but making it work incredibly well.

Because Singer had earned my trust, I never once worried about X-Men: Apocalypse the way I had the previous film because I was confident he would be able to demonstrate his strength handling the too many heroes for one film issue, which made it a letdown when Apocalypse ended up being a bit of a mess itself. There simply isn't a strong flow to this film. When I think about my favorite superhero film of the year, Captain America: Civil War, there is this perfect build up in terms of plot and character that leads into the airport hanger sequence and beyond and everything is so satisfying. It just flows smoothly. X-Men: Apocalypse feels like a scattershot of scenes meant to lay out the plot groundwork but nothing ever really gels, and when we get to the big, blockbuster event of the whole thing, the battle to save the world, it never felt like a payoff to a well handled crescendo. As buildings are falling and the end appears to be near, I wasn't nearly as exhilarated as I would have hoped.

Still, despite the disappointment, some truly wonderful moments rose from the ashes and they still linger in my mind now. Pretty much anytime Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) was on the screen I was sucked in and completely immersed in the scene and some of them were incredible, especially a sequence involving a tragedy that changes the course of his life, a life he wanted to live with normalcy. James McAvoy is on his game again as Charles Xavier, and most of the other pieces of the ensemble fit into their roles nicely. One disappointment for me was Jennifer Lawrence, not because the performance was poor (it wasn't) but because she wasn't really asked to shine, and when such a huge name who has proved repeatedly to be a very gifted actress ends up playing a very unmemorable role in a film, it's noticeable. Another is Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse. I am an enormous fan of Isaac, from his small but vital role in Drive to his brilliant turn with a Coen script in Inside Llewyn Davis, and he brought some of that Star Wars magic back to life in The Force Awakens. Here though, it's a nothing role. There is no nuance at all to this villainous performance, just the same booming voice cadence with one of my favorite actors caked in so much makeup that you could have cast anyone and I would have never known the difference.

X-Men: Apocalypse is a pretty good but deeply flawed yet fun spectacle. It just can't reach the lofty heights of both First Class and Days of Future Past.

The third film is indeed the worst.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Warcraft Review

I had to give myself a sort of internal pep talk before sitting down to watch the brand new film Warcraft. Ignore the critical reception and make up your own mind. Push aside my positive bias for Duncan Jones and pretend I have no idea who was sitting in the director's chair. Judge this movie fairly and accurately and try not to replay the disappointment I felt every time I saw the trailer for this and thought, this is from the guy who made Moon and Source Code? Shit, see, just like that and I am thinking about Duncan Jones again. It's a vicious circle.

Speaking of that critical reception that yes, I did my best to ignore but let's face it, it's sort of like when a judge orders a jury to ignore remarks that have been stricken from the record. Sure, those twelve angry men and women will nod their heads and perhaps never mention what they heard aloud to each other, but they can't truly forget it. They can't completely block out the noise. Therefore, it was impossible for me to not consider some of the reactions I had caught wind of and wonder what they saw, what they were thinking that lead them to that opinion, especially those that seemed so over-the-top and hyperbolic that the notion of being a sensationalist in order to get more clicks seemed highly likely, like at least one critic if not more using the phrase "worst film of all time" in their Warcraft headlines.

I completely understand and respect that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but it's difficult to not think that someone is being a bit short-sighted if they truly believe Warcraft is the worst movie ever made. It's not even the worst film released in June of 2016 starring Paula Patton. It's not even the worst film I watched this weekend. In fact I kinda liked Warcraft, but I say that fully admitting that there is plenty here to completely dislike. This is a deeply flawed, strange film directed by a man whose previous two pictures might be described as a bit strange but never flawed. Moon is an absolute masterpiece, a movie that utilizes a minimalist approach in the best way possible to allow an award worthy performance from Sam Rockwell and a haunting concept to move me to tears and rattle my soul. Source Code was a step down from that lofty debut yet it still manages to be a pretty brilliant and wonderfully tense science fiction thriller that moves at a perfect pace and fully entertains from start to finish. It's incredibly easy for me to say that Warcraft is the worst film Duncan Jones has made, and after the way his career as a filmmaker began, I sit here extremely disappointed that so much time of his was devoted to a project that couldn't possibly demonstrate his potential.

Despite this disappointment, I would be lying if I said I wasn't entertained by this wacky, weird and wild slice of fantasy cinema that features mediocre costume design, wooden performances from the human characters and messy storytelling in general. I think my biggest problem with Warcraft is the length of the movie, as it was simply impossible to adequately build the world that Jones wanted to construct, develop the many characters that he wanted to inhabit it and flesh out the relationships that make both the people and the orcs such interesting and personal creatures, which was clearly his goal. From the very beginning to the final frame the running time of Warcraft is roughly 113 minutes, which may seem like a reasonable length for a film but it just doesn't work for a fantasy epic meant to kick off a franchise. I'm not comparing the quality of the movies because that just wouldn't be fair, but imagine if the first Lord of the Rings film was less than 2 hours long. It would have been an absolute failure. The reason those movies ended up being such incredible experiences is because Peter Jackson told the story with such patience, devoting a large amount of time to allow the audience to care about those characters and their journey. I couldn't possibly emotionally invest in anyone or anything Warcraft offered because it's not possible when the film starts off with a voice-over to lay some brief groundwork and then thrusts us into plot without any build up. I watched every moment carefully and yet a day later I can barely remember any character names, because I never really wanted to get to know them.

What I admire about Warcraft on both a studio level and also about the writers and director is that this is a big budget summer blockbuster that couldn't give two shits about the fact that they were clearly going to alienate a portion of their potential audience that might have hoped it would just follow the beats of seemingly similar movies, like the aforementioned Lord of the Rings trilogy. Warcraft is silly and utterly strange, at times a deeply heartfelt experience that illustrates just how much Jones cares about what he made here which surprised me. When I first heard that he had signed on for this project I was bothered that a man with such a strong eye for lower budget filmmaking would be forced to make a soulless studio film for a big paycheck, but it just isn't the case. Turns out Jones is a huge fan of the Warcraft video games and lobbied for the gig and sold those writing the checks on his vision. After all is said and done, I had a fair amount of fun with what he came up with, warts and all. If only this had been 30 minutes longer, because as is it feels like a movie that only fans of the game will fall in love with since they already have a wealth of knowledge about the world of Azeroth prior to even taking their seats. For those who have never played Warcraft or even people like me who played the original game long ago but nothing since, the lack of breathing room for any of the storytelling here produced a muddled, messy film that desperately needed more time to allow everything to breathe.

I have seen plenty of films far, far worse than Warcraft, so if you had any inclination to see it and were scared off by the critics, feel free to give it a chance and make up your own mind. I wish I could give it a bigger thumbs up but the fact that I enjoyed it at all works for me. Here's to China driving this one to box office glory with the hope that perhaps a sequel would be the character driven 150 minute long epic that I had hoped this first Warcraft would be.


Thursday, June 9, 2016

Toy Story Review

I will always remember when I saw Toy Story at the theater when it first came out. This isn't a movie that needed to grow on me with time, although I am certain my appreciation for it is far deeper today then it was back then. I loved it the first time sitting in that sticky, squeaky chair, looking up at the massive screen before me, but now it's a wonderful combination of that nostalgia with a realization that this is still a completely ingenious, pretty much perfect piece of animated cinema.

It's fascinating discussing the movie with my kid because it really illustrates how much perspective plays a role in the level of appreciation. Not that she doesn't love Toy Story, she does, but for her it's just one of a number of great Pixar movies. The fact that it was the feature length debut for the animation studio is meaningless to her, and telling her that the film was a groundbreaking moment for the medium as it was the first picture to be created entirely via the computer rather than be drawn by hand elicits an "Oh wow" and a nod of the head, but truthfully those are just words. Such animation is the norm for her where as a Studio Ghibli film is what looks and feels strange. Like it or not, Toy Story was when that transition began and the landscape has been altered ever since.

I say like it or not because when I watch some of the Disney classics or the aforementioned Studio Ghibli masterpieces, I can't help but miss the lush detail and charm of a hand drawn beauty, but that's only because of the saturation of computer animation for over 20 years now. When I first saw Toy Story, you wouldn't have been able to convince me I would ever feel inclined to go backwards again. The way the characters popped off the screen and how they and the world they occupy feel shockingly organic. The richness of the color in every frame. It's all so masterfully crafted, and add in the brisk 80 or so minute running time that is so marvelously paced I couldn't possibly trim or add a minute and what we have here is one of the finest animated films ever made.

I didn't even mention the spot on vocal casting and the way actors such as Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, John Ratzenberger and more bring the toys to life and provide them with such vibrant personalities. I don't have an ill word to say about Toy Story, and every time I see it I am transported to that chair in a theater that doesn't even exist anymore yet it still feels like I can reach out and touch the magical glow of the screen.


Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising Review

Maybe I am being unfair to the genre and perhaps I am just not seeing the right films, but the bar for comedy has gotten so low for me. So, so low. I recently sat through the new Adam Sandler Netflix movie The Do-Over and I couldn't even crack a smile, so I should have known that whatever I followed that up with would be a delight by comparison.

Congratulations, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. You secured the enviable position of being the comedy I watched next, and yes, by comparison this film is so much better than the Sandler filth.

However, before anyone thinks this is a shout from the rooftops recommendation or even any sort of endorsement at all, pump the breaks. Neighbors 2 is better, there is no doubt about that, but after sleeping on it and letting the merits of the picture itself meld into my mind, the truth is this is nothing more than an adequate, mediocre sequel.

The first Neighbors was fine, a movie that played a lot stronger the first time through sitting in a crowded theater than the second time in my living room when I had to generate my own comedic energy. It's not that it's a bad film in any environment, I just opened my eyes to the realization that it wasn't as good as I once thought. In that way Neighbors 2 does exactly what it should do, serve as a perfect companion piece for its predecessor, but unfortunately here that's only a middle of the road work that earns a few hearty laughs and a handful of mild chuckles but also has plenty of material that completely falls flat.

I don't know the box office numbers that Neighbors pulled in, but it was obviously enough to merit a sequel and I assume when director Nicholas Stoller got together with the room full of writers (5 of them including star Seth Rogen), they basically said, it's not broke so let's not fix it. Essentially what I am getting at here is, the sequel felt an awful lot like the first one. This time around it isn't a fraternity that has moved in next door but rather a sorority, and the stakes aren't young parents trying to get their newborn daughter to sleep, it's that they have to sell their house and the college girls partying next door have put a potential sale in jeopardy. The tone of the humor feels identical, which will win over those that love the first film but I couldn't help but wonder if the nagging word floating through my mind throughout was lazy. The whole thing just felt like a easy paycheck rather than any attempt to create something interesting. One could say that the recent Jump Street films exemplified this, but at least with those Phil Lord and Chris Miller were self-aware enough to make fun of the fact that the two movies were so obviously similar.

I have come across a fair amount of people who have praised the progressive nature of Neighbors 2, with the way a homosexual relationship is treated with kindness and even more importantly, normalcy, and the way that women are portrayed with the sorority wanting to rise above sexism and the expectations of their gender versus the reality of just living their truths, whatever those happen to be. This praise is without a doubt fair and proved to be one of the strongest aspects of the movie for me, but it's just not enough to actually warrant a thumbs up for the entire experience. I am all for a comedy that avoids homophobia and sexism to elicit cheap laughs(didn't I mention The Do-Over earlier?), but that alone cannot trick my mind into believing I admired the whole work.

The first Neighbors was fine. The sequel is about the same, maybe even a little less fine because of the familiarity factor. We have been in that house before and whether it was a fraternity or a sorority next door, a majority of the jokes feel pretty tired. You can do a lot worse than Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. You can also do a whole lot better.