Monday, July 27, 2015

Music Mondays: Marina and the Diamonds "Primadonna"

My last week was spent driving through scenic Seattle and, more specifically, the lush Whidbey Island for a friend's wedding. And what happened to be playing on an energetic cycle the entire time? That would be Marina and the Diamonds! The Welsh singer (whose real name is Marina Diamandis) has been around for a decade now, and while I've hear her songs sporadically over the years, it's the tracks from her 2012 album Electra Heart that made my ears perk up.

While any of the songs on this album warrant praise, today's selection is "Primadonna," a delicious, infectious gem. Enjoy, and maybe even speak a peak at the whole album... it's worth a listen!

Artist: Marina and the Diamonds
Song: "Primadonna" | download
Album: Electra Heart

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

10 More Tattoo Artists You Need to Follow on Instagram

It was less than 6 months ago that I posted a list of the 15 Tattoo Artists You Need to Follow on Instagram, and you guys devoured it! It quickly became my most viewed post, and continues to get hits every day. So I would be remiss if I didn't share my newest ink-master finds with you all, since I know you're as obsessed with looking at stunning tattoo portfolios as I am!

Like last time, I can't help but share with you as many of the best female tattoo artists gracing my social media feeds that I can find, and this time, they make up 80% of the list! Without further delay, here are 10 More Tattoo Artists You Need to Follow on Instagram:

(NOTE: all images via each artist's Instagram pages, I do not claim ownership of these)

Located: Rain City Tattoo (Vancouver, BC)

Why I Love Her: My my my... to describe Katie's tattoos would never do them justice. They are vivid, complex, and bursting with a kaleidoscope of color. While I've seen richly colored tattoos before, I've never seen anything this vibrant. The variety alone is enough to drop my jaw, but add on top of that her affinity for geometric animal portraits or wildlife, and it's settled: she's my new favorite artist. And I'm not alone! Recently she's been spending time tattooing with the gorgeous ladies at Megan Massacre's shop, Grit'n'Glory in NYC, which is sure to garner her plenty of attention, making her one of the hottest tattoo-tickets in the country. I'm trying to get on her waiting list already...
Official Website

Monday, July 20, 2015

Movie Review: "Amy" (2015)

© A24

Never before have I seen a more lazy documentary about such a compelling subject. The first in-depth film about the late Amy Winehouse, whose tragic—though sadly not unexpected—death at 27 in July 2011 was preceded by a series of very telling events, beginning in the singer's childhood. Amy collects unseen and unheard recordings of Amy before her rise to fame as she struggled to find her way through the unwanted attention she eventually received. Interviews with her family, friends, and colleagues provide a narration of sorts as the details of her private life are revealed, many for the first time.

The main point of the film gets mucky from the start, as it tries to be about the music by peppering every other shot with song lyrics like it were a Vevo lyric video. It's as if director Asif Kapadia thought we wouldn't understand the gravity or complexity of this woman's genius without hearing it through a song or reading it blatantly written on screen. All of Winehouse's songs are deeply autobiographical, and the documentary takes advantage of that, using it as a storytelling crutch in order to avoid doing any actual investigative work. It completely lacks creativity.

The style is admittedly unique, but that doesn't mean it's good. It's noticeable right away: floating narrations (i.e. no "talking head" interviews), which is a strange, though signature, choice for Kapadia. You get the sense that he was afraid to cut away from Amy for even a second, for fear that the audience might feel something he didn't intend. We never once see anyone speaking about Amy. The editing is choppy, and the film felt exhausting as a result. While the story is laid out logically (read: chronologically), the editing choices are terrible. Within the first minute, there were sound balance issues, the music and voice over tracks rarely laying together well.

It is clear that Kapadia was in no way unbiased. Winehouse's father, Mitch, is a big focus of the film and he is villianized to the point where hatred seeped from my pores. The documentary team created a heavy-handed portrayal of the man who, according to them, was practically the sole cause of Amy's failings. This might only be rivaled by the footage of ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who is equally derided. Dramatic though it may be, it is irresponsible. Amy's evolution not just as an artist, but as a person, is dimmed, taking a back seat to tempestuous hearsay and marred by grainy cellphone footage. No wonder Amy's family came out against the final version of the film as "unbalanced," when they'd originally provided all of the never-before-seen footage and given interviews in support of telling an honest story.

The issue here isn't really that Mr. Winehouse comes off as an evil money-hungry monster, though it doesn't help. It's that the film itself manipulates us into believing it without providing us the opportunity to see a different perspective. By not allowing us to see the interviewees, their emotions (even their static pauses) are invisible. Kapadia can then edit in tragic, slow-motion footage of a gaunt, sickly Amy underneath audio of Mitch or her promoter or [insert name here] speaking about "the next gig" or the "next album"—Wow! So insensitive, can't they see she's sick?!?!! The documentary certainly wants you to think they didn't care, which couldn't possibly have been true, no matter how compelled we are to believe it.

The upsetting thing is that even though I hated so much about how this story was told, I'd watch it again in a second. Amy's story is so tragic and she's a fascinating subject, and she still is, despite the film's many flaws—it's impossible not to be moved by her. Where the documentary momentarily succeeds is in the closing sequences leading up to the singer's death. Touching commentary from her closest childhood friends shows us a glimpse of the human being behind the tabloids, and behind the music. We already knew so much about what Kapadia was showing us. It was the stories being told by his interview subjects that should have taken precedence of everything else. Even at the end, we're manipulated into feeling that we all did something wrong, that we were responsible in some distant, perverse way for Amy's unraveling. Again, a lazy thematic approach that distracted from her accomplishments and contributions.

This is not the quintessential Amy Winehouse documentary that many critics have been declaring. Definitely not in the way that Montage of Heck was for Kurt Cobain. Better will certainly come, someday, because Winehouse deserves it.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars

Music Mondays: Amy Winehouse "Back To Black"

Have you seen the new Amy Winehouse documentary? My review is forthcoming (expect it later today!), and regardless of your feelings about the film, it's hard to deny that Amy was indeed a powerful lyricist and jazz singer. I'd listened to her relatively idly over the past decade, but her music has been cycling on repeat in my head since I walked out of that theater last week. The more you know, the harder the music and the artist's untimely death hits.

So in honor of Amy Winehouse, whose music truly speaks for itself—who needs an autobiography when you have Back to Black?—the titular track of her second studio album is today's music selection. RIP Amy. xx

Artist: Amy Winehouse
Song: "Back to Black" | download
Album: Back to Black

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Movie Review: "Ant-Man" (2015)

© Walt Disney Studios

It may not have helped that I walked in to watch Ant-Man literally as the credits rolled on Trainwreck, the best comedy of the year so far. By comparison, the newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe just couldn't compete. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem: one is a comedy, one is a sci-fi adventure... except that Ant-Man really wished it was comedy, and it wasn't. Maybe my assessment of it would be different had I seen it first, but I guess we'll never know.

The first film to delve into the world of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a professional burglar-turned-convicted felon who would go on to become the superhero Ant-Man. Before all that can happen, though, we need the origin story. The movie, partially written by the brilliant Edgar Wright before he abandoned it due to creative differences with the studio, bopped around through a series of re-writes before focusing in on the tale of Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man. Pym developed a serum that, when used through a special suit, could shrink the wearer down to the size of an insect—with super-human strength. Pym's protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), goes cuckoo-bananas about getting his hands on the formula, pushing Pym out of his own company in order to develop a new version, this time into a weapon.

That's where Scott Lang comes in. Recently released from prison, Scott is desperate to stay on the up-and-up in order to regain visiting rights to see his young daughter. But it isn't long before Pym recruits the thief to steal the "Yellow Jacket" suit Cross is developing, much to the dismay of Pym's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), by giving Scott his own suit to become the new Ant-Man. Of course, it wouldn't be Ant-Man without a multitude of ant species that Scott must learn to control if he wants to succeed in his mission. After plenty of joke-cracking and training montages, we're off to the races.

While all of the action and the shrinking was delightful fun, the comedy didn't quite fit. Littering the script with laugh lines doesn't serve a movie like this—which has the potential to be silly in the all the wrong ways already. Paul Rudd is one of the funniest actors working today, and he doesn't need jokes to get a laugh. He just is funny, and that's how Scott Lang needed to be. There are moments where Wright's writing came through and Rudd could shine, but then it slipped away into goofiness, which just highlights how goofy the concept of Ant-Man kinda is. The only thing that saved it was the stellar acting talent from the leads. Lesser actors making the same jokes, I fear, would have been laughably terrible.

Visually, it's clear that they figured out how not to make it goofy. The VFX were wonderful, in line with what you'd expect from Marvel, but that doesn't earn it a whole lot of extra brownie points. Where it did impress was in the uniqueness of the world we got to experience. It's the first time we get to explore a 'microverse,' and there's enough science jargon thrown in there to show that they tried, but not so much that it backed itself into a logic-hole. I just wish it had been more balanced tonally. Lilly isn't given much to do but scowl, which is too bad, and Stoll is equally one-dimensional, but hey, it's never really about them, is it? Douglas and Rudd have lovely moments full of righteous indignation, and the chemistry really works.

Regardless of what the film does or doesn't accomplish—which isn't much other than introducing new potential Avengers—it's still a piece of the now massive Marvel puzzle that we know we have to see before the next movie comes out. I have a theory that half the audience goes to these movies just to see the post-credits scene(s), and who can blame them? We're all too invested now to forego any new Marvel flick, and their formula is pretty predictable at this point. They're never going to spring unexpected deaths or scene-less credits on us, no matter how much we're aching for a mix-up and some higher stakes. So buy a ticket and some overly buttered popcorn and lower those expectations. We'll likely never get another Iron Man-caliber story, but we will get plenty of fun and superpowers. That's probably enough for most of us.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars

Friday, July 17, 2015

Movie Review: "Trainwreck" (2015)

© Universal Pictures

Amy Schumer has a relatable vulnerability with unquestionable comedic timing. Director Judd Apatow knew putting a Katherine Heigl-type in this movie would destroy it, and no one can perform Schumer's material better than Amy herself. She's a monster talent, which certainly isn't news to anybody these days. She plays her role with flaws and intelligence.

Schumer stars as Amy, a writer for a sleazy men's magazine who was raised to spit on the idea of monogamy by her cheater father, Gordon (Colin Quinn). Her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larsen), has gone the traditional route and nailed down a dorky husband and nerdy step-son, all while fielding the 'black sheep' derision she receives from Dad and Big Sis. Amy has her own set of relationship rules she lives by: never commit, and never sleep over. When she's challenged to write an expose on sport's medicine for the magazine, she meets Aaron (Bill Hader), an innocent M.D. who might make her change her ways—so long as she can get past the idea that falling in love isn't sign of mental illness.

There's a lot of danger in leaning so hard into movie-Amy's unlikability. As a protagonist, she's strong, but selfish and occasionally unsympathetic. The reason this risk in character pays off is that she's never pushed into being a cartoon—much to my surprise, the prat-fall/slapstick comedy Apatow often falls prey to is kept to a bare minimum. The real comedy is situational, relying heavily on timing and delivery. Schumer and Hader are masters, but the secondary characters played by Mike Birbiglia, Larson, and cantankerous Colin Quinn fill in any holes perfectly. They're no amateurs, as it turns out, and even the comedians among them play the straight and emotional fantastically.

The athletes have unexpected comedic impact, especially LeBron James. Don't mistake this for the usual desperate promotional cameo. The guy has an important role to play, and guess what? He's actually good. Really good. What could have ended up as a total misfire and distraction instead served the plot and the level of humor well. Even WWE wrestler John Cena's role as Amy's burly homo-curious boyfriend is impressive. Apatow and team made every effort to bring in star athletic talent without sacrificing the script's quality. All of the comedy surrounding them is then heightened by Amy's casual disdain for sports.

The movie isn't just funny. It's surprisingly touching and real. There are moments that are desperately sad, some that are happily exhilarating, and I found myself shedding tears on more than one occasion as a result. Schumer isn't afraid to let the laughter turn melancholic, and she certainly knows how to balance comedy with a romance that you can take seriously. It also helps that she's an actress who can let her co-workers be funny.

Admittedly, there are sequences the movie could do without, particularly the movie-within-a-movie joke that relied too much on its own stupidity and the cameos to make us laugh, which it didn't. Tilda Swinton also makes another unrecognizable appearance as an actual human being, who, as Amy's sociopathic boss, had a few good moments before her shtick got old.

Despite these few unnecessary inclusions, Trainwreck elicited the most full-theater laughter I've heard so far this year. There is a type of humor for everybody here, and if you're already a fan of Schumer's voice, this will be right up your alley. It's unique not just in its protagonist, but in its approach to women's sexuality in general. It also managed to get me to like the song "Uptown Girl," which I never thought was possible.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

Thursday, July 16, 2015

AFI Top 100: #56 "Jaws"

Roy Scheider & the Shark in Jaws (1975)

This is one perfect movie. How could I possibly critique perfection? Eh, I'll give it the old college try.

I mentioned weeks ago that #56 on the AFI Top 100 list, Jaws, was being re-released in theaters in honor of its 40th anniversary. Unbelievable that this Steven Spielberg-directed flick has been thrilling and inspiring audiences for that long... and there was no better time to go witness its impact firsthand than in a sold out screening on Fathers Day. Dads were surrounding us with kids in tow, recounting stories of seeing this for the first time at eight years old back when parents were oblivious to movie ratings. This specific conversation happened between a giddy father and his equally bright-eyed 10-year-old daughter behind us, whose reactions were far and away the icing on an already delicious shark cake. Oh to be a kid again seeing Jaws for the first time...

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Project 365: Movies 147 - 152

147 / 365: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
© Warner Bros.

There's something magical about watching the planetarium sequences of Rebel Without a Cause under the stars with a group of old movie lovers. We went to a screening hosted by Street Food Cinema here in LA, on a sprawling lawn at sunset, and it was something to behold.

If you've never seen Rebel Without a Cause, I find it doubtful that you've never at least heard of it. The final film of three featuring the legendary James Dean released just months after his tragic death in 1955, it tells the story of Jim Stark (Dean), a sullen teenager who moves to Los Angeles and starts at a new high school. He struggles to find his place, meeting the least popular kid in school, Plato (Sal Mineo), and the most popular girl, Judy (Natalie Wood)—he also meets the rough and tumble gang of popular boys who aren't so happy to have his laid back, bad boy attitude in their school. It is a culture where friends have to be earned, a qualification of 'coolness' through a tryout or battle. Of course, Dean is by far the coolest dude who ever lived, so it's not surprising that Jim has a power over everyone.

That 'coolness' might actually be a distraction from the real story. At its core, it's movie about daddy issues and how to navigate life as a young person when you're absorbed in the frustrations brought on by a disappointing father. Dean slinks through life, determined not to become the doormat his father is—he cries out, "Dad, you better give me something, you better give me something fast [...] Stand up for me." These moment take you back; his acting is so powerful, emotions fester and bubble up, you forgive the film its faults. And it's certainly not without a few.

You can't help but sense the B-movie elements here. The film was originally being shot in black and white, with the hokey nature of the plot dialed up in true WB melodrama fashion. And then James Dean became a mega-star with the release of East of Eden, and everything changed. The film was re-shot in color, and Dean's most iconic image was born: the red jacket. But that doesn't mean the teen drama disappeared. On the contrary, if anything it felt sharper, more exaggerated in this new Technicolor format. Wood's lipstick is that much more red next to Dean's jacket, and it all feels overwhelmingly tangible and sexy.

There is this moment in Rebel when James Dean pulls a 'Brando in On the Waterfront' move (no coincidence it came out the year before this was filmed)... and it makes my knees weak. This insanely sexy, natural, completely without prompt handling of a woman's clothing accessory (Brando's moment consisted of man-handling Eva Saint Marie's glove, and it was hypnotic). Dean knew exactly what he was doing, but at the same time, he's never even thinking about it. He just acts it. Look at that picture above, look at the way his hand is moving. I can't—I can't even right now. Rebel may not be Dean's best movie (that would be East of Eden), but it's without a doubt his most iconic. It might even be one of the most iconic movies in film history.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

148 / 365: Inside Out (2015)
© Disney / Pixar

New movie release, reviewed previously on Through the Reels. Read the full review here.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

149 / 365: Rocky (1976)

This movie was the #57 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Blu Ray
Seen Before: Yes

150 / 365: Hot Girls Wanted (2015)
© Netflix

Leave it to me to be compelled to watch a documentary about the amateur porn industry—or rather, less about the industry, more about the girls who fall victim to it. We follow a group of barely legal girls who upend their lives after finding call-outs for "Hot Girls" on Craigslist. This notice belongs to an amateur porn manager in Miami, and it's shocking that people actually answer his posting or take it seriously in any way, but they do and it's really tragic. As it turns out, though, he's actually a kind of sweet guy who tries in his own sordid way to take care of these girls when they arrive at his front door, all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed.

The most fascinating part of this documentary is how everything actually starts out really great for all of them. By "great," I mean that the girls are happy with the work and are proud to be taking part in this new exciting venture. But that all lasts for a very short time, and even their manager acknowledges the shelf-life on pretty new faces. While they may start doing videos that are sweet with nice costumes, makeup and professional lighting, that may only continue for 3-6 months. Then... it's off to the niche market these nineteen-year-olds go. The filmmakers are all women (the film was even produced by Rashida Jones), so the focus of the movie is always on the girls and how they feel about what they're doing. It's sensitive, but unflinching, and while it doesn't show you everything that's happening on these sets, it certainly talks about it.

The style of the film, though, is where I had an issue. The subjects are remarkably honest, and that's where the meat of the material comes from, but the filmmaking still feels amateurish. One girl, Tressa Silguero, takes us on this journey with her, but we end up hopping around to a plethora of other girls. Meeting them is wonderful, but I never felt any resolution. Structurally, the documentary isn't anything special. It's a short watch, likely to make you a bit sick to your stomach thinking about how easy it is to lure willing young women into porn with the promise of money and fame that will never come.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

151 / 365: Dope (2015)
© Open Road Films

New movie release, reviewed previously on Through the Reels. Read the full review here.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

152 / 365: Set Fire to the Stars (2015)
© Strand Releasing

New movie release, reviewed previously on Through the Reels. Read the full review here.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

Monday, July 13, 2015

Music Mondays: Halsey "Ghost"

Discovery of the week comes in the form of 20-year-old American singer Halsey, whose debut album Badlands is set to be released at the end of August. An incredible song, the beautiful Halsey is completely magnetic. After seeing this video for her debut song "Ghost," I immediately jumped to find her other tracks... to say I'm impressed is an understatement. (Check out "Hurricane" streaming in the stream link below!)

Something about her sound reminds me of an more modern Amanda Ghost, who I simply adored during my high school days. I'm excited enough for her first album that I can forgive her stage name being an anagram of her actual name, Ashley. It's cool girl. You're talented enough to pull it off.

Artist: Halsey
Song: "Ghost" | download | stream
Album: Badlands

Project 365: Movies 142 - 146

142 / 365: Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)
© DreamWorks Animation

Is it nit-picky to describe a cartoon as... too cartoony? I was always a fan of the Peabody & Sherman shorts during "Rocky & Bullwinkle" as a kid, though it never felt like there was a whole lot more I was missing outside of the five minutes I was watching. As it were, this most recent animated incarnation takes the simple concept of a "dog and his boy," fluffs it up, puffs it out, and turns it into something of a 3D-behemoth that is touching, but messy.

In the film, Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is the trusty and inexplicably accomplished hound who adopts Sherman (Max Charles), a young orphan who reminds him very much of himself as a pup. Sherman is your typical kid trying to make his father proud, but certainly, Mr. Peabody is not your typical father. Most fathers aren't internationally renowned geniuses who have in their possession a time travel machine. Peabody calls his "The Way Back," and while he and Sherman enjoy jaunts into the past, when the two throw a dinner party for Sherman's elementary school nemesis, Penny (Ariel Winter), everything gets a bit out of control.

The voice talents are what impressed most, and the animation feels like its struggling to live up to it by being more than a little over the top. Both Peabody and Sherman are incredibly sympathetic characters, with Sherman being overly buck-toothed and Peabody being... well, a dog. The side story of Mr. Peabody potentially being deemed an unfit father, with Sherman being taken away from him, plays tug of war with the frivolous, significantly more fun plot: the time travel. All of the time jumps offer fun little historical jokes that would certainly go over any middle school kid or younger's head, but there's enough physical jokes to keep everyone relatively entertained. But I wish there had been more of a balance in the story, and that the animation style itself didn't chew the scenery so much.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

143 / 365: The Gold Rush (1925)
© United Artists

This movie was the #58 film on my AFI Top 100 countdown challenge. Read my full review here.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Hulu Plus
Seen Before: No

144 / 365: Dior & I (2015)
© The Orchard

It's strange to watch a documentary about fashion and find yourself thinking... "This is just like a sports movie." Structurally, this film that follows the new Creative Director of the infamous Christian Dior fashion house in Paris during the creation of his first 'haute couture' collection, plays exactly like a team preparing for the big game. Raf Simons is the creative mind behind the creations, and he's got a lot to prove in the eight short weeks before premiering his first collection, especially to the seasoned workers of the ateliers who will bring his visions to life. Having never worked in the notoriously intricate and complicated tradition of haute couture (Simons came from men's 'ready to wear'), he must rely on the expertise of his team to inform his decisions.

Documentarian Frédéric Tcheng splits his time between Simons' stresses and struggles, from the language barrier to the pressure of living up to a legend, and providing the viewer with backstory on Christian Dior himself. Tcheng even reads excerpts from Dior's autobiography, Dior by Dior, that attempted to separate the man from the legend—and what it was like to be revered in your own time. This "Ghost of Dior" narrates Simons' journey, and it is eerily beautiful how they mirror one another.

The documentary is worth watching for multiple reasons. At its core, it is a fascinating deep dive into an often misunderstood industry—and some would argue, culture. It is an education in high fashion as much as it is a tension-filled journey to the finish line. And that final runway show is worth every second leading up to it, watching Simons handle the anxiety in the most human of ways. In a sense, it's all predictable—that element of the 'sports movie' sort of sets you up for the Dior fashion house and Simons' success—but it doesn't take anything away from the thrill of watching it all play out.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

145 / 365: House of Flying Daggers (2004)
© Sony Pictures Classics

When I was in college, I went through a near-obsessive Zhang Yimou phase, gobbling up any and all of his films that I could get my hands on. Thank god for Netflix, right? House of Flying Daggers came out a few years after the equally stunning Hero (in the US, though, only a few months separated their releases), and sent me on my Cinema of China journey (not to mention my continued love for Zhang Ziyi).

Stylistically, this film mirrors that of Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in its cinematography, vibrant artistic design, and fantastical martial arts choreography. When womanizing soldier, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) meets the beautiful Xiao Mei (Zhang Ziyi), a blind member of outlaws the House of Flying Daggers, he frees her from prison with the hopes of gaining her trust, so she might lead he—and the army (including leader Andy Lau)—to the House's front steps. What follows is a visually stunning film with more twists, action sequences, and romantic entanglements than you can keep track of. Sometimes, this can be a bit laborious, but Zhang Yimou creates a movie that's too sumptuous to make it much of a bother. Ziyi has equally delicious chemistry with Lau and Kaneshiro, but it's Mei's scenes with Jin that are something special. When I saw this movie as a college freshman romantic, they were all I remembered or cared about.

Now, though, I see it as the perfect continuation of the soaring martial arts "action/romances" of the early 2000s—and it might be the best in this style for the simple reason that the acting, story, and visuals are so memorable. And despite all the twists and double-crossings, the plot is really as simple as it gets. Highly recommended for anyone interested in modern Chinese cinema; it's a wonderful place to whet your palette.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

146 / 365: Love & Mercy (2015)
© Roadside Attractions

The opening credits of this movie are a 90-second version of That Thing You Do!, which covers the early years of The Beach Boys, the stardom and the rise to fame. This is not a movie about the Beach Boys. It is a movie about co-founder of the band and prolific songwriter, Brian Wilson.

Our time is split between two very different films. The first focuses on Wilson (played by Paul Dano) during the 1960's, when he takes a break from touring with the band in order to write the ground-breaking album Pet Sounds and begins to experiment with hallucinogens  The second film introduces us to the Wilson of the 1980's (played by John Cusack), where the songwriter is now a shell of his former self, heavily drugged and under the guardianship of a psychotic psychiatrist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), effectively a prisoner inside his own life. Giamatti as Landy might be cinema's most terrifying example of real-life villainy, and he's so starkly realized because it's shocking to think that this person actually existed.

From start to finish, we vacillate between these stories, experiencing Wilson's crippling gift right alongside him, and witnessing the tragic circumstances in which he finds himself later in life. The movie would feel very distant if we didn't have a counterpart in there somewhere to relate to, which thankfully we have during the 80's timeline in Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Wilson is just too difficult to relate to, his genius represented by long sequences of aural hallucinations with sound montages over stagnant visuals. The incorporation of Ledbetter, the actual protagonist of the latter story, gives the film a ring of sanity—someone who voices what we're thinking when Landy smacks a hamburger out of a clearly over-medicated Wilson's hand. It is shocking, and Giamatti's scenes with Banks are absolutely frightening. Watching her come to the realization that this talented, sweet man is being held hostage with no way out is enough to make your breath catch in your throat.

The script is flawed at times, with purposefully vague exchanges that are mysterious for no reason, but those moments are few and far between. We're treated to the music behind the lyrics, an experiment in sound, showing how the voices, sounds and music in Wilson's head manifested, and its the undercurrent of the entire film. Despite the seriousness of both stories, the joy of The Beach Boys' sound persists... maybe even adding in a touch of the bittersweet. And while I preferred the suspense of Future Brian's story to the LSD trip of Past Brian's journey, both hold equal weight. An impressive and unique approach to the musical biopic, one that might just knock you over in disbelief.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Movie Review: "Magic Mike XXL" (2015)

© Warner Bros.

There is a scene in a convenience store where the disheartened Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) is challenged by his stripper buddies to improvise a routine through the aisles to elicit a smile from the downtrodden girl at the counter. That may be the dumbest sentence I've ever written down, and it is a scene that—in a nutshell—embodies everything that this movie is about. Zero stakes, but a metric shit ton of ear-to-ear smiles. Magic Mike XXL is as delightful as it is substance-less, which makes it ideal summer entertainment.

Three years after the events of the unexpectedly plot-filled Magic Mike, the titular Mike (Channing Tatum) is running his carpentry business in Tampa, long done with his stripper days. But you guys, he's got an itch he can't scratch—he just gotta dance. When his buddies from the old show arrive in Tampa on their way to Myrtle Beach for the Annual Stripper Convention, Mike can't resist temptation and hops aboard their Food Truck-turned-Stripper Mobile to make the journey, too.

Mike is a doer, and any problem that arises, he finds a solution so quickly that the film and characters never really suffer for it. Dance routines need updating? Mike's got ideas. Old beefs need to be addressed? Mike'll take that punch he's got coming. Vehicle out of commission? Mike knows where you can find a Bentley. This movie is the exact opposite of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

There's not a conflict to be found within ten miles of this film, and it doesn't take long to realize that it's really the better for it. Everything is remarkably convenient, and despite any pitfalls, a saucy lady with money and connections is ne'er more than a shimmy-shake and pelvic thrust away. And it's a good thing too, because when the movie tries to be serious is when we all start looking at Snapchat. We want sexy dancing until we're made to blush, and we want it now!

The script is admittedly hammy and simplistic, with forced attempts at confidence boosting for men and women alike. I was delighted and confused by the random Constant Gardener joke, right before rolling my eyes at Mike trying to convince his (sort of?) love interest, Zoe (Amber Heard), that she would be much happier on the pole than following her photography dreams to New York. They're entertainers, and entertainers have a very special, necessary place in society, and so on and so forth. Despite the cheesiness, I wholeheartedly agree, so stop talking and entertain us, boys!

There were a handful of 'bathroom break' moments where it didn't matter what was going on. Which was good, because I was at one of those theaters with a bar where you can bring in your drinks to watch the movie, so after a pint-sized Mojito, that was pretty much a blessing (if you're wondering, when they get to the hospital scene, duck out then, you'll miss nothing).

Every woman these guys come into contact with during their east coast road trip is an extension of that part in all of us that we pretend isn't there: the wine or Cosmo-swilling "woo girl" who wants to make it rain dollar bills over a pair of washboard abs, and be picked up and swung around like we're a feather.

Thank you, Magic Mike XXL, you're like an uncomplicated one-night stand. I'll always remember the time we shared together.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

I'm gonna leave this right here.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Music Mondays: Demi Lovato "Cool for the Summer"

Demi Lovato's newest single, "Cool for the Summer," has been released, and there are moments in the song that remind me so much of my favorite band in the world, KITTEN, I couldn't not post it today. It's catchy, but less dance-y than you might expect. It's the kind of some that works perfectly on a summer beach mix, meant for lazing about more than having a wild party. Which really is what I prefer in my beach tunes.

The track is from Demi's upcoming album, which I know significantly less about. Due out sometime in 2015, if it's anywhere near as fun as this, I'm a fan already. Enjoy, and happy summer, all! xx

Artist: Demi Lovato
Song: "Cool for the Summer" | download
Album: [TBD]

Movie Review: "The Tribe" (2015)

© Grindhouse Films

It's easy to be distracted by a movie that has an insurmountable gimmick, easy to be persuaded against reason into thinking said movie is good for that reason only. I say "gimmick" because Cannes darling film, The Tribe, released recently in a handful of theaters, is without argument one of a kind. And I say "insurmountable" because what makes it unique is also what makes it so challenging.

Telling the story of a group of Deaf students at a dilapidated Deaf school in the Ukraine, the film is told entirely in Ukrainian Sign Language, with no subtitles, no voice overs, no narration, and likely the most unnerving of all, no soundtrack. Director/writer Myroslav Slaboshpitsky's experiment is a ground-breaking attempt to create a film that, for the first time, tells a story about Deaf characters that could not be less about their deafness.

That was enough to entice me to the theater, but then I saw the movie. And while a movie that doesn't focus on Deafness as a point of melodramatic plot-wringing is, by me, applauded, The Tribe could not be further away from representing the Deaf experience in any meaningful way. Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) is the new kid at school, arriving to find himself quickly absorbed into a band of popular criminals who appear to rule dorms. So much so that even the teachers seem to either encourage or simply dismiss their activities—activities that range from loading the younger kids with stolen trinkets to sell to sympathetic hearing people on trains, to pimping out the older female students to drooling truckers. Sergey slips into his role without difficulty, about to cement his place as a reliable thug until he falls for (in his own perverse way) one of the school-girl prostitutes (Yana Novikova).

I'd say that's where the trouble begins, but there is trouble for everyone from beginning to end. Force-fed the violence, however amateur (there's a laughable group brawl pulled straight out of your theater stage-fighting class), and the graphic sexual exploits of every character through coldly unflinching cinematography—every scene consists of a single, unedited shot.

On paper, this sounds spectacularly gripping, and there are times when Slaboshpitsky uses this cinematic tactic to hold us all captive, but it isn't long before we start to resent him for it. Every character is despicable, and the lack of aide in following the story's intricacies only serves to distract from that fact. Watching a film told entirely through any signed language is astounding—watching a film about one-dimensional miscreants is not, no matter how gritty and cynical the sequences, no matter what language you tell it in.

Having spent many years at different points in my life studying American Sign Language, even training as an interpreter, the description from critics of a film where dialogue is impossible to follow felt like a challenge to me. The film is in USL, similar to Russian Sign Language—both come from the same linguistic family of French Sign Language, just like ASL.

Knowing what I knew about the story going in prepared me for the misery that was to come, but with my focus on deciphering a sign here, a sign there, the multitude of non-manual signs (i.e. facial expressions)... paying attention to the dialogue surprisingly distracted me from the insufferable, abrasive, and cruelly crafted plot. When you can't understand story, and are forced to look for clues and signals as to what is going on with the characters, it can all feel remarkably novel—even when it's not.

I understood significantly more than I'd expected. My viewing partner was certainly at a disadvantage as I nodded and squinted knowingly, catching leading bits of conversation that certainly informed me more than the director had probably intended. With the interpreting session happening inside my head, I was able to temporarily ignore the fact that this "Deaf-sploitation" film wasn't edgy, it was lazy. The lack of context or character development shouldn't be something for filmmakers to aspire to, and (spoiler alert!) inserting a traumatizing, real-time abortion scene is more likely going to make me dislike you and your film.

This isn't a film I could willingly recommend to anyone, simply because of the fact that it's so viscerally disgusting in parts, and mindless in others. It's not enough that it plays with our expectations about communication and challenges us to pay attention. If I could have loved it just for that, I would have. If that were the true mission of the filmmaker, he would have realized that watching our characters navigate the hierarchy of a close-knit school, begin and end relationships, is all visually compelling enough to follow through a flurry of hands. I'm left hoping that, with The Tribe likely to make an impression despite itself, sign language finds a way to dominant the screen, attached to a story worthy of it.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars

Friday, July 3, 2015

AFI Top 100: #57 "Rocky"

Sylvester Stallone and Burgess Meredith in Rocky (1976)

If ever there was a movie I feel compelled to advocate for, whose memory has been pretty tarnished over the past 40 years by jaded movie-goers, it's Rocky. Not many sports movies grace the AFI Top 100 list (the only other one is, not surprisingly, also a boxing movie). Perhaps this is because, by 2007, the formula for these films became too predictable or cliche for audiences to take seriously. Coming in at #57, Rocky can be credited with writing that formulaor rather, screenwriter and star, Sylvester Stallone can. It continues to impress with its unpredictable and inspiring climax, but what makes this movie stand out, and the reason it has spawned five sequels, is its characters.

Rocky Balboa is humble, small-time boxer edging on the far end of his prime in the City of Brotherly Love. Earning a paltry $45+ to get knocked around in a fight, the southpaw Rocky can still claim with shaky confidence that he's never been K.O.-ed. Making ends meet as the part-time muscle for a local bookie, he lives a simple life, sharing a beer with his buddy, Paulie (Burt Young), crushing sweetly on Paulie's shy sister, Adrian (Talia Shire), and biding his time until his next chance to prove himself in the ring.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Movie Review: "Terminator Genisys" (2015)

© Paramount Pictures

The long list of things that I hated and loved about Terminator Genysis results in a very muddled appreciation for this return to the franchise. It is, occasionally, unadulterated fun. It's also a huge mess. Completely bypassing the droll world established in 2009's Terminator Salvation—or at the very least, glossing over it—we instead are handed all the things all at once that we loved about the original: a young Sarah Connor (played by Daenarys herself, Emilia Clarke) meeting time traveler, Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) in 1984 and battling an onslaught of robot assassins that come with being them. It's apparent that the filmmakers recognized what went wrong with T3 and Salvation, and hoped no one would notice they're never acknowledged. Surprisingly, where Genisys shines is in everything related to Schwarzenegger—where it suffers is in everything related to everyone else.

The year is 2029, and a mangled John Connor (Jason Clarke) is moments away from leading the resistance to victory over Skynet and its legion of robots. His mission is to get to the time travel device, Skynet's last hope to save themselves. With that trusty T-800 already on its way, Connor enlists Kyle Reese to make the journey to protect his mother, Sarah. All of this edges very close to being a full-on remake with alternate perspectives thrown in to give it that new car smell, but then something happens and the timeline that we'd come to love shifts.

Now it's not a remake, but a feverish attempt at a reboot, as the past that Kyle is returning to changes mid-jump, and it's not the one he'd been warned to expect. Sarah's already in battle mode and doesn't have time to worry about all this "getting pregnant" business. She's already prepared for how to deal with the T-800 and T-1000 (sent simultaneously, I might add, but by who??) on her heels, and this is all quite delightful to watch. With her trusty, re-programmed and aging T-800 by her side (Arnold Schwarzenegger being ah-mah-zing), the mission to stop the apocalypse before it begins is still on. I'd have been happy if we'd spent 2 hours doing first movie callbacks, but alas, the plot pressed on, leading us to the franchise's first time jump—into the future.

This is when my eyes squinted uneasily. I'm a sucker for time travel movies and odd time-loop paradoxes, but as the film unraveled, I tried desperately to piece together everything that they laid out. The importance of 2017, a young Kyle Reese, an evil version of the operating system from Her. More than one time travel faux pas makes its way into the seams of this thing, and I found myself cringing in dismay all while I peered on optimistically. On the surface, Genisys did its best to answer all your questions the moment that "Uh..." entered your head. Momentarily sated, you will undoubtedly revisit the concepts again and again, distracted by all the wordy mumbo-jumbo and the fact that the characters are scratching their heads right along with you.

Despite all the ads and trailers that had clear and enraging spoilers about plot twists, the movie does takes a few unexpected turns. The story line—and the timeline—become super intricate, but what starts out as intrigue devolves into chaos. Entertaining chaos, but chaos nonetheless. Whether this was on purpose or not remains to be seen, but it's hard not to think that the filmmakers were purposefully obtuse in hopes of leaving some reveals for the inevitable sequels. It's possible that none of this would have bothered me if it weren't for the fact that our heroes had the darndest time navigating this treacherous plot themselves.

Emilia Clarke as Sarah Connor is a bit too soft around the edges. At least, this version of Sarah Connor. Hardened from a life raised by "Pop," as she affectionately calls the T-800 sent to rescue her when she was nine years old, Clarke convincingly wields her weapons and makes snarky remarks, but she's not the jaded person we know her to become. Maybe this was an attempt to make her more likable, relatable, but I didn't believe it. A child raised to become a warrior would be a much older soul trapped in a young girl's body, not the bright eyed, soft skinned beauty Clarke portrays. She looks like the Sarah Connor that Kyle Reese expected to go back and rescue in 1984, not the one who ends up rescuing him. She also struggles to maintain her American accent, which was, unfortunately, pretty distracting. It sounded like a Mila Kunis impersonation. Jai Courtney is just a replica of the every-man that Sam Worthington played in Salvation (and everything else), and he's as forgetful as he is broad-shouldered.

Schwarzenegger is the true star here, and he pulls it off without the merest bit of exhaustion. He's as interesting as a character-less character could hope to be, and he slips back into this role with ease. It is to the filmmakers' credit that they put him so front and center. He's the only character that successfully reminds us we're watching a Terminator flick, and he does everything in his power to honor it all. Any of his lines that might fall flat could easily be blamed on the bevy of writers who hand-jammed this thing together. Even then, every moment was clearly done out of love and affection for the film that inspired it, and that is what lands this on the side of success. Because honestly, it could have been leaps and bounds worse that it was.

While the convoluted story might leave you in a bit of a haze, it does have its memorable moments, enough that anyone could, and should, give Genisys two hours on a lazy Saturday night.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
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