Thursday, October 6, 2016

AFI Top 100: #24 "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial"

Henry Thomas and E.T. in E.T the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

As behind as I've gotten on my AFI Top 100 reviews, I'm trying to find the fire to get my thoughts down on everything before they slip away, out of my brain forever (or at least until I see these flicks again). Because let's face it. The next 24 films really are some of the best of the best, and one viewing just isn't going to cut it. Still, a fair few haven't been watched since I popped them into my VHS player two decades ago—and that describes #24, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, to a T. Frequent viewings as a child led to an "I've seen it a hundred times!" reaction whenever anyone suggested it, culminating into too many years away from Elliott and his admittedly unsettling-looking alien friend, not to mention another of director Steven Spielberg's masterpieces.

When a curious alien gets left behind on Earth after a quiet botany expedition, the gentle creature finds his way into suburbia and—more specifically—the backyard of an equally gentle boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), who discovers the strange being late one night. Initially terrified, Elliott quickly befriends the alien, whom he names E.T., hiding it in his bedroom and enlisting his big brother, Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and little sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore), to help him keep E.T.'s presence a secret from everyone, including their frazzled mom (Dee Wallace). As the siblings try desperately to learn more about where E.T. came from—and how to get him home—it starts to become clear that the small alien's connection to Elliott may run deeper than anyone could have predicted. It isn't until both spontaneously become sick that they learn the government is about to discover E.T.'s whereabouts, and it's up to them to protect their friend.

When I was a kid, I never thought about the symbiosis between Elliott and E.T. Never. Maybe it didn't make sense to me, that the health and emotions of one depended on the other, because I was a little kid and empathy was a weirdly foreign concept. But it makes sense now, and the impact nearly crippled me when I watched these two discover that bond this time around. The montage of feelings—physical and emotional—that overwhelm Elliott as he sits in his classroom has the benefit of being both hysterical and unexpectedly traumatic. What an incredible way to play to the audience. Children and adults can get so many different things from a scene like that, and it only lasts 5 minutes. But more than anything else in the story up to that point, it greatly informs the rest of the film.

The discovery of Thomas for the role of Elliott may just have been a gift from the movie gods. The tears, the vulnerability, the empathy... most adults can't bring that kind of performance on command, but Thomas, after only a couple TV movie roles by 1982, already had the makings of a seasoned pro. Elliott is a complicated character--he's actually jarringly relatable. Any kid who had a favorite pet and a creative spirit growing up could understand his eagerness and his plight, which is why Thomas doesn't appear to be faking anything. Whatever he's giving us, it is real down to his bones. And thankfully, he didn't have to ride this emotional roller coaster alone. Sure, MacNaughton's Michael transforms into the supportive and protective big brother every little kid should have, but he's a far steadier, less developed role. Little sister Gertie was probably supposed to be similarly 2-dimensional—but then they cast Drew Barrymore.

This isn't an expose, so I have little interest in discussing the rise and fall and rise again of Barrymore. But here? There's little doubt about the way she commands the screen, her noticeable lisp making her cheeks just that much more pinchable, her eyes just that much bigger and brighter. She probably didn't even need to be good at the 'emotions' part, but instead of riding on her cuteness alone, her range of feels knocks us over. She isn't given the meaty material that her onscreen brother is, but what she was given, she slays.

Paired with probably my favorite John Williams scores, Spielberg's vision for a film meant exploring a world (sort of Peanuts-style) from the point-of-view of the children, shooting from Elliott and E.T's eye-levels for what felt like 90% of the movie. Adults were there, but somehow more other-worldy than the titular friendly alien himself. The secrecy and tension and fear of discovery dictate the editing pace, and as the outside world closes in around the kids, their once small and quiet lives take on new meaning and importance. And the world—or rather, universe—gets so much bigger.

I'm one of those people that likes being an adult. It's rare, actually, that I ever wish to be a kid again. I know so much more now. I knew so little then. But then I watch E.T. and I realize what it is that's missing. The best parts of childhood when the world still let kids hop on their bikes at 9 AM with the only rule being they return by sundown—or dinner, whichever came first. Movies can't be about this anymore, because the world isn't like this anymore. It's why the Netflix series Stranger Things grips at the nostalgia that E.T. and its counterparts invented (Dungeons & Dragons sequences aside). A treasured part of our lives as kids we'll never be able to reclaim, and that desperate hope we all had that our make-believe would become tangible and real.

E.T. is a strong movie etched out of a silly premise, one that could easily have been forgettable had it not been for the sheer magnitude of effort put forth by Spielberg and the young actors, particularly Henry Thomas. It's hard not to think about Steven Spielberg's affinity for working with children, not to mention crafting a magical tale for young audiences, in particular (which is what infuriates me most about the stunning failure of this year's The BFG).

While there are directors who have created incredible, memorable films that root deeply into our childhoods (Chris Columbus comes to mind), there aren't many who do it with such unwavering confidence. This is cinema at its most hopeful—and magical.

Rating: ★★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Universal Pictures]

Check back next time for #23 on the list, The Grapes of Wrath — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Music Mondays: Lady Gaga "Perfect Illusion"

A return to Music Mondays with a metal celebration from one of my all-time favorites. In what I would consider the most traditional music video she's ever made, Lady Gaga introduces us to the first single off of her forth-coming fifth studio album, Joanne, with frantic, dirty desperation. "Perfect Illusion" is a simple, heart-bursting metal anthem (co-produced by Mark Ronson) that has improved with every listen. No experimentation, no moody intros or breakthrough bridges... just a girl belting and dancing with everything she's got.

If this song is any indicator, Joanne (out Oct. 21) is going to be a return to Gaga's fine form (let's just pretend the majority of Artpop didn't happen, okay?) Because I'm feeling the need for more Gaga music in my life. Happy Monday, all!


Artist: Lady Gaga | stream
Song: "Perfect Illusion" | download | stream
Album: Joanne
Directed by: Andrea Gelardin / Ruth Hogben

Monday, August 15, 2016

AFI Top 100: #25 "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Gregory Peck & Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Was this blog's radio silence deafening to anyone other than me? Probably not, but as I crawl back into the blogging driver's seat, I admit I must get my barrings. A month away may be enough to shake off the cobwebs and shoo away the crickets, or could very well make me forget how to form a thought. Let's give this the ol' college try, shall we? Or for this one, should I say 'high school'? Because was there a high school freshman in America not required to read this book by Harper Lee, feverishly digging through its themes with distracted desperation?

As we breach the last quarter of films on our AFI Top 100 countdown, it's almost surprising that we're already hitting the (too high?) #25 selection, To Kill a Mockingbird. The poetically idealistic exploration of racial injustice in the Depression-era South isn't only for school consumption, and should be remembered by the masses for more than introducing us to America's Favorite Dad. Like its source, this film is a storybook, hazy and imbued with the memories of early childhood.

It's the summer of 1933, and our narrator Scout Finch remembers the time fondly, herself a young girl of six (played by Mary Badham). The Depression has hit the quiet, dusty town of Maycomb, Alabama, but watching Scout and her older brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), playing wistfully and without a care alongside their friend Dill (John Megna), you wouldn't know it. While Jem and Scout entertain Dill with scary stories about their reclusive neighbors, the Radleys, their father Atticus (Gregory Peck), a thoughtful widow and lawyer, becomes the subject of much anger when he agrees to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been falsely accused of rape. Over the next few years, as the charges fuel hatred and unmask the crippling racism ingrained in the white townspeople, Scout watches in wonder and reverence as Atticus fearlessly pursues justice for Tom during an emotional trial.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Movie Review: "The Secret Life of Pets" (2016)

© Universal Pictures

You can't hold it against a movie studio for going after the low-hanging fruit. And there's nothing more low-hanging than pet videos. While there is a part of me that would have been happy had The Secret Life of Pets been just a series of Vine-like vignettes—basically the Pet Collective viral videos in animated form—for it to be touching in addition to funny, there had to be some plot thrown in the mix. But with that plot comes the hyper-awareness that none of this is breaking new ground, and that the incredible voice talent is what makes it all come together amid the constant peppering of animal jokes. And we start, as most animal love stories do, when Girl Meets Pup...

In the eyes of Max the Dog (Louis C.K.), he and his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) have the perfect thing going living in Manhattan. That is until one day when Katie adopts a giant, unkempt pup named Duke (Eric Stonestreet), upending his spoiled life and special relationship with his human. Desperate to be rid of this unwanted intruder, Max cracks a plan to lose Duke during their walk while Katie is at work. But when they both separate from Max's group of friends at the dog park and get picked up by a the fuzz heading for the pound, they find themselves face-to-face with an angry white bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart) and his band of abandoned rebel pets. After Snowball sabotages the truck, he rescues the pair with the caveat that they be new recruits in his battle against domestication and the human race. Meanwhile, Max's friends—particularly pup princess Gidget (Jenny Slate)—notice he's missing and go on a mission through the city to bring him home.

There's a reason this kind of content is human cat-nip. There's nothing that brings strangers closer together than talking about their beloved pets; or whether dogs are better than cats; or how bird people are weird... As a result, the movie leans real hard on the comedy pandering to that pet-owner instinct to cry out "That is so [insert pet name here]." And hey, I'm not judging, because I'm not immune. I did it, too, at least a dozen times. I own two cats and a Miniature Dachshund, and watching Buddy the Dachshund (Hannibal Burress) give himself a belly rub with a stand mixer left me bent over with the lolz. And don't even get me started on how bitchy and familiar Chloe the Fat Cat (Lake Bell) is.

But that's kind of the problem with the movie, too, if you want to identify it as a "problem." The comedy never really grows any legs, and the jokes are a blunt but purposeful flash-in-the-pan. One bit about dogs delivery puppy-dog eyes begging for food is over and you're on to the next bit about cats always landing on their feet. And so on and so forth. In the end, there's something very obvious about it all.

Duke is a problem, and he never really stops being one. Sure, he's the Buzz and Max is the Woody in this scenario, but unlike Toy Story, where their coming together leaves us elated that they did, by the end of Pets... we still kinda hope Duke will find another human. Oh, you didn't feel that way? Well maybe I'm a monster then! Despite the film working so hard to bring the two together through peril and strife, they remain as at odds as where they started. The hate and paranoia has simply diminished. Perhaps it's the absurdly unrealistic way that he is animated (no other animals in this world are as ridiculously exaggerated as Duke, except maybe dat viper up dere) or Stonestreet's 'blah' voice work, but he doesn't feel right in this story, regardless of the attempts to give him depth.

Inversely, aside from Louis C.K. proving he can literally do no wrong, Jenny Slate as Gidget is a pure delight, and she steals the film from the comedians surrounding her. Slate gives that fluffy nugget a voice reminiscent of Patty Mayonnaise, and we learn that Gidget is driven by a significantly more relatable motivation in her love for Max than any of the other supporting characters. Her fearlessness is both adorable and unexpected, and it offers some of the smarter comedic moments, particularly when she embarks on her adventure and makes friends with Tiberius the Hawk (Albert Brooks). That dynamic between the two of them has more going for it than most of the other triter moments with Duke or Snowball's 'funny at first but then you're over it' crime lord toughness.

While we're likely left wanting more, there is also a lot to love. I love my pets more than anything, and watching pets love their humans and humans love their pets is always going to get me. The opening sequence is worth the price of admission, as Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York" rings through an opening montage that will turn you into a happy puddle. For most people, none of the rest is going to matter, because Max loves Katie and Katie loves Max. Anything else is just filler.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

AFI Top 100: #26 "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"

Claude Rains & James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

The recent labored action in our Senate (and later in the month, the House) has reminded me just how moved I can be by the Democratic process. Idealism doesn't take you very far in this world (or so we're taught), and the older we get, we often lean towards thinking that's for the best. But something happens when you witness idealism shift from talk to action. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in all its questionably naive glory, represents that at its core. Director Frank Capra is known for finding the heartstrings and giving them a solid pluck—sometimes harder and longer than any reasonable person would ask for—but it goes to show how emotionally invested we all can get, despite ourselves.

The film stars frequent Capra collaborator and all-around "good guy" James Stewart as Jefferson Smith, an idealistic young youth leader who finds himself with an unexpected United States Senate appointment after his controversial predecessor dies. Not knowing how in-over-his-head he is, Smith accepts his civic duty and turns to his late father's trusted friend, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), for mentorship. When Smith arrives in Washington D.C., he faces unrelenting resistance to his hopeful ideas, from members of the Senate to his politics-wise secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur).

Saunders takes it upon herself to wise-up the poor guy, rubbing the shine from his eyes by helping him write his first bill, one to create a government funded camp for Boys, and making sure he understands just how hard it's going to be. But as he pushes his plan forward, he is roadblocked by his friend, Senator Paine, who is under the thumb of James Taylor (Edward Arnold), a corrupt political boss, who aims to discredit Smith and everything he's worked for. Unwilling to compromise his values, Smith takes to the Senate floor in an attempt to save his reputation and weed out the corruption that surrounds him.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Movie Review: "The Legend of Tarzan" (2016)

© Warner Brothers

The most appropriate sequel to a film that was never made. Then I remember that, of course it was, like a hundred times. With that, a true origin for this new Tarzan wasn't necessary, because what? Were you born under a rock? Yet something else happened, in this world of Zach Snyders and J.J. Abrams'... We weren't forced to endure some unnecessary, offensive re-imagining that made these beloved turn-of-the-century characters unrecognizable. Rather, The Legend of Tarzan from director David Yates (of the Harry Potter series' later films) is as straight-forward and clean a telling as you could imagine. On top of that? It is rife with pearl-clutching romance. And I couldn't disagree more with the critics about this one.

John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) has been living in peace in Victorian England with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), for the past ten years, having left behind his life in Africa, where he was known by another name: Tarzan. When King Leopold of Belgium's control of the mineral-rich Congo is threatened, he sends his malicious envoy, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), to gain access to a mountain full of diamonds controlled by a vengeful Chief (Djimon Hounsou)—and Rom's passage can only be paid by delivering Tarzan, the King of the Apes, to the tribe. Unaware of this plot, John travels with Jane and an American soldier, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), to the Congo in search of evidence that local men are being unjustly enslaved—but when Jane's life is threatened, John must shed his lordly visage and embrace the animal inside that he'd tried so desperately to suppress.

The plot is uncomplicated and the motivations are crystal clear. Everyone has their own agendas, but nothing keeps the story from moving forward. This is an action/adventure cinema lesson in not getting sidetracked. Rather than "starting at the beginning," the film begins long after the origins of Tarzan, only giving us tastes of his upbringing among the animals sprinkled strategically throughout the film. John's introduction as a Lord is contradictory to our expectations, and it allows for an exciting build to his transformation back into Tarzan of the jungle. He is a man in control, but he is also driven by instinct, and the combination is unnerving to watch. At one point, Rom speaks with unexpected honesty to Jane, "Your husband's wildness disturbs me more than I can easily express." There is fear in him, but also jealousy, and even more subtly, arousal; it's a kind of envy he can't quite understand, but we understand it. Watching John become Tarzan is thrilling, in more ways than one. And Leon Rom feels it, too.

Skarsgård may have been an uninspired choice for the role of Tarzan, but it was without question the right one. It isn't a stretch for him, considering the years he spent on "True Blood" sniffing out blood like a sexy animal beast. But those are his obvious, out-of-the-box strengths. As Tarzan, his weaknesses also wind up landing in the 'plus' column. The underlying Swedish accent, normally a hurdle for him to overcome, adds to the slightly awkward spoken English that you'd expect someone raised by apes to develop.

On the other side, Margot Robbie's American English is never quite right, but her classic beauty is reminiscent of Old Hollywood—she's confident and strong, but perversely aware of her vulnerability in this aggressive world. She relies on Tarzan, which may not feel all that progressive, but for a movie like this with characters like these, it shouldn't. Visually and emotionally, she's complete perfection as Jane. And together, they'll give anyone the vapors.

In true summer movie fashion, the action is also impressive. It's simultaneously consistent and varied— the topography changes may have been occasionally dizzying, but the cinematography was soaring, though like many films intended for 3D, there are obvious trick-shots that are lost on 2D audiences, and even borderline silly. The supporting cast was wonderful, albeit lacking in dimension (Hounsou is never bad, but he wasn't given much here). Even with all the familiar faces, it didn't feel like desperate stunt casting. This is the movie that The Jungle Book failed miserably to be. The cherry on top, the piece that tied the entire epic together, was the score by Rupert Gregson-Williams, particularly is sequences featuring vocals by Zoe Mthiyane. Parts of the composition were Gladiator good. From me, there isn't much higher praise.

Personally, I think that Yates' Tarzan screams for repeat viewings. I enjoyed it in the way that I did 1999's The Mummy, where something just keeps drawing me back. There are excusable imperfections that do nothing to inhibit the enjoyability of the movie overall. Even with the occasionally weak dialogue or rough CGI, the performances are strong and the sexual tension is exhilarating—it's simply a bonus that the story is familiar enough to avoid the weight of loaded exposition, allowing a more mature (though simple) plot to flesh itself out. A summer feast for the eyes and ears, just let the spirit of the jungle wash over you and enjoy the rest.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

Monday, July 11, 2016

Music Mondays: Hozier "Better Love"

This weekend, I saw The Legend of Tarzan, and while I'm still writing out my thoughts (spoiler: I liked it—a lot), this seemed too appropriate not to share for Music Mondays. During the final credits, I couldn't help but perk up when I heard the romantic crooning of Hozier. "Better Love," Hozier's sweetly soaring ballad, was the perfect cap-off of a purely summer spectacle jam-packed with all kinds of sexy chemistry.

While the movie may not be to everyone's tastes, this song should be far less contentious. Can Hozier write a song for every movie from now on? That'd be great, kthx.

Artist: Hozier
Song: "Better Love"
Album: The Legend of Tarzan: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Movie Review: "The BFG" (2016)

© Walt Disney Pictures

I'm going to try to keep this one [kinda] short. For me. I know, alert the media. The reason being is that I feel bad about hating this movie so, so much. It is, after all, for children, directed by one of the greatest directors of all time, adapted from a book by one of the most adored authors ever, and the trailer made me tear up without fail. All the ingredients were there, and yet this new version of The BFG was unexpected, insufferable garbage. Worst of all? It was so boring.

You know the story. Ten-year-old Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) may be a dreamer and a reader, but she's also considered a bit of a stubborn troublemaker at the orphanage where she lives. As all wild spirits are wont to do, Sophie is happiest wandering the halls playfully late a night alone—that is until one night when she spots, out by a lamp post on the street, a Giant (Mark Rylance). He, naturally, spots her, too. Fearing she'll reveal his existence to the world, he snatches her up and whisks her away to Giant Country, where he's made his long-time home in the bowels of a hillside.

When Sophie notices that this frightening 24-foot creature isn't all that frightening at all, he reveals himself as the Big Friendly Giant and a curious friendship blossoms. But this real-life dream catcher isn't alone in this world, and the other, larger giants certainly aren't as friendly. Instead, they're human being eating machines, and it's up to Sophie to convince the BFG that only he can save the children of London from being snatched from their beds by revealing the existence of giants to the world. Easier said than done.

The story isn't the problem. In fact, keeping most of the original story intact is all director Steven Spielberg (but mostly writer Melissa Mathison) does right. As the story develops in this cinematic version, however, it becomes immediately clear that we're in for quite a slog. Introductions are what they are, and Sophie and BFG get there quickly, but Spielberg then spends a significant amount of time bouncing pointlessly around throughout BFG's home and world and work and thoughts and dreams... without ever really revealing much.

The same scenes and conversations continue to happen, from the back and forths to London to the bone-crunching "evil" giants continuously bumbling their way in and out of the action. Smell a human, Look for it, Find Nothing. Smell a human, Look for it, Find Nothing.... rinse and repeat. Some scenes last an inexplicably long time (re: that bloody awful breakfast scene at Buckingham Palace) and contain really stupid moments that we're forced to endure unnecessarily, while other more important moments (the final battle of the giants) are over in a flash. How could you be expected to focus on the meaningful connection between Sophie and BFG in a film so poorly constructed?

Author Roald Dahl is known for playing around with tone, not to mention language and theme. He was a master at experimenting with the unsettling nature of childhood and magic—but Spielberg had no idea how to handle one of Dahl's most famous stories. That's what infuriated me, because he should have. This is the guy that brought E.T. to life! How could he so drastically miss the mark with basically the CGI equivalent of E.T. meets Peter Pan? He simply tries so hard to be important, to pay the necessary credence to the story, that the movie inflates with its own sense of stunted self-awe—and then bursts like a balloon.

Small pieces of the film were beautiful, like the way the dreams themselves were animated, almost tangible and so emotionally affecting. But anything enjoyable (including the adorable Ruby Barnhill) was overshadowed by the messy tone of the terror mixed with slapstick, that it took everything in my power to not furrow my brow and scowl at the whole thing. Had I expected less, perhaps I wouldn't have viewed it so harshly. But as Roger Ebert might say, I hated hated hated this movie.

Hey, turns out this wasn't so short after all. Oh well.

Rating: ★½ / 5 stars

Movie Review: "Swiss Army Man" (2016)

© A24

If ever there was a time in your life that you said to yourself, "I wish I could watch Harry Potter's lifeless body regurgitate fresh drinking water like a spigot to save a man's life," then this is the movie for you. You may also need to seek some help. Swiss Army Man is undoubtedly the curious byproduct of Cast Away and Weekend at Bernie's having a weird love triad with Daniel Quinn's Ishmael—if all of them shared a curious fetish for whoopie cushions. Directors Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan (so many Daniels in this) have a sick and exhilarating sense of humor, and what makes their vision here so special is that it's not for nothing. Moreover, it's not expected summer fare; a movie that makes you think, and feel, and tear up through your laughs. The comedy is an avenue for the philosophical, and vice versa, as we witness the life-reviving effects of love, and the debilitating fear of living, through the eyes of two dudes trying to figure it all out. With flaming farts.

Hank (Paul Dano) has been stranded on a desert island, and he's—quite literally—at the end of his rope. Right before ending it all, he finds a gurgling corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) has washed ashore his beach, and its mere presence gives Hank the inspiration to plan his escape from imminent death. That, and the fact that the corpse's continuous flatulence holds the power to motoring the two of them straight through the crashing waves. As Hank dead-lifts his new friend (pun intended) through the forest in search of help, something happens: the corpse, who we learn goes by Manny, starts to move. And talk; and think; and display plenty of other mysterious abilities. As Manny's water-logged mind develops, his child-like questions about life and love prompt Hank to reexamine his own existence, and the two discover through one another a joy and reverence for life.

There are more than a few moments that really need to remain secrets. This isn't a heavy "reveal" movie with loads of gasping Oh my gods or Whaaaaat??s... Rather, the development of this friendship, along with Manny's inquisitive hopefulness, worry, and imagination, create a magnificent and touching story that simply needs to be experienced. That being said, it's also littered with truly disturbing imagery as Manny the corpse is basically abused and mutilated, but that's all tampered with soaring music by Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, not to mention the fact that the corpse itself doesn't really mind. None of the jarring shots of impalements, guttings, or bone crackings last longer than a quick edit, which is a true testament to the sharply carved out structure and pacing. You can honestly get away with anything if you commit to the rules up front.

This is Daniel Radcliffe's best role (on screen) to date. It's well known how cool and laid back a guy he is, and so it's no wonder he fell into this role so perfectly. Physically, he contorts and pushes his body in ways that I'd normally be totally unsettled by (when his convincing body double isn't in the shot), but like the abuse he goes through at the hands of Hank, none of the horror ever really breeches through. Radcliffe is simply too wide-eyed and bushy-tailed to make it anything other than uplifting. Likewise, Dano was right at home in this quirky, mentally unstable world. His performance didn't surprise me the way that Radcliffe's did, but it was equally as commanding, and for much of the film, it's Hank's personality and creativeness that make this such a triumph.

I hesitate to say too much, because I genuinely think this movie has a little bit for everybody, even those who turn their nose up at the hoity-toity indie stuff. Swiss Army Man is a happy marriage between high- and low-brow—without much in between. In the end, we're left with an appropriately ambiguous and sentimental buddy adventure that is also a study in societal behaviors, albeit through an absurd lens. And while there are twinges of existential sadness, you're never far away from a punchline. Usually one with a fart.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Movie Review: "Independence Day Resurgence" (2016)

© 20th Century Fox

The instinct to make a sequel for one of Hollywood's greatest patriotic anthems was not misguided. I mean, you have to give 20th Century Fox some credit for waiting this long. It's that wait, 20 long years, that gave me hope. They wouldn't greenlight something after so many years if it wasn't totally amazeballs, right? Right?? In my mind, there was no way Independence Day Resurgence wasn't going to be a good time—the BEST time, in point of fact—and even the cheesiest of dialogue couldn't stomp out that hope. Unfortunately, the inclusion of (one would think) fool-proof throw backs to ID1 gutted this movie of any value as director Roland Emmerich infused the nostalgia of his nineties masterpiece into the drawl and tedious explosion exploitation of 2012—and we're left with a limp, quip-less action parody that was too afraid to be its own thing.

It's been 20 years since Earth was invaded by an unknown and advanced extra-terrestrial race, leading to a battle between alien and man that ended in a victory for Earth—and the hope that the aliens would never return. But when satellite engineer David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is once again called to investigate the appearance of a mysterious space craft heading for our planet, he reluctantly enlists the help of global scientists and a group of young fighter pilots, including Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth, who sadly gets top billing) and Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher, who is far too dull to be in this), to discover a means to protect themselves against a new—and stronger—invasion. As the heroes of the first wave of attacks come to terms with the questions they never sought to answer, it may lie with the younger generation to use the alien technology they've grown up with to take down this enemy once and for all.

Phew! That was a description full of cliches. It seems fit, though. The film's opening 20 minutes started strong. A solid first act is hard to come by, but the story's opening is basically running on fumes from 1996. But hey, there was potential, and you could feel it in the build-up. Then, as the fumes ran out (maybe I should have seen this coming?), it just started shitting all over itself with unoriginal CGI, overblown death sequences, and strong-armed character reminiscing that suffocated any hope of a memorable, cohesive story. Jeff Goldblum is still his Goldblum-y self, and you'll love him for it, despite his being forced into ridiculous scenes with characters blustering through their decades-long PTSD. Bill Pullman as President Whitmore is aptly more grizzly and crazy this time around, but he isn't given the heart-stirring writing of the first film that appropriately covered up his so-so acting.

The use of alien technology should have been the most exciting, creative, easy to incorporate part of the story—what better way to waste 20 minutes than to showcase all the cool junk the aliens left on our planet, and what we did with it? But that doesn't happen. Everybody is so over it by this point, we don't even get to be in on the excitement of discovery and innovation. It's that discovery that makes the original so damn entertaining. Instead, Resurgence drops in a bunch of new ideas that are more existential than it's actual themes are capable of handling, like other alien races and a planet full of galactic refugees, except that is all so slapdash that you could miss it with a 2 minute bathroom break. Considering they were thisclose to simply regurgitating the same old story, the attempts to be "different" are just embarrassing.

For nearly two hours, we're forced to be surrounded by kids who are still carrying around their petty grudges, like one of them got left out of the capture the flag game at overnight camp that time and still won't stop talking about it. With the exception of Hemsworth, every single one of them lacks even an iota of charisma—something we likely could have overlooked had the movie not bludgeoned us with reminders that these people are the offspring of far more charismatic and memorable people. The sad truth is that I'd have easily awarded the movie a star (or two!) if they'd cast original Patricia Whitmore, Mae Whitman, rather than the lack-luster but arguably "hotter" Maika Monroe. For shame, Fox. Opportunity missed.

The studio's fear of creating new characters—ones that were separated emotionally, mentally, and physically from our favorites in the original—is evident. Emmerich had zero confidence that audiences would stick with the story if they weren't bombarded by memories and nostalgia, not to mention the same old jokes, and it makes for exhausting, obnoxious movie-going that, worst of all, isn't very fun. Hey guys, remember how Will Smith was a witty, fearless pilot and loved punching aliens?!? Well his son does sorta the same stuff but not really, but look it's his son, you're not looking!

Yeah no, movie. We got it.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

AFI Top 100: #27 "High Noon"

Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952)

It's rare that a movie is able to make the promise of a compelling climax right in its very own title. In AFI's #27 film, the short and sweet High Noon, that's exactly what we get: the anticipation of a climax rounding out about noon, by the clock's estimation. All it has to do is deliver. Unassuming in its simplicity, this experimental western aims to, in real time, build tension around a determined protagonist who stands alone against a threat to his town—and his life.

Writer Carl Foreman made no secret of his film's true message, an allegory for his own fight against allegations of communist sympathies and his gray-listing in Hollywood by the House Un-American Committee. So while the hero's plight may well be obvious, it doesn't help that he all but drowns in his own self-righteousness.

Hadleyville is a small, dusty town in New Mexico, protected by long-time Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper). On the day of Kane's marriage to his youthful bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), he confidently hangs up his gun and his badge, handing the safety of the town over to his only deputy, Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), until the new Sheriff takes over. He and Amy have barely left the town limit before hearing news that a dangerous local criminal, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), has just been released from prison, and is on his way to Hadleyville to seek revenge on Kane, who put him behind bars—and he's set to arrive on the noon train. Unwilling to let the town fall victim to Miller, Kane hightails it back to town to deputize as many men as he can to stand with him against Frank and his gang. But when the townsfolk turn a blind eye, cowardly refusing to fight, Kane realizes that he must enter this showdown alone, or risk sleeping with one eye open for the rest of his life.

The film's structure is framed around the real-time run of events, playing out on screen in a steady build to its promise. And it does deliver. The sounding of the train whistle, the rising of coal smoke from the distance, as the clock strikes noon, does exactly what it's supposed to do. We experience the heightened nervousness that Kane does, and nearly all of the credit should be given to director Fred Zinnemann. Not only did he understand how to direct Cooper in such a gripping performance, but he knew to weave the building uncertainty about whether this was a fight worth fighting throughout the film from the very start. The consistent presence of the clocks, the visualization of time ticking away, effectively drive our attention towards the end game—it's simply a bonus that we get there so quickly, in under 90 minutes.

Gary Cooper's worn and ready demeanor suits Kane almost too perfectly. His creased face is tired and smudged with the dust of many years' worth of struggles to keep this lawless land lawful. And from the looks of it, he's been more or less successful, and his relief during the wedding ceremony is evident: he's alive, he's about to marry a woman way too young and good for him, and he's proud of everything he's accomplished. And when he hears the name "Frank Miller," watching all of that happiness drain away in an instance is crippling.

Cooper as Kane is ostracized, belittled, and emasculated. In a very un-Western way, he's a man with plenty of fear. Cooper is far older (50) than Kane was originally meant to be at 30 years old, but it's a common Hollywood oversight that ends up benefiting the film. The worry that nearly cripples Kane didn't build up overnight. The years he's witnessed injustice, murders, and vengeful criminals are evident on his face, as are the blood, sweat, and tears he's put into making something of this one tavern town. When all of that is threatened, there is no question that he'd turn around to defend it, even if it cost him his life.

The weight of obligation he feels, strangely, doesn't fall on anyone else. Even his new bride, Amy, can't bring herself to care much for the only home she's ever known. This is where the movie starts to falter. Kane's passion and dedication is evident, but the ambivalence (or fear, whatever you want to call it) of the rest of the town, who are unwilling to take beside him, is nonsensical. As Kane goes from man to man (to man to man to man), only to be met with derision, a brush-off, an assertion that "It's not his problem anymore"... it leaves us scratching our head in a curious Huh?? Writer Foreman does a feeble job giving anyone other than Kane a leg to stand on (much less a backbone), so as worthy a hero as he might be, there is no balance of side characters to keep him from devolving into a self-righteous, stubborn loner. No one will help him, so why should he stick his neck out for them? Well, because the script says so, and no one is more convincingly good than Gary Cooper.

In keeping with the continual theme of risk-taking Western favorites, it wouldn't be half as exciting if this film wasn't so controversial. Hated by a ream of folks who quite literally built the genre (John Wayne, John Ford), the lack of a flashy hero is only compounded by the so clearly defined battle of good vs. evil. The stakes are high, but there is something hollow about Hadleyville and those who inhabit it. Cooper's ability to keep us with him makes up for a lot, but the underlying metaphor of the underdog is hardly subtle. Add onto that the arguably underutilized side characters, particularly Kelly and Bridges despite how good they are, and you're looking at a divisive film.

But in the world of the AFI, what fun would it be to have a controversy-free movie on this countdown? The more to praise or deride, the more delight we all get in talking about them. High Noon is no different, and it's the team-up of Cooper and Zinnemann that lean this review towards the praise column.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © United Artists]

Check back next time for #26 on the list, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Music Mondays: Bo Burnham "Can't Handle This"

I actually shared this on my Facebook earlier today, and realized it would make a great entry for Music Mondays. Bo Burnham is a brilliant young comedian known for his musical comedy and enhanced theatrics, but in his most recent Netflix comedy special, Make Happy, he delivers his magnum opus with "Can't Handle This," otherwise known as his 'Kanye Rant.'

What starts out as an appropriately funny couple of verses laced with (surprisingly beautiful) auto-tune transforms into an unexpectedly emotional and resounding climax to his show. Watch it now (take note of the incredible lighting cues!), and check out his other comedy all over YouTube, including his first Netflix special, What. This guy is a genius. Enjoy, and happy Monday!

Artist: Bo Burnham
Song: "Can't Handle This"
Album/Show: Make Happy

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Movie Review: "Finding Dory" (2016)

© Pixar Animation Studios

Is this a whole week late? Maybe. Am I kinda embarrassed that I wrote 98% of this review at 1 AM after watching it opening night only to leave the last 2% until today? ... Yes. To say that I'd been anticipating this release with every last inch of my being would be an understatement; talking about it with refined thought and insight is a tall order, so prepare yourself for mediocrity here. From me, not the movie. Because the greatest film to come out of Pixar's masterwork factory, Finding Nemo, has finally gotten an unneeded but very welcome follow-up (despite the world already enduring multiple Cars off-shoots) with Finding Dory. Considering this role single-handedly revitalized the career of comedy genius, Ellen Degeneres, focusing the movie's events on the life and times of Dory the Blue Tang fish and her mysterious short-term memory loss was, in short, a no-brainer. What I didn't expect was just how all-encompassing the message of embracing differences would be.

A year after crossing the ocean to rescue a little clown fish named Nemo, Dory (Degeneres) has settled into a new life and routine on the reef with Nemo and his dear old dad, Marlon (Albert Brooks). Her lack of memory hasn't slowed her down one bit, until one day she's reminded that everyone has a family—which means her's must be out there somewhere. With only pieces to go on and the sudden realization she was separated from them as a young fishy, Dory enlists Marlon and Nemo to accompany her on a journey home.

Their adventure carries them across the sea once again, this time to Morro Bay, CA and the Marine Life Institute, a sanctuary containing diverse creatures housed for rescue, rehabilitation, and (hopefully) release. With the help of some incredibly talented new friends—including wannabe-captive octopus, Hank (Ed O'Neill), short-sighted whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), and sonar-deaf beluga Bailey (Ty Burrell)—Dory must infiltrate the Institute to find her parents and set them free. So long as she doesn't forget the reason she came there.

The first film deals with the concept of captivity versus freedom (something not completely lost here), and the enemy is unapologetically us. This time around, humans are hardly the problem, despite always seeming to get in the way of things (children are still, in fact, marine life's worst nightmare; glad to see some things never change.) The real challenges for these characters lie within—phobias, compulsions, disabilities mental and physical—all that must be overcome. And with that, the implications of this story—Dory's story, most notably—are demonstrably sad.

Nobody stole the show from Degeneres as Dory, try as they might. Not even the cutesy-cuddly sea otters, or even baby Dory (voiced by Sloane Murray), who may well be the most adorable animated character ever drawn up (with that little bird from Dory's pre-movie short, Piper, coming in a close second). This film utilizes flashbacks heavily, painting a picture of Dory's past to drive her motivation—and our investment. Marlon and Nemo may have an important role to play, but Marlon takes a back seat as Dory's newest curmudgeonly partner, the "septupus" Hank. He does more than just the heavy-lifting, scooping Dory up and carrying her around on her journey. He is, on the outside, the most capable creature this series has introduced—but even he suffers from debilitating fears and physical ailments. He, of course, wouldn't frame it that way, though.

Director Andrew Stanton dug through the "Best of TV's Comedic Timing" list to litter the newest cast members with "Modern Family" and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" voice talent... but then there's the shoehorn of characters from the original that, to say the least, had no business being in this. Stanton and team had to realize that they'd struck solid gold with these new characters—they should have leaned into them more, without feeling the need to give old favorites Crush (voiced by Stanton) and Squirt a couple of minutes of forced screen time. It's a small complaint, particularly because this only affects the first 15 minutes and re-establishes this world that we met over twelve years ago—but it's a world we never forgot, given that Nemo may be Pixar's most perfect film. I hope that they're braver with separating themselves from the original for The Incredibles sequel than they did with this.

The incredible thing about Pixar, but particularly in Dory, is their ability and willingness to incorporate all manner of characters into their stories. Whether they're differently-abled or socially awkward or obsessive compulsive, all personalities are welcome. With one exception. My boyfriend pointed this out to me as we left the theater, and I couldn't believe I'd missed it. For characters with mental handicaps, this is not a friendly story. There's not one, but two, characters introduced that are slow mentally, and the movie couldn't try harder to make them the butt of every joke. I'm talking about Gerald the Sea Lion and Becky the Pacific Loon (apt, huh?). They're non-verbal, continuously compulse, and frequently derided by their peers for it. In a movie about embracing impairments, it's a wonder how these two managed to draw the short straws. It isn't offensive per se, but it is curious. It's hard not to think that their goofy-toothed grins or cock-eyed tweaks weren't added simply for the laugh, and there were a lot of laughs.

Despite some missteps in use of characters, I'm hard-pressed to find much wrong with the bones of this movie. Not only was it piercingly emotional, it was also hysterical. Credit can be given to Nemo for creating characters so rich with history—history that we get to finally relish in and explore—and they do their star the justice she deserves. Dory distinguishes itself from its predecessor, too, and gives spectacular dimension to Pixar's most beloved fish.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

Thursday, June 16, 2016

AFI Top 100: #28 "All About Eve"

Anne Baxter & Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950)

Sometimes there's nothing better than two bad-ass bitches facing off while decked out in pearls. AFI's #28 film, All About Eve, may be the closest Old Hollywood ever got to a dragged-out library read, all thanks to perennial leading lady and the original movie Queen, Bette Davis. This popular and infamous gem hearkens back to one of my favorite lines from any Hollywood movie: "There's always somebody younger and hungrier coming down the stairs behind you."

Ah yes, thank you, Showgirls, for paying homage to this classic tale of stage ambition. You two are comparable in oh-so-many ways. Not the least of which is a cat-fight for the ages, and subversive backstage manipulations rivaled by none. Needless to say, though, it wasn't Showgirls that was nominated for 14 Oscars—a record that, to this day, has yet to be beat (only met). All About Eve has prevailed as perhaps more iconic and influential than it even deserves. But that's the beauty of cinema: there is no telling what will stay with audiences throughout the years. And Margo Channing certainly stuck.

Fresh off the train from the Mid-West, young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is enamored with the glamour of the Broadway stage—not to mention her growing fascination with its biggest star, the seasoned and temperamental Margo Channing (Davis). When Even is spotted for the umpteenth time outside the stage door for Margo's current production, the actress's close friend, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) takes Eve under her wing, bringing the girl into their inner circle of friends. Many take pity on Eve, particularly the men, including Karen's husband, playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Margo's boyfriend and frequent director, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), and eccentric producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff), all curiously noting her youth, naivete, and harmless obsession with Margo. Margo, however, begins to notice the girl's curious behavior as she manipulates her way into every crevice of their work—and their lives. Only Margo and her friend, critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), see Eve for what she is: a woman who will stop at nothing to be a success.

This is a delicious soap opera full of ferocious female talent (you'll even notice a young Marilyn Monroe appearing in a suitably cast role). I don't know that there's another way to describe it. The plot lines showcase the subversive nature of show business, particularly highlighting the women who find comfort in defining themselves as divas. Nobody embodies that like Bette Davis, and there is something perverse about watching someone try to knock her down permanently off that high horse. As viewers, we understand that Margo Channing may indeed be a performer in need of a reality check about her own greatness and importance, but that doesn't mean that we we're ready to see her go. That's what director Joseph L. Mankiewicz does so well, balancing our alliances by creating an underdog in Eve, only to reveal her as a frightening, an arch-browed devil.

The film doesn't try to deal an even deck between Margo and Eve—you are simply never on Eve's side, despite seeing the flaws in Margo. It doesn't take long before you realize that you're incapable of giving Eve the benefit of the doubt. Baxter is one committed broad, because this is one tough role to play. Eve is unapologetically destructive. She slithers into Margo's life and infects it like a cancer—benign though she might appear. It never even occurs to most of the Broadway veterans that this nobody farm-girl could be anything other than harmless. That's really why Baxter is so effective in this part, and why the development of her character is so unnerving. And it isn't subtle. At all. She's strange and creepy, hovering around Margo and staring with a glaze in her eyes—this is some serious Single White Female material, and Anne Baxter delivers a hair-raising performance.

Margo Channing and her pals are major #squadgoals. There's a fear that curdles inside you as Eve weaves her way into the hard-set mechanics of this close-knit group of friends and lovers—that somehow, she might indeed tear them all apart. One of my biggest "plot device" pet peeves is when problems between people—in this case, Margo and her friends—could easily be solved if they'd only talk to each other, but they never do, so everything disintegrates into chaos. All About Eve gets dangerously close to suffering from that... but then something magical happens. It doesn't.

The characters aren't as easily manipulated as they might seem, and there is a loyalty that rears up in defense of Margo that brings a glint of hope to your eye and a rally-cry of "Get that bitch!" to your lips. As heightened as the drama feels, it also is unflinchingly relatable. Everyone has had friendships tested by the influence of outside forces, or even new friends. The progression of their dismissals of Even to their united front against her touches on all those desires for personal justice we've ever craved to see.

There is nothing delicate about this film; no clear nuances that need to be rehashed and interpreted. The action plays out in clear black and white, and that is what makes All About Eve so easily (and frequently) emulated. This isn't to say that it's simplistic or juvenile in its execution—not in the least. In fact, Mankiewicz is a true master in his creation of an evergreen story. It's as seedy a tale as you may expect, which for me, keeps it just out of reach of perfection.

The movie is showy and over-dramatized, the characters continuously spouting poetically as if they are in their own little play. The definition of scenery chewing. Such exaggeration surely is magnificent to watch, particularly with a group of catty friends—but the roots of the story, Eve's long-game infiltration and the perpetual back-stabbing, are what make this film truly memorable and deserving of accolades.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © 20th Century Fox]

Check back next time for #27 on the list, High Noon — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Music Mondays: Fitz and the Tantrums "HandClap"

We're in need of something good right now. After a weekend full of unspeakable tragedy, it's easy to forget that June is a month dedicated to feeling PRIDE. I hope that in light of the sadness, you all found love, support, and happiness in your communities. And I also hope, if you were celebrating PRIDE across the country this weekend (or next, or the next), you found reason to dance. Today's Music Monday is dedicated to all those who refuse to slink into the shadows, and loudly proclaim their identities without fear. Find that joy and never let go.

Here is the new track from Fitz and the Tantrums, "HandClap," to lift you up and keep you dancing fiercely. ♥ 🌈

Artist: Fitz and the Tantrums
Song: "HandClap" | download
Album: Fitz and the Tantrums

Friday, June 10, 2016

Movie Review: "Now You See Me 2" (2016)

© Summit Entertainment

Is this movie called Now You See Me: The Second Act? I, um... the theater seemed to think so, but the opening movie credits didn't. Looks like the Marketing team changed their mind halfway through and decided new branding was in order. Wouldn't have helped, though—nothing could have. The movie's title is the least of its problems.

A year after the events of the original, and the Four Horsemen illusionists (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, with new horseman Lizzy Caplan) are ready to make their reappearance after being in hiding from the FBI, who are still hot on their trail. In hopes of revealing the secrets of a new computer chip that can hack any computer and information, the team's return to the stage is unexpectedly interrupted, and they find themselves in Macau, China, face to face with a new enemy, Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe). With their leader and outed FBI agent, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) forced to work with his [apparently] mortal enemy, Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), to find them, the Horsemen are forced to plan their most intricate heist yet (not really): stealing the chip for Mabry to use as he sees fit. Naturally, there's more to the story, and only their trusty magic tricks can save them now.

This whole movie was awful. Just awful. It's shocking that so many incredible actors were convinced to say such stupid things. The reveals were mediocre and unimpressive, even more so (from what I can tell) than the original. Granted, I didn't see that one, but from the looks of it, it was at least unapologetically fun(?). But if the writing there is anything like here, then I won't be giving it a shot. The entire movie takes for granted that you've seen the first one, which I hadn't, and the introduction of characters is practically non-existent. Not bad for an involved sequel, but this one could have spared the time to round everyone out a bit for a new audience. This isn't Harry Potter. You don't have a rich world to re-establish; but a hint about why we should care wouldn't hurt.

Rather than creating an entirely new story, bringing in a new-ish villain with completely different goals, they simply regurgitate the same old revenge plot from the first with boring, hapless criminals and far less spectacle. Michael Caine comes off like a stumbling amateur, and Daniel Radcliffe's Geoffrey-style whining was only compounded by his predilection for walking across glass, fish-filled floors barefoot and not shaving. The set up for stealing this coveted computer chip is absurd, yet the heist itself is a complete joke. They don't even commit to the "planning montage" that ultimately ends up being the best part. Card flinging tricks are only cool if you're really doing it, not when it's been done cheaply in some post house. And don't even get me started on the finale. What a letdown.

Lizzy Caplan is one of my all-time favorites, but she's reduced to the token woman role without any apology from the writers thanks to Isla Fisher (the previous token female) opting out due to her pregnancy. If fact, the filmmakers kinda lean into the "only woman" concept way too much, and Caplan has to stomach saying lines like "You need a woman on the team!" or whatever nonsense they made her say to explain her presence. You're so much better than this, Lizzy! You all are so much better than this. Yes, even you, Jesse Eisenberg.

I did get some weird feelings I've never experienced towards Eisenberg in this, though, and the sudden experience made me what to take a shower to scrub out the thoughts. There's just a... you know what, never mind. I can't explain it, it was a lapse in attraction-judgment, it won't happen again. Maybe it was the haircut? I don't know!! But admittedly, the showman in him fits the concept for this role just right, but for all that showmanship, there really isn't much of a show.

Your options in the theater this weekend aren't that promising. I recommend seeing something again, like The Nice Guys (review for that coming soon!)

Rating: ★½ / 5 stars

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

AFI Top 100: #29 "Double Indemnity"

Barbara Stanwyck & Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944)

Even though I've gotten farther behind on these reviews than I'm willing to admit in print, it still isn't lost on me that we're within reach of the Top 20 on our AFI Top 100 quest. That means that in the past [almost] two years, this blog has published over 70 classic reviews for beloved movies. And this gem is no different. A continued exploration of the film noir genre, this time veering into the world of murder for love—and, of course, for riches. Who are we kidding? In the spectacularly rich Double Indemnity, coming in at #29 on our countdown, we're treated to the most fully-realized noir of all time, perfected long before this was a studied genre.

The top salesman at the Pacific All-Risk Insurance Company, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), has a new client. Hired by the man's glamorous and flirtatious young wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), Neff realizes there's more than meets the eye with this transaction when Phyllis pursues an affair with him—an affair he does nothing to discourage. When Phyllis suggests that her husband's death could free them to be together, Neff's intimate knowledge of Mr. Dietrichson's accident insurance policy leads him to devise a complicated scheme in order to activate its double indemnity clause. It appears that the unrequited lovers are primed to get away with their plot, that is until Neff's friend and boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), begins to investigate Phyllis—with suspicions that she's in cahoots with another man.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Music Mondays: Justin Timberlake "Can't Stop the Feeling"

Happy Memorial Day, all you US folks! I hope you're all merrily drunk on beer and hot dogs by this point, and if the playlist spinning wherever you are isn't rocking Justin Timberlake's new uber-pop track, "Can't Stop the Feeling," then they're robbing you of a dancing good time. OK, so it might be the final credits track for the new movie Trolls, but that doesn't mean it's not catchy to the max!

Enjoy the day, everyone, and try to ignore the fact you have to return to work tomorrow. Muah! xx

Artist: Justin Timberlake
Song: "Can't Stop the Feeling" | download
Album: Trolls Soundtrack

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Movie Review: "X-Men: Apocalypse" (2016)

© 20th Century Fox

It never hurts to preface that I'm clueless when it comes to the convoluted comic history of Marvel's X-Men. I can't knowingly comment on how the studio changed this character this way or that character that way, much less the accuracy of the plot itself, so those choices have no barring on my thoughts below. That being said, it doesn't stop me from having an opinion about original X-Men director, Bryan Singer's, latest foray into the mutant world with X-Men: Apocalypse. He just can't quite figure out how to make this movie work.

Kitschy and playful ribbing of eighties culture and the franchise itself is counteracted by its characters taking themselves far too seriously to be in on the fun. Newly introduced mutants were split down the middle between exciting new additions and cumbersome baggage—the latter of which was usually accompanied by an inability to act with an accent not their own.

In a continuation of the events of 70s-set Days of Future Past, our mutant friends have come together behind Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) at his newly founded school for Gifted Youngsters. There we meet a whole slew of unfamiliar faces with very familiar names. Noticeably absent from teaching duties, however, is Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), now working to rescue tormented mutants across the globe, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), in hiding after becoming the most wanted mutant in the world.

But like all superhero flicks, there must be a supervillain, and there may be none more unstoppable than the powerful Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), awoken after nearly 3000 years underneath an Egyptian pyramid with a serious case of the Mondays. After he recruits a collection of power-hungry sidekicks, Xavier's team must band together to stop him from having a tantrum and destroying the world—which means it may be time to train a new generation of X-Men.

Sophie Turner's young Jean Grey is perhaps the most exciting prospect in the bunch, but it takes her easily three-quarters of the movie to shed her awkward navigation of the role. Her delivery is far too stale (blame the writers, if you want), but there is an underlying self-consciousness to her performance that can only be attributed to teenage-hood. A silver lining. Young Grey is hardly defined, nor has she come into her own, and Singer manages, albeit two hours too late, to find her a path to growth. Lots of potential for Turner as the powerful Phoenix, but you won't fully get what you're looking for in this.

The Best Character Award is a split between Days of Future Past scene-stealer, Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and newbie Kodi Smit-Mcphee's youthfully naive, Nightcrawler. Both are given clearly defined direction which allows them to work within this world without being dragged down by the slogging plot trajectory. Quicksilver's personal mission to find Magneto leads him to join up with the virtuous X-Men, but he has his own objective separate from standard world-saving, which allows him more material to work with.

Likewise, Nightcrawler is a tragic character in awe of not only mutants, but American culture and the mere concept of freedom. There's comedy there, to be sure, but his wonderment is laced throughout the entire story, and you just want to give him a hug. Smit-Mcphee brought out a childishness in the teleporting mutant that was hopeful and curious, a stark contrast to his teen counterparts who were already too jaded for their own good.

Bryan Singer's detached narrative fights to hold onto the expertly executed energy of Future Past, but fails to incorporate the gripping nature of villainy that made its predecessor so great. Magneto is the most consistently conflicted character the franchise has developed over the past 16 years (!!), and yet Singer manhandles him in an attempt to breath life into the lifeless motivations of Apocalypse. Because the sad truth was, we don't know anything about Apocalypse, our titular character.

Even after a way-too-long movie (seriously, this could have been 40 minutes shorter), his motivations were hollow, at best. For such a powerful guy, you'd think he'd have refined his interview process for selecting henchmen (kind of a risky move to assume emotional wildcards would stick by you in a fight). Apocalypse is an ancient, god-like mutant who aided in forming and destroying civilizations, introduced straight out of the opening of The Mummy. Got it. After being re-awoken from... an ancient slumber?... he experiences a Fifth Element/Leeloo moment and learns everything about human history from a television set. Angry and annoyed, he determines humans must be stopped.

And that's it! Throw a bit of ethnic-cleansing in there in order to spare mutants extinction, and there's your movie. Basically, he's established terribly, and watching his team stand stiffly on an old, plastic Star Trek mountain set for 20 minutes mid-climax doesn't move things along much, either. None of it is enough to make anyone care. Way over here is a story developing that will actually carry into the future of the franchise, and despite its languid flaws, it's certainly where we'd rather be, watching Mystique train these n00bs so Jennifer Lawrence doesn't have to do this shit anymore.

It wasn't all dire straits (though Magneto's storyline certainly weighed the movie down); I have a soft-spot for this epic series, even the questionable ones (Last Stand), because at the very least, the relationships between the X-Men are tension-filled and dynamic. Even that isn't lost here, despite Singer losing sight of the finish line. This feels like the necessary end to a trilogy that had successfully breathed youthful life into aging characters—and it's continuing to do so as we venture into the world of new mutants.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
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