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Author Archives | Noah Sanders

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Movie Breakdown: Queen Of The Desert (Noah)

April 7, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

Werner Herzog doesn’t always hit his non-documentary films out of the park. This time he’s teaming with the ageless Nicole Kidman for a bio-pic about British explorer Gertrude Bell. It could be terrible.

Post-Screening Ramble:

There are many sides to Werner Herzog, not all of them good. The Herzog we’ve all come to love, appreciate, and weirdly idolize in the modern era, is the man behind heartfelt documentaries like Grizzly Man or Into The Abyss, films that stoke the flames of their subjects with Herzog’s very specific personality. The other Herzog, the less known Herzog, is the director of Queen of the Desert – a Nicole Kidman starring bio-pic about Gertrude Bell, a British explorer who stepped over gender lines to pursue her research of the tribal people of the Middle East. You would think that in Herzog’s gifted hands that a film about stark landscapes, brassy explorers, and dangerous situations would rocket off the page, but here’s the conundrum Herzog fans face – his non-documentary output is muddled, often times bad. Queen of the Desert isn’t terrible, but it isn’t good – it rides that debilitating line of mediocrity where it doesn’t push any boundaries, but it isn’t bad enough for us to mock mercilessly. It is, just a film, one that skirts the tropes of “explorer” films, while trying to make a statement about the treatment of women in the British Empire. It bounces from one event to the next – and one man to the next (Gertrude Bell was quite the 19th century player) – each adding a bit to the lore of Gertrude Bell, and then, when her story ends, so does the movie. Nicole Kidman plays, well, what I believe to be Nicole Kidman – a strong, though icy woman, who perseveres no matter how many Scientologists she marries. There’s appearances by James Franco (whose acting merits get more and more questionable), Robert Pattinson and Damien Lewis – but none make a dent in the flowing sands of boredom that blow across every minute of this film. Herzog is prolific, but prolific means more chances to strikeout. This one goes in the strikeout column.

One Last Thing:

Herzog, you salty old director you, stick with the documentaries. That is all.

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Movie Breakdown: Power Rangers (Noah)

March 24, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

I grew up watching the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. I sat my 8-year old ass down on my bright red beanbag chair with a soda and a stack of cookies and watched 5 color-coded ninjas fight grown humans in rubber suits. Do I think it needs an edgy remake? No. But it’s 2017 and Hollywood’s grinding teeth need more unoriginal material to feed them.

Post-Screening Stance:

For those who didn’t grow up anytime between the early 90s and now, here’s a description of the (Mighty Morphin) Power Rangers: a group of 5 high-schoolers find magic stones that give them access to a rainbow’s worth of ninja outfits, as well as giant animal-themed robots which they use to fight Rita Repulsa and her army of rock monsters. If you are deciding whether you want to see this film or not based on a lingering worry that it might be “dumb”, then I have your answer: it is, by definition alone, dumb. That said, those keen minds in the bowels of Hollywood are trying to reintroduce these plucky Power Rangers (Red, Blue, Yellow, Black and Pink) to a new audience in a new era where kiddie ninjas and their lovable robot friends can’t be targeted at only 9-year olds. Thus, Power Rangers – by Dean Israelite – is the same general premise, shot through with a thick serum of contrast-y grit. A bunch of teenagers live in the small town of Angel Grove; they’ve all been in various kinds of trouble, all are burdened with the particular brand of malaise only a teenager can feel. Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) is the star quarterback of the football team struggling with his celebrity. He ends up in detention (there are strong shades of The Breakfast Club in this film) where he meets Billy (RJ Cyler), Kimberly (Naomi Scott) and Zack (Ludi Lin). Through a series of circumstances, all four, plus Trini (Becky G.) end up discovering the gemstones that make them Power Rangers under the guidance of Zordon (Bryan Cranston reprising his role) and Alpha 5 (voiced by Bill Hader). Training occurs, a bad guy (Rita Repulsa – Elizabeth Banks) is revealed, and the team must overcome their own weaknesses to learn how to be Power Rangers and kick some monster ass. If we’re rating this film on how well it has managed to do what it set out – to reintroduce the Rangers to a new generation, while staying true to the nostalgic yearning of the prior audience – Israelite’s film succeeds in spades. The director front ends the film with enough character development, lightly revealed exposition, and darkly tinged cinematography, that when someone inevitably yells, “It’s Morphin Time!” and turns into a spandex-clad warrior, it actually, kind of works. It isn’t easy to thread that needle, and applause should be had for the crew (actors included) on this, who are able to craft a movie that feels modern, edgy at times even, but doesn’t run away from the sillier aspects of the source material. There’s issues to be found – all the front-loading makes the CGI-clogged end battle feel rushed and Israelite has a tendency to just omit scenes instead of find a way to incorporate them – but hey, Israelite does the property right and in doing so, he cobbles together a flick that you don’t have to be embarrassed to tell anyone you’ve watched. And with so many shitty adaptations of, well, everything clogging the box offices, I’d call that a success.

One Last Thought:

The swollen river of superhero films have done some serious damage to non-superhero properties. By this I mean, now any film with anything slightly related to a superhero (color-coded ninjas fit the bill) just gets stuffed into the superhero sandbox. Power Rangers has the potential of being a truly weird, truly out there sort of property (and I do believe that Dean Israelite had hopes to make it even weirder), but instead the film ends up like a more colorful X-Men flick, the odd edges of it filed down so it fits in the proper, money making box.

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Movie Breakdown: Personal Shopper (Noah)

March 23, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

I’ve never seen an Olivier Assayas film, but the guy is a real art-house rock star in France and abroad and his first hangout sesh with K-Stew, Clouds of Sils-Maria was well received. This might be a film I can get into.

Post-Screening Stance:

I’m going to be very honest: I didn’t get Personal Shopper. You know, it just didn’t make sense to me. I understood what was going on in the movie, but I didn’t know why Olivier Assayas chose to have these things going on. Kristen Stewart plays Maureen, a personal shopper for a very famous, supposedly awful person named Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). She is also a medium, and a twin who has recently lost her twin brother. There’s two main story-lines: one, Maureen buys Kyra clothing and secretly, shamefully, tries that clothing on. And two, Maureen goes to a house that her dead twin brother Lewis once lived in and tries to find out if there’s still a ghost there. Eventually some form of stalker starts, well, stalking Maureen, and she kind of likes it and loathes it at the same time. All of this stuff comes together eventually, or all of it ends up in the same scenes and there’s some swelling music that I believe implied importance, but seriously, when the credits rolled, I had to go back and watch the ending over and over again, just to try and figure out what had happened, to see if I’d missed the telling moment that would wrap everything up in a nice subtextual ball. This movie wasn’t difficult to watch, but neither is staring at a comic book in a different language – it looks nice, but you don’t understand a damn thing.

One Last Thought:

Kristen Stewart has been riding this mumble train for a long time now. I wonder if she’ll ever move into an area of acting where’s she extremely excited all the time.

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Movie Breakdown: Kong: Skull Island (Noah)

March 10, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

Hey, as good as the promotional stuff has been for this movie, and as much as I love John Goodman and Brie Larsen, this is probably going to be an enormous CGI-filled creature feature bereft of character but ripe with a giant ape punching things.

Post-Screening Ramble:

I think Kong: Skull Island would be a better movie if you removed every human character, aside from John C. Reilly, and just left Kong, big ass ape that he is, punching shit for two hours. Jordan Vogt-Roberts has, basically, made a filler film, the movie that expands the new American Godzilla world, the film that lays the groundwork so Godzilla and King Kong can punch the hell out of each other in a future slew of films. Set in 1973 as the Vietnam War is coming to an end, Kong: Skull Island finds a group of soldiers – led by Samuel L. Jackson’s Colonel Kurtz-like Packard – joining with a team of crack-pot government scientists – lead by John Goodman’s Bill Randa – a photographer (Brie Larsen) and a military tracker (Tom Hiddleston) to explore an island that, no surprise here, has a 300 gazillion foot ape smashing around on it. There’s literally ten minutes of exposition and character development before the whole lot, and their helicopters, are knocked to the ground by Kong, and then almost a full movie’s worth of half of them trying to escape the island and the other half trying to revenge-kill Kong. To say the least, the story is simple and the characters are nothing more than names, professions and guns. These are the types of characters that halfway through, you’ll ask yourself, “Do I know any of these people’s names?” No, no you won’t. You will know that John C. Reilly somehow manages a career performance as Hank Marlow, a WWII fighter pilot stranded on the island for three decades. His soft, wrinkled face and greying clump of curls fills every frame he’s in with a sad humor and a purpose not afforded to any other character in the film. Vogt-Robert’s interpretation of King Kong is a beautifully deadly creation, all shaggy fur and doleful eyes. Every moment with him on screen – punching snakes, punching octopuses, punching “skullcrawlers” – is a joy. And sure, yes, sometimes a human character pops into the frame, kills some rabid death birds with a sword, before sliding out the other side to make room for more of Kong punching shit. You could say there’s some sort of allegory about Packard’s character clinging to war in peacetime, but if you’re actually thinking that when the credits roll you’re far better at deciphering subtext than this viewer. Instead, this is a Friday night creature-feature dolled up with 200 million dollars worth of very nice makeup. Draw a fingernail through the foundation though, and all you’ve got is thin air. See it on a huge screen, cheer when Kong punches shit, and try as hard as you can to remember anyone’s name. Then, stand up, throw away your popcorn bag, and leave the theater unburdened by a single lingering memory of this movie.

One Last Thing:

Kong: Skull Island doesn’t offer any exposition because it knows you don’t need it. You’ve seen the trailers, you know what you’re getting into, and if character backstories and a plot with any teeth is what you’re looking for, well, you’ve been watching the wrong promotional material.

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Movie Breakdown: Get Out (Noah)

February 24, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

Jordan Peele is a very, very funny guy. He’s also an enormous horror fan. Seeing what he can do with a racially-tinged horror film about a black guy going to meet his girlfriend’s white parents has been a delightful bit of anticipation.

Post-Screening Ramble:

For anybody, the ritual of going to meet your significant other’s parents for the first time is, well, panic inducing at best. How do you dress? What do you talk about? How can you come across as a good match for someone’s child without coming across as a faker just trying to hold the dogs at bay while you canoodle on the leather couch in the rec room? As my friend Arjun, a strapping Indian-American told me after seeing Get Out, “Going and meeting your white girlfriend’s parents for the first time is absolutely terrifying.” I can’t attest to this – I’m pasty – but Jordan Peele in his fantastic new film Get Out plays the tension of your initial-I’m-dating-your-daughter-meet-and-greet out with horrific results. But of course, Peele isn’t just using his deep understanding of classic horror films to tell the story of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) going to meet his beautiful, charming girlfriend Rose Armitage’s (Allison Williams) wealthy, white parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener in fine form). Oh no, this is a story about race my friends, about how acceptance and understanding can be used as a mask for our deeper set racism. How the smallest things we do, the things we say to make connections, can showcase our base level notions of people of color. It’s hard to talk about how well Peele plots this tight, fast moving little gem, because there’s secrets to be revealed, and I won’t be the one to do it. But know this: Peele knows his horror pacing, knows how to gently tug at your fear strings so everything normal seems just a little off. You cringe in this movie, a lot, at double-sided comments, the racism of the old, and terrors lying just off screen, but what really got me is how Get Out addresses the concept of the cycle of violence inherent in both horror movies and American society. A horror movie works like this: someone is killing people, people find out, people are scared, more people die, and then the only way to stop the killer doing the things that originally freaked you out is to, well, kill them. The horrified becomes the horror. American society isn’t that far off, with our guns and our right-to-carry laws, and the blood-soaked streets we lean closer and closer to. Peele gets this connection, sees that the horror films we love advocate this terrifying circle of gore (tongue-in-cheek one can hope). And when the film ends, and those left standing stagger down a street covered in blood, dead bodies trailing in their wake, you, me, anyone who even slightly understands this film, well, they’ll know, too. Jordan Peele, you’re a really funny guy, but hell, you’re an even better director.

One Last Thought:

This is going to be a great fucking year for horror.

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Movie Breakdown: Fist Fight (Noah)

February 16, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

It’s February, the doldrums of the movie season, and the studios are dumping their just palatable comedies on the masses. Oh, Fist Fight how laughless will you be?

Post-Screening Ramble:

There isn’t a lot to say about Ricky Keen’s toothless new comedy, Fist Fight. It is exactly the movie it is broadcast to be, the sort of bland, lower-tier comedian-packed film that bounces from one disconnected scene to another, weaving in a prescribed moral (“be yourself”) into the thinnest thread of storyline. It is, well, the definition of the modern studio comedy. Charlie Day plays Andy Campbell, a white-bread English teacher, lacking in spine, on the verge of losing his job to a lagging education system. His students don’t respect him, neither does his pregnant wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and their first child (Alexa Nisenon). Enter Strickland (Ice Cube in full Ice Cube mode) a daunting, serious-minded, confrontation-dependent history teacher who challenges Campbell to an after-school fight when, in an effort to save his job, he rats him out for using a fire axe to chop a student’s desk in half. The rest of the film follows Campbell as he goes through the various stages of denying the fight – escape, bribery, even training, learning how to be some version of stereotypical manhood in the process. It plays like a series of SNL skits tied together by the looming confrontation. Campbell bounces between the various teacher stereotypes – Tracy Morgan as well Tracy Morgan playing a gym teacher, Christina Hendricks (wasted here) as a psychotic French-teacher, Jillian Bell as a meth-smoking, lecherous guidance counselor – tetchy and nervous, his ability to engage in confrontation growing as his nerves fray. I’ll be frank: it ends as you think it will, a piece of fluff bobbing along the standard Hollywood comedy narrative, the viewer simply along to try and find humor in the exceedingly blah film. Day is fine, naturally nervous with just enough edge of crazy to make the character stand out, while Ice Cube is one note, a mean guy with a code of morals. But neither of these actors is able to milk more than a few chuckles out of a film that uses dick-jokes as an attempt to smoke screen the fact that it is the same plodding, humorless comedy we’ve all seen before. It isn’t painful to watch – a waste of time maybe – just a sleek, manufactured bit of generic comedy, low on content, but easy enough to digest and then forget.

One Last Thought:

C’mon, this is a film where a teacher chops a student’s desk in half and it’s played for comedy. You okay with that? Then, by all means, buy a ticket to Fist Fight.

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Movie Breakdown: The Great Wall (Noah)

February 16, 2017

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Pre-Screening Ramble:

Matt Damon as a pan-European soldier sidling up to The Great Wall of China to fight monsters with a bow and arrow? Well, I mean, in description it sounds good. Somehow though, I’m still doubtful.

Post-Screening Ramble:

In some alternate reality, there’s a five hour cut of this film that not only makes sense, but doesn’t feel as overly truncated as Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall does. It’s a film about a century old wall and the age old guardians that protect China and the world from the onslaught of toothy, death-beasts. It’s packed with characters and notions and cool weapons, all of them demanding screen time. There’s a loose love story and some sort of political message about the inadequacy of China’s bureaucracy. And there’s monsters, lots and lots of monsters and arrows and spears and bungie-jumping, spear-tossing women. It is the hastily sketched outline of an epic, roughly shoved into an adequate, crowd-pleasing two hours. It stars Matt Damon as William, a lifetime soldier with a bad Irish accent, who with the help of Tovar (Pedro Pascal), has journeyed deep into China to try and find ‘black powder.’ Instead they find The Great Wall of China and monsters, lots and lots of monsters. The film starts strong, Tovar and William an odd couple of armor wearing Indiana Jones, smooth-talking and glorious to behold in battle. But the weight of what director Zhang Yimou is trying to accomplish here – big, epic, history … with monsters! – drags the film down, forcing it into a harried clip that leaves characters and their stories bleeding on the edges. Yimou stuffs the film with enough off-the-wall weapons and well-executed fight scenes to pull you along, but at some point – probably when a legion of hot-air balloon soldiers float their way into battle, you realize the film’s spread too thin, and all aspects suffer because of it. That said, Yimou’s action sequences are breathless and fun, and the film wholeheartedly embraces it’s sort of Power Rangers-meet-Game of Thrones oddity. It’s hard not to enjoy it, especially when Damon and Pascal are slaughtering the beasts with thrown axes and perfectly shot arrows, but it doesn’t add to anything. The scope is wide, but the execution strained because of it. This is an epic only in description, with characters, story and history short-shifted in the name of Hollywood palatability.

One Last Thought:

Why was everyone up in arms about Matt Damon playing the lead in this film? If I was a Chinese film maker, marketing a film towards a Chinese audience (which this film clearly is) and I wanted to capture the essence of European colonialism in one hunky star, well hell, Matt Damon’s square head and Midwestern good looks would be the direction I went as well.

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Movie Breakdown: John Wick: Chapter 2 (Noah)

February 10, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

John Wick was a great little action movie: simple, brutal, beautifully choreographed, stretching its little arms just far enough to encapsulate a cool world of assassins and their rules. This is a sequel though, to an action movie, and well, I think we all know how those can go. Nonetheless, I’m tentatively excited.

Post-Screening Ramble:

John Wick: Chapter 2 isn’t just a great action movie – one rife with twists and turns and enough one-on-an-army action scenes to keep you sated to the inevitable third film in the series – but a reminder of what a great sequel looks like. Chad Stahleski’s second film in what we can all hope well be a long, long franchise isn’t terribly different from the first John Wick film. Keanu Reeves (the titular character), a retired assassin of some, um, note, is trying to stay retired, but for a variety of reasons he keeps getting dragged back in. Headshots, lots of them, occur; a lot of European thugs die; Keanu Reeves says little, but runs the action scenes like a professional. It doesn’t seem to spend a considerably larger amount of money, this sequel, nor does it expand the film to exotic new locales (I mean, Rome, but you know, seen it), but it does vastly exceed the first John Wick. The part of these films that I love is the world that the creators are building on the sides of the main story. This is a world of assassins and a world of their strange, strict rules. And as much as John Wick is the main character of this story, he is a small cog in a larger machine, and the movie acknowledges this, never thinking that in the overall world-building that John Wick is anything more than a very good assassin that everyone is scared of. It’s great, instead of Wick being the Chosen One, or looking to assassinate the king of the world or whatever, he’s just a guy, existing in the slowly expanding world of, uh, Assassin Town, trying to get his revenge. It works because Stahleski and his crew can slowly roll-out the new aspects of this fascinating world – Laurence Fishburne as a bum-king; an Italian Continental hotel; the presence of blood markers and divided factions ruled over by what I’m hoping are super-assassins. The focus is always on John Wick’s revenge, and the rest of the story unfolds as he progresses, shooting Euro-trash and taking names. As John Laird put it, “the film doesn’t get bigger than the first one, it gets wider,” ballooning out at the perfect pace to keep you interested in the shooting, while not losing track of the bigger picture. And when the film ends on a cliffhanger, it’s an earned one. There’s no silly bumper with a new character, no twist, no curveball – just a conclusion of this film’s story, with a hint of what’s to come looming in the foreground. John Wick: Chapter 3, I’m waiting for you.

One Last Thought:

This might be the worst acting Keanu Reeves has done in his life. Every line he utters (which is maybe 25 in total) feels like he’s just trying to remember what he’s supposed to say next. That said, Reeves has been a bad actor for so long that his unnatural delivery and inability to control his facial muscles is now not only part of the package, but a part of the characters he’s given. John Wick is perfect for him – an awkward, nearly mute man with a penchant for shooting people.

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Movie Breakdown: The Salesman (Noah)

February 3, 2017

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Pre-Screening Ramble:

The Salesman has been drawing a lot of attention for more than a few reasons. First, it’s the new film by the director of A Separation, an Iranian film that hit hard in America three to four years ago. Second, it’s nominated for Best Foreign Film at a little award show called the Oscars. And third, director Asghar Farhadi will not be able to attend the event because of a certain Muslim ban being pushed on the world by a certain Golden Haired Cheeto currently resting his feet in the Oval Office.

Post-Screening Ramble:

The Salesman is the type of film that makes me want to know more about a country, or a history, or a person, because my failure to understand the subject as well as I should, seems to leave me less awed by the movie. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has crafted a slow, naturalistic film about a couple – Rana and Emad Etesami (Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini) – who are starring in a community theater version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. When Rana is assaulted in their home, well, things, slowly start to fall apart. The Salesman, which I believe refers to either Miller’s titular character Willie Lohman or an elderly clothe salesman who shows up late in the film, is a film about what life gives us, what we do with it, and how our reactions ripple outwards to affect others. Rana and Emad at the beginning of the film are a seemingly happy, healthy, normal couple who lose their house and have to move into a hastily evacuated apartment owned by a friend and fellow actor. Then Rana is assaulted. And this is where my lack of understanding about Iranian culture seems to ding my enjoyment of the film, Emad, against Rana’s wishes, obsesses over who might’ve broken in, who might’ve hurt his wife, and starts searching for him. It’s interesting enough, the film unfolding one scene at a time, revealing its emotional core ever so slowly, but there’s interactions between the couple and the actors on the stage that seem important but I couldn’t fully grasp because aside from scary editorials I’ve read in The New York Times, I don’t know anything about Iranian gender politics. A lot of what I think was important to the story and to the power of the film, fell flat with me, because, well, I’m a dumb American. And without that knowledge, without the cultural awareness that I think makes this film standout from other films like it, well, it doesn’t. Worse off for me is that I couldn’t fully grasp what the connection to Miller’s play was. They show whole scenes throughout the film and though they worked as markers, or chapter heads, I never saw an enormous connection between the two. But again, maybe this is because I don’t know anything about the Iranian theater scene. It’s a good take on the sort of common story of revenge gone awry, with a dash more humanity and a drop more naturalism, but still fairly commonplace in the greater scheme of things. And as well acted as this film is, it doesn’t seem like a home run if I leave the theater wondering if maybe I just didn’t have enough pre-knowledge to really grab the film’s essence. A great film is great universally, and though this is a good one, it certainly isn’t great.

One Last Thought:

I watched The Salesman right after Nerurda (my review of that bold and strange film is here).  I wonder if I would have had a different experience with The Salesman had I viewed it before Nerurda?

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Movie Breakdown: Neruda (Noah)

February 3, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

Everyone’s been crowing about director Pablo Larrain’s Jackie Onassis bio-pic, Jackie. I’m not usually a fan of the bio-pic format – because no one’s life in whole is really all that interesting – but Larrain is supposed to be tweaking it in smart and enjoyable ways. So, a two hour film about poet master Pablo Neruda, uh, sure!

Post-Screening Ramble:

Pablo Larrain’s Neruda starts as a well-crafted and beautiful film about the political struggles of Chile under Fascist rule, with poet-senator Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) pushing back against the government forces with both his art and his voice. It’s a beautiful look at a sliver of Neruda’s life, filmed just slightly off-kilter to evoke an almost magical realist feel to the entire proceedings. But it is the film’s second half, the crux of the story, that really solidifies it as something different than your run of the mill biographical film. Neruda, under pressure from the Chilean government and a hard-talking detective looking to prove himself to his dead father (Gael Garcia Bernal), goes into hiding, bouncing from one location to another as the web of the Chilean government grows ever tighter. Garcia Bernal’s Oscar Peluchonneau becomes a hunter, tracking Neruda from town-to-town and finally into the snowy depths of Southern Chile as if he was a serial killer, instead of an artist-turned-political symbol. The hunter and the hunted slowly start to mirror each other, and Larrain, a truly brilliant director, introduces the concept that Neruda, an artist, as he continues to go to greater and greater extremes to evade capture isn’t just trying to escape, he’s writing the epic story of a poet-turned-activist. And through this, Peluchonneau becomes merely a supporting character in Neruda’s story, a conglomeration of tropes and platitudes that Neruda has used to give his own escape a sense of purpose and adventure. Larrain uses Peluchonneau as a source of noir-paranoia, a mirror for which the Neruda’s old-school masculinity – the women, oh the women – and his want to ride into the Andes on a horseback begins to look more and more set-up, the ravings and manipulations of an attention seeker on a grand scale. This is a deeply layered film, with each character representing not only some aspect of the other character, but of the idea of story and the idea of genre and how modern film has taken iconic, beloved characters and stretched them to the outer reaches of their own legends. This is a film about what it means to represent a country or an ideal and how as individuals we are both more and less than the ideas we strive to uphold. Though the film loses its footing amongst all the layers of theme for a bit near the end, Garcia Bernal’s oddball narration and sly delivery hold it together. There are not enough words to describe how impressive Luis Gnecco’s Neruda is, at once a powerful figure in the mold of classic manliness and a poetic soul, broken by its own fatal flaws. Gnecco never settles for one side of the spectrum though, instead he embodies a fully formed character, accurate or not, at all times, and it is a marvel to watch.

One Last Thought:

Why haven’t I seen Jackie yet?

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Movie Breakdown: Domain (Noah)

December 6, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

When you get at-home-screeners that you’ve never heard of before, it’s a toss-up. I will say that for the most part the at-home-screeners that fall into the sci-fi genre usually have a better chance of being okay.

Post-Screening Ramble:

There’s a real history of low-budget, high-quality science-fiction in the cinematic world. Films that manage to overstep their paltry financials to shine as both idea-heavy cinema and engaging stories with solid acting and decent enough cinematography. Science-fiction, and genre narratives in general, seem born to be produced on the cheap (putting aside the recent outburst of extremely costly, computer-graphic heavy films and television shows), and Nathaniel Atcheson’s Domain fits that bill. In the future, a horrible virus has wiped out much of the human population and the rest have been placed in singular rooms (to avoid the spread of disease) where they are allowed to communicate – via screen – with six other survivors. But, as you may well have guessed, things are not what they seem. The film’s characters, each named after their location when the virus hit, interact through the “social network” of Domain, a sort of seven-person democracy, and when they vote someone off the proverbial “island,” well, things go badly. The enjoyment of the film rests in the unveiling of what exactly is going on, and Atcheson pulls back the curtain just slowly enough that by the time all is revealed, we care enough about the characters to actually give a shit about their fates. And the reveal, not terrible, is marred by the fact that after six years (the length of time these characters are in Domain together) it would seem that very few secrets would exist between them. What Domain feels like, and this is a compliment, is a pretty good episode of Twilight Zone or better yet, Black Mirror. A cast of solid actors who help bring a world, briefly, to life, just enough to make a point, create some tension, and then move along.

One Last Thought:

I spent this entire film thinking that Sonja Sohn was Angela Bassett in makeup. Honestly, they’re uncannily similar in appearance and it sort of clouded my viewing of the film because I kept wondering, “how did they get Angela Bassett in this movie?” It’s not her though, uh uh, but hey, Sonja Sohn is good, too.

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Movie Breakdown: Moana (Noah)

November 23, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

At this point, with all the soft splits Disney’s animation division has endured, I’m a little confused as to who makes what and if those who are making it are the talented ones or the cheesy ones. But hey, The Rock is funny!

Post-Screening Stance:

Moana, directed by a handful of people, is a beautiful, at times psychedelic film shackled by the traditions of the Disney “princess movies.” The film follows Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), an aspiring chieftain whose wild thoughts about “going beyond the reef” are squelched time and time again by her overbearing father. But when the “darkness” comes, brought on by the demi-god Maui’s (Dwayne Johnson) stealing of super goddess/island Te Fiti’s heart, Moana must disobey her father’s strict rules and set out, like her people before her, to find Maui, return the stone, and fight a giant lava monster with nothing but a bobble-eyed chicken to protect her. It’s like if The Odyssey was told through the eyes of the Pacific-Islander’s pantheon of gods, monsters and realms. And when it hews close to the traditions of the Pacific-Island tribes, the film is, simply put, amazing. Moana, after discovering and convincing Maui (an unrepentant selfish trickster who’s only out for himself) to join her, journeys through the Pacific Ocean’s wonders, each stranger and more amazing than the last. They’re attacked by a group of coconut pirates with a ship that grows and shrinks through a series of pulleys. They enter the Realm of Monsters to steal an object of great importance from Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) – a giant crab who’s back is adorned with the treasures he’s stolen for himself. These aspects, and the solid pairing of Johnson and Cravalho, speak of a new step forward for classic Disney animation. One that’s unchained from the typical romanticized worlds Disney has been inhabiting for, well, nearly ever. Yet, the film never finds its way entirely outside of the boundaries of Disney’s hindering tropes. There is, of course, songs and though there a couple memorable ones (Tamatoa’s Shiny is a standout and I found myself tearing up anytime Moana started singing How Far I’ll Go), a lot of them, including Dwayne Johnson’s tone-deaf You’re Welcome, fall particularly flat. The opening song, an ensemble sing-along, is the most egregious, a sort of homage to Bonjour from Beauty and The Beast, but this time featuring smiling Pacific-Islanders crooning about how great their lives are, and how happy they are to work as a team. It clearly isn’t intended this way, but the simplification of the Pacific-Islanders society borders on stereotype, regardless of how well researched that stereotype is. But lame songs are not the film’s downfall, instead it’s the need to strike out on a path already well-trod by traditional Disney films. This is, very much so, the story we’ve seen in all of the famous Disney productions – a character must endure the trials of an enormous test while finding out just who she really is. It’s a classic yarn, sure, but Moana sticks so closely to the blueprint, that the odder, more enjoyable elements at play, get smothered. It almost feels like two films, as if Disney wanted to show the beautiful intricacies of Pacific-Islander culture, but only if it was bordered with the generic Disney structure pre-acknowledged to work well with an audience. The animation is stunning (the water work itself deserves awards) and – once again – in the more “out-there” scenes, which push what we’ve come to accept as a Disney film (the 2-D hybrid work on Tamatoa’s face is amazing). But it’s Moana where the animation fails. She looks, aside from a slightly wider nose and a light brown skin tone, like a white girl, but not just any white girl, one with creepy doll eyes that seem to move separately from the rest of facial musculature. It’s a creepy effect that sets a well-written, strong female character, somewhere along the line of CG American Girl dolls. The film is enjoyable though, an easily digested bit of animation that will make you laugh and ooh and ahh at the wonders of its design. But it’s almost a tease, as if Disney is striving to make change in its most cherished sandbox, but unable to let fully go yet. Keep at it Disney, you’re moving in the right direction.

One Last Thought:

Remember The Little Mermaid and King Triton and how he was just a total dick that smashed all Ariel’s pretty things and everyone was like, “Damn girl, underwater kings ain’t to be fucked with.” It seems like that sort of switch-first parenting has been expelled from Disney’s writing, as Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) is the authority figure you’ve come to expect, but without the fire and brimstone. He just wants his daughter to be safe. Welcome to 2016 everyone, nothing has changed at all.

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Movie Breakdown: Bleed For This (Noah)

November 18, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

I like boxing movies because as much as I enjoy the idea of the deadly and beautiful dance of two people hitting each other competitively, the real thing makes me squirm.

Post-Screening Ramble:

It’s hard to point a finger at why movies like Ben Younger’s Bleed For This don’t especially work. It’s a well cast – Miles Teller, Ciarin Hinds, Aaron Eckhart, etc. – well-filmed movie based on the slightly unbelievable story of Vinny “The Pazmanian Devil” Pazienza. Mr. Pazienza was a boxer in the 80s, whose career was fading before he jumped two weight classes (thanks to the help of former Tyson trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart). After winning a belt of some sort (for a competition based around two people hitting each other until one person falls down, boxing is mighty confusing), Pazienza ended up in a car accident with a broken neck and told that he wouldn’t box again. He refused to believe that and trained himself back into fighting shape. So, that’s the film, give or take. And, honestly, that’s a pretty robust, Oscar worthy story with a whole buttload of amazing actors fronting it. So why doesn’t it work? Part of it is, sadly, Teller, who puts on a good show but is miscast. Pazienza was a boxer in the fading twilight of his life, Teller looks like a Harvard freshmen who dropped English to hang out at the boxing gym. The performance itself is strong, but Teller’s looks downplay the experience the character needs. But at least Teller has a character, the rest of the assorted “team” with Pazienza are cardboard cut-outs – the drunken boxing coach, the overbearing dad, the religious mom, etc. – an though the actors do what they can to ensure that the characters live off the screen, they don’t have much to do except exist as sounding boards for Teller’s “sports quotes”, which there many. It’s a bigger problem than just Teller and the characters though, the film about a man with so much heart he wills himself to succeed has very little heart. Teller’s character, who clearly loves boxing, has nothing else in his life except for a parade of faceless women and his Rhode Island family, but there’s no real explanation of why. Sure, it’s the only thing he’s ever known, but again, why? Director Ben Younger never seeks to find out, instead making a well lit, paint-by-numbers boxing film with a brief detour into a story of recovery. It isn’t hard to digest as it looks great and again, the characters (especially Aaron Eckhart), are all well acted, it just doesn’t have much flavor.

One Last Thought:

Is it weird that the entire time I watched this film I thought, “Man, I bet these people voted for Trump.”

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Movie Breakdown: Christine (Noah)

November 11, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

I like Rebecca Hall. I like small stories about crazy events. I think I may like this movie.

Post-Screening Ramble:

The center of Antonio Campos’ film, Christine, is, of course, local Sarasota television news reporter Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall). In 1974, Chubbuck, in a downward spiral of depression and paranoia, shot herself live on air, implying that she was sticking to the station’s policy of “if it bleeds, it leads.” Campos’ film is a deep character study of a woman losing control, a slow burn of a film that takes place over two weeks, as the audience watches Chubbuck go from eccentric brain, to the maddening circles of her mental illness. Campos never pushes too hard to show Chubbuck’s slide off the grid, instead he sets a beautiful, period-specific-1970s stage, populates the cast with strong character actors and then throws Rebecca Hall front and center. And she absolutely owns it. This movie rests on the shoulders of Hall and though at times in her career she’s been typecast into films that ask for an awkward but attractive character (Chubbuck also fits this role), here we see the true range of Hall’s ability. Her Chubbuck isn’t stereotypically crazy, but instead a combination of tics and twitches and subtle mental breakdowns that pull her further and further down a hellish road in a vehicle made of her own twisted logic. Yes, Chubbuck was standing on the border of sanity, but her coping mechanisms – a hard, brassy shell – made her just about charming. Hall manages to imbue the character with this smart, hard-edged strength, but the vulnerability at the heart of the character gives the audience a front row seat to watch the cracks in the armor appear. A scene with Chubbuck and her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) in which Chubbuck harangues her mother for finding a new boyfriend before breaking down is especially touching. Chubbuck, an intelligent woman cut off at the knees by mental illness, was very much two-sided in her interactions with her mother, and Hall is able to showcase this – the toughness and the distancing falling away to reveal the broken child at the heart of the character. It is a chilling and amazing performance, the equivalent of watching a train derail in slo-motion. And though Hall’s performance makes the film, Campos’ selection of recognizable but not scene-stealing co-stars gives Hall the foundation to push off of. Her scenes with Michael C. Hall’s George (an anchor) are both sweet and awkward, but also telling of the heart of the story – there is a connection in our manners of coping. George reaches out to Chubbuck with a bizarre form of group therapy, because he worries about her, and as the film progresses each character, in their own way, shows their concern for Chubbuck, but Chubbuck can’t open herself up, she’s already too deep. And in the aftermath of Chubbuck’s suicide, as the small world of a local news station spins out of control, we see the crew’s own methods of coping – ranting, shock, ice cream – come to the fore, as if Campos is showing that deep down in our dark parts, we’re all a little crazy, and we all, to varying degrees of success, find our own ways of coping. Christine Chubbuck could not, and Campos’ telling of her story is small, poignant and beautiful.

One Last Thought:

I can’t imagine what the small market of Sarasota, Florida was put through to see Christine Chubbuck shoot herself on air. Absolutely nuts.

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Movie Breakdown: Doctor Strange (Noah)

November 3, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

It’s a Marvel movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a snooty doctor-turned-master-of-mysticism. Duh.

Post-Screening Ramble:

At this point in the 14-film cycle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you’re either in for the ride, or you’re trying to convince your friends that Suicide Squad is a good movie with a good story. That’s just how it is. Marvel Films, including this one, are molded by a committee of writers and producers to fit into a long plan, with each allowed a certain quota of artistic originality to separate them from the ever-growing pack. This makes sense to me because I’ve read Marvel Comic books for almost the entirety of my life, and well, that’s how comic books are. Each individual character is a part of a larger universe and as distinct as you want those characters to be, inevitably, their stories and their characters are servants of a grander picture. It’s just how it is. Doctor Strange is no different.

Benedict Cumberbatch (the latest in a long line of fucking fantastic actors who’ve slid into the Marvel sandbox) is Doctor Strange, a self-obsessed surgeon who must dive head-first into the world of mysticism when a car accident robs him of any functional use of his hands. He journeys to Nepal and meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her posse of masters, including Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a rule-following magical badass who takes Strange under his wing. Strange learns some lessons, cracks some jokes, and faces off against a rebel magician, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who’s fallen under the sway of a greater, of course, world-consuming villain. Though I won’t tell you (and don’t need to tell you) how it ends, if you’ve seen these movies before, you’ve probably got an idea.

So yeah, Doctor Strange under the direction of horror director Scott Derrickson, doesn’t sway terribly far from the Marvel Films canon we’ve seen before. This is a comic book origin story, it’s about taking a flaw in a powerful individual, overcoming that flaw, and then becoming the hero we always knew they were going to become. Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is like a less-rich Tony Stark, a man so confident in his own abilities, he doesn’t need to reach out for help. Until he does, which, conveniently, occurs near the end of the film, allowing him to overcome both his enemy(s) and his distancing personal issues. And Cumberbatch, with delightful cornball humor a plenty, dives into this role headfirst, running around like a British Tom Cruise, waving his arms frantically so CG-wizards can throw a few effects in – it’s great, and if the rest of Phase 4 flits around Doctor Strange, well, no one should be complaining. Beyond that, Derrickson takes the Marvel Universe into a new world of psychedelia. Strange is pulled through the “multiverse” on several occasions and the mind-warping 1986 Star Trek black hole effects are a delight to behold and are striking homages to the bizarre and wonderful world’s Doctor Strange’s creator Steve Ditko once drew into comic books. Also enjoyable, the clockwork turns of the Mirror Dimension, a convenient world directly touching ours that allows the masters to turn all of New York City (and beyond) into spiraling, twisting playgrounds pulled from the mind of MC Escher. It is, quite frankly, the most visually impressive of any Marvel film before it. Is it a challenging film that will rearrange the way you see cinema? No. Does it work as a new branch of the MCU, introducing a fantastic new addition to the world while slightly bumping the entirety of the over-arching story forward? Yes. And it does so with aplomb and vision and an ensemble of actors who throw themselves into what could be a truly silly film with just enough conviction to make it all work.

One Last Thought:

Dear 3D Glasses: fuck you. I spent a considerable amount of this movie removing my glasses so I could actually tell what in the world was going on. When I did, the realization was clear: though it was nice to see broken columns poking out of the screen, if Doctor Strange had been shown in paltry, mundane 2D, it would’ve been a much better, much more easily watched film. At what point will this fad, as it was and as it will always be, disappear?

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