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Author Archives | Noah Sanders

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Movie Breakdown: Shot Caller (Noah)

August 17, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

The only thing I know about this film is that Jaime Lannister is in it. But I like Jaime Lannister, so, hey I guess I’m mildly excited.

Post-Screening Ramble:

Shot Caller, written and directed by Ric Roman Waugh, is the type of film that feels like an epic, but when its final credits roll (with swelling orchestral arrangements exploding behind them) you realize that you haven’t had your ass in a chair for all that long. You realize that the story of man giving up his moral compass to survive in prison hasn’t stretched for the length of an HBO mini-series, but instead it’s less than two hours. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays Money, a hedge fund manager turned violent convict who’s been released into the wild and is now navigating a dangerous path of double-crosses and gang-life. The film jumps back and forth in time and both timelines are heavy with plotting, so much so, that the film feels heavy, sodden down with the sheer act of trying to explain itself. The moments in the past – the transformation of the main character into Money – are the stronger points, and Coster-Waldau does an admirable job of sloughing his white collared character for the moral morass of prison gang life, but it’s not enough. Ric Roman Waugh clearly wants to make this every form of crime flick – cop drama, undercover cop drama, prison drama, gang drama, etc. – and the balancing act of doing it all drags the film down. There’s a lean, well-acted story of a man doing what he needs to do to not die in prison somewhere in here, but it’s so painfully bogged down by everything else that’s going on in the film, you’ll never be able to find it.

One Last Thought:

Jon Bernthal’s death in this film is a masterclass in coughing up blood and gibbering nonsense until your character kicks the bucket.

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Movie Breakdown: The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Noah)

August 17, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

I have been oddly amused by the trailers for The Hitman’s Bodyguard. It may be the cast – Samuel L. Jackson and Gary Oldman in Old European Villain Mode – or it may be that the trailer paints it as a sprightly, action-comedy. Or, it may be that my standards for film viewing have finally crumbled under the weight of modern Hollywood and that anything that isn’t VeggieTales seems pretty fucking great.

Post-Screening Ramble:

The Hitman’s Bodyguard can only be described as sub-par. It’s a loosely jumbled together, action-comedy that squanders some serious star power in favor of dick jokes and badly cut action sequences. The story is basically The Hangover but with assassins. Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is an elite security person who, after the brutal murder of his client, has fallen on hard times. When his ex-girlfriend (twist!) hires him to move a key witness, super assassin Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), things go wrong and the two old enemies have to try to find their way to Amsterdam, dodging (and killing) baddies all the way. It isn’t really a movie, but a structure that allows for the illusion of suspense and some riffing moments between the two leads. And you’d think that Reynolds and Jackson could drum up some chemistry, but they (like every other actor in the film) feel like they were paid to pretend to be an actor portraying an assassin. Even Gary Oldman (old reliable himself) isn’t given enough to justify his presence. He spends the majority of the film in a hotel room or a generic court until he doesn’t. That’s pretty much the condensed version of his storyline. Selma Hayek might fare the worst though. There’s a glimpse, early on in the film of tangible romance between her and her incarcerated assassin husband, but it’s quickly swept under the carpet in favor of loud screeching and unexplained meanness. Beyond that everything feels meta, and all of it feels fake and entirely unbelievable. Sure, Hughes stuffs as many action scenes in beautiful European locales as possible, but those don’t add anything. Hughes camera lingers too close, his cuts too quick, and what comes out are messy, sloppy bits of film. Sadly, even with Reynolds and Jackson trying EXTREMELY hard, there’s not much to laugh at here. Hughes has made an almost toneless film, mean spirited and crass but still reaching for some sort of emotional pay off, leaving his actors on the side of the road with their thumbs out.

One Last Thought:

Mediocrity can fucking stuff it. Give me great movies or movies that reach so high they just can’t touch the prize. This middling, action-comedy crap – that I’m fine without.

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Movie Breakdown: Wind River (Noah)

August 10, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

Taylor Sheridan – writer/director of Wind River – has been having a pretty good last few cinematic years. He wrote Sicario, one of 2015′s best movies. He wrote Hell or High Water, the best movie of 2016. And now for his directorial debut he’s tackling a murder mystery on an Indian Reservation with Jeremy Renner as an apex-predator hunter who has to find out what happened to a dead girl. To say I am excited is, well, an understatement of mammoth proportions.

Post-Screening Ramble:

Taylor Sheridan has pulled off quite the magic trick with Wind River. The film on the surface has all the juicy details of a strong murder/thriller/crime procedural. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a hunter for the Fish & Game Department in a desolate, weather-beaten small town. On the hunt for a family of mountain lions, he stumbles across the dead body of a girl, miles away from anything. Joined by reluctant FBI agent Jane Banner and an Indian Affairs officer named Ben (Graham Greene), the three must dig deep into the sad state of affairs that are the Native American reservations. As a murder mystery, the film works in spades. Sheridan drags the clues out slowly, pulling his characters deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of politics on the rez, always circling their prey. There are moments in the film – it is violent without apology, and all the better for it – that demand cheering and clapping, as if the audience is seated at a typical action flick and the baddies have just been kicked off a mountain by Sylvester Stallone. At the film’s heart though, is abject sadness. Sheridan does not shy away from the trauma wrought to Native American’s by the institution of reservations. This is a dirty, broken land with a strong people still, somewhat, trying to find purchase. Trying to find meaning, to rise above what’s been taken from them. Every step Lambert and Banner take finds them on another broken edge of the tribal life. Drugs, oil, families pulled apart simply by the destitution forced upon them – it’s not an easy film to watch. Jeremy Renner is a strange actor, one who doesn’t always fit his role particularly well, but here as Lambert, stony-eyed but brimming with emotion, he’s near perfect. A modern day cowboy barely conversational but clearly dangerous and clearly imbued with his own beliefs on right or wrong. Elizabeth Olsen continues her streak of excellence, her Banner an uninitiated newbie, learning as she stumbles along. Graham Greene’s portrayal of Ben is also great, a man without the resources to deal with the shitshow he’s been given. It deserves to be said again: Wind River is not an easy movie. As it shouldn’t be. Sheridan is facing down some of America’s big bad issues, and he doesn’t flinch, dragging the audience down into the grimmest parts of the great country of ours.

One Last Thought:

When does another Taylor Sheridan movie come out?

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Movie Breakdown: Spider-Man: Homecoming (Noah)

July 6, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

Spider-Man has been wallowing in the halls of Sony for years now. It isn’t that there hasn’t been good Spider-Man films (Sam Raimi’s are still classic, if not dated, flicks) but Andrew Garfield’s emo spin on the character did nothing for just about anyone. So, Marvel, comic book movie maestros that they are, picking up the reigns to one of their absolutely classic characters, is just about the most exciting thing I’ve heard in years.

Post-Screening Ramble:

We’ve all been waiting for a great Spider-Man film since Spider-Man 3 had Tobey Maguire dancing off against Topher Grace’s Venom. Sure, we sludged through Marc Webb’s duo of angsty mediocrity (sorry Andrew Garfield, you couldn’t do anything about it), the allure of a teenage superhero with the powers of a spider, and the mouth of a PG-13 stand-up comic slowly fading away. And then came Marvel with their indie film director (Jon Watts) and their British Peter Parker (Tom Holland, now, officially a fucking star) and their casting of Michael Keaton as The Vulture/Adrian Toomes. And, then, back to every kid’s favorite superhero, came a sense of excitement. And, you know, the excitement is entirely warranted. Jon Watts, and the humane machine that is Marvel, have made the first movie that manages to capture not only the mythos of Spider-Man for a modern age, but the spirit of a comic. This starts with the casting of Tom Holland as Peter Parker, an eternally boyish, comic patter spewing nerd-dork, who wants nothing more than to use his superpowers – speed, strength, stickiness – to fight baddies. Holland is perfect as Parker, all unrestrained glee balanced out by the emotional rollercoaster of, well, being a teenager. Watts and Marvel know that Spider-Man can’t be a dour Dark Knight, no no, he’s an eternal optimist, the smiling, one-liner spitting good guy who fights until he can fight no more. And instead of another rehash of the Spider-Man origin story (the whole tale of boy-being-bit-by-radioactive-spider is broken down in a two minute bit of dialogue) Watts turns this into a John Hughes film with web blasters and alien technology turned bad. If my greatest concerns about Marvel movies has always been their inability to craft worthy villains for their enjoyable heroes, it may be time to place them on the shelf. Michael Keaton (riding the wave of the New Era of Keaton) plays Adrian Toomes as a very bad man who does very bad things but for, as the viewer will come to learn, potentially good reasons. He’s the Keaton we love – grim, sardonic, the chisel-faced everyman turned to the wrong side – but Watts and company make damn sure he’s a capable threat. His Vulture – powered by a set of cyberpunk-meets-Top-Gun style wings – is a unrepentant badass, and when paired against the nascent superhero that is Spider-Man, you will worry over our wee little Peter Parker like only a doting Aunt May could. What works best is that Watts and Marvel aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel here. This is classic Spider-Man, surrounded by a lovable cast (Marisa Tomei is as charming here as she’s been in anything since My Cousin Vinny) – full of non-stop comic observations, and the sort of go-get-him attitude even the most devoted Spidey fans will connect to. This is the Spider-Man we’ve all been waiting for (and the Happy Hogan, and a little bit of Tony Stark, and some loose connections to MCU). Now we just have to wait for the next one.

One Last Thought:

I have comic book movie fatigue. Real bad. It took me a second to shake it off and really enjoy this film, to see past the fact that it’s even if it isn’t an origin story, it’s still a formula, still a good guy versus a bad guy with the lives of his friends and family at stake. But, put the fucking cynicism in the garbage bin, this flick is so enjoyable, so entertaining, being an asshole about it, is a waste of your goddamn time.

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Movie Breakdown: Baby Driver (Noah)

June 27, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

Even if The World’s End was (at the time) the Edgar Wright movie that I connected with the very least, he is still one of the great directors working today. And if he wants to make a movie about an iPod listening getaway driver trying to escape the crime game, well, then I’m there in a Santa Suit on opening day.

Post-Screening Ramble:

I think there’s a lot to be said about Edgar Wright’s first movie post his beloved Cornetto Trilogy. Where Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End were strictly British films (in style, content and cast), Baby Driver is Wright’s most American feeling film. There’s a sense of apple pie, American nostalgia that permeates the story of Baby (Ansel Elgort) – a tinnitus-affected music lover with some serious skill behind the wheel – and his want to quit the “crime team” and go live a life with Debora (Lily James), his diner-server lady friend. He’s pursued by baddies – some with hearts of gold, others with hearts of coal – and to save the damsel in distress he’s got to drive some cars and kick some ass. Wright does well to keep the film from feeling stale though, as he’s clearly seen every driving movie ever and with the use of Baby’s tinnitus as a plot device he has some room to zig and zag. But, if traditionalism bums you out, Baby Driver might not be your bag. This is a film about love and about good and evil and the grey murk that lies between (but only briefly before the cheer of this flick blasts that shit out of the water) and it’s about a kid with a hearing problem saving the day. It walks a line between corniness and homage that Wright maintains, but chunks of the film still come off as saccharine. Is it ever unenjoyable or lacking in intelligence or wit? Of course not, but this still feels like a palate cleanser – a quick, fun production that lets Wright play in the meta-action sandbox (though only a little) he loves so much, toy around with some new acting pals and get a movie into the theater. It lacks the emotional heft of Shaun of the Dead or The World’s End and the bizarreness of a Hot Fuzz or Scott Pilgrim. Instead it coasts along flatter, less interesting middle bits that lie between both. I’m hoping it’s the smoothing of the foundational cement so Wright can leap up and out into the weirdness. As of now though, it’s a nice stop-gap.

One Last Thought:

I watched The World’s End right after seeing this and what really stands out is the visual nature of it compared to Baby Driver. This film is sort of bland in terms of cinematography gusto and in the context of Wright’s other movies, well, it’s glaring. This could be because the film takes place in Atlanta, which seems to be a very large, very spread out REI superstore where people also live.

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Movie Breakdown: Wonder Woman (Noah)

May 31, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

This is the studio that made Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, not only one of the worst superhero films of all time, but two of the rare hours of my life I’d like back.

Post-Screening Stance:

Huzzah huzzah, a miracle hath occurred: DC, in its newest incarnation, has made a pretty good film. Sure, you and I both believed that the one-two shit punch of Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman implied that every film the studio would now release would be the cinematic equivalent of dragging your face on asphalt. Dark, moody, overly stuffed with characters and character introductions, these two films, and the directing of Zack Snyder set the tone for a possible future of the DC. Call Wonder Woman the course-correction. Patty Jenkins – the first female director of a major superhero film – has made a film that seems to align with the current values of DC comics – upbeat, fun, an adventure more than a deep dive into the darkness of being a superhero. And, for the most part, it works. Gal Gadot is physically a perfect choice for Diana, able to capture the godlike beauty of the character and handle the more action-oriented moments. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the sidekick in the film, has all the reserves of comedy and pathos a great sidekick is supposed to have, and he nearly steals the movie. Beyond all this, this is a female superhero finally getting her film and it’s well made and well acted and it has a narrative arc that goes from start to finish and for the most part makes sense. The action scenes are strong – lots of whip camera slo-mo as pioneered by DC uber-father Zack Snyder – and the film feels complete, its own story outside of the expanded universe. It is, to be brief, a good film. Is it the next coming of superhero films? No. It still spins its wheels in the mud of superhero burnout with a weak villain and some over-processed cheese. But, details aside, this is a cheer-worthy film (seriously the audience clapped more than any movie I’ve ever seen) and as silly as it’ll be in ten years that a female superhero was a big deal – it is. I sat next to two young women during the film and their genuine excitement when the credits rolled was kind of heartwarming. It’s not perfect, don’t think it is, but Wonder Woman, hell, it’s good and for DC, that’s saying a lot.

One Last Thing:

I don’t know if this implies that all DC films going forward are going to be good. This one was though, so take it while you can get it.

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Movie Breakdown: Snatched (Noah)

May 12, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

I like Amy Schumer, I really do. And Goldie Hawn? C’mon, is there anyone more likable? That said, this looks/feels a little bit like when Seth Rogan made Guilt Trip with Barbara Streisand after he blew up the world with Knocked Up. And by that, I mean forgettable.

Post-Screening Ramble:

So, even if Snatched was a fantastic movie, I think audiences are going to struggle with the fact that this is a straight comedy about women being kidnapped by grotesque stereotypes of Hispanic kidnappers. Let’s be frank: kidnapping, especially of women in foreign countries is a brutal act that usually involves physical, sexual and emotional violence that often times ends in death. There is, quite literally, nothing funny about it. That said, comedy is supposed to push boundaries to the very edge and if Schumer, director Jonathan Levine and Goldie Hawn had managed to make a film that somehow used this miserable set-up as a vehicle for solid gold laughs, that’d be one thing. They don’t though. Snatched is at worst, a pretty out-of-touch comedy about a mother and daughter (Hawn and Schumer respectably) who get kidnapped while on vacation. At best it’s a mediocre comedy with a few solid lines/scenes from Schumer surrounded by a jungle-like morass of a comedic black hole. The film seems to know it’s not very good, because it flies along with nary a stumble to develop any character outside the most rote of comedic stereotypes (Goldie Hawn is scared of doing stuff, Schumer is, well, Schumer, Ike Barinholtz is an agoraphobic nerd, etc.). It gets where it’s going with the most predictable of moves and then ends neatly wrapped in a boring little bow. And of course, on top of all this, any audience member with even a lick of empathy will have to struggle to watch the film without thinking of the hundreds and hundreds of women who are kidnapped, subjected to torture and then killed each and every year. This is a big misstep for all involved.

One Last Thought:

It sort of feels like Schumer’s on the downward trend right now. I think if she doesn’t develop/star in something great soon, we could see her career come to a short-lived end.

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Movie Breakdown: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (Noah)

May 4, 2017

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Pre-Screening Stance:

Well, I’ve sat through every other Marvel movie up to this point and for the most part (Thor, I’m looking at you) I’ve enjoyed them. And from that pile of spandex and superstars, Guardians of the Galaxy rises to very near the top. So, yes, I’d say I’m pretty excited.

Post-Screening Stance:

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 might be, in terms of using the palette of the comic book medium, my very, very favorite Marvel movie. James Gunn has taken his team of lovable losers – Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) – and thrust them into yet another eye-popping adventure with a surprisingly sentimental, if at times overly gooey, core. This time around after a mission gone horribly wrong, and in true sequel fashion, the group splits into teams, each pushed into a side adventure before slamming back together for an action-packed ending. You’ll hear a lot of critics (the magnificent John Laird himself, amongst them) saying this film is exactly the same as the first just with a bigger budget. To some degree, I’m with them. This is, again, the story of a bunch of jerks starting to realize that in the greater context of things, they’re actually pretty good people. Yeah sure, Gunn retreads some of the plot points from the first, and yeah, there hasn’t been a large amount of character growth between films, but, truth be told, I didn’t even notice. Instead, I was drawn into the visually spectacular world Gunn managed to sneak past Marvel studios. This isn’t a film constrained by focus groups, it’s a film that takes the world of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and Jim Starlin and just blasts it on to the screen. Every scene, every prop, every character is something to goggle at. This, unlike a lot of Marvel’s work, is a rich tapestry of ideas and because of the work done in the first film, Gunn doesn’t have to jam a lot of character development down your throat. Instead, we just get to spend two hours with a crew of rogues in a world pulled from one of the strangest minds in Hollywood. Beyond that, this film is rife with humor and genuine sadness. This is what crowd-pleasers used to look like: spectacles with heart. We’ve lost our way, but hey, maybe Guardians 2 is what will bring us back.

One More Thing:

Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has done a lot of good things, but it’s also created the concept that a film isn’t a film, it’s a vehicle for story/character development. I mean, yeah sure, every good film should have story and character development, but because of the multi-tiered nature of expanded universing, every movie has to move the characters into place for whatever comes next. Sometimes I just want to watch a good movie and not think how Peter Quill is going to fit into Infinity War.

One Other Thing:

You should watch FF8 before every movie. It’s so singularly disappointing in terms of movies and that franchise in general, that you’ll like Sandy Wexler if you pair it with FF8.

And Another Thing:

Drax steals the show in this film. Whomever thought Dave Bautista was funny enough to be in a movie, you deserve a pool shaped like James Gunn’s face.

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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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