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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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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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