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Movie Breakdown: Miss Sloane

December 5, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

Jessica Chastain takes on gun control in Miss Sloane!  Am I ready for this?  Probably not.  But I’m going in anyways.

Post-Screening Ramble:

If you’re into legal thrillers (Michael Clayton, The Firm, Pelican Brief, A Few Good Men, etc.), then you’re going to love Miss Sloane.  The titular character (a fiery and very in charge Jessica Chastain) is a lobbyist – seemingly the world’s best – and the film begins with her ditching her fancy (i.e. evil) firm for a boutique (i.e. morally pure) group in an attempt to pass a bill that will impose regulations on firearms.  From there a lot of sass is thrown around, unrealistic things happen repeatedly, and then the film ends in a way that would warrant at least one really nice high five from John Grisham himself.  It is undoubtedly a largely silly ride, one that often had me chuckling and rolling my eyes, but I did have a good time with the film.  Chastain is clearly having a blast in it, and I also appreciated the way that director John Madden (he made Shakespeare In Love way back) keeps things tense and occasionally twists the story just enough to make you think that all of your assumptions could in fact be very wrong.

Miss Sloane isn’t a great film and it certainly isn’t going to win any awards for realism, but it is entertaining.  Catch it if you’re in the mood for something with a legal thriller lean to it.

One Last Thought:

I think it’s time for Hollywood to rally up a Legal Cinematic Universe.  It would feature the world’s best lawyers and lobbyists and whatnot, and after a series of really wordy origin stories, there would then be a team-up film where they’d have to battle some sort of all-encompassing social injustice (like the band Twenty One Pilots).

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Movie Breakdown: Rules Don’t Apply

November 23, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

I didn’t even know this movie existed until I got an invite to a press screening for it.  How does that happen with a film that’s written and directed by Warren Beatty?  Anyhow, it looks like it could be a quirky good time, so I’m heading into it with at least mild expectations.

Post-Screening Ramble:

Rules Don’t Apply is one of those movies that’s made up of pretty people and they’re all clearly having a really good time just doing whatever and you keep watching and noticing that nothing really seems to be happening but everyone is so damn cute, charming and quirky that you just shrug your shoulders and keep your eyes glued to the screen.  Set in 1950s Hollywood, the film is centered around Howard Hughes.  I’m not entirely sure why – my best guess is that Warren Beatty just really wanted to portray him.  Anyhow, alongside Hughes there’s a slew of famous faces and then two kids with chunky parts – Lily Collins (as the super pretty Maria) and Alden Ehrenreich (as the super handsome Frank).  The former is a young lady hired to be in Howard Hughes’ actress stable (it’s never made quite clear exactly what he does with these women) and the latter is hired to be a driver (this part is made clear – he drives).  Because Howard Hughes is crazy, both young adults are explicitly told not to fall in love with each other … so of course they do exactly that.  There never seems to be any real point to their relationship though, and mostly the film ends up being driven by a weird vortex of screwbally madness between Howard Hughes, Maria and Frank.  And that’s it.  There’s no real point or any discernible message provided by the time the credits hit the screen.  Again, it’s just pretty people having a good time in a period film.  If you aren’t concerned with a real plot or some sort of meaning to everything, then my advice is that you check it out, because it is oddly entertaining.  If you want structure or a point though, then be sure to skip this one.

One Last Thought:

I like Alden Ehrenreich.  He legit seems like a good kid and in the films I’ve seen him in, he’s been entertaining.  With that being said, I’m nowhere near convinced that he’s going to be a good Han Solo.  Good luck to him, though.

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Movie Breakdown: Allied

November 23, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

The early word on Allied has been slightly negative (at least in my feeds), but I’m still looking forward to it.  Mostly because Robert Zemeckis, Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are a trio I’ll take any day of the week.

Post-Screening Ramble:

I really enjoyed Allied, but I can understand why it’s been registering as a miss for some.  The film moves pretty quick at first.  An operative named Max Vatan (a stoic Brad Pitt) arrives in North Africa, he immediately gets teamed up with a French Resistance fighter named Marianne Beausejour (an alluring Marion Cotillard), the two of them start going about working together to kill a Nazi official, and then bang, the action ends and the tone shifts.  I think this is where the film stops working for some.  That first act is brisk, kind of dangerous and the back and forth between Max and Marianne is palpable.  But then their mission ends and their relationship begins and director Robert Zemeckis really slows things down in order to let the viewer see just how deeply in love they are with each other.  Personally, I felt like this made the conclusion that much more suspenseful and touching, but if you dive in hoping for a thriller of a spy flick and instead get a love story (even if it contains a mystery that needs to be solved), I can see why you’d scoff and check out.

Allied may be a bit uneven, but I found it to be a nice love story with a solid twist.  See it.

One Last Thought:

There’s a part in Allied where that German fella with the glass boot in the basement scene in Inglorious Basterds shows up and tests Brad Pitt’s character to see if he is who he claims to be.  This made me wonder what it feels like to be typecast as a Nazi.  Like, does he tell people’s he’s “made it” in Hollywood?  Or no?

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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: Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

November 16, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

The magic is back!  While I’m slightly disappointed that this wasn’t all over the posters for the oddly named Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, I am excited to see it.  After all, every one of the 49 Harry Potter entries were on point, so there’s no reason to think that this spin-off won’t be, too.

Post-Screening Ramble:

Since no world building needs to be done for anything related to Harry Potter, David Yates’ Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them hits the ground running.  Newt Scamander (a quirky Eddie Redmayne) arrives in NYC and before he can even do anything touristy, he bumps into a few important people, a bit of magic happens and then bang, an adventure is underway.  Now, there are two storylines to be aware of here.  The first is Scamander and his gang’s quest to recover his lost creatures.  This makes up the majority of the film, and it’s an overwhelmingly charming and enchanting time.  All of the characters are lovable, the magic is fun and the creatures are wondrous.  You will adore every bit of it.  As for the other plot, it’s not particularly well executed.  This is where Percival Graves (a surprisingly one note Colin Farrell) comes into play.  Right from the start it’s obvious that he’s up to something, but his end-game isn’t ever fully explained and more often than not his scenes just feel jammed into the film.  He’s unnecessary (so much so in fact that he could be cut out and the overall story wouldn’t change) and the only real blemish on an otherwise great movie.  Can’t win them all, I suppose.

If you’ve ever enjoyed any part of any Harry Potter film, then go see Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them.  You won’t be disappointed.

One Last Thought:

I like Eddie Redmayne, I really do, but I have to admit that he totally weirds me out.  This is largely because every part of him (face, voice, gait, etc.) seems to be composed of strange tics.  It’s super weird, man.  Just saying.

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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: Arrival

November 9, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies, Sicario) is a great director, so even if Arrival was a romantic comedy with Ashton Kutcher and Kate Hudson as the leads, I’d still be down to watch it.  With that being said, I am thankful his latest film isn’t that and is instead what looks to be a super neat slice of sci fi.

Post-Screening Ramble:

If you’re hoping that Arrival is going to deliver some type of Independence Day-like spectacle, then it isn’t for you.  If, however, you’re hoping that Arrival is more of an artsy Contact, then get ready to have a smile slapped onto your face!

The film begins with … well, an arrival.  Aliens suddenly appear in large ships – 12 of them be exact – across the globe, and every now and again they open a door that allows humans to enter for a chat.  Naturally though, there’s a large language barrier that needs to be hurdled, so an expert linguist by the name of Louise Banks (an emotionally raw Amy Adams) is brought in to try and help decipher why these beings have parked their big ships all over the planet.  She’s joined by a physicist, Ian Donnelly (a charming Jeremy Renner), and a military fella, Colonel Weber (a stern Forest Whitaker).  Together they discover all sorts of things, and then some neat stuff happens.  I won’t note what neat stuff happens, as that would just spoil the film for you, so instead I’ll switch gears and focus on director Denis Villeneuve, who turns in masterful work on all fronts in Arrival.  His film is an intense ride, but less so because there’s a group of aliens who may or may not want to destroy the world and more so because it’s emotional and heady.  Expect to walk out with all kinds of feelings and thoughts racing through you.  Lastly, Arrival is visually stunning, and there’s a big part of me that wants to see it again simply just to marvel at what Villeneuve crafted for the big screen.  That guy is seriously good at his job.

Go see Arrival because it’s fantastic.  Just be sure you know going in that it’s more of a sci fi drama than an action flick.

One Last Thought:

For a good while now I’ve simply just appreciated the talented Amy Adams, but she’s been hardcore killing it these last few years and it’s totally time for me to become her biggest fan.  I am ready.

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Movie Breakdown: Doctor Strange

November 3, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

I’m admittedly feeling pretty ho-hum about Doctor Strange.  I like everyone involved and I’m fairly sure it’ll be fine, but at this stage in the game, the massive MCU-altering efforts (like this year’s stellar Captain America: Civil War) are far more interesting to me than an origin story … even if it is Strange’s.

Post-Screening Ramble:

Here’s the deal, I have a bone to pick with Doctor Strange (I’ll get to that later), but I did really like it.  Benedict Cumberbatch is great as the genius/mostly funny/enormously egotistical surgeon turned sorcerer, and he’ll undoubtedly fit in wonderfully with the rest of Marvel’s super bunch.  I also really dug Tilda Swinton as the peculiar Ancient One, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the goody two-shoes Mordo, and Mads Mikkelsen as the disillusioned Kaecilius.  Hell, I was even into B-movie action star Scott Adkins’s rando appearance as what IMDB describes as a “Strong Zealot”.  Then there’s director Scott Derrickson (Sinister), who with Doctor Strange has easily crafted Marvel’s most visually appealing film – a trippy, colorful, warped affair that will bend your brain.  The film – in all seriousness – is pretty damn good.

Here’s where the jaded side of me kicks in though.  SO?  Yeah, Doctor Strange is an entertaining flick, but it’s the 14th (FOURTEENTH!) entry into the MCU, and it’s difficult to not want to shrug my shoulders at another origin story with a couple of neat action sequences, a fluffy tone and a forgettable villain.  I’ve already seen this movie!  A lot!  And dammit, I want bigger and better.  Also – somehow someway – I’m nearing my “suspension of belief” limit.  For example, Strange gets trained by an order of powerful sorcerers who claim to protect the Earth from outside threats, and yet they were nowhere to be found when a MAGIC portal opened up in NYC and rained down aliens.  I mean, the wizards have a damn office there!  Come on!  It just doesn’t make much sense.  Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s starting to feel as though the MCU has gotten too big.  Nothing feels fresh or even 100% right because it’s all connected to years and years of others stories while also being cuffed by upcoming ones.  So hey Marvel, let’s just roll out Avengers: Infinity War already and rally up something new, yeah?

See Doctor Strange, of course, but maybe let me know if you’re starting to sense some of the aforementioned oddities.

One Last Thought:

Marvel clearly wants Strange to be the new Stark, but all throughout the film my brain kept lighting up with excitement over the eventual bevy of nicknames that the latter will sling at the former.  Not sure what that says about their plan.

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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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Movie Breakdown: We Are X (Noah)

October 27, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

To be honest, I thought X was a hardcore band and this was going to be another talking head doc about how they picked up their community and their lives by the bootstraps and soldiered on. It’s not.

Post-Screening Ramble:

Music documentaries remind me a little bit of badly made biographical films: they all have the same narrative. A band, any band really, starts small, gets huge, struggles with (insert: drugs, suicide, inter-band battles, etc.), but after years of non-band solitude, they come together for a emotional reunion show at (insert: Madison Square Gardens, their hometown bar, etc.). Yes, they have their own characters and their own special bumps along the road, but c’mon, band docs in the last five years have shored up on the beach of unoriginality. And, to be frank, while We Are X is well-made film, it never throws the shackles of its niche genre aside. We Are X documents the story of Japanese mega-metal rock band X Japan (they sound like a mixture of Pantera and Led Zeppelin with just a twinge of boy-band) as they, sigh, rise, fall and rise again. Director Stephen Kijak is good at what he does, the film, which follows drummer/pianist/all-around smooth-skinned musician Yoshiki, captures a) the enormity of this band and b) the curse of suicide and anguish that seems to plague them through their years shredding in front of screaming fans. This is a “metal” band (extremely loud and extremely soft, to paraphrase Yoshiki) but one that calls tens of millions of screaming, cosplayed out women as their fans. What Kijak does particularly well is allow us brief glimpses into the emotional terrain of Yoshiki, a pained musician, who regardless of how famous he gets can’t shake the agony of his past. And yes, of course, we get a plethora of talking heads from around the music world, who pontificate about just how good these guys are, just how important they are to music, as well as brief asides to highlight the pain these famed folks endured. But, Kijak never digs deep enough into what’s truly interesting about the film – first and foremost the idea that this enormous (they sell out huge arenas) band never really made a dent into American pop culture. Second, though a larger chunk of the movie is dedicated to vocalist Toshi’s time spent, well, brainwashed by a cult, Kijak never resolves it, never finds its meaning in the larger context of these musicians. Instead, he grabs on tight to the up-down-up structure of these kind of things and sort of lets the bigger, more interesting stories dead-end. We Are X is, as so many music documentaries are, an entertaining, well-made film, and yes, it focuses on a genre of music – Japanese Metal – that I at least knew nothing about previously. But, aside from the story of X, or at least the parts that fit into the overarching “music documentary” narrative, I still don’t know that much. And you know, from the glimpses We Are X allows, that’s a shame.

One Last Thought:

I’m not convinced X is a band I enjoy. They’re too, you know, hairy and glittery.

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Movie Breakdown: Moonlight

October 20, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

Moonlight has been blowing up the festival circuit and I haven’t come across a single bad review (or even a mediocre one, actually), so at at this point it’s difficult to not have unreasonably high expectations for the film.

Post-Screening Ramble:

Moonlight is as good as hyped, but it’s a tough one.  The film is divided into three sections – Chiron as a boy, Chiron as a teen and Chiron as an adult – and there isn’t a single a bit of it that’s easy to watch.  Chiron (played brilliantly by three actors – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) lives in the ghetto with his heroin-addicted mother who mostly leaves him to fend for himself, and he’s often picked on in school because he’s different (and poorer than everyone else).  Then when he’s a teen it’s more of the same, until he can’t take it anymore, so he acts out and winds up on an unfortunate path.  And when he’s an adult?  Well, he lands exactly where a person with his background is expected to land.  Here’s the best part about Moonlight though, the insight into the vicious cycle that many get caught in isn’t even what the film is truly about – it’s a love story, one with a more-forbidden-than-usual slant that will rip you up and serve as a stark reminder that legality means nothing when it comes to culture.  I found the film to be immensely powerful, and it will certainly end up in the top part of my list of the best films of 2016.  You should see it as soon as you can.

One Last Thought:

I’ve always liked Janelle Monae, but Moonlight made me dig her even more.  She’s so charming, pretty and overwhelmingly wonderful in it.  Here’s hoping her quality performance in the film lands her some other roles.

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Movie Breakdown: The Girl On The Train (Noah)

October 6, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

If this film can somehow elevate itself above the rote characterization of melodramatic, sex-crazed, over-weight women that author Paula Hawkins subscribed to in the original book, well, hey, this could be a movie.

Post-Screening Ramble:

I sat through most of The Girl On The Train thinking to myself, “something is glaringly sexist about this film.” And sure, Taylor Tate’s adaptation of the wildly-successful, book-club schlock The Girl On The Train purports to be about a wounded, abused woman finding agency in her own fucked-up life, but something about it feels voyeuristic, or creepy. The film – split into three separate, time-spanning storylines – follows Rachel (Emily Blunt), a divorced woman still smarting from her, uh, divorce; Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the prim wife of Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and Megan (Haley Bennett), the promiscuous nanny who ends up dead in a tunnel. At its heart, well, it’s a murder mystery, dragged through a puddle of martinis and placed on the able shoulders of Blunt’s Rachel, who must put aside her demons and resurrect her memories so she can figure out who offed the nanny. It’s a melodramatic potboiler, stepped up a notch because of the production value (high at most times, bordering on Lifetime Original at others) and again, the acting. These are big, meaty (if not stereotypical) roles for women, and each of the assorted trio bites off as much as they’re given and goes to town. Blunt is especially fantastic as a woman so far down on her life that she drinks vodka out of a sippy-cup-style water bottle and temporarily steals babies. She’s able to dredge the emotions this women is so adamantly trying to drown in alcohol. So yeah, it’s a filmic equivalent of a grocery store Tony Hellerman book, and it would’ve been a perfectly okay Tuesday night tipple, if not for that lingering feeling – was this movie sexist? Was it hiding a layer of unintentional misogyny under its ladies-getting-stronger surface? Yes, undoubtedly. Sure, this film is about the trappings of modern society – weddings, babies, social pressures – that unintentionally (we hope) crush women down into props for their husbands/lovers/whatever. But it’s also a gross acceptance of what we deem as normal in American society. Rachel wouldn’t be so down if she could just have a baby. And Anna, well, Anna is happily involved in a relationship, but someone keeps trying to mess with her baby! And Megan, oh Megan, she’s the whore-turned-madonna, a destitute girl who has, sigh, lost a child, and can now only feel the world through the intimate touch of a man. Megan’s storyline is the worst, as Tate crams it with sex scenes that at first show Megan’s reliance on sexual relationships, but eventually only serve to show that Hayley Bennett looks good in a shower. I like a melodramatic potboiler as much as the next person, but I’ll have mine without the side of sexist drivel.

One Last Thought:

Hayley Bennett could be a genetically modified clone of Jennifer Lawrence.

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Movie Breakdown: Equals (Noah)

October 1, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

Drake Doremus made Like, Crazy (RIP, Anton Yelchin) and it’s a fantastic film. Now he wants to make a sci-fi love story about a world where emotions are considered a sickness? Count me in.

Post-Screening Ramble:

Equals isn’t a film that every really pushes any new boundaries. It’s a modest film, a subdued film, at times even a little bit of a boring film. And though none of these adjectives seem to paint the picture of a movie someone might like, director Drake Doremus evokes this mood intentionally, and because of it, the film works. In the future, the world has blown itself up or something and humans now live in a walled off city and from birth are genetically altered so as to not emote. This means no love, no touching, no outbursts of anger, no itchy trigger fingers, just a bunch of very subtle, pretty boring people going about their clean, sterile lives. But, because every utopia needs a crack in the forcefield, a disease called SOS has started to flitter about the populace giving people back their, gasp, emotions. Silas (Nicholas Hoult) is another cog in the very peaceful, very well-fed machine who is suddenly marked as a Stage 1 SOS victim, meaning that, well, the kid is starting to have some emotions. Enter Kristen Stewart’s Nia, a “hider” whom seemingly triggers Silas’ disease and we’ve got a very subtle love story. Now again, part of this film revolves around the fact that these are people, for the most part, who’ve never experienced emotion. They are blank slates that move, blandly, through life, doing their assigned tasks, eating beautifully plated meals and sometimes watching rockets land on distant planets. Doremus, with his use of palette and the crazy architecture that his characters exist upon, nails this feeling. This is a world sapped of emotion. And the question that Doremus continues to ask is, “is a life without trouble, worth a life without emotion?” And as the audience watches Silas and Nia not only fall in love for the first time, but literally discover the concept of the emotion, it would be easy to quickly choose Team Emotion, but because Doremus is a good director he manages, with these beautifully timed, beautifully executed, very realistic twists, to challenge our expectations. Yes, emotion is good, but also, life is hard when it’s emotional. Hoult, who is quickly becoming a go-to actor for solid, masculine type roles, and Stewart, who may or may not actually have had her emotions removed for this role, are excellent in this film, both managing to create a sort of dampened chemistry between their characters that grows and builds and gets unruly in the way that newfound love, amongst the emotional barren or not, does. It isn’t the most challenging film (Doremus very adeptly plays with the genre conventions of a flawed utopia) but I don’t believe that it’s intended to be. It is a solid, if not minor, bit of science-fiction buoyed by excellent performance and the type of reserved visual flair we could only wish more movies had these days.

One Last Thought:

I’m so happy in that 2016, directors want to play in the genre sandbox. We’ve done family dramas for a million years. Now we can do family dramas set in underground bunkers with lazer-beam sharks and robotic ninjas. Maybe not better, but fun. Right?

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Movie Breakdown: Masterminds (Noah)

October 1, 2016

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Pre-Screening Stance:

‘Tis the season for mediocre ensemble comedies, and well, I think our first shabbily wrapped gift has been forced under the tree.

Post-Screening Ramble:

I always wondered if director Jared Hess would figure out how to write a story. You know his story: small-time director who made it huge with the insanely popular Napoleon Dynamite – less a movie, more a compilation of vignettes glued together with lard and charisma. What’s followed has been a career built, sometimes successfully, on a winning character wandering, sans narrative, through a series of loosely connected, sometimes funny scenes. I’ll be honest, I’ve lost track of Hess, and so when his name popped up in front of Masterminds on Wednesday night, I was curious: had Jared Hess finally added some story? The previews for the film seemed to imply so – based on a true story and filled with characters who might have growth and development – but they also implied that this is a film about a butchered armored truck heist and the morons who, hilariously do it. It’s not though, it’s twenty minutes of bank heist preparation, five minutes of, really, a pretty lame bank heist, and then almost an hour of random stuff happening to its sometimes entertaining characters. Zach Galifianakis plays David Ghant, a small-town nice guy who’s pulled into the armored car heist by his crush, Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig). A lot of the film is spent in Mexico. There’s an assassin, played by Jason Sudekis, who shares Ghant’s on-the-lam fake name. There’s a lot of almost tasteless jokes aimed at being poor and dumb. There is, yet another fantastic performance by Kate McKinnon as the granite-faced future wife of David Ghant. What there isn’t? Much of a plot. There’s an attempt, like Hess took a remedial narrative class and then wrote this script in crayon on the back of recycled paper, but as soon as the attempt at plots been exhausted, it’s just same old Hess, gluing funny shit together and hoping no one will notice it’s not a movie.

One Last Thought:

Is their a shared universe where all of Zach Galifianakis high-pitched, dullard Southerners live?

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