Thursday, October 22, 2015


What was I complaining about in the last post...horror films? Well, in the middle of October, as Halloween is just around the corner...we still haven't gotten a true horror movie. Crimson Peak comes close, but director Guillermo del Toro has described it more as a Gothic romance, a very accurate description, though many times throughout the film I did find myself squirming and jumping from anticipation or jump cuts...both fairly effective.

Something a great director (an Eastwood, a Kubrick, a Spielberg) most have is a particular, identifiable style. In that sense, del Toro is on his way. I've seen his Blade II, Hellboy and Pan's Labryinth, all dripping with his signature macabre and creative style. Hellboy is the most accessible and enjoyable out of those three, while PL is the best in terms of story quality. The man's been attached to so many projects it's hard to keep count: he was so close to directing the Hobbit trilogy (that would've been an interesting alternative), a possible Pacific Rim sequel, a Pinocchio reboot...the man has a lot on his plate. So instead of all this rehashing I've just listed off, it's nice to see something that is so plainly del Toro. Alas, even though we get something that is totally in his wheelhouse, we're still missing a wheel or two.

With a representative quartet of some of the best working actors today: Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie "I Wish I Was Christian Grey" Hunnam and leading lady Mia Wasikowska, I watched the trailer of Crimson Peak with frightened high hopes. And everyone here is game. The former Alice in Wonderland plays Edith Cushing, a young writer haunted by the literal ghost of her deceased mother. While Hunnam's charming doctor is always nearby, Edith falls for Hiddleston's British aristocrat Thomas Sharpe, who, along with his questionable sister Lucille, whisk Edith away to their enormous, Poe-inspired mansion. Hijinks ensue.

I'm not even the most devout of horror fans (I was forbidden to see them as a child) and Peak's plot already felt a little recycled to me. On websites you can find del Toro rattling off his influences for the movie: but where does the line get blurred between inspiration and mimicking. His Pan's Labryinth is frequently called a fairy tale for adults. When has another movie ever been classified as such? Crimson Peak is still a horror movie, but its bread and butter come mostly from the romance between Edith and Sharpe, and the ramifications of their marriage. In his first mainstream movie role since creating the current king of Marvel villains, Hiddleston works his effortless likability into rooting for a rather mysterious character you're not sure whether to love or be cautious of. Though Chastain eats a lot of scenery here, its Wasikowska you come back to for your anchor. She has a timeless look, perfect for the period pieces she is often typecast in. Here her fragile features work exceedingly well, creating a feisty woman who falls in love because she can, not because she should.

The movie has been advertised perhaps too much as a jump out of your seat thriller. It's not. It's a slow burning Gothic drama, with ghosts thrown in for good measure. While they add atmosphere, I'm among the majority of critics that voice that they are not 100% necessary. So don't come to be spooked. Maybe even don't come for the cast. Come for del Toro, because even when the predictable story fails him in certain spots, his style certainly saves the film.

Rating: 2.5/4 stars

Saturday, October 10, 2015


Horror's been getting a bad rep nowadays. The only horror movie to top the box office last year (if you don't count Dumb and Dumber To) was Ouija. With than certified score of 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film benefited from having weak competition that Halloween weekend, though it incredulously beat out the excellent Nightcrawler the next week, which was far more superior in creeping you out, trust me, I've unfortunately seen both. But those are the cash-cows studios push these days: cheapo horror flicks that (primarily) teenagers flock to see to get a burst of adrenaline and nervousness (take a college midterm, it has a similar effect and it kills fewer brain cells). They have D-list acting and make as much sense as the people who actually assign power to ouija boards do.

So that's why, when the super-low-budget Australian horror flick The Babadook was widely lauded at the '14 Sundance Film Festival, you could imagine my surprise. A horror flick getting Boyhood reviews? Slowly but surely it cropped up on top ten lists everywhere, and there was talk of dark horse Oscar buzz for Essie Davis' performance. I'd been dying to see it, and in the spirit of the forthcoming Halloween I thought what better time than to review the little-seen Babadook?

Well one thing I certainly didn't expect this movie to be is effective birth control. I didn't know Plan B stood for "Babadook." Noah Wiseman, who plays the son to Amelia (Davis) is so ear-achingly annoying for the first good half of this movie, I had to keep reminding myself that this was likely director Jennifer Kent's intention. This is not likable little horror movie boy Hailey Joel Osmont: this is a wincingly relatable brat who whines and cries and squeals and wears your patience bone-thin until you're very much in Amelia's shoes. She's recovering from the death of her husband, killed doing  a noble effort seven years ago (this movie won't let you forget it). The banalities of her everyday, quotidian duties at a nursing home, combined with her son's increasing disobedience already paint a fairly effective horror story, even before Mister Babadook is given a moment of screen time.

So what separates The Babadook from a dirt cheap horror flick you could buy with three others on two DVDs for $6? The development of the pacing, the characters, and the eventual symbolism I had to smack myself after looking it up for not realizing what it symbolized. Essie Davis' Amelia does a lot in this movie, and her emotions run the gamut from annoyed, to content, to murderous. The talk of Oscar buzz was highly warranted. It also doesn't feel like a two million dollar movie, probably because a lot of shoddy CGI was foregone for more practical scares, and a focus on psychological horror. I would surely rank it with some Babadook tends to chug towards its climax. But if you want to add it to your collection of films that are a must-see every Halloween, it would not be out of place.
of the best horror to come out recent years, but perhaps not of all time. Even at a little over 90 minutes

Rating: 3/4 Babadooks

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Some films are simply critic proof. That is, no matter the reviews, some films audiences will just see because of the blockbuster urge, the completist sense of "Oh, I've seen these three movies in the franchise, gotta catch this sure to be classic fourth installment," or simply just a loyalty to the franchise (how else would you explain Die Hard 5 making a single cent?) can get these monster movies with uh, poor reviews to say the least, some solid cash. This seems to be the formula for the Transformers films, frequently cheap horror flicks, and, until Fantastic Four erupted into headlines as one of this year's biggest flops, the superhero genre.  That exception aside, some films just seem destined for big bucks, bad reviews or not. Franchises and event movies have eclipsed the modern movie star: except for Tom Cruise.

Headlines of controversial behavior have damaged careers of Mel Gibson, Lindsay Lohan, etc. With Cruise's, um, unique religious beliefs and erratic behavior, one might count him out of people taking him seriously. I mean, look at John Travolta. But with three Oscar nominations, three Golden Globes and now five Mission: Impossible movies under his belt, Cruise still has that million dollar smile and that exuberant energy we've come to know and love from him since Top Gun. Age is just a number (tell that to the women in Hollywood), and Cruise is still grabbing onto planes and ACTUALLY DOING THESE STUNTS HIMSELF at his current 53 years. There's been talk of whether that's egotistical or not, for me it's beyond impressive. I've watched all of the M:I movies, and you just have to shake your head and curse your own procrastination when you see what he pulls off. Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames are also returning, creating a very solid ensemble that features unforced chemistry and light bonding dialogue that keeps the espionage jargon increasingly bearable. The much discussed Rebecca Ferguson, who, no offense Tom, elevates the movie's sex appeal, is a great addition to the film, and amongst the ladies who tend to run on the dispensable side in this world, she'll be the golden standard for the 18 of these to come.

But that ability to churn out these movies, with, let's face it, not so engaging plots is the one thing that always prevents me from having the best time while watching this spy franchise. Give me a few minutes and I could probably recall the entire plot of each one of the installments of the Toy Story trilogy. Each episode had a new challenge, a colorful cast of returning and new characters, and a distinct plot. You could give me weeks and I wouldn't be able to recall any of the M:I plots. I could give you bullet points, like the oft-mocked rubber face reveal that they did to death in 2, the generic bad guy that lacks the visual appeal of a Bond villain, and the twisted, why-even-keep-up-with-it plots that make you go up to your brain and fiddle around 'til you find the off switch. Rogue Nation is no exception.

But what keeps us coming back to Bond and to Ethan Hunt is what new thing they bring to the table to top the previous installment. Even with its familiar tropes Rogue Nation does try to add a spin to its structure that doesn't go unnoticed. But one comes for the action, the explosions, the chases, the rubber face rip-offs, Hunt going from dead to chasing down the villain in ten seconds. And maybe we feel smart at the end if we kind of get where the plot was going, and the general gist of the espionage mayhem that ensues. Rogue Nation is Hollywood escapism that can never seem to hook the interest of a director for more than one installment, but as long as this revolving door still swings open, I'll still be there to watch Tom Cruise act like he's holding his breath for three minutes while carrying out spy...things. Sometimes spectacle trumps over substance, and for a movie this well put together, that's okay.

Rating: 3/4 stars

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Though this isn't as impressive because most handlers of a Tumblr account have likely achieved this as well, I'm very proud to say I've read nearly all of author John Green's work; I'm missing a short story he did for the compilation book "Let it Snow: Three Holiday Romances." Green's work, like I'm positive his countless YouTube projects, are compulsively enjoyable. He combines awkward teenage realism, highlighting hilarious situations that might be mundane otherwise, but in his hands come out swimmingly, with ultra cool characters the teenagers and other who read his work aspire to be. Maybe it's Hazel Grace Lancaster, brought to beautiful life by Shailene Woodley in last year's ultimate date movie The Fault in Our Stars. (I always sing the title to the tune of Coldplay's "A Sky Full of Stars" for some reason, and now that you've read this maybe you will, too.) Maybe it's the titular Alaska in "Looking for Alaska," an enigmatic vixen who might share a little DNA with our (pro? ant?)-agonist of Paper Towns: one Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Even though some of Green's main characters are typically straight white males (it's so nice seeing minorities getting a spotlight in mainstream media) they all have wonderful kinks and twists to them that prevent them from being the dreaded white bread hero that has no discernible talent or personality but seems to have countless friends and a will they/won't they love interest. That certainly isn't the case for Quentin "Q" Jacobson, a complex "loser" of sorts with two misfits as best (only?) friends, Radar (they don't explain it in the movie but he's called Radar because he vaguely resembles the character Radar from "M*A*S*H.") and Ben, who I had some problems with in the film that I'll get to later. Though Q does well academically, the life ahead of him is unsure. The only thing he knows for sure is that he has always been in love with neighbor Margo, the adventurous, spontaneous firecracker that brings him along for one amazing night...and then vanishes.

"This is gonna be the best night of your life" best summarizes the character of Margo, a truly great Green creation that might easily be the best things about the film.  Cara Delevingne might just be perfect casting, as Woodley was for Hazel Grace. Surely on the route to movie stardom after capturing social media adoration, Delevingne was quite perhaps a better Margo then the one I had in my head while reading "Paper Towns," which I still consider to be one of the funniest books I've ever read. An unexplainable "it" factor might be enough to sum it up, but that does an injustice to what she brought to the role. With those mischievous eyebrows, rebellion seems to coarse through her being, a smirk alone could cover either immense boredom or puckish flirtation. If TFIOS couldn't garner Academy attention, I'm not sure if any Green adaptation can, but in a perfect world Delevingne would be a contender.             

Nat Wolff, fresh off playing the eye-sick Isaac in TFIOS, which I didn't think he quite landed, brings a great case to see him lead more films as Q. Armed with an almost defeatist grin, like the fact that he knows all of these great things happening to him won't be for much longer, Wolff isn't afraid to let you see an uglier side of this character, which pops up in its final act. The character of Ben has polarized me a bit. While the intention may be to gross out the audience with some of what he says, Ben alternately isolated and pulled me in at various times of the movie: though that may speak to an unsteady character development by the writers or Austin Abrams, he did ultimately come out as the most relatable character in the film.

Radar had a line in the novel that made me laugh out loud for nearly a minute, and though his family still has that hilarious quirk that I'm glad was deemed fit to be in the film, he doesn't bring as much to me as what he did in the book. In some ways I was glad to see him as the movie's moral compass, a straightforward geek enjoying finally having a cute girlfriend, Angela, who thankfully was included more here because it develops Radar's character arch a little further. Halston Sage has a few solid scenes as Lacey, but the character more or less remains the same as she did from the novel: an unobtrusive inclusion in the quest of these young men. I would've liked to see her develop a little more.

The best part about Green's book, besides the frankness of his characters and their spurts of devil-may-care attitude, was its unpredictable nature. "Will he find Margo?" is a real question with a capital Q. What happens in the final act is still a solid enough mysttery to where I believe if I hadn't read and adored the novel I still would've found it a fresh and truthful ending. I'm resolute in my belief to not throw in casual spoilers, but I want to discuss the ending so badly, as it does indeed differ from the novel in certain respects. Box-office numbers and critical polarization may not make Paper Towns the follow-up Green screen adaptation TFIOS was, but it more than deserves to stand on its own two feet. Its depictions of teenage interaction are mostly genuine, its soundtrack alternative and optimistically youthful, as Green's characters nearly always prove to be. Fans and fresh faces will enjoy Paper Towns, a film where you alternately relate and sit admiringly at the screen, thinking that perhaps its not too late to have a best night of your life, even with someone or something so alluringly elusive.

Rating: 2.5/4 stars

Sunday, July 19, 2015


I hate to say it but the last time Pixar really delivered the magic to me as they usually do was half a decade ago! With two other friends, fresh out of middle school, I remember being relatively close to the front of the theater for Toy Story 3. When you're a millennial growing up in daycares, you've knowingly or unknowingly watched the Toy Story franchise alone at least 15 times a year. Maybe I couldn't rattle off the script verbatim like some can, but if you sit me down and ask me to explain the entire plot of the original to you, I think I could. That's how deeply ingrained Pixar and its cavalcade of wonderful films is in my blood, and although their last offering, the prequel Monsters University was cute, it nowhere near held a candle to the charm of the original, and even though this will date me I saw it in theaters when I was five.

We all know Cars 2 was clunky, and you either loved, hated or just weren't affected by Brave despite the typically lovely animation. I was in the latter, which makes my absolute love for their new venture Inside Out a delight to see Pixar returning to the breath of fresh air it was, even when it was on its third movie in a well-loved franchise. In a noteworthy Facebook post I scrolled through, it read something along the lines of "Pixar's Thought Process" and underneath said "What if toys had feelings?" and "What if bugs had feelings?" and "What if cars had feelings?" Rats, robots, the monsters under your bed, Pixar takes familiar notions we're all familar with and turns them on your head. For this film the post read "What if feelings had feelings?" I'm so glad they asked.

This is the film to beat for the rest of 2015 folks. It's that good. Pixar has harnessed the magic sometimes it forgets it has and completely makes you forget about its offerings that maybe haven't landed so well as a Toy Story. We're thrown into a world of literal imagination, where a bulk of the film simply takes place in one setting: the mind of pre-pubescent (or shall I say poo-bescent) Riley, your average American girl, if a little on the shier side. Then again, what is an average American girl, or an average girl for that matter? In their own magical way that fills even someone who hasn't even left his teens yet with nostalgia, Pixar shows the "mechanics" of how our minds work, with anthropomorphized emotions running the show. All five emotions bring such, well, JOY! to the picture, but especially Amy Poehler as Joy, really anchoring the movie and keeping the audience engaged.

Her cohorts are Fear, Disgust, Anger and Sadness, the maybe not so desirable emotions that filled and controlled all of us as we were growing up. In so pitch perfect casting it's kind of scary, Lewis Black (which if you've seen any politically-tinged stand-up of his is the epitome of profane anger) is perfect as mini-brick Anger, and Mindy Kaling, channeling Kelly from "The Office" so well as Disgust really makes you wish there was an Oscar for casting directors. There's so many wondrous, colorful and truly innovative decisions at play here I couldn't attempt to rattle them all off.  So I guess you'll just have to see it for yourself. Though it may not be as kid-friendly as say Nemo or The Incredibles, it certainly will speak right to the adults and teens in the audience. Don't be afraid to let it take you over with emotion.

Rating: 4/4 stars

Monday, July 13, 2015


Movies rarely hit as close to home as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl did for me. This summer alone I'll have written three movies for the tiny "production company" my friends and I have been building and working on for years. Though we don't put in the almost Pixar-worthy effort characters Greg and Earl seem to, employing stop-motion animation and Star Wars-esque miniatures to get the job done, I certainly relate to the passion they put into their parodies, such as 2:48 Cowboy instead of Midnight Cowboy.

Book to film adaptations always get nerds nervous, unless you're Shrek, Lord of the Rings or To Kill a Mockingbird, but that's a short list. It's great when young adult authors can make the jump from page to silver screen themselves, as Stephen Chbosky did, directing/adapting his Perks of Being a Wallflower to huge success three years ago. Jesse Andrews was able to adapt his novel, and it's been reported he and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon were close. While that movie because I was still in the midst of fighting my everyday high school tribulations, this film hits me even harder because of the character's struggle with getting into college, losing friends and navigating social circles. Post high school life is chock full of all three. I'll have to say, when 2055 and I'll be middle-aged, I'll watch movies like MEDG and laugh nostalgically, knowing a lot of that is behind me.

But I've never had it as hard as Greg. Instead of being the social outcast, in a very cleverly done voice over device (which one may resent later on in the film, but no spoilers!) the movie opens with Greg narrating his survival tactic of camouflaging himself into all cliques...unless you're a popular pretty girl. Then Greg's a modest mouse, waiting to get stomped on by a moose, which the movie visually demonstrates wonderfully. He doesn't even consider his closest friend a friend: Earl Jackson, who I wish the movie would've devoted more time to. Greg's turmoil and the chronicling of his new friend Rachel's cancer struggle is what the movie mostly consists of, but with a blunt, placid friend like Earl I'd love to see how he got to be like that and maybe his struggles.

That aside, along with the lovely Katherine C. Hughes as popular, pretty moose Madison, (who finally brings something new to the cute girl out of the nerdy guy's reach by the way), Greg begins to find out who he is, and what path he decides to take. I don't need to read the book to know Andrews didn't reinvent the wheel with MEDG. You don't have to in a genre picture. Just bring something fresh. And freshness is brought. Along with some great camerawork from Chung-hoon Chung that gives the high school scenes an alive, visceral feel, the three leads and most of the supporting cast come ready to deliver. Thomas Mann is a refreshing addition to the aforementioned nerdy guy archetype, R.J. Cyler debuts strongly as Greg's compatriot Earl, and Olivia Cooke perhaps brings the most nuanced performance of the film as titular Dying Girl Rachel.

Cancer "sucks," as Greg says when his mother (Connie Britton) delivers the news. That statement is the approach of the movie, never letting things dip into sentimentality; it's too self-aware. Let's all be honest: this movie likely was green-lit after The Fault in Our Stars proved a hit, but in a way MEDG is the anti-TFIOS. Not that's horrible, but in the sense that it refuses to let the subject matter overwhelm the story at hand of two teenagers coming of age in vastly different circumstances. And I have to say it even tops the John Green-inspired script of TFIOS  in terms of comedy: this movie is hilarious, and I don't bring out the H-word for just any comedy. The post-history teacher-soup scene with Greg and Earl rivals the acid trip Schmidt and Jenko take in 21 Jump Street. Come to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl to laugh, to cry, and maybe be a little frustrated at times. But if any f-word summed up high school and the journeys we all have to take to become ourselves, it's frustrating.

Rating: 3/4 stars

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Being out of school doesn't always mean you're free of homework. When it was announced that the fourth installment of the Jurassic Park franchise was coming out, I knew everybody would be talking about it. And when I realized that America's (current) favorite movie star Chris Pratt would be in the lead, I knew I'd have to see it. I had previously watched the original Spielberg, Oscar-winning classic at the age of 14, unfortunately a little too old to be completely captivated by it, like if I'd have watched it when I was an impressionable 8 or 9. I was still impressed with the astonishing special effects, something the 90s wasn't always known for. But I am no fool, and for five years had heard how the sequels left...well, a little to be desired. In short: The Lost World is overlong with too much Goldblum (I know, but it's possible), story and Julianne Moore talking a mile a minute. JPIII was a very enjoyable, short ride, but its characters were silly and it didn't aspire to much. Homework completed. I'd say respectively a C and a B- to the sequels.

So how does Jurassic World make the grade? You have to up the ante. This is the vision Richard Attenborough's (RIP) John Hammond had in the original: a beautifully envisioned park where resurrected dinosaurs can roam free while humans interact. Cue every sitcom cliche ever saying: what could possibly go wrong? Even with the gorgeous Bryce Dallas Howard's futuristic haircut and Chris Pratt's pecs, there's somehow still margin for error.  Claire (Howard), the director of Jurassic World, invites her nephews (both stock characters you do end up rooting for in the end) to her theme park. The boys' parents are (apparently, because not much is shown to back it up) are in the midst of a divorce, and super smart Gray and super teen-angst Zach come to enjoy their aunt's invitation. We also meet Owen Grady, a velociraptor trainer whose running into problems with Progress (yes a capital P because isn't progress and change always the villain in movies?) in the form of Vincent D'Onofrio's Hoskins.

So was Jurassic World's highest box-office opening of all time warranted? (Also I feel bad for them because that reign will end as soon as The Force Awakens opens in December). I would say so, because it fits that definitive blockbuster mold Spielberg himself helped create with Jaws. While, like I say, I had minor problems throughout, the characters are a little stock, though Chris Pratt could play a variation of Star-Lord and I don't think I'll ever get bored with him. But the movie itself is an amusement ride: don't think too much about it, you're in it with tons of people, and there's massive spectacle to behold. The special effects are stupendous, and when that original John Williams JP score kicks in movie lovers and fans of the original will find their nirvana. While it does take a little while to get things moving, that's just because they have so much to establish since we haven't visited this franchise in over a decade. Colin Trevorrow, whose Safety Not Guarunteed I enjoyed as a little indie gem, and I'm sure his massive team behind him finds a balance of human drama and fantastical dinosaur wonder. In other words, unlike John Hammond, he can make dinos and humans mix just fine. You'll like this ride.

Rating: 2.5/4 stars