Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Coco: A Wonderful Film For Everyone... But Make Sure To Show Up 20 Minutes Late


Normally I begin my reviews with some amusing anecdote about one of the writers of the film or something correlating with the genre of film or how I feel about these types of films in general... in the case of Coco I'm going to forego this in favor of a stern lecture. Instead of writing about how Pixar is the best in family entertainment (because this is obvious... seriously, if you can't tell the difference between the quality of a movie like Inside Out to the quality of a movie like The Boss Baby, then you need to stop going to movies), I am going to take a second to talk to the parents out there... or the soon-to-be-parents, or people, in general, who may, one day, be in a theater with a child. TELL YOUR KIDS TO SHUT THE HELL UP. Look, I get it. Kids don't understand social etiquette. They get to yell and scream and sing along and jump and dance and puke all over themselves when they watch movies at home. Train your kids to leave this shit in the living room and keep quiet at the movies. I know this is an impossible task. And I'm not asking for perfection. Keeping a child still in a theater seat for 90+ minutes is no easy feat. They're going to get excited and they're going to want to lend their kids-say-the-darndest-things commentary to the film... if it happens every once in awhile... it's endearing. When they do it throughout the entire goddamn movie... it literally ruins the movie experience for EVERYONE else. Not just the people around them. If your kid gets a little loud, a courtesy "hey Joshua, be quiet, buddy" is perfectly acceptable. Letting your kid provide a spectator's commentary, using their outside-voice is NOT. If you know that this is your kid-- don't bring them to a movie. A theater experience isn't cheap anymore and it makes that ticket even less worthwhile when some shitty little four year old (who doesn't know any better) isn't getting any guidance (*cough* discipline) from his grown-ass should-seriously-know-better adult parents. If you can't keep your kid mostly quiet and respectful for the movie... please... leave them at home so you don't ruin the experience for the rest of us. 

And now back to our regularly scheduled program. 

Coco is a wonderful film. It's a film that when it's over (and you're done bawling your eyes out), makes you realize how good Pixar is when they're making original material and not sequels. I get it. They're a business like any production company and you want that money rolling in, but here's the thing. You don't actually have to pull the sequel routine like most production companies. The Pixar brand name alone will put many, many asses in seats. You don't have to give us THREE CARS MOVIES if you can keep giving us movies like Up and Inside Out and now Coco. The film takes place in Mexico on Dia de Muertos. Little Manuel dreams of being a musician like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz. However, due to a little family drama from his past involving a musician great grand-father abandoning his family in favor of seeking a musical dream... his family has completely outlawed any music. Manuel sneaks out of his house to participate in a musical talent contest during a Dia de Muertos festival, sneaks into the masoleum of de la Cruz to steal his guitar and is somehow transported to the Land of the Dead. He must now locate his dead ancestors to help him get back to the Land of the Living before sunrise or he will remain on "the other side" forever. 

Now, for anyone who has actually seen the movie, I've totally bastardized the plot summary here. Yes, I realize this. However, I did do intentionally because the less someone knows about the movie going into it-- the better. I'd only seen one preview for the movie and I assumed, like many others, it was about a kid who died, was dealing with this fact in the Land of the Dead alongside his quirky, yet also dead, dog pal. This was thankfully not the case (my significant other cannot handle dog death in films... as many of you DECENT HUMAN BEINGS can't either-- am I using the caps lock too often in this review? Also, no dogs die in this movie. I feel like this is a necessary disclaimer). What emerges from the film, however, is a perfect and poignant look at life, death, family and tradition. It's told very maturely (like most Pixar films) that magically ostracizes neither child nor adult. What we get is the Pixar staple - an adventure involving some dark-ish themes through the eyes of an innocent. 

I loved every second of Coco. I loved the vibrant colors. I loved the characters. I loved the animation and the music and the exploration into a culture different from my own. The movie doesn't just use Mexico and Mexican culture as a backdrop to a story in order to fit the whole Day-of-the-Dead narrative, it's a love letter to Mexico and its people and its traditions and its art and its music and its culture. And, holy crap you guys, they didn't cast a bunch of white actors doing their best Mexican accents! What I also loved too is that Coco doesn't stick to the typical story structure of film. There isn't a big main antagonist. Everything isn't going wrong one minute after the next. Good things happen to our hero. Supporting characters do want to help him get back. Through most of the film, Manuel's worst enemy is himself. Yes, there is a lot of conflict and moments of tension, but it's weaved through a fun story that gives us more moments of joy than fear. And the case of this film, it really works. 

The other thing you're probably wondering (or just assume if you're well versed in Pixar) is just how much ugly crying is going to happen to you-- my guess is a decent amount. But, like most Pixar fare, it's not a sad cry. It's a happy cry. It's an endearing cry. Pixar has this unique and magical quality of being able to tell a fun and unique storyline, but one that every viewer can relate to themselves and their own lives somehow. You're not crying at the story, you're crying with the story. And they're not tears of sadness, they're tears of everything. Coco is the movie you should be watching with your entire family. It's legitimately the perfect film to see on or around Thanksgiving (that actually has nothing to do with the holiday of Thanksgiving -- that honor goes to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles) because Coco, at its core, is about family. As much as I seriously urge all of you out there to go seek out Three Billboards of Ebbing, Missouri... if you want to catch a quick film with your entire family who has begrudgingly come out to eat massive quantities of food with you, then Coco is the perfect choice. I have no complaints about this movie one bit. 

I do however, have a bone to pick with Pixar. One of the best things about catching a Pixar flick in theaters is that you're also going to get the animated short before the movie. Pixar is notorious, not just for the high quality of their feature films, but for the phenomenal shorts they tack on in front of the films. This time, though... don't expect this. What you get this time is a heinously long (21 minutes) Frozen short called Olaf's Frozen Adventure. It's annoyingly bad. I liked Frozen, but by minute two of this short film I was painfully waiting for it to be over. It sticks to Coco like a sore thumb. Here's a movie, that rare movie that explores the traditions of Mexican culture and art... and you got a bunch of white people from a very white-people movie singing for 21 minutes before the film you've paid to see starts. When the film premiered in Mexico, moviegoers were so upset (and rightfully so) at the short, that a lot of major theater chains had to stop showing it. Pixar shat the bed hard with that one. Coco wasn't the movie to attach this episode of Frozen: Elsa's Emo-ness Continues to. They had to have tried to fit at least ten different songs into this "short" (as it felt feature film length by the end). Kids familiar with Forozen will probably love it... you'll drift off trying to imagine all of the ways you could kill yourself using only your Buncha Crunch box. Coco was fantastic... Frozen 2.0 was garbage.

A

Monday, November 20, 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Brilliant, Hopeful, Cynicism


My rule for being able to declare a director as one of my all-time "favorites" is-- three films. Three is the perfect number to decide whether or not a director has the chops or not. Three brilliant films is no easy feat either. Steven Spielberg is widely known as one of the greatest directors of all time, but look at his filmography for the last thirteen years (The BFG, Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, War Horse, The Adventures of Tintin, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Munich, War of the Worlds, The Terminal). There aren't even three great movies among them. But he IS one of the greatest of all time because he's made at least three iconic, brilliant films in his career. One of my favorite directors is Edgar Wright. I could tell you that this is based solely on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but two movies isn't a big enough sample size. After these two films came Scott Pilgrim, which was decent... not great. However, after The World's End, and this year's Baby Driver, I am able to say that Wright has made three great movies and can fit nicely on my list. A director I'm sure most of you aren't familiar with by name, Martin McDonagh, has been encroaching that "favorite director" label of mine for awhile now, but only had two movies to his name: In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. I was just waiting for that third movie so that I can share with the world the brilliance of this man. Thankfully, not only is his latest film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a great film, it's probably his best film to date.

McDonagh, who also writes all of his own original films, is like the long-lost British Coen brother. He's bending genres as well as, if not better than Joel and Ethan do. All three of his films have been the perfect balance of drama/action and comedy. His movies feature in depth looks at some very uncomfortable and serious themes, yet he's able to keep us laughing all the way through. In Bruges was about a hitman struggling to deal with the fact that his first hit went wrong because he accidentally killed a kid. He's depressed, even to the point of suicidal-- and yet, it's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. Seven Psychopaths deals with actual psychotic killers, race issues, over-the-top bloody violence, and yet... had a hilarious charm to it as well. Three Billboards is no different. It may be McDonagh's most "serious" movie to date, but it's still very funny (and smart, and poignant, and heartfelt, etc.) all the way through to the end.

The brilliant, wonderful, and incredibly talented Frances McDormand plays Mildred. She lives in a house just outside of Ebbing, Missouri, next to three worn-down billboards that haven't been used for advertising in decades. She decides to purchase the three billboards in order to call out the local law enforcement for the standstill of solving her daughter's rape and murder. She names Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) personally on the billboard, which causes a stir within the community, the local news outlet, and Willoughby's deputy- Dixon (Sam Rockwell). While the entire town begins to wage war against Mildred (even though they "understand what she's going through"), she remains steadfast and unyielding, accepting the fact that any press is good press. Amid her story, we get insight into the rest of the very flawed characters of Ebbing. Mildred's abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes) who is shacked up with his new 19-year-old girlfriend. Mildred's son (Manchester By The Sea's Lucas Hedges) still dealing with the loss of his sister, and now his newfound (unwanted) attention gained from his mother's billboards. Dixon's sad existence of inner anguish that comes out as moments of irrational violence-- stemming from the fact that's he's a drunk who still lives with his mother. And finally, Chief Willoughby's attempts to calm down Mildred, track down her daughter's killer, and maintain a normal life in the midst of his own battle with cancer.

Now, I realize that none of this sounds all that humorous. The situations themselves are quite heartbreaking, but the depth and quirkiness of the characters bring out the humor amid the dark. McDonagh is such an ingenious writer that he's able to give us these unhappy, flawed characters and showcase their humanity. Mildred, especially, is a broken woman who's only holding it together through sheer anger and hard-headedness. She doesn't let anyone give her any shit, and acts out of pure instinct, but that doesn't mean her instinct isn't calculated. He random outbursts of violent revenge (like drilling a small hole in the thumb of an ornery dentist, or kicking a couple of dickhead high schoolers in the crotch) are never acted upon without full awareness of the consequences she may face. Willoughby is just as hard-nosed as Mildred, which is why they butt heads so often, but have respect for one another. Dixon is an irritable simpleton who is essentially the opposite of Mildred. He's racist, sexist, homophobic, and his acts of violence are instinctual as well, though there isn't much else brainwave-wise rumbling around his head. Yet, deep down there is a hint of good in him-- that only Willoughby can see. These are very complexly written characters that we don't get to see in most movies these days.

However, it doesn't matter how exceptional the writing and the directing is... without this cast it wouldn't hit nearly as hard as it does. To be able to find actors like McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell who are skilled in balancing dramatic acting with humor, inner turmoil with outward sarcasm and wit-- it's just not an easy thing to do. Everyone in the movie holds their own, but even beyond that, bring an original script with a tragic story to life and really make you, the viewer, FEEL THINGS. You'll feel just as angry as Mildred, but you'll laugh along with her and cheer her on as she puts nearly everyone in their place. It takes a special kind of movie to kick you in the gut several times, and make you cry real tears of both pain and laughter. And Three Billboards is that movie. It's as close to a perfect movie as you can get.

Really, the only complaint I had about the movie is the casting of Abbie Cornish as Harrelson's wife. In a midwest town full of colorful and dysfunctional characters, she kinda sticks out like a sore thumb. She's very obviously younger than him. Her acting is very blah. And her British accent amid the twang of everyone else's dialect is jarring. She's been in McDonagh films before, so he must be impressed by something she gives to a performance... I've just never seen it. Other than that, you'll be hard-pressed to find a film, that's wholly original, not based on any previous source material, that gives you this great of a time at the theater. Three Billboards of Ebbing, Missouri deals with some serious dark themes, and it's vulgar as hell, but it's a movie that will stay with you for a good, long while. There's so much more I can say about this movie (like how Hollywood should take a good, hard look at the brilliance of this film and take more risks with original works), but it's best I just let you see the film in all its glory for yourself. It's been a long time since I've seen a black comedy this gut-wrenchingly emotional, this exultantly funny, this deeply moving and so very, very smart.

A

Friday, November 17, 2017

Justice League: Learned Lessons And Bastardizing Batman


--Written by Guest Reviewer Matthew Martin-Hall

I’m tempted to simply give Justice League an A+ and say, “It was the best film I’ve seen since Pulp Fiction!” Since, in agreeing to do this review (read: begging a somewhat apathetically appreciative Ryan to let me do it.), Ryan said that if I come at you all with my typical “Batman can do no wrong”/must defend the superior DC Universe bravado, he’d have to go see it himself and provide a balance to my bias. A bias so strong that I actually and whole-heartedly defended the Batman V. Superman film, which predicates the much needed successful recovery of the entire franchise with this film. And I think it is such a recovery despite what that broken Rotten Tomatoes system you all worship like scripture, says. So, Ryan, stop reading right here and go see Justice League.

On that same note: if it’s at all quelling (in regards to the intensity of my aforementioned bias) I will say this directly; if for no other reason than to give those I may know the courage to continue this review, those whom are very aware of my religious belief in Batman’s infallibility, Batman was the Absolute. Worst. Part. Of. This. Film. This Batfleck/Snyder bastardization and perversion of a poorly executed homage to one of the most iconic renderings of the Dark Knight should retire their mantle and find a way to get someone else into it quick. This isn’t Miller’s Batman. This isn’t the cat herding leader (and three time destroyer) of the Justice League. This is another case of trying to be too much with much too little (see: Batman V. Superman).  

I digress.

Please take the time now to return your jaws to the upright and locked position and settle your eyes back into their sockets. Structurally, the film is sound. They hit all of the necessary beats whilst juggling all of the complex narratives and arcs (Only two of which have been told in solo films) rather elegantly, with only a few moderate and passable clunks. Clunks, might I add, that are hard to catch because so much of what’s going on onscreen is the 100% pure fruit juice of badassery (not from concentrate). I’ll admit, the reviews I'd heard coming into this film painted for me a dismal return to form in terms of this slow burn formula that has marred this franchise-- a franchise that tends to risk too much cinematically for it’s consistently lackluster return. If what this film gives us is indicative of the direction they’ve decided to take, DC truly has learned their lesson when it comes to lengthy and elaborate expositions and near surrealistic story structure (see: Suicide Squad and Batman V. Superman). This was comforting to witness. 

In Whedon’s name, we say thank you.

Now, one doesn’t cut a full hour out of a film and not make some strategic sacrifices. Suffice it to say some of the dialogue was a bit “on-the-nose”, but those lines came and went relatively unnoticeably. Jokes landed flush, breaking up the brooding darkness of the tone expertly, all typically being followed by moments of intense and well choreographed action. Each scene left me feeling satisfied as if this film were a plate of desired elements that satiated my cravings as both a filmmaker and consumer with every nicely proportioned bite.

The villain, Steppenwolf, was vague and cliché most of the time. This didn’t bother me much either as Steppenwolf is a pretty vague and cliché villain anyhow. The way I see it, if you didn’t have a problem with the villains in the original Independence Day, you shouldn’t have a problem with him. Let’s be honest here, this film is less about struggling against an overwhelming power and more about getting the band together. An easily explained villain allows this to be accomplished seamlessly without succumbing to the latter stated travesty of over-explaining things to the detriment of the film's flow. He didn’t bother me. I believed in the existential threat he provided that catalyzed the necessity and subsequent formation of The Justice League. I believed the Justice League (with a furious exception to Batman.). All boxes were checked. 

All-in-all, I was impressed with this film in the way that one is impressed with an Olympic gymnast whom recovers well on the balance beam. I also believe that this “judging on recovery” approach is the best lens through which we should view this film.  Batman V. Superman was a messy piece of cinematic risk that all but flattened this entire franchise's chance in the market. Batman V. Superman created the scope of justifiably dismal expectation that predicated this film. Honestly, it inspired me to have a drink beforehand and buy two more at the theater. But I had a moment with Justice League about half an hour in. See this well: 

My hand shaking with cautious optimism as I raise a second saison to my lips.

We’re on Themiscyra. Hippolyta and the Amazons confront our freshly revealed villain in an epic display of resistance and courage. At the very moment that Hippolyta releases a signal arrow, my eyes well up and I nearly shed a tear. My cautious optimism receded into a kind of faithful knowing. For the first time in this DC Universe, I was able to let go, lean in, and enjoy the film. I didn’t have to worry about the excuses I would surely have to make later to sorely misguided Marvel fans; nor did I have to concern myself with justifying the choices made by some fucker named Snyder. Though I’ve said so much already, I don’t think this one really needs my words. It stands on it’s own.  

What I wanted more of: A Batman I could care about that I could believe would lead The Justice League. Better dialogue choices (or no dialogue at all). The notorious flirtmance between Diana and Bruce. Commissioner Gordon. Aquaman and Amazonians (in their armor circa Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman)… Yes, I honestly wanted more Aquaman. And Patty Jenkins.

What I wanted less of: A Batman I couldn’t care about nor believe could lead The Justice League. Batman using a fucking gun. Batman forgetting he’s a ninja and the greatest detective in the universe. Batman… If you’re going to fuck up Batman, make it quick. Some of us need to believe that his persona is salvageable from the mired depths of your grotesquely obvious lack of canonical knowledge concerning such a legendary hero. Affleck. Snyder. 


Finally, three things to note:

1. DO NOT EVER fucking give Batman a gun and have him say that his super power is “being rich”… EVER!
2. If you are going to clap and cheer for Lanterns, but not do the same for Wizards, y’all need to brush up on your comic knowledge. 
3. Stay after the credits. All my 70's Super Friends Cartoon loving friends are going to nerdgasm all over that theater. Yes, it is that good. 

B- 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Murder On The Orient Express: A Literary Whodunnit


I love me a good murder mystery. What can I say? I'm a sucker for them. They're probably one of my top guilty pleasure movies along with courtroom movies (*cough* John Grisham adaptations) and prison movies. Nice thing is, the genre produces a lot of decent movies (Zodiac, Seven, Memento, Mystic River, Silence of the Lambs, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and, of course, a few piles of trash (Um... yeah... The Snowman). So, naturally, when I saw Kenneth Branagh was adapting Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, as well as portraying literary lead detective Hercule Poirot, I was more than in. Well, that, and the fact that shitty Hollywood has only released Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MI in limited theaters... this was the film of the week. And while it was definitely a pretty good whodunnit... I'm not sure if it was that exceptional of a movie.

MotOE tells the story of, well... a murder that occurs... on the Orient Express. Self-proclaimed "greatest detective in the world" Hercule Poirot is catching a ride on the train, trying to escape a life of detecting for just a few days. He'd prefer to relax, close his mind, and read a good book in solitude. However, a man, Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his cabin and everyone on the train becomes a suspect. What follows is Poirot using his keen detective skills and very astute attention to detail to narrow down suspects until he finds the killer. The characters on the train are led by an all star cast who include, but are not limited to Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe (all of whom Branagh was able to procure for the movie as they have all worked with him in the past).

The problem with the adaptation of the novel (which, admittedly I have not read) is we have such a diverse cast of characters, each with their own integral story to the plot, that we hardly get enough time with each of them. The only character we get plenty of is Poirot, and needless to say, he's a very fun character. Poirot is like the French step-cousin to Sherlock Holmes. He's got his quirks and eccentricities (like brutal honesty and a sharp wit), but when it comes to solving cases, there's no one better. A simple smudge of a footprint can tell him a story no one else sees. He's a fun character to follow and stay with... but that's about it. The rest of the characters don't really get a chance to shine. And because we don't get in depth discoveries of each one, it's a piece of the film that is seriously lacking.

Here's the other thing about the film-- it's not very exciting. I don't mean that I didn't enjoy it because there weren't action sequences and chases and dismembered limbs. That's not the kind of "exciting" I'm referring to. The train gets trapped in snow and the case unfolds while they wait for help to dig them out. It's the only real set piece of the film and because we're trapped in the small train compartment, the excitement is left up to Poirot questioning the patrons one-by-one. The tension doesn't exactly get amped up... really until the end. It's the part of the novel (I assume) that just doesn't translate into film. I can see this book being a very exciting book because not only do we get to spend more time with each character and Poirot delving into their inner psyche, but the interrogations are going to be much more in depth and extended. Watching a man sit at a table twelve different times with twelve different people asking them questions turns a decent whodunnit into a morbid job interview. Reading it is different than watching someone do it. I think some of the excitement of the book (and I could be wrong) is lost in the translation to film.

Now, the actors are great. With what little screen time they're all presented, they do handle their jobs well. Each one appears to be innocent as well as guilty. Every time Poirot interviews them you're nearly sure that they're the murderer or completely innocent... and then your guess filpflops. Branagh shines as Poirot, delivering his French-accented acerbic wit with the precision of a seasoned actor. And I can tell you this, dear reader, the end reveal is very satisfying. When it comes to whodunnits, we've already seen nearly all of them. First, it was the character who seemed to be the most innocent. Then it turned into characters who are put almost in the background. Then it's the character who was "killed" early on, but is revealed to have been alive the whole time. It takes a lot to "get you" with the reveal these days, and MotOE does not fail to deliver. Not only is the reveal somewhat surprising, the motive actually makes sense and (forgive the pun) cuts deep.

So, while I don't think MotOE succeeds as well as a movie, I do believe that (if a lot hasn't been changed-- and knowing Branagh's history as a director who loves to adapt Shakespeare, he stays true to source material) it has got to be a much more exciting book. The actors made me enjoy the characters so much that I craved more from each one and in a movie with twelve stars, a couple of minutes with each one just doesn't cut it. It looks like I may have to add just one more book to my reading list.

C+

Monday, November 6, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok: Thor And Hulk Really Suck, Just Not Right Now


I think if you were to go back and read every review I've done since I started this thing over five years ago, the phrase you'd find most often coming from me would be: "I'm so tired of superhero movies." This hasn't changed. Keeping up with Marvel and DC is exhausting... and I don't even like them that much. I see them because most of them get positive reviews and there is a through storyline. But I don't really buy them. I don't re-watch all of them when the next one arrives. I just see them and wait a couple months for the next inevitable movie. And while I'm still very VERY tired of of the Marvel Extended Universe... one thing that has also remained consistent is how much Thor and Hulk suck. They're the two worst superheros that Marvel has offered us so far and their standalone movies have been terrible. Yes, it was a great idea to make Hulk Mark Ruffalo and cease and desist all Hulk movies. Yes, Chris Hemsworth brings some much needed charisma to the character of Thor and he works well within the group... but his solo movies have been terribly underwhelming. I mentioned earlier that I see positively rated Marvel films... I didn't see Thor: The Dark World and I don't care to. However, Thor: Ragnarok, with its impressive 93% on Rotten Tomaotes, stands as not just the best Thor movie (obviously), but one of the best Marvel movies to date.

Here's how I knew Thor: Ragnarok was going to be a good movie: a man by the name of Taiki Waititi. Unfamiliar with this guy? You shouldn't be. He's an actor/director with a sense of humor akin to Flight of the Conchords (in fact, he's most often worked with Jemaine Clement and even directed four episodes of the Flight of the Conchords TV show). He's also directed one of the funniest underrated comedies in the last five years-- What We Do in the Shadows (he also stars). If you haven't seen this movie, then I suggest you seek it out as soon as possible because it's brilliant. His last film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I haven't actually seen yet, but was also met with critical success. It's this history of touching films mixed with a unique sense of humor that landed him the job directing the third solo Thor film. And boy, did Marvel make the right decision. His brand of humor, mixed with his innovative and relaxed style of directing has produced one of the most fun Marvel movies ever made, next to Guardians of the Galaxy.

In fact, the tone of Thor: Ragnarok is more similar to an 80s classic film Big Trouble in Little China, mixed with GotG (Waititi even admits that Big Trouble in Little China was the main inspiration for this film). Thor is back in Asgard when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns, as well as Hela (Cate Blanchett), Thor and Loki's long lost evil sister who just so happens to be the Goddess of Death. She returns to rule Asgard... as well as the rest of the universe. She destroys Thor's hammer and banishes Thor and Loki to a remote garbage planet run by The Grandmaster (a very welcome Jeff Goldblum). Thor is enslaved and forced to fight gladiator-style for entertainment when he runs into an old Avenger buddy of his-- Hulk (Ruffalo). Together the two of them, and an Asgard refugee, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), have to escape from the planet, get to Asgard to save the land and the people. There's a lot happening in the film, but it always seems very relaxed and willing to go with the flow. There are rarely any serious moments and when there are, they're always broken up by a bit of humorous levity. Waititi even voices the character of Korg, who is like having a Conchords comic relief character, who looks like a rock monster, along for the ride.

Waititi claims that nearly 80% of the dialogue was improvised in order to create a "loose and collaborative mood" among the cast as well as showcase Hemsworth's comedic skills, which is something we rarely get to see with him. This plays to the strengths of the film as it appears everyone is having a great time-- which translates over to the audience. Even when there's imminent danger on the horizon, there is still a quip or a visual gag to accompany it so we don't forget the type of movie we're here to see. This doesn't mean that there aren't stellar performances. Hemsworth, finally free from the chains of a script is hilarious. He channels his inner Starlord and has a lot more fun with the character, almost reinventing who we've come to know as Thor. Hiddleston as Loki is also a welcome return, especially as an ally (somewhat) because he's able to keep the story always on its toes. He is, after all, the God of Mischief. Blanchett is superb as the villain Hela. She's pure evil, but she doesn't ham it up and over play it as it would've been very easy to do. But, clearly, the winner here for favorite character has to go to Goldblum. He hasn't lost his comedic touch and even though he's a slime, he's still a Goldblum-esque slime.

The standout of the movie, I'm sure most would agree, is Thomson's Valkyrie. She's a strong female character, and flawed in a way that doesn't showcase weakness for the sake of weakness. If anyone working for Marvel is smart (and they've already proven they can be...), they'll incorporate her character into every MEU film from here until she's ready to walk away from the role. Hell, she should get her own damn movie. Her storyline, while pretty fleshed out, is so good it still made me want more. Then again, Marvel is refusing to give Black Widow her own movie, so who the hell knows.

The rest of the movie is just fun. I think it would behoove the studio to take more risks with comedic directors. We've seen that these guys know how to tell a story and they know how to bring a freshness to an already tiring genre. They keep it light and fun and provide a living comic book (emphasis on comic). James Gunn has already proven this is a good idea with GotG. Waititi's strengths don't only lie with comedy, however. You can tell from just watching the film that he's very detail oriented. There are shots in the film that are awe-inspiring. There's a flashback battle of a hoard of Valkyries riding flying horses (I say flying horses because I'm not sure what the plural of Pegasus would be. Pegasai?) toward Hela in an epic battle sequence that's one of the coolest shots in a Marvel movie to date. He also didn't appear to accept cheap CGI. Hulk has always looked fake. Massive battle sequences involving alien-ish characters can get muddled with CGI and take the realism out of the situation. Waititi's film has maybe one or two blemishes that are so slight, they're damn near blink-and-you'll-miss-it. And hell, the dude got to use a Led Zeppelin song (the very apt "Immigrant Song"). Try and think of the last movie who got the rights to use one of their songs. Don't worry I'll wait.

Look, no Marvel movie is ever going to convert me into a superfan. I didn't grow up reading comic books and it's just not my thing. But, I do appreciate a good film. I can appreciate when Marvel is trying to up their game with each additional entry into the MEU. And I will continue seeing these positively reviewed films (and subsequently bitching incessantly about them) until they either stop (won't happen) or I go insane. Thor: Ragnarok may not be the very best film Marvel has released, but it's certainly in the top five and it's miles and miles better than any standalone Hulk or Thor entry we've recieved thus far. What else is nice, is the film is also in the top five most entertaining movies I've seen this entire year. Whether you're a superhero nut, a casual fan, or just a person who appreciates a fun film... Thor: Ragnarok definitely has something for everyone. Put your preconceived notions about Thor (and Hulk) away for about two hours and you'll be just as impressed as I was.

B+

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Jigsaw: All Work And No Play Make Jigsaw A Dull Boy


The first Saw movie did a lot of good for the horror world. It was a brand new type of horror film, one that was part mystery, part psychological thriller, and part cringe-worthy gore fest (even though the first Saw actually has hardly any gore at all). It also is the last movie I can remember to totally GET everyone who saw it. No one saw the twist coming in that movie. It was so impressive, I remember seeing the movie three times in theaters. It also launched the career of James Wan, who has honed his horror skills and given us great terrifying movies like The Conjuring and Insidious. Hell, the guy even got to do Fast and Furious 7 as well as the upcoming Aquaman film. The first Saw film still holds up today and is genuinely one of the best and most original horror movies ever made.

However... it also created a lot of bad. Since the first film, there have been seven sequels. There used to be a new Saw movie once every Halloween, until we got tired of seeing the same old thing. The sequels lost the acting quality, the script quality, and the intelligence of the first movie and it literally just became a bunch of random directors seeing how many different ways they could torture other human beings. The torture devices got more inventive and the carnage got gorier. There were little twists here and there throughout the series, but none that even remotely came close to the shock of the first film. Now, were any of the sequels good? Sure. I'd say one of them was good. But because they all blend together, I couldn't even tell you which one I'm thinking of. The sixth one? Maybe? Either way, most of the sequels were hot garbage that didn't require acting or a story. Fans of the Saw franchise saw these movies for the kills. That's it.

So, in order to bring back the franchise after a seven year hiatus, I thought maybe there was an idea so brilliant that it couldn't have been left alone. They came up with such good torture devices, such a good plot, such a good twist... that they HAD to bring the franchise back for one more, hoping once again to start anew.

Nope. Not the case. Seriously, if it hadn't been seven years since the last film, this movie would lump itself in with the rest of the series. Except this time, it's even more forgettable. I didn't go into the film thinking it would be good. Don't worry. Didn't make that mistake. But I did have high hopes for something within the film to impress me because, again... why bother bringing it back if you didn't have something new to offer? This question and more are unanswered in the film.

It's been ten years since anyone has heard from the Jigsaw killer, until bodies start turning up with jigsaw pieces cut out of them. A Detective and his partner have teamed up to figure out who is trying to pull a copycat of a long-dead serial killer (remember... Jigsaw actually DIED in the third movie despite this being the eighth). While the detective is searching for where the new "game" is being played, we are following a new group of reprobates being punished by Jigsaw - or a Jigsaw copycat - for their crimes against humanity. They are subjected to new torture devices and wind up getting killed by them one by one until the standard Saw big reveal at the end.

The acting is terrible, the dialogue sounds like it's straight from an episode of NCIS, the character motivations are laughable and the means of torture aren't even that clever. But it's actually a really fun movie to watch-- IF you enjoy watching the other terrible Saw films. Fans of the franchise don't see the movie to get scared. You go to laugh at the poor acting/dialogue/story and cringe at the gore. Critics of the franchise will not be converted. It's more of the same. It's more of the same even to a fault. Two consistencies in the Saw films really stood out to me and I was hoping we'd get a change of pace- first of all, everyone dies in every movie. Every person in every movie subjected to Jigsaw's games die. The only ones who don't wind up turning into Jigsaw helpers. No one ever gets to hack off a limb, escape and live happily ever after. Second, every Jigsaw victim, when put into a group (hell, even solo) is an idiot. No one listens to reason. No one tries to actually figure out the game. Everyone acts out of moronic instinct and all wind up getting killed because of it. A nice change of pace would've been to see a smart victim or a group of victims actually trying not to fall into the same trap over and over and over again. But, alas, we are given much of the same.

The other thing about the movie that hindered the fun a little bit, too, was the new directors (the Spierig Brothers) decided not to go balls out like the previous directors and a lot of the gore is held off screen. The one thing you can certainly rely on in a Saw movie is satiating your inner blood lust, but most of the carnage happens off screen, which is a little disappointing. There's also a couple of Jigsaw "traps" that are very confusing on how they're supposed to work, which makes the tension almost non-existent. There are still bloody moments and a couple of cool traps, but overall it's a weaker entry into the series (something a resurgence of a franchise after several years should never be).

I will give Jigsaw this-- the twist, though not mind-blowing by any standard, is actually pretty clever. I don't know if I should've seen it coming all along, but it was clever enough that it took me by surprise. It's too easy to just put the blame on a copycat Jigsaw killer, so the way they are able to explain the resurgence of Jigsaw after ten years was a bit more clever than I was willing to give the movie credit for. Other than that, it's your standard Saw film (the first movie doesn't count as "standard" btw). If you've enjoyed the insane and grotesque aspects of the each film and are willing to laugh along with the thin stories that accompany the deaths, then you'll have fun watching this one as I did. But, if you're looking for something new and unique and worthwhile in theaters (that's actually going to scare you), then this is certainly not the franchise to pick up this late.

C-

Suburbicon: Best Laid Plans Of Matt and George


George Clooney, as an actor, is very likable and makes pretty good role choices. George Clooney as a director-- eh. I'll admit I haven't yet seen Good Night and Good Luck, which I've heard is stellar, but the rest of his filmography is barred in mediocrity. I really liked The Ides of March, but I think it's because of the strength of the cast and not so much the strength of the script or direction. Leatherheads is the epitome of a forgettable film (thanks a lot Renee Zellweger) and The Monuments Men, even with a brilliant cast, couldn't be saved by anything. Suburbicon falls somewhere in the middle. It helps that the script Clooney wrote with writing partner Grant Heslov was basically an update of an older script written by the Coen Bros. The Coens are still given top writing credit, but the film they wrote is much different than the one we get. There's still some Coen-isms throughout, but the final product feels much like an amateur director trying his hardest to produce something Coen-esque and falling short.

Here's the deal with Suburbicon-- it's fine. Nothing stands out as particularly wrong with the movie, but nothing really makes a huge impact in it either. So, it's fine. It's an entertaining film that serves as a distraction from everyday life. But here's the thing... I left the movie feeling super 'meh' about it. I wasn't leaning toward good or bad with my reaction, but I was stuck dab in the middle of 'meh'. And I'm not sure if I felt this way because, once again, I was seriously misled by the advertisements for the film, or because the movie was actually just very mediocre. Go watch the theatrical trailer. What you're shown is that the film is going to be very dark and quirky. Fans who purchased tickets for the film are expecting a dark-comedy/satire about 50s white people and the "accidental" violence that plagues these do-gooders. There are images of Matt Damon covered in blood and silently eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There's the shot of what looks like an explosion happening in front of Damon's face and he pedals off as fast as he can on a bike that's too small for his body. There's Julianne Moore dressed in pink housewife's attire using a rolling pin to smash down a gaggle of pills. It looks quirky as hell... but it's not. I laughed several times during the trailer. I didn't laugh once during the movie. There are a few chuckles here and there (maybe not even intentionally), but aside from the opening faux commerical for 1950s suburban living... it's a dark movie with almost no likable characters. Yes, there is a looming social commentary hovering over the film, but it is, by no means, presented in a satirical way. It's just dark and somewhat uncomfortable.

Suburbicon tells two stories. The first story is of the Lodge family. Gardner (Damon) lives in Suburbicon with his paraplegic wife Rose (Moore) and his son Nicky. Rose's twin sister Margaret (also Moore) visits them often. One night, two men invade the home, hold the family hostage, and wind up killing Rose. The other story is of the Mayers family. They're the first African-American family to move into Suburbicon-- in a house directly behind the Lodge's. There's Mr. Mayers, his wife, and his young son, Andy, who befriends Nicky very quickly. The all-white town of "pro-integrationists" are very upset by the arrival of a black family, that they wind up protesting their settlement outside the front of their house. What starts as jeers and name-calling, slowly turns into public disturbance and even the threat of violence. While the town is so focused on this family, who is kinder and gentler than ANYONE in the entire town, they're all distracted from the violence happening in the Lodge home. Finally, Oscar Isaac shows up as an insurance agent -- and that's pretty much all I can tell you about his character.

It's a nice little commentary on racism and white privilege, but it just feels... kinda... off. We don't get much of a look into the Mayers home. We get a scene or two of Mrs. Mayers getting verbally shit on by some white people and her staying tough and taking the moral high ground, but the family is used more as a prop than as real, suffering characters. They're there to play the role of "black family" to make white people racism stand out. We get a lot from young Andy and his relationship with Nicky, but not as much as I'm sure audience members would've liked. The rest of the cast is full of just unlikable people with agendas that are sinister instead of darkly humorous. The movie plays out the way someone recreating a Coen brothers movie would try to do it, but it falls short. Fargo is the perfect dark comedy/thriller. Guy has his wife kidnapped in order to get the ransom from her cheap father. He hires two loose cannons to do the job. Almost everyone ends up getting killed and the only characters who survive are the morally redemptive ones. Suburbicon attempts this formula, but without the quirkiness of the characters and the absurdity of the situations, it just doesn't really take any sort of tonally consistent shape. I will say this, though... the ending is very satisfying and both scenes with Oscar Isaac are the most entertaining in the entire movie.

I do feel bad that the film is royally flopping and Paramount is having a pretty dull year (see: Mother!), but Coen brothers movies aren't exactly huge money-makers. They rely on their indie movie style of filmmaking to take hold of a few thousand theaters and recoup their money based on positive word of mouth. Unfortunately, due to some seriously shoddy advertising and trailer building... the word of mouth isn't going to come and this movie is going to be just as forgotten as Leatherheads. It's not awful. If you wind up catching it On Demand or Netflix, you will find yourself invested, but not enough to pay it forward and recommend it to anyone else.

C