The only movie reviews you need

All you need to know in 3 short paragraphs because honestly, who wants to read more?

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Monday, December 11, 2017

How to make a bad movie

In the annals of cinema’s long and storied history, one would be hard pressed to find a movie as bad as Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room.’  Released in the summer of 2003, this so-called “movie” still holds the dubious distinction of being the worst movie ever made, which makes its subsequent cult status as the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ of bad movies all the more baffling.  It’s so bad that it’s awesome?  I didn't get it.  But now I think I do, thanks to James Franco’s new mockumentary (or could it be homage?) ‘The Disaster Artist’ about the making of the notorious film and Wiseau himself.
 
In many ways, ‘The Disaster Artist’ is a charming, heart-felt and poignant portrait of friendship between the movie’s two main characters, Wiseau (James Franco) and Greg Sestero (his real-life brother Dave), two struggling wannabe actors who, like Mia in ‘La La Land,’ dream of making it big in Hollywood.  With ambitions far outstripping whatever acting skills they possess (none to speak of), they found it hard—big surprise—to break into show business, so Wiseau decided that the best way to overcome this obstacle is to produce, star in and direct his own movie.  Six months and six million dollars (bankrolled out of Wiseau’s own pocket because no sane person would even consider financing it) later, ‘The Room’ was the result and the world will never be the same for it.

James Franco was simply Fabio-lous as the eccentric and pathological Wiseau, a big baby who refused to be type-cast as a villain just because he resembled Dracula with his long dark locks and faux Transylvanian accent (he’s a hero!).  Dave Franco was equally great as Sestero, the ying to Wiseau’s yang, as their (non-homo) bromance was put to the test by increasing difficulties and strains on and off the set.  In our age of MST3K and Rifftrax, there will always be room (excuse the pun) for horrendously bad movies like ‘The Room’ among cinephiles and film geeks alike, but unlike its subject, ‘The Disaster Artist’ is “tearing us apart” not because of how much it blows (which it doesn’t) but because it is so subversively funny at times that it drives us to tears.
 
Grade: A+
 
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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Billboard Justice

Character-centered films spare in visual pizzazz yet rich in storytelling and character development are all too rare these days in a movie industry driven by blockbusters and spectacle-heavy extravaganzas.  It is therefore such a welcome breath of fresh air when a black dramedy like Martin McDonagh’s ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ comes along, a low-key affair relying on great storytelling and strong characterizations that leaves an imprint long after the final credits have rolled.
 
‘Three Billboards’ thrives on conflict and a good dose of trouble, which arose when grieving and angry mother Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand in what may be her best performance since ‘Fargo’) donned the hat of town hell raiser by renting three billboards outside the fictional, run-down town of Ebbing, Missouri to advertise her frustration at the failure of local law enforcement to apprehend the murderer and rapist of her rebellious teenage daughter.  An understandable grievance to be sure, but for the fact that her ire happened to be directed towards Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the beloved town sheriff and loving family man cast in the homespun mold of Andy Griffith and Carroll O’Connor.  Considering that justice was denied in this case not due to negligence, incompetence or a failure to conduct the investigation with due diligence but simply because the trail had gone cold and nothing else can be done, it’s little surprise that a majority of the townsfolk turned against Mildred, particularly in light of the fact that Chief Willoughby is dealing with a serious health issue of his own.  Nevertheless, on a mission with a single-mindedness bordering on sheer fanaticism, Mildred continued to wage her righteous crusade against the police like the scorned woman she is.
 
What’s great about ‘Three Billboards’ is that it defied our expectations with its ambiguous, shades-of-grey morality.  At times as cold as ice, McDormand made it hard for the audience to fully empathize with Mildred despite what she’s going through.  While most people would probably have found some kind of closure and tried to move on with their lives, Mildred adamantly refuses to let it go, come hell or high water.  And (speaking of which) like last year’s uniquely American neo-western/black comedy ‘Hell or High Water,’ she’s willing to let her destructive actions take her wherever they may lead, leaving the rest to the audience’s imagination and judgment.

Grade: A+

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Justice Denied

Pity DC.  Just when its cinematic universe, the so-called DC Extended Universe or DCEU, appears to be on the right track, finally putting its critical and box office troubles behind with the sensational success of the female-empowering ‘Wonder Woman’ this past summer, things came crashing back to harsh reality in ‘Justice League,’ DC/Warner Brothers’ highly anticipated super-powered team that’s supposed to be DC’s answer to Marvel’s ‘Avengers.’  Boasting such heavyweights as Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman, Flash, Cyborg and Superman (yes, he’s baaack!), you would think that JL should have little trouble crossing $100 million at the domestic box office on opening weekend with no major competition (‘Thor: Ragnarok’ is in its third weekend) in sight, but as the final tally came in, it appears that anything is possible.
 
To be fair, JL had what we might call “bad karma.”  One of its production companies is Ratpac Entertainment co-founded by Brett Ratner who, along with his mentor rap mogul Russell Simmons, finds himself accused of sexual misconduct in the current enlightened Hollywood climate. While women went in droves to see ‘Wonder Woman,’ most seem to have stayed away from JL despite Gal Gadot reprising her role in it.  Moreover, director Zack Snyder was forced to leave the set in May 2017 due to a family tragedy (his daughter’s suicide), leaving the unfinished tentpole in the more-than-capable hands of fan fave Joss Whedon (‘The Avengers,’ ‘Age of Ultron,’ ‘Agents of SHIELD, BTVS, Firefly, etc.).  In light of Snyder’s track record (‘Man of Steel,’ ‘BvS: Dawn of Justice') in the DCEU, this change may be taken as a blessing in disguise, but even Joss isn’t Superman and only re-shot some scenes (ballooning the movie’s budget well north of $300 million), having little creative input at this late stage of the film’s development.  As a result, JL is plagued by everything the critics have mentioned: inconsistent tone and pacing, a paper-thin plot, underdeveloped characters, subpar FX, and topping it all off is a weak ass villain named after a short-lived '70's Canadian rock group.  Quite disappointing.
 
DC/Warner Brothers really had to bring its ‘A game’ to JL in order to try and catch up to Marvel, but instead of doing justice to ‘Justice League’ it laid an egg while second tier Marvel characters routinely perform better.   How?  Movie analysts and DC fanboys alike are still scratching their collective heads on this one.  Is it because there are simply too many superhero movies out there ("superhero fatigue"), or is it because mainstream audiences just don't find DC characters all that interesting, with the notable exceptions of Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman?  I guess we'll find out in due course when Aquaman and Shazam get their stand‑alone movies.

Grade: C
 
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Poetic Justice on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh stars and directs in the latest movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ featuring Belgian detective extraordinaire Hercule (not Hercules) Poirot, perhaps fiction’s most famous detective not named Sherlock.  Which begs the question “Why???!!!” because all one has to do is to watch (or revisit) the superb 1974 original directed by Sidney Lumet starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave.  The answer is simple and pretty much the same whenever a “classic” is shamelessly thus remade: Hollywood may be creatively bankrupt and has to recycle old material every now and then, but it is also doing us a service by updating these classics for later generations of moviegoers who – unless they’re classic film buffs – would not have seen them in the first place.  A valid reason or an excuse?  You decide.

Nonetheless, many critics declared this “unnecessary” remake utterly pointless and DOA (58 percent on the Tomatometer), but MOTOE2017 actually holds up on its own quite well.  You would think that finding a cast that would do justice to an ensemble including such screen legends as Bacall, Bergman and Redgrave is no mean feat (which it isn't), but MOTOE2017 came pretty darn close with a power-house cast of its own featuring Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe and Branagh himself as the eccentric and mustachioed detective.  Am I being too lenient?  You decide.

If you’ve read the AC novel or seen the 1974 movie (or even both), there is likely no suspense here as to “Whodunit.”  Even the play on words that formed the title of this review kind of gives it away.  But like the namesake of its mode of transportation, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters.  Then again, I may be predisposed towards MOTOE2017 because I’m just a sucker when it comes to a good old fashioned “dinner party murder mystery.” 

Grade: A-

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The default president

LBJ might be regarded by some to be one of the most underrated and least understood chief executives to ever occupy the Oval Office.  Perhaps this is understandable, as the former Senate majority leader and conservative southern Democrat will always be remembered as the reluctant vice president who became president after Golden Boy JFK was assassinated and for escalating the highly unpopular “police action” in ‘Nam.  LBJ’s legacy provides a perfect example of how posterity can highlight the negative over the positive.  Eclectic director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone attempt to redress this in the latest presidential biopic, ‘LBJ.’
 
The “honor” of portraying Lyndon Baines Johnson on screen goes to Woody Harrelson, the 56-year old veteran actor whom some might consider to be a bit underrated himself in light of his major awards-to-filmography ratio (no Oscars out of two noms, and one Emmy out of five noms for ‘Cheers’ back in 1989).  As if the snubs only drove him harder, Harrelson delivered one of the most dramatic and nuanced performances in his career as the 36th President of these United States, convincingly putting himself “in character” and imparting the foul-mouthed Texas firebrand with a passion and fervor rarely seen before.
 
A snapshot of the period before he became president and shortly thereafter in the early 1960’s, ‘LBJ’ is limited in scope and only provides a 90-minute glimpse of its complicated and conflicted subject, but it is no less compelling as we observe him stubbornly cling to his old ways, butt heads with Bobby Kennedy, deal with the reality of succeeding JFK in the aftermath of a national tragedy and break with his own political bloc (southern Democrats) by championing the Civil Rights Act which his idealistic young predecessor started.  While ‘LBJ’ is flawed (much like the character it portrays) and isn’t quite as good or memorable as Natalie Portman’s ‘Jackie’ last year, it is worth watching nonetheless.

Grade: A-
 
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Ragnarok & Roll

The ‘Thor’ trilogy goes out with a literal bang in ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ director Taika Waititi’s rollicking and surprisingly fun (as in GOTG fun) take on the hammer-wielding Norse God of Thunder in the MCU.  So who is Taika Waititi anyway?  Isn’t he some famous Hawaiian or character from ‘The Lion King’ or something?  Well, no, the talented Kiwi (“New Zealander”) is the actor/screenwriter/director best known (before ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ that is) for the well-received indie vampire-comedy ‘What We Do in the Shadows.’  Look out, Peter Jackson.  Or not.
 
‘Ragnarok’ continues the tradition of sibling troubles we’ve seen in the dysfunctional royal family of Asgard.  With his Machiavellian adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) subdued after all the mischief (the Chitauri) he unleashed upon NYC, Thor only finds to his surprise and dismay that he also had a big sis whom his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) banished for being overly belligerent and ambitious in her warring ways.  Cate Blanchett is “Hela” good, and dare I say sexy in black, as the powerful, evil and antlered Goddess of Death who returns to Asgard with a vengeance to claim her rightful place and bring glory to her home world through the might of her army of conquest.  Can Thor, Loki, a fallen Valkyrie-turned-scrapper (Tessa Thompson) and a certain green berserker with anger management issues put a flower in the barrel of her rifle?

Aw, baby brother's trying to stop me with his little toy hammer.  Cute.
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While ‘Ragnarok’ is a dazzling spectacle jam packed with action and epic battles of Homeric proportions, what’s great about the movie are its lighter moments.  Aussie Chris Hemsworth may be known as a hunky action hero, but he does possess some comedic chops, and Waititi (who’s no stranger to comedy in light of his work on WWDITS and ‘Flight of the Concords’) injected ‘Ragnarok’ with well-timed moments of levity, including an intentionally badly acted scene featuring the cameo of a well-known actor portraying a dying Loki in classical tragic fashion.

Grade: A+
 
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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Good Day to Die Over..... and Over

It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ meets ‘Scream’ in ‘Happy Death Day,’ Blumhouse Production’s latest horror-comedy clearly aimed at the millennial set.  Blumhouse Productions, renowned for striking box office gold with such low-budget gems as ‘Paranormal Activity,’ ‘The Purge,’ ‘Split’ and ‘Get Out,’ has done it again with this $4.8 million slasher flick featuring an unknown actress but an intriguing concept, which already recouped its “meager” budget 10 times over after only two weekends of its release.
 
Imagine that you die at the hands of a stereotypical masked slasher drawn from such Hollywood classics as ‘Halloween,’ ‘Friday the 13th,’ ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ and ‘Scream,’ except that you would wake up the next morning “as good as new” and relive the day like Bill Murray did over and over again in that beloved 1993 cult comedy classic.  Of course, you vividly remember what happened the previous day (which also happens to be “today”), particularly the pivotal moment when you died gore-iously by the hands and deadly implements of an unknown masked killer.  Talk about re-living your nightmares!  This is exactly the inexplicable, surreal predicament in which the film’s sassy protagonist, a hot blonde college sorority gal (Jessica Rothe) with a rebellious and mean streak who doesn’t fit the vain and shallowly materialistic archetype of her peers, finds herself on her birthday.  Nothing says "I love you" quite like the gift of death for your birthday, I’d say.
 
For all its faults,’ ‘Happy Death Day’ is a fun and enjoyable movie this Halloween season (it was released on Friday the 13th).  Tree (Jessica Rothe’s character) is an engaging, self-deprecating and headstrong heroine whom we can easily root for as she tries and tries again (or should I say “dies and dies again”) to solve her own murder and unmask the killer with the help of her obligatory cute boy love interest, Carter Davis (Israel Broussard).  If only this is a video game.
 
Grade: B+
 
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