Posts Tagged ‘trailers’

Recent movie review round-up (first half of 2022)

July 9th, 2022

I’ve never tried to come up with any sort of “theme” for the movies I review in these posts, I just watch whatever interests me and try my best to summarize my thoughts.

But this time around — especially compared to my previous movie review round-up — all of these are relatively small-ish budget films. Best of all, none of them overstayed their welcome with lengthy runtimes.

So let’s get started with my own reviews of the movies I got to see in the first six months (give or take) of 2022.

 

Strawberry Mansion

Tax auditor Mr. Preble has been sent to the home of an elderly woman named Bella to audit her dreams. In this near-future dystopia, all dreams are recorded and taxed.

In reliving Bella’s dreams, Preble slowly falls in love with her younger self. Meanwhile in reality Bella introduces Preble to a homemade device that serves as an ad blocker, removing the product placement in his dreams. 

This might be one of the better depictions of dreams in a movie, though the movie itself has such an ethereal soundtrack and unusual visuals that it’s often difficult to discern what’s supposed to be a dream vs. what’s “real.” This is a narrative choice of course, and it’s fun to think about it, but it’s also distracting when you’re trying to piece together the story threads. Perhaps this is one of those puzzle films that rewards multiple viewings.

Between the film’s short runtime and the sheer oddity of it all, you won’t have time to worry too much about what’s real and what’s happening in Preble’s mind, or even exactly how he’s inserted himself into Bella’s previous dreams in the first place.

Strawberry Mansion doesn’t fall into any normal film genre. There are aspects of horror, romance, and even science fiction but I wouldn’t categorize it as any of those. If I had to put it on a shelf in a video store, I’d put it somewhere near wherever David Lynch films are displayed and call it a day.

Best moment: Two words: “chicken shake.”

Rating: 7/10

 

Benedetta

Director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Starship Troopers, Showgirls) brings his over-the-top style to a story about a young nun in 17th century Italy named Benedetta. (Despite the setting, the dialog is entirely in French.) Benedetta seems to have mysterious powers and visions… or does she?

Fast forward until Benedetta is an adult, a troubled young woman named Bartolomea joins the convent and the two immediately begin a complicated, guilt-filled lesbian affair.

This movie made some Catholics angry, which I think says a lot more about them than this movie — have they never looked into the history of their own church? This movie isn’t even attempting to make a statement about the modern day Catholic church.

The problem is there’s not much to the story; the main takeaway seems to be that religious fervor and blasphemy are two sides of the same coin. But that’s far too obvious to be a revelation.

Best moment: Watching the bishop’s plans come tumbling down.

Rating: 4/10

 

Jackass Forever

Opening with a lengthy dick joke, Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Wee Man, and the gang return for another round of pranks and self torture.

There’s a clear passing of the torch as it’s acknowledged that it’s been twenty years after the Jackass TV show, introducing both new cast members with many of the original, now gray-haired ones.

I’m not sure there’s any point reviewing this movie, either you think it’s funny to watch a guy get bee stings on his testicles or you don’t. But I will say that there’s not much new ground to cover here; if you’ve seen one Jackass movie, you’ve kind of seen them all. At the very least you know what to expect by now.

Best moment: The rattlesnake fake out prank.

Rating: 6/10

 

Everything Everywhere All At Once

Evelyn Wong (Michelle Yeoh) is the owner of a failing laundromat that’s in trouble with the IRS. Her domestic life is arguably in worse condition: she takes her husband for granted, is overbearing towards her daughter, and is hiding the fact that her daughter is a lesbian from her very traditional father (James Hong.)

To make matters significantly more complicated, this isn’t the only Evelyn Wong. There’s an entire multiverse of different universes out there for all of us where we made different decisions and ended up very differently. The Evelyn we meet has to tap into and travel across the multiverse in order to stop the chaos of “Jobu Tupaki” (you’ll have to watch it yourself to see who this villain turns out to be.)

As a comedy/action/drama there’s a lot of ground to cover, but the movie easily gets the most laughs and the most action from jumping to different universes, many of which are entirely ridiculous like a universe where humans evolved to have useless floppy hot dog fingers.

Unfortunately while the multiverse concept ties the entire movie together, it’s not explained very well. At first to borrow the powers of other versions of herself Evelyn needs to wear two of those old fashioned Bluetooth earpieces (one in each ear) and then do weird things to activate them. After a while that no longer seems to apply; and for the characters who are recruited from other multiverses to become villains, where are they getting their special Bluetooth earpieces? 

All of which is to say, this is a movie where you’re better off sitting back and enjoying the ride without thinking about it too much. I have heard the original cut was much longer and this is one of those rare cases where I wonder if maybe they cut it down a little too much. 

What does work is Yeoh’s performance. There are very few actors able to convincingly switch between drama, comedy, and action — in one scene. She’s the glue that holds this entire messy movie together.

Best moment: The universe where Pixar’s Ratatouille is real. Sort of.

Rating: 8/10

 

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Part of the reason Nicholas Cage became such an iconic actor over the years are his seemingly wild acting choices. Some have criticized him for this, though I’d counter that if you look at his filmography his most ridiculous acting only happens in ridiculous movies. He’s perfectly capable of playing it straight when the role calls for it.

In this oddball comedy Cage plays it both ways… as versions of himself. Those who wrote him off before ought to reevaluate Cage after watching this one: are you laughing at him, or are you laughing with him?

Nick Cage (Nicholas Cage, but abbreviated Nick instead of Nic) is an actor who’s failing as an actor, a father, and also failing to pay the bills. Fortunately for the latter his agent has found him a quick fix: a Nick Cage superfan in Spain named Javi (Pedro Pascal) wants to fly him there for a party, with an appearance fee of one million dollars.

Cage and Javi end up having a bromance of sorts before the party even begins, though Cage is quickly kidnapped by CIA agents who tell him that Javi is an extremely dangerous international arms dealer. The only person who can save the CIA operation at this point is Cage, who turns out to have little in common with the brave heroes and villains he plays in movies.

Throughout the movie Cage hallucinates a younger and more successful version of himself that he calls “Nicky.” Nicky has his young manic energy and wears the exact same clothes from this real Nicholas Cage TV interview. The deaging visual effects are impressive for a low budget movie.

This movie is absolutely littered with references to real Cage movies like Con Air, The Rock, Face/Off, Wicker Man, etc. and there may be a joke here or there that will go over your head. But that’s fine, the in-jokes aren’t the primary focus.

Although hilarious, the sheer number of plot twists can make it a little hard to follow toward the end unless you’re paying close attention.

Best moment: Nicky looking at his older self and screaming “You’re Nick! FUCKIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING! Ah! Whew! Cage!” 

Rating: 9/10

 

Jerry & Marge Go Large

Recently retired cereal production manager Jerry (Bryan Cranston) discovers a loophole in a state lottery that allows him to tilt the odds in his favor — if he gambles enough money on it. When his wife Marge (Annette Bening) finds out about the lottery winnings she surprises him by encouraging to continue.

Soon the other neighborhood retirees are contributing and they’re all sharing in the wealth… only for some university students to notice the same loophole, pitting the two groups against each other.

What works about this movie is the all-star cast which also includes Michael McKean, Larry Wilmore, and Rainn Wilson. What doesn’t work is taking a (mostly) true story and trying to shoehorn it into a dramedy format. I suspect this would have been more interesting if it stayed truer to the story and focused more on the central characters.

The weakest part is when the drama hinges on a “generation war” between retirees and young university students competing over the same prize pot. The movie seems like it wants us to root for the retirees, but honestly the whole conflict is too contrived to make me care.

Best moment: Larry Wilmore’s character always seems to say exactly what I’m thinking.

Rating: 3/10

 

CatVideoFest 2022

After a two year pandemic hiatus, everyone’s favorite cat film festival is back in theaters with a new collection of short cat videos. These short videos go from videos people recorded of their cats behavior, to heartwarming videos about taking care of cats, to animated shorts. A little something for everyone.

As always, the proceeds from this film are donated to local cat rescue charities.

In case this isn’t the kind of thing for you, maybe you’d be more interested in the first ever DogVideoFest which will supposedly come out later this year.

Best moment: After a cat tries and fails repeatedly to jump over a gate, it simply walks through the bars as though the gate wasn’t even there.

Rating: Once again I’m unsure how to rate a collection of cat videos. I will say I’ve seen a couple of these before, but it’s always more fun to watch funny videos with an audience.

Recent movie review round-up (second half of 2021)

February 13th, 2022

It seems like it had been been ages since I set foot inside any type of live venue, but since my last movie review roundup I have started seeing movies in theaters again. Specifically at my local Alamo Drafthouse, which follows San Francisco’s strict vaccination requirements. I saw about half of these at that theater and the other half at home.

So let’s get into it: my reviews of the movies I watched in the second half of 2021.

 

Dune: Part One

Just like Burning Man, almost everyone forgets that the novel Dune came out of San Francisco’s late 1960’s hippie ideology. And with both there’s politics, drugs, and some unusual ideas about religion/witchcraft all filtered through a psychedelic lens. Also, both involve a lot of sand.

How do you take a long, almost impenetrably complex story and distill it into one movie? It turns out you quietly add “part one” to the title and end it abruptly. Sort of a bait and switch, though I’m not sure how anyone could squeeze an extremely dense 600 page novel into a two and a half hour film.

I don’t feel the need to comment on the story because you’ve had what, like 50 years to read it? In that time it’s also already been adapted for film, television, video games, and comics.

The short version of this part of the story is that House Atreides is selected to be the new operator of the most valuable planet in the universe, a harsh desert planet called Arrakis. Paul Atreides, son of the Duke, has been trained in various skills… including one he technically shouldn’t have been.

What I will say is this is a film that captures the scope of the novel both in the story and in its physical universe. At the same time though between the real footage and the stunningly realistic visual effects, the most distracting thing to me is that the actors’ faces are never covered in sweat when they’re on a hot desert planet.

The cliffhanger (or perhaps just “hanger”?) ending is a double edged sword here. On the one hand it more or less completes the journey of Paul Atreides to the midpoint of the story, but I have no idea if this will make audiences want to see the sequel or leave the theater scratching their heads.

Best moment: The way The Voice is portrayed when the Reverend Mother uses it on Paul.

Rating: 8/10 (Caveat: I’ve read the novel.)

 

CODA

As a Child Of Deaf Adults (or CODA) Ruby is the only hearing person in her family. They don’t understand her love of music and they’re not well adapted into the hearing society around them. The father works on a fishing boat barely making ends meet with the help of his family.

When Ruby joins her school choir it exacerbates the rifts between her and her family. In an unexpected twist on your typical coming of age drama, Ruby’s deaf family has to learn how to adapt to her.

While I understand Ruby’s core struggle, I don’t really buy her family’s reluctance toward her interest in music. The drama feels like too much of a manufactured conflict to me. Yes, the family “translator” is growing up and leaving the nest with a talent her family will never be able to appreciate, but first of all it’s totally normal to appreciate a loved one’s interests even if you’re not a fan, and second they were clearly getting by before Ruby was born.

The one thing this movie absolutely nails is the casting. Ruby’s older brother and parents are portrayed by deaf actors. Ruby is portrayed by Emilia Jones, a teenage actor. Every member of the cast is pretty much perfect for their role. 

Best moment: Learning the heartbreaking reason Ruby was scared to audition.

Rating: 5/10

 

No Time to Die

I guess the James Bond I technically “grew up with” was Pierce Brosnan. Thing is, after GoldenEye all those movies were such a letdown. 

So when Daniel Craig showed up in Casino Royale with a new spin on Bond as a vulnerable character whose job was slowly taking its toll on him, I was ready to give the Bond movies another chance. For the most part I’ve enjoyed what I’ll call the “Craig-Bond” movies.

No Time To Die opens with what’s arguably a prequel to the Craig-Bond movies before jumping to the modern day where Bond has finally retired and settled down with his new lover. If that sounds ominous, congratulations: you remember the end of Casino Royale.

This movie tries to pack in a lot in order to conclude the Craig-Bond era. It has to do three things to succeed:

  1. Follow directly from the previous movie, Spectre.
  2. Tell a new Bond story with at least one new antagonist.
  3. Get the last word in on all the Craig-Bond characters and stories and go out with a bang.

Normally if I had to categorize these I’d argue the first one is the biggest problem: the events of Spectre were too large to ignore, even though it was a critically panned movie (personally I loved Spectre despite its idiotic plot twist.) The third item is also a challenge since wrapping things up naturally while nodding back to the past can take on a clip show vibe too easily.

Alas, I was wrong: the part that doesn’t work here is the typical Bond saves the day story. The villain’s goal is sort of a challenge to pinpoint and worse yet it involves something the writers obviously didn’t see coming: the plan involves a large scale bio weapon attack. Suddenly it’s obvious why this was one of the first movies delayed by COVID-19.

The other problem is its length. At nearly three hours it feels like a long goodbye at times. If I were to edit it down I think I’d cut down several of the action sequences, especially the long gun fight sequence near the end.

As an overall fan of the Craig-Bond era I appreciated the thoughtful approaches to concluding the main character arcs. While I won’t defend every narrative choice in these films, the overall themes of betrayal and death that have permeated the era get a satisfying end.

Best moment: M reading a classic Jack London quote at the end. Weird choice but it totally fits, particularly given their seemingly shared views on eugenics.

Rating: 8/10

 

The French Dispatch

It’s impossible to describe a Wes Anderson movie without acknowledging that it’s a Wes Anderson movie. You kind of know what you’re going to expect: lots of scenes that spring to life like an automaton, a distinct color palette, and a cast of quirky actors like Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand, and Bill Murray. But this movie has a specific visual trick up its sleeve: with its setting in France, it leans heavily into the look of French New Wave cinema — and French animation.

The movie covers three stories, each from a writer at a New Yorker-style magazine written by Americans living in France. Briefly, the first concerns an incarcerated painter, the second about a student revolution, and the third covers an extremely unlikely kidnapping. Each story is presented by the fictional writer behind the piece, and bookended by the events in the editor’s room at the offices of The French Dispatch. 

Though it’s kind of challenging to review an anthology movie like this, I’d say anyone who enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel or Anderson’s other recent films should check this one out. Personally I thought this was much funnier than Grand Budapest.

For some reason this movie only opened at 55 theaters nationwide, and the one I went to was sold out four nights in a row, if not more.

Best moment: The whole kidnapping sequence.

Rating: 8/10

 

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Estranged daughter and grandchildren of deceased Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (RIP Harold Ramis) are forced to move out of their NYC apartment and into Egon’s old farm in the middle of nowhere. Soon, they find themselves restoring his crazy technology and capturing ghosts.

Although Egon’s granddaughter Phoebe is the heart of the movie, her smart but ridiculous summer school teacher Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd, perfectly cast in this role) somehow serves as both the only living person who remembers the events from the original two movies and serves as the main source of comedy. 

How do you make a sequel to a movie like 1984’s Ghostbusters? It’s a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Ghostbusters II was largely panned when it came out, partly for being too similar to the original. The 2016 reboot, well… not great. Afterlife takes a unique approach, although it does bank too heavily on nostalgia at times. 

I think there’s basically one problem with making a sequel to Ghostbusters, and it’s a big one: nobody knows why the first movie works as well as it does, it’s a classic “lightning in a bottle” situation.

Oh and to add to the confusion, a whole generation of us grew up with a cartoon show called The Real Ghostbusters. That show was made for a significantly younger audience in mind, muddying the waters about the target audience for a movie with sex jokes and tobacco use.

All of which is to say, I think it was wise for Afterlife to take a sharp turn and focus on a new set of characters in a very different environment to start with a clean-ish slate. This seems to be the general template for new follow ups to old movies, aka the “legacy sequel.”

The big problem with this movie is it just isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. Most of the attempts at humor land with a thud. I’m not sure if it’s the script’s fault or if some of the parts are simply miscast. Certainly none of the main characters here match Bill Murray or Dan Akroyd at the height of their comedy careers.

Best moment: Anytime Paul Rudd is on screen. 

Rating: 6/10

 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

I’m not a big fan of comic book movies, and I’ll admit I watched this one entirely because it’s partially set in San Francisco.

Shaun/Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his friend Katy (comedian Awkwafina) are perfectly cast as coworkers at the valet stand at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill.

The “set in San Francisco” side of the movie is a mixed bag. On the one hand the establishing shots are pretty generic, but on the other the Chinese characters in the movie live in the Richmond District instead of the obvious choice of Chinatown. And that’s totally accurate — there are cultural enclaves all over the city and in the Richmond in particular where you might walk across the street from a Russian neighborhood and find yourself in a Chinese neighborhood. So thumbs up to the location scouting there.

On the other hand, what sort of kills the local theme is a fight on a “San Francisco Transit” bus (I guess Muni is a trademark?) which takes an unexpectedly fast route from Noe Valley to the Stockton Tunnel to Ghirardelli Square. This would be unforgivable if it weren’t such a memorable and well choreographed fight sequence.

That’s the main problem with Shang-Chi: it’s pretty fun when it’s a Kung Fu movie, but by the end it’s yet another big, poorly done CGI battle where you can’t really tell what the stakes are, let alone what’s happening on the screen. I get the distinct feeling they ran over budget on this one and just had to throw an ending together quickly.

Best moment: All the hand-to-hand combat scenes are incredibly well done. Too bad there aren’t more of them.

Rating: 3/10

 

Last Night In Soho

Fashion design student Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie) moves from rural England to London to continue her education. She clearly doesn’t fit in with the big city crowd, and her supernatural visions are beginning to interfere in her new friendships.

Everything seems (relatively) normal until Ellie moves out of the dorms and into her own apartment. That’s when her visions really become troubling.

Suddenly, everything skips back to the 1960’s (or does it?) and Ellie meets a woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy) who’s nearly her doppelganger, albeit a much more confident one. Sandie is somehow involved with a creepy man named Jack (Doctor Who’s Matt Smith.) These “time jumps” become increasingly blurred, terrifying, and chaotic.

Pretty much everything here works, especially the music and visuals — the psychedelic visuals against the streets of London look like something from a Hitchcock-meets-Argento thriller. Without spoiling anything the big reveals at the end were shocking and absolutely not what I expected.

Unlike most of today’s movies where the pacing lulls in the middle, Last Night In Soho is more of a slow burn. Personally I like that better, but I can also see how some people might check out after the first 30 minutes if they don’t feel invested right away.

I have to praise Matt Smith for this one. Despite being a friendly familiar face, he’s absolutely terrifying here. Really got under my skin.

Best moment: When Ellie breaks through to Sandie.

Rating: 8/10

 

The Matrix Resurrections

Of all the “legacy sequel” films (see also: Ghostbusters: Afterlife) not many interrogate what that legacy even means… except for this one. 

Our hero Thomas Anderson/Neo is back, and is now under the belief that his previous memories came from a video game series he created called “The Matrix Trilogy.” Suddenly their parent company is going to make a new Matrix game, with or without them. Hey, meta commentary on why this movie was made! And if that wasn’t enough, a returning character even threatens to make a spinoff.

The problem with this movie is basically everything else.

First, there are so many scenes from the original Matrix movie that it seems like a rehash. It’s arguably worse than Star Wars: The Force Awakens because at times it straight up splices footage from the first film in instead of coming up with an excuse to recreate those scenes.

Second, the original Matrix trilogy started exploring pitfalls with the concept of simulation theory but that all seems to have been swept aside here in favor of further exploring the side characters. It’s just not compelling storytelling when the core of the story is largely ignored.

My biggest issue though are some of the fight sequences. Even at its worst the original trilogy had absolutely immaculate fight sequences. In this movie they’re very hit or miss, with the massive miss of the train fight. That entire sequence looks like something from a straight-to-video movie staring Steven Seagal. Yes, it’s that bad.

The strangest thing about this movie is that it was released at all when it’s clearly a middle finger to the studio and intended to slam the door shut on the franchise. But oddly that’s the most satisfying thing about the movie — it’s completely confident in its lack of ambition in extending a story that’s already been done to death.

Best moment: “Are memories turned into fiction any less real? Is reality based in memory nothing but fiction?”

Rating: 4/10

Recent movie review round-up (first half of 2021)

July 19th, 2021

Once again it’s movie time! Similar to my last movie review roundup I watched all of these movies from home, although now that most of us are vaccinated a few theaters have reopened. Personally I can’t see myself going back to theaters until things are fully back to normal — no temperature screenings, masks that stop you from eating popcorn, etc. That’s my big hope for the movie review roundup next time: actually seeing movies in theaters again.

Or maybe that’s just a pipe dream. Either way without further ado, here are the movies I watched in the first half of this year.

 

Synchronic

Steve and Dennis, a pair of paramedics in New Orleans, come across some victims with unusual injuries. The injuries turn out to be related to Synchronic, a new recreational designer drug. At first this might sound an awful lot like the 2011 film Limitless but the similarities end there.

See, the hallucinogenic effects of Synchronic are not hallucinogenic at all — the effects are the result of unpredictable time travel. When Dennis’ daughter disappears after using the drug Steve takes it upon himself to administer the drug on himself in order to rescue her.

Sometimes this movie is listed as a sci-fi horror, yet it’s more of a sci-fi drama. After the mysterious opening sequence it’s not scary or suspenseful enough to be a horror movie at all. 

The main problem with this movie is it takes the concept and explores it in an interesting way, but then takes it way too seriously for how ridiculous and illogical it is in the first place. The tone is very uneven — personally I think it would have worked better as a comedy as some of the film’s strongest beats are firmly in the comedy realm.

Best moment: Steve systematically exploring and documenting how Synchronic works.

Rating: 5/10

 

Willy’s Wonderland

After experiencing car trouble a mysterious mute unnamed tough guy (Nicholas Cage) accepts a job for one night as the janitor at Willy’s Wonderland — a dilapidated Chuck E. Cheese knockoff — in exchange for car repairs.

The small town where Willy’s is located has a surprising number of missing persons cases, all of whom had accepted a similar offer in the past.

Where did they go? Well obviously the animatronics at Willy’s come to life at night and murder people. A band of young townsfolk arrive to burn the place down and warn the new janitor, only to find he’s completely unphased by the situation.

Armed with nothing more than cleaning supplies and a steady diet of caffeinated sodas, Cage’s janitor takes on the deadly animatronics one by one, tearing them apart before wrapping their remains in garbage bags as though they are nothing more than the trash he was hired to remove. Unfortunately most of the locals aren’t so fearless.

Played more for laughs than scares, Willy’s Wonderland is like if you took a supernatural slasher movie and then tossed in an action hero with predictable yet satisfying results. It’s simple, dark, and funny in all the right ways. While it’s far from perfect I wish more ridiculous films like this existed.

Some people have pointed out the similarities between this movie and the Five Nights at Freddy’s video game series. While there’s certainly a resemblance, I think this isn’t entirely fair for two reasons. First the idea of animatronics coming to life is only a slight twist on the age old nightmare about statues coming to life. Second, the overall stories are otherwise dissimilar.

My main caveat with this film is the sloppy fight scene editing. I realize this was shot on a low budget with a tight schedule, but these scenes are so integral to the story that it would have benefited from having a fight scene coordinator to give these scenes a coherent flow. That said the puppeteering work does capture the threatening nature of the animatronic creatures.

Best moment: When the first animatronic draws blood and Cage’s expression slowly turns to an evil grin before he goes absolutely apeshit.

Rating: 7/10

 

Bad Trip

Chris (Eric Andre) gets into an embarrassing situation with a vacuum cleaner at a car wash right as he spots his high school crush, Maria, for the first time in years. Meanwhile his best friend Bud is working at a computer repair store when Bud’s sister Trina pulls up in a bright pink car and robs the store.

This sets a few events into motion: After getting fired from the car wash Chris gets a new job at a smoothie shop and runs into his crush again, who tells him she has an art gallery in New York City. Trina is sent to jail, while Chris and Bud decide to “borrow” her pink car to take a road trip from Florida to NYC in an attempt to track down Chris’ crush again. Unfortunately for the two of them, Trina breaks out of jail, steals a police car, and chases after them to retrieve her beloved pink car.

To be clear the story is really nothing more than a loose framework on which to hang a bunch of hidden camera pranks. Like most comedy films the story both supports the jokes and occasionally feels like padding for time. However some of the funniest and most extreme moments aren’t in the trailer which is very unusual for a comedy.

Many reviewers compared this to the Borat movies but I think that largely misses the point — the majority of the people being pranked in the Borat movies are completely aware they’re on camera, whereas here they are only made aware they’re being filmed after the fact. This is made clear in scenes played over the credits with the people being pranked laughing with the actors and crew as the hidden cameras are pointed out to them.

The more obvious comparison is to the film’s star Eric Andre’s The Eric Andre Show which features hidden camera pranks in every episode. There’s one prank in this movie that’s essentially recycled from The Eric Andre Show but fortunately it’s a good one, and the reaction here is more shocking.

As a fan of The Eric Andre Show I think other fans will enjoy it, as will fans of cringey hidden camera pranks in general. Be aware there’s a lot of dick jokes, fake vomit, etc. If you’re on the fence go watch an episode of the show first to get a sense of the type of humor involved since each episode is only 11 minutes long.

I have to point out that Tiffany Haddish who plays Trina here is absolutely perfect for the role. She comes across as both sympathetic and terrorizing, and in one memorable scene repeatedly whips the patrons of a diner into an absolute frenzy. 

Best moment: The ending, which I should have seen coming in hindsight. 

Rating: 9/10

 

Come True

“Dreams aren’t what you think” has been a staple premise in scary stories since… well probably as long as humans have been around.

Come True takes this basic concept and tosses in some science fiction in a way that makes you think “Hey, remember Inception? I could be watching that instead.”

The story focuses on a teen runaway named Sarah who joins a sleep study just for a place to sleep. All is not as it seems of course, and this mysterious dream study which turns out to be a slight twist on the “Ever dream this man?” meme.

While Come True does an admirable job of amping up the suspense, it never quite manages to build to anything worthwhile. It’s like a rollercoaster with a really big lift hill but the drops aren’t very sudden and the corkscrew loop is pretty boring.

I’m not going to beat it around the bush: the ending to this movie is both dumb and completely unoriginal. In fact, given the topic of “dreams” I bet you’ve already guessed what it is. Yeah, it’s that bad.

Despite flaws in the story I will say Julia Sarah Stone is great in the lead role. Credit where credit is due.

Best moment: Sarah learning the truth about the sleep study.

Rating: 3/10

 

Nobody

Hutch (Bob Odenkirk) is presented as your average suburban dad. One night his home is invaded by a pair of robbers. After deciding to let them go — there wasn’t much to take anyway — he feels emasculated. Something in him is re-awakened; specifically his past work as “auditor,” which turns out to be more of an asskicker role than a financial one.

Borrowing his dad’s FBI badge, Hutch tracks down the thieves only to find they’re extremely desperate. He gives up but on his way home a bunch of young Russian punks terrorize a girl on a bus. Hutch resolves the issue by beating all the punks to within inches of their lives.

Naturally, one of the guys he beat up on that bus is related to a scary Russian mobster, leaving Hutch no choice but to single-handedly take down an entire mob.

Much of what makes this film work is the casting choices. Bob Odenkirk is totally believable as a suburban dad, but as a one man killing machine? It’s just so ridiculous that you can’t help but to laugh. Likewise for Hutch’s dad, a scary ex FBI agent with a huge stash of guns played by — who else? — Christopher Lloyd. 

This is one of those films where if you watch the trailer, you pretty much know what you’re in for. That isn’t to say there are no twists or anything but if the trailer is appealing you’re going to enjoy the movie.

One thing I personally found amusing is that most of the time when you see characters in a movie using a computer, it’s either product placement, some generic operating system that looks like it could be either Windows or Mac OS, or something completely ridiculous like that 3D file system in Jurassic Park. In this film we see a Russian hacker running Ubuntu Linux with its recognizable custom Gnome 3 shell… something a real hacker might actually use.

Best moment: The spectacular way in which the gangsters’ plan to kidnap Hutch backfires.

Rating: 8/10

 

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Barb and Star, a pair of eccentric middle aged women who “worked” in a furniture store find themselves laid off and directionless. Ostracized from their group of equally eccentric middle aged friends they decide to take a vacation together to — you guessed it — Vista Del Mar.

Meanwhile, a group of villains are planning on killing the entire population of Vista Del Mar using deadly mosquitos. In an “Austin Powers” like move both Star and lead villain Sharon are played by the movie’s co-creator Kristen Wiig. Sharon’s murderous intentions stem from being embarrassed as a child at Vista Del Mar’s annual seafood festival.

Barb and Star wind up unintentionally taking drugs and dancing with one of the evil henchmen, Edgar, accidentally disrupting the plan.

The movie never quite finds its sweet spot, wavering between a journey of self discovery in the Barb and Star subplot and the ridiculous scene chewing in the villain’s subplot. It doesn’t help that Barb and Star come across as mildly annoying and half fleshed out characters.

While the overall premise is funny, what this movie lacks is connective tissue between comedic beats up until the last quarter of the movie. By that point I can’t help but to feel the average viewer may have sighed and thrown in the towel.

This is a difficult movie to rate. As a comedy it’s occasionally dull until the end when it all comes together. The problem is there’s a runtime of 107 minute but maybe 80 minutes of it feel necessary. 

Best moment: The reveal that both Barb and Star are each running away with Edgar separately.

Rating: 6/10

 

Boss Level

Roy, a former soldier turned alcoholic is stuck in a Groundhog’s Day style time loop where he’s the only one who recalls the previous events. But unlike Groundhog’s Day this isn’t merely about trying to improve his life, it’s about maintaining it: the same killers come after him every day and he has to learn how to fight them all off, dying day after day just to get one step further.

Oh and to make things worse he has no idea who’s after him or why. To the audience it’s all clearly connected to a military project run by an evil contractor (Mel Gibson, surrounded by a cloud of cigar smoke) and his unwitting scientist, Roy’s ex-wife (Naomi Watts.)

Without saying too much throughout the violent action/sci-fi/comedy there’s a recurring video game motif (hence the name of the movie) that only sort of makes sense toward the end without ever coming completely full circle.

While it’s by no means a great film, there’s enough campy, quirky humor with some genuinely great quips where  I could see it become one of those B-movies which eventually lands as a sleeper hit. This assumes the right audience finds it though, and to be honest I have no idea what the “right” audience would be for this film.

Again I don’t like to include spoilers in these reviews but the ending is deeply lacking and unsatisfying. Supposedly they filmed more than one ending, so it’s totally possible this gets re-released as a better film in the future.

Best moment: When Roy finally realizes killing all the bad guys isn’t nearly enough.

Rating: 4/10

 

Super Mario Bros: The Morton Jankel Cut

Normally I only review new movies in these blog entries, but here I’m reviewing a new cut of an old movie — a movie that’s pretty much universally hated — the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie.

There’s a lot of backstory as to why the film was such a disaster, but the short version is that co-creators Morton and Jankel had a vision for the movie that significantly clashed with what Hollywood Pictures (aka Disney) had in mind. Specifically, Morton and Jankel were the creators of Max Headroom and wanted to create something with a similar gritty steampunk vibe. The studio on the other hand wanted a family friendly film. The result? A movie with a wildly inconsistent tone and a story that’s borderline incomprehensible.

This new cut is the work of artist Garrett Gilchrist who took an early workprint of the film on VHS, restored it, and re-edited the entire movie to include missing scenes and even restored/modified some of the soundtrack. According to Gilchrist there will be a cut that incorporates better quality footage from the Blu Ray release in the future.

The footage that was edited back in is very obvious as it includes timestamps over the footage, as was typical of workprints at that time. This additional footage ranges from short sequences which add a small amount of context to entirely “new” scenes that were edited out of the theatrical cut.

At the end of the day the real question is, does this edit redeem the movie? The short answer is no; the story is a mess, but a much better organized mess. The longer answer is that it’s still an improvement over the original cut and I think for those interested in watching this movie as a historical curiosity this is the best cut to watch of the two available. I also want to point out that like some movies released around the same (Jurassic Park, etc.) the special effects and early computer graphics largely hold up.

So for this edit I’ll give it an A for effort but… there’s only so much even the best editor can do to polish a turd. Still, aside from some missing audio here and there and a brief moment with missing composite effects this is clearly an improvement over the theatrical release — but mostly because it’s not bafflingly incoherent.

Let me repeat that again: this is the first time I’ve watched this movie and actually understood what was happening.

I should note it’s probably not technically legal to watch this movie, but… who cares? There’s absolutely no reason to watch the original, and even this version is still an exercise in self-punishment.

Best moment: The new (to us) Iggy and Spike rap sequence, which finally explains why Koopa turns against them.

Rating: 3/10 (The theatrical cut may not even deserve a 1/10 so this is intended as high praise to the editor.)

 

Luca

Off the coast of Italy, a pair of small-time fishermen accidentally discover a young “sea monster.” As we soon discover the sea monster’s name is Luca and he lives in an underwater village of his fellow brethren along with some dopey fish. In his society the humans boating around above them are “land monsters” which they’re terrified of. Luca is curious about these land monsters and some of the technology he managed to steal from the fishermen, like a record player (the first indicator of when this story is set.)

After a chance encounter with Alberto, an older boy sea monster, they swim up to the surface together where they do “the change,” transforming into their human counterparts — something Luca was warned never to do by his parents. Yes this is a similar concept as The Little Mermaid but the comparison between the stories pretty much ends there.

The pair slowly learn about human life in Italy circa 1960 through trial and error, making this a fish out of water story in the most literal of ways. I don’t want to spoil the whole story but it involves a somewhat convoluted quest to acquire a Vespa and standing up to a bully.

The animation really nails a realistic looking Italian seaside village and perhaps more impressively the motion of water — something notoriously difficult to animate. Unfortunately this has the unintended consequence of making the human characters look out of place, particularly the ones with more cartoony character designs. Still, that’s a minor quibble as Pixar’s animation has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years and this film is no exception.

At first the idea that Luca and Alberto change back to sea monsters as soon as they get wet is treated like a joke that never quite sticks the landing. However toward the end of the movie it winds up redeeming itself as it becomes integral to the story.

The voice acting is on point in this film especially considering the main roles are all voiced by effectively unknown teenage actors playing against a strong supporting cast that includes Sacha Baron Cohen and stand up comedy legend Jim Gaffigan.

Even by Pixar’s standards this is an amazing film, but it’s even more impressive when you consider the entire team was working from home due to the pandemic.

Best moment: The surprisingly happy ending.

Rating: 10/10

 

Pig

Rob, (Nicolas Cage) a local celebrity chef turned recluse lives in the woods of Oregon with his pet truffle hunting pig. Rob trades his truffles to a wealthy yuppie named Amir in exchange for ingredients and supplies. When Rob’s pig is kidnapped in a violent attack, Amir takes Rob back to Portland to find his beloved pig. Despite his disheveled and bloody appearance Rob is still recognized by every chef.

Now any time you have a movie featuring Nic Cage you have to ask yourself, is this going to be one of those “Nic Cage movies?” Willy’s Wonderland (see above) is certainly one of them. Or the Wicker Man remake (“NOT THE BEES!”) But then you have movies like Adaptation and Leaving Las Vegas proving Cage is a perfectly serious actor when he’s working with a serious script.

Despite its unusual premise this film fits squarely in the latter category. It boils down to the fact that the mystery of tracking down the pig isn’t really what this movie is about: it’s a portrait of a broken man.

Or should that be broken men? Every single chef Rob meets in the world of fine dining is sketchy, empty inside, or both. While it’s never said outright the theft of the pig merely seems as though it was merely one minor event in some dark underbelly of the restaurant scene. Except of course for Rob — for him it’s personal.

Pretty much everything about this film works. It looks fantastic though some small part of that could be chalked up to the forests of the Pacific Northwest. The pace isn’t leisurely though it takes a leisurely pace at the right moments. And while there aren’t many characters they’re all perfectly cast.

First time film writer/director Michael Sarnoski clearly set himself up to win here and he largely did. What doesn’t quite work is the tendency of the story to bring up more questions than answers: we learn a lot about these characters but the film leans heavily on the actors to sell their inner struggles without offering much insight on their pasts.

Best moment: Rob bringing a grown man to tears (I won’t tell you how or why, just go watch the movie.)

Rating: 8/10

Recent movie review round-up (second half of 2020)

January 18th, 2021

In the last installment of my movie review roundups I expressed some concern about new movies in 2020 due to the pandemic. Thankfully I was wrong: while many big budget movies were delayed, 2020 turned out to be a great year for new indie and medium budget movies debuting on streaming services.

Surprisingly three movies on this list take place right here in San Francisco, which I was not aware of going in to any of them.

So in no well thought out order here’s what I watched in the latter half of the year.

 

Black Bear

An outcast actress named Allison who was deemed “difficult to work with” tries forging her own path by becoming an indie filmmaker. She’s sharing a giant cabin in the woods near a lake with an unmarried couple with a child on the way. The couple doesn’t get along at all and after a series of arguments and too much wine, all three of them become the third wheels of the trio.

Without spoiling too much there’s a film within a film aspect happening here which is revealed about halfway through. What’s real? Who’s acting and to what extent? Is this all imaginary?

This film has some great moments and plenty of thoughtful dark comedy. But it ultimately just made me go re-watch Mulholland Dr. again. Both movies share very similar neo-noir and film-within-a-film concepts. However, Black Bear doesn’t feed on the uncertainty it creates nearly as well as Mulholland Dr., which makes it the weaker — though more approachable — of the two films.

Best moment: When the first twist hits, and you realize in retrospect that you should have seen it coming a mile away.

Rating: 6/10

 

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character from Da Ali G Show is back for a second film. This time there’s more upfront explanation of the backstory, which starts to drag after a while despite some genuinely hilarious moments. The gist is that once again Borat is coming to America, but this time he’s stuck with his 15 year old daughter Tutar who, naturally, lives in a cage.

Cohen’s typical cringe comedy antics are on display here with various disguises, trying to learn about different aspects of American society and failing miserably, etc.

While you’ve probably already read about at least one spoiler for the movie, there are plenty of shocking moments that surprisingly did NOT make the news. Perhaps that’s more of a testament to 2020’s crazy news cycle than what happens in the movie though. And yes, that Rudy Giuliani scene is far more alarming than it was made out to be in the news.

One unfortunate aspect of this movie’s distribution on Amazon is that you will most likely have to enable subtitles to understand certain scenes as their player — at least for me — didn’t turn on subtitles automatically for non-English scenes. 

Although I have to admit I didn’t see the twist ending coming, this particular style of prank/cringe comedy is so widely imitated these days that it doesn’t feel as fresh as it did when Cohen debuted his Borat character two decades ago, let alone his more recent efforts like Who Is America. But it’s still a wild movie with plenty of uncomfortable laughs.

Best moment: Professional babysitter Jeanise Jones who isn’t just the only sane person in the entire movie, but actually cares about Tutar’s well being.

Rating: 7/10

 

The Trial of the Chicago 7

This is the story of the 1968 Democratic Convention protests in Chicago told primarily through a courtroom drama and flashbacks to a Vietnam War protest. 

Yes, Sacha Baron Cohen also starred in this movie, cast perfectly as 1960’s activist and prankster Abbie Hoffman. It’s hardly the only spot-on casting choice in this film though it’s interesting that Cohen appeared in two very different political films this year.

Let me point out that the film gets a lot of things correct, in particular the ideological clashing between the protestors themselves and the courtroom antics. It also gets the gist of the case correct with the judge being unsympathetic to the defendants, how the defendants should have been tried separately (if at all), and most notably that you don’t want a high profile jester in the court, let alone two — Hoffman and Rubin.

At the same time, I think the film’s flashbacks undercut the true story with a variety of embellishments from inventing new characters to inaccurate representations of events.

Taking some liberties with a true story clearly worked for writer (and director here) Aaron Sorkin before with his script for The Social Network, yet this time his tale fizzles out as he attempts to dramatize a much better known story that simply doesn’t need any additional drama. The actors manage to elevate the material from time to time but can’t salvage it entirely.

The biggest issue is there never seems to be any justification as to why this story needed to be told in 2020. I appreciate not being hit over the head with an obvious message, but the parallels to Trump’s America could have at least been ever so slightly underlined.

Best moment: Hoffman and Rubin’s courtroom antics are all funny, but the best one was when they came in dressed in judicial robes. And yes, that’s based on a real event.

Rating: 5/10

 

Sonic the Hedgehog

Remember Sega? Remember their iconic 90’s Sonic the Hedgehog series of video games? For a lot of people the answer to both questions is going to be a resounding no, which leads to a pretty obvious question: who is this movie made for? That was the main question I went into with this one and I’m still not sure I entirely have an answer.

While it’s a pretty universal law that all movies based on video games are going to be bad, a notion cemented by 1993’s Super Mario Bros., in Sonic the Hedgehog thankfully nobody is taking anything seriously. This is a movie well aware of its own absurdity.

The story setup is basically this: after being hunted on his home world, the speedy Sonic the Hedgehog is given a bag of rings that let him teleport to other planets. He winds up on Earth in a small town and eventually befriends a sheriff’s officer named Tom who’s on his way to becoming a police officer in San Francisco.

Meanwhile after Sonic accidentally causes a power outage, the Pentagon decides to bring in Dr. Robotnik, a mad scientist played by a mustache-twirling Jim Carey, to hunt down and eliminate the problem.

My expectations were low going in and while I can’t say Sonic is going to be a classic film by any means, it’s a reliable and fun diversion. Not every joke lands — or even most of them to be honest — though the movie manages to capture a similar feel to not-very-serious comic book movies like Guardians of the Galaxy.

Best moment: The mix of real footage and computer animation is solid throughout the movie — if I had to pick just one example I’d go with the bar fight scene. The animation is particularly remarkable as Sonic’s design underwent significant alterations shortly before release.

Rating: 6/10

 

The Invisible Man

This new adaptation of The Invisible Man is very loosely based on the H.G. Wells novel, so if you’ve read it or seen the previous film adaptations you’ll still be going in fresh. Even the genre has shifted slightly to lean on horror more than science fiction.

Cecilia is trapped in a controlling relationship with her husband, an optics engineering genius named Adrian. One night she makes an escape with the help of her sister and goes to live with a detective friend for her safety.

Cecilia soon gets the news that Adrian has killed himself, a relief at first… but given the title of the movie you can easily guess where this is headed.

Can’t say too much more about the plot without going into spoilers. Check out the trailer though, which provides the gist of the story while slightly misdirecting the viewer. At least one scene in the trailer is not even in the movie.

Overall I enjoyed this film. Like the best horror movies it keeps the audience guessing without revealing the villain too soon, for obvious reasons in this case. The cinematography masterfully presents empty space as potentially treacherous. For a two hour film it manages to keep viewers on their toes until the very end.

My only complaint is why set this in San Francisco when only the establishing shots are filmed here? Places have their own distinct visual language and it’s distracting when it doesn’t line up with what’s presented on screen, occasionally breaking the tension.

Best moment: The big reveal and its immediate aftermath. Can’t much more without going into spoiler territory, except that it’s the best kind of jump scare: the one you’ll anticipate long in advance.

Rating: 9/10

 

Feels Good Man

This documentary is like peeling back the layers of an onion to explain a strange phenomenon; an alt-right internet meme that started out as an innocent and completely unrelated comic.

Matt Furie, a soft spoken San Francisco artist created a comic called Boys Club while working at Community Thrift. One of the characters in the comic is Pepe the Frog, a humanoid with a frog head. At one point Pepe takes his pants off to pee while standing up with the dialog “feels good man.” For various reasons both this phrase and the image of Pepe become an instant internet meme, eventually finding its way to the 4chan imageboard popular with disenfranchised basement dweller types.

Matt Furie initially ignores the spread of Pepe across the internet until it becomes classified as a hate symbol after being associated with white supremacy. Far too long after it’s spiraled out of control Furie decides to fight back, officially killing off the character and suing sellers of counterfeit Pepe merchandise such as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Oh and just like the “doge” meme before it, Pepe becomes the mascot of a cryptocurrency because of course it does.

Much of the film centers on interviews with Furie and his wife with a mix of archival footage and animation. Self-described druid John Michael Greer is presented as a voice of reason in this completely insane story.

It’s a very well put together documentary and while I do recommend it at times it comes across as a little too sensationalized. I legitimately do feel bad for Matt Furie though.

Best moment: On a personal note as someone who’s been stopping by Community Thrift here in San Francisco every now and then for ages, this one surprised me. If anything I’d expect an anarchist zine to come out of that place.

Rating: 8/10

 

Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill and Ted’s band Wyld Stallyns hasn’t had a hit in decades. To make matters worse they now have to write a song to unite the world and don’t have much time to do it; not only is time itself collapsing, but a killer robot named Dennis is coming after them. Given access to their old time traveling phone booth they decide to go into the future and attempt to steal the song from their future selves

Meanwhile their respective daughters — Billie and Thea, naturally — borrow a more modern time machine to recruit some of the best musicians from throughout history to join their dads’ band. 

Going in I was skeptical of a sequel to a funny but old pair of movies from nearly 30 years ago. Turns out when the concept essentially boils down to an absurd lighthearted comedy with time travel, outdated slang, and music, there’s plenty to room to craft a ridiculous tale that only needs to be fleshed out enough to get from one funny moment to the next. What more can you expect from a Bill & Ted movie, dude?

My only real complaint is it left me wanting to learn more about Billie & Thea’s relationship as it felt like a one-note joke here. That said the last half of the movie really delivers. In terms of making a new entry in a movie series from decades ago I’d rate this as a solid effort.

Stay for the post-credits sequence which is most excellent, my dudes.

Best moment: A posthumous George Carlin “hologram” as a nod to the previous two films.

Rating: 7/10

 

Another Round

Normally I won’t see a film just because of who’s in it, but after seeing Mads Mikkelsen’s eccentric performances in everything from Casino Royale to the Hannibal television series, I’ve been curious to see him in a film from his home country of Denmark. When this one appeared on my radar with good critical reviews I figured why not, if you’ll pardon the pun, give it a shot?

Another Round is an original dark comedy about a middle aged teacher named Martin (Mikkelsen) at the equivalent of a high school in Copenhagen. He’s stuck in a rut, rarely gets to see his wife, and when his students (and their parents) blame him for their bad grades it seems clear his interest in life is fading.

In the first quarter or so of the film we see Martin and three of his fellow school employees bond over drinks. One of them gets to talking about an obscure philosopher who once remarked that humans were born with a blood alcohol content 0.05% too low. This leads to an experiment starting with Martin taking a swig of vodka in the school bathroom. Soon all four of them become day drinkers.

Best moment: Again I’m steering clear of spoilers here but the ending is very memorable and surprisingly fun.

Rating: 8/10

 

The Last Blockbuster

Remember Blockbuster Video? Even though most of us probably associate Blockbuster with fees for not rewinding your tapes, the company didn’t go under until well into the age of DVDs. Despite the company’s demise a few franchisees held on — and now there’s only one left. 

This documentary presents several different angles about Blockbuster: nostalgia for the 80’s and 90’s, the rise and fall of Blockbuster corporate, and a look at the life of the woman who runs the last Blockbuster.

The first two aspects of the film are largely through talking heads. The nostalgia angle is covered by the likes of director Kevin Smith and comedian Brian Posehn, the latter of whom rented VCRs since he couldn’t afford to buy one.

Likewise a separate roundup of talking heads familiar with Blockbuster’s business guide us through how the company started, the tactics they used to muscle out (or acquire) their local competitors, and ultimately why the company didn’t make it.

And finally we also get the story of Sandi, the woman running the last Blockbuster. She’s a very hands-on type who does everything from purchasing movies to solving IT issues. Her family and various current and former employees from the store are interviewed along with her. These glimpses into the daily life at the store end with Sandi trying to figure out how the store can survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the film the number of remaining stores steadily decreases, despite the efforts of John Oliver on Last Week Tonight promoting the three remaining Blockbusters in Alaska by sending one of them memorabilia from Russell Crowe movies.

While all these individual stories and tidbits are interesting, unfortunately they hardly overlap enough to make for a cohesive documentary. It banks so heavily on (frankly, undeserved) nostalgia that it struggles to find a good argument for why Blockbuster should still exist as a physical store. Many of the people we see treat the last Blockbuster more like a living museum than an actual store. Even Sandi herself seems nostalgic, looking backward rather than to the future.

Best moment: Gen-Xers remembering how they struggled to find a good date night movie at Blockbuster. I laughed out loud at this, as though younger generations don’t spend time scrolling through Netflix or whatever for the same reason.

Rating: 7/10

 

Wild Mountain Thyme

Perhaps the weirdest movie of the year — but not necessarily for the intended reasons. The movie kicks off with Christopher Walken’s character telling us he’s dead before backtracking a couple years.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. The real problem with this movie are the Irish accents, which seem evenly split between “actual Irish actor” to “failed an audition for a Lucky Charms commercial.”  Walken in particular doesn’t sound like he’s even trying. The differences are so jarring it’s hard to believe these actors are even in the same scenes together.

Getting back to the story it’s about a man named Anthony Reilly and a woman named Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) who work neighboring farms in Ireland. The two are clearly in love but too stubborn to do anything about it.

This all changes one day when Anthony’s cousin (Jon Hamm) comes to town from New York City with eyes not only on the farm, but on Rosemary as well.

Aside from the accents the big problem with this movie is the script: the dialog is cheesy, the characters are flimsy with little backstory, and there’s no real sense of pacing.

Whereas an average movie tends to sag in the middle, Wild Mountain Thyme’s entire first half is largely pointless. It’s all very day-dreamy filler until Jon Hamm shows up and kicks the story in motion. From the halfway mark it’s at least enjoyable, if not completely obvious where it’s headed.

At some point I had to stop the movie and look up if it was written by an Irish or American screenwriter. Turns out it was written and directed by an Irish-American living in NYC. I’ve never been less surprised in my entire life.

Best moment: Any moment Emily Blunt is on screen as she’s the only actor trying to make this idiotic movie work.

Rating: 2/10

 

I Used To Go Here

Kate is a writer whose first book “Seasons Passed” isn’t selling well and her book tour has been cancelled as a result. This comedy film more or less begins when Kate’s former writing professor invites her for a reading at her old college (hence the name of the film) and she jumps at the chance.

From there it turns into a predictable nostalgia trip for Kate, catching up with old friends and meeting the new batch of roommates who live in the same home she used to.

The characters are very much cookie cutter tropes, which is fine for a comedy. I mean if you expected Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun movies to have any character development, you were watching the wrong movie. But what works fine for a comedy (and worked for the first two acts of this movie) doesn’t work when it shifts suddenly into a drama in the last act. A drama with no well established stakes simply cannot work.

While I will have to say this is a funny movie with a lot of sharp jokes and cringey moments, the ending let all the steam out for me. That said it’s not a long movie so it’s tough to complain too much about something I got a kick out of, even if it didn’t work entirely.

Best moment: The line “Honestly I just can’t think of a good lie here,” which I may have to use if I’m ever in a similar situation.

Rating: 6/10

 

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Lucy goes on a long drive with her new boyfriend Jesse, despite her apathetic feelings toward him, to meet his parents. During the drive they have a long, philosophical, and meandering conversation filled with silent pauses. During the silent moments, Lucy’s inner thoughts are presented to us as a voiceover, with Jesse’s voice interrupting her internal monologue.

During the ride Lucy recites a poem she wrote about the dread of coming home, which foretells what’s about to come.

The meeting with parents gets inexplicably awkward at first, with her boyfriend’s embarrassingly oversharing mom telling uncomfortable stories about Jesse’s childhood.

Soon various shifts and jumps happen which I won’t spoil here, other than to add that a (seemingly) different story cuts in here and there. 

If you liked Charlie Kaufman’s other movies (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, etc.) you’ll probably find much to like in this movie’s maze of dream logic. Otherwise you might consider checking out those earlier films first.

Best moment: Whatever moment you first notice that something is off, which I’d suspect is a little different for each viewer.

Rating: 7/10

 

Jiu Jitsu

A tough young American man suffering from severe amnesia wakes up in an army base in Burma, proceeding to kick everyone’s ass with his bare hands for no clear reason. After being reunited with his team of fellow ass-kickers it’s revealed his name is Jake — and he’s a key part of their mission.

Jake soon meets the eccentric Wylie (Nicolas Cage) who explains the backstory: an alien fighter named Brax returns to Earth regularly and, according to legend, demands a “fair” fight for some definition of fair that is never explained. The stakes? If Brax isn’t satisfied it’s the end of life on Earth.

As you can easily guess from the above description this is not a good movie. At the same time it’s not the unwatchable schlock some critics made it out to be. Yes, the story is very thin, the CGI is mediocre, and cinematography is wildly inconsistent.

Yet at the same time the story is so goofy and the fight scenes have such laughable sound effects (whoosh! whip!) that it’s clearly an homage to action comedy movies from twenty plus years ago. Come to think of it, if this came out in the 1990’s it would probably feature Jackie Chan. Even the major plot points are so absurd and often inconsequential I couldn’t help but to laugh at them.

Best moment: Whenever Nicolas Cage is on screen doing his thing. Unfortunately despite receiving top billing that’s maybe 20 minutes of the entire movie at most.

Rating: 4/10

 

Soul

Joe, a music teacher at a New York City middle school is tiring of his students’ poor performances just as he’s offered a full time teaching position. Meanwhile he’s excited by an offer to perform on stage with a famous jazz musician at a local club, foreshadowing that if he could perform with her he could “die a happy man.”

So naturally after auditioning for the part, Joe dies and ends up in a cartoon pastel-colored purgatory of sorts where all of the administrators are abstract beings named “Jerry.” In this afterlife the former and future souls appear as Smurf-like caricatures of themselves.

Unlike most of Pixar’s works, Soul focuses on an adult character facing adult issues. I suspect children might find Soul watchable or even fun but won’t fully appreciate it. 

Which leads me to my only complaint about this film. If Pixar can pull off a unique story like this that can only be told through animation, why does it need to be dumbed down with a sense of humor for six year olds? I wish Pixar’s writers weren’t always so bound to Disney’s “we need a comic relief character” mentality. But then again, Hollywood seems addicted to making movies for children (and adult children) so it wouldn’t be entirely fair to take out these general annoyances on this particular film.

Best moment: Joe’s cartoonish walk past a number of dangerous obstacles before he inevitably enters the purgatory.

Rating: 8/10

Recent movie review round-up (first half of 2020)

July 4th, 2020

It certainly hasn’t been a great year for movies with the global pandemic so a handful of these are from last year. What can I say, it’s been a good year for streaming and catching up on good movies we missed in theaters.

The order here is disjointed just like last time. Whatever, roll with it.

 

Spaceship Earth

This documentary looks back at Biosphere 2. For those unfamiliar, Biosphere 2 was an experiment where a group of eight people lived in a large greenhouse with an airtight seal for two years starting in 1991. Ostensibly the goal was to attempt to live as though they were on the moon or another planet. (Biosphere 1 being the planet Earth.) The project was largely met with skepticism from scientists and created a media sensation.

The movie starts when everyone involved met in the 1960’s in San Francisco and formed a theater company that sailed around the world. After returning to the US, the group moved to Arizona and got started on their new project: Biosphere 2. It doesn’t go into the personality clashes or the tourism aspects very much — but it does contain a lot of footage from inside Biosphere 2 and interviews with the various participants you won’t see anywhere else. 

Oh, and it does cover the part where a certain Wall Street guy named Steve Bannon got involved, tossed out all the data, and tried to use it to “disprove” climate change.

Like a lot of documentaries, Spaceship Earth covers an interesting topic broadly, though barely scratches the surface of any of the questions it answers. It’s also remarkably non-critical of the inherent problems with Biosphere 2. I think it would have been better as a miniseries where each episode takes a deep dive into each of the questions it’s asking about the project and the group (or cult?) that was behind it.

Best moment: Let’s just say it’s an oddly fitting movie to watch during a pandemic when we’re all sealed off from the outside world.

Rating: 5/10

 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Somehow I missed this one when it was in theaters — a big mistake on my part. The story centers on a young Black man named Jimmie living with his friend Mont in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. A bit of an outcast, Jimmie’s obsessed with the Victorian home he grew up in in the Fillmore neighborhood. When the current owners get kicked out of the home, Jimmie and Mont squat the place.

This is one of those rare low-budget indie films where everything from the writing to the performances are completely perfect. But this movie has another trick up its sleeve; it depicts San Francisco as a real place with real people instead of some postcard idealist fantasy.

From its heartfelt message to its philosophical moments, this is the kind of movie that would win an Oscar in an alternate universe. 

Best moment: The skateboarding scenes, especially the long one near the beginning. These add a sense of scale and space to the movie that I suspect would simply come across as padding in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.

Rating: 10/10

 

The Vast of Night

Framed as an episode of a Twilight Zone style TV show, this indie sci-fi film tells the story of a small town in the southwestern United States in the 1950’s where a teenage switchboard operator and her friend at a nearby radio station investigate a mysterious electronic signal.

Despite an unoriginal concept the storytelling is more gripping than one would expect. The nearly unknown cast pull off excellent performances.

I think this film would have benefited from a theatrical release at art house theaters. Due to COVID-19 it’s streaming exclusively on Amazon instead and their clumsy marketing department didn’t do this one any favors.

Best moment: For a low budget flick I was really wowed by the cinematography, particularly the moment where the camera goes through a basketball game at a gym, exits out the back window, and then continues down the street.

Rating: 7/10

 

The Lighthouse

In the late 19th century a young man named Winslow (Robert Pattinson) accepts a job at a decrepit lighthouse and has to put up with poor working conditions — especially the longtime lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe), a demanding and potentially insane man who speaks like a Moby Dick character. 

Winslow quickly begins going mad himself while trapped in the remote location, a process that accelerates when the two start drinking together and a massive storm arrives. In a twist of fate this makes the movie perfectly suited for sheltering in place.

I don’t want to give away much else as this psychological thriller is best watched fresh. 

My only issue with this movie is there’s a lengthy stretch before the end where it becomes repetitive. I do realize it’s an intentional choice to serve the story’s mood, though it’s edited in such a way that makes it feel more dull than I think was intended. There’s a nearly perfect ~90 minute movie in here somewhere.

Best moment: Willem Dafoe’s unhinged monologues are all absolutely golden.

Rating: 6/10

 

Cat Video Fest 2020

People have been filming their pets for as long as home video has been around. The yearly Cat Video Fest is devoted to new and classic cat videos. As expected there’s a lot of things being knocked off shelves, harassment of dogs, and generally odd feline thinking.

This “film festival” raises money for cat rescue organizations, including Give Me Shelter in San Francisco. 

Rating: I’m not sure how to rate this one as it’s not a typical film at all. I’ll just say if you like watching cat videos on YouTube or TikTok, it’s for you. That said, humorous content is best watched with an audience — and this was the last movie I was able to see in theaters so far this year.

 

Color Out of Space

In an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, Nathan Gardener (Nic Cage) moved his family to an old house in the middle of a forest to run a small alpaca farm. A wise but eccentric old hippie (Tommy Chong) squats in a nearby shack.

A meteorite crashes just outside the house, and after it gets repeatedly hit by lightning everything goes bonkers.  The town’s hydrologist warns them not to drink the water from their well though it’s far too late — unusual plants grow, insects and animals mutate, everyone slowly goes crazy, and even reality itself collapses into psychedelic madness.

The film comes across as more uneven than unsettling, careening between 1980’s throwback sci-fi horror to outlandish comedy. Which isn’t to say a film has to be one thing, it just tends to work better if it has a central foundation other than “weird.” What does work very well in the film’s favor is the vibrant cinematography, especially for a story that seems unfilmable. “It’s just a color, but it burns.”

Best moment: There are many “Nic Cage dialed up to 11” moments in this film it’s a challenge to pick just one, but I’ll have to go with Nathan (Cage) shouting at his older son to “get the alpacas back in the barn by ten” as he’s preparing to take his wife to the hospital.

Rating: 8/10

Recent movie review round-up (2019)

January 21st, 2020

Despite intending to on plenty of occasions, I’ve never used this blog to review movies. In an attempt to change that I’ve written up short reviews of movies from the past year or so. Films are reviewed from newest to oldest.

 

 

VHYes

In the mid 80’s a boy gets a camcorder and starts filming random stuff with his friend… over his parent’s wedding video. The first half or so of the film is a comedy based mostly around the deeply weird stuff the boys record on late night television including an Antiques Roadshow knockoff with an unflappably chipper host, a home shopping show hosted by a clueless bickering divorced couple, and a Bob Ross style painting show hosted by a woman who’s clearly nuts.

Oh, and there’s an “edited for television” porn flick about global warming.

For the first half of the film’s short 72 running time it’s packed with genuinely funny, though not always original sketches; making fun of low quality TV has been a staple of sketch comedy all the way from Monty Python to, say, Key & Peele.

Unfortunately the film falls apart as it tries to tug all the different threads into a coherent plot, relying on Lynchian nightmare logic to arrive at a conclusion. The ending makes very little sense and drags on far too long for a movie this short.

Best moment: Mark Proksch’s character smiling as he happily describes how a stained antique bowl was used in unsuccessful heart transplants.

Rating: 6/10

 

 

Uncut Gems

Howard has a lot of problems: he’s deeply in debt with dangerous mobsters, hopelessly addicted to gambling, and his marriage is failing. His fortunes are finally about to turn around though as he’s acquired an uncut gem (under mysterious circumstances) reportedly worth millions.

When NBA star Kevin Garnett shows up and sees the uncut gem, he insists on borrowing it as he thinks it’s a good luck charm. This triggers a series of events that send Howard further into his chaotic downward spiral.

What sets this movie apart is how it manages to ratchet up the tension for over two hours without much physical action. It’s more of a fast-paced drama than a traditional thriller. The synth-heavy soundtrack somehow pairs perfectly with the tone.

Best moment: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but everything about Adam Sandler’s performance as Howard is perfect. I suspect his reputation for lazy frat boy comedies may have unfairly turned audiences away from this one.

Rating: 10/10

 

 

Knives Out

Bestselling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey died under strange circumstances after a family party at his creepy mansion. As it turns out Harlan has cut off the family financially, so almost everyone at the party has a reason to be angry with him — but would any of them resort to murder?

Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig with a goofy southern accent) is hired to solve the murder, but by who? He doesn’t know, which presents a second path to investigate. Like any good “whodunnit” story there’s a lot of twists and turns — and the discovery of a secret passage — before the detective can unravel the mystery.

My only criticism is the movie takes its time in the beginning with a slow setup, though to be fair there’s a good balance between setup and payoff throughout this movie once it gets going.

Best moment: Detective Blanc using the novel “Gravity’s Rainbow” metaphorically, only to immediately reveal he’s never read it and suspects nobody else has either.

Rating: 8/10

 

 

Us

When a family travels to Santa Cruz for a vacation, the mother (Lupita Nyong’o) has flashbacks to her unsettling experience visiting the Beach Boardwalk as a child. Her concerns are brushed off… until a family of scissors-wielding doppelgangers appear outside their vacation home one night.

Us blends horror with social commentary and a few dashes of humor, which won’t be a surprise for those familiar with Jordon Peele’s previous film Get Out. This time around the same ingredients are much better prepared and presented.

Everything gets a little doughy in the middle of the movie when the characters start killing each other. After a certain point it feels like you could take a bathroom break and still know who killed who.

Best moment: Without spoiling it, the twist ending left me thinking about this movie for days. If you like this movie you’re going to want to see it a second time.

Rating: 8/10