Review – Happy Death Day

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Once again, family commitments kept me from catching this one over opening weekend, but I went out of my way on a Monday to try my best to stay current with as many new releases as I can manage.  From the first trailer for Happy Death Day, I thought this Groundhog Day-meets-Final Destination-meets-Scream concept looked fun and the knowledge that famed comic book writer Scott Lobdell wrote the script did nothing to dissuade me from that impression.  I’m always up for new twists on classic ideas and I was also in the mood for some lighter fare, today.  Heavy is hard to do on a Monday, am I right?

Directed by Christopher Landon (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones), Happy Death Day follows entitled college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe.  And don’t name your kids “Tree”, folks.) on her birthday.  Unfortunately for Tree, her birthday is also the day that she dies, murdered by an unknown assailant.  But, surprise!  After Tree is killed, she wakes up on her birthday again, living through the same sequence of events that she had previously experienced, including another grisly death.  After deducing that she will continue to live through her birthday until she successfully solves her own murder and survives the day, Tree sets out to determine who is out to kill her . . . and why.

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I know many will balk at the film simply because it appears to rehash a concept that has been used in many manners across various forms of media throughout the decades.  I don’t buy into that, however, as core concepts are reused regularly in all different types of entertainment.  What matters is whether or not anything new is brought to the (birthday or death day) party and if the end result is worth a new take.

Landon and Lobdell don’t try to insult the audience by pretending that the Groundhog Day gimmick has never been done before.  Rather, they embrace it and inject some vitality into the proceedings by sculpting a murder mystery out of the original clay model.  I have always loved a good mystery and Happy Death Day delivers a satisfying whodunit narrative that is exceptionally nimble on its feet.

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I say that due to the fact that the gimmick could have easily been more of a hindrance than a benefit to the story.  Once Tree catches on to what is happening, the pace truly picks up and never looks back.  At this point, the film could have effortlessly devolved into a nonstop parade of repetitive and meaningless death gags, morphing into a predictable and forgettable one-trick pony similar to Saw but without the ethical implications or longstanding mythology.  Thankfully, Landon and Lobdell are prepared for this and, following a supremely amusing montage, they find a way to make the repeated deaths matter again and ensure that the film retains its sense of urgency.  The filmmakers have enough of an understanding of storytelling to recognize that turning the film into a game of Super Mario Brothers in which the player has unlimited lives would be a massive – and lazy – misstep.

In addition to being more than competently structured, the script also offers up everything one would want out of a film called Happy Death Day.  There are plenty of scares and horror (toned down for the PG-13 rating) but there is also a healthy dose of surprisingly effective humor.  Bringing a cornucopia of life and energy to the proceedings is star Jessica Rothe.  As Tree, Rothe displays a vast range of emotions from horror and terror to desperation to resignation to good-humored acceptance to coldheartedness as well as its direct antithesis in genuine warmth.  Admittedly, Tree’s character arc is pretty standard and predictable, but Rothe is having so much fun in the part and exudes such a vast amount of charisma that it doesn’t even matter.  There are also subtle shifts in her day-to-day choices – both big and small – that communicate a shift in her personality and exhibit growth in the more nuanced ways that many genre films often overlook.

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The whole film is truly about the journey and not the destination.  The viewer might think they know how it’s all going to end, and maybe they’ll be right.  But they won’t be able to predict the events – events that vary from jocular to dreadful – that will get them there.  Yes, the basic premise has been done numerous times.  But the jokes, the narrative twists, the character moments, and all of the other little details that Happy Death Day has to offer are refreshingly original.  The goal of this film is a singular one: have fun.  And this film is the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies since Atomic Blonde.  If the viewer meets the film where it exists by ceasing to take themselves seriously – just as the film refuses to take itself seriously – then it will be tough not to have a blast at Happy Death Day.

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Review – Happy Death Day

Review – Battle of the Sexes

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I’m a pretty big tennis fan.  I’m also a fairly new tennis fan.  I became interested in the sport during the 2012 Summer Olympics.  I turned it on for background noise as I did chores around the house, but it kept grabbing my attention.  I couldn’t help but notice how the players’ bodies and minds had to work in such concert – and do so quickly – in order to be even moderately successful.  It didn’t take long for me to begin to understand how much strategy, quick-thinking, and astounding control – both physical and mental – was being utilized by every single athlete out on the court.  I was hooked.  I even flew up to New York for the U.S. Open in the summer of 2013, where I had the distinct pleasure of watching each of my favorites lose in person.

So what I’m getting at is that Battle of the Sexes was a must-see for me.  I’ve heard much talk about this legendary match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs and all of the festivities that preceded it.  Going into the film, I had a pretty good idea of the sequence of events, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t completely on board with watching them re-enacted by Steve Carell and Emma Stone.

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For the unfamiliar, sexism was rampant in tennis during the early 1970s (and still is today, if to a lesser degree), as multi-time Grand Slam female champion (including the career Grand Slam title, having won the championships at all four Grand Slam tournaments: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S Open) Billie Jean King (Stone) had risen to superstardom and become a household name.  Despite that, she and the other women in tennis were being paid much less than the men who were competing at the same level.

The go-to excuse for this at the time was that the men were the big-money draw, though there was little to no evidence to support such a claim.  Picking up on the burgeoning controversy, former men’s champion and notorious showman and hustler Bobby Riggs (Carell)  is hit by great inspiration.  If he becomes the face of chauvinism and challenges King to a Battle of the Sexes tennis match, then everybody can get what he believes they want: money.  Of course, for King and her peers, it’s not about the money, but rather the respect and equality that she and the other women have rightfully earned.  If she can help female tennis players make strides in those areas, then she will have felt as though she has truly achieved something worthwhile.  Yet, she can’t help but question if there’s truly something to be gained by accepting the challenge from Riggs or if she would just be assisting him in making a farce out of everything she holds dear.

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As if all of that isn’t enough, King is also struggling with her own sexuality and, as a natural byproduct, her identity.  Though she is married, she feels a strong attraction to her female hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) and isn’t sure what to do about it.  Her primary professional rival, rising star Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), picks up on that confusion and, feeling strongly opposed to homosexuality, Court uses that knowledge as a psychological advantage in an effort to bring King down a notch and taker her place as the number one woman in the world of tennis.

The entire narrative is presented honestly and in a streamlined, straightforward fashion.  Co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton keep it very simple and focus on the traditional foundations of solid filmmaking: story, character, dialogue, and casting.  All aspects are executed flawlessly and energetically.  The story moves along at a nice, brisk pace, never wasting any of its two-hour running time.  Each principal character serves a purpose and stands out from the rest as unique, complex individuals.  The script provides the cast with sharp, engaging dialogue and they each deliver with excess charisma and compounding charm.  The film never ceases to be entertaining while also carrying weight and relevant subtext that rings as true today as it did in 1973.

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Though supported by a noteworthy cast, the film belongs to Stone and Carell.  As King, Stone brings eternally heartfelt conflict and passion to King’s story.  King finds herself fighting important social and personal battles on every front and also realizes she’s in the unique position to make grounds for all of society on each of those fronts.  She takes her power very seriously and deigns to use it responsibly, even if it means great personal loss for herself.  Carell brings the humor and fun to the proceedings as the fun- (and money-) loving Riggs.  Despite all of the misogynistic quotes that fly out Riggs’s perpetually-running mouth, it’s clear that he believes none of it and is solely out to give the public a show.  His respect for King is evident and Riggs is ultimately as likable as King is, albeit for eternally different reasons.

Forbes film critic Scott Mendelson joked on Facebook that Battle of the Sexes is Rocky IV if Rocky IV hadn’t been a musical.  Funny as that is, structurally speaking, the comparison to Rocky IV isn’t all that absurd.  Battle of the Sexes works as an excellent underdog sports film.  But, as with any truly great sports film, it’s also a great film independent of any sports content.  The movie all at once relates a compelling true story through comedy and drama while also making the case for both women’s and LGBTQ rights, which are both as topical today as they were then, if not more so.  The film never drags, always entertains, and both Stone and Carell are perfectly cast and enormously fun to watch.  Battle of the Sexes has both its heart and its mind in the right places and provides audiences with a light, yet meaningful crowd-pleasing experience that is sure to bring smiles to faces at a time when the world certainly needs them.

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Review – Battle of the Sexes

Review – Blade Runner 2049

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I’m not any sort of lifelong Blade Runner fan.  I saw the original film for the first time about five years ago.  I also haven’t seen it since.  I liked it fine.  I just like many other films much more.  For me, the most appealing aspect of Blade Runner 2049 is director Denis Villeneuve, who knocked everybody’s socks off with last year’s outstanding Arrival.  With other solid films such as Sicario and Prisoners under his directorial belt, at this point in time, Villeneuve has earned my blind patronage and he’ll have it unless he puts out something along the lines of The Happening.

A direct sequel to the original Blade RunnerBlade Runner 2049 takes place thirty years later and follows new blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) as he is pulled down a trail of discovery that leads him to uncover buried secrets and hidden surprises that have profound significance both to the world at large and to him, personally.  I actually hoped to be able to re-watch the original film before seeing this one, but couldn’t find the time to do so.  I did refresh myself by reading a recap, and that helped, but it wasn’t entirely necessary.  Blade Runner 2049 catches viewers up with an opening text, informing both newbies and those who have forgotten the details of the original of all they need to know.  Remembering said details will add an element of weight to the proceedings that may otherwise be lost, but the story can be followed with no issues without having deep knowledge of Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic.

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Before I say any more, I absolutely must remark on how beautiful this film is.  Villeneuve has an unquestionable eye for science fiction – an effortless knack for finding the perfect shot, the most engaging color palettes, brilliantly striking visuals, and the consummate contrast to transport the audience to another time and place without making them feel too removed from their own personal comfort zones.  Both Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival have those qualities about them and I don’t feel like I can honestly say the same about his other, earlier films.  I never desire to pigeonhole a filmmaker, but it seems as if science-fiction might just be Villeneuve’s niche, though only time will tell for sure.

Another technical aspect in which the film excels is the powerful, haunting, and imposing score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.  Setting the tone from the very outset of the film, and then stubbornly insisting upon retaining it, the trumpeting blasts and rumbling tones of Zimmer and Wallfisch assault the viewer with pure atmosphere, demanding that the audience bow to the will of the filmmakers and concede control over the direction of the film to them and to them alone.  It’s a commanding accompaniment that sometimes guides gently from the recesses but often takes center stage with a resounding, minor-key uppercut to the eardrums.  Despite the impression I may be giving, it’s not painful in any way, whatsoever; it simply takes control and leads the dance for much of the film’s running time.

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And let’s talk about that running time.  At a whopping two-hours-and-forty-five minutes in length, Blade Runner 2049 confidently takes its time allowing the narrative to unfold.  Mileage is going to vary on that particular decision.  For the diehard longtime fans of the original film, I would imagine that they will enjoy spending all of that time in this world – especially after waiting so long to be able to revisit it.  Others might not be quite so forgiving.  I’m somewhere in between.  I do honestly think the film could have been thirty or forty minutes shorter without sacrificing anything absolutely necessary to the plot.  I felt as though the film was unfolding at about two-thirds of its natural, organic speed.  For example, a lingering shot might last six seconds when four would suffice.  Or maybe an establishing shot of K walking to his next destination runs significantly longer than need be – or perhaps could have been excised entirely.

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The truth is that, once I realized that the film had been running for about forty-five minutes, I also didn’t feel like anything relevant had truly transpired.  The narrative had yet to reach its hook.  Yes, it was extremely nice to look at along the way.  And the performances are fun to watch, as well (Gosling isn’t pushed in any truly meaningful way, yet his demeanor and presence still make him the perfect choice for the role).  But the pacing plays out like that of a long novel, not a brisk, nail-biting science-fiction film.  Even the action scenes lack significant energy for much of the movie.  The scene with K and Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista, Guardians of the Galaxy) at the beginning of the film as well as the climax at the end are exceptions.  But in between those, don’t expect a lot of adrenaline-racing, high-octane set pieces to get your blood pumping.

If you’re okay with that, and are prepared for a slower, thinking-person’s science-fiction movie, then you will likely enjoy Blade Runner 2049.  In fact, the more I reflect on it, the more I like it, myself.  The film definitely gets off to a slow start, but the eye candy makes up for it until things really get rolling.  I was also a little concerned about where the narrative was heading but, without giving anything away, all I’ll say is that, from my perspective,  the story concludes in a satisfying way and, as I alluded to, it also features a uniquely envisioned and excellently staged climax that I think will prove to be rather memorable, despite its relatively small scale.  Arrival is still easily my favorite film from Villeneuve, but Blade Runner 2049 is an overall nice addition to the modern science-fiction lexicon, as well as Ryan Gosling’s résumé.

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Review – Blade Runner 2049

Review – American Made

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I like Tom Cruise, but I wasn’t particularly excited to see American Made.  Heist films featuring characters knee-deep in the drug trade are increasingly more and more common and rarely distinguish themselves from each other with enough regularity or creativity to warrant their production.  I was busy with family over the weekend and couldn’t get out to see anything, but knew I would either be catching up on this one or the new Flatliners once I returned home.  Flatliners is much more in tune with my personal tastes and interests but the reviews have not been kind.  At all.  On the other hand, critics seem to overwhelmingly love American Made, so the reviews what swayed me.  I take my own advice and don’t ever try to say otherwise, folks.

To be thorough in my evaluation, I have to say that there are certain ways in which American Made sets itself apart from other films of its ilk.  For starters, it’s based on the true story of Barry Seal (Cruise).  Seal was a commercial airline pilot recruited by the CIA to be a smuggler throughout North and South America.  He’s a little too good at it and things quickly spiral out of control for him and his family.  Being based on a true story isn’t entirely unique for movies about good guys who find themselves turning to crime for an easy buck, but they’re fiction more often than they’re fact.  I don’t know for certain exactly which parts are true and which are embellished for the screen, but even the most basic components of the story make for quite a ride, so that certainly adds a pinch of pizzazz to the narrative.

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There are also little gems sprinkled throughout the picture that contribute to it’s Style Factor.  There’s a line of dialogue here or a crazy moment there that one would be unlikely to see in another film of this type.  Said dialogue is sharp and snappy when the circumstances allow it, and Cruise provides an extra burst of adrenaline from beginning to end.  He’s clearly having fun, here, and this role falls right into his wheelhouse while also giving him the chance to stretch a bit beyond his typical action-hero performances.

Seal also has his toes dipped into many more pools than I can remember seeing in any one single smuggling film in prior years.  He isn’t just a drug smuggler.  He smuggles weapons.  He launders money.  He just wants to be rich and live an exciting life.  Along the way, it becomes clear that he has either been corrupted by his new lifestyle or he was always a criminal at heart and simply never had the opportunity to embrace it.

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Also, without elaborating, the final twenty minutes, or so, refuse to adhere to the typical heist movie formula, throwing some fun surprises and twists the audience’s way.  I think without those last few minutes, Seal’s story probably wouldn’t have even been considered for a film adaptation.  I say this because, up until that point, outside of the relatively minor exceptions that I’ve outlined thus far, the movie is almost exactly what I was expecting and what we’ve all seen from these types of films throughout the decades.

Not only is the overwhelming majority of the film’s running time comprised of the same sorts of scenarios that usually permeate films in this genre (lots of contraband being exchanged, lots of money exchanged in return, a bunch of bad people smiling and reveling in all of it, and repeat) but the lead character in the film is essentially a villain.  This is always a tricky proposition.  If there are no audience anchors – characters for the typical viewer to either identify/empathize with or aspire to be – then the film runs the risk of never emotionally connecting.  I don’t want to suggest that every single film needs a hero.  That would hamper creativity.  But if there isn’t one, then that connection needs to be compensated for in some other way.  I felt no connection to anything happening in this film.  I wasn’t invested in its outcome, nor was I particularly anticipating what was going to happen next.

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There was enough good in American Made that I didn’t hate the film, but the good wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of engagement that I felt due to the plethora of dislikable characters and the insurmountable déjà vu feeling that accompanied the first 80% of the movie.  The cast enjoys themselves, and the movie has its moments, without question.  And the final sequence of events somewhat justifies all that comes before.  But getting there was somewhat of a chore for me.  On the other hand, if you generally love these types of films, you’ll likely love this one, too.  The same goes for the Tom Cruise diehards out there.  American Made is a competent film that doesn’t really do anything wrong; it just wasn’t fresh enough for my personal tastes.

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Review – American Made

Review – mother!

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I couldn’t make it out to see Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, last weekend, and it’s been difficult to avoid hearing about it in the meantime.  Everybody has an opinion – even (unsurprisingly) people who haven’t even seen it.  But general audiences rejected the film soundly, last weekend, which made me even more curious and anxious to see it.

Now that I have, I’ve been struggling with how to articulate my thoughts.  I feel like saying almost anything about the story or character content of the film, itself, would be a betrayal of Aronofsky’s artistic intent.  And, being someone who avoids spoiling films and who also respects filmmakers and their respective visions, that makes my job here difficult.

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Something I can say is that I might be entirely off base regarding Aronofsky’s intent.  Much like with other filmmakers of his type, such as David Lynch or Terrence Malick, Aronofsky’s films are always open to some degree of interpretation, so it’s possible that my interpretation is all wrong.  But I don’t believe that my assessment of his intent is wrong.  Aronofsky’s intent is to get his audience thinking.  There’s no doubt about that.  Where the problem lies with that specific intent is in the fact that most mainstream moviegoing audiences don’t want to think.  They want everything spelled out for them.  And in mother!, exactly nothing is spelled out for the audience.

So, that leads me to believe that this film is actually less open to interpretation than Aronofsky’s others.  I think there is a specific way to interpret the film – only one correct interpretation with all others being flat-out wrong.  The reason for my belief is the structure of the film.  It is far too meticulous with precisely-worded dialogue, specific plot developments, and even particular casting choices.  Literally every word, every shot, and every interaction contains meaning and holds weight.  Every molecule of this film is a puzzle piece.

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And this isn’t the same type of puzzle film that made me so angry in the form of last year’s The Neon Demon.  Unlike that ego-trip of a disaster, mother! gives us all of the puzzle pieces so that the audience knows what it needs to know in order to see the bigger picture.  The film also has a coherent surface narrative that can be followed without looking deeper into the film, which is what I was really angry about regarding The Neon Demon, since its surface narrative was nonsense.  But, though comprehensible, mother!‘s surface story would be remarkably strange without considering what’s going on underneath.  Aronofsky forces the audience to analyze the film or otherwise miss out on the overwhelming majority of the experience.

Make no mistake – this film is absolutely an experience.  I won’t give any clues to the plot or the characters, but to give you an idea of what that experience is like, I’ll say that when I heard the film was like a nightmare, I thought people meant it figuratively, but it turns out they meant it literally.  The pacing is exactly like a bad dream, where one bothersome event is immediately followed by another more bothersome event which is quickly followed by another and then another and another in such a way that they escalate in nature and in scale to an impossible degree.  It’s like an illustration of the Butterfly Effect that grows exponentially so that one can’t even fathom how Point A could have possibly led to Point ZZZ, much less how it happened so quickly.  There is absolutely no time to get bored during this movie; my attention and my brain were both fully engaged from the opening frame and the two hours flew by in what felt like 45 minutes.

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I guess this is as good a time as any to squeeze in a mention of Jennifer Lawrence.  While Lawrence is supported by very talented and esteemed actors (Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris) who all do great work, mother! is her film.  And it may be her best work.  I can’t even come close to comprehending how emotionally exhausting this role must have been for her (not to mention physically taxing).  You know those bad days we all have?  Those really bad days?  Those days where maybe three or four intensely overwhelming and stressful things occur and we just can’t wait until we get to tomorrow?  Imagine a day where those sorts of events happen every three minutes.  All day.  And imagine if you had to suffer through a full year of those days, with no respite.  That’s what Jennifer Lawrence did for mother!.  And I know, now that she’s super-successful, it no longer matters how down-to-earth or talented she is and that’s it’s currently in vogue to hate on her (all the kewl kids are doing it!), but she deserves recognition and respect for her performance in this film.  She owns it and she earns it.

Aside from that, I am still fully processing the events of the film.  I have a framework for what I believe Aronofsky intends to be the interpretation, but I’m still putting some of those puzzle pieces in their proper spots.  To fully digest the story, I will have to see it again – probably multiple times.  There’s just no way to completely crack Aronofsky’s code with only a single viewing.  There’s too much going on and, by simply taking a second to step back and think about something that just happened, the viewer will miss out on the next clue.  Multiple viewings are required for full understanding.

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But that’s not a bad thing, is it?  It doesn’t mean that the first viewing isn’t rewarding.  It most certainly is.  It simply means that every viewing will continue to be rewarding.  Is that not something to which filmmakers should aspire?

Let’s talk about the audience reaction to this film.  mother! is only the nineteenth film to receive an F Cinemascore from audiences, who were exit-polled on opening night.  Look, I don’t care what people like and what they don’t like.  Truthfully, that can’t be helped.  We don’t actively choose our likes and dislikes.  But what we do choose is how thoroughly and fairly we consider our words, our actions, and how much importance we place on our own opinions.

I loved mother!.  I loved it.  I want to be very clear about that.  It’s one of my favorite films of the year and one of the best, as well.  But, even if I didn’t like it, I would still maintain the capacity for appreciating it.  I could appreciate the artistry.  I could appreciate the thoughtfulness.  I could appreciate the performances.  I could appreciate these people literally suffering – physically and mentally – in their efforts to bring this story to us.  And I would not take my personal opinion so seriously as to equate it with fact and to arrogantly presume that I held the right to casually dismiss someone else’s passion project, especially considering the pedigree and the credibility of the people behind said project.

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So, why are general audiences hating the film?  I can’t say for sure, but I have some theories.  One, as I mentioned above, is that they don’t want to think.  That theory has put itself on exhibition many times over the years, both within the world of film and without.  Another theory is one I’ve already discussed in great detail: many of them are hypocrites who claim they want originality from Hollywood but reject it when it arrives (I ranted about that here).  You truly want originality?  Prove it.  mother! is the most original film of the year.  Go.  Enjoy.  Tell your friends.

The third theory is tied to the first.  The third theory is that, in not desiring to think, audiences don’t.  And, in making that choice, they take the film literally.  There are many bizarre events that transpire in mother!.  They aren’t only bizarre but they are often severely disturbing, as well.  But if the brain is engaged, it’s obvious that there’s something else going on within the narrative and that things aren’t necessarily as they seem.  Many viewers are taking the online mentality of reacting first and thinking never into the real world and it’s affecting other people’s work and their success.  And it’s affecting other moviegoers, as well, because every time a film like this fails at the box office, it becomes less likely that we get more films in the same vein.  These moviegoers are directly affecting people like me because they cant be bothered to show respect to a genuine piece of art.

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Why do audiences disrespect film, so much?  If a book is deep or thought-provoking, it’s heralded as a classic.  When a musician such as Bob Dylan writes near impenetrable lyrics that most people can’t begin to interpret, audiences bow at his feet and he wins a Nobel Prize.  When television carries true weight and intellect, it’s the talk of water coolers around the world and is considered must-watch.  So, why is it when a film is deep and complex and outside-the-box, audiences shun it, laugh at it, and actively seek to sink it to the bottom of the celluloid sea?

As I left the theater, tonight, the guy in front of me turned back to me and said, “That was stupid.”  What did I say?  I said, “That was anything but stupid.  That was amazing.  There was so much thought and heart put into that that I’ll be thinking about it during my entire hour-long drive home.”  “Well, it was amazing,” he said, “but I’ll also have to go home and read twelve articles on it in order to understand it.”

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And, again, I ask . . . what the #$%& is wrong with that?  Why is it so awful to think about something after it’s over?  Why is it so horrible to have to reach out and interact with other people and discuss a piece of art in an effort to gain a full appreciation of the message behind it?  Why is this a bad thing?  Or, perhaps the more appropriate question would be: When did it become a bad thing?

I’ll say it again: I love mother!.  That is my opinion.  mother! is a genuine masterpiece and a work of art that is far superior to most other films that have been released in 2017.  That is an objective fact that takes all the aspects and goals of filmmaking into account.  This film will one day be viewed as a classic work of genius that was misunderstood by an undeserving audience in its day.  By then, I will have seen it umpteen times and will be a better person for it.  Those of you who are willing to expand your mind and grow a little bit, give mother! your money.  It deserves it.  For those who aren’t as willing, Despicable Me 3 is on blu-ray soon.

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Review – mother!

Review – Kingsman: The Golden Circle

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If you were to have polled comic book readers sometime before 2008 regarding which original story by acclaimed superstar comic book writer Mark Millar would end up as the highest grossing film adapted from his various works, few would have predicted Kingsman: The Secret Service.  I suppose one reason for that would be that the film wasn’t released until 2014 and the comic didn’t even debut until 2012 but, even if there was supernatural foreknowledge of what was to come, most would have probably assumed that Kick-Ass would be the reigning film champion of the motion picture Millarverse.  But then Secret Service hit theaters and more than quadrupled the worldwide gross of Kick-Ass, raking in just over $414 million worldwide on an $81 million budget.  So, this sequel was inevitable.

The original wowed and surprised audiences with a no-holds-barred, nothing-is-off-limits approach to its content that included seemingly endless instances of offbeat, hyperstylized violence, language, and sexual content that was somehow presented in such an over-the-top and charming way that it was difficult to be offended and absurdly easy to be entertained.


And “absurd” is an appropriate word to describe both that original film and the new Kingsman: The Golden Circle.  The new installment in the franchise carries over the absurdity that viewers loved so much about the first film and in some ways even takes it up a notch.

This film feels much more like a comic book movie than the original Secret Service but it achieves that goal without sacrificing its own identity.  There are lots of silly little gimmicks that are thrown in for fun, the headquarters of the antagonist (Julianne Moore’s Poppy) is a delight, and the action scenes are absolutely breathtaking and spectacularly choreographed.  Director Matthew Vaughn clearly loves this franchise and really takes every opportunity he can find within it to let loose and just go crazy.  Sorry, Spinal Tap; your level of eleven just wouldn’t cut it, these days.


Despite that, he seems to reign it in with respect to other aspects of the film.  While the violence is as ever-present as before, it’s not nearly as graphic as in the first movie.  Most of the really brutal acts are either shown through rapid quick-cuts, are in some way obscured from sight, or even occur off-screen entirely.  The so-called “controversial” sex scene is also brief, features no actual nudity, and serves a larger character arc rather than existing to justify an R-rating.  I have no personal preference regarding these choices, but I was a bit surprised as I do feel that the film sacrifices a bit of its quirkiness and boldness because of them.

Compounding this problem is the relocation of much of the story from England to America.  I preferred the action take place across the pond because that assisted in setting it apart from most other films within its realm.  We get enough of America in the movies.  England is a nice change of pace, providing different sensibilities and visuals.  The move to America jettisons a bit of the charm.


However, in exchange for said charm, we add Jeff Bridges and the aforementioned Julianne Moore to the cast.  Bridges is one of the greatest actors living, today.  He doesn’t get much to do, here, but it’s always nice to have him around.  Moore clearly has a blast playing the villain and I had just as much fun watching her do it.  She would have stolen the show if not for Elton John, who steps in as . . . well . . . Elton John.  In a nod to the celebrity-kidnapping plot of Secret Service, John plays an alternate version (I assume?  But I also kind of hope not.) of himself and the results are stupendous.  All-in-all, The Golden Circle wasn’t as funny as The Secret Service, but all of Elton John’s scenes deliver in every way in which they are intended.

I wasn’t crazy about the much-publicized decision to resurrect Colin Firth’s Harry as I was hoping this series wouldn’t fall into those sorts of tropes and clichés that we see so often from various forms of comic book media.  There’s a narrative and emotional trade off, though (that I won’t specify in order to avoid spoilers) so I suppose that I can’t complain too much.  Firth also has a nice screen presence and is a welcome addition, but part of me still would have preferred an alternate option to bringing him back.


Amidst all of this, the narrative serves as a metaphor for Donald Trump’s black-and-white perspective on lawbreakers, treating them all as equally reprehensible and lacking the ability to discern amongst the many layers and circumstances that perpetuate such actions.  This comparison isn’t necessarily overt (it’s intended to be, but many viewers will miss it, anyway), but it’s there and adds an extra element to the film.

Despite my minor quibbles, it’s virtually impossible to not have a good time while watching Kingsman: The Golden Circle.  The action, the dialogue, the twists and turns, the music, and the cast all combine to provide an enthralling and exciting experience that is almost at the level of The Secret Service.  It’s not quite there, but I imagine if you wanted more from the first film, you’ll be happy with The Golden Circle, even if it’s toned down a bit from that initial installment.

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Review – Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Review – Friend Request

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If you know me, you know I’m usually down for a horror movie.  It doesn’t matter to me if it’s supposed to be good or not; I’m willing to give it a shot.  Sometimes expectations are high.  And sometimes not.  Sometimes it pays off.  And sometimes not.  But one never really knows without seeing it.  Back in 2014, I expected virtually nothing from a little film called Unfriended and it ended up being a sharp, original, clever, effective, memorable, and surprisingly poignant little thriller.  The title of this particular film, Friend Request, is certainly evocative of that 2014 gem, which gave me high hopes, though perhaps illogically so.  Also in its favor is that it stars Alycia Debnam-Carey, who has been a standout on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead.  She’s becoming a modern scream queen, starring in a handful of low-budget horror-thrillers, though this is probably the highest-profile of the bunch, so far.  She has a lot of potential, so I looked forward to seeing her in the film.

Despite the apparent similarities between this film and Unfriended, I really didn’t have a sense for what Friend Request was actually about.  I feel like saying virtually anything regarding the plot is a spoiler, so I’ll refrain as much as possible on behalf of those who wish to go in as squeaky clean as I did.  In an effort to say at least something, however, I’ll peg the narrative as largely a hybrid of Unfriended and The Ring.

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I suppose The Ring was more of an influence on the scares and Unfriended on the story, though both films can be felt throughout the duration of the movie.  Still, the influence of The Ring is mostly superficial.  The structure and execution of the film is much closer to Unfriended, but that doesn’t mean the two films are identical.  Yes, they both obviously deal with . . . cyberhauntings?  Is that a word?  Can I coin that, right here, right now?  Cyberhauntings.  You heard it here, first.

But, despite being haunted through Facebook-but-not-called-Facebook (with some similar scares) the themes of the two films aren’t exactly the same.  Unfriended (rather brilliantly) dealt with cyberbullying and the harmful consequences.  It also had a fresh and inventive presentation.  Friend Request takes a traditional filmmaking approach and features themes surrounding social outcasts and modern society’s propensity for defining their worth entirely by their social media popularity and presence.  The two themes are tangential, but not synonymous.

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In Unfriended, the supernatural force was unquestionably the victim of her targets, as she enacted revenge on people who had callously used and embarrassed her in order to boost their own social status, eventually leading to her death.  With Friend Request, the deadly entity begins as a somewhat sympathetic figure, but quickly reveals their own inability to co-exist with and relate to others in a nonthreatening fashion.  This is the type of person one might expect to become an active shooter on a college campus, somewhere.  There is no question that they are not the protagonist.  There are no shades of gray.  And this character essentially goes that maniacal route, but in an exaggerated and ghostly way, rather than a real-world way that simply wouldn’t be any fun to watch.

Still, despite those differences, throughout most of the film I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching that amalgamation of The Ring and Unfriended that I was describing, earlier.  And I hate to constantly describe a movie by comparing it to another movie, but that’s what I was noticing, for the most part.  Although it was a fun amalgamation, I wasn’t seeing much of anything new that helped me to understand why the movie had been produced.  And then . . . there was a pleasant surprise.

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Eventually, the events in the film take . . . I’ll say . . . an unexpected turn.  Describing it as a twist wouldn’t truly be accurate.  It’s not really a “twist”.  But it’s a surprising and sensible payoff to a seemingly-minor subplot that I honestly didn’t believe would get any sort of satisfying resolution.  I was wrong.  I didn’t see it coming, but the hints were there, all along.  I tip my hat to director/co-writer Simon Verhoeven and his other co-writers Matthew Ballen and Philip Koch for that one.  I honestly think this plot point was what got the movie made.  And I don’t want to build it up too much to the point where anyone watches it and thinks, “That’s it?!”  Don’t let me do that.  All I’m saying is that it surprised me even though it happened organically and it set the film apart from the others to which I had been comparing it, up to that point.

On one final note, Debnam-Carey doesn’t get much to do on paper, but she makes the most of what she does have, adding a tenderness to the role in a film that otherwise lacks subtlety.  I feel like I’ve said it a million times, but any professional actor can handle the big, dramatic moments with relative ease.  True talent is in the smaller moments and making those feel genuine.  She does that with regularity and – though no one in the film is in any way bad – it sets her head-and-shoulders above her fellow castmates.  I hope she gets bigger and more varied roles in the future because I think she’s capable of great things.

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All in all, Friend Request isn’t the most original film anyone will see, this year, but it’s never boring, always entertaining, provides plenty of effective visuals and jump scares, and puts the talented Alycia Debnam-Carey front and center, where she belongs.  And then, at the end, it surprises.  Anyone with the ability to perceive the subtleties that do ultimately set this film apart from others in its field should have a good enough time.  It’s still going to get swallowed up by It, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy destination for fans of the genre.

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Review – Friend Request