Hell or High Water Review

“They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”

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A phrase that is ever so popular among seasoned moviegoers. Often times, it’s a lamentation that the leaner, more story driven films of old have been warped into tech demos. The Ten Commandments is now Exodus: Gods and Kings, Death Wish is now Taken 3. We’ve certainly had plenty of soulless dreck over this seemingly never ending summer to prove that theory true. However, right as we approach the end, Hell or High Water appears. A scrappy little modern western determined to hearken back to a more authentic period of filmmaking. It aims, in short, to do more with less.

The film begins with the Howard brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), performing a bank robbery. This isn’t amateur hour at Wells Fargo either; these boys have it down to a science. Determined to raise enough money to save their family’s land, the brothers carry out an elaborate money funneling scheme. Meanwhile, aging detective Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) becomes obsessed with tracking the boys down before he retires. After all, what good is a cop who doesn’t go out with a bang?

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We’re not exactly in unfamiliar territory here, and director David Mackenzie doesn’t pretend like we are. Instead, he focuses on taking the clichés of the genre, and building a solid foundation around them. That foundation is built on two duos, both beautifully brought to fruition by the actors. Pine and Foster have incredibly believable chemistry as brothers, both of them playing to their strengths. Pine is understated and kind, while Foster is loving but volatile. Meanwhile, Bridges gives one of his best turns in quite some time as the cynical lawman. Sure, he’s doing his Hamburglar cowboy voice again, but with a bit more depth. He brings much-needed humor and heart to the film, as a man right in the midst of his end-life crisis. He too has an excellent rapport with Gil Birmingham as his partner Alberto, who nicely balances him out with his more sober attitude.

Mackenzie drenches his film in the Texas sun, giving the film a beautifully rustic aesthetic. The temptation is high in films such as these to spice up rural America. Make it seem charming, and full of warm faces. Here, the supporting characters feel like genuine working class people. They talk back quite a bit and are certainly not Hollywood pretty, but there’s a genuine sense of community among them. This makes individual scenes a lot more compelling, as our main stars don’t have to rely on themselves to carry the weight. Every bit player is authentic, and the film’s look and feel does the rest.

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Meanwhile, the action sequences are vintage western filmmaking. Mackenzie is incredibly methodical in his direction. He makes us wait long periods for more violence, as its sudden appearance is more jarring and intense. Every single gunshot has weight and impact, especially considering how real every character in the film feels. Even with these great set-pieces, some of the most intense moments come when there’s no violence at all. Sometimes it’s just a look that a character gives, or a moment of silence in which anything can happen.

Hell or High Water only seriously falters in its lack of originality. Sure, it’s all very well realized, but there really aren’t any surprises here. In fact, there are several moments with telegraphing so wonky that it might as well be pinned on the screen as a reminder. Also, while the brothers’ emotional motivations are very clear, the fine points of their plan occasionally seem convoluted. One has to wonder where either of them got the education to figure out such a complex scheme. It’s certainly better to have intelligent characters than stupid ones, but it occasionally does muddle the tone.

In a summer full of films that lazily regurgitate troupes, it’s nice to see a movie execute them with craftsmanship. Hell or High Water certainly isn’t going to win any points for changing the game. However, it plays the game well enough to stand-out. Rich performances and characters make all the difference in a film like this, and it has that in spades. It feels a film from the “used to,” era and I suspect for many, that will be more than enough.

Rating: B+

Suicide Squad Review

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Decades from now, when we look back on all of these superhero movies, the tale of the DC Universe will likely make for the most fascinating story. With an incredible library of characters all under one roof, there is infinite potential. Potential to make films that go beyond the normal tropes of the genre. Movies take us under the sea, along with the speed force, or into the mind of its eclectic rogues gallery. Before Suicide Squad, that potential was still very much alive. Sure, Zack Snyder wildly struck out with Man Of Steel, only to return with a fascinating if utterly messy follow-up, Batman V Superman. However, the addition of Fury director David Ayer brought some hope back. Perhaps his psychologically taxing cast bonding methods and talent for intense action sequences could save the day.

oh well…

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Suicide Squad centers on a group of imprisoned criminals from all over the DC Universe assembled to save the world. See, archeologist June Moone (Cara Delevingne) has stumbled upon a horrible curse. A witch by the name of Enchantress has taken over her soul, using it to awaken her brother Incubus. As mean monster people do, they want to create an army and take over the world. To stop them, ruthless government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) turns to the worst of the worst. Listing all of the team members is an exercise in futility, so here are the only two that matter. Most prominently, Deadshot (Will Smith) is an assassin trying to create a life for his daughter. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), eternal love of The Joker (Jared Leto), plans to reunite with her puddin’ and sabotage the mission.

David Ayer has made such a mess of this movie that you might hear “cleanup on aisle DC” over the credits. From the get-go, the storytelling is fundamentally broken. There are so, so, so (there aren’t enough sos in the world), many characters that their introductions have to be done at lightning speed. In the first act, all of the important characters have an avalanche of footage scrunched into short montages. By the time characters like Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Boomerang (Jai Courtney) come in we’ve run out of time for even a montage. All they get is a seconds long introduction, often with a tacky music cue. Sure, we learn ‘what’ all these characters are, but we never learn ‘who’ they are. There’s no time for that, they have a mission to complete.

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…and what a boring mission it is. Despite marketing itself as a story of “bad vs evil,” the film is terrified of letting these characters be themselves. After all, that just might get them an R-Rating. Instead, this flash mob of colorful characters is thrown into a generic TNT Original movie. They walk into a room, shoot and punch a bunch of Enchantress’ zombies, and then repeat. There’s very little problem solving, or teamwork involved. These characters are basically just doing their thing, but they’re all in the same room. It doesn’t help that Ayer, who gave his previous battle scenes such weight and consequence, seems utterly bored. Since human beings are only involved on one side, the enemies might as well be video game minions.

By the time the film decides to chill out and lets the characters have one scene to chat, it’s moot. Sure, there have been small interactions peppered throughout, but they haven’t meant a thing. They’re small barb fests, in which the jokes feel completely forced. It is hard to even recall one scene where they don’t remind the audience that they’re the bad guys. Why? Because if certain audience members don’t read comics, they might just forget. It’s a film that tries to stylize itself in every way that doesn’t matter. All the tunes, flashy action, and comic book imagery in the world doesn’t matter if there isn’t any camaraderie.

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Fortunately, anchoring this terrible material are a couple of good performances. Smith can’t help but bring charisma to Deadshot, even when given some horrible lines to read. He lands a couple of those jokes while selling us on the character’s drive to return to his family. Viola Davis lends an icy cool to Waller’s ruthless behavior. Even Jai Courtney turns out to have something to offer after all in his limited role. Sure, he’s playing a cartoon character, but he admirably throws himself into it. However, the gal who runs away with the movie is Margot Robbie. Her Harley Quinn is a bit more pulled back than classic versions but is utterly intoxicating. Sure, she’s a tragic figure, but she’s also intelligent, brutal, and venomously sexy. Hopefully, her solo movie comes to fruition so she can stop pulling dead weight.

Speaking of dead weight, there is no load more beyond this earth than Jared Leto as The Joker. It’s certainly hard to imagine Leto ever living up to the late Heath Ledger’s masterful version clown prince of crime. That said, whatever he’s come up with here certainly isn’t the way to go. Despite his atrocious on-set behavior, his take feels completely half-assed. It’s a combination of a lame impression of Ledger with a cartoon mob boss. He’s never the least bit funny, or scary. Fortunately, he’s not in the movie very much. In fact, many people aren’t in the movie very much. You’ve got folks like Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag and Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo who simply lack screen presence. While others such as Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc and Karen Fukuhara’s Katana simply have no time to do much of anything.

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Beholding the Hindenburgian disaster that is Suicide Squad is hard to even process. It’s a film that hits the ground sprinting, without a story to tell. It’s a movie about a team, in which the characters hardly get to interact. However, above all, it’s just plain laborious. A generic action movie with DC villains peppered in. Insult to injury, the third act is one of the most baffling final battles ever put in a comic book film. In fact, this is the kind of film that is going to kill comic book movies.

David.

DC has just begun.

But now you’ve gone and thrown it all away.

Rating: D

Jason Bourne Review

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Every single Bourne film thus far has ended with a new version of Moby’s Extreme Ways. It’s been a fitting and endearing way of tying up each new piece of Jason Bourne’s journey. However, when the first chord of the song rang out at the end of Jason Bourne, it felt different. Like a dinner bell ringing after spending days in the desert without food. It meant that the movie was over, and thank heaven for that. There will likely never be a straight answer as to why Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass have decided to return to this franchise. However, one thing is clear. Jason Bourne isn’t so much a comeback for the beloved series as it is a go-away. It’s a dreary reminder of how dated action heroes can become when they’re not willing to evolve with their audience.

We find Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) living in exile. It’s been nine years since his climatic showdown with the remnants of the Treadstone program that turned him into a killing machine. However, when his old cohort Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) uncovers further secrets that link to Bourne’s family, he’s forced back into the fold. On the grid once again, Bourne must find a way to remain hidden whilst seeking further revenge. Meanwhile, Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) the latest crotchety CIA director, is hell bent on tracking Bourne down. To do so, he enlists the help of analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). A skilled tracker in her own right, Heather believes that she can find Bourne and return him to duty.

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This is the cinematic embodiment of a twisted arm. Damon and Greengrass masterfully wrapped up Jason’s story in The Bourne Ultimatum and they know it. The film spends so much time desperately reaching for an excuse for Bourne to return, that it never starts. When it’s all said and done, we actually learn only a sliver more about Bourne’s past. However, that morsel (which feels pulled from a soap opera) takes over an hour for the film to fully reveal. Meanwhile, Greengrass is content to simply repeat the same formula that made up his other two Bourne outings. Angry folks stand and stare at computers barking orders. Lots of angry looking folks walk down hallways and city streets preparing for action sequences. Bourne occasionally does something neat to justify a chase scene. Who cares? Certainly none of these actors.

All of these performers act as though they’ve been scared awake from a nap before each take. Damon, spectacularly volatile and yet vulnerable before, is a blank slate here. Sure, the film tries to justify it by portraying Bourne as a colder, more closed off figure. However, it takes a fascinating character and turns him into a plot device with an already completed arc. It’s a shame, especially after Damon’s powerhouse turn in The Martian. Meanwhile, Stiles (also great before) delivers her lines like an acting student forced into the class because she couldn’t take a free period. Jones and Vikander have nothing to do either, both simply filling in blanks that make the Bourne machine work.

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Mechanical is exactly how to describe Greengrass’ direction here. Despite all the rhetoric he’s spewed about evolving the franchise into this decade, he simply spins his wheels. The action sequences (aside from one spectacular climatic chase) are completely lethargic. It’s the same standard pushing and driving through crowds business as before, minus the energy. In fact, an early set piece involving a chase through a Syntagma Square protest feels like being stuck in traffic. Meanwhile, anything close quarters is muddled by Greengrass’ insistence on wobbling the camera around. It may have been a novel stylistic flourish before but in the age of films like John Wick and The Raid it feels lazy.

Any attempt at a unique narrative is utterly thin. There’s a subplot involving a social media guru (Riz Ahmed) being forced to use his platform to track people. However, it’s as simple as that and doesn’t add anything other than a building block for the climax. The idea of Vikander wanting to bring Bourne back in is an interesting nugget, but Greengrass is terrified to do something with it. After all, that would be a totally different movie. How can we have angry people look at computer screens in a different movie? It certainly doesn’t work as the set-up for a sequel, because after this mess any excitement for another installment would be masochistic.

Jason Bourne is about as uninspired a sequel as there can be (and in this summer, that’s been a contest). It has the skeleton of the other films, but none of the meat. Even the much derided Bourne Legacy attempted to do something different and move the franchise forward. Hopefully, this will be Damon’s last outing as a character he’s clearly not interested in. He doesn’t need it anymore, and neither do we. The good news: this film is as forgettable as the past of its protagonist.

Rating: D

Ghostbusters Review

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At this point, Paul Feig’s all-female Ghostbusters has become more of a debate concept than a movie. On one extreme, you’ve got radical feminists who are thrilled to be inheriting the classically male-lead franchise. On the other, there are heartbroken Generation X internet dwellers furious that the chances of a ride with the original cast died with Harold Ramis. If the narrative of the internet is taken as gospel, one may even believe these sides make up everybody. Hell, they may even forget that what is at the center of all of this controversy is simply a remake of a silly 80s comedy. On that metric, gender becomes a non-issue. All that matters is if these Ghostbusters can deliver the laughs that their predecessors did. After all, the new HQ needs some good Yelp reviews.

The film begins by introducing us to Columbia Professor Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig). She’s a former paranormal investigator gone legit after a rift with former partner and best friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). However, when Yates posts the book the two co-wrote on Amazon, Gilbert is thrown back into the world of the paranormal. Following Abby and quirky inventor Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), Erin happens upon her very first full-on ghost sighting. Thrilled, the three start a business to track down paranormal entities and catch them. Their force  grows when subway worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) becomes enamored with joining the team, offering her expertise of New York City. Meanwhile, Rowan (Neil Casey), a disgruntled hotel clerk, plans to open a portal so that a horde of spirits can destroy the world.

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The vital part of the 1984 Ghostbusters was the chemistry amongst its incredible cast. It’s a chemistry that has become so iconic, that it essentially drowns out any parts of that film that may not work. While the chemistry between the four ladies in this film is nowhere near that level, it does carry the proceedings. Unfortunately, that is simply because these are some of the funniest people in show business, and they can wring laughs out of anything. The characters themselves are mostly flat, completely relying on the talents of their respective actress. This is especially true for Wiig and McCarthy, who are forced to carry a contrived “old friendship renewed” arc. Neither Erin nor Abby has much personality, so it’s difficult to root for their camaraderie. Meanwhile, while Jones isn’t quite the stereotype the trailers made her out to be, Patty doesn’t have much range. She alternates from being the team’s navigator, to their screaming coward. Only the wildly talented McKinnon does strong character work here, throwing everything she has into Holtzmann’s unhinged geekery. She’s fascinating to watch, but unfortunately, she’s also given the least to do.

Paul Feig’s direction here is completely vanilla, a major disappointment after all the personality he brought to Spy.  While Ghostbusters is certainly never unwatchable, it never quite bubbles past average either. Feig is a huge proponent of improvisation but seems lost without opportunities to have long scenes where the actors simply riff on each other. In fact, the only scenes where the jokes consistently land are the ones featuring the hysterical Chris Hemsworth as the Ghostbusters’ inept secretary, Kevin. Not only is Hemsworth having a ball, but his dialogue driven moments are the ones where Feig feels most in his confront-zone. Meanwhile in the larger set-piece moments where the jokes would have needed to be planned, Feig gives up and lets the visuals do the talking. He’s been living in the world of dirty comedy for so long, that he’s afraid to let this film be the goofy romp it should be.

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While there certainly are some impressive ghost designs here, none of them have a strong personality. There’s no creature in here who will attain the iconic stature of Slimer. Most of them are just accessories for the Ghostbusters to throw around in the action sequences. It also doesn’t help that Rowan is painfully conceived. He’s an amalgamation of Feig’s idea of old guard Ghostbusters fans and never gets to move beyond that. Casey is painfully thin in the role, never allowed to move beyond the Jamie Foxx as Electro level of cartoon nerdy-ness. Without a worthy antagonist, the stakes feel very low. Despite all the cool effects, the climax is simply an excuse for the Ghostbusters to dance in a light-show.

However, despite all of Ghostbusters’ flaws, it is never truly hatable. There is clearly an earnest effort by Feig and especially the main cast to reinvigorate this franchise. At times, they even come pretty close to doing so. In fact, with another director who is more confident in the material, this cast could even be in a great Ghostbusters movie one day. For now, we’re left with a down the middle introduction that will leave many perplexed that something so average caused such vitriol. With that said, I can’t help but remember the eight-year-old girl sitting next to me in the theater. As the film hummed along, I could tell that what was a mediocre blockbuster in my eyes just may have meant the world to her. Busting will always make somebody feel good, and perhaps it’s time to hand over the proton packs to them.

Rating: C+

Weiner Dog Review

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When it is done right, there is nothing more cathartic than a dark comedy. It can expose all of the strange and terrible inconsistencies of human nature while still being an enjoyable night out. Writer/Director Todd Solandz of Happiness is considered by many to be the apex of the genre. I for one have never seen a film by Solondz and as such went into Wiener Dog unsure of what movie to expect. However, one thing I did expect was in fact, a movie. It’s unclear if Wiener Dog could even be called such. It’s more the cinematic equivalent of overdosing on anti-depressants without an EMT to come to your aid. Instead, for ninety minutes, you’re left trapped in a mind-numbing realm of hell. The worst part: I’m sure Solondz would take that as a compliment.

The film is an anthology of four so-called “stories” about the most miserable human beings on the Earth’s surface. Dina (Julie Delpy) and Danny (Tracy Letts) are a horrifically matched upper-class couple attempting to raise their cancer survivor son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke). Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig inheriting a character from Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse) finds herself whisked away by former high school bully Brandon (Kieran Culkin). Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito) is a former screenwriter turned jaded college professor who is universally hated by his students. Last but not least, Nana (Ellen Burstyn) is a bitter old woman forced to deal with a visit from her burn out granddaughter Zoe (Zoisa Mamet) and her boyfriend Fantasy (Michael Shaw). The only thing linking these folks together is a small Daschund dog that stumbles into their lives.

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Wiener Dog’s unfiltered pretentiousness is as repugnant as the diarrhea its protagonist suffers early on. It’s a film utterly void of structure, solely concerned with depicting misery. Despite the fact that none of the stories run over twenty minutes, they each still feel fatty. They alternate between going nowhere, or taking a slight baby step towards somewhere at the climax, only to abruptly end.  For the majority of the scenes, Solondz just rolls around in his characters’ awkwardness like a pig in slop. There isn’t anything particularly interesting in the writing of such awkwardness either. It’s all the standard “what does death mean?” or “I’m destined for nothing,” runaround that thousands of amateur playwrights have delved into before.

The characters are universally boring, although some of the actors do get a few fumes of mileage out of them. Delpy and DeVito, in particular, do hit a couple of very strong notes here. In fact, DeVito comes so close to making his eternally sidetracked professor sympathetic that if expanded, his story arc could have made for a compelling film. Meanwhile, Gerwig and Culkin are empty vessels floating through what is by far the most meandering storyline. I’m sure that some knowledge of Dollhouse character might enhance things a little bit. Although, it’s hard to imagine much of a difference, as the assumption that people will pick that detail up is pretty arrogant. Meanwhile, Burstyn’s story is relegated to the very end of the film, and she’s cuffed to a fairly standard mean old lady role. With the possible exception of DeVito, all of these people ring completely false. They’re not authentic depictions of depression, just tired types created by somebody who desperately wants to seem as heartbroken as they are.

Oh yeah, the dog. For those wondering exactly what the title character contributes to this story, the answer is…

 

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Anyway,

It would certainly be unfair to judge Solondz’s entire career off of one late-career failure. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Weiner Dog is one of the most perplexing movies this writer has ever seen. It’s pessimistic without being clever, vocally dry without any visual fluidity, and over without any hint that it had started. Instead, I’d recommend going into one of those mall dog stores and finding one that you just think is adorable. Tell the worker that you’re going to buy it, and then open its’ cage, letting it get its first taste of freedom. Then, without warning, run out of the store, leaving the dog in captivity. It will be a much more pleasant, not to mention free experience, guaranteed.

 

Rating: F

 

Swiss Army Man Review

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“The Farting Corpse Movie.” That was the moniker Swiss Army Man infamously took on when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Some people hailed the film as brilliant while others hated it, even to the point of walking out. At the end of the day, the movie won out, acquiring a nice mid-summer release. Thank heaven for that. The promise of anything original is already a godsend in a season dominated by creative bankruptcy. Frankly, it’s been the kind of couple months that call into question if film is even an endeavor worth perusing. However, Swiss Army Man turns out to be not only a mere remedy for a lackluster summer but a tidal wave of inventive filmmaking.

The film finds Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on a deserted island for an unknown reason. Things seem hopeless, and Hank has no intention of sticking around. However, as he is about to hang himself, something incredible happens. A corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on the shore, with a rather perplexing ability. Somehow, the body is still heavily flatulent. So much so, that he is able to push himself through the water simply by farting. Taking the opportunity in stride, Hank and the corpse escape the island, but then find themselves stranded in a nearby forest. Hank begins to communicate with the corpse (named Manny) who has taken on an infantile personality.

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On paper, that premise just might sound like the worst movie ever made, or at the very least absolutely nonsensical. That is the exact disadvantage that directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (Daniels) use so strategically in their feature debut. For starters, they’ve made one of the most beautiful looking films of the year. Everything from the color scheme to the vibrant cinematography has the spontaneity of overjoyed children at play. The vast and mysterious jungle setting creates the feeling of a wide open backyard. A backyard where anything one can think up is possible, even if it doesn’t make sense. The fantastic score plays into this even further, often having Dano and Radcliffe perform vocals over the music. This goofy energy never lets up, as if it’s constantly avoiding being called back in for dinner.

Swiss Army Man isn’t merely an exercise in style, however. Both Hank and Manny are beautifully realized characters only bolstered by Dano and Radcliffe. Dano, who so often is relegated to supporting roles, excels in his moment to headline. It’s a deeply understated performance. Hank mostly expresses himself through the world around him, but Dano gives his mopey demeanor a lot of charm. However, it is Radcliffe who emerges as the dead-eyed, farting revelation. Through his every contortion and fluctuation, he commits completely to the physical aspects of the role. Many actors would be terrified to be this physically vulnerable on screen, but Radcliffe gleefully asserts himself to fantastic comedic effect. His droll, childish delivery only serves as the icing on the cake. Virtually everything that comes out of Manny’s mouth is hysterical, which makes us care about him as much as Hank does.

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Although the film has a very immature sense of humor, do not mistake that for the film itself being immature. Daniels use the crude humor as a carefully crafted technique to disarm the audience. They intentionally bring the audience back to the state of mind where something as simple as a fart was funny. When Manny comes alive, his personality is that of one of those children. As Dano teaches Manny about the world, we re-discover the base concepts of life with him. As he starts to learn about ideas such as love, loss, and friendship the film invites us to re-evaluate our own thoughts on the subjects. However, this is not a heavy-handed message film. It’s a reminder that both the virtues and ills of society ultimately stem from a very childish place. In that way, it evokes the feel of a Rated-R Dr. Suess or Maurice Sendak picture book.

To merely call Swiss Army Man a great film and call it a day would be doing it a disservice. This is a movie so joyfully uninhibited that it invokes the feeling of falling in love with the craft in the first place. It’s crafted by the group of  kids who spent their summers running around in the woods with a camera. Only now, they have the budget to completely realize their absurd fantasies. Every inch of this is made with love. It will certainly not be for everybody, as its exterior immaturity might be too much for some to take. However, for those who love cinema that throws caution to the wind, buy a ticket, and let it rip.

Rating: A+

The Fundamentals of Caring Review

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It’s starting to look like Netflix is the place to go if you want to launch an independent film. Why slink into theaters in the middle of the summer and get crushed by all of the blockbusters, when the streaming service will practically throw a party for your launch day? It’s a release model perfect for a peppy little film like The Fundamentals of Caring. On the exterior, it seems built to perfectly fit the indie sleeper hit model. It’s based on a book, has middleweight comedian Paul Rudd in the lead, and has a story based on life, love, and disease. It is next to impossible to make something like this unique anymore, and The Fundamentals of Caring knows this.

The story centers on Ben (Paul Rudd), a blocked writer in the midst of a divorce following the death of their son. Unsure of what to do to pay the bills, he enlists in a caretaking program. His first assignment is teenage muscular dystrophy victim Trevor (Craig Roberts). While their sardonic personalities gel together quickly, Ben becomes frustrated with Trevor’s closed minded views on life. In response, he takes Trevor on a road trip to see all of the roadside attractions he sees on TV. Along the way, they encounter Dot (Selena Gomez), a hitchhiker who decides to tag along to get herself to Colorado in pleasant company.

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What makes this movie work is its willingness to cut corners within the buddy movie formula. This is particularly evident in the relationship between Ben and Trevor. In so many other films, there would be a fifteen minute stretch in the first act of watching these two butt heads. Considering the fact that Trevor is a fairly arrogant character already, it would have been easy to write him as completely unreasonable towards his new caregiver. Instead, the film just lets Rudd and Roberts develop the relationship naturally, and there’s some real magic in that. Rudd is nicely subdued here, dialing into his typical dopey charm with a bit more maturity. Roberts, on the other hand, is just plain fantastic. Trevor is a whirlwind of sarcasm, anxiety, and heart and Roberts manages to not overplay any one element. The film doesn’t put a magical veil over him because he’s disabled, letting him be just as flawed and complex as the other characters.

Writer/Director Rob Burnett is very crafty in his storytelling here. Often times, he will tease us with a more trite direction the film could go in, only to subvert it one moment later. He’s not a particularly stylish director, but he’s fantastic with pacing. All of the squabbles, celebrations, and general interactions here are perfectly timed, and play out for just long enough to be realistic. There’s no sludgy point in the middle of the story where we have to pretend all of our characters hate each other, just to watch them all rally back together. They simply act like real people, happy at sometimes, angry at others. It’s a very impressively characterized piece, and it bodes well for Burnett as a director.

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Where the movie does start to fall apart is the gigantic miscasting of Selena Gomez. Dot is a bit rough around the edges, constantly cursing and playing the whole “I’m above authority tune” a little bit too loudly. Gomez’s inclusion feels like a stunt cast in order to add some unnecessary edge to things. She improves a bit throughout the film, but Gomez simply isn’t that natural of an actress. Especially compared to how authentic her co-stars are, she drives the momentum down a fair amount. Another wasted character, a pregnant woman named Peaches, comes in towards the end of the film. While Megan Ferguson does what she can with her time, she’s really not given enough to really gel with the rest of the cast. It’s a shame, as a truly great female character could have been the final ingredient in making this movie something truly memorable.

While Rob Burnett does not do a perfect job at assisting The Fundamentals of Caring, he keeps it in good enough shape to be one of the year’s more enjoyable movies. It’s mostly thanks to Rudd and Roberts. Whenever the film is simply letting them interact, it is pure gold. This is a film that knows which clichés to keep, and which ones to dump which is a more valuable skill than one may give it credit for. It’s the perfect movie to wrap up in a blanket and enjoy on a lonely Saturday night, and thankfully since it is on Netflix that is exactly what you can do.

Rating: A-

The Neon Demon Review

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Normally when I walk out of a movie theater, there’s a feeling of serenity that comes over me. I’ve just spent a couple hours doing my favorite thing in the world after all. Sometimes I’m elated or angry when something truly great or awful strikes but those days grow fewer as I see more films. However, upon leaving The Neon Demon I felt something I hadn’t in a long time. Genuine disgust, almost as if I had spent the last two hours at a dog fight. Anybody can make a bad film, and at the end of the day, there isn’t much wrong with that. However, it takes somebody of true talent, who is so arrogant and unfiltered that he cannot channel it to make something like this. Enter Nicolas Winding Refn.

The Neon Demon centers on Jesse (Elle Fanning), a sixteen-year-old model who has run away to Los Angeles to pursue her dream. By the grace of her stunning natural beauty, she finds herself quickly swept into the seedy underbelly of the industry. In fact, the only people worth trusting seem to be Jesse’s makeup artist Ruby (Jenna Malone) and semi-boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman). However, as Jesse dives deeper and deeper into the fascination with her beauty, even those elements of her life become more blurry.

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What is so frustrating about Refn is that he is clearly an extraordinarily talented filmmaker. Drive and Bronson were wildly stylish and audacious films that flipped reality on its head while still remaining entertaining. In many ways, that same style persists in The Neon Demon. The film is filled to the brim with gorgeous visuals that capture the seedy lifestyles that these women live. Everything has an intentionally artificial look to it. Sharp blacks and whites punctuate what often times looks like the cover of a magazine. On the surface, it is often a haunting and beautiful looking film. However, these visuals end up being the invisible cloak for a very naked emperor.

Refn certainly believes that he has a lot to say about the modern perception of beauty. For a while, he may even fool us into biting. There’s certainly a coherent story running through the majority of this film, which is far more than can be said for his previous disaster, Only God Forgives. It’s false coherence, though, holding our hand only to drop us off of a cliff. There are long sequences here that feel like rejected concepts for Marina and the Diamonds music videos that are crow-barred into the story simply to anchor a non-existent point. Refn is so confident in these vague visuals, that they simply serve to confuse and undercut the moments of strong visual storytelling. Then in the third act, he reveals himself for who he truly is, a pornographer. Any semblance of substance this mess was achieving fly straight out of the window, as Refn assaults us with one horrific shock scene after another. It feels random as if these sequences were just thrown in to give audiences something to talk about walking out of the film since they certainly won’t know what has happened in it.

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The biggest casualty of all this nonsense is the cast, who while game for it all, come in very flat. Refn intentionally gets somewhat stilted performances out of his actors, which in certain circumstances serves him well. However, in a film that is supposed to be all about stylistic appearances and over the top personas, the performances should have reflected that. Fanning, in particular, had true breakout potential here, as on paper Jesse has a rather interesting transformation. However, despite going from timid school girl to the incarnation of natural beauty, Fanning keeps her performance in neutral. There’s a great deal of visual heavy lifting to bring these changes across, but something more is needed out of Fanning to make it stick. She lacks the off-kilter charm that Refn brought to Charlie Bronson or The Driver. Meanwhile, Jenna Malone is at the epicenter of some of the film’s biggest missteps. She bravely leans into them, no doubt, but her character quickly bleeds into something unintelligible by the film’s end. In fact, many of the film’s supporting characters feel incoherent and interchangeable. The only one who really stands out is Keanu Reeves as a seedy hotel manager, and that is only because his line delivery is even more stilted than everybody else.

There will undoubtedly be some who hail The Neon Demon as a masterpiece. These kinds of films attract that attention by nature, as there are so few audacious films of any kind given wide exposure these days. However, audaciousness does not excuse incoherence, and so much of this film feels like it was made so only another species could understand it. I truly believe that Refn will one day make another great film. That day will come when he finally tries to meet us halfway, giving us a solid story that is artfully told. This, however, is simply an art installation, and those belong in museums, not theaters.

Rating: D

Independence Day: Resurgence Review

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Last year the world was hit by a box office asteroid in the form of Jurassic World. It was an unapologetically cheesy, blissfully nostalgic exercise in revisiting one of the nineties’ biggest franchises. It worked like a charm, seemingly out of nowhere becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Almost exactly one year later, we have Independence Day: Resurgence. Lacking the novelty of dinosaurs, it attempts to re-capture the magic of a time when it’s predecessor’s landmark destroying CGI effects were a thing of beauty and not a standard piece of almost every major blockbuster. At the outset, it even has a couple advantages over World, with director Roland Emmerich and star Jeff Goldblum returning. However, it becomes clear when watching the final product that Will Smith was the T-Rex of the original film.

Picking up twenty years after humanity’s first war with aliens (a fact the film never lets you forget), Independence Day: Resurgence centers on a version of mankind that has adapted to alien technology. Fighter jets can now go into space, weapons are more advanced, and the cost of gas has likely remained the same. However, this utopian existence finds itself in peril when David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) discovers that the aliens are mounting a second attack. Paired up with cocky fighter pilot Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) who has a few personal problems of his own, David along with the world’s governments try to find a way to stop the even more catastrophic reign of destruction that ultimately comes to pass on the planet.

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Conceptually, there are a couple of good ideas here. In fact, there is some solid world building in the first act that hints at a far more interesting movie lurking below the surface. However, the laziness of the storytelling here becomes astonishing the minute the aliens come back into the picture. Emmerich seems to believe that the addition of the new technology on the human end gives him free reign to essentially remake the original. It takes the classic lazy sequel approach by constantly acknowledging that it is the same movie without then trying to do anything that feels new. The humans using alien weapons amounts to seeing a different color of CGI goop on the screen, and it certainly doesn’t help that the people behind the weapons are so hard to care about, that the film ultimately feels like a Sy Fy channel version of its predecessor.

With the exception of Goldblum’s Levinson, who does add some humanity and wry humor to the proceedings, all of these characters are flat types. Hemsworth’s Jake is clearly supposed to be the rugged charisma magnet. The down to earth, sarcastic everyman that Will Smith embodied so perfectly before. However, Hemsworth is no Will Smith. His delivery here is completely lifeless which sinks any charismatic moments this character may have had. In fact, he often sounds unsure as to what his lines mean. Jessie T. Usher as the son of Smith’s Captain Hiller is not much better, seemingly afraid of either emulating Smith or doing something of his own. Mika Monroe, who was excellent in last year’s It Follows is completely wasted here as Jake’s generic girlfriend, who is established as a former pilot herself just so she’s not completely sidelined in the third act. Meanwhile, the returning actors from the first film could not seem more apathetic. Bill Pullman’s earnest machismo has become borderline lethargic, Brett Spiner pumps his annoying 90s geek schtick to eleven and Judd Hirsh seems completely nonplussed by the fact that there is an alien invasion. In fact, so many of the actors seem simply confused which shifts the blame of their weak performances on to Emmerich.

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Emmerich is typically no slouch in the director’s chair. In fact, he often will deliver the most beautiful looking big budget destruction out of anybody in the business. There are moments here where that spark does shine through. A few of the action sequences, particularly the dogfights are filmed so clearly that the thrilling sensation of motion really shines through. Some the production design is also fairly creative, so much so that an art book of all the different human/alien fusion designs would likely be a pleasure. What’s missing is the playfulness that populates many of his other films, particularly the original Independence Day. This movie feels like a completely procedural job for him, with very little humor that doesn’t feel like it wasn’t added in reshoots to brighten things up. It’s a spectacle that feels so completely bored with itself.

Independence Day: Resurgence feels like a student cobbling together an assignment that was due twenty years before he even started. While there are a couple of interesting ideas here, the whole thing feels completely thrown together. It’s a PowerPoint presentation of muddled characters and un-ambitious storytelling punctuated by money shots to make it look pretty. While it is certainly not as insultingly bad as some of this summer’s other sequels, it perpetuates all of the problems that are making audiences lose interest in them. I suspect that now Independence Day will no longer be known as an American classic, but a franchise that went quietly into the night.

Rating: D+

Finding Dory Review

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Many of this summer’s sequels have centered on a returning team. Another heist for a band of magicians, more monsters for turtles to fight, or what happens when political disagreements divide a bunch of best friends with superpowers. Finding Dory, however, takes a different approach. As the title suggests, Pixar has decided to make a full-stop character study out of the wildly popular comedic relief character from their 2003 masterpiece Finding Nemo. Often times, this can prove to be a disastrous approach. After all, the whole point of a comic relief character is that they act as seasoning to give the richer characters something to react off of. This is the convention that Pixar is determined to break here, and in doing so they may have just made the most authentically human film of the summer, about fish.

The story begins one year after the events of Nemo. Marlin (Albert Brooks), Nemo (Hayden Rolence), and Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) all live together. Dealing with Dory’s short-term memory loss has been hard on Marlin, but he’s been doing his best to both raise his son and look after her. However, that balance is thrown out of control when repressed memories of Dory’s parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy) start to come to the surface. With only a California address as a clue, she begs Marlin and Nemo to come along on the search. When they arrive, they discover that Dory comes from an ocean life hospital/aquarium. Naturally, Dory gets separated from Marlin and Nemo and goes on a journey of self-discovery as she digs up more pieces of her past.

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Pixar has made their name from wringing rich emotions out of abnormal sources. Finding Nemo was perhaps one of their strongest showcases, tapping into the primal connection a parent has with their child and the crippling fear of losing them. It would have been easy to simply tap into that formula again here, as Marlin is essentially a parental figure to Dory as well. Instead, Pixar takes a much braver and ultimately more rewarding path. Finding Dory is at its core a film about both having, and helping those with disabilities. Dory’s short-term memory loss, which was mostly played for laughs last time around, is taken for what it really is here. It’s something scary, something that makes her feel as though she is lost even in places that are most familiar to her. It’s wrenching stuff, especially once DeGeneres’ fantastic voice work is fused in. Having a comedian in this role is so critical because Dory’s funny and dramatic moments are entirely a product of timing, as her brain is literally a ticking clock.

What balances out the darkness of Dory’s arc is just how funny the supporting characters are. Brooks is given a considerably smaller role than in the original, as he and Nemo are relegated to a series of side vignettes where they explore the aquarium looking for Dory. These scenes could easily come across as filler, but they’re animated with such a frantic energy and are so well written that they often serve as perfect tension relievers. It’s a film that knows exactly how to bring on the smallest background characters, give them a couple great jokes, and then move on to the next scene. Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, and Ty Burrell are also wonderful as the friends Dory encounters, who each relates to Dory’s memory loss in very organic, touching ways.

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Director Andrew Stanton, returning to animation after his live action misfire John Carter, proves what a natural talent he is in this medium. The pacing here is fantastic, ducking and weaving between absurd comedy, character moments, and dark drama in organic succession. The underwater world that he and the animators create is wonderfully visceral, lively and full in the more lighthearted scenes, and empty and overwhelming when Dory feels lost inside of it. The aquarium is also taken full advantage of, with several fun action sequences being pulled from spy, heist, and even horror movies. Although this is a sequel and was likely corporately mandated to some degree, it is clearly a labor of love given to us by people who love the language of film.

Finding Dory isn’t perfect. It hits several weak notes over the course of the journey, as it occasionally opts to play up the cute factor to a nauseating degree. However, when watching this film, it becomes easy to forget that these are animals. There are moments here that are deeply wrenching, and not in the typical Disney “because somebody dead” fashion. They hit because they feel so real, like interactions that were pulled right from an everyday family’s home, and put into the water. It has moments that are truly sad, even a bit disturbing, and doesn’t talk down to its audience in showing them these realities. Why? Because when the happy moments do come, they genuinely register and will likely make for some very enlightening discussions between parents and kids. To make something upsetting such as mental illness authentic, and yet relatable to children is the mark of a great kids film, and Finding Dory is just that.

 

Rating: A-