Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,

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Like before, less genre, but unlike before, way more!

Dope: "We're not going to a drug dealer's birthday party," says Malcolm Adekanbi, black geek into '90s hip-hop who gets shit for liking white stuff, talking to his fellow black geeks, lesbian Diggy and Latinx Jib, who are all in a punk band that plays catchy-as-fuck songs written by Pharrell Williams. Guess what, they go to a drug dealer's birthday party and end up in a heap of trouble. Dope is an incredible, joyous film that rockets forward with narrative bravado and a great sense of humor; it's the best comedy I've seen in ages. But it's also full of depth as it explores Malcolm's identity crisis, caught between what a stereotypical black kid in the inner city is supposed to be and what he is. This is a movie that gets away with spelling out what it's about at the end because it's fucking earned it; it's shown it to you and you still let Rick Famuyiwa tell you and you don't feel talked down to, you witness a goddamn mic drop. Also, the soundtrack is perfection and the movie uses the songs beautifully. Sure, the movie has some minor flaws like an underdeveloped romance (aren't they always) and not much development of Diggy and Jib, but otherwise I am simply in awe of this movie and everything it chooses to be. Just wow. A-/A

From Up on Poppy Hill: The 1968 Tokyo Olympics are coming up, and for some reason a high school clubhouse is at stake. The clubhouse houses the newspaper, the archaeology club, the chemistry club, the philosophy club, all sorts of clubs full of colorful characters, and these kids must band together to convince the adults to save their building from destruction. But that is all secondary to the cute romance that develops between Umi, a girl whose mother is away and father is likely dead, and Shun, a newspaper guy. A romance that encounters an...unexpected obstacle. The movie has a really good sense of time and place, and it's got a lot of sweetness and heart, but the two narratives don't really fit together that well, despite the apparent iterated theme about the relationship between past and present. Regardless, it's an enjoyable watch. B/B+

Westworld: Delos has got a vacation for you: you can live in ancient Rome, medieval times, or the Old West! And all the people are robots you can kill and/or have sex with. It's fun! Unless they go malfunction or whatever, like that would happen. Guess what happens in this movie? Guess what happens more than halfway through this movie. The movie focuses mostly on two schmucks in Western World who aren't all that likable and occasionally gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the people running the park, where it becomes increasingly clear how little sense this movie makes (in the sense that 1970s ideas of androids are super dated and their insides are so primitive that I do not believe they could possibly be so lifelike on the outside). The film tries to build to all-out mayhem with small malfunctions, but the problem is that the base story following the main characters isn't interesting. Plus the tone is wildly inconsistent; sometimes it turns weird and goofy like the movie's supposed to be a fun romp. The highlight is easily Yul Brynner's Terminator-esque Gunslinger (apparently both Michael Myers and the actual Terminator were inspired by his performance), but even the climax is fairly dull. B

Trance: After a botched art heist, James McAvoy needs to remember where the painting is, so he goes to a hypnotherapist, as you do. And it's Rosario Dawson, who valiantly does the most she can do with her nonsensical character. Obvs this is Movie Hypnosis, so it is filmically convenient, but the first half of the movie is pretty slick and entertaining, as she tries to help him remember what he's forgotten, working with his fellow art thieves. She's the only female character in the movie, but I do like how much power she has. Halfway through, though, hoo boy, the movie takes a turn, and then when the reveals start coming, hoo fucking boy, it is twist upon WTF upon twist upon WTF and some of it is kinda icky, and it definitely feels very proud of how cleverly convoluted it is but dear God. This movie has issues. B

Sicario: Emily Blunt fights the War on Drugs by searching for kidnapping victims, but then Josh Brolin drafts her into his...secret mission thing that involves Benicio del Toro. It becomes clear quickly that Blunt is in way over her head, as whoever these people are, they are not as by-the-book as she is. On a basic level, "Emily Blunt has moral qualms about what they are doing to fight the War on Drugs" is the movie, and Taylor Sheridan's screenplay doesn't go particularly deep, but Denis Villenueve's direction and Blunt's and Del Toro's performances elevate the material considerably. It's dark and tense with a wonderfully ominous score. There's something about this film that just works, where it feels like it has strong characters despite not telling us much about them, where it feels like it has a strong plot despite not connecting the dots all the time. I think it would have been a more interesting movie if Josh Brolin's character had been a woman, though. B+

Love & Friendship: Whit Stillman adapts Jane Austen, and their senses and sensibilities match up pretty well! Everyone in this movie is very serious; no one makes an actual joke and that is what makes it so funny. It also requires a lot of attention to be paid because much of the story happens offscreen and also people are lying and by people I mean Lady Susan, the widow who leads this Machiavellian romance, trying to arrange a suitor for her daughter and perhaps even herself. She has a "reputation," though, which means families are looking out for their sons and trying to keep them out of her web. Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan is a charmingly vicious delight; she says and does the most horrible things and yet you can't help but love her. But Tom Bennett as the buffoonish Sir James Martin steals every scene he's in (he's got a Colin Firthyness to him) both because of his foolish behavior and everyone's reactions to him. Though the movie has some slow spells, it generally moves swiftly and has plenty of wonderful moments thanks to its cast. B+

The Visit: M. Night Shyamalan gets his groove back with this surprisingly successful found-footage horror film. Kathryn Hahn sends her two kids off to stay with her estranged parents for a week. Becca is a budding documentarian, precocious and pretentious about visuals and ethics. Tyler is a budding rapper (yes, he is white). Becca wants to learn the reason why her grandparents haven't spoken to her mom in fifteen years, but it's kind of hard because...they...are acting...really...fucking weird. Is there something sinister going on or are they just old? That is the central tension in this movie, and it is kind of a silly one (Shyamalan's second cut was a comedy, and it's unclear in this final cut if we're supposed to laugh or be scared at times), though it certainly had me wondering throughout when Something Terrible would happen. But the movie works because it actually cares about its characters; Becca and Tyler are sympathetic and not just there to be terrorized. Their dad left them and it's clearly affected them. The horror aspect gets turned up at the end, of course, and it's fairly effective, but it's the family drama that really wins out. The last couple minutes define the movie and what Shyamalan was interested in trying to accomplish, and he gave me emotions. B+

The Book of Life: My goodness, what is this? An animated film that draws from Mexican folklore and tells a story with Mexican characters...co-written and directed by a Mexican man, voiced primarily by Mexican and other Latinx actors?? It can be done! It took me fifteen or twenty minutes to get into this movie, as it opens with a frame story and throws lots of culture in your face at once and then suddenly you're in the story proper and everything is so chaotic, but once I got used to the quirky animation style (everyone looks like they're wooden dolls), I could settle into the plot, which, admittedly, is eye-rolly: two men competing for the heart of one woman as part of a bet between two supernatural entities. Manolo is a sensitive musician whose dad wants him to be a fierce bullfighter, and Joaquin is a tough-guy macho man fighter whose dad was a tough-guy macho man fighter. Wow, I wonder who will win. Thankfully, Maria, like Jasmine, is NOT A PRIZE TO BE WON (except she still is). The movie becomes even more vibrant when it delves into the afterlife realms, and it's just so fun and imaginative throughout, different from the usual fare. Plus there are mariachi covers of pop songs and Princess Bride-esque reactions from the kids listening to the story. Good times. B+

The Iron Giant: Hogarth Hughes befriends a giant robot from space, as boys in 1957 Americana are wont to do. Meanwhile a paranoid G-man investigates and stirs up violence. Is the Iron Giant deserving of such violence? He's voiced by Vin Diesel! He's basically metal Groot! The first half of the film generally focuses on Hogarth's antics trying to hide the Giant from everyone else, and they are quite delightful, especially when the G-man gets involved. But at the heart of the film is the Giant's true nature: it's clear he has been designed as a weapon and he comes heavily armed. But Hogarth teaches him pacifism and the power of choice. Guns kill, and he does not have to be a gun. Can he fight what he was made to be? If you don't get choked up at the end, you have no heart. A-

Magic Mike: Channing Tatum is a stripper-entrepreneur or an entrepreneur-stripper, and he for no apparent reason takes on Alex Pettyfer as his protégé, bringing him into the fold under the tutelage of Matthew McCounaghey and various other male strippers who don't have actual characterization. I do not know what the world of male stripping is really like but since this movie is based on Tatum's own experiences, I guess there are places where men do highly choreographed routines with costumes and props (and gymnastics, in Tatum's case) to much female cheering and dollars. The stripping scenes are pretty entertaining yet relatively tame. It's unclear whether the story is supposed to be about Tatum or Pettyfer for a while; there's some parallel rising and falling going on. But the titular Mike has dreams beyond stripping (FURNITURE DREAMS)! Will he fulfill them, and will he learn about himself from Pettyfer's sister? Also Olivia Munn is in this movie and her character makes very little sense. B/B+

Magic Mike XXL: Mike thought his stripping days were behind him, but when his old buddies ask him to join them for one last hoorah at a stripper convention (yes, a stripper convention), it's time for a ROAD TRIP! The movie starts out strongly enough, and it's nice to see a more ensemble focus in this film, allowing the non-Mike strippers to have more of a semblance of character. But a third of the way through it loses its way and jettisons any real narrative momentum to indulge in stripping scenes and weird heart-to-hearts. The final stripping convention routine is admittedly impressive and fairly satisfying but the plot of the movie is super thin compared to the original, though it does gain points for being more inclusive, both in strippers (not almost entirely white men) and in women (not almost entirely thin white women). Somewhere in here there was a seed of a good male bonding movie. B

The Nice Guys: I like Shane Black movies, and this one is no exception. Russell Crowe gets paid to beat up people, and Ryan Gosling gets paid to find people, and their paths cross thanks to a woman named Amelia. Also pornography. And some other stuff. It's a whole big mess they get themselves into. Luckily Gosling's character has an awesome daughter who never listens to her dad about not trying to help him. The Nice Guys is a really fun '70s L.A. noir buddy action-comedy, with Crowe being the smart one and Gosling being the inept one (but not actually the worst detective ever). They play off each other well, and as they follow clues and get shot at a lot, the pace never flags. Shane Black knows his way around a script, so of course there are plenty of satisfying callbacks and payoffs for even throwaway gags. Thoroughly entertaining flick here. B+/A-

Hush: It's Wait Until Dark but this time it's a deaf woman! While it would have been preferable and more authentic to cast a deaf actress, that was never going to happen here, given that the star co-wrote the movie with her director husband. Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel craft a pretty terrifying home invasion thriller around the idea that a man is, well, terrorizing a woman who cannot hear or speak, but the real surprise here is how rarely that actually comes into play. One of the things that makes the movie so scary is that the man deliberately toys with her—it's not that difficult for him to break in but he wants to fuck with her. And that aspect would work regardless. There are plenty of clever ways Flanagan uses the premise to his advantage, but so much of it is simply the pervasive and noticeable lack of dialogue, as the two adversaries must generally communicate visually...but, again, one wonders why other horror movies don't use this technique rather than have their heroines spout useless expressions of fright. The pace is fairly relentless, but our heroine is fairly badass, so. B+/A-

Live Free or Die Hard: The Die Hard franchise takes on cyberterrorism as a simple escort mission ropes John McClane into another action-packed adventure he never signed up for. He's old and grizzled, a "Timex in a digital age," so here is youthful hacker Justin Long to offer contrast and also learn a little bit about being a reluctant hero. The movie has an excellent cast, though they aren't all given much to do (Maggie Q does have a great fight scene, but why does McClane have to say gross shit about her?). It's a bit overlong but it only has a few actual lulls, and there are plenty of fun action sequences, some of them delightfully ridiculous. Len Wiseman keeps the pace up and the tension high, delivering a respectable installment. B+

Keanu: Keanu is the cutest little kitty there ever was, so when he escapes a drug lord massacre and shows up on a loser's doorstep, it's understandable that he would form such an attachment to him that when he's taken, he'll stop at nothing to get him back. Even if the kitty is now in possession of another drug lord who has formed quite an attachment to him. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele obviously work well together, and Keanu is very enjoyable. Key's Clarence is a straight-laced, tightly wound George Michael fan who teaches gangsters corporate team-building skills, and Peele's Rell is a scaredy cat (no pun...small pun intended). While it's absurd that anyone would believe their gangster act, it's fun, and we want them to get Keanu back, even if people die along the way. The script is pretty solid and efficient, though a plot twist ex machina saves the day. But seriously, that kitty is CUTE AS SHIT. B+

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: Juvenile delinquent orphan Ricky Baker has come to the last home in New Zealand that will take him, but wouldn't you know it, though his Aunt Bella showers him with love, his Uncle Hector just wants him to leave him alone. So of course Ricky and Hector end up on an adventure in the bush that leads to a countrywide manhunt. Family bonding! It's hard to describe why Hunt for the Wilderpeople is worth watching; the trailer certainly didn't entice me. But Julian Dennison and Sam Neill play off each other wonderfully. Ricky Baker is introduced as this punk kid but he turns to be pretty endearing and lovable, though it will still take a lot to crack Hector's gruff exterior. The plot is fairly loose, as the two of them have mini-adventure after mini-adventure, running into various characters, but it never feels like it's meandering, especially since we also follow the hunt, led by a child welfare services officer who is hilariously committed to finding this kid (NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND). By the end, the movie's become something special and unique and heartfelt. Literally, I felt my heart. B+/A-

The Prestige: I've had the urge to rewatch this movie for a while, and then I read the excellent novel, after which I finally did rewatch this movie, and goddamn, I appreciate it even more as an adaptation. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan changed much, to be sure, but they kept enough such that it feels like a great adaptation, not an original movie loosely based on the book. Borden and Angier are rival stage magicians obsessed with fucking each other over after an onstage tragedy tears them apart, and they each develop a trick with a hell of a secret. Let me tell you, rewatching the movie is a trip because the Nolans fucking tell you the secrets over and over and over, how could you have missed them the first time. There's so much brilliant misdirection, enhanced by the non-linear narrative that's initially disorienting until it settles into a mesmerizing groove. The female characters are underdeveloped (though well acted), but Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman really bite into Borden and Angier and the depth of their obsession and sacrifice. The movie is so thematically rich, and Nolan uses recurring motifs to great effect. A gripping film from beginning to end. A-

Contact: The day after seeing the excellent Arrival was the perfect time to finally rewatch another great movie about first contact. Jodie Foster has been looking to the stars since she was a child, and one day she hears a message, and that message has instructions for a machine that could send her on an incredible journey. Matthew McCounaghey has not been looking to the stars; he has been looking to God. Contact is not at all subtle about its science vs. religion conflict, but it manages to have those discussions in thought-provoking rather than irritating ways. The movie takes its sweet time, but it feels deliberately paced, allowing for more character investment before the true science fiction begins. There are some plot conveniences, and the men who oppose Foster are fairly one-note, but the movie rarely strikes a false note. It's the kind of thoughtful science fiction we don't see that often. B+/A-

Swiss Army Man: Paul Dano is stranded on a desert island, but then he discovers the farting corpse of Daniel Radcliffe and rides him like a jet ski to salvation. This is literally what happens in the first ten minutes of this very odd yet rather enjoyable movie, which does revel in offbeat gross-out humor but has a surprising amount of heart. You see, Dano discovers Radcliffe's corpse has all sorts of abilities, ridiculous abilities, laugh-out-loud ridiculous abilities, and he takes them all in stride and uses them to survive. It also helps that the corpse gradually begins to come back to life somehow (or, as Dano says, it's all a hallucination), and the various conversations the living man has with the dead one about How to Be a Person are the highlights of the film. The corpse does not understand life and finds societal rules very silly. (It should be noted that he stops farting constantly once he becomes more of a character, which makes the movie easier to enjoy.) The two form an unlikely bond, and who even knows what's real. It's fun and weird. The movie fumbles a bit at the end, I think, but it does feature what is possibly the most affecting fart in all of cinema. B+/A

The Purge: Election Year: It's a couple years after The Purge: Anarchy and there's hope for the country! Senator Charlie Roan is running for President, and she wants to end the Purge. Welp, the New Founding Fathers aren't cool with that, so it's a good thing the Purge is coming up and all crime is legal, including murder, and by murder I mean assassination. While each Purge movie has expanded the scope and upped the mayhem, I felt this movie went a little too far in its attempts to increase the ludicrous depravity of Purge Night (a guillotine in an alley, are you kidding me). Like the last movie, though, most of the heroic characters are POC, which is great, and they band together to protect Roan. There's some lip service paid to the political commentary, but the movie's far more interested in mindless violence. It keeps moving, though, and the characters are likable, thin though they may be. B/B+

Lights Out: David F. Sandberg made a (very) short film based on a simple concept: a monster who only exists in the dark. Turn on the light and she's gone and you're safe. Lights out? You in danger, girl. While the full-length version of the film mines this simple concept for all it's worth in some clever, exciting, and creepy ways, Eric Heisserer's script is more reminiscent of recent horror films like The Babadook, a domestic drama that expresses itself via horror. Here the setup is a depressed mother, her estranged daughter, and the son who's terrified of the other person living with him and his mother...the aforementioned monster. Although the movie clocks in at a lean eighty minutes, I thought it could have used some fleshing out; the timeline of events isn't entirely clear, nor are the relationships, not to mention the rules of the monster. There's something off about the general flow. BUT! It's got a lot of good scares and I appreciate its focus on the characters. The ending is pretty fucked up though and has some very unfortunate implications. B/B+

Hell or High Water: Two brothers are robbing banks in west Texas, and one retiring Ranger has a final case. Hell or High Water is a low-key character movie punctuated with occasional action scenes, and it succeeds on the strength of its dual pairings. Ben Foster's reckless, ex-con big brother complements Chris Pine's sensible, clean-cut little brother. Jeff Bridges's gruff, racist lawman complements Gil Birmingham's jokey, half-Mexican/half-Comanche partner. (There's a subtheme about America's treatment of Native Americans that I think might be meant to parallel the way banks take advantage of the poor.) This is a movie driven entirely by what characters do and say, and they don't always say what they're thinking; it takes a lot of close attention to grab on to the details that give you their backstories and the motivation for the crime. In the end it's a fairly simple film, but deceptively so, because it's so much richer than it could be. Somehow Bridges's character becomes more than simply the antagonist. Somehow Foster's character becomes more than just a fuck-up. Somehow Pine's character becomes more than a good man who breaks bad. This is a movie about choices and consequences. It's well paced and well shot (eastern New Mexico makes for a fantastic west Texas), and it's got one of the best endings I've seen all year. B+/A-

Memento: After listening to The Next Picture Show discuss Memento, I felt the urge to rewatch one of my favorite movies, a movie ol' Roger Ebert claimed held no rewatch value. WELL HE'S WRONG (since this was not even my first rewatch, though it had been so long that I'd forgotten some details). Guy Pearce plays a man who can't form short-term memories yet doggedly hunts the man who murdered his wife. To put us in his position of not knowing what happened recently, Christopher Nolan tells the story in reverse, but he also offers black-and-white linear interludes that provide exposition and backstory: this movie tells you how to watch it, much like The Prestige. Unfortunately for Pearce, he's somehow become pals with Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss, and he has no idea what his history with them is...every time he meets them. The narrative structure forces you to constantly reevaluate everything with each new scene as you assemble the story; you have more pieces of the puzzle than the protagonist does since he keeps forgetting them. It's a brilliantly constructed film for sure, and surprisingly engrossing for how slow-paced it actually is until it ramps up in the third act. And I love that its themes of memory and identity and grief and the nature of truth and lies apply to anyone. A-

I use habit, routine, and movies to make my life possible.
Tags: making the grade, movies
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