Review: Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is madness served with a side of sunshine

I don’t remember the last time I’ve felt so guiltily vindicated by a movie as with the final act of Ari Aster’s sun-bleached, dread-dripping “Midsommar,” a film that bears its blood weight in flower petals and doesn’t leave you forlorn so much as utterly disarmed.

I should have expected as much. After the writer-director burst into our consciousness with last year’s swervingly subversive “Hereditary,” I should have remembered that the best method of preparation for his follow-up, by comparison a movie whose terror comes from a much more personal place, would probably be not trying to prepare for it at all.

This time around, Aster’s destination is completely, and masochistically, at odds with his methodology, a project with so much tonal juxtaposition that it’s a bit of a miracle it ends up working as well as it does, even if it takes some time adjusting to its contours.“Midsommar” is a movie about inevitability, the not-so-sweet period of denial about eventual loss and refusing to anticipate its arrival; the feeling we’ve all had that we’ll do anything to stave off an apocalypse – be it death or breakup or the execution of insidious acts – before the worst kind of realization sets in that you can’t even delay it a moment. Continue reading →

Advertisements

Review: An ode to change, ‘Toy Story 4’ is a poignant coda to our greatest animated franchise

I really wonder what a younger version of me time-skipped to now would have taken away from the splendid, colorful, contemplative “Toy Story 4.”  Let’s say 4 years old—right around when experiences start to anchor themselves in the mind as memories, if hazy ones.  For me, chief among those recollections as they pertain to movies: Watching the original “Toy Story,” early and often.

Animation had already been changed forever upon the movie’s release, but at 4 I couldn’t be bothered by its historical and cultural footprint. Give me the fantasy of toys coming to life when no one else is around, their unwavering loyalty to kids like me and the introduction of a big-screen brand with a timeless sense of endearment that I was able to appreciate even at that age.

20 years on, like a toy chest that gains new treasures over time, there’s much more to appreciate from the “Toy Story” movies. There’s perhaps no other franchise – certainly not an animated one – that audiences have grown with as steadfastly as it’s produced new installments, its lessons and humanity and pure pathos shining ever more luminously. Continue reading →

Review: Seth Green’s directorial debut ‘Changeland’ is nothing more than an empty travel ad

[An edited version of this review was originally published on The Playlist, and can be viewed here.]

 

Thinking about visiting Thailand for your next big trip? Good news: Seth Green, of “Robot Chicken” and “Austin Powers” fame, has made an exquisite-looking 80-minute visual brochure with his feature film debut, “Changeland.” Just be aware you’ll have to wade through he scattered semblance of a movie that’s in there, too.

Undoubtedly, “Changeland” works better as a travel ad than a drama, which the movie painfully lacks. There’s intrigue in its concept, and in its humble beginnings; think back to the last boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-begins-to-realize-what-a-big-world-it-is-without-the-girl movie you watched. “Changeland” kicks off where the credits to those movies would start to roll, as Brandon – played by Seth Green – flies out for a trip he hopes brings some clarity.

The vacation isn’t of the spur-of-the-moment variety, however; Brandon had been planning to surprise his wife with the trip for their anniversary. But that was before he discovered she may or may not be cheating on him, and a romantic getaway devolves into an expensive sojourn of introspection; Brandon’s best friend, Dan (played by Breckin Meyer) joins along for the fun and, more pivotally, as a guiding force for a suddenly lost soul. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Murder Mystery’ is one of the most Neflixy Netflix movies yet

[An edited version of this review was initially published on The Playlist, and can be viewed here.]

 

What most people might expect to be a source of endless riffing – or, at least, what I expected – in Netflix’s “Murder Mystery” is something the movie never really acknowledges, let alone uses as a punchline. Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, America’s eternal schmuck and its ageless beacon of beauty, playing a couple of 15 years? “Surely there’s gotta be some joke in there,” I kept thinking to myself over its 100ish minutes.

There isn’t, and in a movie that uses nimble meta fingers to play around with Agatha Christie tropes in contemporary Europe, I’m not sure whether the hesitancy to poke fun at “Murder Mystery’s” most eye-catching detail is a result of restraint or a missed opportunity to dive further into the goofier personality of a movie that has too many of them to ever feel cinematically unique.

Essentially, that mystery defines watching “Murder Mystery,” an experience that’s perhaps as amusing as we should expect, given its platform and lack of real surprise. Netflix has ushered in a world where the decision of what new movies to watch is as low-stakes as ever, and if “Murder Mystery” – a movie with lots of homicide and a couple on the run from the law in a foreign country – is triumphant about one thing, it’s its complete absence of stakes. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Rocketman’ is an exuberant, earnest chronicle of a rocker

From its opening moments, no one’s going to make the mistake that Dexter Fletcher’s “Rocketman” – 120 minutes of the life and times of Sir Elton John – isn’t about someone destined to be a star. A sparkling sheen worthy of the flamboyant rocker imbues the movie’s spirit before we even see him, enough to provide a jolt of familiarity even to those who can’t tell “Crocodile Rock” from “Your Song.”

But “Rocketman” isn’t just a flight of celebrity fancy—the opening seconds, however cathartic, is a bait-and-switch with an effectiveness in line with how much you really know about Elton’s life. And when the cinematic energy reaches stratospheric heights after a slightly turbulent bit of setup, the movie bares its ambidexterity at painting the portrait of Elton John not as a star, but as a comet—at once a a majestic force burning through records sales charts and sold-out stadiums and also an an enigma of self-destructive tendencies, hurtling through the vast space of celebrity at speeds none can be expected to smoothly navigate.

Continue reading →

Review: ‘Dark Phoenix’ is the final plunge for a franchise that forgot how to soar

An unusual contradiction of expectations await the arrival of “Dark Phoenix.” For reasons motivated more by corporate hegemony than pure storytelling, the 12th entry in the “X-Men” franchise is essentially the last under the 21st Century Fox umbrella, following the studio’s acquisition by Disney earlier this March.

So, suddenly and somewhat startlingly, “Dark Phoenix’s” responsibilities are multiple, not the least of which is to provide a sense of finality. Depending on where your franchise loyalties lie, that may not be nearly as important as fixing the mistakes of 2006’s Brett Ratner-directed “X-Men: The Last Stand”; after “Days of Future Past” – still the most memorable of this recent run of “X-Men” extravaganzas – nuked its timeline in 2014 in ways we still don’t quite understand, the franchise had a clean slate to revisit the beloved Dark Phoenix comics storyline, and to tell it the right way.

Continue reading →

Review: Olivia Wilde is a weary warrior in the contemplative, inconsistent ‘A Vigilante’

I’m not totally sure if “A Vigilante” – the feature debut from writer-director Sarah Daggar-Nickson – is meant to be soaked up as entertainment so much as a reconciliation between movies-as-art and movies-as-therapy. The small-scale story is interested in a single dominating issue, that of domestic violence, though in ways that feel inconsistently intentioned, despite the high amount of promise on display Daggar-Nickson.

Her screenplay is a contemplative, slippery ice puck of a revenge-fantasy story, slip-sliding everywhere in chronology and priority. The movie has some interesting, if questionable, points to make about an issue that many other films are frustratingly content with circling overhead of, namely: Does eye-for-an-eye have a place in the age of #MeToo? Where is the line drawn between moving on and fighting on, and – more urgently, at least in the movie’s purview – are they one-in-the-same? Continue reading →

Review: ‘Booksmart’ braves the wilds of high school in Olivia Wilde’s directorial bow

If there’s one thing to take away from “Booksmart,” Olivia Wilde’s rambunctious and unexpectedly tender directorial debut, it’s the assurance that these high school comedies will never feel outdated. There isn’t a more appropriate canvas for filmmakers to paint loss-of-innocence stories than the final, unsure, panic-inducing hurrahs of high school, but the template feels more malleable than ever.

Leave it to John Carney and Greta Gerwig and Greg Mottola to prove as much, their respective efforts united only by their timelessness.

Like engaging in questionably legal or sexually awkward adventures for the first time with people we only thought we knew before, the act of watching a high school story is a special kind of communal movie-going experience. We’re all drawn together by the shared lack of knowledge and preparation over just what the hell we were getting ourselves into that characterized those last few days of teendom; the raw truthfulness goes hand-in-hand with the “Yep, been there” weary-but-sweet nostalgia.    Continue reading →

Review: Theron stunningly powers ‘Long Shot,’ in which politicians try to act their age

There’s a lot of unsubtle implication in “Long Shot.” So very many will be turned off by it. I rather think it works in its favor.

The comparable presence of things said and unsaid – many times they’re one in the same – powers the movie’s comedy, its sweet core and the unexpected veracity of its progressive commentary, which provides the political rom-com a greater degree of substance than initially expected to the first third of that trifold description.

The movie is funny. Really funny. And the high levels of enthusiasm forming the foundation of its jokes and romance over roughly two hours, the stuff that makes watching “Long Shot” akin to peering into a warped alternate timeline of our own political reality, ensure the movie is simultaneously a time capsule of starkly 2019 window dressing and an evergreen suggestion of accountability on the part of those whose steady gaining of influence correlates with a slow drying-up of conviction at the well of power. Continue reading →

Review: Coherence is no match for the Efron charm in Ted Bundy docudrama ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’

For a story about a grotesque man who committed grotesque acts under the gilded, media-perpetuated sheen of confident innocence, there’s strangely little of explicitly grotesque nature to be found in Joe Berlinger’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.”

You certainly wouldn’t use “grotesque” to describe Zac Efron before watching him apply the ostensible charm of one of history’s most notorious serial killers, Ted Bundy, in the new Netflix film. The casting is tongue-in-cheek, as well as an excellent decision on pretext alone; the former preteen heart throb (is he still?) has such an eerie resemblance to Bundy that it’ll make you want to compare family trees. Continue reading →