Review: Chaos and authority clash in surreal ‘Madeline’s Madeline’

There’s a common misconception about filmmaking 18 years into the century which the exceptionally bold “Madeline’s Madeline” seeks to destroy: That films have to guide the audience through its thoughts and preconceptions.

Most of the time that hand-holding results in muted climaxes, or worse—the all-important “missing of the point.” That’s fine and all in a Hollywoodscape where directors insist moviegoers on forming their own conclusions as they leave the theater (or close the Netflix app), but writer-director Josephine Decker’s ostensibly small, but monumental, film blasts that atavistic notion to oblivion. Continue reading →

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Review: ‘The Disaster Artist’ brings humanity to one of cinema’s biggest running gags

“You can laugh, you can cry, you can express yourself. But please don’t hurt each other.”

Tommy Wiseau has become known to say that when appearing at screenings of his 2003 disasterpiece, “The Room.”

Now, after 14 years, it’s near impossible to get through “The Disaster Artist” – Wiseau’s biopic and the story behind the greatest worst movie ever made – without laughing, crying, smiling, recoiling or having any other kind of visceral reaction.

For a film that radiates irony through the very fact that it was made, and made very well, that experience must bring it all full circle for Wiseau and his cult hit to rule all cult hits. For years he was the butt of a joke, sometimes even in on it. But thanks to James Franco, his story is now an unexpectedly inspiring one, a seemingly hyberbolic but very real ode to reaching for the stars – even if we can barely lift our arms above our head. Continue reading →

Review: Saoirse Ronan powers the ‘Juno’ for a new generation as ‘Lady Bird’

At some point while watching Greta Gerwig’s fantastic “Lady Bird,” I managed to pull myself out of its welcoming hypnotism to question myself: “How is Gerwig pulling this off?”

In a tight, taut and splendidly radiant 94 minutes, the film not just touches on a remarkable amount of subjects, but deftly explores seemingly every thread that makes up the sometimes horrid and sometimes wonderful collage of everyone’s senior year in high school.

I talked the experience over with my two friends afterward, and it was almost immediately and abundantly clear how a different one of those threads resonated with us the most – based on our own background. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ gives train movies a bad name

You’re watching closely, listening intently. You’re trying to follow Detective Poirot’s keen instinct, while trying to resist the fact that you’ve lost him many scenes ago. You’re accepting the clichés, for whatever they’re worth, because you’re hoping it will all pay off in the end.

And then, all of a sudden, the end is here – seemingly out of nowhere, with little fanfare and even fewer clues that the mystery was ever close to being solved. The payoff? Miniscule. Continue reading →

Review: In gorgeous ‘Blade Runner 2049,’ a new standard for sequels is set

There’s something that feels ironically punctual when experiencing “Blade Runner 2049,” 35 years after the debut of the iconic and innovative original continues to influence pop culture in ways we’ve become accustomed to by now.

Maybe it’s the fact that the long-gestating sequel was always waiting, in spirit, for Denis Villeneuve, like he was some long-awaited prophet whose destiny it was to accomplish the impossible on multiple levels (and accomplish, he has).

It could just be that we’re a little over a year away from when the events of Ridley Scott’s film take place – a bleak, dystopian take on impoverished 2019 Los Angeles that in many ways mirrors the personality some parts of the country have taken on: Desolate and deadly. Continue reading →

Review: ‘Logan’ is a bloodily introspective affair that ends an iconic journey with more of a whimper than a shout of triumph

“X-Men” movies have always been about strength in numbers, finding family where others might just see freaks.

That formula has stayed consistent even with the “stand-alone” Wolverine flicks (which really just mean our favorite mutant teaming up with new allies), and even with the franchise’s first decidedly adult foray in 2016 with Deadpool, as the Merc with a Mouth seeks the help of Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead.

But with “Logan,” the majority of the spotlight shines on Hugh Jackman’s alter ego, providing X-Men fans with an examination of the character 17 years in the making that is as complex as anything we’ve seen so far from the franchise, and perhaps the superhero genre as a whole.

Oh, and yes, there’s blood. Buckets and buckets of it to make up for what seems like 10 movies’ worth of carnage that was still trying to appeal to 10-year-old fans.

Director James Mangold takes care to make sure that the movie’s (much) more mature aesthetic manifests itself in more than just claws ripping endless waves of cronies to shreds. “Logan” also deals with some of the darkest themes of the series, making the so-called isolated and lonely experience of being a mutant at Professor Xavier’s school come off as a paradise.

There, teenage mutants are learning to control their powers by grown-ups who have come to terms with their constant struggle of being different from humanity. In “Logan,” children even younger than those at Xavier’s are making ends meet on their own, trying to survive while being hunted down by humans an age when mutants aren’t born so much as they are manufactured.

That’s the case of the young Laura when she eventually crosses paths with an old and grumpier than usual Logan, hiding out in the borderlands of southern Texas where he doesn’t have to worry about anyone that he doesn’t seem to care about anyway.

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That even extends to his care of an old Charles Xavier, who is in a much more vulnerable state than we’ve ever seen him, and who seems to have given up on trying to convince Logan that he is meant to be more than the monster he was bred to be.

The duo reside with another mutant caretaker, passing the days with seemingly no end goal save to wait for their own bodies and mutant genes to wear out on them, until Laura gives them one more mission to embark on.

Jackman has stated that this turn as Wolverine is his last, and if that turns out to be the case, he delivers a powerfully nuanced and emotional performance that allows for insight into his character in ways we’ve never seen before. It’s easy to forget about Logan’s internal plight in other X-Men flicks when he’s fighting for something much grander than getting over his own existential crisis, but “Logan” forces you to contemplate the type of person someone becomes when they’ve become used to enduring through violence and rage.

Patrick Stewart also shines as the debilitated Xavier that has some of the best lines of the movie (whoever knew the professor could be this profane?), and Laura is quietly affecting in a largely dialogue-less role.

“Logan” certainly feels much more like a drama than a traditional superhero flick, one which successfully proves that deeper explorations of the genre’s characters and their motives can make for entertaining films, despite this one’s pacing issues. There aren’t any flashy effects, the villains aren’t of a supernatural nature and the world, or what’s left of it, doesn’t necessarily need saving.

However, the fact that Mangold makes character exploration the focus of “Logan” doesn’t mean it’s truly groundbreaking in any way; it simply takes a different narrative route than other superhero movies, albeit one that transcends the genre’s tropes. “Logan” is bold and brutal, but in many ways we only feel like we’re seeing something totally fresh because it’s the first such intimate foray in, or out of, the genre.

The most interesting thing that Mangold’s script delves into is Logan’s strained relationship with his rage and his efforts to control it. Jackman effectively portrays the struggles that Logan must live with in balancing that rage and using it in small doses, before taking the leap and releasing for the good of someone other than himself.

You never got the sense that that was a problem with previous “X-Men” films, but here it represents his internal journey.

Despite focusing more on the character and how he sees the world rather than how the world sees mutants (of which there are only a handful left in the not-so-distant future of the film), “Logan” by many accounts is very standard fare. The script does right by Jackman’s devotion the character, but very little else is there to intrigue us for the film’s 2 hours and 15-minute runtime.

There’s certainly brutal and bloody violence, but that gets to be heavy-handed at some points. The road-trip-across-America is bogged down by some questionable character choices, and with most of the movie’s most interesting backstory — the “how the hell did we get to where we are?” — Mangold wrongfully chooses to tease instead of explain fully.

As far as diverging from the straight-and-narrow path that today’s endless stream of superhero films are released from, “Logan” is a welcome step in the right direction at showing the storytelling possibilities of heroes we’ve come to know and love, but it’s just a start.

Deep introspection of one of those heroes that moviegoers have grown attacked to means showing sides of that character we never really thought about exploring, but by “Logan’s” end, we haven’t really  learned anything new about him. We just see him in his darkest and most dreary state. For some reason, that’s enough for Mangold,  when it isn’t for the audience.

 

“Logan” is rated R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook

Directed by James Mangold

2017

Review: ‘The Witch’ offers complex themes, frights

(This review first appeared in the Daily Lobo, and can be viewed here.) 

 

At first watch, there isn’t much meat on the bones of Robert Eggers’ “The Witch.” On a superficial level – thanks to its incredibly simple premise, small production scale and what could be interpreted as an ambiguous ending – it’s a skeleton of a movie, with small bits of flesh clinging to its ribs in the form of the occasional jump scare.

Don’t fall into that trap. It’s easy to think that the final product far outweighs the expectations that a horror lover may have for “The Witch,” but you’d be doing yourself a disservice in the process.

So how do you get the most out of the film, and experience it the way Eggers intended the audience to?

Step 1: Don’t go into “The Witch” thinking of it as a horror movie, but rather a period drama.

In a vein similar to how “Silence of the Lambs” is viewed by many cinephiles as a drama rather than a straight fright flick, watching “The Witch” through a lens that doesn’t call for scares, but rather deep examination of the themes that Eggers sets forth, will help moviegoers appreciate it much more.

Of course, there are horror elements here. The film is chilling throughout, the themes of paranoia, the occult and isolation manifesting themselves in ways that assures the audience is never really at ease.

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But at its core, “The Witch” is an analysis of 1600s Puritan America, and the overzealous sensibilities of its religiously devout and fanatical society. When viewing the movie in that way, it becomes a film with exponentially more depth, its statements on the dangers of physical and psychological isolation at the forefront and, yes, manifested in a titular witch.

Step 2: Prepare to be uncomfortable.

Eggers is merciless in the methods he utilizes to make the audience feel as uneasy as the family experiencing more and more supernatural occurrences. It’s not as much cringeworthy, nor is it perpetually eerie for the sake of being eerie. And while there aren’t any A-listers in the film, the cast is plenty powerful with their performances as the on-screen family becomes more and more distant. Anya Taylor-Joy in particular shines in a convincingly distressing performance, one that hopefully gets her many more offers for other dramatic roles.

From the intimate cinematography to the score reminiscent of a creeping, hooded danger following us on a lonely road at night, “The Witch” excels at providing a very different level of fright. The film mimics a slow, energy-draining ride to the top of a roller-coaster with your eyes closed – the audience knows a drop is coming, and a big one, but not quite when.

It’s a decidedly unorthodox type of horror, one that won’t work for those seeking superficial jump scares. But taken on a metaphysical level in tandem with the film’s motifs and themes, it all works together to create a symphony of dread, right up until the moment when it all comes to a head, and real blood is shed.

In a movie full of many tricks and underlying meanings, perhaps none is bigger than the family’s goat, Black Phillip. Without giving away too much (and believe me, it’s hard not to), Black Phillip represents what might be the most uneasy but majestically dark use of an animal in recent film history. He’s memorable, to say the least, and it’s easy to see him becoming an icon in the genre.

“The Witch” won’t please everyone. Indeed, the majority of movie watchers probably wouldn’t understand what makes it so appealing to others. Multiple viewings would certainly help, as would the understanding that sometimes the things that are implied in a film can keep you up at night as much as any slasher movie could.

 

“The Witch” is rated R for disturbing violent content and graphic nudity

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie 

Directed by Robert Eggers

2015