Zombieland: Double Tap

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The first Zombieland brought some humor back to the suddenly very serious zombie genre. It’s group of core characters resonated with audiences, and though it wasn’t scary, it put our heroes in a threatening world.  Most importantly was that it was fun.  A sequel was immediately green-lit, but the writers had difficulty getting it off of the ground; add in a little bit of time, and all of a sudden Emma Stone and Jessie Eisenberg are stars and no longer readily available.  Then even more time passed, and the zombie genre’s hold on audiences began to fade.  Now comes Double Tap ten years later, and while I can’t say this sequel really adds anything, it doesn’t do any damage to the first film either.  If you’re walking into Double Tap with a decade’s worth of hype, I’d wager you’ll be disappointed; if your’re walking in hoping to be entertained enough for a Friday night, it should do just fine.

Though ten years have passed, very little has changed.  Well, at least for three out of our four characters.  Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is still sarcastic; Wichita (Emma Stone) is still…uh…sarcastic; her and Columbus (Jessie Eisenberg) are very much opposites, but together nonetheless; Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), however, has changed.  She’s no longer a kid and wishes to find someone to date, and finds Tallahassee overbearing.  She eventually splits from the group, running off with Berkeley (Avan Jogia), a hippie survivor that wants to take her to a non-violent haven where people party all day and night.  The film’s plot is essentially the other three characters trying to track her down.

Plot-wise, they could’ve done a whole lot better, especially with ten years to come up with something.  There’s an interlude where the trio stumble upon Graceland, or what’s left of it, and run into some other survivors played by Rosario Dawson, Luke Wilson, and Thomas Middleditch; zombie killing ensues, but it does little to further the narrative.  I did enjoy the addition of Madison (Zoey Deutch), a ditsy blonde who has somehow managed to survive in a mall for years.  I liked her character’s dynamic with the other members of the group, and found that her scenes kept making me smile.  The zombies have changed a little bit too, some evolving to become harder to kill; they’re dubbed “T-800’s” by Columbus.  It’s the kind of thing a sequel like this should do; unfortunately it never really amounts to much.

What’s important though is that the film retains the charm of it’s predecessor, which thanks to its actors, it does.  I didn’t like that Little Rock was separated from the group, but I appreciated all of the time we get with Tallahassee, Columbus and Wichita.  Whenever another character, save Madison, is the focal point of a scene, I found that the film loses its zing. Tallahassee and Columbus are similar to the kind of roles that Harrelson and Eisenberg consistently find themselves in, so they’re perfect. Emma Stone remains the beacon of light that she was in the first film, but never outshines anyone. Breslin gets far less to do, and never feels like she gets back into the rhythm of her character, which isn’t her fault.  Zoey Deutch could have made Madison incredibly annoying, and she is, but she’s also sweet when it matters.

The Zombie kills aren’t as good as the last time out, though one of them, labeled “Zombie Kill of The Year,” made me laugh out loud.  The film also has fun breaking the fourth wall, whether it’s introducing characters that look and act like replicated versions of Tallahassee and Columbus, or having the group laugh at Madison for coming up with an idea that sounds exactly like Uber.  Some may find these jokes too broad, but I had fun with them

I found the movie’s action climax to be pretty lackluster, though a sequence in the middle of the film that pretends to be shot in one take is quite cool. Overall, Double Tap feels like it’s missing a few things, but I suppose I enjoyed it enough to recommend.  I liked getting to spend more time with these characters, and I’d do it all over again in ten years…just with a better story.

Grade: B-

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Pain and Glory

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As I could feel  Pain and Glory drawing to a close, I had a passing thought:  This is pretty greatand I don’t even know why.  Now in reality the film is fantastic because it’s wonderfully made by a master writer/director, who’s telling a story that’s very personal to him.  And so it becomes personal to the audience because he wants you to feel the beat of his heart. It’s about a film director who normally uses his tragedies to make wonderful movies, except he now sits in an apathetic depression with his life spiraling away from what made him whole.  More than that though, Pain and Glory is about how life offers you so many moments of chance that can be used to inspire.  Moments like sitting down to watch a really good movie.

The film plays out like a biopic, cutting between the past and present of the protagonist, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a film director in decline. He’s in the middle of a creative crises that he blames on the physical pain he’s in.  He gets severe headaches; his back aches from a surgery four-years removed; and he spontaneously chokes due to something wrong in his throat.  He’s on a ton of medication, but nothing helps, and he doesn’t want to see his doctor about it despite the pleas from his assistant.  As the film opens, the only thing he seems interested in is a screening of one of his earlier films called Sabor, which has been remastered and re-released to appreciative audiences.  The cinema wants to do a Q & A following the screening with Salvador and the film’s star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia).  The problem is that the two haven’t spoken in 32 years due to major disagreements over Crespo’s performance in the film.  Still, Salvador seeks Crespo out, and they reconcile.  Crespo also introduces Salvador to heroin, which relieves him of his many ailments, but naturally gets him addicted.  During one of their get-togethers, Crespo happens upon an extended monologue saved on Salvador’s computer, and wishes to perform it on stage.  Salvador initially says no, but his addiction forces him to relent.  Where the film goes from there, I wont spoil.  The sections in the past follow young Salvador as he moves to a whitewashed cave house with his father (Raúl Arévalo) and mother, Jacinta (Penelope Cruz), where a local laborer (César Vicente) learns to read and write under his tutelage.

What the film does so wonderfully well is find ways for Salvador’s past to combine with his present, this provides the audience with a clear understanding of the man, and what he needs to survive in this world.  There’s a life affirming quality in the simplest of conversations, in extended monologues, and forgotten letters.  In this, we see how powerful human connection can be, and how art can create a means for that connection to become a reality.  For an artist, memories are a muse because of the people that inhabit them.  Pain and Glory’s writer/director, Pedro Almodóvar, shows us an artist who’s lost his way because he’s stuck in the present.  As the film goes on, he slowly realizes that in order to move forward, he only needs to embrace what’s come before to see the beauty in his pain.  And if he can, perhaps his future will become bright.

Almodóvar turns to one his own muses in Antonio Bandares to essentially play a version of the director himself, down to the hair style.  What’s he’s gotten out Bandares here is the actor’s best work of his career.  Beginning as a shell of man, Salvador slowly fills up with the light he’s lost, and Bandares displays it all in a beauty of a performance. I also loved Asier Etxeandia as Crespo, who carries a part of the film’s first half, especially during his performance of Salvador’s monologue. Penelope Cruz, Almodóvar’s other muse, fits perfectly as Salvador’s mother.  The film’s ending puts her performance not only in a different perspective, but it proves that Almodóvar is making art that imitates his life.

I think this is Almodóvar’s best film.  I found myself enthralled from the opening moments, and felt perplexed with where the story would take me.  It’s narrative surprises, if you can call them that, all feel natural despite many of them happening by chance.  They work because the film feels like a life that’s been lived and recorded by a someone who knows what matters most.  Almodóvar physically paints a gorgeous movie as well, from set design to striking cinematography that spars no expense of color.  Fans of his past work should love Pain and Glory; newcomers that are willing to embrace a character’s imperfections will find that embraced returned by a great movie.

Grade: A

The Death of Dick Long

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“Wait, ‘Dick’ is short for ‘Richard’?”

Daniel Scheinert’s The Death of Dick Long is aware of the absurdity of its title.  It takes that absurdity and lives by it; this is something I expected considering Scheinert was one of the filmmakers behind the bizarre and sweetly funny Swiss Army Man.  What I didn’t expect, and perhaps should have, was this movie being able to take its ridiculous narrative and find genuine emotions.  I can’t say The Death of Dick Long is a mix of genres, though it switches between comedy and drama quite well.  The reason it’s able to do this is because whatever emotion the film is going for, it’s driven by character.  So, yes…I enjoyed The Death of Dick Long.

The film takes place somewhere in Alabama, beginning in the basement of Zeke Olsen’s (Michael Abbott Jr) home, where he, and his two other friends, Earl White (Andre Hyland) and Dick Long (director Daniel Scheinert) are finishing up band practice.  They’re not very good, but what else is there to do other than drink.  Once Zeke’s wife, Lydia (Virginia Newcomb) heads to bed with their young daughter, Cynthia (Poppy Cunningham), Dick asks the other two a question:  “Ya’ll wanna get weird?”  The answer is yes, and the trio spend the remainder of the evening (as the opening credits play) drinking heavily, doing drugs, shooting off fireworks, and lighting things on fire.  Eventually they head inside a structure on Zeke’s property and the opening credits conclude, and the screen fades to black.  When things resume, Dick is bleeding heavily in the back of Zeke’s car.  The two are driving him to the hospital, but instead of taking him inside, they dump Dick in the parking lot of the Emergency Room.  He eventually passes away, and the cause of death is a mystery that Zeke and Earle want to keep hidden. Unfortunately, they are both very stupid.

Their stupidity provides the local police force, which consists of a handful of people, with dots to eventually connect.  That may sound like a spoiler, but it’s pretty damn obvious that Zeke and Earle’s panic and quick lack of thinking will be their downfall.  The film uses these scenes for humor and to successfully evoke that panic, as we feel the walls close in.  Things eventually become even more desperate, leading to the reveal of how Dick died, and why Zeke and Earle wanted to keep it a secret.  I’m not going to reveal it obviously, as it certainly wasn’t what I expected, and the film works best knowing as little as possible.  The scenes that follow the reveal allow for the movie to take a turn I didn’t expect (a theme here); what Scheinert does so well is make everything feel like dream you want to wake from, all the while staying true to his story’s sense of humor.

I didn’t recognize anyone in the cast, but as an ensemble, they provide the film with its wide spectrum of emotions. Michael Abbott Jr. is a picture of desperation, and displays a strong range that evolves with the narrative. Andre Hyland gets the majority of the movie’s laughs, sounding straight out of King of the Hill, and never acting as worried as he should be. I really enjoyed Virginia Newcomb, as the Zeke’s wife, who provides the film with scenes of surprising reality among the chaos.  Poppy Cunningham, as little Cynthia, almost steals the movie; her, combined with Lydia, will make you wonder how Zeke got so lucky, and angry at how he’s put all of his good fortune in jeopardy. The rest of the cast know the title of the movie they’re in, and act accordingly.

The Death of Dick Long is intimately filmed, and even finds some beauty in the Alabama night. The setting is clearly a character in its own right, as this is not a story that could take place elsewhere. Scheinert has made a better looking film than Swiss Army Man, and a more grounded one despite its insanity. It will certainly be too odd for most, but for those intrigued, know that you’ll get something as surprising as the first time you hear the title.

Grade: B

 

 

 

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

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** THIS REVIEW WILL HAVE HEAVY SPOILERS FOR BREAKING BAD**

Breaking Bad was always the story of Walter White.  As its creator Vince Gilligan put it, “It’s the story of a man going from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” and that rang true.  It was also an insight into the source of human nature – if a person is capable of committing atrocities late in their life, does that mean they were always capable.  And if so, who is that person really.  Who is your high school chemistry teacher?  Who is your husband?  Your father?  In the end, Walter White was a drug kingpin with terminal cancer who fell from “grace,” and he left many blood stained floors in his wake.  The largest stains were left for his families – yes he had two.  The first consisted of his wife, children and in-laws, who concluded the series with desolate looks, and in the case of Hank, an ultimate sacrifice for Walt’s transgressions.  The second family Walt had was his partner, Jessie Pinkman.  They were often at odds and at blows, but they cared for one another dearly, saved one another at times, even at the expense of their own morality.  Walt saved Jessie one final time in the series finale, sending his long-time partner in crime into the Albuquerque night, free from his captors, and into an uncertain future.

The last image of Jessie Pinkman is that of jubilation, tears and screams of joy upon his face.  And we all got the feeling that he would be alright.  I was fine with that ending for his character; though he was a huge part of the story of Breaking Bad, it wasn’t his story.  I figured he would find his footing, and at the very least, wasn’t going be tortured and held against his will anymore.  In comes Vince Gilligan six years later with El Camino to tell us his fate, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.  Breaking Bad  had the perfect ending to a perfect story, so why give us an epilogue instead of leaving it up to the limitless imagination of your audience.  Why not leave well enough alone?  Why risk leaving a bad taste when everything that came before was so satisfying.  Well…the answer is that Gilligan and his crew are simply too good to not find new depths to the world and characters they’ve created.

The series concluded with Walter White meeting his demise to the appropriate tune of Badfinger’s Baby Blue.  The first lyric of the song is “Guess I got what I deserve,” and Walt certainly did.  What El Camino does so well, from its opening scene, is revolve that idea around Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul).  I couldn’t tell you how many times I must have thought “poor Jessie” while watching Breaking Bad.  His role in the series was that of an addicted and tormented angel on Walt’s shoulder; he loses himself in grief and drugs…and the things he has to do to survive.  He isn’t a bad person; however, he absolutely deserves punishment for his crimes, just like Walt.  El Camino contains many scenes that take place in the past, some showcasing Jessie’s time in captivity under the mild-mannered and insane Todd (Jesse Plemons).  As I watched these scenes, which are presented with the typical Breaking Bad mix of humor and dismay, I realized that as horrible as I felt for Jessie, I was watching his “deserved” punishment.  The issue with punishment of course is that we never really know when a debt is paid.  I believe that Jessie’s sufferings, as presented in this film and the series, exceed his crimes.  But that’s me.  Either way, it’s yet another wonderful moral question for Vince Gilligan and his crew to perfect in their presentation.  To me, this alone makes El Camino not only justified in its existence, but worthy of the story that came before.

I don’t want to give any of the film’s plot away otherwise.  Lets just say that in the present timeline, which picks up exactly where we left him at the end of Breaking Bad, Jessie runs into people that you’ll recognize, and soon must figure out a way to disappear where no one will find him.  As he goes about achieving this goal, and contendes with various roadblocks along the way, the film cuts to memories from his past that infuse his current feelings.  Calling the film a two-hour Breaking Bad episode may sound like I’m belittling it; however, I felt like it was a great two-hour Breaking Bad episode.  And for fans of the show, you know that when it was at its best, there was nothing better.  There are many scenes here of excruciating tension, dark humor, genuine pathos, and invisible self-reflection, all made with the kind of quality that lives up the series.

Aaron Paul slips right back into Jessie’s skin as if no time has passed, though if I have one major gripe with the film, it’s that the majority of the recognizable faces look like six years have passed.  There some physical inconsistencies with a few of the actors that distracted me a well, but I can’t gripe about that too much.  Paul’s performance is as tortured as ever, providing Jessie with even more PTSD than he had before.  He also shines in moments where a gun to his head almost makes him smile.  What’s most impressive, and this was true during his time on the show as well, is that we can always tell what he’s thinking.  The rest of the cast equally slip right back into their roles; I won’t reveal the cameos, but lets just say that there’s some I expected, and some I didn’t.  I will note Robert Forster who passed away yesterday; he reprises his role in the film, and delivers as he’s always done.

Vince Gilligan directed the film, and I think he’s gotten even more sure-handed with a camera.  The lighting and transitions are as Breaking Bad (and Better Call Saul) as ever, plus he hasn’t forgotten the show’s ties to the Western genre.  One moment in particular is cited as though it’s straight out of the Wild West, and it’s a highlight.  Gilligan has stated that El Camino is only for those familiar with the series, and that’s certainly true;  however, it doesn’t mean the film is fan service. El Camino is an excellent epilogue, an answer to “What’s going to happen to Jessie Pinkman.”  I was fine with not knowing, now I’m thrilled to know that he got what was coming to him.

Grade: A

 

 

Gemini Man

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“Wait, why is this happening?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

-Me watching Gemini Man

This is pretty much an”it doesn’t matter” kind of movie.  There’s a plot, some action. and occasional comedy, but no one cares.  Well…I didn’t.  Ang Lee’s new film has been in development hell since the late 1990’s, and despite multiple rewrites from multiple writers, the script feels like it was left in a time capsule for Will Smith to dust off and say, “oh yeah…I forgot I wanted to do this.”  The film seriously feels like a film that Will Smith would have starred in around 1997 or 99, or 2004, with only the 1997 version being decent because it would have held onto some of that mid-90’s charm which could make you say “It doesn’t matter” with a smile.  In 2019 though…well, lets just say that you could find far more productive and entertaining things to do than watch this movie.

What kind of things? It doesn’t matter.

Gemini Man follows Henry Brogan (Smith), an aging government assassin who decides to call it a career after taking out one final mark, a passenger on a bullet train that he snipes from far away.  That means he’s good.  While settling down with his retirement, Henry meets a boat rental manager named Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and reconnects with an old friend, who reveals that the man on the bullet train may have been innocent.  Because he learns of this deception, Henry’s former agency sends assassins to kill him along with Danny, who’s an agent herself, and a loose end in this case. Henry kills all of the agents and escapes with Danny, forcing the agency to turn to Clay Varris (Clive Owen), head of a top-secret black ops unit codenamed “GEMINI.”  Before long, Henry is confronted with GEMINI’s best weapon, a twenty-five year old version of himself named “junior” (played by Smith again with digital de-aging), who was cloned from Henry’s blood and raised by Varris.  The pair are an even match in their assassin skills, with Junior being a step quicker, and Henry a step wiser.

There’s no surprises beyond this point.  Junior tries to kill Henry at first, but the seeds of doubt about his origin are planted immediately.  This is bad because the film almost instantly tells you that Henry and Danny will befriend Junior.  Equally obvious is that Varris will push Junior away for not acting like a machine that does what he’s told.   Why does this happen?  Well…Varris is the bad guy, and the other characters are the good guys.  That’s it.  However, this isn’t the only reason why Gemini Man is a bad movie.  Sure, giving the narrative an obvious trajectory is poor choice, but that doesn’t automatically make the film dull.  What makes it dull is a screenplay that’s living in 1997 bullet points, with lackluster visuals to match.

The script feels like it comes from a Screenplay 101 book, with every scene forwarding the plot too quickly. Once you have a scene where Henry and Danny attempt to get through to Junior for the first time, you must then have a scene where Varris makes Henry and Danny seem like the better option.  Varris in general is a complete moron, as he willingly throws away what’s supposed to be his greatest creation because the movie has to hurry to the finish.  The characters aren’t given enough room to make any impact, because making jokes that were funny twenty years ago does not count as development.

Will Smith has charisma as usual, though the dual role aspect doesn’t really apply as it’s the same performance twice, with one of the characters being more sullen and moody.  The de-aging looks quite good, but it’s ruined by horrendous CGI during fight scenes that turns the actors into a bunch of Gumby’s jumping around. Clive Owen is wasted as the villain; Mary Elizabeth Winstead is decent.  And I liked Bebedict Wong as Henry’s old Marine buddy.

The main problem here, beyond the script, is Ang Lee’s terrible direction.  His passion for shooting the film in 120 frames per second (which is not how I watched it) seems to have blinded his creativity, much like it did on Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  The visuals are flat; the action is either poorly done or too dark to tell; and there’s zero emotion.  This is the guy who made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Life of Pie, and Brokeback Mountain, gorgeous movies with a soul.

Satan has more soul than this movie.

Grade: It doesn’t matter.

3 From Hell

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When Rob Zombie made House of 1000 Corpses I was surprised at his skill as a filmmaker.  I didn’t really enjoy the movie, but I could tell that there was talent in the heavy metal artist, a talent his fans knew about from his music videos.  I wasn’t surprised by the film’s grit, gore and grime; however, I didn’t expect such a love and understanding for the genre that bore it, and that kind of care makes for a better movie even if the story can’t quite match-up.  His sequel to Corpses was The Devil’s Rejects, the film where everything came together for Zombie as a writer/director.  Rejects is scary, unsettling, odd, and oddly funny, with a family dynamic at its center that somehow makes its trio of murderous maniacs strangely endearing…to one another.  Most importantly, it feels like a singular vision from its storyteller.  The two films gained a cult following (especially Rejects), and now Zombie is back to continue the story of Baby, Otis and Captain Spaulding with 3 From Hell.  And I kind of wish he left well enough alone.

The Devil’s Rejects has about as perfect of an ending as you could ask for these characters, which forces this new film into a position of justifying its existence.  3 From Hell has stretches where it’s able to recapture the feeling of its predecessor, but they’re mostly in the film’s first half.  The second half betrays the series’ blend of horror and comedy by leaning way too much on the latter, though never becoming amusing enough to be really worth the watch.

3 From Hell opens with several news reports covering the events of the prior film. Through the footage, it is revealed that Baby Firefly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley) and Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig) miraculously survived their shootout with the police and that they will be tried for their crimes.  Captain Spaulding is put on death-row and executed via lethal injection due to Sid Haig’s real-life ill health (he has since passed away), leaving our trio down to two within the film’s first ten minutes.  A jolt I’m not sure the movie survives.  Otis has better luck by being reunited with his half-brother, Winslow Foxworth “Foxy” Coltrane (Richard Brake). The two manage to escape from jail while doing outside prison work; they seek to free Baby, who’s locked up in solitary, yet still manages to misbehave.

The entirety of the film’s first half revolves around Otis and Foxy trying to figure the best way to break Baby out, causing a little mayhem along the way.  There are a few strong scenes here that retain the cruelty and edge of the earlier films.  And the scenes involving Baby keep that edge with their weirdness.  It isn’t perfect, but at least it feels like Zombie is giving us as advertised, something I’d wager that fans of the first two films will want.  The movie’s most compelling scenes revolve around the home of the prison’s warden, who’s terrorized by the trio along with his family and friends.

Once these scenes conclude, the group looks to seek refuge in Mexico.  They quickly find a hotel that comes with tequila, knife throwing contests, and prostitutes; before long, Baby admits to being “bored.”  So was I.  Yes, a great deal more blood is spilled before film’s end, but not in the way I wanted.  The movie’s second half seems to be Zombie embracing his love for Grinhouse pictures, which is fine in general, but wrong here.  3 From Hell ceases to justify bringing these characters back once it places them in a Robert Rodriguez Machete spin-off.  It waters them down even…yes, they commit atrocities, but those atrocities are no longer accompanied by that evil, permanent grin.

Bill Moseley is still great as Otis, and Sherrie Moon Zombie is as gleefully insane as ever.  Her husband behind the camera still loves to watch her walk in slow motion, which is nice I guess.  Richard Brake (best known as the first and better Night King in Game of Thrones) fits in well enough, but he can’t compete with the loss of Sid Haig’s presence.  Haig does get one strong scene early on, and gives it his all.  One wonders if Haig’s unavailability should have been the clue for Zombie to leave his perfect ending alone.  He still has that style that somehow turns grittiness into art, with split-screens and freeze-frames aplenty.  I was moderately disappointed in the soundtrack though; it’s fine, just not as good as his previous films.  Also there’s way too much CGI blood in the movie’s final shootout.  It looks lazy, which fits the film’s lazy second half.

3 From Hell will thrill more forgiving fans of the first two installments; those unfamiliar with the previous efforts should skip it entirely.  I found it to have fleeting moments of carnage, but not enough to keep me from thinking, “Play Freebird.”

Grade: C

In the Tall Grass

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In the Tall Grass is based off of a novella by Stephen King and his son, Joe Hill.  It’s 60 pages long with an intriguing premise, and is wisely to the point.  The film is only 90 minutes long, and what it adds to lengthen the narrative is kind of clever.  The problem is that the film never breathes much life into its story.  It’s difficult to put my finger on what’s wrong, all I can say is that I zoned out about ten minutes into the film, and had a difficult time caring about any of the characters or the situation they were in.

That’s not good.

In the Tall Grass begins with two siblings on a road trip, they are Cal (Avery Whitted) and Becky (Laysla De Oliveira), who’s six months pregnant with the father seemingly out of the picture.  The purpose of the road trip is to reach San Diego, where a couple is waiting to adopt Becky’s child.  During the trip, Becky asks Cal to pull the car over so she can vomit, and that’s when they hear the voice of a boy calling for help.  The voice is coming from a nearby field of endless tall grass, the boy it belongs to is Tobin (Will Buie Jr.), who not only sounds lost, but hunted.  Cal and Becky both reluctantly enter the grass, only to quickly realize that they’re separated with no way to find one another, even though they each sound in close proximity.  As day turns into night, and dehydration sets it, the siblings begin to lose hope, until they each run into another person.  Cal finds Tobin, who looks like he’s been in the grass for very long time, and Becky finds Ross (Patrick Wilson), Tobin’s father, who instantly seems untrustworthy.

It’s a great idea for a story, and it works just fine as a novella, but here the premise wears thin in a hurry.  I’m not normally one to be impatient, but I found myself asking “how the hell are they going to keep this going?”  Enter Travis (Harrison Gilbertson), the father of Becky’s child, who’s gone looking for her and Cal after their disappearance.  He happens upon Cal’s car in the church parking lot, and enters the grass once he hears Tobin’s voice repeating the exact same pleas for help.  I wont spoil where the film goes from there, only to say that there’s a time loop involved.  To be honest, I thought this development gave the film a bit of a boost, and there’s something right about an endless time loop in a field of endless grass.  Eventually though, the film just seems to be  going through the motions, and the story ends up looking and feeling like a Stephen King television movie that would’ve aired in the 1990’s.

The performances are a mixed bag.  I liked Harrison Gilbertson and Laysla De Oliveira just fine, but Avery Whitted is pretty terrible.  I know that Cal is supposed to be unlikable, but bad acting is not how to do that. Will Buie Jr. is pretty good as Tobin, finding a right balance between being creepy and sympathetic.  Then there’s the film’s most familiar face in Patrick Wilson, who gets to enjoy chewing the scenery while looking like a typical Stephen King creep.

The film’s greatest fault is in the direction by Vincenzo Natali; he does some innovative things with the camera, but the movie tends to look cheap.  There’s poor CGI throughout and the setting never feels as scary as it should.  I mean…I’ve been in a corn maze…they’re creepy. In the Tall Grass comes from a decent source material, and this adaptation makes an innovative attempt to stretch it out, but for those will catch the film on Netflix like me, you’ll find yourself distracted by the nearby wall behind the television.

Grade: C

Joker

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Todd Phillips’ Joker is a character study that must serve its protagonist in two ways – the man, and the clown.  It wants us to look at Arthur Fleck’s world and understand his opinion of it; it wants us to see his mental illness as something that desperately needs to be treated; and it wants us to sympathize with him as he’s being repeatedly beaten so far into the ground, the only way to emerge is with a painted smile.  The clown is a different story.  While the film wants us to sympathize with Arthur on his road to becoming the worst version of himself, it does not ask us to condone the awful things he does.  This means that Phillips and his star, Joaquin Phoenix, need to find an ambiguous balance that will leave the audience conflicted, disturbed and moved.  Oh…and they also have to show us how a man can become one of the most iconic villains in the history of…well villains.  They’ve succeeded in all of the above, and have created one hell of an uncomfortable and riveting experience.

People who go to see Joker may think they want to watch what it takes for a man to become the clown prince of Gotham, but as it goes with mental illness, or any sickness really, they may not be ready for the reality of it.  We tell others to “talk to us” and “share their feelings”; however, a healthy mind cannot fathom what goes on inside a broken one.  Joker offers real glimpses behind those closed doors, and it will certainly put-off movie goers who think this film will be a comic book entertainment.  I can’t say I enjoyed the film myself, outside of its links to the Batman lore, but my admiration for its achievement is growing with every passing moment.  In a cinema landscape of Comic Book movies, Joker is one the few that shows us what the genre is capable of when given the freedom to strike a chord.

Joker takes place in 1981, and its Gotham City setting evokes a metropolis that’s forming into a powder keg.  There’s unemployment, severe crime, and general garbage lining the city sidewalks.  Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a clown for hire; he’ll do gigs twirling a sign outside of a shop, or entertaining children at a hospital.  He lives with his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), who insists that her old boss, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), will clean up the city once he becomes mayor.  Arthur suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and regularly visits a social services worker to obtain medication and disclose his troubling thoughts. He also has a vivid imagination where he gets to live out his dream as a stand-up comedian, eventually landing a guest spot on The Murray Show (a spitting image of the Johnny Carson version of The Tonight Show), where he’s embraced by the show’s host, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro), like a son. He also begins a romantic relationship with his neighbor, played by Zazie Beets, who he invites to his first real stand-up gig.

All of these elements come together in the narrative eventually, but the film is in no rush to get there.  The first half of the movie is a slow introduction to Arthur, his way of life, and his state of mind.  Arthur is bullied, ridiculed and ignored, with no one aware of the place they’re pushing him to.  He’s depressed, suicidal, and clinging to his dreams by his fingernails, which are being repeatedly stomped on by a city waiting to ignite.  The film’s first hour is slow in pace, but always building to its ultimate goal in morphing Arthur into The Joker.  Scenes of him dancing alone in his living room may seem unnecessary at first, and uncomfortable to watch, but I found them particularity stirring in how they made me realize the differences of human nature – those capable of committing acts of insane violence, and the rest of us, who never see it coming because we don’t pay attention to the dance.

The film’s second half picks up the narrative momentum, beginning with Arthur’s first real act of violence, a scene that goes from self-defense to cold blood.  This moment and the scenes that follow proves this movie is marching to the beat of its own drum.  Eventually, Arthur’s path crosses with that of the Wayne family, and the city before them.  Some may find a few of these scenes shoehorned in to appease the comic fans, but I got a huge charge out of them.  The Waynes are apart of Arthur’s destiny after all, why shouldn’t they be there at his inception to madness.  And that madness takes hold in the film’s final 30 minutes, which are pretty incredible.  There are scenes of terrible violence and striking imagery; the violence in particular stands out though not glorified in any way.  When blood is spilled in this film, it feels wrong and counter-productive to a human body, making Arthur’s reaction to it all the more unsettling.

With this performance, Joaquin Phoenix cements himself as an acting God.  This is a not only a role with huge shoes to fill (no, because they’re clown shoes), but it can go wrong in so many ways.  Phoenix makes Arthur worth caring about and sympathizing with, but he never betrays the darkness laying in wait.  I hesitate to call him evil, but the punishments he enacts for the crimes committed against him are unjust, and all he can do is find it funny.  The decision to give him the laughing disorder is brilliant; his cackles look painful, as though they’re torn from his throat, with Phoenix’s eyes remaining true to the pain.  He runs like he’s always wearing clown shoes, dances like he’s Charlie Chaplin in slow-motion, and walks with the weight of his suffering on his shoulders, until he figures out the terrible way to remove it.  Two scenes late in the film are particularity amazing – the first is a conversation with DeNiro’s character that’s chilling; the second is the moment he becomes The Joker.  I’m not talking about the first time he puts on the suit with the make-up, I’m talking about the first time he ceases to be Arthur Fleck in favor of the Clown we all know so well.  You’ll know the moment when you see it, and it’s to this film and Phoenix’s immeasurable credit that when it happened, I could almost feel everyone in the theater think the same thing: There he is. 

All of the other performances in the film are very good, they’re just appropriately not front and center.  I particularity felt that Frances Conroy did strong work as Arthur’s mother.  DeNiro gets to play the Jerry Lewis role from The King of Comedy, which is intentional as the film borrows from it along with much more from Taxi Driver.  Some have felt that the Scorsese influence is too overpowering, and I understand that.  For those familiar with Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, you may even be distracted by Phillips’ visuals.  Either way, those visuals are gorgeous with beautiful cinematography by Lawrence Sher, who’s deserves an Oscar nomination for his work.  The score by Hildur Guðnadóttir  is great as well, always building to an eventual crescendo, or fitting the film’s theme of taking a moment that should be full of one emotion, and providing another.  The film is full of dark humor as well; Arthur isn’t particularity funny, but the film repeatedly finds moments of awkwardness where you’re not sure if it’s okay to laugh.  That’s another of its many achievements.

Everyone knew Phoenix was going to give a committed performance, but I don’t think anyone knew what we’d get from Todd Phillips.  Best known for Old School and The Hangover Trilogy, Phillips showcases an ability to let his film speak for itself, and let his lead actor guide the story.  He constantly creates conflicting emotions, all powerful, and will leave you with a great deal to think about.  For 2019, it has caused the kind of outrage that we’ll all forget about in a month.  The film will last though, even if it’s a joke you don’t get.

Grade: A

Judy

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I often find that biopics, when they’re not perfect, are at odds with their lead performances.  The two most integral parts of a film about a real person are the actor chosen to play them, and what part (or parts) of that person’s life is chosen to be told.  Some films try to tell a human being’s entire life story in a span of two hours, which is impossible; others, such as The Aviator, attempt to limit the the story to the most integral years of that person’s existence.  Then there are the ones like Lincoln and last year’s Stan & Ollie, where the filmmakers focus on a very specific and small portion of the subject’s life.  The story must then find the right actor to not only play the part, but a very specific version of it.  That’s where the mixed signals come in.

Unfortunately some filmmakers, or simply the screenplay, still try to make the supposedly intimate version of their story larger than the life they’re representing.  Attempting to showcase their subject’s cultural impact when they should just let the actor find the voice that fits the specific narrative.  Resulting in a truncated version of full life instead of powerful recreation of a few important months or years. Rupert Goold’s Judy has that problem; however, it has Renée Zellweger’s wonderful performance to save it…almost.

My knowledge of Judy Garland is limited to all of the times I’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, and a vague understanding of her addictions that caused her death at the age of 47.  I knew that she was abused at an early age by the Hollywood studio machine that set her on a limited course despite her limitless voice.  And I know that one of her daughters is Liza Minnelli…that’s about it.  I was still interested in this film though, if only to hear Somewhere Over The Rainbow again; Judy’s performance in Oz yanked emotions out of me at an age when I was unaware movies could do that.  Her desperation to get her dog back; her fear of what will happen when the sand in the hour glass runs out; her desire to get home.  That performance to me is forever, even if she wasn’t.

Judy takes place in 1969, the year of Garland’s death.  It finds her (Zellweger) low on income with nowhere to bed her two younger children, forcing her to let them stay with their father, Sidney (Rufus Sewell), one of Judy’s four ex-husbands. In order to get her kids back, Judy takes a five-week gig in London at the Talk of The Town nightclub, where she sings her hits when she can stand up straight.  She has an assistant in Rosalyn (Jessie Buckley), who attempts to keep Judy afloat.  There’s also Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who’s infatuated with Judy, though he seems to be more infatuated with how much money she can make him.  The film has a running theme of people using Judy for her talents with no care for her health – we see the origins of this unfortunate truth in flashbacks to Judy working for MGM as a teenager, where she wasn’t allowed to eat or sleep properly, leading to a life-long addiction to pills and eventually alcohol.

I understand why the flashbacks are in the film, as they truly do a solid job of showing what it was like for Judy as a young actress, and furthermore explain her reasoning for her life’s decisions.  I just wish they didn’t cut back to them more than twice, as it interrupts the time that should be used for the rest of the film’s story.  All of Judy’s relationships in the movie, outside of a few scenes with Sidney, are robbed of any growth or history.  Judy gets to know some of these people, but we don’t really get to see her impact on them.  There’s a nice little vignette where Judy has dinner with two fans at their home, but it also feels forced, almost like the filmmakers knew they didn’t have anyone else for Judy, as a character, to bounce off.

Thankfully all it takes for the film to find its footing is to put Garland on stage and let Zellweger do her thing. The actress has always had singing chops (see Chicago), and though she can’t equal Garland’s actual voice, she does well enough.  Her triumph lies is in her embodiment of the character, from the big eyes, sunken in cheeks, low voice, and mannerisms down to an exact.  Zellweger give her best performance in years; Judy, much like the star it’s about, is at its best when she’s front and center on a stage.  The rest of the cast is a mixed bag.  Jessie Buckley, so brilliant in this year’s Chernobyl, is wasted here in a role that requires very little from her.  Finn Wittrock seems like he’s in a 1960’s movie about the person he’s supposed to be playing…and no that is not a good thing. I did like Rufus Sewell though; he’s only in two scenes, but they have an energy the rest of the film is lacking when Judy isn’t on a stage.

The film goes for an ending that screams “this obviously didn’t happen, but we’re fans of Judy Garland so this is what we’re doing.” That may seem specific but it’s true, and feels inauthentic instead of moving.  A shame too because there’s a real tragedy here, and Judy, while focusing on mostly the right point of her life to showcase it, fails to live up to it’s biopic’s star…and the actress playing her.

Grade: C+

Villains

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Villains is the kind of gem that sneaks up on you and makes you realize, I care.  The plot is a fun concept, and it’s executed with the right amount of energy and sinister weirdness.  But it’s final act where Villains won me over.  Whatever issues I had (and have) with the film were rendered subdued in favor of being delighted.  The movie has been given a solid social media ad-campaign, though I doubt it’ll ever make much money; however, I found it to be the perfect evening-weekday theater experience.  The kind where there’s enough people in the audience to feel “in unison,” and yet the excitement level is down because no one really knows what to expect from the film that’s about to play.  Also…we all have work tomorrow.

Villains begins with a young couple, Mickey and Jules, played by Bill Skarsgård and Maika Monro, robbing a gas station while wearing animal masks.  It’s clear that the two are not the brightest due going, but they make away with some cash nonetheless and resign to begin a trek to Florida in order to start a new life. Unfortunately their car runs out of gas, enticing Jules to remind Mickey, “we were just at a gas station.” With no idea what to do, Jules happens to spot a mail box that leads to a driveway…which leads to very pretty house.  There’s a garage with a car, and no one is home.  The two decide to break-in to find the car keys.  What they find, specifically in the basement, changes the situation they’re in.  Before long, the owners come home  – they are George and Gloria, played by Jeffery Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick – and they seem very sweet, but that can’t be true considering what’s in the basement.  Negotiations turns into a hostage situation, with the good-hearted and dim-witted Mickey and Jules doing their best to survive.

Villains starts a little slow; Mickey and Jules simply had no initial impact on me.  They’re not charming enough to be so dumb, and the film gives them little to showcase any other parts of their personalities.  Even after their mood changes once they discover what’s in the basement, it took George and Gloria for the film to pick up. The very strange owners of the house are a mix of amusing and unsettling, and give the film a jolt.  The movie also benefits from splitting Mickey and Julia up, allowing for each to win us over with courage and their care for one another. By the time the film gets to the final act, I was full-on rooting for them to make it through their situation.  The writing/directing duo of Dan Berk and Robert Olsen have fun letting their little movie build and build until they know you care about it.

The four lead performers are all quite good.  Skarsgård is a long way from Pennywise, allowing himself to be the but of the joke instead of using them.  Maika Monroe is perfect in a role that has her go from ditsy to loving,  To be honest, by film’s end I found myself viewing Mickey and Jules as a unit more than individuals, and that’s credit to the actors for believably playing a couple, ordeal or not.  Donovan and Sedgwick have the more showy roles, but they present them with the right amount of humor and humanity.  Donovan deserves more film roles, as he’s able to play larger than life.  His George is an asshole, but he made me laugh just by the look on his face, especially when his front door finally shuts perfectly.  Sedgewick has more tragedy to her character, and she uses it to make Gloria pathetic and pitiful.  She also has the film’s most disturbing moment.

There’s not a tremendous amount of violence in Villains, but when it shows up, there’plenty to go around. Head-shots, torn-out piercings and broken jaws all drew groans from the audience I saw it with.  More impressive was a moment late in the film where everyone let out a sympathetic sigh because of…well, I can’t say, but it was nice to care about it as a group.  Villains will always remain a lesser known property, but those who check it out may find something worthy of surprising pause, and respect.

Grade: B