Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: Split

Is Writer-Director-Producer M. Night Shyamalan back in the proverbial saddle? Many critics seem to think so. I, however, am not in any rush to declare a triumphant return to form for the filmmaker. Time will be the ultimate decider on that. What I am prepared to proclaim is that I thoroughly enjoyed Shyamalan's last film The Visit and was equally entertained by Split.

Let's be upfront right now. James McAvoy is the pulse of this film. His unabating commitment to each of the various personalities within his conflicted character is what drives the film. In fact, most of the tension derives from not knowing which personality is going to "step into the light" at any given time. One moment he is making sandwiches for the teenage girls that he's abducted and the next he is climbing on walls trying to eat them (not spoilers since this is all in the trailer). It's a performance as wild and creepy as it is enjoyable. Arguably a career best from McAvoy.

Behind the camera, M. Night Shyamalan is as sure-handed as he has been in a long while. His cinematography is consistently dark and drab (with the exception of a few contrasting flashback sequences). The pacing is deliberately plodding despite immediately plunging into the narrative. Familiar Shyamalan-esque themes such as trust and redemption are woven in throughout the script, even if some are more subtly hinted at than others.

With Split, Shyamalan seems to trust his audience a bit more than he had this past decade. The film appropriately allows the story to breath at different moments, allowing viewers to extrapolate on certain things while giving concrete details on the more important narrative elements. There are sparsely any instances where exposition is handed heavily through clunky, unnatural dialogue.

And then of course there is the signature plot twist that will likely isolate large portions of the audience. To say much more than that would be giving too much away. What I can say is that Split is a step in the right direction for Shyamalan's on hi supposed comeback tour.

Grade: B+

Monday, January 16, 2017

Favorite Films of 2016 (Part 2)


Marvel Studios' latest simultaneously plays it safe and takes big risks. After almost a decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we have grown accustomed to its familiar origin beats. Those same beats have a home in Doctor Strange; however, Director Scott Derrickson brings a fresh eye to the formula. Much like Agamotto himself, Derrickson is a natural fit for the mystical realm and crafts some of the most fun, fantastical, and visually dazzling action sequences in the MCU thus far. Derrickson also works his magic on his cast, drawing out terrific performances from everyone as if he were summoning their astro-form. Doctor Strange proves that Marvel can turn any of their characters into cinematic gold.


2016 may have been a great year for superhero movies but it was a great year for animation as well . With the likes of Zootopia, Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two Strings earlier in the year, expectations were high for Moana. Thanks to charismatic, infectious performances from crowd-favorite Dwayne Johnson and newcomer Auli'i Cravalho, as well as a wonderful soundtrack from Hamilton Star Lin-Manuel Miranda, Moana sailed past expectations and right into the pantheon of classical Disney animation. It's funny, fun, and endearing no matter your age. 

Before stepping behind a camera, Director Tom Ford was a designer and it shows. Nocturnal Animals is aesthetically hypnotic frame to frame. It's also one of the strangest, boldest films of the year. Simultaneous storylines, both equally fascinating and heartbreaking, are driven almost entirely by stirring performances, most notably by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Shannon. It's not a particularly pleasant watch-- though there are frequent moments of much-needed levity- but it is a captivating one.

This film deserves more buzz. It's a powerful coming of age tale about a young boy learning to grieve in the face of one of life's harshest realities (I'm tearing up just writing this). Lewis MacDougal is spellbinding as said young boy and Felicity Jones gives an Oscar-caliber performance as his mother. Liam Neeson lends his thunderous tones to the titular Monster, who is dreamed up by the boy during his greatest time of need. Director J.A. Bayona seamlessly fuses fantasy with actuality to tell a story that at some point everybody can relate to. Bring tissues. The tears will flow.  

Personally, I was not expecting great things from this film. I was never a huge fan of Star Wars. I enjoyed it fine enough: the movies, the games, the toys, but I was never into it like a lot of people. I was also not a fan of Director Gareth Edwards' last film, the recent Godzilla reboot. That said, Rogue One was a pleasant surprise! Everything, from the characters to the action and even the frequent Easter eggs, served the purpose of the story. It also manages to carve out a niche for itself in the larger Star Wars universe by being a full-fledge war film for adults. For the first time we get to experience the "Wars" element of "Star Wars" and all the ambiguous politics motivating both the Empire and the rebels. What's more is the talented roster in front of the camera. They make it easy to invest in the headlining band of rogues.

Honorable Mentions:
The Neon Demon
Kubo and the Two Strings
Hello My Name Is Doris
Eye In the Sky
10 Cloverfield Lane
Edge of Seventeen
The Lobster

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Bye Bye Man review

Though The Bye Bye Man lifts a number of familiar elements from superior films (The Amityville Horror, A Nightmare On Elm Street, etc.), Director Stacy Title manages to mesh those elements together to shape an intriguing mythology that attempts to explain why sometimes seemingly normal people snap and commit awful atrocities. The film's captivating first scene proves that the Bye Bye Man is a horror flick with franchise potential; unfortunately, this first entry is severely restricted by its PG-13 rating and struggles to overcome subpar acting and cheap special effects.

There were many points in The Bye Bye Man where I was taken out of the film because of a lack of basic realism. For example, the lack of blood during the more brutal moments kept reminding me that I was watching a movie. Obviously the film is intended to be PG-13 but the story calls for a more mature rating.

The performances from the two supporting actors is also distracting. Douglas Smith does a fine job as the lead teenager who stumbles upon a long-suppressed, evil secret in his new house; however, Cressida Bonas is bland as his girlfriend and Lucien Laviscount is annoying as their live-in friend. Though the psychological torment that develops among the trio is truly horrifying, the obvious acting made it difficult for me to truly immerse myself into the world of these characters.

The cheap special effects also made it difficult for me to get immersed. In particular, the Bye Bye Man's C.G. dog-creature-sidekick-thing is so cartoon-ish looking that when I first saw it, I laughed out loud in my seat. Judging by the pup's poor production and laughably short screen time, I got the impression that nobody working on this film wanted viewers to even take notice of it.

Had the studio allowed The Bye Bye Man to be the film it obviously wants to be, it could have been something much more memorable. As it stands, the film merely serves as a potential step in the right direction: bright ideas blackened by the typical flaws of a January horror flick.

Grade: C-

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Movies Everyone Should See Before Kicking the Bucket

There are movies and then there are movies everyone should see before they die (to put it bluntly). The thing is, everybody has their own list of movies they think everyone should see and many of those lists include a lot of the same films (aka: the "classics"). You know the ones: The Godfather, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Casablanca, etc, etc. Well, I've thought long and hard about the films I would recommend to everyone and I've come up with a list that includes many different types of films from various genres in order to hit on something for everyone not concerned with seeing "gold standards." Most of these films have made a home in the deepest valves of my heart but find themselves on this list because either they are technicality brilliant, unique, emotionally powerful, address important issues, or just pure fun. Without further ado, here is my list of movies everyone should see before kicking the bucket (writer holds the right to tweak this list as he sees fit anytime between now through eternity):

(500) Days of Summer
12 Years a Slave
127 Hours
American Beauty
American History X
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
The Babadook
Back to the Future
Batman Begins
Being John Malkovich
Black Swan
Blade Runner (Master Cut)
The Blair Witch Project
Blow Out
Body Double
The Cabin in the Woods
Carrie (1976)
Cinema Paradiso
Citizen Kane
A Clockwork Orange
The Color Purple
The Dark Knight
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The Departed
The Descent
Die Hard
District 9
Django Unchained
Drag Me to Hell
The Drop
Donnie Darko
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Event Horizon
The Evil Dead
Evil Dead II
Ex Machina
Exit Through the Gift Shop
The Exorcist
The Fifth Element
Fight Club
Finding Nemo
Forest Gump
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Food Inc.
Fruitvale Station
Galaxy Quest
Goodnight Mommy
Gran Torino
The Grey
Grizzly Man
Groundhog Day
Hell or High Water
The Help
Hidden Figures
The Hills Have Eyes (Both original & remake)
Hot Fuzz
How to Train Your Dragon
I Love You, Man
In Bruges
The Incredibles
An Inconvenient Truth
Independence Day
Inglorious Basterds
Inside Out
Into the Wild
Jurassic Park
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
The Last Exorcism
The LEGO Movie
Little Shop of Horrors
The Lord of the Rings
Man on the Moon
The Matrix
Million Dollar Baby
A Monster Calls
Monsters Inc.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The Muppets
Mother (Korean)
Neon Demon
Night of the Living Dead
A Nightmare On Elm Street
No Country for Old Men
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
The Prestige
Pulp Fiction
The Raid: Redemption
The Raid 2
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Rear Window
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Roger & Me
Rosemary's Baby
Room 237
Saving Private Ryan
Schindler's List
Seven Psychopaths
Shadow of the Vampire
Shaun of the Dead
The Shining
The Silence of the Lambs
Silver Linings Playbook
Singin' In the Rain
The Sixth Sense
Stand By Me
Star Wars
Straight Outta Compton
Stranger Than Fiction
Some Like It Hot
Son of Saul
Swiss Army Man
The Terminator
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
There Will Be Blood
The Thing
Titicut Follies
Toy Story
The Truman Show
Tropic Thunder
The Usual Suspects
Waiting for Superman
West Side Story
When Harry Met Sally
The Wizard of Oz
Young Frankenstein
You're Next

Underworld: Blood Wars review

Believe it or not, Hollywood has been dishing out Underworld movies for almost fifteen years now and critics have been panning them for just as long. That doesn't stop them from making money, which means there is still a market for these films. While I cannot speak for an entire market, I can admit these films are a guilty pleasure of mine. I enjoy action set pieces, the ridiculous leather getups, and I yearn to uncover more of the mythology behind these vampire and werewolf factions. Then, of course, there is Kate Beckinsale, who is a credit to any film she is in.

Sadly, my interest in this franchise has been waning with the last couple installments, 'Blood Wars' included. They have been bland and Director Anna Foerster seems more interested in rehashing old plot points than in exploring the material and taking the sort of risks that may invite intrigue.

Another aspect I admired about the original Underworld was its large reliance upon practical effects, most notably for their werewolves. Unfortunately, as the series progresses, those practical effects are increasingly replaced with CG monstrosities and the result is decreasingly engrossing. 'Blood Wars' in particular lacks any standard, let alone impressive, digital effects.

On the other hand, Kate Beckinsale continues to hold up as the series' backbone. She seems just as committed as ever to her role as the Death Dealer Selene (still no last name) even though her scripts seem to grow thinner by the entry. There are also a couple of solid action sequences that made the gothic horror fan in me grin like a giddy school boy.

Grade: C

Friday, January 6, 2017

Favorite Films of 2016 (Part 1)

Another year, another wrap-up. It sounds boring and mundane but the truth is I enjoy this time of year. Despite the difficulty of narrowing down my favorite films of the year (which feels like picking my favorite child), it's fun to reflect back on the year in movies and see how different films moved me. It's even more fun to compare that list with others and to engage in spitfire debates with friends and colleagues. That said, here are the first six of my twelve favorite movies of 2016 (in no particular order):

In recent years Writer-Director Mike Flanagan has come on as one of Hollywood's most exciting talents in horror. Frankly, I struggled between Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil (both by Flanagan, obviously) and which to include on this list. Both films rejuvenate their respected subgenres, but ultimately I gave the edge to Hush because of its scope. Flanagan does more with less with this unique cat-and-mouse thriller. He relies on intelligent characters and creative twists to scare his audience and the result is deafening.

Originally, I had Swiss Army Man pegged as "the farting Harry Potter corpse movie (I'm not the only one, right?)." And while it is undoubtedly one of the stranger films released this year, nothing could prepare me for this profound adventure. Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano give heartfelt performances in this quirky pic helmed by a duo known simply as Daniels. Exploring the importance of self-acceptance, not only is it one of 2016's most sincere films but it is also one of the year's most important films. It also features one of the most apt kisses in cinema history.

We now live in a world where comic book movies often transcend the tired phrase "popcorn flick" and become something much more impactful. Such is the case with Captain America: Civil War. Brilliantly choreographed action sequences accent long stretches of psychological warfare that ultimately fracture Cap and Tony and all the other heroes we have come to love over the last decade while naturally introducing exciting, new Avengers like Black Panther and Tom Holland's Spider-Man. It is a well-rounded film that capstones arguably one of the best trilogies in movie history. The twenty minute airport sequence alone is worth the price of admission (or, at this point, at least a rental).

If the Academy recognized Best Ensemble Cast(as they should), no doubt Hell or High Water would see a nomination. As it stands, Jeff Bridges will see a nod for Best Supporting Actor along with his co-star Ben Foster, but the film is full of wonderful performances. Chris Pine arguably gives his best performance as a desperate Texan who, along with his brother (Foster), turn to robbing banks. Meanwhile, a veteran Texas Ranger (Bridges) seeks to bring the boys to justice before his impending retirement. Equal parts funny, heartbreaking, and thrilling, Hell or High Water is a strong, enjoyable Western that makes the old feel new again.

With Deepwater Horizon, Director Peter Berg has crafted one of the most spellbinding disaster flicks in recent memory. His slow-burn approach to the tragic B.P. oil disaster of 2010 allows the crew to take front and center well before any literal sparks fly. Once they do though, the action cranks past eleven while everything aboard the doomed vessel goes up in flames. It's not played for simple thrills, however. Mark Wahlberg leads a tremendous cast including Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, and Kate Hudson, all of whom bring a grounded humanity to the calamity of the Mexican Gulf through compelling performances which serve as constant reminders that this is a true story suffered by real people. I found my jaw stuck to the sticky theater floor the entire time.

Stephen Lang deserves (but won't get) an Oscar nod for his performance as the Blind Man in Fede Alvarez's stylish horror flick. His deft performance is chilling, the way he sneaks and slinks around in the darkness, wreaking hellish torment upon the young burglars who've invaded his home. But Lang is simply one element of this frightful vision. Alvarez slowly stacks the suspense with shrewd scares that relentlessly push the boundaries of what horror can be. Not only is this film one of 2016's scariest but it also made for one of my favorite theater-going experiences of all time.