Month: August 2017

Review: ‘Good Time’ is a great movie about some bad people

Director(s): Josh & Benny Safdie

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Taliah Webster, Barkhad Abdi, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Rated: R (for language throughout, violence, drug use and sexual content)

Year: 2017

You don’t need to like the main character of a story. You need only be compelled by them. That’s good new for Good Time‘s Constantine Nikas, a.k.a. Connie– a.k.a. Robert Pattinson– a.k.a. the sociopaths scum of the Earth whose exploitative escapades pile up like a devastating train wreck that’s increasingly tough to look away.

Through the course of Good Time, Connie ruins the lives of everybody unfortunate enough to cross tracks with him. He gets his brother Nick (played by co-writer/director Benny Safdie), the only person he truly cares about outside himself, thrown in prison for a botched bank robbery. He tricks an elderly woman into letting him hide out in her house, then seduces her granddaughter (who looks a lot younger than we’re told). Connie even drugs and frames a security guard at the local carnival, all in the pursuit of ten-thousand dollars needed to bail out Nick.

It’s the type of selfish and self-destructive behavior that makes for a fascinating character study and Pattinson is mesmerizing as a master manipulator with a gift for reading people and situations and orchestrating both to his advantage. Not unlike Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler or Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver, Pattinson will have your skin crawling and leave you reeling for a shower.

Connie doesn’t care what he has to do or who he has to do it to on his way to reuniting with his brother. It’s what makes him far and away the most deplorable character in the film. That said, nearly everyone we meet is in one way or another deserving of our disdain. In particular Buddy Duress’s Ray, a whiny, low-life drug dealer who helps Connie navigate the neon-laden criminal underbelly of New York.

And thanks to Director Benny and Josh Safdie’s stylized vision, it’s a fittingly muted place to be. Frequently the singular source of light is a static, white television screen; a dim, blue street lamp; or the ghostly luminescence of some far off pair of headlights. The world Connie inhabits is constantly humming with a soft, bleak glow.

These bleak, electric colors work in conjunction with the pounding synth score to reflect Connie’s artificial soul. He doesn’t value people and relationships the way most people do. At times though I found the music to be too “in your face” and more headache inducing than thought provoking.

If possible, I recommend going into this film as blind as possible. I found that the trailer spoils a considerable plot point of the story. Regardless, Good Time is a great film about some bad people.

Grade: A

What did you think of Good Time? Were you impressed by Robert Pattinson’s performance? Who is your favorite movie sociopath? Let us know in the comments below!

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Review: ‘Birth of the Dragon’ serves as an insane, quasi-biopic for Kung-Fu legend

Director: George Nolfi

Starring: Philip Ng, Xia Yu, Billy Magnussen, Terry Chen

Rating: PG-13

Year: 2017

The world may never know what truly transpired during the legendary San Francisco showdown between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man back in 1964. There were few witness and still today there are conflicting reports. The one fact everyone seems to agree on is that there was indeed a fight.

Through the years, the tale of Lee vs. Man has grown to mythic proportions. Birth of the Dragon occasionally embraces that epic status in an attempt to straddle the line between serious character drama and campy Kung-Fu kick-assery. Results vary but this quasi-biopic can definitely offer up some high-flying fun if indeed you can forgive a few glaring flaws.

Despite its title, marketing, and being based on a real life occurrence, Birth of the Dragon centers around a fictionalized friend and student of Bruce Lee’s, a Caucasian American named Steve McKee (Billy Magnussen). Steve meets and, as if on cue, falls in love with Xiulan (Qu Jingjing). She’s a Chinese woman who’s been forced into labor by the China Town mafia. That’s right, a romance not involving Bruce Lee is the heart and soul of a movie that is otherwise supposed to be about Bruce Lee.

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Not that surprisingly, the romance is never compelling, thanks largely to a lazy script that too feels uninterested in exploring this relationship. The awkward report between Magnussen and Jingjing stands out as the pair exchange the type of schmaltzy, uninspired dialogue that would make a scriptwriting professor turn away in embarrassment.

As dull as the central love story is, it does act as the catalyst that ultimately brings Lee and Man fist to fist. Prior to the final confrontation, however, a vast majority of the film consists of a tedious Ping-Pong-style alternation of scenes in which a macho Steve relays messages between the martial artists. Each time we learn a little bit more about these two legends but the general takeaway is always the same: Lee wants to fight. Man doesn’t.

The good news is that interspersed throughout are some genuinely exciting fight sequences. Director George Nolfi is no stranger to action, having written The Bourne Ultimatum and directed the underappreciated The Last Stand starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here he doesn’t often shoot from different angles or rely on rapid-fire editing to create tension. Instead, Nolfi trusts his actors with some brutal choreography, opting to simply set the camera down and hit record.

The further into the film we go, the more grandiose the grapples become. Once Lee and Man eventually face off, not even the laws of physics can interfere. They’re practically superheroes the way they leap from tremendous heights without so much as a scratch and preform killer back flips from laughably tall heights off cement pillars. This fight in particular features some unfortunate overuse of slow-motion and obvious wire work.

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The ultimate culmination is an insane, no-holds-barred brawl at mafia headquarters. No henchman or wooden piece of furniture is safe from the screeching Bruce Lee. However, once our hero kicks down the doors to the boss’s office, I couldn’t help but feel as if all this ridiculousness was undermining the more grounded story of why he was there in the first place– to save Steve’s girlfriend– which the film spends most of its time building up.

In terms of performances, Philip Ng is solid as an overly macho caricature of Bruce Lee who’s childishly obsessed with kicking Wong Jack Man’s ass in front of as many people as possible and wants to become the “CEO” of Kung-Fu badassery. Yu Xia is perfectly stoic as Wong Jack Man, a former master of Kung-Fu at the Shaolin Temple, who now seeks to humble himself by moving to San Francisco to work as a dishwasher.

Let’s quick talk about Man. He is without a doubt the most charming character in Birth of the Dragon. He’s always doing the morally upright thing and unfailingly seizes the opportunity to drop wisdom bombs on Bruce or Steve. It’s so easy to root for Man, in fact, that I couldn’t shake the impression that if his opponent’s name wasn’t Bruce Lee, then he’d surely be the hero of this story.

I’ll end my review by equating Birth of the Dragon to a fight. Some punches land while others don’t. Other times it’ll kick you where and when you’re least expecting it. You’ll be excited by some moves but also unable to recall why certain things happened. If you can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’, this film might just be for you.

Grade: C+

What did you all think of Birth of the Dragon? Do you think it works as a true Bruce Lee biopic? Or is this just another unfortunate case of Hollywood whitewashing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Review: ‘Naked’ settles for bare bones laughs

Director: Michael Tiddes

Cast: Marlon Wayans, Regina Hall, Dennis Haysbert, Eliza Coupe, Scott Foley 

Rating: PG-13

Year: 2017

It’s easy to imagine the expression of pure jubilation that must have rolled across Marlon Wayans’s face the moment he realized that, by remaking the 2000 Swedish Comedy Naken, he could easily highlight his– ahem– assets. I guess any excuse is a good excuse to flaunt mother-naked in front of a camera when you’ve got a great ass.

To that end, a lot of the cheeky sight gags in Naked work. Wayans expertly times the exposing of his posterior to a crowd of gasping onlookers while hastily breaking the tape at the finish line of a marathon while being pursued by security. Shortly thereafter we’re treated to a well-paced rotation of makeshift getups– think bikini bottoms and a lavishly feathered robe– that crests when Wayans is forced into a laughably inept dance routine set to C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” for the musings of an intimidating gang of motorcycle bruisers who may or may not murder him.

Similarly crass humor accentuates Naked. Thankfully, the film benefits from yet another spirited performance by Wayans. Through the good and the bad, Marlon’s energy is infectious and his charm irresistible.

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This time out he’s Rob Anderson, young slacker who’s perfectly content living out his life as a popular substitute teacher at a prep school where he kicks around “flies” and “phonies” with his adoring students. To top it off, Rob is about to wed his long-time doctor girlfriend, Megan, played by the lovely Regina Hall. Hall isn’t doing anything new here, but she and Wayans play well off each other and I found myself compelled by her performance whenever the story called on her.

The story itself is pretty stark and standard. The day before his wedding, Rob discovers he’s trapped in a never-ending time loop that has him living and reliving the same hour before he and his fiancée are supposed to say “I do.” Each do-over, Rob wakes up on the floor of an elevator with no recollection of how he got there. Oh, yeah, and he’s completely naked.

Naked rises, washes, and repeats the Groundhog’s Day formula over and over again until Rob learns the valuable lesson he’s meant to learn. It’s a well-worn premise with a familiar moral. Thankfully, at 96 minutes, it doesn’t take him too long to catch on. Each go-around Rob betters himself to become the man his future wife truly deserves.

During one of his cycles, Rob attends some random couple’s wedding, notepad in hand, to get a sense of how to write meaningful, heartwarming vows. When their vows start spilling over into the one-hour mark, Rob frantically suggests the couple skips to the end. At another point Rob has a scantily clad run-in with R&B artist Brian McKnight, who then shares some heartfelt advice about persistence. Of course these awkward situations are played for laughs, but they also play a part in furthering Rob’s character.

It’s cheesy and formulaic and not every joke lands, but Naked streaks by briskly enough that you won’t have to dedicate a whole lot of time to it. If you’re staying in with a cuddle buddy and surfing Netflix for a few good laughs, Naked is worth a peep.

Grade: B

What did you all think of Naked and are you a fan of Marlon Wayans? Let us know in the comments below!

Review: ‘Logan Lucky’ is a fun, fresh country fried take on ‘Ocean’s Eleven’

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Katie Holmes, Seth MacFarlane, and Farrah Mackenzie 

Synopsis: Two brothers attempt to pull off a heist during a NASCAR race in North Carolina. 

Rating: PG-13

Year: 2017

Steven Soderbergh cemented his legacy in the artsier realm of cinema when he won the Best Director Oscar for Traffic. The following year he put out Ocean’s Eleven, starring George Clooney, and began paving a broader legacy within the world of pop culture.

Eventually, every quirky, heist flick since is compared to Soderbergh’s ‘Ocean’s’ trilogy. This includes other quirky, heist flicks by Soderbergh himself. And while the Brothers Logan clearly took inspiration from Danny Ocean and his eleven, Logan Lucky gleefully shakes up the expectations that those films first established nearly two decades ago. To understand what I’m getting at, look no further than the main cast.

George Clooney isn’t exactly stretching his acting chops by playing a suave, sophisticated gentlemen like Danny Ocean. On the other hand, Channing Tatum isn’t working from his established wheelhouse as Jimmy Logan, a working class bumpkin who gets it in his head after losing his job that he’s going to rob blind the very NASCAR track his construction crew was contracted to work on.

Similarly, Adam Driver doesn’t exactly spring to mind for a character as soft spoken and socially awkward as Jimmy’s brother, Clyde. And if you told me you’d always wanted to see that British actor who’s known almost exclusively for playing a dour James Bond take on the part of a eccentric, redneck math wiz, I’d call you a damn liar. Still, all three talents manage to disappear into their respected roles while having a blast doing it.

The one exception would be Seth MacFarlane, who is very much in his comfort zone as rich, loudmouth NASCAR franchisee Max Chilblain. He’s the closest Logan Lucky comes to a proper villain except he’s more like the caricature of a villain. With distractingly unkempt hair, a mustache and an overblown drawl, MacFarlane stands out in every scene he’s in and not in the good way.

Going the other way, Daniel Craig deserves special recognition for the way he transforms into Joe Bang, an explosives expert who the Logan boys bust out of prison in fittingly elaborate fashion. Craig is having so much fun, it’s contagious. I couldn’t help but crack a smile each time Joe flashed his pearly whites or spoke in his falsetto twang.

It’s refreshing just how against type these Smoky Mountain misfits are. Despite their dirt-splattered pickups, unsophisticated vocabulary, and relatively quiet lives, these men are smarter than your average bear. Like all great heist flicks, each conman possesses a unique skill that makes them a vital asset to the team. This irony is also played for some good laughs.

And there are good laughs to be had. There is a moment in Logan Lucky where a reporter on the tube refers to the crew behind the Charlotte Motor Speedway robbery as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven.” It’s the type of hayseed humor that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Coen Brothers movie. It’s important to note because not everybody is going to be in on the jokes here. They’re an acquired taste.

Yes, this is a quirky heist film. A gaggle of offbeat personalities do come together to pull one over on the rich and influential. But there is only one similarity between the ‘Ocean’s’ films and Logan Lucky that truly matters: They’re fun.

Grade: A-

Did you all get around to seeing Logan Lucky? If not, you should! And if you have, what did you think? Are these the types of original movies you want to see Hollywood make more of? Let us know in the comments below!

Review: What’s old is new again in ‘Wind River’

Director: Taylor Sheridan

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Teo Briones, Graham Greene, and Gil Birmingham

Synopsis: An FBI agent teams with a town's veteran game tracker to investigate a murder that occurred on a Native American reservation. 

Rated: R

Year: 2017

It’s late night. A young Native American woman bolts barefoot across the vast, unforgiving Wyoming tundra. She collapses into the frigid snow. Warm blood pools from her mouth onto the icy slush. She stumbles back to her feet before buckling one last time just a few yards away.

Within the first few minutes of Wind River, long-time screenwriter and first-time director Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water) paints a powerful picture. It’s one of a merciless countryside where only grief and loneliness thrive; one of life and death on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Sheridan channels and maintains this chilling ambience throughout the film. As I shivered in my seat, I couldn’t help but feel the influences of other great murder mysteries like Zodiac or The Silence of the Lambs.

Their influences don’t stop there, either. Wind River also borrows familiar story tropes. Most noticeable here is the through line involving a young, ambitious crime fighter who enlists the aid of a grizzled expert (in some field) to help solve a gruesome murder.

In this case, our crime fighter is Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). She’s a Vegas-based FBI agent and though she’s still wet behind the ears, she’s the closest prospect to the reservation. It’s not long after Agent Banner’s arrival that she pairs herself off with Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a local hunter who knows the surrounding land “like it’s his job” and shares an intimate relationship with the natives.

Olsen and Renner displayed great chemistry in both Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War so it’s no surprise that the two work well together here. That said, Wind River is Jeremy Renner’s movie. Twice the guy’s been nominated for an Oscar and he could very well be looking down the barrel of a third nod for his work as what equates to a contemporary take on Clint Eastwood’s performance in Unforgiven.

Wind River also boasts a strong supporting cast with honorable mentions going to Graham Greene and Gil Birmingham. Greene breezily manages double duty as both the reservation’s world-weary Chief of Police (who only has six officers to cover a landmass equal to the size of Rhode Island) and a majority of the film’s comic relief. Birmingham, on the other hand, gives a heart-wrenching performance as the young victim’s father whose family seems to be coming undone at the seams.

As he proved with Sicario and Hell or High Water, Sheridan understands people and has a talent for transcribing natural speech onto the big screen. This helps him craft rich, human characters that are easy to invest in and root for, even (or perhaps especially) when they inevitably do wind up taking the law into their own hands.

Those scenes are cathartic to say the least, but they also speak to the deeper thematic context of Sheridan’s unofficial frontier trilogy. Our government marginalizes certain groups of people but how does that marginalization affect the people within those groups and at what points does the law start and stop working for and against them?

Grade: A

What did you all think of Wind River? Are you a fan of Sicario and/or Hell or High Water? Let us know what you think of Taylor Sheridan as a rising talent in the comments section!

Review: ‘A Ghost Story’ is a haunting, complex moviegoing experience

Director: David Lowery

Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara


Synopsis: In this singular exploration of legacy, love, loss, and the enormity of existence, a recently deceased, white-sheeted ghost returns to his suburban home to try to reconnect with his bereft wife (IMDb). 

Rated: R

Year: 2017

Complete with sheet and dark eyeholes, a man’s restless spirit rises from the corner’s table. From there he begins a trippy journey where he learns about love, loss, and liberation. It sounds whacky, but David Lowery’s (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon) supernatural drama is deceptively simple and user-friendly.

There isn’t much going on in terms of story and aside from some haunting cinematography, the film is visually uncomplicated. Even its two leads (though they do solid work here) seem moot next to Lowery’s creative vision.

Recent Oscar winner Casey Affleck plays “C,” a musician (at least a wannabe one). Rooney Mara is “M.” Not much is known about this couple other than they live together in a small Texas house and share some semblance of a romantic bond.

Of course all that’s by design. Fewer distractions means viewers can more readily engage with A Ghost Story‘s rich, spiritual subtext and enjoy the imagination on display.

After unexpectedly biting the big one mere feet from their front patio, “C” returns home via the afterlife whereupon he discovers a grieving “M.” Though he reaches out to comfort his lamenting love, she feels nothing and has no idea he’s there.

We get an idea of just how badly “M” misses “C” during a five-minute take where she buries her sorrow in an entire chocolate pie. Lowery’s questionable tendency to linger in moments like this for what feels to be an eternity will surely test the patience of even the artiest artists in the audience. Thankfully, those moments are few and far between.

“M” even brings home unidentified men to console her, much the chagrin of our silent specter, whose dismay causes the lights to flicker. “M” eventually moves out and on with her life; her lover’s snared soul staying put within the confines of the house he so loved in life.

It’s simultaneously surprising and refreshing just how much Lowery gets us to care about a blanket with holes in it simply by flipping the light switch a few times or having the ghost lean ever so slightly to the side. It’s a testament to the strong visual storyteller Lowery is.

As the sands of time shift on, a lonely “C” witnesses both the future and past of his home, with very few constants save for the occasional subtitled exchange with the apparition haunting the neighboring lot. This is just one example of how Lowery cleverly combines different religious beliefs into a fresh, inventive vision of the afterlife that hasn’t been depicted before in cinema.

Lowery’s decision to curve the edges of the frame gives off the illusion that the whole thing was shot on home video. This gives A Ghost Story a more intimate feel and further highlights the director’s unique creative vision.

Grade: A

What did you all think of A Ghost Story? Was it too artsy, fartsy for you? Let us know in the comments below!

Review: ‘Annabelle: Creation’ is one of the scariest films of the year

Director: David F. Sandberg 

Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto, Lulu Wilson, Talitha Bateman, and Alicia Vela-Bailey 

Synopsis: Several years after the tragic death of their little girl, a dollmaker and his wife welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home, soon becoming the target of the dollmaker's possessed creation, Annabelle (IMDb). 

Rated: R

Year: 2017

The flick of a switch was all it took for last year’s Lights Out to transition from fractured family drama to bone-chilling creature feature. This simple yet clever hook solidified David F. Sandberg as an original voice within a genre otherwise cursed by convention.

If the original Annabelle was anything, it was conventional. How many similarly lame haunted house flicks feature the happy family that falls victim to some demonic presence that they unknowingly let into their home? I cringe imagining the number.

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Now Sandberg inherits Annabelle’s unholy mantle and with it is tasked with crafting an unnecessary prequel to a spin-off nobody wanted. And though it’s just his second film, Sandberg whittles Annabelle: Creation with expert detail despite the lingering presence of a familiar formula.

The minute Sister Charloette (Stephanie Sigman) and the small band of orphan girls she looks after step into the massive, decrepit farmhouse that will become their new home, you know exactly how things are going to play out. It will be quiet at first with a bump in the night here and there until the tension slowly ratchets past ten to a climactic third act throwdown with whatever supernatural entity is antagonizing our poor protagonists.

And for the most part, Annabelle: Creation delivers on those story tropes. However, the focus here is on the scares and Sandberg cleverly utilizes tools of the trade to construct a relentless house of horrors. Lighting and composition perfectly capture the eerie stylization of The Conjuring universe and the manipulation of sound consistently forces your imagination to do the heavy lifting when most of what you’re seeing is pitch black.

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Once Sandberg starts showing you glimpses of what’s actually dwelling in the darkness, it lives up to any anything you might have concocted in your head. Special and practical effects often come together, often seamlessly, to create terrifying images that will permanently burn into your mind.

Sandberg also makes inventive use of the environment. Sure, we get a small sense of the layout of the house at the beginning while the Mullins’s playfully terrorize their young daughter Annabelle, but we don’t get to truly explore the old mansion until years later when the orphans arrive. The camera snakes in and out of corridors, establishing the larger physical space as well as specific details that all come into play once everything goes topsy-turvy.

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But technical prowess alone doesn’t get an audience emotionally invested. They have to care about the characters in order to care about what’s happening to them. Thankfully, the heart of ‘Creation’ belongs to Lulu Wilson (Oujia: Origin of Evil) and Talitha Bateman. Respectively, they play Linda and Janice, two orphans who are so close that they are practically sisters. In fact, they’ve made a pact to be adopted as a pair. Their deep love for each other is heartwarming and provides an emotional anchor the film.

The love doesn’t stop there. While the sisterly bond between the young orphans might have been enough to pull an audience in on its own merits, Sister Charlotte gets in on the love too. She plays the role of the orphans’ mother/big sister and it’s easy to tell she cares for them in that way. Stephanie Sigman does a nice job portraying both the loving and strict sides of Sister Charlotte without ever leaning too far into one or the other. It’s easy to root for these girls once the evil enters their lives.

Grade: A-

What did you all think of Annabelle: Creation? Was it better than the original? And are you now open to seeing more horror movie prequels? Let us know in the comments below! And if you’re interested, check out our list of the best horror movie prequels of recent memory.