The Coen Brothers continue a remarkable career in marrying quirkiness up with setting that don't often invite quirky. Here we have six vignettes in the Old West and each tale rises off both gorgeous cinematography and dialogue. If you think you have a sharp pen for the screen, watch this and be humbled.
If I remember correctly, this was Netflix's first blockbuster sized budget for a movie they were sending into the arena. Had a pretty interesting recipe. Take a fading star like Will Smith who has been in desperate need of a hit and drop him into something he has had enormous success in, the buddy cop movie. Only this time his partner is an orc and there are all kinds of fantasy elements woven into the plot to try and keep things fresh. I was really excited to check it out. But in classic Netflix fashion, the offering was a shimmer of what it could have been. There are a couple decent action scenes sandwiched by some really bad ones, scenes edited so terribly you wonder how this cut really made it onto the streaming service. There are funny buddy cop moments woven into a lot of average ones. And while the story feels promising at times, it ends with stuff we have seen many times with that fantasy spice added on to throw us off the scent of mediocre. Not gonna work guys.
Annihilation is one of those tale of two movies type deals. The first part, while full of its self-importance, is traditional horror movie fare where a team of experts are sent into someplace bad to figure out what is up with the out of this world shit happening there and also where the other teams are who have already been sent in. This part is average at best, nothing to rave about and definitely not as interesting as it thinks it is. The second part unwinds in about the last 20 minutes or so and is completely batshit. I couldn't tell you what happened or why it happened, but man was it gorgeous. It really is a spectacle in visualization on the highest level. Its funny that I liked the nonsensical part better, but people dig what they dig.
With Kina at home
I'm a big fan of James Gandolfini and was hella bummed when he passed. The Drop was his final film and a testament to just how great he was. Gandolfini plays Marv, a former bar owner/ loan shark whose business was taken over by tougher Chechen gangsters some 10-odd years ago. Marv is also the cousin of quiet and mild-mannered Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), who helps Marv here and there and tends the bar where Marv is still the owner on paper. They kick money back to the Chechens but when the bar is robbed one night, pressure is put on them to find out who did it and get the gangsters their money back. Bob's story is the main event here, but its Gandolfini who shines as a sad sack goon who is still furious at his placement on the totem pole. He alternates between sympathetic and unlikable in the best way possible and it helps keep the rest of the uneven plot from capsizing. The Drop's story is not terrible, it just doesn't always feel right throughout its run and the main problem is how the two sides of Hardy's character don't feel natural. You find out why later, but I wasn't satisfied with the explanation and it bogged down the final grade a little bit. Still, its a good modern noir and definitely worth watching for Gandolfini alone.
With Kina at home on Amazon Prime rental
I'll be the first to say that when I read Stephen King was writing a sequel to his classic novel The Shining, my first thought was why? And when I read the synopsis of the novel edition of Doctor Sleep, I was still unimpressed. But I still gave the film version a shot being that I am a fan of King, McGregor, and director Mike Flanagan. Doctor Sleep should hit on its premise. We are now 30-some odd years after the end of the Shining and young Danny Torrance (McGregor) is now old alcohol and drug addicted Danny Torrance. We know what happened to his father, but his mom is also now gone and he is by himself to deal with his traumatic past and strange psychic powers both of which he deals with in bottles. But he longs to do better, and when a teenage girl with the same sort of powers he has reaches out to him to assist her in a search for a group of baddies who also have supernatural abilities, he feels compelled to assist. This part of the story works great. Its a redemption story with a dark twist. We are rooting for Danny and his new psychic friend Abra (Kyliegh Curran) and also a confidant Danny has made in support group sponsor Billy (played by the always fantastic Cliff Curtis). The effects on display here are very good, the many dreamlike visions and flashbacks to the Overlook Hotel from The Shining are done well. But where the movie suffers dramatically is in the bad guys themselves. Led by an evil shaman type named Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her tracker Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), these guys just don't seem very scary. And they do some really bad things. But throughout watching them in their scenes, I just felt they were borrowed from C-list Sci-Fi Channel or USA Network shows and their whole presentation was amateur hour. Rose looks like Tom Petty and the others in the group I haven't mentioned are not memorable at all. Its a shame too, because in the right light, this group could have been something to write your girl about. When you have a horror movie and the antagonists come off so poorly, it becomes really hard to appreciate the rest of it. Cap that off with an uninspiring return to the Overlook in the final act and it all leaves a feeling of disappointment with you.
With Constance + Karin at Alamo Draft House - Brooklyn
With Kina at home
Wow. Searching for Sugar Man lets us know that even in today's information age, there are some stories that fly under our radars. This is a story of Rodriguez, a musician and master song writer of the early 70's who would release two critically acclaimed albums that were absolute flops commercially except in....South Africa? Yes, South Africa, a country wrapped in apartheid where progressives used Rodriguez's anti-establishment themes to become the soundtrack of their own movement. Searching for Sugar Man follows the search for the elusive Rodriguez, whose fate after his music failures was largely unknown. Its captivating and inspiring and not to be missed.
Unseen tells the story of the victims of Anthony Sowell, the serial killer of 11 Cleveland women and rapist of who knows how many others. Apprehended in 2009 after numerous instances where he could have been earlier, Sowell would become a poster child for how policing of inner city communities has been an utter failure in some areas. With interviews from survivors and victim's family and community members, Unseen is a blistering indictment on how classism suffocates justice even for the most terrible of actions.
With Syd at home
Punch another notch on the belt to show Toy Story's place in film history as one of the greatest franchises ever. There is a similarity here that edges a little close to series repetition but there are also enough funny and fresh moments that balance the scales where they should be. Kids movies can be a drag to watch. Thankfully Pixar keeps us in good hands.
With Kina at home
Disclaimer, its likely I would never have watched Ouija: Origin of Evil if I hadn't heard from so many critics how this was a movie that flew under everyone's radar being a sequel to a something that was reviewed abysmally. So I can't act like this was a hidden gem I found, because I knew going into it that it should be at least decent. And its better than decent. It involves a widow fortune teller who gets by with elaborate trickery to convince her clients she is the real deal when she is not. She also has her two daughters assist with her scams as needed. But when the family plays around with a ouija board, the youngest daughter is afflicted by an evil force and of course bad things start to happen. The story is nothing new here, but its execution is what makes Origin of Evil so good. Throughout it all, director Mike Flanagan shows why he is one of the up and coming directors in horror. On top of his sharp eye for mood and setting, what really makes the movie work is the chemistry between the mother (played by Annalise Basso) and her two daughters (Elizabeth Reaser, Lulu Wilson). Horror probably more than any genre depends on the audience's ability to relate to the characters and as that aspect works, so the whole thing works.
Watching Blood and Black Lace one has to understand the time frame on its release and how groundbreaking it was. When you hear the term slasher film, most people will argue about Black Christmas being the first, maybe even Psycho, and then Halloween of course being the one that kicked the door open on the genre. But Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace absolutely needs to be in the conversation as well. The story revolves around a fashion mogul's studio where models are being picked off one by one by a masked assailant. Its not important to get into the plot too much, because while the film is a pioneer in brooding ambiance and killer POV camera angles, it also is an unfortunate example of how horror films have been very thin on plot over the years. The acting is no better, in fact its downright terrible in some parts, and when I read that some of the actors didn't speak English and sounded out their lines phonetically, it made a lot of sense. The acting and plot factors are the reasons Blood and Black Lace will never be great. But those things aside, Bava shows why he is widely touted as an unsung master of the thriller. His impressive use of color, lighting, mood music, and angle are all seen in films of all types today. I look forward to checking out some of his other work.
Let's get the obvious thing out of the way: Robert Rodriguez has created one of the most gorgeous live action animated films in all of history. The backgrounds and character models offer new proof of what is capable in CGI on the big screen, and for this alone Alita is in a class of its own. But sadly, the script doesn't hold to the glamour. The acting and voice overs are fine, but I came across feeling like Alita had a story born on the Playstation, something we would see in a Final Fantasy like RPG and even then, one that would blow away no one with its premise. Its only adequate, and adequate is the breaker of all things, even things as beautiful as this.
Cartel Land is a gripping look at two different groups who are fed up with Mexican drug cartels and their effect on their respective communities. On one hand you have Tim Foley, an Arizonan leading a militia who patrol the southern border armed and seemingly ready to fight it out with goons if they ever see any. Most of the time though they just complain about how cartels are invading America but the only thing they come across (in this doc, at least) are a group of immigrants and their coyote. Foley is an interesting watch in that he is tenfold invested into the belief that he is fighting what he perceives as evil in his patrols. He comes across at most times like a dumb good ol boy, but he believes in the cause and that his work is warranted. On the other side in Michocan, Mexico is Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, a community doctor by day and vigilante group leader by night. Mireles is the head of the Autodefensas, a growing faction fighting back against violence from a cartel called the Knights Templar. Mireles is charismatic and extremely likable, but as his group grows in power, it becomes more difficult for him to keep some of them from becoming corrupt themselves. Watching the plight of the Autodefensas is much more captivating than Foley's group. The doc frames them in a light where there is the constant threat of attacks which evolves into they themselves becoming the threat. Its an embodiment of the classic theme where he who fights monsters needs to see that he not become a monster himself. Cartel Land doesn't spend enough time with Foley's group to give their story an even hand. I would have a hard time siding with those types in almost any situation, but I have to imagine their side of things has more to tell than what is offered here. That's my only gripe with Cartel Land, and its a small one.
With Syd Vicious at home
Revenge of the Nerds is rehashed in a prequel to the smash Monster's Inc. This time around the nerds are Mike and Sully trying to save their motley's crue of a fraternity from being disbanded. Among other things, we see how Mike and Sully started off as rivals and how Randall started out as a friendly. Its a cool backstory but its just not that funny or captivating as its predecessor.
Average rating: 6.5