Monday, January 15, 2018

Lucky Number Slevin - 8 stars out of 10

Lucky Number Slevin - 8 stars out of 10

“Lucky Number Slevin” is an underrated crime drama with a mind-blowing twist that makes this a must-see!  In this story, Josh Hartnett is a victim of mistaken identity who is forced to repay debts to two rival crime lords when he can’t produce identification to defend himself.  The plot may sound a bit thin but it will all make sense in the end.  The crime lords are played by Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley, which is another great reason to watch this film.  Hartnett and Lucy Lui are okay in their love story but I’m more drawn to Bruce Willis’ mysterious character and Stanley Tucci’s performance as a hard-nosed detective.  The film has all of the grit that you’d expect from an R-rated crime movie so be prepared for a lot of blood and profanity.  The violence doesn’t go beyond what is appropriate for the genre, especially because the film’s oft-lighthearted tone keeps us from dwelling on what we’ve just seen.  Unlike the violence, the excessive f-words and sexual content are not always necessary to the story and make it too edgy for my taste.  “Lucky Number Slevin” is a unique film with one of the best twists that you will ever see, as long as you can stomach its extreme content.

P.S. Don’t worry if you feel like you don’t understand why the main character is named “Slevin,” it’ll make sense in the end!

[Pictured: “Lucky Number Slevin” has so much star power that its level of entertainment is inevitable]

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Trading Places - 3 stars out of 10

Trading Places - 3 stars out of 10

“Trading Places” is a classic 1980’s comedy, though not one of my favorites.  Its clever financial storyline, hilarious bad guy tandem, and topical commentary on race/socioeconomic status is spoiled by shock-value profanity and a long party sequence that contains unnecessary nudity.  This film could have helped to better our society by reaching audience members of all ages with its themes but traded this opportunity for an R-rating.  Definitely not worth it.  I wouldn’t share this film with anybody solely because I’m not comfortable with the content.  The story is interesting with its modern take on The Prince and the Pauper.  The reason that Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd trade places is a little silly, but the resulting situations fit well with each of their comedic styles.  My favorite part of the film is Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche as the Duke Brothers.  They play perfectly off of each other and provide more humor than the comedians.  Denholm Elliot is also excellent as the butler.  I didn’t feel that Murphy and Aykroyd were actually that funny until the train car scene, which was hilarious in spite of Aykroyd’s blackface character (!?!?!?).  Maybe the issue is that “Trading Places” hasn’t aged well, but it is more likely that I would’ve had just as much distaste for this one in 1983 as I have for Seth Rogen’s crass moves these days.  This was one of the highest grossing films of the year but give me Kevin Kline in “The Pirates of Penzance” any day.

[Pictured: The train car scene is the only one that managed to make me laugh out loud]

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Shape of Water (2017) - 9 stars out of 10

The Shape of Water (2017) - 9 stars out of 10

"The Shape of Water" will be one of the most unique Oscar contenders this year.  Even though its sci-fi plot revolves around a sea creature of sorts, it fits all of the criteria for the critically acclaimed dramas that the Academy loves.  In the same spirit as "Pan's Labyrinth," Guillermo del Toro realistically transports a monster into a historical setting.  This time, he has chosen Cold War America for the setting and elected to make the monster a part of the real world instead of sending the characters to a mystical place where monsters might exist.  Del Toro does an amazing job of incorporating the Cold War and the Space Race into the story while keeping the plot centralized on the relationship between the lead character and the monster.  I feel like he took some inspiration from the horror film “Splice” (of which he was an Executive Producer) but this story focuses more on the historical context of the events than the science.  The ending seems predictable, almost inevitable, but it manages to surprise us and keep us wondering after the credits have finished.  It is safe to assume that that this film will receive Oscar nominations in categories like Original Screenplay, Production Design, and Director because of the creativity behind this story.  The story is matched in creativity by the score by Alexandre Desplat.  Its lush, romantic themes combine with the whimsy of a glass harp and a whistley instrument with a fast, oscillating vibrato (possibly a theremin?).  The effect is otherworldly and familiar all at the same time, which is perfect for this sci-fi-creature-believably-existing-in-Cold-War-Baltimore story.  Another criterion for Oscar nominations is incredible acting and this film has no shortage of impressive moments.  Some of the most memorable performances in cinema history have come when a talented actor plays a character with a disability (Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot”) and this is Sally Hawkins’ turn.  This portrayal of a mute required her to tell every emotion of the story through her eyes and body language.  It is almost as if we can sense her character speaking aloud through her nonverbal communication.  She will definitely be an Oscar nominee, as will Octavia Spencer.  The tone of this film is rather odd (is it a romantic drama, is it a political thriller, is it a sci-fi film?) but Spencer fulfills her typical responsibility of providing comic relief, along with some excellent acting moments.  I would also expect Richard Jenkins to receive a nomination as his interpretation of Giles adds depth to the character lineup.  I wouldn’t count out Michael Shannon either, with a much stronger showing than his nominated performance in “Nocturnal Animals” last year.  He is completely detsetible, even though his character is technically the good guy within the story.  There is so much right with this film but it simply has too much sexual content.  Some of it is relevant but too graphic.  Other sequences have nothing to do with the plot and seem to be there solely to make it "more R-rated."  The art of implication in these matters seems to be dead, which is a shame because nudity isn't always necessary to tell a particular part of a story.  “The Shape of Water” is one of the best films of 2017 but I can’t help thinking that the story would have been just as good in a PG-13 form (by eliminating minimal unnecessary content) that could have appealed to a broader audience.

[Pictured: Guillermo del Toro's vision for the sea monster is out of this world]

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Get Out (2017) - 9 stars out of 10

Get Out (2017) - 9 stars out of 10

“Get Out” was probably the most surprising film of 2017.  I expected a straight-up horror film (as indicated by the trailer) but nothing could have prepared me for its unique tone.  I think that this film has been lumped in with the horror genre simply because nobody knows how to categorize it.  The Golden Globes even categorized it as a comedy (!) but the few moments of comic relief don’t define the overall tone of the film.  It most closely resembles an M. Night Shyamalan psychological thriller, complete with slow-building, Hitchcockian suspense and a clever setup for a huge twist.  But it isn’t scary, just incredibly unnerving.  The quiet Stepford suburb makes it clear from the start that things are not as they seem.  The twist almost seems too obvious, which is where director Jordan Peele uses his sleight of hand to guide your gaze in one direction before revealing that your assumptions are backwards.  The intriguing story is matched by visual artistry that helps us to see into the minds of the characters, particularly in showing the descent to a “sunken place.”  While the film introduces some crazy concepts, the straightforward story requires excellent actors to give it life and depth.  Daniel Kaluuya drives the energy of the entire film and commands the screen with a highly emotional performance.  His crying scene is a highlight reel moment for 2017 and his acting in the final twenty minutes of the film will leave you stunned.  My favorite moment of the entire film is the sudden, stark change in Allison Williams’ character.  I won’t say anything else, but that single moment proved to me that she is an incredible actress.  Catherine Keener also turns in an impressive, creepy performance.  “Get Out” seems like a typical scary movie on the surface but I wouldn’t shy away from it if you hate horror films.  It is more of a creepy film than a scary one and its story digs a lot deeper than you would expect.  There is a reason that only a handful of films earn a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.  This isn’t the greatest movie of all time but its intrigue and unnerving tone make you desperate to know what happens in the end.

[Pictured: The "sunken place" is a really interesting piece of this puzzle]

Friday, January 5, 2018

Spider-Man: Homecoming - 8 stars out of 10

Spider-Man: Homecoming - 8 stars out of 10

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” finally gives us the teenage Peter Parker from the comic books.  I was pretty upset when I heard that the franchise was moving away from Andrew Garfield after just two films (in which he proved himself far superior to Tobey Maguire), seeing this film eased the pain.  Garfield is still my favorite Spider-Man but Tom Holland’s portrayal successfully drives home the point that Peter Parker is just a kid who isn’t ready for the responsibility of saving the world.  I do have to throw out a disclaimer about this film: It was clearly made for Marvel superfans.  I understand that it is one part of the epically developed Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the first five minutes completely neglected every viewer that did not see “Captain America: Civil War.”  I don’t mind that the writers want to directly connect all of the Marvel films, but they took away the possibility of viewing the film as a standalone superhero film.  The addition of a flashback and explanation of “Civil War” would’ve taken two minutes and saved me from missing most of the opening because I was Googling to find out what was going on.  I understand the argument that you wouldn’t see a sequel without seeing the first film, but this film wasn’t marketed as a sequel.  My love for Spider-Man allowed me to move past the opening and enjoy the film, but it would’ve been nice to have been in the loop from the start.  One of the main things that Disney has done right with the MCU is the perfect casting of their superheroes, sidekicks, and villains.  Michael Keaton makes an incredible villain and I love that his superhero legacy has come full circle from his days playing Batman.  It’s truly amazing how his performance in “Birdman” as a washed up superhero actor has kickstarted his superhero and acting career.  I love Marisa Tomei but she is way too young to play Aunt May.  It makes sense that if Peter is in high school, his aunt would be younger, but her kindship with Peter is just too different from what I have come to expect.  Robert Downey Jr. is excellent as Iron Man but it creates the same issue that I have with the modern Marvel movement – there are just too many superheroes in every film!  I tuned in to this film to enjoy a Spider-Man origin story but it gets downgraded to just another piece of the MCU.  I think that the interconnected video catalogue that they have built is incredible but it becomes hard to sit down and enjoy your favorite superhero because there are always other ones flying around.  That being said, Captain America’s cameos at the school are pretty hilarious.  “Spider-Man: Homecoming” has a great story, awesome acting, and great special effects.  It is everything that you could want in a superhero movie, minus the fact that it is a superhero(es) movie without a warning that it is a sequel.

[Pictured: Tom Holland finally gives us a Peter Parker that looks like he's in high school]

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Parent Trap (1961) - 8 stars out of 10

The Parent Trap (1961) - 8 stars out of 10

I have always loved "The Parent Trap."  The 1998 remake, that is.  For nearly 20 years, I had completely ignored the original and assumed that it would lack the heart that I've grown to love about the 90's version.  I was mistaken.  There are some negative aspects that we expect from a 60's film like obvious green screens and bad lip syncing, but those little details are far outweighed by the incredible cloning of Hayley Mills onscreen.  It was impressive in the 90's with CGI and even more mind-blowing with 1960's technology (I wish I knew how they captured that shot in the mirror, but I'm so glad that I don't).  There is no greater example of movie magic than the sequence where they sing a duet of "Let's Get Together," complete with a double vocal track by Mills.  I have always been drawn to this story because of its theme of family and the bond between two separated sisters.  We are endeared to Hayley and Hayley from the start, wondering what it would be like if we discovered our twin and wishing that these characters could enjoy life together.  What I never noticed in the story is that this theme is actually a means of telling a very sweet adult love story.  I prefer Dennis Quaid in the remake to Brian Keith in the original, but there is no substitute for the enchanting Maureen O'Hara.  She manages to light up the screen just as much as the two versions of Mills.  The story does a great job of helping us to get to know each character and the complexities of their relationships.  The relationship between Susan and her newly discovered grandfather is particularly heartwarming.  I also loved Una Merkel as Verbena.  She provided great comic relief while making important contributions to the plot.  I will always prefer the 1998 remake because the love story reads better and Lindsey Lohan better distinguishes between the two twin personalities; still, you can't go wrong with either version of "The Parent Trap" if you are in the mood for family-friendly laughs, great characters, and a healthy dose of movie magic.


[Pictured: The "Let's Get Together" sequence is probably the most famous part of the movie, featuring a duet between Mills and Mills with guitar and piano accompaniment by Mills and Mills!  You'll never forget this catchy song by the Sherman brothers performed in this cool context.]

Monday, January 1, 2018

Logan (2017) - 6 stars out of 10

Logan (2017) - 6 stars out of 10

Creating an R-rated superhero film as a realistic portrayal of the violence faced in hard-fought superhero battles: awesome.  The opening sequence of "Logan" embraces the rating, bringing to life the ferocity with which Wolverine can wield his blades and the severe dangers faced by superheroes.  Creating an R-rated superhero film as an excuse to toss around shock-value profanity: unacceptable.  The second scene of the film also embraces the rating, this time through the unnecessary repetition of the f-word by Dr. Xavier where the standard level of mild profanity would have sufficed.  This attempt by the writers to incorporate more grit into the film backfires as it distracts our focus from the story and makes the characters less endearing.  One thing is for sure - this is not your grandmother's superhero movie.  Gone are the cheesy one-liners and family-friendly villains.  Director James Mangold has given birth to a new era of superhero films with Tarantino-grade violence that is as shocking as a war film.  "Deadpool" opened the door but "Logan" will set the pace for subsequent R-rated superhero films.  Much of the critical acclaim for this film has centered around Hugh Jackman’s performance.  I actually didn’t find it to be that impressive as a stand-alone performance (as if he has never played the role before).  In order to see the genius behind Jackman’s portrayal, you have to compare it to every other interpretation of the character over the past 17 years.  I always look for a character transformation when judging an acting performance.  Honestly, there isn’t much of a transformation throughout this film but the title says it all.  We have uncovered many different layers of Wolverine over the years but this film reveals the final layer: “Logan,” the man who was once Wolverine.  A great actor can play many different characters but Jackman has played a single character in many different ways.  He is supported by an amazing performance by child actor Dafne Keen in the role of Laura.  Outside of them, the rest of the acting is average.  I wondered if the grit and drama of this film could make it the best of the dark superhero reboots but I still maintain Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy as the greatest superhero series ever made.  Mangold’s realistic action violence complimented the story but Nolan managed to create his gritty, intense action sequences and terrifying villains (Scarecrow, Joker, and Bane) without a need for dozens of f- and s-words.  “Logan” will forever be remembered for its R-rated approach to superhero genre.  Its well-conceived story won’t matter, nor will the fact that it is Hugh Jackman’s ninth and final portrayal as Wolverine.  For better or worse, “Logan” is defined by its rating and everything that comes with it.

[Pictured: High marks for Jackman's portrayal of Old Man Logan and the incredible action sequences, but it is all tainted by excessive language that detracts from the story]