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The Ritual (I) (2017)
We've seen it a million times, but this one's pretty good.
20 February 2018
As far as unoriginal Netflix horror movies go, I found this to be decent, actually. It's your typical, "campers in the wilderness are tormented by crazy people/monsters/supernatural forces," but well-shot, short, and focused enough to where the main character's story felt complete and didn't drag on with excessive jump-scares or gory fight sequences. These campers aren't necessarily tormented by all of the threats listed above, but to avoid spoilers I just listed all the usual suspects. Let's be honest, regardless of which it is, we've seen every one too many times.

The cinematography was excellent. The film is consistently gorgeous, and has a few specific shots that are background-worthy. Some shots are cleverly used to set up scares. Speaking of, there are a few jump scares in the movie, most of which aren't too abrasive. In all, there are far fewer than your average theater horror film, which is of course 100% for the better.

The film also does a fine job of mentally progressing the main character through the physical obstacles he has to overcome. One thing that bad horror movies consistently flub is actually developing a good main character. Most just throw caricatures into haunted houses and press play. The Ritual at least puts some effort in. Ultimately, it's bare-bones - and the other characters are essentially plot fodder - but it works fine for what the film needs.

To me, this feels like a poor man's The Descent. It's a tired concept and the simplest of stories that's just creepy enough and shot very well. Nothing memorable, here, but you can do much, much worse in Netflix's horror category.
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Molly's Game (2017)
A fun, fast-paced biopic
20 January 2018
I'm a sucker for Sorkin's fast-paced, quick-witted dialogue, and a huge sucker for poker movies. So it's no surprise that I like this one.

Like most, I'll admit to being very impressed with Sorkin's writing up to this point. He generally writes dialogue that's grounded, entertaining, and (mostly) cliche-free. In fact, he's developed such a characteristic style that he's almost created his own self-contained cliches, some of which are hit here, in Molly's Game. Long story short - I like him.

This movie mostly delivers in its dialogue and storytelling. A story about a smart woman starting and running a high-stakes poker game? I'm in. I really enjoyed that the poker and logistics of running a game were portrayed (to my knowledge) accurately. Most poker movies, in an effort to make the content easily digestible for non-poker players/fans, create the most basic, ridiculous scenarios that they think the audience will understand. More often than not, it makes the writers look like high-schoolers whose only poker knowledge is the final 30 minutes of the highlights of a World Series of Poker event. Basically, most poker movies are stupid. Looking at you, Casino Royale. Anyway, Molly's game avoids this pitfall by not showing much of the technical side of the poker. What little it does show is spot-on, though. Mostly, it focuses on the difficulties or running the room itself, and the movie is much more interesting for it.

The story involving the game is excellent, and the dialogue makes it extremely fun to watch.

Here's where the movie loses me: the dialogue focuses so intensely on general wit and moving the story specifics along (and it does this great) that I feel like it drops the ball on developing human characters. This is most notable in Molly, our main character. In a film where she's narrating 100% of the time, we somehow never really get a sense of who she is. Whether Molly is seducing rich businessmen into the poker game, or being physically assaulted by the mob, lines are delivered in the same matter-of-fact, robotic fashion. This is most prominent with her, but every character suffers in the same way. Everyone is cool and calculated, and nothing else. I get that that's the tone of the movie, and it works for large sections, but it's just not enough when you look at the whole picture. The Social Network and Moneyball have the same style, but their characters were more nuanced and therefore able to elicit more emotion out of me.

This ties into the final 30 minutes of the movie, which ends the poker storyline and focuses on Molly, her status, and the aftermath of everything. I really needed to be invested in her character for any of this to work. The film up to this point was an entertaining poker story with smart, but thin characters. The ending tries to get an emotional payoff that wasn't properly set up, and ultimately rings hollow. This is where I began checking the time, which is never good.

Overall, Molly's Game is certainly worth a watch, especially if you're a poker fan. It has Sorkin's usual entertaining, witty dialogue, and a great story to work with. The film just tries to create too much emotional drama late, with characters that didn't quite have the meat. It takes what's a truly great first-half and pulls the final product down to good, but forgettable.
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I, Tonya (2017)
Interesting and entertaining look at one of the biggest "villains" of the 90s.
12 January 2018
This one is all about the performances. Robbie and Janney steal the show as daughter and mother. I'd say with ease that both deserve nominations. Robbie's performance is equal amounts charisma, persona, comedy, and hope. There are numerous scenes in which her eyes carry more weight than any plot point or a piece of dialogue. There are a few scenes, in particular, where her strength, expression, and persona crumbles upon just seeing her mother. It's devastating.

The movie itself has The Wolf of Wall Street watchability in that it deals with some despicable people and acts in a lighthearted mockumentray style, and is about as good, too. There are several scenes that have intentional tonal clashes, where like the aforementioned WoWS, you'll be thinking, "Did I just laugh at that?" Yes, you did, you heartless bastard. But it was funny, indeed.

I, Tonya is a very good movie that'll make you laugh, it'll make you angry, and it'll make you sympathize with Harding. Most of all, it takes these numerous unreliable narrators, and crafts a story that feels genuine.
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A Beautiful and Enthralling Achievement
8 January 2018
The Shape of Water is a gorgeous achievement in film, one of the best of 2017, and one of Guillermo del Toro's finest.

We'll start with a paragraph that can apply to any of del Toro's films. It's damn beautiful. Every scene, every setpiece, every emotional beat, is dripping with so much character and vibrancy that it's impossible not to be enthralled from beginning to end. Every frame is a masterpiece, and beyond that, del Toro perfectly films each shot in interesting ways that always remain appropriate for the film's tone. It feels like a finely crafted adult fairy tale. It's like a less-steampunk version of Bioshock.

The casting is also brilliant for the roles. Sally Hawkins is the standout, as our protagonist, Elisa. I could not imagine anyone else doing better in this role. There wasn't a single scene, a single moment, where she wasn't perfect for what the film needs. I bought in completely.

The other cast members are equally well-suited for their roles. Octavia Spencer is excellent as the foul-mouthed, funny, and caring friend and coworker. Michael Shannon's villain, while a bit over the top, certainly gets the job done and drives many scenes of the film. Richard Jenkins is a delight, as he often is. And, of course, I've got to give some credit to Doug Jones as the monster. Everything else being great, the movie still doesn't work if the monster is unconvincing or silly, and he nails it.

Another standout, for me, is the score. The music is not only outstanding on its own, but actively enhances just about every scene. It never comes on too strong, it doesn't steal the show, it just gracefully supplements the on-screen action flawlessly. It's in-line with the setting, the themes, the tone, sentimental when it needs to be, and grandiose, orchestral, and sweeping during the more bombast moments. There were many moments while watching where I couldn't help but sit and smile at the gorgeousness of the film, and they were all moments where the score was in full-swing. It's perfectly appropriate for the film itself, and it's also a soundtrack that I wouldn't mind listening to on its own.

While I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the film, it wasn't without flaws:

The story is quite simple. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen the entire story outside of the final five minutes. Every plot point is easy enough to predict, and every scene plays out as expected (I understand that this isn't necessarily an objective flaw. There's of course nothing inherently wrong with 'simple' stories. I just prefer writing that's generally more enigmatic, I guess). That being said, the scenes also play out with so much beauty, and every setpiece and shot is so meticulously crafted that I'm 100% fine with going along for the ride.

Also, like most del Toro films, there's not much room for thought outside of the film. It gives you everything you need and more, delivers it on a silver platter topped with whipped cream, a million cherries, wrapping paper, and a bow for good measure. If you've seen a del Toro film, you know that he loves his metaphors and allegory. But there's a difference between simply putting this stuff in a film and letting the audience do some work to discover them (which, as a filmgoer, is often the most rewarding aspect of watching well-crafted movies), and repeatedly slapping you across the face with them. Again, is this an objective flaw? Certainly not. Just personal preference, so I'm not faulting it too much.

Lastly, the characters are cartoonish to the point where it feels like the movie is forcing you to feel certain ways, instead of provoking free thought. There's honestly a decent moral and ethical argument in here about the treatment of a creature like this, about how exactly to proceed knowing it possesses a clear intelligence. Instead, we get an over the top, one-dimensional, pure evil villain (another del Toro staple) along with protagonists who are basically too perfect, without any flaws whatsoever. I'm better about overlooking this half of it, as they are at least incredibly charming, and Sally Hawkins is prefect for the role. Listen, given this set up, it's not difficult - at all - to get us on the protagonist's side. Trust that Sally Hawkins as Elisa will get us there (she would have, easily). You don't have to twist the audience's arm and make her go up against despicable, irredeemable evil in Michael Shannon (who is also great) in order to get us there. Just tone it down with the shades of black and white that are layered on these people. It feels like we're being forced to feel a way that we would have anyway. At the end of the day, is it a big flaw? Not really (I've certainly spent way too much time talking about it for how small of a flaw it is, honestly). The movie is great despite this. It's just something I noticed here, and is also prevalent in his other films, so I thought it was worthy of mentioning.

I've spent too much time talking about flaws that really don't hurt the end product all that much. I think the movie is largely so beautiful and enjoyable that the few flaws stick out a bit more. The good elements of this are so great that I'd rather tell people to go see the movie to experience them, while the bad elements are so small and subjective that I feel like I'm obligated to explain them in more detail just to make it clear as to what I mean with my criticisms.

Make no mistake, The Shape of Water is an excellent, excellent film. One of my favorites of the year, and probably my favorite Guillermo del Toro work. I'd recommend it to anyone.
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Bright (I) (2017)
Inadequate At Every Level
4 January 2018
Well, I don't know what I expected.

The chemistry between the main characters is decent, the world can honestly be interesting (I think), Smith and Edgerton are fine, and there are a few competent action scenes.

Everything else is absolute nonsense. Shockingly bad. This is a loaded collection of ways to make a terrible movie. The story is complete garbage, the characters are one-dimensional (some are zero-dimensional), there are enough dei ex machina to give Adam Jensen another full-lengh game, and every element of the movie is generic and lifeless. Magic wands? A prophecy about bringing back a dark lord? Really? That's the best idea you could come up with, given an entire blank slate of fantasy lore to pull from?

The two federal agents that follow the characters through the story ONLY exist to provide exposition to the audience between action scenes.

I wonder how many genuinely talented writers are out there, struggling to get their scripts read as this overly-expository, connect the dots, pre-teen bullshit gets churned out by the dozen every year.

I don't know.

This movie was either half-assed, made out of sheer incompetence, or both. I can't seriously recommend it to anyone.

Also, it was greenlit by Netflix for a sequel, so there's that.

Don't waste your time. Be smarter than me.
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Downsizing (2017)
Good Idea, Dull Execution
4 January 2018
Downsizing is an interesting satirical concept that is forced into a mediocre film about climate change.

The first 45 minutes or so are lighthearted and funny. We get some general explanations about downsizing itself, and then some almost-too-long scenes illustrating the process happening to our main character, Paul. This is complete with some Fallout-esque, over the top utopian imagery of the downsized world that would lend itself perfectly to comedic (or dark) satire.

From here, the movie abruptly shifts into a serious look at our class systems, climate change, one's purpose in life, etc. These are huge themes; each of them could be - and have been - given many films of their own to explore more deeply. Alexander Payne kind of just throws all of it into a blender during the remaining 70% of the movie, and not a whole lot sticks.

There's some interesting concepts, sure, but nothing is really explored, or maybe it just takes a smarter person than me to put this all together. We get an interesting look at how downsizing doesn't change the class system for our characters. There are still slums that appear to be largely divided by race. But the film doesn't explore this any further. Now we move on to climate change, which downsizing also didn't solve. The human race will still apparently go extinct (one character says so, at least. They're portrayed as smart, I guess, so I think we just have to believe them, as Paul does). The problem, here, is that none of it is particularly engaging, and it only loosely has to do with the original concept, downsizing.

Our main character, Paul, is sort of an empty vessel without any goals in life or any personality to speak of. This makes it easy for other characters to drag him through the plot, but doesn't provide any investment for the audience.

Hong Chau plays Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese activist. She is delightful, to be honest, and provides almost all of the entertainment and levity for the entire second half of the film. Without her, I'd have been asleep before the third act. If anything, the film relies on her quirky mannerisms and English accent for laughs a little too much, but considering how dull everyone else is, I won't complain.

The original concept of downsizing feels more like a gimmick to get people into the theater than an idea Alexander Payne wanted to build around. It feels like he had an interesting satirical idea of downsizing, another strong opinion on climate change and the future of our race, and thought he could tie them together much better than he actually did. My problem, though, is that the movie was 100% advertised as the former, and we just didn't get much of that. It's a shame, too, because there are some good shots, great dialogue, and adept film-making that are hampered by everything else.

There's half of a funny movie and half of an interesting one, here. Unfortunately, we didn't get either.
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The rare reboot that has heart, respects the original, and has some new, funny ideas.
2 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
If you've seen the trailers, you know the drill. The terrifying jungle board game from the '90s is back, capturing kids and forcing them to play its game. A game whose rules are seemingly made up and always stacked against the unfortunate players. Except this is the 2017 version! Since no one plays board games anymore (shame), this one is going to be a video game, and the kids will assume avatars played by The Usual Suspects of comedy actors.

I know, I'm making it sound lame, because that's honestly what I thought it would be after seeing the trailer. It looked like another lifeless reboot, complete with enough popular actors to make a few hundred mil, rinse, and repeat in a couple years.

What I got was a pleasant surprise.

For starters, the movie is hilarious. The cast is terrific together, which is expected with the talent, but even more importantly, the jokes (as well as the story) are actually well written. We know that The Rock, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan can be funny. But when given proper material and enough room to do their thing and let chemistry develop, as they are here, they're pretty hilarious together.

What's refreshing is the fact that the actors get to play caricatures that are slightly outside their normal baseline. After the story sets up the kids' characters (which are fairly generic), we're quickly sent to Jumanji where the adults take over for a remainder of the movie, and they don't miss a beat with these characters. The highlight is Jack Black, who steals the show with a few different gut-busting scenes, but everyone is comfortable in their off-centered roles.

While most of the gags do play off of these watered down caricatures, both the writing and acting are deft enough to keep things funny and interesting. The characters evolve through the jokes as they become more comfortable with each other, as well as who they are, both in Jumanji and the real world. It's really a nice treat. Lesser written comedies would create the caricatures, half-ass some obvious jokes, and do nothing besides hit all of the usual beats on the way to a nice paycheck. The early moments of this film actually have some decent set ups that pay off later, evolve the characters, and deliver an appropriate amount of crassness without ever becoming cringe-worthy. There are also some really clever moments that play off of common video game tropes. Again, this doesn't work without good delivery from the cast, and we get A+ comedy performances for what the script needs.

The film does fall into a few of the common traps. The story seems to think its audience has no attention span whatsoever. Characters recap their journey after every action scene in far too much detail than is necessary, going over obvious plot points that everyone has already heard multiple times. In addition to this, the movie really goes out of its way to try to describe how video games work to the audience in way too much detail.

There are multiple scenes where we have to stop for exposition into how video game lives work, how video games have levels, etc. This includes characters bafflingly repeating things we have already been told, like when a character explains to the villian, "My weakness is venom," before taking advantage of that exact fact. We don't need this. I understand that some people may find this stuff useful, and I get it's a family movie. But when 90% of the target audience already knows stuff the characters spend 15 minutes explaining throughout the movie, it's probably stuff that could have been omitted.

This ties in to the dialogue, which outside of the comedy itself, is fairly uninspired. During many scenes (action scenes especially), characters will often just announce what is happening on screen as though there will be people listening to the movie on the radio. Characters also don't really have any dialogue outside of the scope of their colorless caricatures. This leads to many conversations that play out similarly, if not identically, throughout the movie. Again, the comedy that's often attached to these lines works more often than not, but as the movie goes on, the dialogue gets increasingly pointless.

Overall, the movie works. It's funny mostly the whole way, and at times, it's downright hilarious. The story clearly had some effort put into it, even if it's not perfect. The cast, however, is as close to perfect as you can get. Jack Black and Kevin Hart are the standouts, but everybody has great chemistry, and this allows the characters and story to remain entertaining the whole way.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a worthwhile reboot/sequel. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a comedy.
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Colossal (2016)
Flawed, but Unique
2 December 2017
Colossal is an interesting attempt at blending and subverting genres that on the surface appear to mix terribly. At once, it tries to be a rom-com, drama, thriller, with a pinch of monster movie for good measure. As bad (and interesting) as the idea might sound on paper, Nacho Vigalondo's film actually does a halfway decent job of pulling a competent flick out of the oven, even though it doesn't necessarily excel in any one area.

Anne Hathaway plays Gloria, a woman who has to return to her hometown from New York city after a breakup. There, she reconnects with childhood friend Oscar, played by Jason Sudeikis, whom she has a cloudy history with. During this time, a gigantic monster begins terrorizing Seoul. Gloria quickly starts to believe (with fairly good reason) that she is connected to this monster, and as the movie goes on, we of course find out how and why.

I always appreciate it when a director takes risks with a film. The first half-hour or so plays out like a rom-com (complete with hit- or-miss comedy) with a few allusions to the end product. Hathaway and Sudeikis are fine and comfortable in these roles, but don't really move the needle too much. This first half-hour is also how the trailers portrayed the film. I understand many people get upset when movies don't go exactly as advertised, but I welcome it. Drama, and eventually thriller, slowly start to creep forward as the comedy gets fewer and farther between. I'll avoid spoilers, but will say that Sudeikis impressed me when the performance needed to go a bit darker. We know that Anne Hathaway is good, and her performance here - even in the dramatic moments - is neither bad nor impressive, but par for the course. Sudeikis's character material here is fairly one-note, but he manages to pull the best and most interesting performance of the movie out of it. It's certainly not Oscar- caliber, but I found it to be a large step up from his average roles.

The film is at its best when it briefly explores manipulation and abuse, and the effect it has on the people involved as well as the people around them. The movie doesn't fully commit to any themes or commentary here, which is fine, but I thought that these scenes came off particularly strong compared to the early comedic tones.

The ending feels a bit rushed, in that it feels like the characters abandon any realistic logic remaining in order to get to the quickest possible conclusion. It's certainly not the worst instance of a character being motivated by the plot's needs more than their own, but it does stick out all the same.

Overall, i feel like the movie was a worthy experiment. At the end, each facet of the film feels a little under-explored; the rom-com aspects were mediocre, the drama/thriller a little better but ultimately generic and underwhelming, the Kaiju aspect unique (for this sort of film) but tacked on. Despite all this, it does come together as a perfectly watchable film, with some interesting moments. I think it's at least worth checking out for fans of any of the touched-on genres.
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An outstanding film that I'll never want to see again
29 November 2017
Yorgos Lanthimos's latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is well-shot, adeptly acted, intensely written, and beautifully unsettling. An outstanding achievement by any metric. And I never want to see it again.

From the opening shot, the film wears its tone not only on its sleeve, but also on its chest, face, and everywhere else: Its gonna make you uncomfortable. From the haunting score that seems to creep its way into every scene, to the awkward and robotic characters, to the downright scary Martin (played excellently by Barry Keoghan), the movie feels 'off.' We've seen this "seemingly perfect upper- class family has a darkness that tears them apart" type story before, but never so viscerally displayed as it is here.

If the characters' inhuman mannerisms, conversations, and actions aren't unsettling enough, the film also delivers enough on-screen gross outs to hammer home a truly affecting experience. The film is objectively well-shot, and delivers a capable, if slightly subdued plot, while building to a frightening conclusion. It's not a horror movie sort of frightening either, but more of a, "I can't believe I'm about to watch this" feeling.

I know that's a tough sell. The Killing of a sacred Deer is not going to make you feel good. The film is filled with an overarching, all-consuming darkness that lingers even after it's over. Still, it's a truly unique and deeply affecting film that's worth watching, even if only once.
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Lady Bird (2017)
Love of Place, Love of Experience
28 November 2017
Warning: Spoilers
Lady Bird is an excellent coming of age story. It's full of love, realistic, yet vibrant characters, and attention to detail that makes every scene colorful. Greta Gerwig's film goes by at a rapid pace. The editing is stylish; scenes jump from a moment's climax to the middle of the fallout in the next, giving the audience more than enough to understand the weight of the situation while not bogging down the movie with rehashed platitudes present in the genre.

The dialogue is witty and funny without being too cheesy, realistic without edging on dull. These are characters that feel familiar, but never become caricatures. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Matcalf are simply outstanding in their roles as daughter and mother. While the writing is top-notch, the performances are equally astute.

Lady Bird doesn't hit on a singular theme, or build up to a specific moment, but it's like a collection of vignettes in the life of our main character. Many situations are ones we've come to expect in a film like this: the first boyfriend/love, applying to and getting accepted into college, losing one's virginity, senior prom. None of these singular moments gets as much plot time in Lady Bird as they might in other high school films, but we feel the weight of how they affect the main character all the same.

Much of Lady Bird's beauty is presented without the need to be explained or put into words. Discovering the love of a place, of family, of experiences, are human themes that, when done well, will never get old. A small montage of mother and daughter enjoying a day visiting various open houses packs an emotional punch that can only be felt in the context of their relationship and situation. Marion (Metcalf) breaking down in the car after dropping Christine (Ronan) off at the airport is so simple, yet one of the most powerful performances of the year. It happens organically, and is deserved because of how much tenderness and care is put into the character development up until that point.

Lady Bird tells an honest story about different forms of love. It's one of the better movies of 2017.
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Heavy and Hilarious
24 November 2017
If Martin McDonagh wasn't already on your "great new writers/directors" list after In Bruges' steady increase in popularity (holy crap, that was nine years ago!? Does "new" still apply?), Three Billboards should cement him on it. I think this film will go down as one of the more underrated gems of the year, and slowly gain popularity as time goes on, similar to the aforementioned In Bruges and what I hope for last year's The Nice Guys.

The movie is a dark comedy, through and through, and it supplies ample amounts of both. The movie does get heavy, but even in the darkest moments, keeps the audience smiling with the consistent off- beat, biting, witty remarks from its equally colorful characters. I keep bringing it up, but if you've seen In Bruges, you know the drill here. Tonally, Three Billboards is of course similar, but not at all a rehash. There's plenty of new content and characters to digest here.

Speaking of the characters, the cast is perfect in this movie. Each of the headliners (McDormand, Harrelson, Rockwell) is three- dimensional, and they all get their share of comedic and dramatic scenes. All three are perfect. This is one of the best acted movies I've seen all year.

There were a few points throughout the movie where some particularly abrupt drama/comedy tonal shifts felt a bit awkward, and as a result the intended comedic effect didn't land like it otherwise would have. For the most part, the film (and McDonagh's work as a whole) pulls this off adroitly-and let's be honest, it's a tough tactic to consistently pull off. All in all, the movie will make you sad, it will make you angry, and it will make you laugh, occasionally all at the same time. It also has something genuine to say about the dichotomy of anger and love.
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An Endearing and Enjoyable Dark Comedy
20 November 2017
Ingrid Goes West juggles being a dark comedy, an uncomfortable character study, and an earnest look into the meaning of friendship in this social media-focused age. While it doesn't hit a home run any any one of these specific areas, it is deft enough in each to create an enjoyable and interesting film.

The performances are the strongest part of Ingrid Goes West. Aubrey Plaza was excellent as the troubled title character, whose obsession and downward spiral are paramount to the success of the movie. Elizabeth Olsen is also well-fit for her role as a shallow, social media obsessed valley girl. These two are the centerpieces of the plot, and all other characters play off of their relationship. The movie just does not work without good performances for the characters, and both actresses are great - delivering grounded, layered, and believable people to the screen.

The writing is solid, though not incredibly daring or groundbreaking. The first act sets up a narrative that is dense with possibilities, both plot-wise and thematically. The product that we end up getting, however, plays it surprisingly close-to-the-vest and low-key. It's absolutely capable, as is; the story delivers some laughs, good heartfelt moments, and it IS dark, but doesn't often feel as urgent or eventful as it could be. It seems to take the safe path more often than not. Again, what the movie does give is solid and entertaining enough, but the cast handles what is given so easily that one can't help think about what could have been if they had been given slightly more to work with.

The movie does successfully transition from uncomfortable, to funny, to disturbing, to endearing, and pretty much at will. This can be attributed to Plaza's performance. As disturbed as Ingrid may be, and as much as her choices throughout the film continue to pile against her, she's still a character that the audience can empathize with. There's truth to the core of the character, and her obsession with social media, the facades it encourages, and the desire for acceptance and recognition that comes with it. Ingrid Goes West is an interesting character study of someone going through this obsession, and also delivers enough laughs and interesting characters to remain engaging.
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All that talent, and so little for anyone to do
20 November 2017
Warning: Spoilers
I'll start by admitting I've never read the Agatha Christie novel or the original film. I don't have any details from the original story affecting my opinion of this, for better or worse. Branagh's 2017 version is a competent tale of revenge and redemption, complete with a star-studded cast and an Oscar-worthy mustache. Unfortunately, that's about all it has going for it.

I'll get right to it--the movie is boring. And I don't mean that in a "needs more explosions/I prefer all the MCU movies" sort of way. I actually have a predisposition for slow paced, dialogue driven films. The thing is, there actually needs to be interesting dialogue/characters for any of it to work. Just about every major character in this movie is played by a well known actor or actress. This alone does not make them interesting, however, and as the movie plods on, we realize that none of them have anything notable to say or do outside of Branagh's Hercule Poirot. Branagh himself actually puts out a respectable performance, and the mustache really is glorious, but no one else has the material or screen time to be anything more than a vehicle for the plot to get to its underwhelming conclusion.

Everything looks pretty enough. The movie is well-shot, the costumes are full of life, the characters all look important. Then we find out that the only notable thing about every single person on the train is the fact that they're all coincidentally tied to an older case that (also) coincidentally is the one case that haunts our main character. This leads to the obvious conclusion that every guest must be tied to this in some sort of conspiracy, right? Well, yes. That's it. Except most of the audience will figure this out an hour in, and then be forced to watch the greatest detective in the world slowly figure out the same conclusion over the next hour. This would be fine if the movie was building to something greater and unexpected, or was filled with characters that are fun to watch, or included any instances of smart dialogue that wasn't ham-handedly explaining the simple-yet-rushed plot to the audience.

In the end, all we get is the expected conclusion (delivered by Poirot in a five minute expository monologue) tied together with some late themes of revenge and redemption. Nothing about Murder on the Orient Express is explicitly bad or incompetent, but it all just feels simple, rushed, and watered down. Any interesting moments are short lived as the plot rushes to its tired, "It was everyone" ending. Not the worst movie you could find yourself watching, but possibly the most uninteresting.
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American Made (2017)
Fast-paced, Funny, and Entertaining
29 September 2017
American Made feels like something we've all seen before, but it plays out with so much style and charm that it remains wildly entertaining the whole way. Cruise is well-suited for the role, and he turns in arguably his best performance of the decade. The rest of the decently large cast ranges from competent to very good, but it's really only Cruise that gets the proper screen time and character depth to carry the movie, and he does very well.

Doug Liman directs the movie in his usual fast-paced style, but with dealings (drug, arms, and otherwise) taking place of the prototypical action/fight scenes. The intensity of this film comes from Cruise's Barry Seal, and the situations he manages to find himself in, rather than your standard action fare. The movie mixes comedy with intensity, as Seal finds himself in increasingly richer as he takes on more dangerous scenarios. Liman does very well with this style, and it gives the movie an interesting aesthetic - almost like The Wolf of Wall Street if directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

For me, this is one of the biggest surprises of the year. I personally thought the trailers made this film look incredibly generic, like a typical action rehash. What we get instead is a wholly entertaining political action/comedy that is simply super fun to watch.
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A Frustrating Collection of Generic Horror Tropes
8 September 2017
Warning: Spoilers
I'll admit that I don't like the average, typical horror movie. I find most of them to be generic, regurgitated jump-scare fests that forego any semblance of storytelling or good writing for cheap thrills and loud sounds. I am, however a fan of a few of the "horror renaissance" movies that have become popular in recent years. It's an obvious namedrop, but I found The VVitch to be excellent precisely because of it's focus on atmosphere and its ability to encourage the audience to think, and not rely solely on jump scares for entertainment. I didn't expect Annabelle: Creation to be that. Of course not. I did, however read some of the good reviews and thought, "what the heck, I'll take a flier on it," despite finding director David Sandberg's other feature "Lights Out" to be rather silly and mediocre.

Sad to say, all Annabelle: Creation delivered was more of the same tired tropes that have been plaguing average horror movies for the better part of 20 years. To put it simply, the entire final hour of this film consists of the "plot" forcing the dumb and pointless characters from one contrived setpiece to the next, all while typical haunted house jump-scares and loud noises attack the audience at every turn.

I'll quickly address what I did enjoy about this film. The first half-hour or so is watchable. Some of it is actually very well done. It does its job, setting up a good atmosphere around this gritty, creepy 1950s farmhouse and the darkness surrounding it and the husband and wife continuing to live their after the death of their daughter. I understand that a lot of this is also your run-of-the- mill horror setup, but I like that it takes its time, and demands at least a little bit of patience from the audience while it focuses on said atmosphere. For a little while, I actually thought that the movie knew what it was doing. This is capped off with a great slow- burn of a scene in which the main character and one of the orphan girls, Janice, releases the demon from its closet prison. The scene takes its time, is well- shot, and has some deeply unsettling moments, culminating with - not a jump scare or a monster popping out as the tension increases - but with more of an anti-scare, as the sheet falls off the doll, revealing that it's not actually there. It's a great scene that actually opens up possibilities of other psychological elements being in play for Janice. But guess what? From here, the movie throws it all right out the window.

From this point on, it feels like the filmmakers remembered the 100 jump-scare quota that the studio required them to hit, and just decided to cram it all into the final hour. It feels like a different movie from here. I'll try to avoid talking incessantly about the jump- scares, but it bears repeating that from this point on, every other scene I criticize has too many jump-scares in addition to the other problems. Every one.

First off, the demon's powers in this movie are ridiculous and inconsistent with what the plot needs. In addition to the doll itself, which is just its conduit, it can seemingly possess anyone it gets its hands on (which is somehow only Janice), as well as any inanimate object it so desires. It can also manifest its own demonic presence anywhere it wishes, at any time. It can turn invisible whenever it wants, teleport itself or the doll (and presumably other objects) to anywhere else at will, and also has telekinesis. Yep. How anyone survives more than five minutes against what is basically a god can only be explained by the demon being grossly incompetent with its own powers, or by it not wanting to kill any one else (other than the parents, which it does kill, with ease), in which case this is all pointless. Either way, who even cares at this point?

Scenes that could be decent atmospheric scenes are ruined by this terrible power paradox and the filmmakers needing to cram sounds into every possible void. An otherwise well shot scene of one of the girls running the doll out to drop into the well is ruined by these flaws. The scene works just fine with her anxiously looking off into the empty fields, then back at the house, as she quickly tries to make it to the well. This would build the scene perfectly. But no, we can't have 30 seconds of good tension anymore. Gotta edit in loud, obnoxious footsteps following the character that comically cease when she turns around. It's like an episode of Scooby Doo. And really, what's the point? The demon gets off on scaring little orphan girls and doing nothing else? Why am I still watching?

My favorite bit of ridiculousness is when Janice gets possessed (check that off on your horror bingo board) and turns from a sickly, shy, scared young girl into a walking, grinning, sarcastic maniac that cares more about delivering clever one-liners than doing anything of importance. It's as though she's not possessed by a demon, but by an MCU cast-member as she tries to deliver stupid mic- dropping lines while slowly chasing people through the house and doing nothing. Possessed Janice dicks around while other pointless characters get scared by a possessed scarecrow, while another girl gets scared by a possessed dismembered torso, while the audience gets scared by their life choices. Each of these scenes is, again, saturated with endless loud bangs and monsters assaulting the screen. In the end, nothing happens. The last hour is generic trash. It gets tied into the first Annabelle movie, which is somehow supposed to be worse than this? I won't be finding out.
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