Thursday, December 31, 2015

Exeter (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Movie Exeter

1. This is a B-movie horror film that's better than many horror films that get the full Hollywood treatment. I don't understand why it wasn't more popular.

2. There is a twist to the stereotypical setup. A group of young adults have a party in an abandoned asylum. One of them gets possessed. People die. But the kids have been partying so hard that they are all whacked out on drugs and alcohol and can't quite figure out if what is happening is real or if they're just tripping.

3. The movie is grittier than a lot of horror films. It opens with a heroin overdose and a suicide. It has a heavy metal soundtrack.

4. There is a sly but smart sense of humor in the film. It knows what it is, and it makes fun of itself. In one scene, a cat jumps out at a character, which causes a jump scare. Another character complains that it's so cliche.

5. Most demon-possession movies try to hide the fact that they are just ripping off The Exorcist. This film openly admits it. The characters try to expel a demon by using a DIY exorcism website that just follows that famous scene like a recipe. The characters even refer to Father Merrin.

6. Stephen Lang plays a priest. If you recognize Lang from other movies, you have a big clue as to what his purpose is in this one.

7. The violence and gore is pretty solid and impressive. More people die than I expected.

8. It was directed by Marcus Nispel, who directed the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th. This movie has a vague Evil Dead feel.

9. This is an odd film because it knows it should suck, which makes it not suck. It's gory fun that horror fans will appreciate.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Hateful Eight (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Film The Hateful Eight

1. This is Quentin Tarantino's eighth film, and it's his most controlled and focused one.

2. Set shortly after the Civil War, the story is about a group of people headed for a town named Red Rock (the state is never mentioned) but who get stranded at a stagecoach lodge during a blizzard. Everybody has their own agendas for being there, and some of those agendas are at cross purposes.

3. The movie is described as a western (Ennio Morricone even wrote the score, which is his first western score in 40 years), but it would be more accurate to say the movie is a actually a mystery. It just happens to be set in the Old West.

4. A lot of the actors have worked with Tarantino before, so everybody kind of fits together like a glove. They know the mix of comic-seriousness that Tarantino goes for, and how to say the dialogue that is just past the line of real life. They all play off of each other very well.

5. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Daisy, a captured murderer on her way to being hanged in Red Rock. Daisy says the least, but she is the most interesting character in the movie, She gets beaten by men over and over, but Daisy not only takes it, she seems to draw strength from it. It's a pretty powerful, paradoxical performance by Leigh.

6. Everybody knows that a Tarantino film is often reminiscent of the old violent grindhouse films of decades past. And while this film does have his trademark violence, especially during the last half, there's not as much as some people will want.

7. Some people may be surprised to see that Tarantino's script contains just as much substance as style. Though he has vast mountainous landscapes at his disposal, the movie takes place almost entirely indoors - in either a cramped carriage or an overstuffed lodge. There is less action and more talking than is usual from him. Sure, the talking is full of racist, sexist, foul language (the last time the n-word was used this much in a movie was, well, Tarantino's last film), but it's all to a point. Or rather, several points.

8. Say what you want about Tarantino, but his love of cinema is obvious in every frame of this film, and he needs to be respected for that. He uses the camera to get the most amazing shots, whether it's of a horse on a mountain, or a coffeepot on a stove. Very few directors have that kind vision.

9. Some people will be disappointed that this is not one of his outrageously wild films. But this is Tarantino as a storyteller, not a renegade, telling a tale that is both epic and personal. He uses a snowbound lodge in the past to examine issues facing America today. And even though the movie is three hours long, every minute of it contains something to see or hear.

The Ridiculous 6 (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Movie The Ridiculous 6

1. The biggest mystery of 2015 is why Netflix chose to make this movie. This is one of the worst movies of the year.

2. The first time I tried watching this movie, I couldn't finish it. I figured it was because I was sober. But when I watched it under more appropriate circumstances, it didn't get any better. I watched the whole thing, but not because I liked it. I was just daring myself to finish it.

3. The title is a shameless attempt to capitalize on the Quentin Tarantino film The Hateful Eight, but has nothing to do with that movie, except that it's a Western. The plot of the movie (like it matters) is that six dumb guys all discover that they are half brothers, and they try to find $50,000 so they can rescue their father, who is being held by a gang of outlaws.

4. The movie is really a series of jokes. It tries to be one of those movies that is so ridiculous that you can't help laughing.  I laughed about three times.

5.  It has a big cast of recognizable stars: Adam Sandler, Terry Crews, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Nick Nolte, David Spade, Jon Lovitz, Jon Turturro, among others. The second biggest mystery of 2015 is why any of them agreed to be in this movie. The only explanation I can think of is that they all sold their soul to Satan to become famous, and now Satan is calling in his favor.

6. I respect it when sexy movie stars take on roles to leave their sex-symbol status behind. But Taylor Lautner destroys his sexy reputation so completely that I will never be able to watch another of his movies without thinking of the scene when a donkey gives him a... well, never mind.

7. Vanilla Ice plays Mark Twain. Mark Twain says "word up." Oh, and one of the characters in the movie is a donkey with explosive diarrhea. This should tell you a lot about the movie.

8. The movie is kind of sexist and racist towards Native Americans. The women have names like Smoking Fox and Never Wears Bra.

9. Recommending this movie to anyone should count as a form of bullying.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Goodnight Mommy (Austria, 2014)

Nine Things About the Film Goodnight Mommy

1.  It's hard to adequately describe what this movie is. Technically, it's a horror movie. But a quiet one. Quiet and cruel.

2. It's got a creepy beginning - two twin brothers greet their mother, who has just gotten home from the hospital. She had facial surgery, and her head is completely wrapped up. Immediately, she begins acting differently from how she was before the surgery. She becomes more bizarre and abusive, and the boys suspect that the woman they live with isn't really their mother.

3. It's impossible to predict where the movie is going, because all three characters lose the ability to act or think rationally, so you have no consistent thread to hold onto.

5. Writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala really know how to tell this story, dangling clues in front of you while making you more tense and confused.

6. This is not an exciting, scream-filled movie of blood and body counts. There really isn't even anything to make you jump. This is a slow, insidious horror that builds up inside you until you want to turn your head away, but you can't.

7. If you are bothered by depictions of families that are, um, mean to each other. then you can move along and watch something else.

8. Most of the movie takes place in one house with the three characters. All three actors have a twisted charisma that is used to full effect.

9. This movie won't be to everybody's liking. But it's going to haunt me more than any other film I've seen this year.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Concussion (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Film Concussion

1. This is the most important - and dangerous - movie about American culture this year. There's a possibility that participation in America's most popular sport will drop because of this movie.

2. It tells the true story of how Dr. Bennett Omalu, a Pittsburgh forensic pathologist, stumbled onto evidence of brain damage in many NFL football players, which he ended up naming chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It also portrays the NFL's attempts to bury and discredit Omalu for seven years, until the evidence was so overwhelming they couldn't deny it anymore.

3. It was written and directed by Peter Landesman, who is an award-winning journalist (in 2004 he wrote an article about the child sex trade that led to many arrests). Landesman based the script off a 2009 GQ expose written by Jeanne Marie Laskas.

4. The movie comes out strongly against the way football is currently played. It makes bold statements, even suggesting that God doesn't want people playing football.

5. Landesman surely knows how incendiary this topic can be, and the script is very careful to focus a lot on the science behind Omalu's work. I was impressed with the way science is treated in this movie. I even learned things about autopsies.

6. Will Smith deserves a nomination for Best Actor of the year. It's sometimes hard to tell that it's actually him.

7. The movie is part biography, part medical investigation, and part conspiracy drama. It's hard to squeeze everything in. While his personal life is interesting, it unbalances the flow of things a little bit. Some scenes are kind of awkwardly placed.

8. The movie teaches you enough about CTE to make you realize that there's no real fix for it. It made me realize that the NFL's attempts to make changes (such as strengthening the "targeting rule") are clearly for show, and don't really do anything.

9. CTE is fairly well known now, but watching the 13-year process be condensed into one movie gives a new appreciation for what's going on. The movie also shows just how deep the corruption and conspiracy of the NFL's handling of the subject was, Whether you like football or not, this movie is an important critique of one of the defining elements of American culture.

The Last Witch Hunter (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Movie The Last Witch Hunter

1. This is what I call a WYSIWYG movie - What You See Is What You Get. The trailer gave a pretty accurate idea of what to expect.

2. It's the latest in the long line of 'immortal hunter' genre movies, like "Blade"and "Underworld". In this one, witches live hidden among us regular humans. Vin Diesel is an immortal human, haunted by his past, who hunts down renegade witches that want to end the truce with humans and start a war. Blah blah blah.

3. The movie doesn't spend much energy on making an original or smart story - it's the same thing we've seen over and over.

4. Where the movie succeeds is the visuals. It's shot well and the computer effects are pretty impressive.

5. Elijah Wood plays Vin Diesels's sidekick, a nerdy priest in New York City. I really like Elijah, but this movie was a step down for his career. I'm confused as to why he decided to make this movie.

6. The movie was directed by Breck Eisner. His last film was the pretty decent remake of The Crazies. But Eisner also directed Sahara, one of the biggest financial disasters in Hollywood history.

7. Parts of the movie look and feel like a video game.

8. This movie is aimed at super geeks and teenagers, so if you can relate to one of those groups, you'll enjoy it well enough. Besides, you can't hate a movie that has flaming swords, underground witch clubs, and gummy bear trees.

9. This is not a bad movie. But it's also not a good movie. It's not a waste of time, but it's also not one that you will remember for long.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Danish Girl (Britain, USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Film The Danish Girl

1. I have rarely been so conflicted about a movie as I am about this one.

2. If I had to describe the actual movie in one word, it would be "exquisite". If I had eight more words, they would be "one of the best movies of the year". But if I had ten more words, they would be "why did they change so much of the real story?"

3. The movie is a pseudo-biography of Lili Elbe, one of the first known transgender women to undergo sex reassignment surgery.  And that's exactly the problem - it is a pseudo-biography. The movie is not based on Lili's journals or the couple's real story - it's based on a fiction book about Lili.

4. The story is about two married painters, Gerda and Einar Wegener. in 1920's Copenhagen. A series of small, random events slowly leads Einar to realize that he is really a woman. This challenges everything that the two of them know.

5. The movie is amazingly well-balanced in its treatment of the subject of transgender identity. It stays true to what being transgender means, but also respectfully portrays the realistic difficulties that people in the transgender person's life grapple with. Even the people that try to "fix" Lili are not portrayed as villains, just ignorant of a complicated reality.

6. I have come to the conclusion that Eddie Redmayne is one of the best actors on the planet. Not only did he give the best performance of 2014 in The Theory of Everything (he's actually the only reason to watch that movie), he gives the best performance of 2015 in this movie. I understand the criticism that maybe they should have cast an actual transgender woman in the role of Einar/Lili, but I'm not sure I agree with that. Redmayne does a masterful job of reaching the common humanity that exists in everyone.

7. Since both Wegener's were painters, painting is a large element of the movie. And in a work of visual genius, many of the movie's scenes are composed as paintings themselves. Sometimes it's hard to focus on the story because the picture itself is so beautiful.

8.  The ending of the movie is a little overbaked, but the rest of the movie is strong enough to make me overlook that.

9. It's really hard for me to be OK with the fact that they didn't stick to Einar/Lili's real story.  But if you look at the movie as a work of art, and not of history, this is a deeply layered, nuanced meditation on gender roles, identity, love, commitment, loneliness, and confusion. It's about being human.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Big Short (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Film The Big Short

1. This movie is based on the book of the same name, and is about the almost impossible levels of corruption and stupidity that caused the world-crippling financial crisis from 2007-2010.

2. The movie is funny, fascinating, and deeply depressing. If you're not cynical about the world yet, you will be after this movie.

3. The story follows a few different groups of people around 2005 who stumble onto signs that big investment banks are selling bonds made of home mortgages that were trash. They decide to bet that the bonds would eventually fail, which would make them rich. 

4. It's a complicated subject that involves a lot of moving parts, distant connections, and economic black magic. The movie does a really good job of explaining the main parts of what happened, and makes things more understandable to regular people. But if you want to know the details of what happened and why, you will either need to already be an expert on the situation, or else do additional research on your own.

5. One of the themes of the movie is that regular people had no idea what was going to happen because they were too distracted by other things and weren't paying attention to their own circumstances. This theme is illustrated by periodic montages of pop culture and media that interrupt the flow of the ever-deepening sense of dread building up in the main story.

6. The cast is a great mix of unknown actors as well as well-known ones. Christian Bale is amazing once again, playing a socially awkward investment manager that trusts his math over other peoples' advice.  Ryan Gosling plays another version of most of his characters, but he's good at it, so that's fine. And Steve Carell continues to show that he is not just a great comedian, but one of the best actors today.

7. The movie was co-written and directed by Adam McKay, who directed Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers. It's pretty obvious that he has a working partnership with Will Ferrell. The Big Short is his first real shot at making a more dramatic movie - and it's the first movie he directed that didn't star Will Ferrell. McKay does an excellent job here, finding humor in a situation that really isn't very funny.

8. The film has a unique visual and narrative style - the camera kind of freewheels through situations and time periods, making the whole thing very kinetic. The characters often break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience; sometimes they tell us whether a scene really happened or was made up for the movie.

9. This is a smart movie that requires a lot of concentration. But the talented cast and the careful script make it easier to follow.  This is a socially important movie if you want to keep informed about what's really going on around you. Just remember, this is a true story, and you already know that there is no happy ending.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (USA, 1015)

Nine Things About the Movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens

1. This triumphant chapter of the Star Wars saga takes place about 30 years after the previous chapter, Return of the Jedi. Jedi was released 32 years ago, so this movie is basically re-joining the story in it's "real" timeline. It's a direct continuation of the original trilogy, but you don't need to see any of the other three prequel films - which I refer to as The Movies That Shall Not Be Named (TMTSNBN).

2. It was directed by J.J. Abrams, who worked in television and as a producer until he directed Mission:Impossible III, and then resurrected the Star Trek movies.  (And I'm thinking that if one guy can bring both Star Wars and Star Trek successfully back to life, maybe we can end the decades-old fight over which series is better. Maybe the two fan-bases can finally unite and co-exist peacefully. Even though Star Wars is clearly superior.)

3. Even though it feels like a Star Wars movie, it's got Abrams's visual style - the dolly shots on both the z- and x- axes, the canted angles, the shaky cam and snap zooms. But he hardly uses any lens flares this time, which is fine.

4. Writer Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote two of the original trilogy's scripts (but none of TMTSNBN), returns for this one. This means the script is sometimes silly, simple, and melodramatic. But that's exactly what Star Wars is - a space opera. It's supposed to be sprawling, adventurous, and chivalric, with epic conflicts between technologically-advanced enemies. It's not supposed to be hard science fiction. This isn't Interstellar.

5. This is the first Star Wars movie to get its original release in 3D, and it's one of the most impressive uses of 3D technology I've seen.

6. There is enough fanservice in this movie to fill a Jawa sandcrawler. This leads to the only real flaw in the film (if you consider it a flaw); the almost overwhelming amount of nostalgia. The story does develop in some new and interesting ways, but it also feels kind of like a reboot of the first two movies. Several elements of the films are outright repeats of the original trilogy.

7. The only thing that really annoyed me in the movie was the "suck the energy out of the sun" thing. That's the kind of moronic crap I expect from a Marvel superhero movie, not a Star Wars movie. But it wasn't a deal-breaker; see Point 4.

8. The young cast is well-picked. This is Daisy Ridley's second film. John Boyega finally gets a lead role like he deserves. Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren, who may be the most interesting Star Wars villain ever.

9. The movie may not be perfect, but it strikes a good balance between being new and risky, and being traditional and sacred. It will satisfy fans of the original trilogy, and also bring new viewers into the magic of the Star Wars universe. May the Force be with it.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Magic Mike XXL (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Movie Magic Mike XXL

1. The first Magic Mike movie was directed by Steven Soderbergh, so it was actually a real movie. It wasn't so much about strippers as young aimless men lured into a flashy but shallow business, run by a flashy but shady manager.

2. This movie was not directed by Steven Soderbergh. This was not a real movie. It was more like an idea of a movie that they never finished. With key members of the cast gone.

3. The story is basically a less-believable version of The Wizard of Oz. The boys gather to take a road trip to a far-away, famous stripper convention, and they run across various characters along the way. They also learn that what they were really looking for has been with them all along. Seriously.

4. Both movies were written by the same person, but it didn't seem like it. There were flashes of intelligence and humor here, but nothing like the first movie. This movie didn't really have a heart. Or a brain. Or a point.

5. Along the journey, the men go to a drag bar, and they win an amateur dance-Vogue thing. Then they meet Andie McDowell, an aging southern belle who regrets that the only man she ever had sex with was gay. Then they meed Jada Pinkett Smith, who has this "Eyes Wide Shut" mansion where men exist to make women feel like queens. The guys also take molly and make all new dance routines, based on the men that they really feel like inside. Except the new dances are all kinda stupid.

6.   Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love Donald Glover, and I'll watch anything he's in. But he was an awkward fit for this movie, even if he did play a wannabe rapper named Andre.

7.  The actual stripper convention was very anticlimactic. The final routines were short and dumb. Well, except for the very last one with Channing Tatum and Stephen "Twitch" Boss. That mirror routine was cool, I admit.

8. The movie is fun to watch in that "guilty pleasure" kinda way. But it's not actually good or anything.

9. The movie doesn't have an ending. It just stops. Like this review.

In the Heart of the Sea (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Movie In The Heart of the Sea

1. The movie is based on the true story of the whaling ship Essex, which was sunk by a whale, and which inspired the famous novel Moby Dick.

2. The movie is gorgeously filmed. It's an epic adventure. It has a great cast. And it is a good movie. But for some reason, it's not a great movie. This is an example of how truly awesome movies need an extra mysterious ingredient - and this movie doesn't have it.

3. The context of the film is set up really well. In 1820, whale oil was in high demand to provide fuel for lanterns and street lights, and you could make a lot of money by getting on a ship and hunting whales. Chris Hemsworth plays the first mate of the Essex, which sets out to get at least 2000 barrels of whale oil.

4. The best part of the movie is seeing how the ships were run, how whales were hunted, and how the oil was harvested from dead whales.

5. Even though it's about a giant whale that destroys a ship, the whale is hardly in the movie. The main story is the relationship among the crew members, especially the friction between the ship's captain (played by Benjamin Walker, who isn't very well known) and Hemsworth's character.

6. The ensemble cast contains a couple of my favorite actors, Cillian Murphy and Ben Whishaw. Chris Hemsworth is not one of my favorite actors, but he does pretty well, here. At least he's not Thor.

7. The movie's pace greatly decreases in the last 45 minutes, and the melodrama greatly increases. The things the men have to do to survive are fairly ghoulish, and director Ron Howard had a great opportunity to create some real drama and pathos. But he screws it up by treating the situations with dry narration and cameras that cut away exactly when they shouldn't.

8. This may be the most gorgeous movie of the year; it's probably worth seeing just for the cinematography alone. There is some great camera work, and some individual scenes took my breath away.

9. The movie is an old-fashioned adventure, which nobody really makes anymore, and I give Ron Howard credit for making it. It's a great attempt at mixing history and human drama with an epic scope. It's just too bad he couldn't quite pull it off.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Chi-raq (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Film Chi-Raq

1. This movie is rude, raw, raunchy, wrong... and right on the money. It's going to be too much for some people, but I personally think it may be the best movie of 2015.

2. It's a retelling of a 2500-year-old Greek play named Lysistrata. Writer/producer/director Spike Lee updates the play and sets it in a gang-run neighborhood of Chicago. Nick Cannon plays Chiraq, who is both a local rapper and the head of the Spartan gang. Wesley Snipes plays Cyclops, the aging leader of their deadly rivals, the Trojan Gang. Samuel L. Jackson plays the narrator Dolmedes (see what they did there?). After a small child is gunned down in the street and nobody wants to come forward to be a witness, the women in the neighborhood have reached their breaking point. They band together and vow not to have sex with any man until the gangs squash their beef for good.

3. The movie is a satire, an indictment, and a plea. It was written by Lee and film professor Kevin Willmot (who lives in Lawrence, KS). They must have dipped their pen in acid to write the script, because this film burns. Beneath the satirical humor, this movie is angry. Very very angry. And everybody is to blame.

4. Lee has been criticized for setting the movie in Chicago (and using the controversial title) when he's not even from there. Some people think the movie makes fun of the gang and violence issues. I understand those criticisms, but I think they are misdirected. The movie starts tightly focused on the street murder of a child in Chicago, but then it spirals outward until it's a glorious mess that sweeps more and more topics into its whirlwind. Chicago is a symbol of a much bigger cluster of issues. Besides, Lee gives a lot of love to Chicago.

5. Artistically, the movie is a masterpiece. It has a rhythm both in movement and speech. As a reference to the original play, most of the dialogue is spoken in rhyme.  You don't have to know the original Lysistrata to see this movie, but if you do, you gain an extra layer of appreciation as you see how Lee translates ancient Greece into modern urban America. In addition, Lee uses colors to great effect, especially the colors of the rival gangs.

6. Nick Cannon blew me away with his portrayal of Chiraq. Before this, everything I'd seen him in made him seem mild and rather family-friendly. But in this movie, he not only leaves his Nickelodeon and "America's Got Talent" fun goofiness behind, he obliterates it.

7. John Cusack's character is based on a real priest in the neighborhood where the movie takes place. His church sermon is not only one of the high points of the film, it gave me a new appreciation of why church and spirituality are so important to the black community.

8. The movie will not be appreciated by everyone. Some people will be turned off by the explicitness of the topic. Some people will not get the satire. Some people will not be prepared for the amount of concentration it takes to understand it. Some people will get overly defensive. The easily offended should find something else to watch.

9. This is the Spike Lee that I love. It's his best and ballsiest movie since his classics Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. It's confrontational, relevant, smart, funny, and heartbreaking. For a movie with so much absurd comedy, I found myself with tears in my eyes more than once. The movie transcends itself and lights the American powder-keg. People will be talking about this movie for a long time.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Krampus (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Movie Krampus

1.This poisoned holiday card is my new all time favorite Christmas movie.

2. This is a weird little indie movie that somehow got big-budget Hollywood backing. It's based on the old German legend of Krampus, a horned creature that shows up at Christmas time to kidnap and kill bad children.

3. It is about a family getting together for the holidays, and they all hate each other. When a boy loses his faith in a happy life, the neighborhood is assaulted with a blizzard... and some pretty nasty things in the blizzard.

4. The movie is hard to categorize. It starts out as an acidic, mean-spirited comedy and dark cultural satire. But it increasingly adds horror elements, so it ends up being very different than it started. It's an odd combination, and some people won't like it just because they aren't sure what it is that they are watching. If you want a full-on horror movie, you may be disappointed. But that's not what it's trying to be, and it makes that clear from the very first scene.

5. It was written and directed by Michael Dougherty. Dougherty also wrote and directed my favorite Halloween movie, Trick 'r Treat, which has a similar feel and style to this one.

6. Some of the horror sequences are confusingly edited, which makes me suspect they were cut down so the movie could go from being rated 'R' to 'PG-13'. This is annoying, but the movie doesn't lose its punch. So while this movie may not be rated 'R' it is NOT for little kids. Some children will be terrified by the events of this film. Some adults may object to a few scenes.

7. There is an underlying theme of sacrifice in the film, including the sacrifice of innocence.

8. I was worried about how the movie was going to end, but Dougherty doesn't betray what he built up. The conclusion of the film was very satisfying.

9. This movie takes everything you love about Christmas and twists them inside out. It corrupts all that is sacred about the holiday. It's a beautifully whimsical, horrific fairy tale that exposes the human darkness and false happiness of the most wonderful time of the year.