The House Review

thehouse

It’s difficult for me to remember feeling this level of fierce apathy for a movie. The House is not charming enough to be entertaining, nor is it memorable enough to be offensive. It is simply a palate cleanser. It’s not noteworthy enough to leave any sort of taste in your mouth whatsoever. Dull movies like this only serve as an argument for the people who drone on about how much better television is than cinema these days. Don’t see it. Or do. Either way, you won’t remember it at all in a couple of months.

Drink Every Time: there is a direct reference to a significantly better movie.

Grade: D+

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The Beguiled Review

TheBeguiled-2017

It’s 1864, and the nation has been ripped apart by the horrors of war. Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) runs an all-girls boarding school for those who “have nowhere else to go.” Tensions arise when a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) has fled the battlefield and now must take shelter at the school until he is able to walk on his own again. However, having a strange man amongst them causes the young women to face the tensions that have been bubbling just under the surface.

The Beguiled is a prime exploration in Coppola’s bread and butter: women asserting their identity. But it would be a mistake to give the director all the credit. She has assembled an outstanding cast to charter the emotional minefield, and there are no weak links in this chain. Nicole Kidman gives one of her most compelling performances to date and Kirsten Dunst reminds us how much we miss her when she isn’t in the spotlight. The less seasoned performers pull their weight as well, including Elle Fanning (who continues to take on interesting projects), Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys), and Oona Laurence (Southpaw, Pete’s Dragon).

The true grace of the film comes from its ambiguity. Sofia Coppola has never been a filmmaker who feels the need to spell everything out for the audience, but she takes it to a new level with her latest film. As the plot goes along, the audience switches allegiance between characters. The Beguiled permanently rests in a moral gray area, never tipping its hand as to who it believes its villain to be. There is a constant horrific atmosphere, often crafted in the moments we don’t see on-screen.

A truly visually stunning film, The Beguiled makes great use of the South as a location, rarely going too long without a shot of weeping willows shrouded in a thick fog bank. There isn’t much in the way of a musical score, so the soundtrack becomes the buzzing of cicadas in the hot, summer night. Coppola brilliantly tracks the passing of time with gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, displaying the wide array of vivid colors found in the natural world.

After The Bling Ring and A Very Murray Christmas, it would be easy to forget just how skilled Sofia Coppola is in the cinematic arts, but with The Beguiled, she is back in full force. This is a brutal film, one that uses sexual tension and thwarted expectations to get under your skin. Even moments that should seem harmless on the surface are dripping with a primal sense of underlying violence.

Drink Every Time: you are reminded of the looming presence of Christian faith.

Grade: B

The Big Sick Review

thebigsick

Some people have lives so inherently cinematic that they can’t help but put their stories up on the screen. Such is the case with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, a married couple who decided to walk audiences through their complex romance in the form of the screenplay for The Big Sick. The movie, helmed by Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer, Hello, My Name Is Doris), is a charming stranger-than-fiction tale that manages to find the sweet spot of laughter through the tears.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani, playing a seemingly unaltered version of himself) is a burgeoning stand up comic trying to make it in the Chicago performing arts scene who falls for Emily (a sensational as always Zoe Kazan), a heckler at one of his sets. The two begin a passionate tryst until Emily discovers that Kumail comes from a culture that requires arranged marriage. Before the pair can reconcile their conflicting worldviews, Emily is forced into a medically induced coma. Although his future with her is up in the air, Kumail waits around for Emily to come to, along with her unwelcoming parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).

The first chunk of The Big Sick is comprised of a collection of original, memorable moments that will ring true to most people who have spent time in committed relationships, but are rarely put on film. A very clever scene involves the anxiety that comes along with relieving yourself at a partner’s place for the first time. Possibly because it is based on a real-life romance, Kumail and Emily’s connection feels genuine. We are given an honest sense of who these characters are, why they fall for one another, and why their situation is driving them apart. This is not a goal met by nearly enough romantic comedies. The dialogue can be a bit hokey, but it always feels authentic.

In ways that are unexpectedly profound, the film becomes a sincere and absorbing look at the ways in which culture clash can affect outsiders. Viewers who are unfamiliar with Pakistani life are given a glimpse into this universe, but immigrants are never simply reduced to stereotypes. We see the world through Kumail’s eyes, as he navigates an atmosphere in which he is out of place in just about every aspect of his life. He doesn’t adhere to the same norms as his family, and he is ostracized for it. However, when he attempts to assume the position of a red-blooded American,  he is subjected to racism, both casual and pointed, because of his skin tone.

Propelled by heartbreaking performances and tight script that seamlessly blends laughs and sobs, The Big Sick falls into a long tradition of romantic comedies while still managing to set itself apart from the pack. This is the movie viewers hope for when checking out a new entry into the genre. It would be interesting to see if Nanjiani and Gordon work this well as writing partners when they are telling someone else’s story. Either way, I hope we are able to hear from them again soon.

Drink Every Time: Kumail Nanjiani gets a serious case of ‘acting face.’

Grade: A-

Baby Driver Review

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Film critics often gush over movies that showcase characters who are really good at their given profession. Baby Driver is all that and more, as its protagonist is constantly flaunting his skills in the most exhilarating ways imaginable. Director Edgar Wright’s latest feature-length dream sequence packs quite a punch, fully embodying everything junk food cinema should strive for.

Baby (the surprisingly versatile Ansel Elgort) is the most skilled driver around, but his talents are almost exclusively utilized by a vicious crime boss (Kevin Spacey) to whom he is indebted. After a childhood accident left his hearing permanently damaged, Baby must drown out the buzzing with a wide variety of tracks perfectly tailored to any situation he may come across. Baby falls for a waitress (Lily James) who makes him want to give up his life of crime, but he soon finds out how onerous it can be to turn your back on a gangster.

Baby Driver attempts to operate on multiple levels, and it is one of those rare films actually able to do so successfully. As he has proven in the past with nearly every project that has his name attached to it, Edgar Wright is a master of blending genres without sacrificing the potency of any of the individual parts. The jokes in this movie land, but so do the thrills. It walks a tonal tightrope, reminding us how stunning it can be to see this feat done correctly. This joyride should be the benchmark that all other summer popcorn movies hope to meet.

That’s not to simply reduce Edgar Wright to a genre filmmaker. Technically speaking, Baby Driver clearly has an expansive understanding of the context of cinema throughout history, and it gives its director the perfect opportunity to display the tricks of the trade he’s picked up over his time in the industry. Wright is an expert in creative framing and his extended tracking shots, particularly during high energy chase sequences, are absolutely dazzling. With the same whimsical enthusiasm we’ve come to expect from the director, we see the protagonist dance his way through his daily routine, often in a single, unbroken shot.

As you might imagine, the soundtrack is a carefully woven tapestry featuring bangers of a variety of genres, and they aren’t the tracks you would predict. A couple of the songs are obvious choices, but even they serve the atmosphere of the film in an inspired way. From an exhaustive opening car chase set to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” to a surprisingly tense scene draped in Barry White’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” there is not a single note out of place. Music snobs will be giddy hearing deeper tracks in the background of such a grand-scale movie, and those unfamiliar with some of the more obscure pockets of pop culture will get lots of great recommendations for further listening.

It’s unusual for a big-budget action movie to feel this handmade. Baby Driver is one of those diamonds in the rough that reminds us why we love going to the movies. The next time someone complains about the state of Hollywood, whining that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” sit them down in front of this film. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a truly invigorating trend in studio filmmaking.

Drink Every Time: you think about digging through a drawer for your old iPod.

Grade: A

Pop Aye Review

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“You don’t look like the type who’d be traveling with an elephant,” says a sympathetic stranger in the opening scene of Pop Aye (not to be confused with Robert Altman’s 1980 failed attempt to pay tribute to a beloved cartoon character). This astute observation serves to frame the atmosphere for the remainder of the film as a straight-laced fuddy-duddy is shown a glimpse of an unconventional realm, in a sort of Something Wild experience in which Melanie Griffith’s part is assumed by a former circus elephant. Singaporean writer-director Kirsten Tan’s debut feature takes its time, offering glimmers of eloquence rarely captured by first-time filmmakers.

Seasoned Bangkok architect Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) has succumbed to disillusionment, particularly after his former boss’s son takes over the company he works for, threatening to erase everything he’s slaved his entire life to establish. While wandering the streets of the city he once loved, he spots a familiar face: an elephant who was once his childhood pet. Clinging to anything that can connect him to his past, Thana sets out on a journey across Thailand to return the titular beast to the farm where he spent his youth.

Much like many other films to come out of that corner of the world, Pop Aye isn’t meant to be bought at face value. It takes place in a dreamscape that always finds itself a few shades away from reality. Viewers – even those who aren’t well-versed in world cinema – are likely to get sucked in by the absolute strangeness of it all. This film is the sort of parable that doesn’t normally grace the multiplexes on this side of the globe. It’s refreshing to tackle a story that is more than meets the eye. By amplifying the absurdity that already exists within the world, the film offers a much richer discussion than it ever could if it were to simply focus on being consumed on a literal level.

Kirsten Tan excels as a storyteller when she opts for a swift examination of the seemingly minuscule aspects of the world she is crafting. Brief moments of unexpected humanity are sprinkled throughout Pop Aye, such as when Thana takes a moment to take part in a seed-spitting contest with a young boy as the film is nearing its conclusion. It is these flashes of inspired awareness that allows Tan’s work to outshine the inferior efforts that are sure to be brought to mind for American audiences, such as The Straight Story and even the utterly ridiculous Larger Than Life. In this way, Tan’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker is her ability to paint a portrait that is consistently optimistic without falling into the territory of hokeyness.

Tan (along with editor Lee Chatametikool, who has played a key role in several notable films by Apichatpong Weerasethakul) manages to tastefully intersperse flashbacks to Thana’s past in a way that never feels tiresome. This is not a Forrest Gump type situation; we are very much planted firmly in the present. But the memories of Thana’s younger days help to reveal a more complete image of his character, namely by focusing on his carefree spirit before he had been displaced by the soul-crushing corporate world and subjected to a loveless cohabitation with his wife, Bo (Penpak Sirikul).

Any discussion of this film would be incomplete without mentioning the stunning efforts of director of photography Chananun Chotrungproj, who beautifully showcases the vastness of Thailand. Whether we are in the crowded heart of the bustling Bangkok, the dimly-lit bathroom of a seedy bar, or the endless stretches of lush farmland, Chotrungproj displays a visual prowess that exceeds the limitations of the camera in order to create lasting, serene images. The snapshot of the road coated with busted melons deserves as much credit as any other aspect of this film.

For every halfway decent ‘animal movie,’ there are at least a dozen that use cheap emotional manipulation to try and distract viewers from realizing how little substance they possess. Kirsten Tan circumnavigates our expectations of the subgenre, largely due to the fact that her creature is much more of a catalyst than it ever is the film’s sole focus. Pop Aye is a promising debut from an undeniably soulful filmmaker. We could use more movies with Tan’s approach to exploring the power of nostalgia, in a way that is indulgent but never to the point where it loses its grasp on the importance of looking toward the future.

Drink Every Time: there is a glaring cultural difference.

Grade: B-

Baby Driver Review

baby-driver-3000x1474-jamie-foxx-jon-hamm-best-movies-12925

Film critics often gush over movies that showcase characters who are really good at their given profession. Baby Driver is all that and more, as its protagonist is constantly flaunting his skills in the most exhilarating ways imaginable. Director Edgar Wright’s latest feature-length dream sequence packs quite a punch, fully embodying everything junk food cinema should strive for.

Baby (the surprisingly versatile Ansel Elgort) is the most skilled driver around, but his talents are almost exclusively utilized by a vicious crime boss (Kevin Spacey) to whom he is indebted. After a childhood accident left his hearing permanently damaged, Baby must drown out the buzzing with a wide variety of tracks perfectly tailored to any situation he may come across. Baby falls for a waitress (Lily James) who makes him want to give up his life of crime, but he soon finds out how onerous it can be to turn your back on a gangster.

Baby Driver attempts to operate on multiple levels, and it is one of those rare films actually able to do so successfully. As he has proven in the past with nearly every project that has his name attached to it, Edgar Wright is a master of blending genres without sacrificing the potency of any of the individual parts. The jokes in this movie land, but so do the thrills. It walks a tonal tightrope, reminding us how stunning it can be to see this feat done correctly. This joyride should be the benchmark that all other summer popcorn movies hope to meet.

That’s not to simply reduce Edgar Wright to a genre filmmaker. Technically speaking, Baby Driver clearly has an expansive understanding of the context of cinema throughout history, and it gives its director the perfect opportunity to display the tricks of the trade he’s picked up over his time in the industry. Wright is an expert in creative framing and his extended tracking shots, particularly during high energy chase sequences, are absolutely dazzling. With the same whimsical enthusiasm we’ve come to expect from the director, we see the protagonist dance his way through his daily routine, often in a single, unbroken shot.

As you might imagine, the soundtrack is a carefully woven tapestry featuring bangers of a variety of genres, and they aren’t the tracks you would predict. A couple of the songs are obvious choices, but even they serve the atmosphere of the film in an inspired way. From an exhaustive opening car chase set to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” to a surprisingly tense scene draped in Barry White’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” there is not a single note out of place. Music snobs will be giddy hearing deeper tracks in the background of such a grand-scale movie, and those unfamiliar with some of the more obscure pockets of pop culture will get lots of great recommendations for further listening.

It’s unusual for a big-budget action movie to feel this handmade. Baby Driver is one of those diamonds in the rough that reminds us why we love going to the movies. The next time someone complains about the state of Hollywood, whining that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” sit them down in front of this film. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a truly invigorating trend in studio filmmaking.

Drink Every Time: you think about digging through a drawer for your old iPod.

Grade: A

Transformers: The Last Knight Review

Transformers-Last-Knight

Keeping in step with the rest of this overblown eyesore of a franchise, Transformers: The Last Knight hits audiences with an obligatory “BWAAAAH!” while the first studio logo is still on-screen. It then processes to drag its convoluted story through medieval England as we are given the second bastardization of the Arthurian legend so far this summer (and it’s still early, folks). Believe it or not, the plot only gets more insane from there. The fifth installment in the series is the most compelling piece of evidence to date that Michael Bay has been reduced to a glaring parody of himself.

It’s actually impressive how meticulously bad Transformers: The Last Knight seems intent on being. The amount of detail that had to go into crafting such a scatterbrained whirlwind of flaming garbage is pretty astounding. Since walking out of this screening, I have tried, quite unsuccessfully, several times to explain the plot of this movie to friends and acquaintances, recounting my experience of watching a movie that somehow crammed in the source of Merlin’s mystical powers, fire-breathing robot dinosaurs, a flimsy metaphor for illegal immigration phobias, Nazi killing, and a glossed-over subplot involving Optimus Prime’s origins that is never even remotely fleshed out.  

In order to pad its two and a half hour runtime, The Last Knight appears to have taken several clashing story arcs and squished them together into an overstuffed casserole that will even be impractical for fans of the series to digest. As it plods through needlessly muddled exposition (Did you know that it was a transformer who actually killed Hitler?) the script often forgets about major plot points and key characters for extraordinarily long stretches of the movie. By the time the climax finally arrives, most viewers will have completely forgotten what this cosmic battle is being fought over – assuming they ever knew in the first place. Before trying to dissect this nonsensical attack on the senses, I had to skim through the Wikipedia plot synopsis.

Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, and Ken Nolan have fashioned together a screenplay (using the most liberal definition of the word) that fumbles through different tones at the drop of a hat. In the span of just a few minutes, you can witness a nauseatingly mawkish monologue about the loss of a loved one, an ejaculation of explosions, a shameless attempt at product placement, and Sir Anthony Hopkins flipping off a robot, for some reason. None of the ridiculous story beats are given enough of a pause to award them even the slight chance at efficacy they had to begin with.

I would almost recommend seeing Transformers: The Last Knight, though definitely not sober. If nothing else, other people viewing this nightmare would validate the experience that I’m still somewhat convinced was merely a fever dream. The last time one of these hit theaters, it made over a billion dollar worldwide. Is this really what people want from their movie-going experience? I’m all for escapist cinema, but I’m offended by how dim-witted this movie expects me to be.

Drink Every Time: you spot a Michael Bay cliché (But don’t really; you would die).

Grade: F