High-Rise (2015)

High Rise

It’s not a thriller, as advertised. It’s actually a really violent and bizarre satire of capitalism, in which the “society” of tenants in a high-rise apartment building falls apart during a series of power outages.

I’ve never read the book it’s based on but, strangely enough, High-Rise reminded me of both Monty Python and A Clockwork Orange. (It’s also very reminiscent of Fernando Meirelles’  Blindness.) It was cynical and disorienting, with lots of sex and gory violence. There are no likable characters to be found and a couple of dogs are killed for, I believe, extremely dark humor. I’ll admit that I did chuckle at some of the sharp dialogue but overall, the movie was kind of a chore to get through. (And I disagree with this particularly bleak take on humanity “under pressure…” even though many artists seem to insist that it’s authentic!)

Anyway, I should really give High-Rise two leafs because I didn’t like it much… but some sick part of me did appreciate the fact that it was so unique and anti-establishment. High-Rise is only for the more adventurous and/or subversive viewers among us.

Three pot leafs out of five:
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High-Rise (2015)

Deadpool (2016)

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The movie was great… but let me back up: It had been a stressful day and I thought, “I deserve to go see a movie! Deadpool! Yes, I have been waiting to see this one.” But to be totally honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of how slapsticky it looked. (I get it. It’s satire. It’s self-aware.) Well, it is and does a brilliant job of it! I was hopeful for all the reasons why I’m worried the Deadpool copycat movies will be not so clever. This is a Marvel movie rated R! I have been waiting for this ever since my disappointment with the first X-men movie. Wolverine kills people! Where was that shit?!

I mean, comic book movies have forever fallen flat in the cinema. The raw, powerful, sexy violence from the comic books never translated to the screen. A couple of the movies got some of the comedic moments right. For example, I loved when Spider-Man took the elevator, back when that type of subtle humor was fairly fresh. So I was excited to see that Marvel was finally getting some balls, but I was disappointed because I never followed Deadpool. (I would love to see a real Wolverine movie that takes place entirely in the snowy forests of Russia, where he’s hunting and/or evading Omega Red for a solid two hours of deadly cat and mouse. But back to Deadpool!)

Anyway, I was starving so I decided grab some “Shop House,” which, in case you are unaware, is a delicious Thai food /Chipotle style restaurant. I got a rice and chicken bowl with sliced broccoli and butternut squash — with a spicy red curry — and and some shredded papaya coleslaw, along with some toasted garlic. (I know right?! I was all stomach rumbles on my way over to the theater.) The theater is usually pretty lax on entrance security, so I confidently walked in with my crumpled paper bag as if it was just leftovers that I wasn’t really thinking about. (In hindsight, I should have used a J-crew bag.) But the dude said, “no food,” and I was all like, “Really man?” And he was all, “Yeah, I’m sorry bro.” So I walked outside and took a couple bites. (It was freezing.) I tried to stuff the rest in my jacket, but it was too obvious. So I decided to to put it up against my lower back with a solid shirt-tuck and a snug jacket zip. The guy inspected me for extra fatness on my way back in and decided that I was good to go. (I even waited in line with my back to to by snacks just to play it “extra cool!”) After finishing up my meal during the previews — as planned — I thought it was time to get into my Sour Patch kids. I was trying to be extra gentle and not open it with a vertical slit-style opening. (Nobody likes to eat candy like that!) I like a good ol’ potato chip “pull-open” style. But there was nothing, nothing, nothing, and then… SOUR PATCH KIDS EVERYWHERE! A small handful were salvaged and enjoyed. And this whole thing was possibly only witnessed by one fellow patron behind me, who was polite enough not to vocally express her judgment of me.

So… Deadpool. Ok.

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Deadpool (2016)

The Witch (2015)

Witch

The Witch is a deeply unsettling film. I just finished watching it, and I can already tell that it’s going to linger in my subconscious for a while… which is a good thing. (I love when “horror” flicks are able to get under my skin like that.) And I’m tempted to rate it very highly immediately — because it’s such a unique and terrifying look at witchcraft. But the movie movie is not without its flaws, so I’ll try not to get too carried away.

The film is about a family of Puritans in the New World (New England) roundabout 1630, who are banished from their town and forced to live by themselves in the wilderness. Almost immediately, the youngest member of the family — an infant boy — is stolen by a witch and killed. The family is torn apart by their own grief, suspicion, and distrust while the witch continues to assert her influence over them (via the farm animals, etc). The whole thing is done without any noticeable musical score, which is quite effective in my opinion, and the characters speak in authentic dialect (with a lot of “thy” and “thee” in their lingo). But there’s no denying that the plot, albeit extremely captivating, moves along at a drunken snail’s pace.

There are some profoundly creepy scenes and there is some very haunting imagery — and the stunning climax is haunting as hell. But you better have some serious patience to sit through this slow ride by writer/director Robert Eggers. He’s combined all the rich folklore regarding witches into one delicious hour and a half of horror, but it’s so stylized that I wouldn’t be surprised if he loses half of his viewers in the first 20 minutes. Personally, I’m really glad I stuck with it. I’ll probably have some pretty mind-warping nightmares tonight!

Three pot leafs out of five:
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The Witch (2015)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

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I was so excited to see this movie. I figured that — even if it didn’t blow my mind completely — it would still be extremely entertaining. But now, 24 hours after I saw it in beautiful RealD 3D, I still can’t believe how mediocre it was. The movie wasn’t necessarily bad… but it should have been so good. I mean, for shit’s sake, we’ve got Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman (the Justice League coming together!) — along with glimpses of The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg — as well as Lex Luthor and Doomsday in a single film directed by one of the most visually stunning directors of our time!! How was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice not an utter face-melter?!?

As it so often happens, the studio simply bit off more than it could chew, attempting to fit way too much story line and character development into a two-and-a-half-hour time frame. The end result was the same as it always is: an emotionally flat film with glossed-over plot points and shallow caricatures. (I understand that Wonder Woman’s story will be fleshed out in a stand-alone movie next summer, but that didn’t help me enjoy her role in Dawn of Justice last night.) And Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, Man of Steel), who I’ve always gone out on a limb to defend, seems to have finally lost control of the reins on the Warner Bros/DC Comics money-grab train. His gorgeous, colorful action sequences — usually done in slow motion — have devolved into incoherent, frenetically edited tornadoes of images that can barely be deciphered.

Personally, I don’t think I can keep watching these big-budget mockeries of my favorite superheroes, especially considering the fact that DC Comics has released 25 feature-length animated movies that are really cool! Why even bother with these lame live-action attempts anymore? Everything in Dawn of Justice, for example, had already been covered [better] in films like Justice League: The New Frontier, Wonder Woman, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

I’m being particularly harsh on this movie because it honestly should have been better. The acting was fine — even Affleck and Eisenberg — but the trope-filled CGI action fails to impact its audience in any meaningful way. Roughly put: Warner Bros/DC should stop trying to be Disney/Marvel and just do its own thing.

Two pot leafs out of five:
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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Midnight Special (2016)

Midnight Special

Now, this is some refreshing sci-fi! Midnight Special starts in mid-stride, with two men hustling a cooperative young boy into the back of a ’72 Chevelle as an AMBER alert describing the trio blares in the background. The driver of the car then puts on a pair of night vision goggles, switches off the headlights, and tears off into pre-dawn darkness. It’s a badass opening sequence — and it all takes place before the title screen — but, thankfully, the movie doesn’t proceed on some mindless chase, full of gunfights, explosions, and unlikely scenarios. (That kind of faux sci-fi has been done to death.) Midnight Special instead takes the high road, adopting a deliberate, albeit slow, pace that eventually yields a unique, character-driven sci-fi/drama rather than another trope-filled sci-fi/action flick.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose credits include Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, relies once again on Michael Shannon — one of the most interesting and expressive actors in Hollywood — as well as the American Deep South to tell a moving and meditative story. Taking cues from the sci-fi blockbusters of the 1980’s (Close Encounters, E.T., Starman, Cocoon), Midnight Special weaves together government agents, religious cult members, and a boy with seemingly “alien” abilities into an extremely suitable, though particularly subtle, tapestry. The script doesn’t spend much time explaining itself, and the dialogue doesn’t spoon-feed the audience any plot points. Viewers are forced to pay close attention if they want to put the whole story together, piece-by-piece. (And, as you surely know by now, I generally find that kind of “work” refreshing.)

Midnight Special is worth the slow ride because it ultimately pays off with an unforgettable conclusion, unlike any I can remember from the past two decades of cinema. With this film, Nichols’ certainly solidifies his status as one of the most fascinating (and uniquely American) writer/directors working today. (Actually, I tend to believe that he’s poised to excel in every way that his predecessors — directors like Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green — have failed. [Holler at me in the comments section if you need me to explain that rather brazen comment.])

Nichols is like that rare, good friend, who actually has very thought-provoking things to say, but never talks too much — and I’m really psyched to see what he does next.

Four pot leafs out of five:
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Midnight Special (2016)

Self/less (2015)

Selfless

Eventually, I will completely trash a movie with a one-leaf rating. But Self/less barely managed to stay above my personal hate threshold. It starts out as a promising-enough, Twilight Zone-y science fiction flick, but then it quickly devolves into a gimmicky and predictable action flick — complete with multiple gun fights, chase scenes, flamethrowers, etc.

Actually, I can’t stand to spend much time thinking about this movie anymore: Self/less is a complete waste of… millions of dollars. Sir Ben Kingsley and Ryan Reynolds were both fine in (albeit it yawning through) their respective roles. But this one’s such a throwaway script, it shouldn’t even be blogged about. (My bad!) The movie has a decent-enough premise and, like I said, I can’t say that it offends the senses completely. But do rest assured that it’s a predictable, paint-by-numbers exercise, and you can totally skip it without losing any sleep.

The director responsible, Tarsem Singh, has overseen some pretty visually stimulating movies in the past, including Immortals, Mirror Mirror, The Fall, and — my personal favorite — The Cell (with freakin’ Vince Vaughn and J-Lo)! But Self/less fails to engage on any emotional level, and I’m afraid to say that it’s also incredibly stupid. (Not that any of Singh’s other flicks are real genius pieces either…)

Anyway, I’m not going to pan it completely because it didn’t make me want to gouge my eyeballs out. It is, in fact, a “production.” But I’m a serious science fiction fan, and Self/less is severely disappointing.

Two pot leafs out of five:
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Self/less (2015)

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail Caesar

Let me just start by saying that I adore the Brothers Coen. Nobody does dark comedy better than they do. (Even their lightest fare tends to include a bit of murder, mayhem, or — at the very least — accidental suicide.) But Hail, Caesar! is a different story. For filmmakers who have spent the past 32 years defying convention, it still seems like a curve ball: It’s not hilarious. There’s no action. It has a full, homoerotic song-and-dance number involving a bar full of sailors. Nobody dies.

But if you’ve been paying really close attention to the writer/directors’ themes over the past 32 years — morality, mortality, etc. — you might be able to enjoy this excessively talky, but ultimately uplifting religious/political satire as well. Just don’t expect another Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou? Think more along the lines of Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, or A Serious Man.

Hail, Caesar! opens with a somber shot of Jesus on the cross, followed by a scene in which Josh Brolin’s character — the PR manager of a major Hollywood studio in the 1930s — confesses his trivial sins to a rather bored priest. Shortly after that, the Hollywood PR manager assembles a priest, a rabbi, and an imam around a table to discuss the studio’s latest effort to portray the “Godhead,” or divine images of the “Christ.” A brilliant, rapid-fire “Who’s on First?”-type conversation ensues, and this kind of toying with religious orthodoxy more-or-less sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Unfortunately, Hail, Caesar! was billed as a straight-up comedy — with images of George Clooney making funny faces, etc. But the truth is that it’s more of a light drama with a few chuckles included. At it’s core, I suspect that the movie is about the choices we make as humans, how they shape who we are, and how who we are, in turn, affects society. How do we know if we’re doing the right thing? the filmmakers seem to be asking. It’s the “lightest” flick that the Coens have ever made (e.g., what the viewer thinks are silenced gunshots turn out to be flashbulbs in a camera just a moment later). Hail, Caesar! also appears to serve as a sort of half-veiled vindication of what the Coen brothers have been doing for the past several decades: making movies for the masses.

I’m quite happy to disagree with most critics on this one. Hail, Caesar! is a strangely refreshing, offbeat gem.

Four pot leafs out of five:
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Hail, Caesar! (2016)