Monday, February 17, 2020

Stranger Things 4 Trailer

Earlier tonight, I watched a new movie on Netflix called "The Coldest Game." It took place during the Cold War and it was about a chess player who goes to a tournament in Russia to play Russia's best chess player. Because that's the type of thing that happened during the Cold War. The movie was a huge disappointment, so much so that I am not even sure how I could even begin to write about it. Those are always the movies that hurt most. The movies that are so profoundly bad that you can't even discuss what makes them bad. Words fail you.

Lets talk about a different Cold War era Netflix story. We got a small trailer over the weekend for "Stranger Things 4." What makes me cackle is that it looks like a prequel to "Black Widow"


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Review: Allison Brie upgrades big time with Netflix's "Horse Girl."

Horse Girl Review
Even though I am aware of Alison Brie, I am not totally up to date with her filmography and career. I was a hardened fan of "BoJack Horsemen" and it makes me terribly sad that it ended last week. Her voice work in the "LEGO Franchise" as UniKitty is big fun. She was funny in "Get Hard" and "The Disaster Artist," but those were relatively small roles. I never got into "Community" yet, but plan to do so as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I don't remember "Scream 4" that well. But "The Five Year Engagement" is an underrated comedy and Brie's moments along side Chris Pratt were very funny. From there, all I really know is that she's Dave Franco's wife.

Alison Brie's upgrades in a big way in "Horse Girl." The wild new movie on Netflix. She gives a five-star performance. I know we still have award season gitters, I know the year just started and its a LONG way until December 2020, but Brie's performance is so confident, so strange that I'd love for it to somehow be in the awards talk by the end of this year. But alas, I need to wait to see how the rest of the year goes. It's just that...when someone really breaks their own mold, in a way we've never seen before. It's shocking in the best way and its amazing.

How do I even describe "Horse Girl?" I've been wondering that since last night. Allison Brie plays Sarah. She works at a fabric company. She likes horses. She's kind of introverted, maybe even autistic in the way she has conversations with people. But she's nice and most people find her nice, even if she's a little overbearing to like. She likes her science fiction shows too. Obviously, she also likes horses. But she begins to see things, little glimpses of things. She begins to have really weird dreams where she is laying in an all-white limbo and she sees a man laying next to her (John Ortiz), then she begins to see the same man in real life.

Is she developing a mental disorder? Is she a clone created in a lab somewhere? Is she being prepped to be taken by aliens? Those are the three culprits investigated in the movie, and I don't think you'll be able to guess where the movie is heading. Sometimes, the movie feels like a comedy. Other times it feels like a dramedy. Other times it feels experimental. Other times it kind of feels David Lynchian. Point being, it will keep you guessing until the end. The ending isn't shocking, it's just end of a wild ride that I didn't want to end.

Like I said, Allison Brie is just amazing, I hope she takes on more challenging work like I see here. Molly Shannon is also pretty good as Sarah's co-worker. After seeing her be so over-the-top on SNL for years, it's interesting to see her play a fairly normal person, she does great work. The cast does really well. If you like your cinema wildly weird, check this out. Netflix is getting better and better picking movies for their platform.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Monday, February 10, 2020

Harley Quinns. Harley Quinns everywhere.

I cannot honestly explain how Harley Quinn became such an icon for DC recently. Maybe, for their screened entertainment, the heroes didn't quite work as well as they thought. So perhaps they decided to go the anti-hero and villain route. I mean, it's been working. No matter what I feel about "Joker," it made tons of money, it found its audience and it even got two Oscars last night. Hell, Joaquin Phoenix had a phenomenal season at the awards this year and that is highly respectable. I am hearing some very positive things about James Gunn's reinvention of "The Suicide Squad" and its got all the potential in the world to be amazing.

As far other DC characters go, I never really thought that Harley Quinn would be the center of my DC fandom at any given moment. I never hated the character, she was just not who I expected I would end up loving the most ant any given time. Boy, was I wrong. DC Universe's "Harley Quinn" cartoon is amazing. It is simply amazing. You know what else? That "Birds of Prey" movie? That's pretty fucking fantastic too.

I know, you didn't see that coming. Or maybe you did, I don't know. Either way, my reaction certainly surprised me. I really like Margot Robbie. She may have been relatively unknown before being cast as Harley Quinn, she is one of those lightning-in-the-bottle casting for comic book movies. Yes, she's on the same exact level as Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man or Mickey Rourke as Marv. Yes, she's that iconic and I can't imagine this character ever getting revamped. In fact, I don't want it to. She was easily the best part of "Suicide Squad." The thing is, besides Margot's work and Will Smith's work, the more and more I think of "Suicide Squad," the more I hate it. I knew Margot Robbie could shine in a stand-alone movie. I just didn't like the fact that the stand alone movie in question was going to be "Birds of Prey." Harley Quinn isn't a character associated with that group, and to exclude Birds of Prey's central character (aka Batgirl) and shoving Harley Quinn in it just bank on the popularity of the character put a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't think I'd care for "Birds of Prey and the Obnoxiously Long Title to Explain One Harley Quinn's Presence." I didn't think I'd care for it one bit.

Perhaps it was those low expectations that finally won me over. Maybe the concept and the actors and the style was so wild that it ended up working. I don't know really know what happened but whatever happened, it worked. It really worked. I was pretty amazed by how much I liked "Birds of Prey." Yeah, its different from the comics, but that's not really a bad thing. There is an attitude and a confidence to the movie that is just amazing. It's so freaking bonkers and over-the-top but still has the power to entertain immensely. This is all my way of saying that many people missed out on this one over the weekend and that's too bad.

 We are going to be talking about "Birds of Prey" tonight. We are also going to be talking about the cartoon show too. Because like I said, I can't believe how much Harley Quinn is working as a character right now. If you like warped worlds and insane violence and totally weirdness in your comic book movies or shows, you owe it to yourself to see "Birds of Prey" and watch the "Harley Quinn" cartoon.

Its too bad that so many are so afraid of feminism right now, and it sucks that we think its such a bad word in popular culture right now. I don't care if a movie or a show is about all men or all women, if you can tell a great story, create engaging characters...that's all I really need at the end of the day. As I stated above, there was a lot going against "Birds of Prey" in my mind. I think if people actually went out and saw "Birds of Prey" they would be drawn into the strange style of the movie, the enriching and imaginative world. I think people would be impressed by the how strong the characters are here. Yes, there is a feeling of Girl Power throughout the film. Yes, there are bright colors and sugar-high moments. But the characters are that great, and the confidence in every moment of the film makes all the difference.

In "Birds of Prey," Harley Quinn has broken up with The Joker. She's on her own for the first time in a long time. Everybody is after now though, including gangster Ronan Sionis AKA Black Mask (Ewen McGregor), thing is that there are lots of people in Sionis's orbit who could help Harley Quinn be free of him. I love that this looks like the typical superhero movie, but its anything but. They said "Suicide Squad" was to be the middle finger to the comic book movie establishment, but that missed the mark. "Birds of Prey" may be the answer. In the "Harley Quinn" cartoon, Harley has also "broken up" with the Joker. She isn't looking to redeem herself like in the movie though. She wants to prove that she can be a force to be reckoned with without the Clown Prince of Crime. She gets friends like Poison Ivy, Doctor Psycho, King Shark and Clayface to be her crew and she launches crime sprees of her own to be Gotham's next big villain.

Both "Birds of Prey" and "Harley Quinn" revolve around Harley Quinn building a new family after she loses The Joker, the one person she considered her whole world. They both deal with a person trying to create a world for themselves, they are about taking charge of yourself, because it is up to you to move forward in your life. It may seem messed up learning these important lessons in movies and shows about supervillains, but hey, whatever works. The mistake would be to make these stories accessible to young ages, but it seems really wrong for young girls to idolize Harley Quinn in any form. Even though she learns important lessons in her journey in the movie and the show, she is not an person to be celebrated. I am glad "Birds of Prey" ended up being rated R and that her cartoon ended up with a TV-MA. Its true to the character.

"Birds of Prey" is fun because its a terrific ensemble. Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Dinah Lance, a night club singer who gets too close to Black Mask. Mary Elizabeth Windstead plays Helena Bertinelli, a vigilante who wishes people just knew her name. Rosie Perez plays Renee Montoya, a Gotham cop whose cases are always being credited by men. Then there is Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain, an orphan who is also a pick-pocket. She steals from the wrong person and sets the whole story in motion. I love that this "team" doesn't ever really become a team, even at the end. This is dressed like a typical superhero team-up, but its anything but. This group doesn't come together, and they all have valid reasons to not trust each other. But they come together for each other, and that's what its all about. Throwing away old rivalries and problems to defeat a greater good.

Can I also just say that Ewen McGregor plays a delightfully terrible scumbag after a career of happy-go-lucky good guys and it was everything I needed? Yes people, don't worry, he sports the mask you want him to for a nice chunk of the movie.

There is so much to love about the "Harley Quinn" cartoon that I am not quite sure I can list them all off. I love that Clayface is always trying to do different acting routines. Because remember, he was a former actor turned villain in the comics. I love that Poison Ivy lives in a leafy apartment instead of a greenhouse. I love that she has a "Little Shop of Horrors-like" buddy named Frank. Frank needs to be comic book canon now. I love that there is a moment where Jim Gordon lights up the Bat-Signal just so he can get relationship advice from Batman. I love King Shark's urban clothes. I love all of Doctor Psycho. I love that Kite-Man is guy we see from time to time. I love the funny website that supervillains use to hire henchmen. I love how The Legion of Doom parodies office life. I love that we get a glimpse of this weird, warped DC Universe that we never see in the comic books. I love that Harley Quinn's landlord goes on crime sprees with her. I think why I love this so much is just how unique it feels. The style this cartoon is calling to isn't the references you think. I love that.

Both "Birds of Prey" and "Harley Quinn" are quite hyper-violent. There is a moment in "Birds of Prey" where Harley is taking down some henchmen with a steel baseball bat that honestly made me cringe. In the cartoon? Well, somebody is always losing a head or losing a limb or dying in such a perverse way that you'll either laugh or scream. Not that "Birds of Prey" is honestly that different. A guy gets blown apart by a grenade for crying out loud. "Birds of Prey" in particular has action scenes that you aren't going to expect. Guaranteed.

I think what I am most impressed by with "Birds of Prey" and "Harley Quinn" is that the movie challenges our empathy. These are all flawed individuals, these are criminals and when you allow your audience to empathize with people of this caliber, it can sometimes be a tall order. Making somebody like Harley Quinn the center of the universe almost seems sociopathic on paper, but the artists behind this movie and this show prove that you can tell worthwhile stories involving any type of person. Its not like they are daring the audience to be just like these people anyway, you can have your empathy challenged without getting a calling to crime.

Harley Quinn of all people has stolen my heart. I love this Harley Quinn phase and I am curious to see how long it lasts. If you missed "Birds of Prey," you are screwing yourself out of a good time. So go this weekend!

Review: Is Shia Labeouf experiencing his own renaissance? A review of "Honey Boy"

Honey Boy Review
 Remember Matthew McConaughey's career in the late 90's and throughout the 2000's? He settled into a career of doing light and disposable fair. He did lots of rom-coms. He did safe stuff like "Sahara." When you put the movies "The Wedding Planner," "Failure to Launch," "How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days," "Fool's Gold" and "Ghosts of Girlfriend's Past" all next to each other, it seemed like McConaughey was basically playing the same character. Then in 2010, there was a dramatic shift. He broke out in a film called "The Lincoln Lawyer." He only began to go up from there. "Dallas Buyers Club," "True Detective," "Gold," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Interstellar," "Mud," "Killer Joe," "Sing," "Kubo and the Two Strings...he began to challenge himself as an artist and a performer. The results were endless and the sky seemed like the limit. They called McConaughey's sudden heel turn the "McConaissance" because it did feel like he went through a rebirth as an actor.

I bring this up because it seems like Shia LaBeouf is starting to go through this now. Actually, I am not sure if "starting to" is really the right phrasing. LaBeouf started acting when he was young, and throughout the 2000's after his "Even Steven" career, he wanted to show how tough he was and he did lots of stuff like "Transformers" and "I, Robot" and it seemed like through much of the 2000's he was playing the same character (much like McConaughey). Then as early as 2012, LaBeouf started pushing himself as a performer and started making more daring decisions as an actor. I'd recommend films like "Lawless," and "Fury" and "Nymphomaniac" and especially "American Honey" which I named one of the ten best films of the 2010's recently.

Not only does LaBeouf star in the recent "Honey Boy" but he also wrote it and its partially (or possibly mostly) based on his life as young actor and how that affected him later in life. It's not a straight up autobiography, simply something that was based on his life and something he had to get out of his system while he was in rehab. You can tell this is based on his life, as the movie opens on a film set and there are noises that sound like Autobots in the background. We then meet Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges). Otis seems to be kind of drifting through being an actor and drifting through life as we meet him. Otis gets into a car crash, gets into a drunken brawl with police and then gets sent to rehab. His counselor (played by the underrated Laura San Giacomo) tells him that if he flees before she says he's ready, he will go to prison.

We then meet Otis as a decade earlier, now played by Noah Jupe, who you may remember from "A Quiet Place" and "Suburbicon." If you know LaBeouf's life, then you may see some things you recognize. LaBeouf himself plays Otis' father who helps Otis in his career as a child actor. LaBeouf's character name is James and James really isn't the best father. He smokes in front of his son, allows his own son to smoke. He says incredibly vulgar things around his son. He leaves him by himself for long amounts of time to get drunk and go to strip clubs. He loves his son, but he will do anything to make sure he gets famous. He is also unpredictable, manic and aggressive. The movie jumps from 1995 to 2005 and Otis' counselor comes to the conclusion that Otis may be suffering from PTSD.

It seems like Lucas Hedges has decided to be the guy that plays damaged young men. There is a definate pattern present as you watch his films "Manchester By The Sea" and "Lady Bird" and "Ben is Back" and "Boy Erased" and "Mid-90s." The thing is, he seems to bring something new and fresh to each new role. He seems determined to never repeat himself, even though he is essentially the same character movie by movie. He has a great range that you really don't see much in other actors his age. 

LaBeouf? He is a vile tornado of self-indulgence here. He totally disappears into the role he has provided for himself. He loses himself in the role and it is yet another great moment in a career that is budding towards brilliance. He has grown up before our eyes and we didn't even notice. So why don't we pay a little respect.

This isn't a screed against LaBeouf's father. This is very much a movie about acceptance, forgiveness and redemption. It's boldly told and richly imagined. I've seen many stories about how parents use their parents in unhealthy ways to see that they become famous and it can sometimes be ugly. LaBeouf has said himself that his father was "a different kind of man" and described him as a hippie that abused drugs. That is very clear throughout the movie. I hope LaBeouf's little personal renaissance can continue for as long as it possibly can. He deserves it. While it came out in 2019, it hit Amazon Prime recently. Too bad, I think this movie could have really made a big awards push this season. But Amazon has tons of money so they must rule all. Forget awards season though, turn on your app and support this great movie!

FINAL GRADE: A

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Off The Cuff: My review of the 92nd Academy Awards Ceremony

Usually on Academy Award night, I usually make predictions, scrutinize the movies, and see everything before tonight. That didn't happen this year.

Why?

Find out below


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

RIP Kirk Douglas

"You only live once, but when you live like me, once is enough." Frank Sinatra said that a long time ago. While he was obviously was talking about himself, you could also apply that to the life of Kirk Douglas. Even though, 103 isn't enough and it could never be enough. Look at everything Kirk Douglas accomplished. Not only did he have a lengthy film career that spanned decades, the charity work that did around Hollywood for the whole of that career has been felt in the same exact time, decades.

Since the early 2010's, I was obsessed over the Roman Empire slave wars and I got into the "Spartacus" TV show hard. That eventually lead me to see the movie and the 1960 movie is as epic as it could possibly for the time. Douglas is amazing in it. It's an amazing lead performance. It's not nearly as vulgar as the TV show was, but it certainly didn't need to be. We don't get movies on that type of scale that feel epic in a classic way. It was nice.

There's also "Ace In The Hole," which I think is one of those movies all Americans should see, especially right now in a time where the media is frenzy every hour of every day. "Paths of Glory" was one of the first movies that didn't feature a romanticized version of war. I recently watched "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea" on Disney+ which was a fun watch and featuring a great Douglas role. Those are just some of his very best roles. We could be here all night if we really wanted to, discussing this movie or that movie from this decade or that decade.



Douglas did so much for his community and did so much for all of us, helping flex our creativity. Thanks Kirk, you will be missed.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Review: "Gretel and Hansel" is a creepy though uneven surprise

Gretel and Hansel Review

If you were to ask me that I'd be seeing a movie about Gretel and Hansel and it would remind me of the movie "The Witch," I wouldn't have believed you. 

Granted, I don't want this to sound like I am saying "Gretel and Hansel" is better than "The Witch." It's just a much grander effort than I would have expected from a horror movie this early in the new year. It feels very much in the vein of the original Grimm fairy tale. What were the original Grimm fairy tales like? Much darker than you probably think. We have grown up over the decades seeing sanitized and Disney-fied versions of fairy tales that we forget (or probably didn't know) how dark those early fairy tales were in tone and style. Take "The Three Little Pigs" for instance. We grew up hearing that a Big Bad Wolf came along and blew down two houses belonging to pigs, before he got to a brick house he couldn't destroy. In the original writings, The Big Bad Wolf not only blows down those first two houses, but eats the first two pigs. When the wolf gets to the brick house and the third pig, he can't blow it down. So he tries to get in through the chimney, when he does, the pig has a pot kettle boiling and he cooks and eats the wolf alive. Not only does the third pig eat the wolf, he eats his two brothers.

In the original "Hansel and Gretel" fairy tale, the two siblings don't get lost in the forest as per usual. They have an bitchy stepmother who manipulates their father to cast them out, getting them lost in the forest. They come across a house made out of yummy things to eat, and out comes a witch to greet them. She begins to fatten up the children because she's planning on cooking them and eating them. As the witch is preparing her oven, Gretel sees an opportunity. She pushes the witch into her own oven and burns the witch alive. Thus getting her brother and leaving the house behind.

"Gretel and Hansel" returns this fairy tale back to its horror roots. Instead of a bitchy stepmother to deal with, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Sammy Leaky) have to deal with a mother who is slowly losing her mind. So the children run away, much like the original fairy tale, they happen upon a house that smells like delicious food. Gone is the house made of candy, sugar and other sweets. This is merely just a house. But it is the home of a woman named Holda (played by Alice Krige). Holda is incredibly creepy, both in look and in performance and its wonderful acting on Krige's part.

I think its not totally unintentional that the movie is called "Gretel and Hansel" instead of the original "Hansel and Gretel," but there is a reason for that. I don't mean to make anybody cringe, but there is a bit of feminism within the movie. While Holda pays lip service to it in a couple of instances, we begin to figure out that Gretel may have magical witch powers of her own and one of the cliffhangers of the movie is whether or not Gretel will be a good or a bad witch. But if you think you are going to get an "agenda" shoved down your throat, relax. This movie has more to say about coming-of-age and shifting into adulthood more than anything else. And why not? That shift into adulthood is kinda scary. Its definitely different leaving the comfort of your home and vanishing into the real world and I think the movie represents some of those anxieties in a big way. 

The movie boils down to Holda trying to train Gretel to become a bad witch and Holda's ultimate plan is for Gretel to literally eat Hansel to complete her evil training. I know, its even more messed up than the Brothers Grimm could have even imagined. For a movie that is barely an hour and a half, getting to this point feels like you are watching molasses drip. It should also be pointed out that "Gretel and Hansel" is more unsettling and moody than it is scary. There really aren't many scare tactics in this movie. It is very much a slow burn. There are moments of uneasy surreal scenes and there are some weird dream sequences. This is a movie that slowly puts the hooks into you, not something that is trying to make you jump out of your seat at every given moment. For that, I do give "Gretel and Hansel" kudos for thinking outside the box.

I am intrigued by the future of Sophia Lillis, because I think she has the potential to be a big star as she gets older. She had one of the most commanding presences in the "IT" movies and she made her moments on "Sharp Objects" from HBO count. Sammy Leaky is also a wonderful discovery here. It seems so unorthodox to put children in harms way, even in the horror genre. These two children really sell the peril and the angst they are in and they play off Krige really well. Especially in the moments when Krige's Holda gets weirder and weirder.

January and February are usually slow months when it comes to movies. But every once in awhile we get some surprises that come out of the woodwork. Based upon how its created, I am not sure if "Gretel and Hansel" will be for everybody. But if you are up for some spooky and moody fair, this should go down smooth for you.

FINAL GRADE: B