Short takes: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Mommy Dead and Dearest & more

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a sizable leap forward from the first installment, a movie that feels like its own beast and has a distinct visual personality that is so often absent from other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Again following the planet-hopping exploits of a misfit group of reluctant heroes, director James Gunn doubles down on the ensemble’s comedic banter while refining the action set pieces. The generic, indistinguishable eyeball assaults that I’ve come to expect and dread from Marvel movies are mostly gone here, replaced with fun, varied fight sequences. Gunn also divides the team up so he can focus on different character dynamics rather than throwing everyone into a big, empty spectacle that flattens them.

That’s not to say that doesn’t happen occasionally. There are times when the movie trips over its own feet, skipping between plot lines by awkwardly cutting up scenes that would be better had Gunn just let them play out a bit longer. This is especially true of the ones between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the Guardians’ leader, and the father (Kurt Russell) who abandoned him and his mother for a life of space conquest. Right as their scenes start to find a rhythm, the movie skips back to see what other members of the squad, Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), are up to while trapped on a space ship lightyears away.

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REVIEW: Moonlight

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Moonlight
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Written by: Barry Jenkins (screenplay), Tarell Alvin McCraney (story)
Starring: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes and Naomie Harris

Moonlight, a coming-of-age film from Barry Jenkins, is a moving, intimate epic. Told in three stages of his protagonist, Chiron’s, life — as a young boy (Alex R. Hibbert), a teenager (Ashton Sanders) and an adult (Trevante Rhodes)– Jenkins and the three actors who portray Chiron show his evolution from a quiet, cripplingly shy child to a more confident adult without losing sight of his pent up frustration and insecurity.

When we first see Chiron, he’s a frantic blur, a boy fleeing through grass from schoolyard bullies in Miami, his backpack thrashing behind him. To escape, he heads to a largely abandoned drug den and tries the doors until one opens. Locking it behind him, he’s finally alone and, temporarily, safe.  It’s not long before Juan (Mahershula Ali), a drug dealer who becomes a warm, caring father figure to the tormented boy, breaks off one of the wooden panels covering the window.

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REVIEW: Little Sister

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Little Sister
Directed by: Zach Clark
Written by: Zach Clark (screenplay), Zach Clark & Melodie Sisk (story)
Starring: Addison Timlin, Ally Sheedy, Keith Poulson and Peter Hedges

Colleen Lunsford hasn’t been home for a while.  The young novitiate (Addison Timlin) made her way from her hometown of Ashville, N.C. to Brooklyn and hasn’t looked back for several years.  Little Sister, from writer/director Zach Clark, establishes her life in New York and the rift between her and her mother with quick, economical cuts showing her new routine as her old life gradually, forcefully seeps its way back in. It begins with her mom Joani (an excellent Ally Sheedy) emailing her to tell her that her older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) is out of the hospital and back home after being wounded and permanently disfigured in the second Iraq War.

The email, which she reads after ignoring her mom’s attempt to contact her by phone, spurs her to temporarily abandon her life of buying food for the homeless, reading to the elderly and attending anti-George W. Bush performance art shows and head South.  She asks the head nun if she can borrow her car for the trip; the nun agrees, but makes her agree to a time frame.  God created the Earth in six days, she says, so Colleen should be able to attend to her business in less than that. They settle on five, though Colleen doesn’t hold herself to that time frame.

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Short takes: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and more

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Arrival — Arrival feels like the more hopeful and optimistic prequel to the 2009 sci-fi film District 9, a movie about the destructive, Apartheid-like aftermath of an alien spaceship’s sudden presence on Earth.  As in that movie, the large, ominous vessels in Denis Villeneuve’s film loom large over an otherwise standard landscape.  A dozen or so of the big, black ships pop up around the world, in places like Siberia, Sudan and Montana, where much of the movie is set. Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist, is called there by the U.S. military to try and communicate with the aliens and translate their messages.

If it weren’t for the strategic establishing shots with the spaceship, Arrival would feel like a much smaller movie, one that largely unfolds in an ominously foggy room inside one of the ships or in the close quarters of a temporary military base just outside it.  Its use of practical effects and news footage widens its scope and enhances the drama rather than distracting from it.  The movie focuses on a select few characters, but their actions are seen to have a huge and wide-ranging effect on how the rest of the world will respond to the crisis. Arrival builds to a moving, surprising climax, one that is both hopeful and heartbreaking.  Grade: B

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REVIEW: The Handmaiden

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The Handmaiden
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Written by: Chung Seo-Kyung and Park Chan-wook (screenplay), Sarah Waters (novel)
Starring: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo and Jo Jin-woong

Though its narrative sleights of hand are many, what sustains The Handmaiden is its over-the-top eroticism and its twisted sense of humor. Park Chan-wook’s latest is a lavish and elaborate con movie set in 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea; the target, at first, is Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), a Japanese heiress living at the villa. A con-man posing as a Count (Ha Jung-woo) recruits a pickpocket named Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) to work as a handmaiden and help him persuade the heiress to marry him.

She’s instructed to talk the Count up after each of his meetings with Hideko, to make subtle, off-handed remarks, like how her toenails are growing faster than usual since he’s arrived (a sure sign of true love). Once married, the Count will have the power to have Hideko declared insane and thrown in the madhouse so they can steal her fortune.

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REVIEW: Blair Witch

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Blair Witch
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Written by: Simon Barrett
Starring: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott

Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch is a straightforward if occasionally inventive reworking of the original.  The movie introduces a lot of interesting new elements, like implementing drones or trail cams into the found footage formula. Sadly, though, it does little more than introduce them.  It instead opts for a fairly predictable, albeit still frightening, excursion through the haunted Maryland woods.

The story focuses on James (James Allen McCune) leading his group of nervous if game friends (Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott) on a journey to find out what happened to his sister Heather, one of the characters in the original Blair Witch Project.  It begins with something the 1999 movie expressly avoided: revealing the Witch.  James shows footage of her to his friends on YouTube after it was posted by someone claiming to have found it in the woods where Heather and the rest of her film crew vanished more than 15 years ago. James’ first order of business is to meet with the people who posted it. Lane and Talia (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) agree to show him and his friends where in the woods they found the memory card, but only if they’re allowed to join them.

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REVIEW: Hell or High Water

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Hell or High Water
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Gil Birmingham

The West Texas of David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water is a series of near ghost towns that seem frozen in time.  Its restaurants, stores and, most crucially, banks are all but empty, save for the employees.  The movie’s only hints at modernity are the frequent references to the 2008 financial crisis, as two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) drive from town to town robbing those nearly empty banks, they pass many a billboard telling them how to relieve debt.

Mackenzie is not subtle about the hitting home the economic turmoil that pushes Toby (Pine) to ask his wild, recently-released-from prison brother Tanner (Foster) to help him with the robberies.  Toby is trying to raise enough money to pay off the debt he owes the bank to save their family ranch and establish a trust for his sons.  The brothers don’t go for the vaults when they hit the banks, or take packets of money that are more easily traced.  They go for small bills, which means they have to pull off several robberies to earn enough money.  It also means they aren’t big time enough to draw the attention of the FBI, and are instead pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers, the soon-to-be-retired Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his younger but no less world-weary partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

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