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Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Bottom Five Worst Films of 2019


1) THE FANATIC – 2019 was a heavy year for discourse regarding how Hollywood should be casting potentially sensitive roles. Frankly put, certain types of performance just don’t fly anymore! Apparently those conversations never reached the ears of Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, who cast the increasingly bonkers John Travolta as an obsessed cinephile on the autism spectrum in this revolting and moronic “satire” of fandom and fame. Adopting a stooped, shuffling gait, obnoxious whine and patchy mullet, the fallen actor conjures up a genuinely mortifying creation; the living embodiment of a fiery train yard collision. Grotesque protagonist aside, though, this is just a deeply terrible and cruel study in posturing frat-boy nihilism with nothing insightful to say whatsoever. The Fanatic wants so badly to be this generation’s Misery, and while that word definitely springs to mind throughout it’s not in relation to the works of Stephen King. 

Thursday, January 09, 2020

The Top 10 Best Films of 2019

1) ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD – Energetically rebounding back into audiences’ good graces after 2015’s polarizing underperformer The Hateful Eight, visionary virtuoso Quentin Tarantino’s passionate love letter to 1969 Hollywood is his most heartfelt and comical work to date. A wild, weird and uncharacteristically sweet cocktail of old time showbiz minutiae, bubbly nostalgia, killer tunes and obscure pop-culture nerdery, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood continues QT’s winning trend of kooky historical revisionism in fresh and occasionally startling ways. Fashioning iconic roles for Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt (the former in primo self-absorbed bumbling mode, the latter cool as Mr. Freeze) as struggling western TV veterans, Tarantino brings the crazy waning days of the 60s alive with a formidable cast and an obsessive attention to detail. Both an adoring deep dive into a bygone era, and a rapturously radical rewriting of Sharon Tate’s dreadful narrative, this fairy tale hang-out delight is a blissful escape of the highest order, and only grows more and more magical with each subsequent revisit. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Bottom Five Worst Films of 2018

1) The 15:17 to Paris – Props to veteran icon Clint Eastwood for still trying to experiment behind the camera but, yeegads, this docu-drama account of the 2015 Thalys train attack couldn’t be any clumsier if it tried. In a film rife with terrible creative decisions it's tough to nail down the filmmaker's most damning misstep, but casting the real life heroes as themselves was probably the most ill-advised. Saddled with tin-eared, cornball dialogue, the three floundering non-actors try again and again to approximate authentic human behavior to truly cringe-inducing results. They’re done no favors by Dorothy Blyskal’s insultingly obvious screenplay, which is broken up into three sections that might as well feature the introductory subtitles “Blatant Recruitment Ad,” “Meandering European Travelogue” and “The Part You Came For!” Inexplicably boring, sappy and amateurish, The 15:17 to Paris is the worst directorial effort of Eastwood’s long – and often spotty – career, made all the more unforgivable for transforming a gripping true story into made-for-TV movie-grade schlock that plays like parody. 

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Top 10 Best Films of 2018

1) PADDINGTON 2 – Modestly released in North American theatres last January, director Paul King’s superlative sequel to his clever 2015 surprise hit adaptation of Michael Bond's beloved literary icon is a flat-out miracle. Channeling the fantastically-realized, quirky world-building of Wes Anderson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, along with the enduring sight gag virtuosity of silent legends Chaplin and Keaton, this dazzling and joyful family entertainment frankly put the increasingly back catalogue-obsessed Disney to utter shame in 2018. A timely and gently stirring argument for diverse communities and inclusiveness, the picture wears its big heart on its sleeve while also delivering an abundance of unexpected delights, from MVP Hugh Grant’s deliriously bonkers villain performance to a thrilling, impeccably-constructed third act guaranteed to kick-start the waterworks. An unlikely hero if ever there was one, Paddington 2’s soulful and optimistic little marmalade enthusiast proved a priceless tour guide to follow on the year’s most fulfilling and magical journey.

Monday, January 08, 2018

The Bottom 5 Worst Films of 2017

1) BRIGHT – Despite having an otherwise banner year with noteworthy releases like Mudbound, Okja and Gerald’s Game, Netflix also barfed out its most revolting high profile creative disaster to date! Directed by notoriously problematic auteur David Ayer (Suicide Squad, Sabotage), this gritty Will Smith/Joel Edgerton fantasy cop clunker stumbles as badly as an orc at a tap dance recital. Both a boringly inept action picture and a deeply offensive commentary on race relations, Bright is two hours of drooling, knuckle-dragging bluster operating under the pathetic delusion it has relevant and thought-provoking things to say. If ever a title stood in stark, brutal contrast to the actual product, this is it!

2) TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT – Hard to believe it has been ten whole years since we first witnessed an Autobot pee on a dude. How far we’ve come, right? This fifth installment in the nonsensical Michael Bay series is pretty much more of the tedious same; another sadistically overlong and insipid orchestra of messy CG pandemonium, sputtering actors, juvenile gags and lecherous misogyny. While it’s debatable whether The Last Knight is the worst Transformers flick or not, it’s definitely the most lethargic and half-assed, lacking even the spark of madness that made its predecessors mildly amusing to ridicule. And if you can’t make Anthony Hopkins wielding a gun-cane while trading quips with his robot butler interesting, then why even bother?

3) THE MUMMY – Following in the clumsy footsteps of Amazing Spider-Man 2, 2017 saw Universal simultaneously launch its Dark Universe mega-franchise and kill it with a single bumbling blowout. An ill-conceived and cynical patchwork of spin-off set-ups and sequel bait, The Mummy never once gives any impression the studio cared if it was good or not. Starring a curiously miscast Tom Cruise in full vanity mode (multiple characters reference the 55-year-old’s youth and sexual stamina), Alex Kurtzman’s anonymously-helmed blockbuster bomb is about as ambitious as those musty, churned-out 1940s efforts where the title character just shuffles awkwardly around the studio backlot for 60 stretched-out minutes.

4) THE SNOWMAN – From the acclaimed filmmaker of Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy came… this?! Famously declared unfinished during the press tour, Tomas Alfredson’s soggy serial killer whodunit would be forgettable if it wasn’t so fascinatingly incoherent. Plot threads are laboriously introduced and dragged out, only to be jettisoned unceremoniously, while great actors such as Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg and J.K. Simmons fail to elevate their energy level above drowsy. But, on the bright side, The Snowman did gift the world with a hero named Harry Hole, so there’s that!

5) THE BOOK OF HENRY – The most bewildering effort on this list, oft-criticized director Colin Trevorrow followed up his global smash Jurassic World with this smarmy confection about a child genius teaching his flighty mother how to pull off the perfect murder via hilariously detailed audiotapes. And if that synopsis sounds like an absurd joke, you better believe the movie isn’t in on it! Gratingly precocious and totally nuts, The Book of Henry belongs in the same special crap pile as legendarily bizarre Oscar-grab misfires Collateral Beauty and Seven Pounds.  

Dishonorable Mentions: BAYWATCH, THE CIRCLE, THE DARK TOWER, KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, POWER RANGERS, RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER

Thursday, January 04, 2018

The Top 10 Best Films of 2017

1) DUNKIRK While Hollywood awkwardly struggled against the growing threat of online streaming and increasingly stellar home video options in 2017, Christopher Nolan unleashed a towering testament to the unrivalled power of the theatrical experience. A marvel of historical recreation and state-of-the-art film-craft, this white-knuckle depiction of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation had zero close competition last year when it came to majestic blockbuster storytelling. More than its innumerable technical achievements, however, Dunkirk saw the consistently innovative writer/director casting off the pervasive near 20-year influence of Saving Private Ryan and reinventing the war movie from the ground up as an immersive POV-driven study in the cruel randomness of battle, where survival is often the only victory to strive for. A magnificent visual feast given restless pulse by Hans Zimmer’s driving ticking clock-score, Nolan’s latest was his most intensely focused attempt at channeling pure cinema yet, and his most astonishing high-wire act.

2) A GHOST STORY – Quiet and unassuming, David Lowery’s follow-up to 2016’s delightful Pete’s Dragon reimagining delicately lulls you into its tranquil, melancholy rhythms with such ease you can’t help but be unprepared for the tear-jerking emotional rollercoaster ride it ultimately takes you on. Told from the mute perspective of Casey Affleck’s wandering spirit as he grapples with grief (Rooney Mara, as our protagonist’s girlfriend, is heartbreaking), existence in limbo and the fleeting nature of time, A Ghost Story is a solemn contemplation that seems initially small but offers bountiful universal rewards to those willing to surrender to it. Profoundly intimate, the film conjures the poetic spirit of Terrence Malick and yet feels utterly original, imbuing its simple tale with shattering depth, intelligence and sensitivity.

3) THE FLORIDA PROJECT – If 2015’s scrappy, high-voltage attention-grabber Tangerine proved writer/director Sean Baker to be a talent worth watching, 2017 established him as one of the most exciting auteurs of his generation. Fascinated by those existing on the fringes of society, the helmer aims his unobtrusive viewfinder this time at the impoverished residents of a rundown Florida hotel as they go about their mundane and occasionally tragic daily lives. Employing a humbly noble Willem Dafoe and a cast of utterly convincing unknowns – Bria Vinaite, as a woefully ill-fit mom, is a genuine find – Baker expertly conveys the crushing realities of modern economic disparity and its generational ramifications with empathy and a documentarian’s insight, finding gentle humanity amidst depressing uncertainty.

4) WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES – Whereas most geek-property series unfold in a frenzied tornado of noisy fan speculation and anxiety, the modern Apes pictures feel liberated by their ability to just do their own brilliant thing in relative secret. Poignantly closing out the arc of Andy Serkis’s tragic protagonist Caesar, director and co-writer Matt Reeves crafted one of the most stunningly impactful and extraordinary entries in the franchise’s proud 50-year run. A bleak mythic meditation on the shattering effects of violence and hatred on the psyche, War for the Planet of the Apes was a timely feel-bad blockbuster that left you pondering its richly layered themes and ideas long after the bracing thrills of its superbly-rendered spectacle had calmed. 

5) THE LOST CITY OF Z – Beyond the classic man vs. nature epics of Werner Herzog, no movie has captured the agony and the ecstasy of jungle exploration as powerfully as James Gray’s captivating biopic of Col. Percival Fawcett. Starring Charlie Hunnam as the feverishly driven British surveyor, The Lost City of Z unfolds like a hypnotic dream as we follow our hero on his increasingly maddening journeys into the Amazon’s intoxicating emerald abyss in search of answers. A lush, foreboding depiction of natural wonder – cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, Amour) delivers uncanny work – the film seduces us into sharing our hero’s unyielding passion for discovery while also hauntingly underscoring the punishing cost attached to it.

6) STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI – If 2015’s The Force Awakens drew criticisms for hewing a little too closely to the A New Hope playbook, Rian Johnson’s go-for-broke sequel unabashedly shattered preconceived notions in high, dizzying style. Boasting the requisite show-stopping space opera action fans have come to expect – including two staggering ship battle sequences that rank near the top of the franchise’s incredible pantheon – the quirky Brick and Looper writer/director expands George Lucas’s galaxy in unexpectedly audacious ways while also infusing his debut entry with heretofore unparalleled thematic heft. Joyfully nailing down the unique identity of this third Skywalker trilogy, The Last Jedi was surprising, moving, clever and endlessly exhilarating; essentially everything we hope a great Star Wars picture will be.

7) GET OUT – Arriving almost out of nowhere and blowing up into one of 2017’s most exciting and well-deserved box office dynamos, Jordan Peele’s provocative horror satire is an astonishing blast of razor-sharp social critique, big laughs and super-fun crowd-pleasing scares. Revelatory, smart and confident from beginning to end it feels like the work of a master at the height of his craft, not a first time director. In addition to being the best possible fright-fest for our all-too-ugly times, Get Out leaves no doubt it’s destined to be one day mentioned in the same reverential breath as enduring terror icons The Shining, Halloween, The Exorcist and, one of its primary influences, Rosemary’s Baby

8) LADY BIRD – Not content to just star in one of this decade’s best female coming of age comedies in 2012’s Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig also went and wrote and directed one last year that’s even better! A wry semi-autobiographical take on the helmer’s own angsty lower middle-class teenage years in Sacramento, Lady Bird is a breezily hilarious and perceptive glimpse into complicated mother-daughter dynamics and the restless frustration of being an artistic-minded youth desperate to break free and embrace life. There’s a wonderful undercurrent of authenticity and truth coursing through Gerwig’s low-key, thoughtful sophomore effort, given beautiful life by dueling powerhouse leads Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, and an endlessly endearing supporting cast.

9) THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI – Recovering from the messy overindulgences of 2012’s all-over-the-place Seven Psychopaths, acclaimed In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh once again sharply channels the acidic cynicism and foul-mouthed wit that made him so electrifying in the first place. A blackly comedic portrait of grief and anger taken to its most uncomfortable and destructive extremes, Three Billboards slyly sidesteps expectations and clich├ęs with crafty aplomb, forcing the audience to constantly reconsider the messy morality of its complex characters from scene to shocking scene. Drawing beyond sensational performances from Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, McDonagh’s polarizing come-back is equal parts offensive and compelling; a crude and wicked little gem that burrows into your head and sticks there.

10) BLADE RUNNER 2049 – The only thing more awesome than the overwhelming artistic pleasures of Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s watershed 1982 classic is the fact it even exists at all. Given a massive bankroll and pretty much unlimited creative space to unleash his wildest ambitions, the apparently unstoppable Canadian director transformed a no-win scenario into an utterly transfixing and thought-provoking triumph of big idea science-fiction. Matching up Ryan Gosling’s troubled replicant with Harrison Ford’s world-weary icon, Blade Runner 2049 honors the massive achievements of the past while also boldly opening up new doors of future-noir intrigue and jaw-dropping motion picture splendor on the very grandest of scales.

Honorable Mentions: THE BIG SICK, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – VOL. 2, LOGAN, MUDBOUND, THE SHAPE OF WATER

Monday, June 26, 2017

Film Review - WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

Since its inception in 1968 Fox’s Planet of the Apes franchise, based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, has represented the best in mainstream science fiction cinema, projecting engrossing, smart allegories against a broadly fun and thrilling backdrop. Eerily tapping into the zeitgeist of the day almost every time out, these pictures have become an unlikely success story; a reliable earner that consistently deprives viewers of happy endings or easy answers. This proud tradition evolved beautifully over the past few years with Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which married the series’ bleak and daring integrity with state-of-the-art WETA wizardry to awesome results. And, in the latter film’s crushing ending, the ground was laid for an unforgettable conclusion to the arc of Andy Serkis’ chimpanzee revolutionary Caesar.

It’s beyond satisfying to report trilogy capper War for the Planet of the Apes is a towering achievement; a haunting and challenging final chapter that’s as impressive as its predecessors. Easily the most despairing entry yet, it’s something of a miracle it even exists in an age of obsessive market-testing. But, under the confident watch of remarkable director Matt Reeves (who also shares scripting duties with Mark Bomback), the descent into misery is earned and thematically appropriate, propelled by the wounded souls of the characters, not mean-spirted nihilistic manipulation. A self-professed student of Hitchcock, he implicitly understands the importance of subjectivity and offers each crucial participant an opportunity to express their own invaluable point-of-view.

What Reeves has fashioned with his second Apes picture is an honest examination of war. He has little interest in cranking out splashy, sensationalized action spectacle devoid of consequences. No, instead he’s fascinated in exploring the dehumanizing effects and psychological cost of battle. Much like in 2014’s Dawn, the grandly conceived mayhem is ugly and unpleasant, committed by desperate men weakened by fear. This approach to the violence is the correct one. It intensifies our sympathetic bond with tormented protagonist Caesar, whose yearnings for peace and community mirror our own.

War kicks off in bravura style, with a tension-soaked, largely dialogue-free sequence wherein a small militia force attacks an ape encampment in the deep forest. This conflict, which results in untold casualties, ultimately draws Caeser back out of the shadows. Despite proposing an honorable ceasefire, his dreams are unspeakably shattered when the ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson, appropriately Kurtz-ian) leads a stealth assault unit right into the heart of his hidden home fortress. Racked with fury, and still harboring guilt from killing former friend Koba (Toby Kebbell), our hero, along with loyal lieutenants Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), embark on a quest for vengeance against their deranged enemy. However, the mission proves far more fraught with complication than anticipated, as staggering revelations regarding the world, and the apes’ place in it, come to nightmarish light.

All too often creative fatigue sets in by the third franchise instalment. Not the case here! Continuing to expand the Apes universe in bold directions, Reeves early on employs a basic road trip structure as a means of introducing fascinating new characters and concepts. Most compelling, and likely crowd-pleasing, among War’s additions is Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape, a meagre, Gollum-like figure who has long survived as a lowly scavenger. Supplying the film’s only real comedy relief, there’s nonetheless a tangible sense of melancholy to his goofiness; the wacky eccentricities born primarily from past pain and isolation. He offers a fresh perspective on the long-raging struggle, as does a young mute girl (Amiah Miller) fatefully brought into Caesar’s circle. She adds unexpected poignancy and grace to some of the movie’s most seemingly hopeless moments.

These two forces of warmth and decency are balanced out by the problematic Rex (Ty Olsson), the fearsome gorilla who leads the Colonel’s Donkey division - a platoon of human-collaborating apes who’ve accepted slavery in exchange for self-preservation. Reeves’ and Bomback’s screenplay smartly uses this tragic villain (a welcome follow-up to Dawn’s Koba), and his self-loathing simian allies, as a means of blurring the battle-lines and deepening the film’s remarkable moral complexities. By fleshing out his internal struggles, and those of the fallible members of Caeser’s own army, the picture paints a sadly relevant portrait of the corrupting power of terror.

In Caesar, these modern Apes tales have fashioned one of the most captivating blockbuster protagonists in recent memory. While savior figures often come across as impenetrable and difficult to relate to (especially when presented, as here, with heavy biblical overtones), his tormented, doubt-filled journey has proven consistently compelling. In War we see him in his rawest state yet, nearly broken by the burden of leadership and unsure of both himself and the future of his species. There’s frankly no better word to describe Serkis’ performance than magnificent. Despite acting through layers of incredible technology he once again imbues his masterpiece creation with stunning emotional sophistication and touching compassion. His noble chimp visionary - far and away the franchise’s greatest protagonist (sorry Chuck!) - faces insurmountable hardships and stumbles, and we’re right there with him for every grueling, uneasy step.

What a wonderful unexpected gift this new series has proven to be. To see a studio plunge ungodly resources into rebooting such a strange, downbeat property, and then show a steadfast commitment to artistry, innovation and well-crafted storytelling over easy money, is such a stunning rarity it warrants respectful appreciation. And it is undeniably exhilarating to see their hard work pay off! The commanding War triumphantly solidifies the Caesar saga’s rightful place, alongside the Lord of the Rings and Dark Knight pictures, as the one of the very finest contemporary epic trilogies. “Apes together strong,” indeed.

4.5 out of 5