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Vivarium

vivarium

Markus Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 Stars

Twenty minutes in you might get the feeling that at its peak “Vivarium” is about to be something akin to a decent episode of “The Twilight Zone”. And by the twenty-first minute you’ll realize that you were right. It’s simply a decent episode of “The Twilight Zone”.

Synopsis: A young couple (Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) looking to buy their first home, find themselves being guided through a new housing development by an oddly mannered real estate agent. Inside this community all the houses look identical, the grass, dirt and clouds don’t seem to be real, there’s nobody else living in any of the other homes and (oh yeah) this young couple can’t seem to find their way out, no matter how hard they try. And then there’s the appearance of a child in a cardboard box. And from there, things just get weird.

Sure, this could have been a short film, but with a runtime of a little over ninety minutes, director Lorcan Finnegan really keeps the entertainment value high; first, by using an underlying level of dark humor and second, by presenting his nightmarish dreamlike take on the Lynchian suburb. Actually, much like “Eraserhead” (David Lynch’s surrealist nightmare concerning his anxiety over the birth of his child) “Vivarium” seems like Finnegan’s and screenwriter Garrett Shanley’s anxiety driven fever dream concerning buying a home in the suburbs and starting a family.

Final Thought: The ending. The ending may leave some feeling hollow, especially for those expecting a grand “tie up all the loose ends” finale. But for those who enjoy a sci-fi/horror which asks you to suspend belief, sit back and watch a quick little social experiment, this may be your jam. “Vivarium’ is an interesting concept to say the least, with a final ten minutes that acts as the satisfyingly nihilistic cherry on top.

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Oscar Nominated Shorts

It’s Oscar Sunday! And today I will be giving you a very brief rundown of the Oscar Nominated Shorts for each Animated, Documentary and Live Action category. After summarizing, I will be telling you which was my favorite and also which film I have my money on to win.

Here we go:

Short Film (Animated) Nominees:

Dcera (Daughter):daughter-daria-kashceeva

The only one of this group that had any “real flaw”; the flaw in question being how the plot of a little girl coming to grips with her father’s illness was actually told. In reality, the structure was a bit confusing. That said, what “Dcera” lacks in story telling ability, it more than makes up for in jarring direction, it’s Laika-esque animation (but more papier mache looking) and some absolutely grade-A sound mixing. Honestly, this short contains the best sound mixing of any film nominated at the Oscars.

Hair Love:  hair-love-700x295

My favorite of the bunch, “Hair Love” tell the story of an African American little girl who attempts a new hair style by way of online tutorial. And while it all becomes visually quite comical and creative, what it transforms into is a genuinely moving story about family bonds, which delivers on all levels. Also, it stars Issa Rae.

Kitbull:kitbull

A stray black kitten befriends a Pitbull that has been used for dog fighting. Why this was so effective has really nothing to do with the animation, but more so the story, the violent turns it takes (people in the audience were gasping by how brutal this cartoon actually became) and how well the filmmakers do of making us root for two of the most stigmatized breeds of animals in America.

Memorable:memorable_still

Simulating what it must be like for someone going through Dementia or Alzheimer’s through claymation seems like it would be a stroke of genius, as there are many sequences of life pealing away and objects morphing before our very eyes. And in the final two minutes the film really does work. But for the most part “Memorable” comes off as a director putting way more emphasis on the surreal imagery, rather than telling a particular story.

Sister:sister

The animation reminded me of something Wes Anderson would do…or has done. From writer/director Siqi Song, “Sister” tells a tale of a younger sister, narrated by an older brother, through humorous anecdotes growing up in 1990’s China. There is a twist that might make people uncomfortable, but this may also be the reason it is a front-runner to win an Academy Award.

Who I think will win: “Hair Love”

My favorite short in this category: “Hair Love”  

 

Documentary (Short Subject) Nominees:

Walk Run Cha-Cha:runwalk

The simple but powerful immigration story of a Vietnamese couple and their enduring love, seen as they practice for a ballroom dance tournament. Why this works as well as it does, has to be because of how lovingly filmmakers Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt portray this couple, creating an overwhelming sense of relatability. “Walk Run Cha-Cha” gave me the same feelings as I had when watching “The Farewell”.

In the Absence:IntheAbsence

Containing actual footage as well as accounts, “In the Absence” documents the sinking of a South Korean ferry in 2014 and the subsequent coverup of the over three hundred people who drowned that day. It’s the hardest watch when you realize what you are actually seeing and how pathetic the rescue attempt was. It won’t win, but is a great example of how documentary filmmaking can be used as a tool to shine a spotlight on atrocities happening in the world that we may not be aware of.

St. Louis Superman:st-louis-superman

For me this was the least impressive of the lot. We follow activist/public servant/battle rapper, Bruce Franks Jr. as he attempts to pass a bill critical to his community. While it does have a strong subject matter, as it is set against the backdrop of the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, it comes across as just another MTV “True Life” episode. It just could’ve been better.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl):how to

Inspiring and a great would-be companion piece to last year’s winner “Period. End of Sentence”, “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (It You’re a Girl)” follows a school for girls in Kabul, where they also learn to skateboard as a means to build confidence. Living in an area where women don’t have many rights, we see the teachers at this school attempt to give these girls independence. We really root for these girls to make it, to stay strong in this environment, as well as stay on the skateboard. Also, the structure of this documentary pretty ingeniously ties the stages of learning how to ride a skateboard in with life lessons.

Life Overtakes Me:Life Overtakes Me - Still 3

A Netflix original, this was my second favorite short in the category, primarily because it was something I had never seen before; Resignation Syndrome. In Sweden hundreds of refugee children seeking asylum, have fallen into a coma-like state over fears of deportation. It may sound bizarre at first, but once you see what this actually looks like (these children so riddled with fear that their bodies literally shut down for years, in some cases) it’s devastating. “Life Overakes Me” shows the effects of childhood trauma better than any documentary I can remember.

Who I think will win: “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)”:

My favorite Short in this category: “Walk Run Cha-Cha”

 

Short Film (Live Action) Nominees:

Brotherhood:brotherhood

The heartbreaking story set in Tunisia, about a father and his estranged eldest son who returns home with a child bride, after being suspected of joining Isis. Pride plays a big role in this politically relevant drama. Also, the cinematography of this film is gorgeous. And for that, it was my third favorite of the group.

Nefta Football Club:nefta_football_club2

The sometimes-comedic story of two kid brothers (one who really loves soccer) who discover a mule by the side of the road, on the border of Algeria. And the mule is carrying something very valuable and pretty obvious. For me, this was the most engaging of the tales, as the direction (it’s the best directed of the bunch; Yves Piat is the director) and the two lead child actors will have you invested in the story almost immediately. This also contains a really well thought out twist ending that had me smiling.

The Neighbors’ Window:the neighbor

This comedy sees a couple (probably in their mid to late thirties) living in a high-rise apartment building with their three children, becoming infatuated with the lives of a beautiful young couple in the apartment across the way. This is probably the most easily digestible short of the group, but the moral of this story is pretty lackluster. Anyway, the direction is solid and the acting is pretty good.

Saria:saria

Based on a true story of an escape attempt organized by a group of girls from a Guatemalan orphanage. These girls have dreams of getting to the United States; dreams which ended in the tragic loss of 41 lives. The direction from Bryan Buckley is absolutely fantastic, the story is undeniably strong, but the truth of the matter is, the film is just too relevant not to win the Oscar.

A Sister:a sister

Late night, riding in a car with a man, a woman uses her cell phone to call her sister. Moments later we come to find out who she’s really calling is Emergency Services (or 9-1-1). This is a short which reminded me a lot of a film from Denmark called “The Guilty”, but with more straight forward direction. The thing “A Sister” has going for it is the tension it provides throughout, as the female dispatcher attempts to help the female passenger, who seems to be getting kidnapped.

Who I think will win: “Saria”

My favorite Short in this category: “Nefta Football Club”

 

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My Top 10 Movies of 2019

 

It’s the end of the year, so let’s get right into it:

 

  1. Knives Out: KnivesOutWhen the patriarch of a wealthy family dies under suspicious circumstances, an investigation filled with zany characters as well as twists and turns ensue. More than just pure escapism though, this Clue inspired whodunit has a fun political undertone along with one the strongest and most original scripts of the year. With a star-studded cast, including Chris Evans, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Christopher Plummer, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis and Daniel Craig, I could say that Daniel Craig’s Southern accent is the standout, but honestly pick your poison. Everyone is great here. Every aspect of this film is highly entertaining. Writer/director Rain Johnson comes through with a stylized comedic murder mystery that should be up for an Oscar or two. And maybe this is the movie which proves to the neckbeards that “The Last Jedi” was pretty great. Or, maybe not…

 

  1. Jojo Rabbit:jojorabbit Beginning with a montage that compares the frenzy of Hitler’s fan base to Beatlemania, “Jojo Rabbit” shoots immediately into Mel Brooks territory with its “out of bounds” hilarious satire. But it also has that irresistible heart found in other comedies from writer/director Taika Waititi. Set in Germany during WWII, this comedy follows a young boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who is a part of Adolf Hitler’s army and has dreams of capturing a Jewish person for Hitler in order to become his best friend. But one day he is confronted with a dilemma, when he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a teenage Jewish girl in the walls of his home. Also, Jojo has an imaginary friend. It’s Hitler. And it’s played by Waititi himself. So, I get it. This synopsis sounds like it very well could be an unpleasant watch. A heartwarming comedy about a child Nazi? Yikes. At the very least the logistics of making a movie like this sounds insane; let alone getting us (the audience) to laugh, as well as root for its characters. But this is the magic trick performed by Waititi. And it is a great one. Because, by the end, “Jojo Rabbit” becomes this hilarious coming of age story for the whole family.

 

  1. Joker: joker2“Joker” is an R-Rated stand-alone prequel of sorts about the man who would become the titular Batman villain. This version of the Joker story was not one that I was familiar with and thus I was happy with sitting through two hours plus of this mentally unstable character, as he watches the world burn. Even though plot-wise there isn’t really much more to it than that, there’s a lot here to appreciate. I think we all knew Joaquin Phoenix (The Master, You Were Never Really Here) was going to be an excellent Joker. I mean, the man is an eccentric character in street clothes. And he is spectacular in this. Not any better or worse than Heath Ledger’s 2008 performance as the Joker. Phoenix’s Joker is a whole other beast. From his dance inspired erratic contortions, to his body transformation, to that laugh, with this performance Phoenix reinvents the character so much so, that audiences will actually find themselves rooting for the Joker; unironically. Also, Todd Phillips, the director of the horrid “The Hangover” trilogy, has probably made the best movie he’ll ever make by nailing this fan fiction “Taxi Driver” homage.

 

  1. Under the Silver Lake: Under-the-Silver-Lake-1.1Every year there is one movie like this. A movie that is bizarre and profound, hated and loved in equal measure. A movie where after watching, you may feel as though there is so much more to uncover, while others will proclaim whoever enjoyed this movie to be unbearably pretentious. “Under the Silver Lake” was that movie in 2019 (with a release date having been delayed for months). From writer/director David Robert Mitchell, this begins as a fairly straight forward crime drama/neo-noir, following an unlikable young man (Andrew Garfield) who becomes infatuated with a woman (Riley Keough) whom he sees in his apartment complex; and then one day she disappears. But in very Lynchian style, there is much more (ugliness) when you dig beneath the plastic façade. And as we start to pull back the layers and the story becomes almost too convoluted to find “believable”, that is when the fanboy “cult classic” magic begins. This is a movie that can and should be dissected for some time after its viewing; even if all of the work that goes into post-viewing analysis may be altogether meaningless. This is the love child of “Mulholland Drive” and “Chinatown”, even though rumor has it “Southland Tales” may be the real father.

 

  1. Booksmart: booksmartThis high school comedy about two super smart female friends having a “life crisis” the day before senior graduation, was said to be the “Superbad” of this generation, but I thought it was much better. It’s the funniest movie of the year, as well as the best “buddy comedy” I’ve seen in ages. And as great as the acting is (Beanie Feldstein is not only hilarious as one of the two leads, but also a sensational actor) I have to equate the fact that this movie reaches teen comedy perfection multiple times, to the direction of Olivia Wilde, who gives us one of the best directed movies of the year.

 

  1. The Irishman: irishmanThe movie was nearly three and a half hours long, so I’ll keep this one short and sweet. Martin Scorsese directs a movie about a mobster (Robert De Niro) recounting the killing of Union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). For me, this was not only the finality of a trilogy that consists of “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, but it reads as a more complete thought; that means I thought it was better (de-aging aside). Fight me.

 

  1. Parasite: parasiteSadly, the only foreign film to make my list (sorry, “Monos”) there could be a strong argument made that “Parasite” should be number one for everything it attempts and absolutely nails here. No lie. Watching “Parasite” is like watching a two-hour juggling act. Even though I was a huge fan of 2009’s “Mother”, here writer/director Bong Joon Ho makes his Hitchcockian masterpiece, telling the story (set in South Korea) of an unemployed family that begins to weasel their way into the lives of a disgustingly wealthy family. This movie not only hits on the solid story (stories) aspect you look for in a film (there are literally 3 or 4 different stories going on at once) it also layers in tons of dark comedy and some scathing political satire regarding not only North and South Korean relations, but of South Korean and the United States as well. Now that I’m thinking about it, this probably should be higher on my list…well, maybe next year.

 

  1. Midsommar: midsommarWriter/director Ari Aster was right. This really was Willy Wonka for perverts. This “horror” film tells the story of a young woman (Florence Pugh, who gives my favorite performance of the year by a female lead) who goes on a trip to Sweden with her boyfriend and his friends, in order to participate in a Coachella-like festival (just with more white people). What “Get Out” did for white people in the suburbs, “Midsommar” will do for white people internationally. It’s that effective. And it’s twisted in all of the right ways. That said, if you think of this as less of a standard horror flick (because it isn’t traditionally “scary”) and more of a relationship/breakup movie, then this two hour plus bright and beautiful looking nightmare will come full circle like an aggressively sadistic yet satisfying joke. Also, the final scene of “Midsommar” solidified Aster as my spirit animal, hitting another twisted homerun in this follow-up to last year’s “Hereditary”.

 

  1. Luce: luce-movie-octavia-spencer-tgj-600x317My favorite protagonists are highly flawed. Speaking as a Black American, “Luce” is everything I want in a movie. Directed by Julius Onah and co-written by J.C. Lee, this slow-burn thriller tells the story of Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) an honor student, originally from war-torn Eritrea and adopted at age ten by white American parents (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). One day a teacher (Octavia Spencer) becomes suspicious that Luce’s calm and affable exterior may be hiding something a bit more sinister. It’s quite fascinating to see all of the dynamics at play. From the white American parents who struggle with how much to trust their black child, to the black teacher whose ideology comes in direct conflict with Luce’s. And Luce, a character that struggles with his identity as an immigrant person of color, going to a predominately white school, where he is praised for his eloquence and ability to basically make the white people around him feel good about themselves, is a revelation of a character. The beauty of a film like this is that ten different people could watch it and come out with ten differing takeaways. To me this isn’t a story about a sociopath or a star student, but rather a commentary on being black in America; how as a permanent immigrant (based on skin color alone) there is a dichotomy within the community and individual, which causes a schism in mentality and social norms. What does it mean to be a Black American? Is it Obama? Is it a rapper on BET? Is it a Mammy? Is it even an American? Or is it all of these things and none of them at the same time? “Luce” asks all of these questions, while making the bold statement that the Black American is culturally schizophrenic and as James Baldwin once said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” To me, “Luce” is an example of how one perfectly tells the story of what it’s like to be black in America.

 

  1. Marriage Story: Marriagestory-1280x533Noah Baumbach writes and directs the most perfect film of the year. “A Marriage Story” contains the best script, the best direction, the best editing, the best all-around performances and honestly, made me cry multiple times. If you haven’t seen this Netflix film yet, I’d describe it as a more expansive version of “Kramer vs. Kramer”. We see a couple (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson) who once loved one another, go through a divorce. And then we are made to witness them figuratively cut each other up for a couple of hours. I’ve never been through a divorce myself, but this looked pretty accurate to me; and more vicious and with more bloodshed than most war films. Also, I know what you’re saying, and trust me, a movie that contains not one person of color is not a conventional pick for me; but here we are. What I will say, in my defense, is that this is a movie that punched me in the stomach and when I was on the ground, proceeded to start kicking. Yeah, that sounds like more my type of movie.

 

Just missed my list:

Babu Frik

 

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Jojo Rabbit

jojo

Markus Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Beginning with a montage that compares the frenzy of Hitler’s fan base to Beatlemania, “Jojo Rabbit” shoots immediately into Mel Brooks territory with its “out of bounds” hilarious satire. But it also has that irresistible heart found in other comedies from writer/director Taika Waititi.

Synopsis: Set in Germany during WWII, this comedy follows a young boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who is a part of Adolf Hitler’s army and has dreams of capturing a Jewish person for Hitler in order to become his best friend. But one day he is confronted with a dilemma, when he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a teenage Jewish girl in the walls of his home. Also, Jojo has an imaginary friend. It’s Hitler. And it’s played by Waititi himself (a Jewish man).

So, I get it. This synopsis sounds like it very well could be an unpleasant watch. A heartwarming comedy about a child Nazi? Yikes. At the very least the logistics of making a movie like this sounds insane; let alone getting us (the audience) to laugh, as well as root for its characters. But this is the magic trick performed by Waititi. And it is a great one.

As much praise as I can heap on the performances from a supporting cast which includes Johansson (who is surprising good in this) Sam Rockwell, who plays the Hitler Youth commander and Stephen Merchant who plays a member of the Gestapo, to adorable newcomer Roman Griffin Davis, who is (again) adorable as the titular Jojo, everything I loved about this movie had to do with Waititi. His performance as the imaginary friend Hitler, is absolutely inspired. But this shouldn’t be a surprise as Waititi has always shown himself to be a fantastic physical comedian. That said, what the man should receive Oscar buzz for is his direction.

Waititi as a director takes this would be “problematic” concept and creates a superb narrative. He keeps the comedy at a high level, while continuously reminding audiences that what we’re watching is set during an actual genocide. Also, he makes Jojo a lovable character, while at the same time showcasing his ignorance and condemning his beliefs.

Final Thought: This may seem odd to hear, but “Jojo Rabbit” is a hilarious coming of age story for the whole family (well, I mean, it’s still PG-13). Also, at the very least this movie answers the question: What would you do if you found out that your son was a Hitler fanatic…or a Trump fanatic?

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Gemini Man

gemini man

 

Markus Rating: 3 out 5 Stars

Synopsis: A hitman, Henry Brogan (Will Smith) on the verge of retirement, finds out something he shouldn’t (classified materials). And so someone in upper management (Clive Owen) sends a younger hitman to kill Henry. The thing is, this younger hitman looks just like Henry, but younger.

The synopsis I want to believe to be true: A man (Clive Owen) is Will Smith’s number one fan. After hearing of Smith’s retirement, he devises a plan to create an army of Will Smith’s that will make movies until the end of time.

In the actual movie, after the two Smith’s meet and some very well filmed fight choreography ensues, the story really takes a nosedive.

The actual problem with “Gemini Man” stems from the handling of this quite stiff story. Even with the promise of two Smith’s, the foundation here is a basic action/sci-fi thriller. And there was so much wasted potential. Yes, there is an automation vs. non-automation argument, as well as some spiritual themes inserted throughout the back-half though conversation, but these conversations seemed tacked on. The story continuously lies there like a dead fish and the “tacked on” elements act as a stick attempting to poke the story back to life.

It just seems as though either director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) never read the script or cared to know anything about it past the synopsis. The allure to direct something like this was probably similar to the allure I had to watch it, i.e. the stunts and technology (the high frame rate). And to Lee’s credit, the high frame rate didn’t bother me like it did when I saw “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”. In fact, for the most part, the visuals looked crisp while maintaining their cinematic integrity. For example, there was an underwater sequence that looked more water than water. This may sound silly, but this was the most amazing looking water I’d ever seen. These are the sequences which garnered the majority of the stars in this review. Also, the 3D in this film works extremely well; a fact I hate admitting. Unfortunately if you don’t purchase the twenty dollar ticket, you won’t get the full weight of these effects. On the other hand, Smith is such a strong actor, one could potentially still enjoy watching him do anything for nearly two hours. BUT…

Let’s talk about young Will’s face. It’s pretty painful. Which is to say, the “deaging” CGI of the young Smith face looks off, surrounded by the beautiful HFR on-location cinematography. Not to mention that it seems like it was difficult to get his face to change expression or maintain the same age from scene to scene. The younger Smith CGI really only worked when it was an action sequence or during night scenes. Other than that, young Will’s face was really cringy. This includes a five minute sequence filmed in the daylight, which momentarily made this whole experiment seem regrettable.

Final Thought: “Gemini Man” is a movie with many (many) flaws. But then again, I had a ton of fun with it. And did I mention the water?

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Joker

joker

Markus Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

So…Batman’s dad is Donald Trump. It’s not a spoiler if you really think about it.

If what you’re looking for is an action packed superhero movie, then “Joker” may have you walking out of the theater saying, “That’s not what I expected”.

“Joker” is an R-Rated stand-alone prequel of sorts about the man who would become the titular Batman villain. This version of the Joker story was not one that I was familiar with and thus I was happy with sitting through two hours plus of this mentally unstable character, as he watches the world burn. Even though plot-wise there isn’t really much more to it than that, there’s a lot here to appreciate.

Side Note: I get the “Taxi Driver” Travis Bickle,“The King of Comedy” Rubert Pupkin comparisons, but I’m going to throw something different at you. Remember how “Rocky” was a story about a boxer that nobody cared about, who just wanted to go the distance? “Joker” is like that, but instead of a boxer it’s about a fledgling comedian/clown-for-hire, who just wants to be noticed…it even has a stairs sequence.

I think we all knew Joaquin Phoenix (The Master, You Were Never Really Here) was going to be an excellent Joker. I mean, the man is an eccentric character in street clothes. And he is spectacular in this. Not any better or worse than Heath Ledger’s 2008 performance as the Joker. Phoenix’s Joker is a whole other beast. From his dance inspired erratic contortions, to his body transformation, to that laugh, with this performance Phoenix reinvents the character so much so, that audiences will actually find themselves rooting for the Joker; unironically.

I also want to quickly highlight director Todd Phillips, the director of the horrid “The Hangover” trilogy, who has probably made the best movie he’ll ever make by nailing this fan fiction “Taxi Driver” homage. His love for Martin Scorsese is obvious here, as Phillips’ pacing, tone and visuals focus on the protagonist rather than a more conventional plot-driven narrative. He also presents a Gotham that is so alive and toothy, that when the Joker’s snap comes, it all seems right on cue, like a well orchestrated song.

Not everything works though. Two aspects in particular seem forced and tend to weigh things down a bit. Like a dog wearing a sweater; I mean, it’s not hurting the dog, but the dog would probably be better without it. OK, so first is a love story arch which seems forced, but not unfounded; I did see the point of it. The larger issue here was the same issue I had with “Black Panther”. “Joker” only really stumbles when Phillips has to reel the story back into the DC universe. If this would’ve simply been a story about the rise of Arthur Fleck, a poor, depressed and disillusioned man, living in a violent rat infested city, slowly slipping into madness, this could’ve moved from an award worthy to an award winning “Taxi Driver” homage.

Final Thought: Neither violent video games or violent movies cause people to shoot one another.

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Haunt

haunt

 

Markus Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

“Haunt” (available on VOD) is a new horror flick I would’ve missed if it weren’t for a few “it’s actually pretty fun” reviews I read. But in my defense, the only thing I’d heard prior was that it was produced by Eli Roth. So please forgive me for not being more eager to press play.

Advertised as a movie written and directed by the writers of “A Quiet Place”, Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, “Haunt” follows a group of expendable college kids who decide to enter a random extreme haunted house, that one of them saw on a flier earlier that evening; oh, and it’s Halloween night. When they arrive the place looks like an abandoned garage and is riddled with scary clowns. But of course they eagerly enter, split up and terror ensues.

Halfway through this review it sounds like I hated it, but in fact it’s quite the opposite. “Haunt” is fun in the way I remember “Final Destination” being fun. A simple premise with absolutely no expository anything and a really dumb cast of characters, putting themselves into bad situations, which lead to death. The fun is in watching each of these young people meet their fates and try and guess which person (if anybody) survives the night. Also, on a personal note, while this is an R-Rated slasher, it never gets to the point of torture-porn (for which I was grateful) despite Roth’s involvement.

What really differentiates this film from some of the other throw-away horrors you might find online, is what Beck and Woods do visually. They do an excellent job of keeping the tension at an extremely high level by delivering on the fun house scenario scares fairly relentlessly. These two have an excellent grasp of space, visually forcing audiences to get right in there with the characters, trapped in this rusty tetanus filled house of horrors. And it’s this gritty, claustrophobic feeling similarly found in something like 2009’s “The Collector”, which keeps “Haunt” from becoming an over processed low-budget “Escape Room” rip-off.

Final Thought: Yeah, the acting is “meh” and the extended ending seems like an unfortunate afterthought, but this is a movie all about getting from point A to point B in the scariest/most entertaining way possible. And “Haunt” does this well enough to serve as something worth a horror fan’s time and money. Also, as an added bonus the “bad guys” here are actually memorable enough to propel a sequel. Although I have a strange feeling that when people think of Juggalos, the clowns in this movie are what comes to mind.

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Ad Astra

ad astra

Markus Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

This is a meditative space journey that you will either love or think is “kinda boring”. More than a little reminiscent of “Apocalypse Now”, with a splash of “Contact” and dash of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Ad Astra” is a long, slow and near perfect movie. Visually, this thing is flawless and Brad Pitt’s performance is nomination worthy. Look at you, “Ad Astra”. Giving me Andrei Tarkovsky realness.

Synopsis: Set in a near future where humans have colonized the moon and Mars (but not quite to The Jetsons era) we follow an astronaut named Roy McBride (Pitt), who is a blank canvas of a man. Plagued by endless evaluations, he shows no emotions. In the face of fear and stress, his heart rate never rises above 80 BPM. Also, he is a legacy. His father (Tommy Lee Jones) was known as the greatest astronaut to ever live, traveling further into space than anyone to date, before becoming lost in space years ago. Now earth is bombarded with electrical storms from space, coined “The Surge”. Roy is contacted when it is thought that his father, whom he believed to be long dead, may still be alive somewhere in deep space and may also be the one causing said space phenomenon. Roy is instructed to find his father and return him to Earth.

As soon as it fully becomes “Apocalypse Now” in space, “Ad Astra” does struggle a bit to keep up with greatness (mostly due to a few unavoidable moments of sappiness). But what writer/director James Gray (The Lost City of Z, We Own the Night) brings to the table that is unique is some interesting visual sequences including: showing audiences what the future may look like when space travel is more like traveling on a plane, what driving a car in space might look like and most importantly what the beginnings of government space colonization would actually resemble. And for those who’ve already seen this movie and say it was boring, I don’t know what else they could’ve asked for? This movie literally has everything: A father/son element, inner journey stuff, a cool car chase sequence on the surface of the moon that would make Vin Diesel jealous, and even (SPOILER ALERT) space baboons! What other movie can say that?

There’s been this lie perpetuated among  some film-lovers out there questioning if Brad Pitt is truly one of the great actors of his generation. If anything “Ad Astra” reaffirms Pitt as not only a movie star, but also a rangy actor, who adds more to this movie than Martin Sheen did to “Apocalypse Now”.

Final Thought: “Ad Astra” is what “Interstellar” wants to be when it grows up. Fight me.

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Hustlers

hustlers

 

Markus Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

I walked out of the theater extremely high on this film. I think I even leaned over to my wife and said, “I’ve never seen a female stripper movie that strives to portray authentic characters. This may do a lot to destigmatize stripping as a profession.” But a week later I find that little from this movie actually stayed with me.

Exactly like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, I believe “Hustlers” works primarily because of its direction. Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (adapted from a 2015 magazine article written by Jessica Pressler) “Hustlers” is a true crime drama about a group of female strippers who (post-financial crisis, circa 2007-2008), devise a plan to steal money from their Wall Street clients.

The directional choices in “Hustlers” will be the only reason anyone remembers this movie in five years. From the opening long-take which moves us from the dressing room to the strip club stage, to every sequence in the club and bars, to the decision to modify and even cut the audio during crucial moments in the film, it all screams of a great big Martin Scorsese homage. She also does a great job of portraying an authentic strip club experience, mostly by accentuating the three dimensional supporting cast, played by Keke Palmer, Cardi B, Lili Reinhart and even Lizzo. And while most of these supporting characters don’t stick around for longer than an hour, this touch really helped create a bond between the audience and a fictitious group of stigmatized women.

Other than the direction, the standouts here were the leads, Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez (both for entirely different reasons). Wu’s performance is the strongest. She definitely has to cover more ground, beginning as someone who (naive to the aggressive world of city strip clubs) takes a job in a strip club in order to support her grandmother, and evolving into a “hustler” (not a spoiler. You know where this story is going the entire time. It’s in the damn title). Wu is particularly strong here, taking advantage of her arc and showing off her versatility as an actress. Lopez on the other hand simply solidifies herself as a triple-threat. For an actress who hasn’t done anything on the big screen that anybody has cared about in nearly a decade (and that’s being generous) she walks on screen and instantly takes over. Not to say that Lopez is a great actress, but it is quite undeniable that she has the ability to walk into a room and command attention.

Final Thought: “Magic Mike” is still the best stripper movie ever made, by a long shot. But unlike “Striptease” or “Showgirls”, at the very least “Hustlers will reignite a conversation that was long thought of to be a joke. Non-exploitative movies about female and/or male strippers can be done.

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It: Chapter Two

it chapter 2

 

Markus Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

“It: Chapter Two” can only be described as nearly three hours of mostly entertaining horror nonsense…well, it could and has been described as much worse, but for the sake of this relatively positive review, “nonsense” is about as negative as I’m going to get.

In this review I’m not really going to touch on “It”, chapter one from 2017, other than to say that I wasn’t really a fan. I felt as though the plot was pushed aside in order to focus on cheap scares and really over-the-top CGI gore. That said, I find myself at a crossroads contradicting myself when I tell you that I mostly enjoyed the lengthier “Chapter Two” because the plot is completely pushed aside in order to focus on cheap scares and over-the-top CGI gore/gross-out effects.

This is the part of the review where I attempt to defend this film.

While not lacking for dutch angles, the story itself doesn’t seem to be important at all to director Andy Muschietti. As I stated earlier, Muschietti has totally thrown the plot aside for “Chapter Two”. That is not to say that he doesn’t tell a story. There is one and it’s as follows: Taking place twenty-seven years after defeating Pennywise the child-eating clown, the titular “It” has come back and has begun to feed again. And with this, most of the group (The Losers Club) gets back together to kill the thing once and for all.

Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, Molly’s Game) playing grown-up Beverly Marsh, James McAvoy (Split) playing grown-up Bill Denbrough and the real star of the show, Bill Hader (Barry) playing grown-up Richie Tozier, and of course Bill Skarsgard returning as Pennywise, all star in this tonally erratic story which fluctuates between drama, comedy and horror at will. Also, with the exceptions of Hader and Skarsgard, all of the big names were horribly miscast; or at the very least, boring to watch. Am I doing a good job defending it so far?

Anyway, the plot then goes on to involve a Native American tribe and some orbs and blah, blah, blah, who cares? Let’s get to the the point. This chapter sees Muschietti laying out a finale that (again) really doesn’t concern itself with telling a story. But furthermore I don’t think he expects people to pay attention to the story or even attempt to follow it. It’s apparent early on that the “story” is nothing more than connective tissue holding around fifteen bizarre horror sequences together. These sequences seem to be the point of the movie. As for the sequences themselves, they also fluctuate. Some are not really that inventive and frankly poor quality horror, while others work in a way which resembled something like “The Evil Dead” (blasphemy, I know) visually repulsive with a hint of humor. And still others (although only three or four) were very much nightmare fuel; visually striking in a way that mimics the unsettling atmosphere felt in a lucid dream.

Now, how could I recommend a nearly three hour movie where the story is not worth paying attention to, and what we’re left with is a highlight reel of horror sequences; horror sequences that don’t all work? Well, the answer is a majority of the horror stuff here does work. It’s nonsense, but it works and is only enhanced by how sloppily this thing is put together. I would venture to say that “It: Chapter Two” is entertaining in the same way a sketch comedy show would be. Also, there is a high dosage of comedy injected into this installment. Not to say it all works. If you can’t tell by now, nothing in this movie completely works. But, the comedy really makes the run-time more palatable. In fact, I would go so far as to say Muschietti may have a future directing straight comedies.

Final Thought: The math works out like this: The movie is nearly three hours long. The sections which include Bill Hader and Pennywise (75% of the movie) are entertaining. This leaves 25%. All of that stuff is forgettable filler garbage. Thus the movie could have been 25% shorter (EASILY). But if you are able to push the plot aside, you may find yourself enjoying the cheap scares and over-the-top CGI gore.

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