Review: The Babadook


Director: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman
Rating: 4 out of 5 bad books for The Babadook. This film wasn’t the scariest I’ve ever seen, as many claimed it was, but it was, indeed, very scary. Even though I went in with high expectations, the film still satisfied me immensely; it was a success regardless of whether it gave me nightmares or not. It is atmospheric, suspenseful, and dreary, and the horror comes from dread, not gore or cheap shocks. However, it takes a keen attention to detail and a particular kind of panache to pull off this kind of nuanced, delicate indie horror: Kent exhibits these qualities and displays them effortlessly here.

The Babadook— which, someone pointed out to me afterwards, can be reconfigured to roughly spell “the bad book”– is not your typical gore-fest or even your common haunting flick, but it’s pretty much unpleasant from the get-go, before anything supernatural even occurs. Amelia (Davis) is a haggard single mother, tortured by grief ever since her husband died (in a car accident, driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son). Her son, Samuel, is equally tortured by his lack of a father; he still sees monsters and even builds weapons to combat them (and to protect his beloved mother). But he is alienated from other kids as a result of these odd and aggressive behaviors, and Amelia is just as isolated from her peers due to her own inability to move forward and adequately handle her son’s erratic tendencies.

Well, before long, the demons they both battle become all too real– or perhaps, those preexisting demons allow for further negativity to enter their lives in the form of Mister Babadook, a storybook which seems to mysteriously materialize on their shelf as if beckoned or attracted by their stress and unhappiness, and which traumatizes Samuel instantly; he sees Mister Babadook everywhere and says typically creepy things to his own mother, such as “I don’t want you to die.” The scariest visceral moments of the film, sparse and expertly crafted as they are, include the guttural way “BABADOOOOK” is uttered, like a demonic whisper that upsets on a deep, physical level (something about the tone of it just made my skin prickle and crawl). Then there’s also the random appearance of roaches in a non-existent (?) hole in her wall. But those tricks never seem cheap here– they seem horrifyingly real, because everything else about the film is so grounded in gritty reality, particularly the mother-son relationship that is teased and tested throughout the film.

Davis is amazing as Amelia, especially when she is, shall we say, not herself, floating effortlessly between weepy, weak mom to crazy-killer mom– and, again, the possession sort of feeling isn’t cheapened here but rather intensified, thanks to just how subtle and seamless the buildup is, and how crucial the film’s central relationship is to the story. Her son’s obsession with monsters and with saving his mother from them comes into play perfectly when the monster is finally very much real, but it kind of makes you think whether it ever really was– one thing the Babadook says is, the more you deny me the stronger I get, and it really does seem to me like Mister Babadook was another test, a more overt manifestation maybe, of the horror that is already present in their lives, though this horror is much more human– again, the horror of losing a husband or a parent, the fear and turmoil of raising a child alone, or of being alone. The film’s ending is awesomely strange and thus all the more disturbing, and if there’s anything to be learned from the film, it’s that we cannot always eliminate that which plagues us, but we can be in control of it, but at what cost? A scary thought indeed.

This is, all in all, a chilling and unsettling horror film that, above all else, is just so expertly crafted– there wasn’t anything in here that was sloppy or lacked stylishness, care or precision. Even if it doesn’t scare you in the same way as some other films might, I’d argue that this brand of scares is a lot more deeply effective– washing over you like a cold sweat brought on by a bad memory or rather by a nightmare only half remembered, always lurking in the shadows, threatening to remind you of the horrors of your every day life.

Review: The Interview (& Why a “Stupid” Comedy Can Still Be a Satire)


Director:Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen
Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Lizzy Caplan
Rating: 4 out of 5 missiles; a stupid-smart, or perhaps smartly stupid, satire. The film’s script (its broad approach to satirical humor) isn’t always the most intelligent, at least not on the surface (which doesn’t mean it isn’t funny, by the way). But lurking beneath James Franco’s obnoxiousness and between the usual, to-be-expected vulgarities, there is a gleefully offensive ridiculousness to this film that somehow gets its message across better than you’d think it would– if you’re receptive to it, that is. And, might I add, the film skewers not just North Korea, but also America. Its approach to making fun of the former is far more over-the-top than the latter, and so I think the fact that some nuance even exists here at all deserves a whole lot more credit than what the film is going to get.

And that, of course, is because the film is going to get notoriety instead, due to the controversy that has surrounded it for the last couple weeks, from the Sony hack itself to the ensuing fallout: theater chains pulling the film after threats of 9/11-esque attacks surfaced, then Sony pulling it entirely with no plans of distributing it, then Sony deciding to, thankfully, distribute the film after all via various VOD outlets (after much push back and criticism from Hollywood, the indie film world, and even President Obama).

And, as Rotten Tomatoes so eloquently put it in their current consensus for the film, all of that controversy will likely overshadow the film, its strengths and flaws alike. In fact, I’d go so far as to say many people who didn’t have an opinion about, or any interest in seeing the film were enticed to check it out, to see what the hubbub was all about. Then there were others who expressed that this was a whole lot of hubbub over what would probably be a dumb movie. I, for one, was always invested in this film, being a longtime mega-fan of Seth Rogen (and Evan Goldberg). And, like I said, despite the sometimes too low-brow, crude script with jokes that don’t always hit their marks perfectly, the film still works albeit as a smart satire masquerading as a stupid one: over-the-top and silly, yes, but the film is not actually as stupid as it would appear, or at least, it uses its stupidity to its extreme advantage in more cases than not, I’d say. I just fear that, controversy aside, its aura of stupidity will be what clouds the film’s unexpected brilliance for those who refuse to see that aura as a vehicle that enhances its satirical quality.

Of course, there’s not much more I need to say about the film’s plot or its politics, but I really liked this movie so I’ll ramble on anyway. The film follows James Franco’s Dave Skylark– a celebrity gossip reporter– and his trusty producer Aaron Rapaport (played by Seth Rogen, the straight man to Franco’s incompetent, insensitive goofball). They are given the rare opportunity to interview North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, which turns into a mission to kill him, or at least to make him seem human to his own people, who worship him as a god, of course.

The nuances I was referring to earlier with regard satirizing our own country’s policies and pomp come in a few different forms– the celebrity cameos and references surrounding Skylark’s show (Eminem is gay! Rob Lowe is bald! Miley Cyrus has camel-toe! Again– totally low-brow but undeniably humorous) and later, during the titular interview itself, the tables are turned momentarily, but just long enough for discerning viewers to stop and think about our own foreign and domestic policies. Another such fleeting moment is when Skylark, defending the outwardly awesome and misunderstood Kim Jong-un, says something along the lines of, what do we know anyway, we’re always sticking our nose into other countries’ business and messing everything up. I’m not saying the film had a responsibility to flesh these moments out more, heck if the hackers were domestic maybe that would make them just as upset. I just hope those moments are not overlooked totally– they are there, and they do matter.

But of course, Kim Jong-un is also depicted as a hilariously deceitful madman who likes basketball, margaritas, and Katy Perry’s “Firework” and who is burdened by his father’s legacy. I could see why, if North Korea had been the hackers (they’re denying involvement, last I heard), they’d be more than a little sensitive, since the interview itself is, in many ways, more humiliating than the original plan to assassinate him. But that’s why I think those brief moments of satire that point in both directions are so important even if they are more subtle. And maybe there’s something to be said for the film’s shenanigans that seem no different, comedically speaking, from any of Rogen or Franco’s other movies– I think it’s all intentional and, more or less, all effective.

I laughed more than once– sometimes hard– and found myself thinking too, but not for too long before the next gag came along and made me laugh again. I don’t think this kind of back and forth is a bad thing, necessarily. I don’t think the film even takes itself too seriously– all the more reason why the controversy was so fascinating to me in the first place. But if there’s anything we’ve learned from all this, it’s that we need comedy– in many forms, not just those that pride themselves on being cultured– in order to shed light on the state of our world. No matter how juvenile that light seems to be, it’s a light nonetheless, and if we dismiss those lights as such and say they aren’t worthy, or if we instead take them so seriously that we extinguish them out of fear, then the film industry– and our world at large– would be a very dark place indeed.

Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis
Rating: 5 out of 5 jellyfish. I may be a high rater, but I don’t give out perfect scores too often. Now, my biases for Iñárritu (Amores Perros, especially) and for Emma Stone aside, this is, to me, a perfect film. The editing (made to appear as though the film was shot in one take, no cuts) was daring and fascinating and never grew gimmicky but it was also, even more surprisingly, not the film’s only strength. Far from it, actually. The technical panache is met with and matched by amazing, raw performances from the entire, stellar cast, even as they deliver intentionally pretentious and philosophical stretches of dialogue– and this is all in service of achieving a surrealist satire about celebrity culture and the difference in value between art and entertainment. Ironic, considering this film is both art and entertainment in equal, glorious measure.

Birdman is a sometimes absurd, always engrossing tale about a show business has-been– Riggan Thomson (Keaton)– attempting to direct and star in a dramatic Broadway play of his own adaptation from a short story. The actor jargon is meant to be laughable, I think, at least when it’s coming from everyone else (in particular, Norton and Watts give great performances). But for Riggan– even with all his otherworldly abilities (which he uses mostly to throw temper tantrums and escape from his current self into delusions of his former self: the global superhero sensation, Birdman)– the struggle between artist and entertainer seems authentic, poignant almost. We may not love him every second of the film– we find out he was a pretty negligent father and a self-absorbed husband– but he is the only character who seems at least somewhat aware of what he used to be, and who he is trying to be, all with the existential dread of not really know what any of that makes him right now.

Emma Stone (again, bias aside but I couldn’t not mention this) gives a standout performance as his daughter, Sam, a recent rehab alum who’s now acting as his bitter assistant. She has one powerful, perfectly executed monologue all about how Riggan doesn’t matter anymore, how he is washed up and irrelevant, and it is one of the most gripping moments in the film. The movie seems to effortlessly, seamlessly ebb and flow between honesty and intensity, fantasy and dark humor, philosophy and spectacle. The film in itself is kind of striking a convincing balance then, a cohesive and complicated hybrid even, of the very modes it seems to argue are opposites– again, art and entertainment are assigned values that I think we’re meant to question and consider throughout the film’s content, while in the film’s form, they’re beautifully mangled together, both worthy of our attention. Everything from theater critics to Twitter and viral culture, from method acting and petty backstage power plays, is examined in equal measure; what lengths should these actors be going to to be taken seriously, and should being taken seriously be the end goal anyway? And if so, why should that be the end goal? And, as is brought up again and again throughout the film, how does any of this fit into our wired world?

The film is creative and calculated, cynical and cerebral, emotional and exciting. The jazz drumming adds to the absurdity of the film as well as to the artsy nature of it, of course, and it punctuates the film, tying together its disparate tones into one big, jazzy joke. The sound in general is extremely effective. The mixing of sound levels paired with the visual one-take effect give us the eerie feeling like the film is happening in a labyrinth around us, like we are inescapably and inexplicably immersed in this world. I loved the thrill of certain scenes, and embraced the guilt that came with feeling a thrill in those scenes– such as when Riggan is essentially in one of his old Birdman flicks again. With the snap of his fingers, there are explosions and special effects and he even flies… or does he? The messages are intentionally mixed until the film’s awe-inspiring conclusion; we’re left to wonder again and again where he’d feel most happy, most successful, most loved and admired– in his Birdman suit, making billions of dollars or on stage, making “art.” As my convoluted review probably indicates, this is a complex film that sometimes, in certain ways, masquerades as an extremely simple film– it looks like one take, but with every fluid and meaningful movement of the camera, a million questions are being raised, a million things are being considered and made fun of, and we, as media consumers, are complicit in all of it. In the end, I think the film is critiquing the conflict between art and entertainment, rather than necessarily choosing sides within that conflict. And this is what makes it so interesting to me in the first place; the film is an expertly choreographed debate, and a truly important, innovative and enjoyable film that will, above all else, remind you what the medium can do– as both art and as entertainment.

Review: Interstellar


Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 wormholes. This space epic could be considered Nolan’s most ambitious film yet, and like always, this film feels like it wants to be something greater, something completely different than simply a reinvention of the blockbuster wheel– the fact that it still does reinvent that wheel in some way as opposed to merely spinning it well, does deserve some credit, then. But for its grand scope and far reach, even this achievement feels like falling short.

Interstellar takes place in a future where earth is running out of food and thus everyone is forced to be a farmer, including Coop (McConaughey), who was once destined for something far greater, before the world was ravaged by dust storms and famine. But when his daughter, Murph, starts receiving messages in Morse code and binary in her bedroom, one thing leads to another and Coop finds himself with a group of mysterious scientists and explorers: NASA. With Coop as the pilot, this group sets off on a journey through space and time– a wormhole has been discovered, through which another galaxy exists, a galaxy whose planets have been tested for how well they’d be able to sustain human life when the earth no longer can.

The stakes are high and Nolan’s human touch is certainly improved here– he has a keen grasp on, and conveys powerfully what these characters are sacrificing by leaving their home planet (Coop’s relationship with his daughter remains a particularly important and poignant force in the narrative), especially because time is such an unknowable thing for them; an hour for them on one planet could be seven years or more at home, where things could be deteriorating even further with every passing minute. The idea is that Murph’s generation might be the last to survive on earth, but Coop may be doing all of this for her without ever even seeing her again, which proves a devastating possibility to him.

Of course, many people who have been anticipating this film eagerly were probably most excited for– and expecting to be blown away by– the visuals. And, again, they’re spectacular enough– impeccably executed and constructed intelligently. In fact, the whole film boasts an almost pretentious intellect, but as far as blockbusters go, I’d say that’s a commendable thing more often than it is a flaw. Despite all this, there was still something lacking about the film, as much as I enjoyed it. Even with all the questions of science and the human relationships driving the story, it still felt like the impressive visuals themselves were hollow, motivated by and operating on the thinnest possible pieces of those other components.

That is, there was a disconnect, for me personally, between its breathtaking technical elements and its more grounded, emotional elements. For instance, I thought the performances were wonderful, even if its script at times carried that same air of poetic, brainy pretension I mentioned earlier. And the film’s use of sound was deeply effective– the way the film would go from moments of extreme loudness to eerie, empty silence in a matter of one jarring edit was one of my favorite technical aspects of the film. And the trippy wormhole scene was clearly another exercise for Nolan in aesthetically manifesting meaningful, philosophical questions about our physical dimensions and their boundaries; it was predictable, but still beautiful nonetheless. This was all effective, yes, but only when considered separately, somehow, like an equation that just doesn’t quite work out in the end as perfectly as its parts seem to dictate that it should.

Interstellar is science-fiction at its most indulgent and, for better and for worse perhaps, it often takes a more introspective approach despite its outwardly intergalactic scope. It is a film that feels like it was meant for greater things, a film that has overachiever written all over it. It isn’t necessarily a disappointment, speaking as someone who went in with few expectations at all, and it certainly is not a bad film. It is awe-inducing, but it never induces quite as much awe as it boasts so self-assuredly that it can; a mission too big to accomplish fully, it comes close, which is admirable enough and certainly entertaining on some level, but for many more expectant fans, Interstellar may feel like a bit of a black hole.

Review: Gone Girl


Director: David Fincher
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 anniversary scavenger hunt clues. This film was not only a near-perfect novel-to-film adaptation and even-closer-to-perfect collaboration between Fincher and Gillian Flynn (who wrote the screenplay based on her own book– which helped immensely in transferring the novel’s dark tone) but this is also one of Fincher’s most sophisticated and polished films– an appropriately stylish, impeccably paced, cynical and smart noir about media and marriage and the toxicity inherent in both.

While some details of Flynn’s novel about Amy Elliott Dunne, wife of Nick Dunne gone missing on their fifth wedding anniversary, are understandably lacking in Fincher’s adaptation, the essentials are all there somewhere– vividly brought to life, intelligently condensed and reworked, so that fans and non-readers alike can appreciate the essence of the novel. And honestly, I didn’t find myself missing anything that was left out, and Flynn found a way to convey many things in a shorter span of time without rushing, and translate them for a visual medium without forsaking some of her most affecting language.

The casting was also amazing, as I’d hoped: Affleck was both charming and alarmingly smug as Nick, and Pike gave a standout performance as Amy. Her voice carried the twisted persona Amy has in the book in a way that no one else’s could have, I don’t think. And the look in her eyes conveys even more– delusion, conviction, joy and pain (real and fake). She embodies Amy– one of the most complicated literary characters I personally have ever encountered– with an eerie sense of ease. Even Neil Patrick Harris as ex-boyfriend Desi and Tyler Perry as lawyer Tanner Bolt played their parts to campy perfection.

I think what makes the film a success though is that even I– someone who has read the book– was shocked and surprised by twists that I should have seen coming. Something about Fincher’s sense of timing and style combined with Flynn’s script made the twists fresh and effective even if you’re expecting them. The way one scene in particular (which I won’t disclose) is edited– flashes of a spoiler-riddled event separated by flashes of black, as if a film reel were damaged or skipping– will sicken and chill you to the bone, and if it doesn’t, then surely something else in the film will. For one thing, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross– working with Fincher for the third time here– have created a score that is basically the novel if set to music; it is dark, brooding, and at times, absolutely mesmerizing. And as much of a fan as I am of Fincher’s characteristic style, I feel like he used it more in service of the novel than to be self-indulgent; he experimented more while also drawing less attention to his blue-and-yellow hues, giving more attention instead to exploring these mysterious characters and already-unhappy-enough themes.

I also think those themes were more clearly accentuated in the film– whether it’s due to Affleck’s oft-mentioned star text (being a celebrity formerly haunted and hounded by the media), or simply the way film depicts and incorporates such media, the importance of all that media-manipulation and hype is emphasized somewhat more than I felt it was in the book. But I will say that the cynicism about marriage is intact and as brutal as ever; the film’s editing, replete with flashbacks and Amy’s poetic, problematic journal-voiceovers, forms a similar structure to the novel (his, her’s and their’s) and makes the trajectory of happy marriage to miserable one a bleak and fascinating journey, indeed.

I do think the film’s denouement– though also faithful to the novel– didn’t translate quite as well as it could have. It’s the only part of the film whose pacing felt a little awkward, but no less effecting emotionally. It is a conclusion that will nevertheless, like the rest of the film, stay with you. And that is one significant and impressive similarity between text and movie– it is rare for a book that is so intelligent and thought-provoking and disturbing to be all those things in its film version. And for that alone, this film is a must-see for Gone Girl’s readers. But for those who haven’t read the book, the film is still a twisty and stomach-churning tale that is perhaps Fincher’s most eloquent and thematically mature work. It will drag you in, tease you and spit you out– shaken but satisfied on nearly every level.

Review: The Skeleton Twins


Director: Craig Johnson
Starring: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Ty Burrell, Luke Wilson
Rating: 4 out of 5 skeleton keychains. This film is a well-acted family drama that is propelled out of melodramatic territory by strong, natural, nuanced performances by Hader and Wiig, Johnson’s direction which neither dwells in darkness nor shies away from it in favor of indie cliches, and a script that likewise utilizes Hader and Wiig’s comedic talent to find the humor and humanity in an otherwise emotional, serious story about siblings, secrets, sadness, and survival.

The Skeleton Twins stars Hader and Wiig as brother and sister– unhappy and estranged, they’re isolated by their despair and reunited by it, too. Milo (Hader) is a gay wannabe actor living in LA, and Maggie (Wiig) is a married wannabe housewife in their native upstate New York. The film is a well-paced journey to self-discovery for both of them, beginning with their nearly simultaneous suicide attempts.

My favorite thing about this film is how impeccably smart and subtle and sincere the script was. It carefully weaves these siblings’ histories through the present by revealing their painful past bit by tiny bit in a way that felt completely genuine and realistic. Exposition never felt like exposition, but rather, real-life conversations between two people who maybe never really spoke about these things before. It feels like we just happen to be witnessing these revelations as they happen, and that makes the film an immensely gripping experience.

Of course, I also loved Hader and Wiig. Two of the most memorable scenes in the film are, also, the most hilarious, which shouldn’t come as a surprise necessarily but I also don’t want to downplay the brilliance of their dramatic turns here. One scene features Maggie and Milo bonding at the dentist office where she works, over laughing gas no less. What I loved about this sequence though is that while Hader and Wiig are in typically top-notch comedic form, the next scene is similarly intimate as we watch them confide in each other. It’s during this scene specifically that you remember– these are not one-dimensional SNL characters being played by SNL cast-members. These are actors who give these characters their humanity, and it seems almost effortless. The film might have seemed totally dark had it not been for their humor, but Milo and Maggie (which is to say, Hader and Wiig)– much like the best of us– ebb and flow between all these different human emotions. Another wonderful scene is their lip sync duet. The film certainly has laughs, but it also finds a balance that I think is far more impressive. The film finds the humor in dark situations but it also tests Hader and Wiig to embrace and deal with some really dark themes and situations as Milo and Maggie.

So, no, this film should not be marketed as a comedy, not even a dark comedy. This film is a drama with moments of humor that I hesitate to even call comic relief. It’s a moving, entertaining, and even somewhat thought provoking character study about two people who, while dealing with similar grief and emotional demons in different ways, slowly realize that maybe all they need is each other in order to deal with them properly and grow. The film ends on a poignant, mostly ambivalent note that demonstrates this, and the lesson is a beautiful one to behold, especially as we spend the whole film growing closer with and sympathetic to these complex characters.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy


Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Karen Gillan, Michael Rooker, Benicio del Toro, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Awesome Mix cassette tapes for this awesome movie that has broken box office records for August releases and whose praise is well deserved. This movie is thoroughly entertaining and doesn’t ever take itself too seriously, making it a refreshingly daring endeavor– not only where Marvel’s cinematic canon is concerned but also with regard to our current landscape of superhero films that often veer toward the dark and brooding and formulaic. Boisterous and irreverent, this film also serves as a big, brazen and sometimes bawdy science-fiction flick whose sense of humor, scale and scope are reminiscent of Star Wars— and it’s truly a testament to the quality of this movie that I’m not the first or only person to assert such a claim.

Guardians of the Galaxy was one of my most highly anticipated films of the entire year, and definitely my most highly anticipated film of the summer, and it did not disappoint. Its complex story is sorted out and propelled forward by its charismatic cast and grounded in an otherwise strong script. The band of misfits include Peter Quill/Star Lord, played to comic perfection by Chris Pratt, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced hilariously by Bradley Cooper), and the lovable standout Groot (whose oddly emotive three-word line “I am Groot” was brought to life by Vin Diesel). They’re brought together by greed, theft, and revenge when a mysterious orb is stolen– everyone wants it or wants to sell it, but why?

The answer lies in Lee Pace’s hammy, over-the-top, power hungry villain, Ronan. After some brief and ever so slightly convoluted exposition concerning a peace treaty and interstellar genocide, we realize that with the possession of this orb, Ronan can fully defy said treaty and destroy whole worlds. So needless to say, a zany, action-packed manhunt begins when these mismatched companions are finally given a chance– a chance to give a shit.

The film is intensely watchable– it is colorful, loud, smart, funny, exhilarating and always offbeat, even when it does follow a formula of sorts. Guardians of the Galaxy is also an underdog story with a particularly ballsy tone, and in a way, it is masquerading as an epic space saga, but the masquerade works incredibly well and it is, above all else, a ton of fun to watch.

Further, the galaxy in question is fascinatingly intricate but it is also quirky and imperfect– this is not a science-fiction story or comic book adaptation whose concerns are merely black and white, good and evil. I think what makes Guardians of the Galaxy so great is that it explores the very vibrant middle ground, in which good and bad coexist, particularly within each individual member of this motley crew, and where there also exists the strange and the silly in grandiose measure.

Even with all the heroism and sentimentality to be had as the film barrels toward its conclusion, nothing ever feels cheesy, or if it does, it does so with full awareness, and our heroes still exhibit a ragtag kind of chemistry no matter how valiant they have proven themselves to be, as individuals or as a team.

The performances are wonderful, the special effects are all consistently dazzling, and there are innumerable opportunities to laugh out loud– Groot and Rocket are notably amusing, though Drax has his moments too (especially when it comes to metaphors) and Pratt proves himself to be a dynamic lead by perfectly balancing heartache and a goofy brand of cockiness as Quill/Star Lord, effortlessly combining those facets at times, singing and dancing to distract his enemies.

Speaking of singing, I clearly cannot sing the praises of Guardians of the Galaxy enough. After all, in what other sci-fi/comic book movie would a corny classic pop soundtrack work so well to establish tone and to partially drive certain aspects of a plot about alien lands and unlikely saviors– saviors that include a genetically engineered raccoon and a walking tree who has a limited vocabulary, no less? The answer is, you won’t quickly, or perhaps ever, find a film like Guardians of the Galaxy– in this or in any other respect. It is not simply a successful film, but it is also truly special.


Review: Mood Indigo


Director: Michel Gondry
Starring: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Omar Sy, Gad Elmaleh
Rating: 4 out of 5 water lilies. It took me a while to invest in the story that Mood Indigo is trying to tell, because for a short while, there wasn’t much of a story to be gleaned– with no immediate context to better understand its eccentricities, and seemingly little substance beneath all the beautifully strange fluff, we are initially left with nothing more than Gondry’s usual visual splendor. However, once that characteristically hypnotic, hallucinogenic quality finally became emotionally grounded in something resembling a narrative, I grew to really love this film, even if I am still trying to fully understand and unravel it– whimsical and surreal, this is a love story for the absurdist in all of us, and leaves much open to interpretation, for better and for worse.

Mood Indigo begins with (and continues to be punctuated by) people writing the tale we’re about to see, operating a consistently-moving conveyor belt of typewriters. The tale itself takes place in an ultra quirky version of Paris, where Gondry’s special brand of fantasy can be found everywhere. Colin (Duris) is a comfortably wealthy, lazy bachelor who soon wishes to fall in love like his cohorts Chick (Elmaleh) and wonder-chef Nicolas (Sy) have. Other than that, there isn’t much of a central conflict until perhaps later; this early portion of the film is solely consumed by its wondrously distorted, playful, odd imagery– so consumed in fact that it almost seems too indulgent and downright excessive, lacking purpose.

But, I soon found myself charmed by the film anyway, especially because Gondry’s stylistic flair eventually seems be in service of some greater messages or themes. Colin meets Chloe (Tautou) at a party and they embark on a beautiful but ultimately doomed romance– Chloe contracts a kind of cancer, or as it translates to in this film: a water lily growing inside her lung, the only treatment for which is to be surrounded by other flowers. Meanwhile, Colin’s funds are steadily depleting and the once cheery setting develops time-lapsed cobwebs and takes on an even more distorted shape, as well as an overall darker, bleaker tone and color palate to match. The film even ends in black and white, and the gradual transition proves really quite moving.

The more we see and hear of the tale’s mystery writers– including a jarring scene in which they have to pull Colin himself away from the typewriters as he tries futilely to re-write what seems to be his unfortunate fate– the more the film seems to be about the very idea of predestination. The film being based on a novel in the first place, authors and authorship seem to be major motifs as well, and the idea that these authors are actually writing our stories instead of us becomes more and more apparent– and a whole lot more chilling and thought-provoking– as the film progresses.

While the film does end on a far more depressing note than it begins, the shift is nevertheless effective– we are no longer necessarily questioning the film’s zany accents but rather looking deeper, not merely accepting the film’s surrealism at face value then but finally understanding it as a mode of expressing somewhat greater concerns of destiny and control, fantasy and reality.

Review: The Lego Movie


Directors: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Charlie Day, Alison Brie
Rating: 3 out of 5 Lego bricks. I really liked this movie when it first started and had high expectations going in (based on all the positive buzz it had received when it hit theaters), and I loved the final act quite a bit as well, but in the middle stretch, I started to grow weary of its frenzied pace and its equally hyper comedic timing. It’s a very clever and ambitious animated-comedy, don’t get me wrong– but I think I was expecting to actually laugh more than I did. For me, the experience was more often a strictly cognitive recognition of humor, with the exception of certain moments that seemed more heartfelt and driven by the actual narrative, and less rushed for the sake of maintaining the film’s frantic vibe and also less burdened by the very same self-aware, jokey pretension that makes the film so smart in the first place.

And I know people will probably hate me for not loving the film as much as it perhaps deserves to be loved– again, it is smart and slick especially with regard to the very question of product placement, but there was only so much entertainment I was able to consistently find in that, somehow. And its themes and morals are particularly wonderful too (like imagination and creativity over order and control, for instance), but as far as enjoyment goes, this movie simply didn’t mesh quite as well with my sense of humor as I would have liked or hoped.

For those who don’t already know, the film tells the story of Emmet (Pratt) who, despite his bland, average every[Lego]man appearance, demeanor and profession as a construction worker, unwittingly becomes the “Special:” a figure who is meant to save [Lego] humanity by finding the piece of resistance and using it to stop Lord Business from gluing the universe into place. I loved the way objects from our human world were implemented into this fantastical Lego world, and the way our understanding of Legos as a toy was also an integral part of the tale (the piece of resistance being a cap for the dreaded “Kragle” weapon which is, in fact, Krazy Glue).

The adventure that drives the film is certainly exhilarating, but also exhausting, and I think the film works best when the jokes are subtle and referential. The film is smartest in those moments, and yet some of the other jokes seemed alternately stupid, albeit on purpose maybe, and the shifts between the two were often confusing and tiresome.

That being said, this film is good, and I’m in no way saying it isn’t. I think my expectations were perhaps too high and my sense of humor too slow, or at least it was, in a sense, too unprepared– for the brightly colored sugar-rush of gags and characters that this film builds with such a rapid and giddy fervor, a fervor that is impressive but which I often found a chore to keep up with.

So, all of those complaints being aired out now, I really want to emphasize what I did love and enjoy about this film. It was fun to pick out the many voice cameos to be had from comedians and actors both random and expected, and its main cast of voice actors treat the script with a certain kind of gravity that is, again, both endearing and also a little jarring. The film’s final act which contains a twist of sorts was my absolute favorite aspect of the film– these final scenes were creative, thrilling and emotional, and they sold me on the film as a whole, I think. I loved that the film is not devoid of lessons for its younger viewers.

The Lego Movie, like the messages it boasts, is truly special in all its hodgepodge glory and in its ability to draw inspiration from a toy and become something more innovative and meaningful, giving the Lego building blocks we all know and love a renewed creative potential. In the end, I only wish I had found the film funnier, but Miller and Lord’s other strengths are definitely still discernible in what is otherwise a visually astonishing and intelligent animated feature.


Review: Snowpiercer


Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 protein blocks. Aside from having to get used to some of Bong Joon-ho’s signature stylistic tendencies– mainly a jarring pace filled with tonal inconsistencies and abrupt, drastic mood shifts (all potential flaws that eventually become some of the film’s most distinct and intriguing characteristics)– this film is thoroughly enjoyable on visceral, intellectual and emotional levels. Riveting and intense, Snowpiercer is a refreshingly smart alternative to many summer blockbusters and a uniquely stylish approach to some familiar dystopian science-fiction tropes/themes as well.

Snowpiercer exceeded my expectations by almost as many miles as the train in the film can travel. The premise is in some ways familiar, and in many other ways, it is as unique as its execution: after almost all life on earth has been wiped out by a failed experiment to combat climate change, a portion of the world’s remaining human beings are saved by a train that runs around the globe, turning icebergs into the passengers’ water supply. On this train, a dangerous class system emerges. Evans plays Curtis, the anti-heroic leader of the most recent of revolts– the tail section’s poor inhabitants against the front cars’ rich and privileged ones. The latter are led (or at least represented) by the hilarious-but-also-really-scary Mason, played by the insanely talented Tilda Swinton.

The film chronicles this carefully planned and brutally fought revolution with stylized violence, dark humor, and some pretty shocking twists and turns; the length of the train is filled with discoveries, some gruesome (what are protein blocks made of, anyway?) and others beautiful (gracefully floating snowflakes, anyone?) in nature, and the film remains exciting and gripping– while also increasing in its absurdity– the further toward the front (and thus, the almighty engine) our protagonists get.

Reaching the engine is of the utmost importance to Curtis, whose own past on the train (which has been running for 18 years around the inhospitable globe) is revealed through a heartbreaking monologue near the film’s conclusion. He wants nothing more than to come face to face with the elusive Wilford– the inventor, engineer and conductor of the train, and the true leader of its population.

The biggest twists come in the film’s final act, and the ultimate resolution is hypnotic in its unpredictability, hopeful in its ambiguity– the payoff of the long, strange and often difficult journey is, in a word, satisfying. This film achieves the rare goal though of actually satisfying the need for action, the hunger for morals and messages, and the desire to feel for and relate to characters, all in nearly equal measure. It takes all the most brilliant and disturbing (and not to mention eerily timely) elements of dystopian sci-fi and heightens and reinvents them, resulting in one of the most aesthetically-stunning, fascinatingly intricate and awesomely original movies to come out of the genre recently. Available on VOD platform, this is one of my most urgently recommended movies of this summer.