De Palma and The Dahlia

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In the recently released documentary De Palma, young directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow interview the legendary filmmaker as he breaks down his entire filmography. He speaks heavily on his influences, namely Hitchcock’s Vertigo, his positive and negative experiences with independent and studio filmmaking and copious anecdotes of all your favorite actors. It’s quite impressive for a documentary that is one person talking for 100 minutes to be so engaging. Maybe it’s because I’m a film geek that grew up on pop culture talking head shows like VH1’s I Love The…And Bravo’s Scariest Movie Moments. I get thrills from seeing the highlights of such a versatile and memorable oeuvre. You leave wanting to revisit this classics and interested in the more lost gems.

One of the films the documentary glosses over is the 2006 flop The Black Dahlia. When asked about it, De Palma essentially admits it’s a mess, saying that he found the book confusing and since he stuck so close to James Elroy’s material that it translated to an equally jumbled film. It was quite a cathartic statement to hear. When I saw Dahlia in theaters i remember leaving bewildered. I was really into true crime at the time and after seeing Hollywoodland a few weeks earlier, I was excited for more 40’s nostalgic noir. I first accredited my confusion to being fourteen and was just too naive to understand the intricacies of such a grown up genre. I remained highly fascinated by this movie because I wanted it to make sense. It was a cryptic message that if I focused hard enough, I could break. It’s such a perfect set up being based off one of the most gruesome unsolved murders set in a seedy city masked with glamour and stardom. It’s quite fitting that there wouldn’t be a clear answer and De Palma himself throws his hands up in despair.

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The narrative follows Bucky (Josh Hartnett) a boxer turned cop and his partner/fellow boxing rival Lee (Aaron Eckhart) who get caught up in more crime than you’d think two people could handle. To manage expectations, the Dahlia doesn’t show up till minute 22 as the initial set up is this love triangle involving former mobster girlfriend now Lee’s current girlfriend Kay (Scarlett Johansson) and her affection for both men. This love triangle is the real make or break of this movie. I like it as a concept, how these characters lives get tangled up in this case and they’re trying to wade out the inner and outer turmoil. The downside is it’s not just one case. There’s so many side stories from a serial child murderer on the run to Kay’s ex boyfriend’s imminent release from prison to Bucky’s affair with a wealthy developer’s daughter named Madeline (Hilary Swank) and literally everyone is connected to the Dahlia. You need red string to keep up with how everything links up. I now can’t imagine seeing this in theaters because I actually rewound my DVD multiple because I couldn’t hear the whispered dialogue that was crucial because every line of dialogue reveals something new.

It’s bizarre that Dahlia was released the same month as Hollywoodland which manages its conspiracies much more succinctly. We do get some relief when Bucky puts the pieces together and finds the scene of the gruesome murder. Hollywoodland sets itself apart by playing out every scenario for George Reeves’ death, leading to an ambiguous conclusion. Here, once Bucky confronts the presumed culprit we fall into the longest most convoluted explanation sequence. It does contain my favorite performance from Rachel Minor as the alcohol/drug addled mother of Madeline. It’s the most hammiest, psychotic delivery but leaves an underwhelming explanation for the Dahlia as you get lost in the fragmented pieces of reasoning that can be summed up as “crazy is what crazy do”. I realize that doesn’t make sense but neither does this movie.

In an alternate universe, I believe this movie could be as great as I want it to be. Josh Hartnett does not have the emotional range to carry a noir. He’s got the good ole boy look but his lifeless voiceover and any breakdown or burst of fear, anger or sorrow is so wooden. There’s no chemistry between him and Kay which his love for her is supposed to inform most of his decisions. I love Hilary Swank but I can’t deal with plot twists hinging on the fact that her Madeline looks like the victim Elizabeth Short played by Mia Kirshner. At most their hair cut is similar but Swank lacks the raven color and giant eyes that are Kirshner’s signature yet at every moment someone must mention that she looks like “that dead girl”. The best scenes of the film are the pure detective work as Bucky interviews a wannabe actress dawning Cleopatra garb or Short’s disgruntled father. The Black Dahlia is a noir, sepia toned wet dream. It doesn’t feel real like say L.A. Confidential that gives you a sense of the city and the station our characters spend their days in. It exist in a world that’s all plot and no substance. I’m glad I can put this pulpy novel of a film to rest as it’s haunted me much like the dismembered corpse of Elizabeth Short haunts Bucky. I can’t shake it, it’s dissatisfying but it’s always in the back of my mind.

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Ego Put To Good Use in The Neon Demon

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You have to look at The Neon Demon with a post Drive Winding Refn lens. Bronson is too British and Valhalla Rising had middling success, Drive very much solidified the Winding Refn signature that has only heightened in subsequent films. His own personality might have done that is well. From the opening credits, this film is stamped with his name and I mean that literally as the first frames are watermarked “NWR”. This is a movie where he is pushing the limits of his directing style, straight from the title he is pointing out the importance of those iridescent colors that were so prominent in Only God Forgives. He also pushes the boundaries of content presenting a film intent on making you uncomfortable with sexual violence and taboos. To top it all off this is a movie about Hollywood vanity seen through the transformation of a young model as she is glorified by the industry while those around her try to tear her down. I’d consider this the most vain and self indulgent project of Winding Refn as he sees his power and uses it to make his most thematically ambitious and visually masturbatory film yet.

I do not discount a film for being uncomfortable if it serves a purpose and I will say thanks to some female writing credits (screenplay by Refn, Mary Laws and Polly Stenham) it is an accurate representation of the fears women can face in the world. Late in the film our lead Jesse (Elle Fanning) monologues that her mother used to call her a dangerous girl and throughout the film she indeed finds herself in perilous situations. There is constant uneasy as Jesse meets the men who could exploit her like the famous photographer who wants a closed test session with her, the designer who believes she’s only worth the outer beauty she possesses and the creepy super of her motel home who has the prowess of a mountain lion. She is preyed on by men, society and the women who are jealous of what she’s taken away. The film never victim blames, saying Jesse brought this upon herself and her arc is coming into her own but extraneous forces either see her as as a threat or as meat. A woman is either sex or food Jena Malone as Ruby, Jesse’s new friend, implies which is a reflection of how society views the currency of beauty and youth. Los Angeles and the modeling industry are the perfect backdrop for these themes where female competition in a male dominated industry is at its most prominent.

Refn has such a control of the camera and mise en scene of the film that as I delve into the slightly negative aspects, I don’t want to detracted from the fact that he made a gorgeous and very intentional film. Nothing is out of place and much like the film opening with a long take of a frozen in time tableau, the film is equally as picturesque. Everyone is posing and keenly placed amidst the bright red and blue lights. As much as Refn is pointing out his talent as a filmmaker he’s intentionally pushing the boundaries of what we as an audience can sit through. With knife rape, necrophilia, cannibalism and pedophilia, there’s no shortage of things to make you squirm and hate that someone put this on screen but as I said, they all serve a purpose. I can’t always argue that they’re necessary because Jena Malone mounting a corpse because she can’t have sex with Jesse is gratuitous but other imagery like the graphic examples of consumption of beauty and asserting dominance sexually are unique and bold. It’s not something I could recommend to a layperson, unfamiliar of what to expect from Refn. It even shocked me. But for a film depicting a subject such as the corruption of innocence in an immoral city which is nothing new, I’m impressed with his unsettling approach. Jesse is an angelic figure but still flawed in her selfish ways and her female rivals (played by Bella Heathcote and Abby Lee) are pitted against each other because of a skewed, unfair society rather than the affections of a man which most films lean towards. They are still fighting for a patriarchy’s approval even if they don’t realize it.

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There’s a lot to unpack from this film and I imagine it’ll be the subject of many film students’ mid term assignments. Like my theory is that the Neon Demon is Los Angeles, a city of lights, evil and nepotism. The friend who attended the screening with me argued it was Jesse after her transformation, specifically citing the scene where her innocent self and sinister self converge betwixt neon triangles in the dark hallway of the mind. The recent Refn films are deliberately dream like that allow for all these interpretations, freeing you from viewing it in such literal terms. Even with being an abstract film filled with gold paint and glitter porn, I appreciate that there is a story compelling it forward with interesting characters instead of being complete metaphor. The film plays with expectations of what you think characters are capable of from both men and women. It’s so purely a Winding Refn film yet it somehow seems unlike him due to the predominance of female characters and themes. It’s reflective of the strong writing team and brilliant cinematography by Natasha Braier. This movie doesn’t have the commercial appeal of his Gosling pictures but I liked the artistry and nuance for an All About Eve story. I’m willing to give more credit than I expected to Refn even if he may be an egotistical jerk. It’s Hollywood, isn’t it? That’s the game.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople Review

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Rarely do I find a comedy that can pull off the strong emotional beats it strives for. Often this genre can be bogged down by the presumed screenplay requirement of needing to have cheesy scenes of heart and in turn sacrifice jokes to do so. One of my issues with the recent release, Central Intelligence, was that it spent so much time dedicated to character development that it left no room for the actors to have fun because they were being thrown so many dramatic notes. I wouldn’t call that The Rock’s strong suit. Yet director/writer Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople pulls off this emotional weight effortlessly making me cry, cheer and laugh with the unconventional family unit that forms between juvenile delinquent Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) and survivalist loner Hector (Sam Neill). Through the breathtaking backdrop of the New Zealand bush, Waititi presents the diversity of his native homeland with quirky, compelling characters in a surprisingly action packed indie comedy.

Why this movie hits so hard is because you feel like you’re watching real people and those real people are also the outcasts and weirdos every town has. As Ricky is dropped off by Child Service Agent Paula (Rachel House) at the start of the film he is dressed like a flashy wannabe Kanye and is described as a menace to society but what we’re looking at this overweight thirteen year old who has never had someone give him a chance. Almost complimenting him is his new foster mom Bella (Rima Te Wiata) who is blunt, boisterous and dresses just as loud with cat laden sweaters. I genuinely fell in love with this motley crew that includes husband Hector that we learn has a similar checkered past that left him illiterate and distant from the world aside from his wife. I want to give everyone all the acting awards because the love between these characters emanates from the screen and equally the wretched pain when one of them passes. Even more of a credit to Waititi is at the somber and desolate funeral for Bella where you can feel the heavy silence in the room is undercut by the director’s cameo as an absent minded minister rambling on with a confusing Jesus metaphor. These beats resonate both light and dark and further the story rather than be halting, cliche plot devices.

This movie is a love letter to New Zealand. There’s an abundance of aerial shots of the lush landscape that evokes such an awe. Much like city kid Ricky, we’re discovering this environment for the first time, unaware of what it has to offer. Within this breathtaking wilderness is a diverse spectrum of Kiwis. We meet the bro hunters who are consistently outsmarted by our leads, a conspiracy nut aptly named Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby) and a young girl, Kahu (Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne), living in the bush with her equally young father. Much like Whale Rider replaced Once Were Warriors as most famous and culturally significant piece of New Zealand cinema, Wilderpeople supersedes with the most modern perspective of locals. I very much consider this a PSA for the country as Waititi is creating interesting characters against gorgeous scenery that welcomes you with excitement. Even the villains are nonthreatening in a Keystone Kops kind of way.

There is so much passion in this film with its storytelling and visual language. Waititi throws in some hilarious homages toPsycho and Rambo but admits that we can see a directorial stamp. Moving forward from low key What We Do In The Shadows, this movie is proof that he can work on this grander scale yet still be grounded and funny. A perfect prelude to Thor 3 I hope Waititi can hold onto his comedic voice, his influence from cinema and love for his country within the MCU. Future aspirations aside, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is the best kind of indie film where it feels free with its expression, tells a story that is specific to where it’s coming from paired with universal themes and here is both an intimate family drama and a large scale adventure. This film covers so much ground and you leave with a full experience plus a need to visit New Zealand for yourself.

The Future of Pixar with Finding Dory

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I don’t like admitting this but I didn’t want to see this movie. Part of it is due to my irrational aversion to animated features. As a teenager I became turned off by any animated film. I was disillusioned by the loss of hand drawn animation and also this being the time of all the Shrek and Ice Age sequels there’s some logic but still blown out of proportion. This can be a blessing in disguise though because when a friend manages to drag me to the newest Disney or Pixar films like Wreck It Ralph or Frozen and I’m pleasantly surprised by the high quality of filmmaking and storytelling the studio is known for. The other factor towards my disinterest in Finding Dory was due to how much I love Finding Nemo. It was my favorite Pixar movie growing up. People love Toy Story for the emotion or Incredibles for the craftsmanship but I love Nemo for its humor. It was so quotable to an eleven year old with phrases like “es-cap-ée” and the surfer dude slang. Now as an adult, maybe it’s my cynical nature showing but I couldn’t imagine Pixar capturing that lightning in a bottle twice. More noticeably has Pixar entered “Phase Sequel” for the next few years withIncredibles 2, Cars 3, Toy Story 4 making this feel like a cash grab instead of doing what the studio is known for which is making emotionally gripping stories that explore new and uncharted environments. I don’t need to catch up with what Marlon and Dory are up to as I’m completely satisfied with the first film’s ending yet here we are thirteen years later with a new quest that takes our characters on a journey across the vast ocean to find Dory’s family.

The film sets up very similarly to Nemo, beginning with a flashback to googly eyed baby Dory being doted on by her parents. I liked this mirroring device, it only became annoying later on in the film as there are tremendous amount of these flashbacks that makes it difficult to anchor this film down in the present. It feels like Pixar thought they had a hook, line and sinker with the cuteness level baby Dory brings with her Zooey Deschanel eyes that they needed to give that as much screen time as possible. Back in present day, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) has a memory jog relating to the undertow that she is motivated to venture to find her parents she was separated from so long ago. Nemo (Hayden Rolence) enthusiastically and Marlin (Albert Brooks) reluctantly join her and this first third of the film is mostly rehashing the first movie. We revisit characters like Crush and Squirt and the fish wander into a scary giant squid lair much like the sharp toothed anglerfish. There’s too much nudging to see if you remember all these callbacks that I could care less about. The film picks up once our now separated friends end up at the Marine Life Institute which was once Dory’s home. This more humane version of SeaWorld is the fun environment to explore which what I want from Pixar. The story becomes maneuvering the different exhibits with the help of visually impaired whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olsen) and the strongest character, a disgruntled octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neil) that only helps Dory in exchange for her medical tag that’s his ticket to a truck leaving for Cleveland.

This film is saved by the characters it introduces at the midway point yet still doesn’t hit the comedic highs of Nemo. Partially because the MVP of comic relief, amnesiac Blue Tang Dory is thrust into the spotlight. Why Finding Nemo works is she doesn’t have to carry the weight of the film which frees her up to be funny. Here she not only has to be the crux of the emotional arc, her once humorful memory loss is so sad in how it undermines her every effort of finding her parents. By losing this iconic comic relief, all the other characters are left to pick up the slack. I enjoyed the brief encounters with the snobby but lazy Sea Lions Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West), the unhinged loon Becky and I genuinely laughed every time a sea creature straight faced mentions Sigourney Weaver whose recorded information track plays over the parks loud speaker. Still there’s no one able to really fill those blue size shoes.

I’m overall underwhelmed by Finding Dory. It’s not bad, it has the typical Disney charm and a positive message about the value of those with disabilities. While a more succinct and unique message then say Zootopia, I found that Disney film more enjoyable. It may be copying Midnight Run but it doesn’t feel indebted the way a sequel can. With Dory I didn’t want a movie for my youth retold but with more domesticated fish and a car chase. I rather Pixar do what they do best and make something new. I guess that’s purely Disney’s job now.

Too Many Twos! Reviewing Conjuring 2 and Now You See Me 2

There’s nothing that instills more excitement or dread for a movie fan than the number 2. It could mean something great like your favorite characters have returned to continue the story (Terminator 2) or like a drunken one night stand, a movie has shown up on your doorstep demanding child support for this unexpected life we didn’t know we created (Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2). What my confusing similes is trying to say is some sequels can lead with a lot of promise, reinvigorating or improving on a film me already cherish or it can be a load of garbage that make us question was the source material even great to start with (Zoolander 2). More often than not, 2’s tend to land somewhere in the middle of not as memorable as their predecessor but also not a complete waste of time as we get to revisit characters and environments that a few years early we had fallen in love with. This past weekend we got double duty on 2’s with the release of The Conjuring 2, a sequel to James Wan’s retro haunted house horror and Now You See Me 2, the sequel to the 2013 magician movie that wasn’t The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. I had the opportunity to experience both and while I do think they are a part of this middle category they do swing towards the different ends of that spectrum.

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The Conjuring 2 is about the most you can ask for from a horror sequel. It’s a movie you never expect to be as great as its predecessor but James Wan has proved he’s got a handle on how to improve a franchise. While Insidious 2 doesn’t have the same bite as Insidious, it improves on the tonal inconsistencies that I found bothersome in the first one. Here Wan makes a real big budget horror. Bigger set pieces, scarier bad guys and CGI that actually works. On the back of that elevated budget you also get a conflated run time which may be the film’s largest hinderance, I dare you to name another horror movie that’s over two hours. I want it to be a tighter film but I understand that for Wan’s return to the genre, he’d want to go all out.

My feeling has always been that aside from Saw, Wan is a master at making derivative material interesting. Conjuring 2 is haunted house movie, much like the Insidious franchise but instead of demons possessing Patrick Wilson’s kid in present day, its ghosts and/or demons possessing children as Patrick Wilson tries to exorcise them out in the 1970’s. This film not only feels derivative from Wan’s own films but also from The Amityville Horror as that is where the film begins and of course from The Exorcist thanks to the time period, demonic possession of a young girl (her face gets a signature cut up at the end) and the design of the pale faced figure. Even with these homages/ripoffs there’s enough new material that stops me from writing it off completely. The film follows the endless cases of Ed and Lorraine Warren (Wilson and Vera Farmiga) as they travel to England to understand what evil is tormenting a poor family and targeting the youngest daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe). Besides being your usual jump scare fare, it expands on Ed and Lorraine’s relationship and how their celebrity turned on their credibility as paranormal specialists and whether or not their profession is a hoax. I don’t think the film gives enough leeway to these claims since so much is from the perspective of the Hodgson family. We’re so immersed in the instances of horror as furniture and toys move across the room in front of the family and neighbors’ eyes, it’s hard to flip the script and convince us it’s fake. I still appreciate the very real skepticism added to the narrative as it give the film a more grounded setting as the media, skeptics and interested amateurs all voice their opinion of these happenings.

As for the content of the horror which is what we’re all here for, I’ve gotten to the point that you know when the sound cuts out and the camera pans across a quite room in the middle of the night you’re bracing yourself for something to pop out. It’s become oddly safe with its predictability that I can get excited for it to happen but I’m rarely caught off guard. I’m convinced an old woman wronged James Wan when he was a boy because once again the trope shows up here. She (or he as these figures are often played by tall men) in a corpse like nun and given even creepier glowing eye and bloody fangs. There’s a great scene of Farmiga trapped in a room with Her as we watch its shadow glide across the room and line up with a disturbing painting on the wall. There’s other ghastly creatures to encounter like an eight foot tall Babadook/Slenderman hybrid that I would gladly see a spin off movie of. All these new haunting visuals are paired with bold directorial choices. There’s the usual 180 camera spins but also some impression use of foreground and background composition morphing people into ghosts just out of focus. There’s such a strong style in this film which is what sets Wan’s films apart from the usual studio horror movies. You can pretend it’s not a Hollywood cash grab by seeing the filmmaker’s passion in the effort he puts into making an engaging theater experience.

I’m giving this movie the most positive, middling review I can. I don’t think it’s that original or putting out anything mind blowing to get overly excited about, a reaction saved for inventive indie horror but it’s better than say most of the bland remakes or overused found footage we see dropped around Halloween. It’s in a harmless sweet spot. It’s a horror movie where the characters and filmmaking are equally competent as I never want to yell at the screen for a bad decision. There are jump scares aplenty but done in the best way possible but I prefer the instances of more naturally built, atmospheric scares. There’s definitely better films we’ll see this year from the genre but I’m pleased with how this turned out. Patrick Wilson sings Elvis which may be worth the price of admission. Screw Aquaman Wan, can you stick with making my Patrick Wilson summer blockbuster horror?

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How do you make a sequel for a movie no one remembers? In 2013, Now You See Me a caper magician blockbuster opened second at the box office next to Fast and Furious 6. It never hit number one but made steady money throughout June, enough domestically and worldwide to green light a follow up. A lot of people including myself shared the same level of bafflement as this isn’t something we asked for. The first movie is fine. You mix some fresh face actors (Jesse Eisenberg, Lil Davey Franco) with some proven talent (Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson) add veterans who like a paycheck (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman) plus some flashy lights and CGI and people will show up amid summer break for your movie. Now You See Me 2 seems to be putting its best foot forward by duplicating what “worked” before, deepening the magician “mythology” and making the tricks theoretically more epic. Sadly it feels hollow as it’s a paint by numbers Mission Impossible rip off but replacing gadgets with slight of hand.

This movie is really dumb. I’m not trying to be mean but it’s a very ridiculous. You must suspend your disbelief and embrace magic as a super power, allowing our gang known as the Horsemen who can literally accomplish anything by doing tricks. My gripe, as someone who genuinely enjoys magic is that movies are themselves magic. Through editing and visual effects anything can happen and we accept that what we’re watching is fake. This is why I can’t enjoy a movie about magic. When you see a show live in person you can be dazzled by inhuman feats as the impossible happens before your eyes. Here characters can disappear because the camera cuts away or ordinary playing cards can whiz by at lightening speed because they’re effects made on a computer. The crux of this film is immediately negated due to basic filmmaking. Also backing up my dumb movie claim is this film gets so convoluted so quickly. I’ll give the first one props that it’s a cat and mouse game between the Horsemen, FBI and Morgan Freeman the Magic Debunker, as everyone tries to figure out how these guys robbed a bank across the globe in the middle of a show. It’s very hard for me to narrow down the plot in 2 as it’s a lot of double crossing as the Horsemen are roped into thievery for an illusive businessman played by baby faced Daniel Radcliffe. There’s a whole subplot about The Eye which is some sort of mysterious governing magician body. They appear very important but I couldn’t tell you their greater purpose besides that they’re like the illusionist Illuminati?

Purpose was a huge issue for the plot. There were entire sequences that I couldn’t understand why they were happening accept that it looks cool. This is a film that does so much explaining and yet still makes no sense. One of the instances featuring the popular CGI playing card are when the Horseman are trying to sneak out of a highly guarded facility with a computer chip that they fit onto a card. As they are being patted down by security, they throw the card to each other, hoping to avoid detection. It’s an elaborate scene as we follow this thin chip flying from character to character around the room and all I could think of is “well Davey Franco, the card expert, seems to be really good at maneuvering it on his own, why would he risk it by passing it to the next person right as his pat down ends”. There are elements they set up and fail to complete (don’t get me started on the levitating ship trick Lizzy Caplan promises on that we never see). Congrats for the film attempting to do as much showing as it does telling but even so at the end, the Horsemen say they have about “five thousand questions” to ask and I couldn’t agree more.

It’s not all raining on your parade here (though there is a lot of rain in the film). This sequel has some bright spots like the addition of America’s underrated sweetheart, Lizzy Caplan, replacing “the girl” character originally filled by Isla Fisher and brings much needed enthusiasm to the sleep walking cast. Woody Harrelson reprises his role as Merritt but also doubles as his flamboyant evil twin Chase. I wouldn’t say this gay stereotype is good but it’s quite bizarre as he appears to have time traveled from a 70’s production of Boys In The Band and ended up on location in China. Daniel Radcliffe was a disappointment because I was awaiting a much more hammy performance, instead the script fails him much like everyone of not being that funny. Not that the first one was a barrel of laughs but it had energy and Harrelson was leaned on for charm. Here Merritt is so stone faced to contrast Chase who’s now the comic relief. This movie makes odd choices, most of them incorrect. I’m hung up on Eisenberg cutting off his gorgeous locks I love so much but I realize I have to blame that on Batman V Superman and not this innocent bystander of a movie. Besides hair loss, the ultimate magic trick may be that I’ll forget Now You See Me 2 as soon as the credits roll.

A Delayed Reaction to Lady in the Water

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It’s hard to go into Lady In the Water blindly. After The Village, in 2006 the viewing public was already weary of M. Night Shyamalan slipping. That’s why 15 year old me had originally avoided this at all costs. I’ve never been much for fantasy and the marketing didn’t grab my attention. If it wasn’t doing horror then it wasn’t worth my time. As I went into this movie today, I wanted to give it the fair shot I had refused it before. It’s difficult to go in neutral after the continued fall of Shyamalan after this but I’m reminded of the merit of Signs and Sixth Sense and thought maybe it was unfairly judged. Is Lady In The Water any good or only slightly better than a career that would make The Last Airbender?

The film opens with animated cave like drawings telling of how man used to connected with nature and the spirit world. Once man broke away and created war and destruction, it was predicted that the creatures of the water would return and help man in bringing about peace. This is an interesting prologue to open with because it incorrectly sets up the expectations of what is to come and also prepare you for how much explanation this movie is going to throw at you. With Lady in the Water, Shyamalan’s pitch is what if a fairy tale was placed into the real world. How would people react and how would a fantastical scenario play out. It’s an intriguing concept but instead of choosing a tale that already exists or one that’s easy to follow, he chose to dive into a whole new mythology that is explained in chunks throughout the film and never simply. It doesn’t seem like a plot would be this convoluted as apartment complex super Cleveland (Paul Giamatti) finds water nymph Story (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the communal pool. From what should be a plot of this girl needs to go home, new elements of who she is, why she’s there, who can helper, who can hurt her, are continuously being introduced and never in a naturalistic manner. It’s a fantasy that is more telling than showing as even during action sequences of fighting off the wolf beast known as “Scrunt”, Story needs to describe in detail every action as it is happening.

While the plot and mythology is over explained, the real strength and core of this film is the residents of The Cove apartment building. We follow Cleveland into each apartment meeting a spectrum of people from the large and boisterous latino family to quirky jock lifting weights in the yard to the stoners rambling in their bohemian living room. It is a diverse and realistic setting that is exciting to explore. I almost rather see a dramady of a super’s life as he interacts with the most interesting of tenants. The best use of the movie’s time is getting to know each character and I like that in the end they are all utilized proof of little wasted screen time. The character choices are bold even if they’re a little silly like a father (Jeffrey Wright) seeing messages in the crossword puzzle or his son (Noah Gray-Cabey) who finds those same cryptic messages in cereal boxes. The singular annoyance out of them is Bob Balaban playing a film critic who moves into the building. It’s quite petty as Shyamalan is making an obvious jab to all those who spoke negatively about The Village or any of his past films. It’s the only character that gets killed in the film and it’s purely for his smugness. It’s a more childish choice than Roland Emmerich naming two characters Ebert and Gene, at least they were funny and had less malicious thought put into tearing them down. There are multiple instances in which the critic calls out tropes that the film uses, attempting to appear intelligent as if being self aware makes trope usage ok. It’s as if Shyamalan is asking for a pat on the back because he went to film school.

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The other character let down is the actual lady in the water, Story. I first want to point out that the term the movie gives for her water nymph species is a “Narf” which is a phrase I can’t disassociate from Pinky and the Brain hence making it ridiculous to hear anyone talk about in a serious tone. Secondly, she is the most victim-y character as she lacks any agency, only appearing at Cleveland’s doorstep needing to be saved. This is where the prologue throws me off because that lead me to believe this mystical prophecy person was coming to earth to play an active role in helping others, not being a weak, incapable woman who needs constant protection. I enjoyed the film more when she wasn’t around because I got to experience the community of the complex rather than watching a someone hide in shower for an entire run time.

The best way to describe Lady in The Water is it’s as if a 2nd grader is explaining to his parents a story he just made up. Every detail of how everything works must explained, in case the newly invented words confused them and it’s all strung with a series of “and thens”. That’s also how the filmmaking feels. There’s some gorgeous shots from cinematographer Christopher Doyle but I don’t know what it’s saying. There’s these head on subjective angles straight from a Jonathan Demme picture or multiple shots that are views from a below the waist angle but I don’t know what their purpose is. Then there’s more puzzling moments as in the middle of dialogue there will be a cut to an obligatory establishing shot of the building in case we forget where we were. I appreciate that Shyamalan is trying to do some out of the box filmmaking and storytelling wise, it just doesn’t all land. I appreciate there’s no shoehorned twists even though some of the plot developments could be considered twist adjacent, I’m more bother that they had flimsy reasoning. This isn’t even close to be Shyamalan’s worst work which doesn’t sound like high praise but there are at least aspects here I can applaud. I don’t think this film deserves to be so quickly thrown under the bus but I realize I didn’t give it the strongest case as a defense. If fantasy or character actors is your jam then maybe check it out.

Obligatory Star Wars Post

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Over the past year, the greater social conscious and by that I mean the internet has been flooded with pieces about Star Wars whether it be nostalgia for the originals, mixed reflections on the prequels or anticipation for JJ Abrams’ promising revitalization. I’ve always found myself it a strange position as I enjoyed episodes 4 through 6 which my mother had from the first VHS release (yes the Special Edition atrocities are only a recent discovery for me) but the prequels were much more foreign to me. I was mostly removed from the hype leading up to December 17th aka my birthday aka opening night of Force Awaken which I wouldn’t have gone to unless someone had bought me a ticket. My closer connection to the franchise has been people’s fascination with the franchise. A movie like Fanboys I’ve revisited again and again partially because I’m obsessed with the brief fluttering of Dan Fogler’s career but also I’m intrigued by that subculture even though I don’t wish to be a part of it. I bring all this up because my recent trip to New York was mostly consumed with long walks and subway rides as I binge listened to the 30+ episodes of the podcast Griffin and David Present which extensively breaks down the George Lucas prequels. For the first time I watched this heavy contended series lending a new perspective on the Fanboy’s perspective and the whirl of emotions around Force.

This may sound like a long winded intro for recommending a podcast and a movie no one cares about and while it kind of is, to me these two are now inseparable. Both these podcasters and the characters in Fanboys are extremely passionate about the Star Wars films but with widely different outlooks. Fanboys is a unique period piece as it harkens back to the late 90’s when nerds were outliers and being that steeped in Star Wars was a celibate wish. As the film’s opening crawl states (yes, it has an opening crawl calling itself Episode 7) it’s been a dark time for Star Wars fans by this time as twenty years has passed since a new film yet the horizon holds a new hope as they count down the minute to Phantom Menace’s release on their palm pilot. What I love so much about this movie is the cheery optimism these friends have for the upcoming film. Amidst Linus (Chris Marquette) dying of cancer, their impassioned arguments over Harrison Ford and the Luke and Leia kiss keep them pressing forward to their destination of breaking into Lucas Ranch to see the unfinished film. They are unimaginable optimistic of the reinvigoration of the franchise as it feels like something their whole existence has led up to.

Griffin and David Present while multiple layers of meta, is approaching the prequels from a very different direction. Just by listening to the podcast you can tell hosts Griffin Newman and David Simms lived that fanboy life, why else would you dedicate so many hours to discussing this series. Their arguments about whether Jedi’s have feeling or who is Anakin’s father are equally impassioned. The approach these guys unexpectedly take for their show is that they pretend for each season, Episodes 4 through 6 never existed and they are discovering each new film in the “Phantom Menace Trilogy” for the first time. It’s a bold approach because of course everyone else went in like the Fanboys, already immersed in a mythology and galaxy worth of worlds that they hold sacred and saw humiliated in front of them with shoddy green screen, Jar Jar Binks and other incentive stereotypes. It’s a lot of baggage to carry into Phantom Menace so I like the wonderment, no matter how manufactured, Griffin and David bring to their viewings as they imagine entering this unknown universe. They seek to analyze these movies in a way no one could because they falter in the shadow of their groundbreaking predecessors.

What I find so exciting out of this bizarre podcast experiment is after listening to them describe and critique every character, plot line, performance and special effect, I watched them for myself. Granted it was paired with their recorded audio commentaries because there’s no way I’m watching these movies unassisted, it was enlightening to see what the world and the Fanboys were reacting to. I have no right to assess a movie I didn’t fully experience but they are all indeed subpar based on the visuals and wooden performances I could glean between jokes. It makes the punch at the end of Fanboys even better as the friends sit down in a packed theater posing the question “what if it sucks?” Spoiler alert, it does but at least they have all these amazing memories of their adventure that brought them to this point that supersede the final product. Well, that’s my assumption. Most had to live with disappointment that was inevitable when a film series from the 1970’s becomes a bigger beast than you can control. If Fanboys had continued all the way to Revenge of the Sith, I think we would have found our heroes as beaten down and cynical as Griffin and David.

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I’m very glad I some how avoided all that hype and eventual fall out whether it was due to my age or that S Club 7 was way more important than any space opera in 1999 and yet I’m enamored by hearing of other’s disappointments. Maybes it’s because I’m infatuated with that level of dedication to any particular subject. In Fanboys, every scene is filled with memorabilia and merchandise from Hutch’s (Dan Fogler) tricked out van with original Star Wars curtains and an R2 navigating on top to the real Yoda puppet and Millennium Falcon miniature they find in Lucas’ office. Their is high regard for all these pieces of the film then mirrored in Griffin and David as they (specifically Griffin) spend an outrageous amount of money on CommTech Chips and TC14 action figures. I respect the knowledge, dedication and salaries that go into one’s appreciation for Star Wars that I can then appreciate from afar. That being said I just watched the Star Wars Holiday Special and I have no idea how after that they allowed anyone to make more Star Wars anything.