Review: Big Little Lies (Season 1)

Big Little Lies.

Game of Thrones demanded that I get HBO for a few months so I’ve also been checking out some other HBO shows in the meantime and my fiance started watching Big Little Lies. Up front, I had the impression that it was a corny Desperate Housewives clone but as I dove into it, it became much different.

The gist.

We follow the lives of a handful of women in Monterey, CA. They all have secrets but the story starts mundane, as Jane (Shailene Woodley) moves into town with her son Ziggy. There’s immediately a controversy, as it appears Ziggy may be bullying a young girl, whose mother (Laura Dern) doesn’t take it lightly. We also have Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) who is trying to raise two daughters with her second husband (Adam Scott). Her ex-husband (James Tupper) has re-married as well (Zoe Kravitz). Lastly we have Celeste (Nicole Kidman) who is in a violent and disturbing marriage (with Alexander Skarsgard).

Now here’s the kicker. While the story begins with schoolyard feuds and PTA meetings, it’s immediately apparent that something happens and someone is murdered. So throughout this journey, slowly bits are revealed about the victim and the killer.

What works?

This show’s mystery is extremely compelling, with each episode slowly revealing how everyone in the show might become a killer. No one is beyond scrutiny and everyone has reasons, so you have absolutely no idea how the show will end. They do a perfect job of leading you down false paths and keeping you guessing, I was literally on the edge of my seat in the season’s climax.

Why you care about this, though, is the absolutely incredible cast, with some of the best female talent in the business right now. All of them show a jaw-dropping range, making this story both believable and terrifying. Nicole Kidman probably gets the most to do, emotionally, though Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley have standout moments as well. The caliber of performance here is Oscar-worthy, which is why it’s unsurprising that this show nabbed over 10 Emmy nominations.

The show is also beautifully paced, never a wasted moment. At only seven episodes, it grabs you and doesn’t let go, yet still manages to give you some incredible development for our leads. It’s just the right amount and absolutely satisfying.

In terms of our supporting characters, I want to shout out two of the husbands of the show, notably Alexander Skarsgard who is absolutely terrifying and then a dramatic turn from Adam Scott (who I knew from Parks and Rec and the movie Step Brothers). Everyone from top to bottom is believable here and gives their all.

What doesn’t work?

After all the buildup, the climax of the story didn’t have quite the punch I was expecting. I think a more mainstream story might’ve tried to twist and surprise you, which this doesn’t quite do. Some of you might feel letdown by the ultimate payoff.

Also in its effort to keep you guessing, there are some storylines that really don’t develop, as they’re basically just red herrings.

Overall…

I wrote this off at the beginning but this show’s stellar cast and captivating mystery won me over, resulting in one of my favorite television experiences in recent years. I was literally on the edge of my seat, engaged in a way that very few shows can pull off. If you have HBO and want an absolute rollercoaster, binge Big Little Lies now and you’ll thank me later.

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Review: The Dark Tower (2017)

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The Dark Tower.

Here’s my history with The Dark Tower: I know zero about it, but I decided to pick up the first two novels and I’m almost done with the first. I was thinking, probably naively, that this movie would cover the premise of the first book. In looking into it, this movie actually seems to cover all the books. Kind of. In reading the first book, it’s very apparent that they are totally separate things, as very little of that book appears on the big screen.

Now, I don’t mind if the movie is different… but is the movie good?

The gist.

We meet a young boy in New York named Jake (Tom Taylor) who has dreams and flashes of another world, of a dangerous Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) and a gunslinger named Roland (Idris Elba). It turns out that the Man in Black is seeking to destroy something called the Dark Tower, which seems to protect our entire universe from being invaded by demons. Jake hopes to find Roland and help to defeat the Man in Black.

What works?

Let’s pretend that you know nothing about this book series. Would you enjoy this?

Probably not. Because they’re trying to rush through essentially eight books worth of content (seven plus some sort of prequel that exists), this story rushes through everything. However this movie does one thing right in that it intrigues you. I know there’s a rich mythology and tons of stories taking place in this world and the movie managed to pique my interest. It’s like reading a summary of the book and deciding “Yes, that sounds cool” before diving in. This movie will hint at the big picture and intrigue you enough.

It also looks very cool. The landscapes and architecture of these various worlds are all really interesting. There’s also some cool creature design that will (again) excite you for the bigger picture.

This movie also relies heavily on its leads. Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey do the best they can, considering their screen time is limited. Most of this movie is dependent on youngster Tom Taylor. He gives a stellar performance and a surprisingly nuanced one, for someone so young.

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What doesn’t work?

Like I said, this movie is blazing fast. It clocks in at about 90 minutes, which is short. And even shorter considering the amount of story it’s trying to cover. I’m curious why they didn’t make this a truly epic movie at 2.5 hours and fit in some of the personality that makes this franchise unique. Instead, everything is superficial. We get one flashback about Roland’s past as a gunslinger and now are expected to care. We never quite know why the Man in Black is so nefarious. We don’t get to know any of our supporting characters, so very little feels at stake.

There’s one aspect of caring and another aspect of understanding. Not only do I not care about these people, but I also didn’t really understand what was happening. The rules of the universe weren’t explained, the world wasn’t fleshed out, the whole crux of the story doesn’t make sense. This movie will likely be a bit confusing to the unsuspecting viewer (and even more frustrating for fans of the books).

It seems like in an era of sequels, it’d be a no-brainer to stretch this out over eight movies. Why would they cram it all into one? Not sure. There’s talk of a TV series that will somehow follow this or be a prequel to this, but I don’t know if this film’s mediocre response will allow for that now. I’d be happy with a reboot in a television series, starting over and really letting us explore this world that seems incredibly interesting but (in this movie anyways) just beyond our reach.

Matthew McConaughey;Idris Elba

Overall…

This movie won’t really please anyone. Diehard fans will find nothing to love here, as it speeds by all the milestones they were looking forward to. Average moviegoers might be thrown off by the breakneck speed of the movie and be confused by the all things the movie doesn’t tell us. Either way, not great. The movie looks fine, with some cool visuals and tons of presence from both Elba and McConaughey. It’s a teaser, to get you interested in either reading the books or waiting for the inevitable television series.

3

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Review: The Big Sick

The Big Sick.

I was finally able to catch The Big Sick, just as it’s starting to leave theaters after a limited run. But let me tell you this, before we get into it, you need to find the nearest theater playing this and go see it. Don’t wait! By the time you get to the end of this review, it might be gone! GO NOW!

The gist.

Comedian Kumail Nanjiani stars as himself, telling the story of how he met his wife Emily (in the movie played by Zoe Kazan). At the end of the first act, Emily ends up in a hospital, in a medically-induced coma and Kumail has to struggle with his own issues, his restrictive Pakastani family that want him to get an arranged marriage, and convincing Emily’s parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) that he’s a stand up guy. We also have some fellow comedians in supporting roles, including Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant (Saturday Night Live).

What works?

This movie is a pleasant surprise and one that I wish more people could experience. Since it’s already on its way out of theaters, I’m hoping it gets a strong second wind on streaming services. In terms of genre, it very much fits in the mold of indie rom com, hilariously funny but also real and raw and manages to feel like we’re peeking into the lives of other people. It probably helps that Kumail lived all of this before and that the script is actually co-written by the real Emily Gordon as well.

Let’s start with the comedy. Kumail is an incredible talent, if you haven’t seen his work before. He’s witty and sharp and yet understated enough that sometimes jokes even slip past you. He’s surrounded here by other comedic talent, including Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham (who I’ve been a fan of since he was making YouTube videos in his bedroom). I laughed harder in this movie than I’ve laughed in a long time.

Somehow this balances with a heavy amount of tragedy and heartbreak. You wouldn’t think a comedy would mostly take place in a hospital waiting room, but this one does. I would laugh and then turn to tears in moments, this movie beautifully weaves the two emotions together in a way that doesn’t often work.

I wasn’t expecting this movie to pull at the heartstrings like it did but it manages to do so because it feels real. Life is uncontrollable and awkward and beautiful and this movie captures all that. There are conversations in here that I’ve actually had with people, moments of awkwardness that I’ve experienced. There is love and loss and it all feels authentic.

Part of this success comes from Emily’s parents, played in the movie by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, who deliver incredible performances. I could see Romano getting a Best Supporting Actor nod for this role, as he gives a very nuanced performance that is refreshing, from someone I maybe underestimated.

What doesn’t work?

The biggest downside to me was that it does feel fairly predictable, especially considering it’s based on a true story. The plot points are fairly cliche, though it’s the charm and dialogue and the specific moments that feel authentic, so I didn’t mind too much.

Overall…

The Big Sick is great, full of hilarious banter, gutwrenching heartbreak, and charming yet authentic interactions. Everyone across the board delivers outstanding performances in a movie that I’ll likely place in my top 10 of the year. If you can, try to find this movie ASAP, though I’ll remind you all when it arrives inevitably on streaming services soon.

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Review: Atomic Blonde

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Atomic Blonde.

This is interesting. Director David Leitch is a former stuntman and an uncredited Director on the film John Wick. I don’t quite know why a director would be uncredited though. Leitch is also directing the upcoming Deadpool 2. Is Atomic Blonde able to capture what made the John Wick films work?

The gist.

It’s near the end of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall still separates the city of Berlin in two. We meet our heroine Lorraine (Charlize Theron) as she’s sent to Berlin to help find and extract a list of undercover agents whose lives will be in jeopardy in the list gets out. She connects with an English operative (James McAvoy) and a French operative (Sofia Boutella) along the way. We also have John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Eddie Marsan.

What works?

Like John Wick, this movie has style and the world that we get to visit isn’t made up this time, but rather we’re peeking into history, into an early 1980s Germany. The colors are vibrant, the world is alive. It feels incredibly authentic, though I’ve never been, which is quite a testament.

The music is like a character itself here, constantly in the background. Some of it is highly recognizable, pop tunes of the 1980s. Other songs are German trance and electronic music, some even remixes and covers of other 80s songs, but in German instead. Always though the music is the heartbeat of this film.

atomic 1

The cast is perfectly laid out, including a standout performance from McAvoy, who you’re never quite sure if you can trust or not. Theron is a badass as expected but it’s not surprising following her performance in Mad Max: Fury Road.

You may go to this movie and want some standout fight sequences and it’s really hit or miss (pun intended). The best fight scenes are all in the second half, including a stairwell fight scene that will definitely be a contender for my Best Fight award this year. However the first half is full of too-brief fight scenes and moments we’ve already seen in the trailers.

What doesn’t work?

Like I mentioned, a lot is given away in the trailers, including some of the best stunt and fight work. If you haven’t seen the trailers, I’d recommend not seeing them.

The biggest problem with this movie is the pacing. It’s not structured in a typical three-act structure, as I consider the movie’s climax to be closer to the halfway point of the movie. It’s a tad too long and tons of filler, resulting in a bit of a slow burn. The fights are great, sure, but the journey from fight to fight can be a bit tedious, especially in the first half which is full of tons of exposition. The movie also suffers from Lord of the Rings disease, having eight too many endings, many of which were unnecessary. When the movie finally does end, you’re left with a bit of a bad taste in your mouth.

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Overall…

Atomic Blonde is like a rough draft. Plenty of cool moments but no one seemed to tell them that the movie was too long and a bit slow. Plenty could have been trimmed. The world we inhabit here is fascinating and colorful and the music is great, but it just takes too long to get from moment to moment. The movie as a whole feels like it drags, especially when you’re expecting the movie to end and it just keeps going. John Wick was a pleasant surprise but I can’t say the same for Atomic Blonde. Worth seeing? Sure! But it’s not a no-brainer, so take this recommendation lightly.

3

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Review: Dunkirk

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Dunkirk.

Christopher Nolan has one of the best track records in Hollywood, considering all the times he’s knocked it out of the park. This movie is less like Inception though and more like a standard World War II flick. For being Nolan’s first true story, does it succeed?

The gist.

It’s the middle of World War II and a group of almost 400,000 men are stuck on a beach, surrounded by the German army. This movie tells the tale of their struggle to survive, in an unconventional timing structure that only Nolan would attempt. On the ground, we cover a week, following soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he tries to find his way onto one of the few boats leaving the island. They’re led by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), who tries to think of creative ways to save his soldiers. Our second story is from the sea, as we follow a civilian (Mark Rylance) as he is called upon to take his small vessel to Dunkirk to rescue as many men as he can, though his story only lasts one day. Lastly, we go to the sky, where a pilot (Tom Hardy) tries to save as many men as he can while his gas tank plummets and he risks not making it back. The sky storyline only covers one hour.

The tricky thing, is these stories interweave but they cross over at different times. We may see the pilot cross over into the sea storyline before the pilot’s scenes actually get that far. There are times when characters appear at the same instance in different places because of this time dynamic.

Other standouts include Harry Styles, Cillian Murphy, and Tom Glynn-Carney, amidst others.

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What works?

Christopher Nolan is very experienced in gigantic cinematic experiences, so it’s no surprise that this movie from start to finish is polished and technically perfect. The shots are wide and open when they need to be, but also claustrophobic when they need to be. The sound design is exceptional, with shots and bombs making you jolt in your seat (though this sometimes makes the dialogue hard to hear).

There are plenty of edge-of-your-seat action moments and this movie is well worth the ticket price to see it on the big screen.

Some standout performers… Mark Rylance is great as always. I can say the same for the newcomer Fionn Whitehead, who plays Tommy (though I don’t think his name is ever said in the movie). There are only a few lines of dialogue for Tommy but his actions speak louder than words as we learn about his character. Some actors flourished in this no-nonsense no-dialogue method, though some could’ve used a few lines, to at least learn their names.

What doesn’t work?

Like I said above, some characters were given zero to say and it made it hard to understand them (or care for them). A lot of characters also look alike, especially in the same uniforms, so you have to pay close attention to which character is which.

My other big problem was the gimmick here of time. Nolan has delivered gimmicks before, most notably Inception and Memento. They change the way you watch the movie but you appreciate them. I don’t know if this gimmick for Dunkirk paid off, I think I would’ve preferred a linear timeline. The movie could’ve relied on its amazing action sequences to keep people engaged, we didn’t need the constant jolt of time. I found myself trying to take mental notes of “When is this?” during the big climax instead of just enjoying it.

I also mentioned above that the sound design was pretty stellar but the mixing was a bit off, at least in my theater. The dialogue is so rare in this movie that I wanted to hear it when people actually spoke. I missed most of the dialogue, including almost everything a masked Tom Hardy said while shooting down other planes. I have a hard enough time understanding Hardy when he’s not wearing a mask.

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Overall…

Dunkirk is great, especially if you want a visceral and intense look at sheer survival. However it has a few hiccups which hold it back from being a 5 for me. The sound mixing felt off, the characters felt a little one-dimensional, and the gimmick of time felt like exactly that: an unneeded gimmick. Temper your expectations and you might just find that you thoroughly enjoy this one. If you’re interested, make sure to catch it in theaters.

 

4

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Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes.

The first two Apes movies in this trilogy have been outstanding, some of the best visual effects I’ve ever seen. Each one has a unique tone and feeling but they all manage to humanize apes in a way that I didn’t quite think was possible. With this movie, they’re finishing this original trilogy and I went in wondering, “Can they pull off a trifecta?”

The gist.

At the end of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, fearless leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) defeated the rampaging and angry Koba, though humans can’t tell who is good or bad, so they now hunt down the apes in the Northern California forests. Our movie opens with an attack on Caesar’s camp, where tragedy strikes and Caesar goes on a journey to get vengeance on the Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Along the way, he picks up a young girl who is mute and needs protection (Amiah Miller).

What works?

This movie is incredible, capping off a trilogy that manages to wow with each installment, possibly one of the best trilogies in film history.

The reason it will be brought up most often is the visual effects. These effects are undoubtedly the best of the best, making you absolutely believe that these are real apes, with real emotions, on the screen. When Caesar stands face to face with Woody Harrelson, there is no doubt in your mind that they are really looking at each other. Andy Serkis deserves at least an Oscar nomination for his performance here.

There is an amount of emotion here that I wasn’t expecting. Character deaths are impactful, reunions uplifting. This movie covers the whole spectrum, in a way that feels fresh and new. It’s impressive that the visual effects are able to create and enhance these performances seamlessly.

Luckily the trailers don’t spoil the actual story here because it’s a compelling one, unpredictable and intense. There are plenty of big action sequences but just as many quiet character moments that give these apes an incredible amount of depth.

In addition to Serkis, we also get an interesting performance from Steve Zahn, who plays a new character called Bad Ape, who can also talk like Caesar. He’s a bit like a Dobby from Harry Potter, which might rub people the wrong way, but I found him to be just light-hearted enough to add levity when the movie gets a little dark.

Woody Harrelson shines as the villain here, a Colonel of a human regiment that seems intent on destroying apes. His motivation ultimately comes to light and it’s complicated, though the apes are always the heroes here.

What doesn’t work?

My only complaint is that sometimes there are sequences where human characters don’t show any sort of level of intelligence. There are moments when the apes are following the humans, within eyesight, but they don’t notice. It’s just little moments that make you raise an eyebrow and you have to just roll with it.

Otherwise, this is a near perfect film.

Overall…

This movie caps off a trilogy that is absolutely incredible, revolutionary even. Andy Serkis gives a nuanced and layered performance here that should get him an Oscar nomination. The action is thrilling, the soundtrack epic, and the story unpredictable. You need to see the first two movies first but this movie closes the trilogy perfectly and is one of the best movies of 2017 so far.

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(Review) Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming.

This may be one of my most anticipated movies of this year, which sounds odd for being the third try at getting a Spider-Man franchise off the ground. This time, though, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, meaning he’s now connected to Iron Man and the Avengers. And that’s a big deal, for nerds like me. This Peter Parker is also much younger, just 15 in this movie. Is this new version of the webcrawler a success?

The gist.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is a normal high school kid, aside from the fact that he was bitten by a radioactive spider and now has super abilities. He made a suit that he wears as the Spider-Man to help protect people in his neighborhood. This gained the attention of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) who brought Spider-Man into Captain America: Civil War. Well, now Parker is waiting for a call to action again, constantly ignored by his “handler” Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). So he takes things into his own hands when a new villain named the Vulture (Michael Keaton) arrives on the scene using stolen and re-purposed alien technology to make money.

This movie also focuses on his average life, including his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), his high school crush Liz (Laura Harrier), and a snarky classmate named Michelle (Zendaya). We also have a spin on Parker’s high school rival Flash Thompson, played by Tony Revolori (Dope, The Grand Budapest Hotel). Marisa Tomei returns as his Aunt May.

What works?

This is the Spider-Man movie that I’ve been waiting for and I was grinning from ear to ear the entire time.

Let’s start with Tom Holland, who we got to see a bit from in Civil War. He is perfect here, wisecracking and funny but also selfless, willing to put himself at risk for others. He may save the day on a few occasions but this movie does a much better job of showing his conflict with being a normal teenager. He struggles with this dual-identity in a way that the other films didn’t really get right. I’m excited that they signed Holland on for many films, so we’ve got a long ways to go with this Spider-Man.

The other major highlight here is Michael Keaton, giving us a villain that is both terrifying and sympathetic. Villains aren’t always the highlight of these movies but it’s nice to see that they really focused on him here. He’s not trying to destroy the world, so the stakes are much lower, but it’s understandable. The effects for his Vulture outfit is also amazing, especially in some of the big fight scenes, where his suit almost takes on a life of its own.

Everyone else did their job, I can’t spend too much time talking about each one, but they all just fit. It felt like a real high school, where the people had real problems. One of these kids just happens to have superpowers.

This movie also surprisingly fits into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe more than I would’ve imagined. I thought Sony would have kept it distant but this movie is absolutely intertwined to all of the past events we’ve seen unfold. We’ve got references to almost every Marvel character and different events and weapons they’ve used and everything. It also answers questions and fills in gaps that some of you may have been curious about, especially the aftermath of the giant attack on New York from The Avengers.

Can I also talk about the tone of this movie? Marvel is doing a superb job with making their movies feel distinct. When you hit double-digits in a franchise, it might be hard to not feel stagnant, so they’ve been smart to make movies feel like different genres. Guardians of the Galaxy is a sci-fi comedy, whereas Ant-Man was a heist movie. Winter Soldier was an espionage thriller. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a coming of age story. It is, more than anything, a story about a high schooler with a crush. And it’s perfect, fresh and unique and different. The music even harkens back to old teen movies, the director even directly referencing some like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

What doesn’t work?

Literally, almost nothing. The only thing I can see people complaining about are some liberties that they’re taking from the source material. The differences made to Flash Thompson are drastic, meaning he likely won’t end up the way his comic counterpart did. They also revamped some other characters which will likely result in a fan outrage. I trust the MCU and for once, I trust Sony’s Spider-Man.

Should you stay after the credits?

Yes, your patience will be rewarded.

Overall…

This movie should please most of you. It’s got some intense and jaw-dropping action, courtesy of a set of very cool villains, but it also has plenty of charm and humor that makes this movie feel like it’s from another era, right alongside films like The Breakfast Club. You don’t need to be a huge Marvel fan to appreciate this movie, but it’d definitely help. This movie has everything and it does it all perfectly.

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