Monday, August 26, 2019

Movie Review - "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" (2019)

There are few directors that can do no wrong in my eyes. Spielberg, Edgar Wright, Christopher Nolan, and the Coen Brothers come to mind. But recently, another director/producer has joined their ranks of consistently turning out satisfying and worthwhile movies - Guillermo del Toro.

While I've grown to appreciate del Toro's work over the last few years, especially his personal passion projects that felt like homages to obscure movie genres like a tribute to diakaiju films with "Pacific Rim" and Italian gothic horror with "Crimson Peak," I've now become a devoted follower of all his work ever since "The Shape of Water," one of the best films in the last decade. It's difficult to put to words, but del Toro's films always feel like a trip to the darkest parts of the human heart - eerie and usually otherworldly, yet filled to the brim with warmth and understanding, almost in a fantastical way. The charm and love for movies is practically infectious in all of his movies, making it hard not to love his work.

So while "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" may not have been directed by del Toro, he did produce this children's-horror-series-turned-movie, and his style practically oozes in nearly every frame. From a character obsessed with old black-and-white horror movies, to a nostalgic look at the simplicity and underlying hardships of the late 1960s, to the grotesque monsters that haunt our cast of teenagers, del Toro might as well have directed this movie.

Set in the idyllic town of Mill Valley on Halloween night, a group of teens decide to break into an abandoned haunted mansion while on the run of the town jock and bully. While a couple of the teens cower in fear over a few odd sounds and images of an old woman and her dog, Stella (Zoe Colletti) finds a book that belongs to the town's most infamous legend, Sarah Bellows. As Stella learns more about the book, including that Sarah's scary stories are written in blood, she also finds the book is still writing stories, ones that happen to involve people Stella knows, including the bully and the scarecrow that he's hated his entire life.

I would describe "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" as "Goosebumps" done right, taking an anthology series of scary children's stories and turning it into something that can scare both kids and adults. While "Goosebumps" plays everything for laughs in a corny, tongue-in-cheek manner, this movie terrifies with its insanely messed-up monsters straight out of these characters subconscious, playing on their darkest fears and manifesting in the most grotesque and disturbing ways. Most of these monsters look like they walked straight out of someone's nightmare, deformed and inhuman, and always moving at a steady pace towards their victims to seal their equally inhuman fate.

This makes "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" oddly satisfying, especially with characters to deserve this fate. It doesn't play out like a slasher movie, but rather a trip into the fears of these teenagers. For example, a preppy girl's zit that gets several disgusted looks from her classmates continues to grow until it looks like something is moving underneath it, and it only gets worse when she tries to pop it. Each one tells us so much about each character, which only makes their fear feel even more genuine.

If Guillermo del Toro ever made a children's horror movie, "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" is exactly what it would look like. It is drippy with atmosphere, loving its haunted house setting filled with cobwebs, hidden rooms and ghosts, with characters that love exploring these clearly haunted grounds to keep things from getting stale. The monsters will give anyone nightmares and are all memorable in their own ways, each giving a satisfying conclusion to their stories. In the end, this is the rare children's horror movie that can scare both kids and adults, without ever feeling like its dumbing anything down, something that I feel only del Toro could manage.

Final Grade: B+

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Movie Review - "The Wild One" (1953)

"The Wild One" is a cinematic time capsule, perfectly capturing one moment forever to remind us of the phases and changes society went through. While some films do their best to capture the mood of the time period, I can't think of one that does a better job than "The Wild One" and the rebellious biker outlaw gangs. From the leather outfits and hip jive talk to the outright hatred of any establishment, especially law enforcement, and the backlash they faced from every day people, this movie lays it on thick.

Marlon Brando's performance as Johnny, the titular wild one, sees him essentially playing himself, a rebel who hated the establishment and just wanted to establish his own identity. And while Brando, always the method actor, spent a lot of time hanging out with biker gangs to learn their lingo and mannerisms and drove a motorcycle to and from the set, he was always defiant and head-strong and despised Hollywood. As such, it's hard to see Johnny as anything more than an extension of Brando himself.

Overall, "The Wild One" is a fun experience if only for a chance to go back and see a time when bikers ruled the roads and struck fear in the hearts of every small Christian town.

Final Grade: C+

Monday, August 19, 2019

Movie Review - "The Farewell" (2019)

If you knew that your grandmother was dying and she didn't, what would you do? Would you be honest with her and let her know that her time was short? Would you keep it secret and let it come to her peacefully?

What makes this question even more fascinating is that the answer varies wildly depending on your country. In America, death isn't something that you hide from and must confront or accept - to not be truthful about it would be a disservice to that person's decision on how to handle death. But in China, such a decision might cause their last precious days to be filled with misery, wondering when death will come. As such, most families hide this from the elderly, not just for to keep them happy but for the sake of tradition and modesty - as if it is a last request for your ancestors.

This is the central conflict of Lulu Wang's "The Farewell," where Billi (Awkwafina) has spent most of her life living in America, but returns to her Chinese family when they all learn that her grandmother Nai Nai (Tzi Ma) has lung cancer and will be dead within a few months. Billi's extended family promises to not tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis and pretends that everything's fine, creating a fake wedding for her cousin so that Nai Nai has one last opportunity to see all of her friends and family. While Billi isn't initially invited, due to her wearing her emotions on her sleeves, she flies to China and promises not to tell Nai Nai the truth, despite how badly she thinks her grandmother deserves to know and how much she wants to say goodbye.

This is a conflict in many different ways, the most prominent being East versus West. Billi fights everything she's been taught about honesty and being true to herself, and it constantly shows in Awkwafina's restrained performance, communicating so much though emotion while being tight-lipped.

Yet, strangely enough, another conflict that shines is the older generation versus the new generation. Billi's pleas to be honest with Nai Nai feel less like an American stance and more like a young woman who hasn't experienced death or loss. She doesn't know what do say or do because she is lost. While her parents and uncle aren't stone-faced about losing Nai Nai either. Despite their resilience and refusal to tell their mother the truth, simply because of Chinese traditions they say, there are moments where they can't always contain their emotions, as if their own children have proven that it's alright to show weakness in the face of death. I found myself relating to Billi, not because of her American upbringing, but because she challenged what traditions have always said to face the reality of the situation, no matter how difficult that reality might be.

"The Farewell" certainly gives the audience a lot to consider and challenges many conflicts between different cultures in a time when those lines are becoming more blurry. It is a somber celebration of life when it is not examining the subtle differences between China and America. I can't think of many movies that can bounce between Chinese and English so easily, but "The Farewell" uses both languages to their fullest. Whereas "Crazy Rich Asians" as a look at the extravagant life of China, "The Farewell" is a modest and humbling portrayal of China, showing how strong the family bond overpowers everything else.

Final Grade: A-

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Movie Review - "A League of Their Own" (1992)

"A League of Their Own" follows in the footsteps of other baseball movies such as "Field of Dreams" and "Pride of the Yankees" by showing a level of admiration and respect for a game that has such a long and legendary history. The past and its impact on the present is never understated, uncovering a piece of history that would otherwise be overlooked with an undeniable fondness. In this case, the formation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during World War II to keep the homefront interested in baseball. But rather than dwell on the sexism at play or the hardships the players faced through the uniforms they were forced to wear or the random catcalls, they protray these women soaking up every moment they have in spotlight, and playing the game that they love.

Every actress is having a blast in these roles, especially Geena Davis, Lori Petty and Rosie O'Donnell who wear their scars and scraps proudly while playing to the crowd. It certainly helps that Tom Hanks turns in yet another captivating performance as the alcoholic and loud-mouthed Jimmy Dugan, nailing the perfect middle ground between refusing to help those who aren't "ballplayers" and a genuine love for the game. And that love for baseball is what drives this movie from being a generic fluff into an entertaining ride from start to finish. "A League of Their Own" might not have anything important to say, but it admirably captures a point in history that would otherwise be ignored with such sentiment that it's hard not to love the ride.

Final Grade: B+

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Movie Review - "Five Easy Pieces" (1970)

I left "Five Easy Pieces" feeling the same as I did with "Easy Rider" - unimpressed and uninterested. From the beginning, I hated Bobby's (Jack Nicholson) casual berating of his girlfriend and general distaste for life. Even as his reasons for this behavior become more clear, there was no saving this character, especially when you add in your typical explosive Nicholson outbursts, only this time to people who certainly don't deserve any of this.

Maybe this just has to do with the way I was raised, but I've never enjoyed any movie where a character takes his/her frustrations and anger out on other people. There's never been anyway to justify this awful behavior and shows that our "hero" has no common decency. Maybe that's the point the movie is trying to go for, but at that point it's already too late - I've shut myself off emotionally from that character. If they can't show any emotion to others, why should I show any for them?

While this does lead to a few well-written moments of anger, especially while Bobby and his girlfriend are on the road, "Five Easy Pieces" never drew me in. It is a cold, ugly, uncaring movie that fumbles around with a message about damaged individuals without ever giving a clear answer. Other than the chicken salad sandwich scene, this one you can certainly skip.

Final Grade: D+

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Movie Review - "BUtterfield 8" (1960)

I'm going to assume that the success of "BUtterfield 8" was largely dependent on when it was released, at a time when the sexual revolution was beginning. To put it bluntly, Elizabeth Taylor plays the town slut, who will openly have sex with any willing man yet refuses to be paid for this service or treated like a hooker or call girl, as she ends up dating a self-loathing married man (Laurence Harvey) and the two pick each other up as they fall more and more in love.

I say it's a product of its time because this was when women realized they didn't have to be the quiet housewives and were free to explore themselves just as much as men could. Nowadays, Taylor's performance would probably be analyzed as a byproduct of men ruining an innocent, fragile girls life to become another sex symbol, while others might see Taylor's performance as trashy and overly glorified. Even if Taylor does carry some superiority throughout the movie, it hardly ever seems justified.

I could not get into the spirit of "BUtterfield 8," as it psycho-analyzes everything more than your standard Chris Nolan movie, all while every character talks like they have multiple degrees in psychology. Then the film bounces back and forth between praising Taylor's life choices and demonizing it, especially with a long opening sequence of Taylor in a flimsy nightie parading around the apartment of her latest conquest.

Suffice to say, "BUtterfield 8" has not aged well. Taylor turns in a captivating performance as always and there's no denying her alluring appeal, especially since nearly every one of her lines is oozing with desire, but this gets uncomfortable after a while. I can see women in the 1960s loving the freedom Taylor offers, while men love looking at her. But now that we're in an age of sexual revelation and re-evaluation, as well as the "Me Too" movement, the atmosphere of this movie has certainly soured.

Final Grade: C-

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Movie Review - "A Place in the Sun" (1951)

I don't use the term "modern tragedy" lightly. To me, a tragedy invokes a Shakespearian-like character, one who is just and honorable, as his own good intentions ruin any hope of the world recognizing his admirable qualities. In the classic sense, a tragedy is simply a character ending in a worse place than they started, but the genre has grown and become more sophisticated since the classic Greek tragedies, and we've gotten to a point where the overwhelming luxuries of modern society have made us crave success to no end. Because in the end, all we really desire is a place in the sun.

While the story follows a young man down on his luck (Montgomery Clift) who gets a job at his rich distant families company in the big city and ends up falling for a quiet female coworker (Shelley Winters) while always pinning for the beautiful and elegant model (Elizabeth Taylor), the star of "A Place in the Sun" is George Stevens meticulous detail in every aspect. Stevens had his hands in costume design, editing, cinematography as well as directing, making this movie far more his vision than any other Hollywood movie at the time.

Stevens' depiction of a tragedy is chilling and yet surprising authentic. Clift's subtle performance is often quiet and calculating, like we can see the gears turning in his head, all while he tries to find some semblance of happiness in the world by following his basic temptations. It certainly helps that Taylor is at her most alluring, acting like the devil on Clift's shoulder and she doesn't even realize it. Rather than demonize this man for his actions, Stevens is understanding yet distant, giving everything a matter-of-fact tone while showing how the desire for success can corrupt the modern man.

Stevens makes a point to show that Clift can be any man, and that we're all capable of the same evil.

Final Grade: A

Monday, August 5, 2019

Movie Review - "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" (2019)

Maybe it was because of the way I was raised, but I've always associated the phrase "Once Upon a Time.." with a classic fairy tale or fantasy. As I've grown older, this hasn't changed and it has made watching movies like "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Once Upon a Time In America" even more enjoyable, as both films can now be seen as a fantastical, almost magical retelling of the old west and the life of a gangster respectively. Both films find the superb in the forgotten and share that love for a time long since passed with us. Now we can add another film to that series of modern fantasies with Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."

Tarantino's love letter to 1960s Hollywood does its best to encompass every aspect of the time period, ranging from being hammy and over the top to stylish and subtle, even occasionally dipping into the creepy. But while there isn't a consistent tone, much like that era of Hollywood, quite possibly the strangest aspect is Tarantino's usual outspoken style isn't on full display. In fact, this is the most restrained Tarantino has ever been, going long stretches without any dialogue, and even then the repartee feels genuine and calm, as opposed to the usual loud and colorfully phrased. Instead, Tarantino lets the atmosphere and mood sink in, which gives the performances even more room to breathe and flourish.

Set in 1969 Hollywood, the film follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton is an aging movie star who starts taking on more television roles in Westerns, especially as the bad guy who always dies in the end, while Booth is Dalton's stunt double who starts seeing less and less work once he realizes no one in Hollywood wants to work with him. Both actors struggle to find work, as well as their place in the world. Though this might end up being the least of their problems when both gain the attention of Charles Mansen, who seems to be out to get Dalton's neighbor, Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

Both DiCaprio and Pitt shine in this film, both together and on their own. Maybe its because neither actor has been in a movie for a while, but it was a joy to watch both of these seasoned veterans playing aging actors who keep having emotional breakdowns when their age starts to show. DiCaprio goes all in on the over the top, hammy acting of the 1960s, and yet plays Dalton like a scared, stammering mess when he's not on camera, longing to be back on film where he can truly shine. While Pitt is more laid back, uncaring about what really happens to him and does everything he can to enjoy every moment. But at the core, these two share a wonderful chemistry as years of friendship come flying off the screen just through their simple interactions. Despite the style and atmosphere driving the film, this shows why DiCaprio and Pitt got to be two of the best actors of our generation.

However, I can't stay much for the other performances, especially since most others seemed rather pointless. Al Pacino has a couple short scenes as he plays a Martin Scorcese-like character, only attempting to give Dalton some acting advice, while Damon Herriman plays Charles Manson in two short scenes. But the strangest waste of a talent is Margot Robbie, who has several scenes in the movie that ultimately add little to the movie. She spends most of her time dancing and going to movie theaters to watch her own movies. While it does add to the scope of Hollywood, her scenes are so distant from the ones with Dalton and Booth that almost feels at odds with them. Beyond a couple of Mansons' followers, none of the supporting performances stand out.

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is Taratino's most respectful and restrained movie, letting the images speak rather than going all in on the dialogue. There's so much love for a fantastical and whimsical era of Hollywood that it's hard not to enjoy even the simple scenes of driving around the streets of L.A. while listening to some early rock. The performances of DiCaprio and Pitt are so charming and captivating that it really doesn't matter that the other performances don't hold a candle. And yet, the film feels strange for feeling like a Tarantino film and not like a classic Tarantino - perhaps, like this movie, its auteur has matured.

Final Grade: A-