Category Archives: Minis

‘Blockers’ Review: A comedy as raunchy as it is heartfelt

The primary narrative strand in Blockers follows Lisa (Leslie Mann), Mitchell (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) as they try to stop their daughters — Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) — from losing their virginity on prom night. Immediately, it sounds like a comedy we’ve seen before.

What makes Blockers so refreshing and delightful, though, is that this point-of-view is not the location of our heroes, who are the daughters, but it’s also an entirely necessary point-of-view to pull off what the film sets out to.

Blockers is littered with its share of awfully raunchy, unambiguously absurdist moments of comedy, and director Kay Cannon injects an infectious energy into each one, primarily through razor sharp pacing. But Cannon also utilizes nearly every single one of these moments to develop character. Comedies can run themselves into the ground when the humor exists for the sake of itself, but Blockers dedicates itself to its story and never falters.

Most of these moments, in fact, challenge the parents and their perceptions of their children. Is it right for these parents to try to “save” their daughters? Would they do the same if it were about their sons? The trio are framed as anti-heroes, but are still allowed sympathy, leaving the door open for redemption.

As these parents learn to accept their daughters, the daughters are learning to accept themselves, but not necessarily from a starting point of negative. Cannon brings a tone of sensitivity to these women’s explorations of their sexuality, affirming them rather than shaming them, while still offering them their own hilarious bits.

It truly is an outstanding balancing act from Cannon, who is aided by an equally outstanding ensemble. Mann, in the leading role, is as steady as she ever has been. Barinholtz both plays into type as the over-the-top idiot, while also playing against type as a surprisingly progressive father. Cena capitalizes on the tough guy persona, rendering his sensitive moments hysterical in juxtaposition. Newton is certainly serviceable, but Adlon shines with her vulnerability and Viswanathan nearly steals the whole show.

And when Blockers brings the families together toward the end, that dedication to the story the film set out to tell from the beginning pays off, leaving us with some genuinely powerful quiet moments.

Grade: 8.0/10

 

Featured image via Universal Pictures.

‘A Quiet Place’ Review: A juggernaut of a horror film

About half way into A Quiet Place, which follows a family living in silence due to monsters that track down victims by sound, Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) asks her husband Lee (John Krasinski) a question that defines the entire film. “Who are we if we can’t protect them?”

“Them” refers to the Abbott’s children, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, and Marcus (Noah Jupe). A Quiet Place is, by all means, one of the scariest films of recent memory, but it’s even more effective because it’s a horror film with a gripping emotional basis — that of parenthood and the lengths we go to to protect our kids.

The film is almost entirely silent, with most of the interactions utilizing sign language. That set up leaves co-writer/director John Krasinski — wearing many hats on this project — with the difficult task of achieving the emotional basis through the physicality of the characters, through the actions they take more so than the words they say or sign. But Krasinski pulls it off.

A Quiet Place is a tight, lean picture — every second dedicated not only to Evelyn and Lee trying to protect their kids, but also to the kids learning the bravery necessary to begin to survive on their own. Many of these character moments are elevated immensely by the performances, and each one feels entirely integrated into the world. Movements through space are careful and calculated. And facial expressions are exacerbated excruciatingly, as they would be for people living in such a situation. The clear standout, however, is Emily Blunt, who bears the weight of her character — the weight of love, grief and the worst physical pain of any character — so thoroughly.

While Krasinski is undoubtedly rather strong, with his performance’s emotion sitting right under the surface, his most assured role on this film is as the director, composing every feature into a brilliant whole. The sound design is bare, but brutal. Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography is stark, but tender. And the production design builds a world far beyond the frame. In fact, it’s the world-building of A Quiet Place that is so astonishingly impressive. Some aspects of the layout of the Abbott’s home exist without explanation (to the film’s benefit) — and are then capitalized on for some harrowing imagery.

Yet, the film isn’t just harrowing and scary. It’s often incredibly invigorating and fun. And as A Quiet Place turns to its end and champions its female characters specifically, especially in a banger of a closing shot, it’s difficult not to walk out with a big, stupid grin on your face.

Grade: 8.6/10

 

Featured image via Paramount Pictures

‘Mute’ Review: A glimpse at a dull future

Mute, co-written and directed by Duncan Jones (MoonSource CodeWarcraft), is about a man named Leo (Alexander Skarsgård), who happens to be Amish and mute, trying to find his missing girlfriend (Seyneb Saleh) in a futuristic Germany. He has to fight gangsters, find clues that she left behind and put up with abuse for being unable to speak. An Amish mute? Fighting bad guys?! Having premarital sex?! The Future?! What sounds like a movie that’s at least mildly interesting turns out to be a complete bore, much like the slew of other Netflix originals over the past few months.

Paul Rudd plays Cactus, an American surgeon working for these gangsters, and is probably the most entertaining part of the entire movie. How he ended up in Germany taking bullets out of gangsters is a mystery, but I guess it doesn’t matter. Cactus is looking for a way back to America along with his daughter, and he’ll do anything to obtain that. It’s fun to see Paul Rudd playing a villain, a departure from his typical roles, but he deserves a much better movie around him.

If you’re wondering, “Wow, I wonder if Cactus has anything to do with Leo’s missing girlfriend,” you would be on the right track! There’s really nothing shocking about this movie, although I must admit I was taken aback by how advanced the sex dolls of the future are.

As much as I hate to say this about a movie Paul Rudd is in, Mute is one to steer clear of. It’s boring, its vision of the future is cliché and Cactus’s best friend is a pedophile. Watch at risk of wasting two hours of your life.

Grade: 4.5/10

 

Mute was released on February 23, 2018 and is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

Featured image courtesy of Netflix.

‘Phantom Thread’ Review: An elegant, dreamlike, hilarious psychological romance

Phantom Thread is a strange film, one that could only really sprout from the mind of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. Yet, its strangeness might be precisely what offers viewers so much to eat up.

Following master fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he courts Alma (Vicky Krieps), the film revels in the psychological dynamics between the two as their relationship grows. From misunderstanding each other’s intentions to nailing each other’s faults directly on the head, the two constantly negotiate emotional control. It’s often overtly uncomfortable, toned by a sense of deliberateness in Anderson’s delivery. We’re meant to, ourselves, become a third party in the fluctuating conversation.

That aspect of the film, the ambiguity and the resulting passive aggressiveness, is deliciously hilarious in its nastiness, especially when blurted with full pompous force by Daniel Day-Lewis. Woodcock is rendered utterly charming, magnetically powerful and horribly ridiculous, all at the same time.

But the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps goes toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis, even owning him in certain scenes. The film likely wouldn’t have worked without her turning in a performance so effectively controlled, her glare as cutting as razor blades, because much of the content literally requires Krieps to dominate her co-star with her presence. And thankfully, Alma is given the necessary agency and moments of power to keep the film from becoming some kind of sick show.

In Anderson’s construction of story, which is both fiercely and elegantly polished, Phantom Thread can be described as a genuine psychological romance — a subgenre not too common in contemporary cinema. But there’s also something about the director’s touch that evokes a nearly dreamlike aura when watching the film, similarly to the effect of The Master.

This film is, by all means, about love. When Woodcock and Alma are in sync — and especially in that climactic moment when they finally come to a true understanding of what exactly makes the other tick — the characters seemingly float in space and time, lifted up by the rich and depthful film photography of Anderson and his camera crew, the transfixing work of costume designer Mark Bridges and the somehow pleasantly visceral, overwhelmingly wistful and absolutely enchanting score by Jonny Greenwood.

As the credits start to roll, Phantom Thread begins to feel like a lovely dream itself. It’s an experience that’s hard to put to words, but it’s one that we long for and fall for in storytelling.

Grade: 9.0/10

 

Featured image via Focus Features.

‘Molly’s Game’ Review: Jessica Chastain is electric in Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut

Aaron Sorkin is one of the few screenwriters to have become a recognizable name to the general audience, and for good reason. His scripts, for the likes of The Social Network and Steve Jobs, are masterful. So, him making his directorial debut, not only in features, but in either film or television, is a major point in his career.

With Molly’s Game, Sorkin proves himself behind the camera as well as he does on the page. Following Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) as she runs one of the most prestigious underground poker games in the country, the film is full of flash and glamor, and the editing of high stake sequences both at the table and beyond it is razor sharp.

But Sorkin does not simply allow the film to be about the extravagance of the poker. Every part of the story builds the character of Molly Bloom in deliciously dynamic feminist fashion. Much of the conflict of the story comes from toxic men and their abuse of power, such as when Bloom’s day job boss, who initially started the poker game, forces her to work for free because he thinks she’s making too much off of tips from the game.

Yet, this conflict adds to the central dilemma at Bloom’s core. She was nearly an Olympic skier until sustaining a devastating injury, and, ever since, or maybe even much earlier from her father’s tough parenting, she’s been searching for identity. The structure of the film revolves around this search, in that Bloom is portrayed at her highest when the games are going well and the players respect her, but that high only leads her to overcompensate and endanger what defines her — a structurally brilliant ebb and flow of character development.

Bloom is so well-defined and well-rounded, but it’s difficult to imagine her in the hands of anyone other than Jessica Chastain. Bloom narrates throughout the movie — a surprising move that somehow works, in part because the narration is edited so smoothly into the rhythm of the pacing, but largely because of Chastain’s vigorous line delivery.

When on screen, Chastain manages the tricky balancing act of channeling the spark of Sorkin’s dialogue while also shaping a character that feels naturally lived in. And as the film comes to an end and Chastain completely owns the character’s climactic moment, we truly feel for Bloom on an unexpected emotional level.

While it may not have held a stylistic flair quite like David Fincher’s The Social Network, Molly’s Game showcases Sorkin’s undoubtable directorial ability to translate the page into a magnetic visual story. But even regardless of that, the film is a platform upon which Jessica Chastain reasserts herself as one of the most powerful actresses working today.

Grade: 8.5/10

 

Featured image via Michael Gibson/STX Entertainment.

‘The Greatest Showman’ Review: Too showy and never great

It’s never a great sign when many aspects of a film have been done better elsewhere, which is the case with the Hugh Jackman-starring musical The Greatest Showman

In it, Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, a showman in the late 1800s, and he’s unsurprisingly charming. But Jackman has played almost this exact role before with far more complexity and emotional vigor in The Prestige. If one has seen the Christopher Nolan film, it’s difficult to watch The Greatest Showman without thinking of it.

Television spots will also make sure that the general public knows that the songwriters on this film are the Oscar-winning duo behind La La Land. And while there are some rousing numbers, such as the popular “This Is Me,” the music never really plants itself in viewers’ minds as each piece feels overdone and jarringly anachronistic. The seemingly key ingredients that the duo is missing are the musical help of the masterful Justin Hurwitz, composer of La La Land, and a good story.

The music seems to end up emotionally manipulative because the story asks the songs to do the leg work. When key character development is meant to occur, we’re asked to accept it in the form of a song. This can occasionally work when the song is beyond exceptional, such as the gleefully playful and vulnerable “A Lovely Night” or the heart-wrenching “Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” both from La La Land. But no song here reaches that kind of level, resulting in what is meant to be an emotional journey falling flat.

“This Is Me” comes close, but that song leads to another issue with the film, which posits itself as a celebration of humanity through outcasts and those who’ve been othered. But, outside of the song, the film never takes the point of view of those characters nor develops them thoroughly. At one point, one of them professes his appreciation for the “family” that Barnum has built. Yet, we haven’t seen much of this family in the first place and we’ve seen too much of Barnum treating them poorly for a redemption to be earned, or for its purported celebration to be earned either.

Strangely, though, it’s difficult to entirely hate the film. It’s not consistently visually dazzling, but it has its moments of pure wonder amid colorful, eye-popping costumes and sets. To go along with that, there’s an undercurrent of a struggle for happiness in every storyline, which latches on, at least loosely. And Zendaya stands out with the most lived-in and genuinely felt performance.

If anything, The Greatest Showman is a film that can bring families to a show, just as Barnum did. That’s worth something.

Grade: 5.8/10

 

Featured image 20th Century Fox.

‘Darkest Hour’ Review: A rousing, vigorous yet excessive chamber piece

Darkest Hour, in a way, is the other end of the story that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk tells. While that film steers clear of political machinations, Darkest Hour indulges in them, specifically in those of Winston Churchill’s early days as Prime Minister while he orchestrates the evacuation at Dunkirk.

Thus, with such a story, the film had the potential to amount to not much more than typical British TV movie-esque extravagance. But Darkest Hour rises above, mostly due to Gary Oldman’s unbelievable transformation, yet also because of Joe Wright’s vivid, firmly controlled direction.

There’s an energy behind each frame that nearly mirrors the physical energy of Oldman’s performance. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is particularly striking in how it lights interiors. Much of the film takes place in halls and chambers, and there’s a persistent haze that’s as equally eerie as it is strangely invigorating. Delbonnel and Wright also venture into the slightly experimental, shooting long shots of the interiors of rooms with complete darkness outlining the room’s edges, and often framing Oldman’s face in enclosed boxes to mirror the trapped nature of Churchill’s position.

When such visual splendor combines with perfectly paced editing and Dario Marianelli’s stirring, pulsing score, Darkest Hour is electric.

There are moments, however, when the film veers into excessiveness. Churchill, at least this film’s version of him, is a man of far too many words, and focusing so often on his speeches — there are roughly seven or eight speeches made by Churchill throughout Darkest Hour — and on Churchill’s character itself causes the narrative’s energy to waver. To be fair, pulling off such a balance of energy is incredibly difficult, but the film does end up, in a way, adopting the faults of Churchill in its own structure.

But the film is never without the raw power of Gary Oldman, who disappears into the role in every way, literal and mental. We can see a precise, specific and consistent physicality in the way that Oldman delivers dialogue, in his physical interactions with both space and people and in his command of the frame as he marches across it. It’s a towering performance, quite literally at times when the film shoots him from a low angle, and one of the best of the year. Without it, or one like it, Darkest Hour would’ve likely been a dull two hours.

Grade: 8.3/10

 

Featured image via Focus Features.

‘Coco’ Review: A deeply felt depiction of culture and family

Animation is a platform for boundless imagination. Pixar’s maximization of that platform rocketed them to the top, until they lost it. But with Inside Out, the studio began to regain its form. And with Coco, the studio continues that return — at least for its original ideas.

The film is steeped in Mexican culture, and not just as representation for representation’s sake. The intricacies of its culture are deeply felt on a visual, auditory and thematic level. Traditions and family dynamics that sprout from those traditions are integral to the progression of the plot. Dialogue consists of both English and Spanish, the latter not being subtitled nor placed on any level of less importance than the English. Each frame pops with wonderful colors in costumes, festive decorations and more. Michael Giacchino’s score uses instruments and style that come from the culture to create swells that enhance emotional moments. Like Moana before it, Coco shows that, when researched and executed on all levels, culture and its representation can be beyond profound.

But while Coco’s characters, especially Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) and Héctor (Gael García Bernal), are well-defined, the film’s narrative isn’t quite as refined, and thus as intricately affecting, as Pixar’s best outings. Much of the middle of the film is predicated on convenience and obstacles rather than true conflict, stifling the energy of even the wondrous visuals. And the themes of family, death and forgiveness are intertwined, evident and developed — but only so much so. Miguel’s initial goals are, naively and innocently so because of his young age, misguided and ignore the specific importance of the women in his family. While Miguel learns a lot that allows him to appreciate family, he’s not afforded the deeper lessons that hold the men of the film as accountable as they can be held.

However, Coco does hit emotional highs that can compare to even Toy Story 3. In its last 30 minutes, while not as deeply mined as it could be, the film does enough with its central family and their culture to push even the hardest shelled people to tears. It’s trademark Pixar, constructing a build of emotions that provoke such a response because we care.

Grade: 8.0/10

 

Featured image via Pixar.

Note: We at MovieMinis denounce the alleged sexual harassment of Pixar’s now ex-executive John Lasseter. His significance in the creation of Pixar and its films is undeniable and we would be remiss not to acknowledge that. We do believe that, with ‘Coco’ specifically, which Lasseter produced but did not direct, and with animation in general, because there are so many brains behind the creation of a film and even the creation of a single frame, to write it all off because of one man would be irresponsible, especially when it’s doing such important cultural work like ‘Coco’ is. However, we would also be remiss not to acknowledge that Pixar films have a glaring problem with how they depict women both in the animation of their bodies and through their roles in the stories, which likely stems from the fact that they’ve only hired one woman to co-direct one of their films and the understanding that, with a man like Lasseter in power, women were and are excluded from or feel unsafe in being a part of important conversations and stages of development that they should be involved in. Overall, we would like to extend our support to the victims of Lasseter’s alleged abuse and make sure that this discussion is had where it must be.

‘Mudbound’ Review: Flowing with powerful symbolism, novelistic ambitions

Mudbound, exquisitely directed by Dee Rees, is an epic tale of two families — one black (the Jacksons), one white (the McAllans) — intertwined before, during and after World War II. Within this grand scope of two large families connected by financial and emotional trials and tribulations, Netflix’s Mudbound poses an intimate yet still relevant examination of racism, familial bonds, God, war and love within American society.

Featuring incredible, depthful performances from Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan, Mary J. Blige, Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke, this ensemble brings the requisite emotion to this tale set in the harsh, rainy, muddy land in Mississippi during the Jim Crow South.

Thanks to the strong performances, sweeping timeline and a significant amount of voiceover, the film creates a novelistic feeling to its story. The audience is given insight to the motivations behind Ronsel’s (Mitchell) decision to join the military, why Jamie (Hedlund) became an alcoholic after World War II, why Florence (Blige) only prays for her son Ronsel instead of her other children. The devices at play with time and voiceover create a narrative structure akin to watching something in the vein of a great novel by Steinbeck or Faulkner, yet Mudbound always uses the voiceover for character interiority rather than forced exposition.

While straightforwardly told, classically so, director Rees and editor Mako Kamitsuna create dynamic parallels between the families, as Jamie experiences a brutal dogfight in a bomber plane while Mulligan’s Laura (married to Jamie’s brother) experiences a disheartening miscarriage after an indescribably stressful situation.

Yet these crosscuts are used in strong ties between the two families, as Jamie and Ronsel describe their horrific war experiences to each other, both shown with flashbacks over the sharing of a strong whiskey in present time.

All of this world and character building create an expansive look at many issues within American society. However, the film makes clear the ways in which racism creeps into the lives of good people. In particular, the muddy land that the Jacksons and McAllans are forced to share becomes often symbolic of the two families intermingled relationship to each other — at times fertile with hope and respect, and at others drowned of any light and filled with mud that is bound to slow any sort of progress.

When the film moves towards its heartbreaking and unexpected ending — Rees’ sense of how this history still plays out in today’s society — the film paints a damning portrait of what it means to be living in a divided America.

As with every classic story though, there’s a sense of optimism in the power of hope and unity. And if there is an element of Mudbound that seems to be its most vital and hopefully rewarding aspect to viewers, it’s that, with a shared understanding of the human experience and the ability to realize the stronger similarities between us all rather than the general differences in appearance predicated on something only skin deep, there may be hope in America’s future.

History, like the one seen in Mudbound, will tell what comes next.

Grade: 9.0/10

 

Featured image via Netflix.

‘Justice League’ Review: A cleaner, but more jarring and hollow failure

On a storytelling level, Justice League is a better film than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s more cohesive, better paced and easier to follow. But it comes at a steep cost.

What the DCEU had gotten right up to this point — maybe not with Suicide Squad — was an investment in theme and how character and story both shape theme and are shaped by it. Batman v Superman is a mess of a film, but it’s an interesting story. It’s ideas of man vs. god, of the repercussions of Superman and the lengths to which Batman’s anger would take him in response, which feels like a continuation of Man of Steel, offers some semblance of narrative satisfaction.

Justice League, seemingly a continuation of Batman v Superman, a third film in this trilogy, is jarringly hollow in comparison. Superman’s death and Batman’s guilt are hardly investigated, and if they are, they’re parsed through in ways that don’t make sense with character; supposed steps taken in regard to those themes turn out to be more circumstantial, convenient and simple than actual elaboration on the story’s previous interests.

In essence, the film abandons what it was set up to be in order to be a cleaner film. It’s slightly, slightly understandable considering the position of Warner Bros. and DC, but it is such a disappointment. There’s nothing to latch onto in Superman’s character (surprise, he’s in the movie). He leans Christopher Reeve in tone, which, to some, might be exciting — but that’s not the Superman that’s been built in this universe. A short moment after his resurrection has the potential to take his character in a frightening, complicated direction, but that potential is quickly passed on and we get a one-dimensional figure that doesn’t even feel like a character.

The same can be said with villain. Batman’s visions of impending doom in the previous installment move nowhere with Steppenwolf, a monstrosity that falls flatter than the horrific CGI that creates him. He’s a typical, bland god-like bad guy spouting boring, cliched lines of fate for the “primitive beings” he’s fighting.

There aren’t many dimensions anywhere in Justice League. The Flash, while decently snappy comedic relief (which, itself, becomes tiresome), is barely two-dimensional. Aquaman’s motivations and backstory are washed over. Wonder Woman’s arc feigns at actual interest in the character — she’s dealing with the grief of losing Steve Trevor and the subsequent struggles she has with being a leader — but the timeline difference makes it difficult to swallow and, in horrifyingly gross fashion, the film sexualizes her and submits her to the filmmakers’ male gaze.

The only character that’s remotely fleshed out is Cyborg. His biomechatronic body has a brain of its own and he’s struggling to learn how to control it. But, considering that Ray Fisher gives a strong performance, it only ends up as disappointing that that arc is traversed here and not more thoroughly in a solo film.

It’s strange because one can almost feel that Justice League wants to be a cleaner movie. Too much of the plotting is expedited and, in turn, easy, leaving us with a lot that’s clean and digestible — until we realize that there’s no substance to any of it. But even in its attempts to be clean, it ends up as a messier looking film than most blockbusters in general. It’s embarrassing that we can tell where the reshoots are, not only narratively but visually. Literally, we see where actors are digitally inserted after the fact and where continuity is interrupted.

And Henry Cavill’s digitally removed mustache leaves his face as… by god, there’s no excuse.

Even the DCEU’s inarguably greatest element, its scores, halts dead with Danny Elfman’s work. We hear, perhaps, ten seconds of Wonder Woman’s theme before it never shows up again. We never hear Junkie XL’s Batman theme as Elfman opts to use his original one. We never hear Hans Zimmer’s Man of Steel theme. Elfman leaves us with nothing memorable about his score. The use of original themes don’t make  auditory sense for where the characters are meant to be, which, even worse, results in music that fails to serve the narrative on any level.

The film is cheap. It inserts quirky quips here and there to induce laughter that can, momentarily, help us forget its shortcomings. But even those quips wind up yanking us out of the film. They’re infuriating. They’re tonally imbalanced and out of character — especially for someone like Batman. The film also shoves in comic book references to help some of the comic book familiar folk look over its cheap nature, most of which will be missed by audiences not familiar and create no difference as none of the nods have narrative implications.

Some of the fight sequences work and work well. Characters are clear and distinguishable, and the overall battles are well shot in regard to spatial geography.

But it’s difficult to even want to talk about that with any layer of enthusiasm. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy notably lacked well-composed action, but they’re still some of the best superhero movies of all time because of their unparalleled execution of storytelling.

Cumulatively, Justice League is overbearingly cheap. It’s a middle finger to the audience, a “course correction” that does no correcting.

Grade: 5/10

 

Featured image via Warner Bros.

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