Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Assistant Is An Impressively-Crafted Exploration of a Quietly Dehumanizing World

We begin The Assistant with the life of Jane (Julia Garner) already in progress. Rather than starting out with her being interviewed for the titular job, writer/director Kitty Green begins her screenplay with Jane already having spent a few weeks in the position of being an assistant to an unnamed and unseen movie studio executive. It's an occupation where she's gotta do an assortment of odd jobs, like cleaning up his office, arranging screenings, handling the executives' wife and turning a blind eye to the seedy behavior happening around her. The man she works for isn't just creating a toxic workplace with his verbally abusive behavior but also clearly engaging in acts of sexual harassment and assault with a variety of women in the film industry.

The Invisible Man > The Mummy (2017), There, I Said It

It's been tough going for the Universal Monsters in the 21st-century. Universal Pictures has constantly shown interest in reviving these horror icons but typically by way of revamping these figures to fit the molds of then-popular movies. While the 2010 The Wolfman feature was a horror movie, that was the exception rather than the rule. Van Helsing, Dracula Untold and The Mummy (2017) all were pastiches on action blockbusters and came up short. Who would have thought, then, that the Universal Monsters, who got famous through small-scale horror movies, might work best in the modern era by having them star in small-scale horror movies like Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man?

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Wolfman Is A Storytelling Mess But A Delight When It Comes To Wolfman Carnage


Universal has constantly gone back to the Universal Monsters well throughout this century and, prior this Friday's new release The Invisible Man, somehow only one of these attempts has entailed reviving these characters through a horror movie. The Universal Monsters became famous through small-scale horror fare that resonated with audiences both by tapping into post-World War I fears and the distinctive performances of actors like Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi hired to portray the monsters. Who, then, thought bringing them into 2017 entailed whatever the hell was happening in that Tom Cruise The Mummy dumpster fire? The only one of these films (again, before this weekends Invisible Man remake) to realize that scary characters work best in horror confines is the 2010 stab at The Wolfman.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Celine Sciamma's Deeply Human Filmmaking is Exemplified by Girlhood

Back in February 2017, I wrote up a review of The Elephant Man, the first David Lynch movie I'd ever seen. In an attempt to look sophisticated, I tried to offer up a thesis for Lynch's entire filmography after seeing just one of his features. Said thesis said that Lynch's films were exclusively concerned with the outcasts of society. Like so many of my own attempts to appear knowledgable in a scenario where I'm clueless, it was laughably off-base. However, my inaccurate description of the core thematic trait of Lynch's works does serve as a solid descriptor for what's actually going on in the works of acclaimed director Celine Sciamma. Her films actually are about the experiences of the marginalized members of society and that's especially true of Girlhood.

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Last Thing He Wanted Is A Poorly Cobbled-Together Political Thriller

Sometimes, bad movies aren't shocking. As a critic, I always go into movies hoping for the very best, but sometimes films that sound dire on paper end up being equally dire in execution. It wasn't exactly shocking when, say, a Mummy movie creatively driven by Alex Kurtzman ended up being bad and did anyone who saw the trailer for Arctic Dogs gasp in astonishment upon hearing that the actual film was torture to sit through? The Last Thing He Wanted is the opposite of that experience. This is a film with loads of potential between its star-studded cast and especially its writer & director, Dee Rees. Rees has been responsible for two incredible recent movies (Pariah and Mudbound) and Last Thing He Wanted represents the drastic shift downward in quality from prior directorial efforts for a filmmaker since David Fincher followed up with Zodiac with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Blazes Bright With A Richly-Realized Romance

When Ava DuVernay saw The Irishman, she tweeted out a euphoric response to this Martin Scorsese masterwork that said "A film made by a filmmaker who feels free. Who all the tools. All the time. All the talent. And lives up to it." That statement ran through my head after watching the new Celine Scammia movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire. True, Sciamma did not have Scorsese's $156+ million The Irishman for her own tale of painting and romance. However, after her initial, decidedly small-in-scope, trio of directorial debuts, it's fascinating to watch Sciamma work as a filmmaker under lavish confines. Now she's got elaborate 18th-century European costumes & expansive locales to work with.

Wowzers, Rachel Getting Married Is Impeccably Made Harrowing Cinema

We never see the event that led to Kym Buchman (Anne Hathaway), the lead character of Rachel Getting Married getting put into a mental hospital. We hear people talk about it, including in the opening scene where a fellow patient mockingly asks her if she’s burned down any houses lately. But there are no on-screen flashbacks to the events that forever altered this character's life and the lives of her family members. Instead, we’re placed into the perspective of these people as everyday objects (like a plate) or casual phrases remind them of the past. Just through their tortured facial expressions, we can see how much these events impacted them, no flashbacks required.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

With Onward, PIXAR Delivers A Fantasy Film With Feels

PIXAR Animation Studios has already done movies tackling superheroes, robots, dinosaurs and monsters, among other topics. It was inevitable they'd do a fantasy movie and after first exploring the genre with the 2012 feature Brave, they've returned to the fantasy realm with Onward, which takes more of its fantasy cues from Gary Gygax than, say, Beauty and the Beast. Such cues takes place in a modern-day world inhabited by your usual fantasy creature staples liek Orc's, Elves and Centaurs. If that general premise and the advertising campaign for this Dan Scanlon directorial effort has you anticipating Bright Redux, fear not. Onward may hew closely to storytelling staples of traditional PIXAR fare but it's still got some poignant aces up its sleeve.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Daybreakers Is Gory Vampire Cinema Done Right

What immediately stood out to me about the opening scene of Daybreakers is how much it eschewed dialogue. Typically, high-concept genre movies set in some kind of near-future world (here, it's the then-future landscape of 2019) bombard the viewer with voice-over narration to try and make sense of the world. But aside from two lines of on-screen text, Daybreakers introduces the viewer to its vampire-dominated world through visual-oriented storytelling that doesn't just value the viewer's intelligence but also provides plenty of fun in the process. Who needs monotonous voice-over work to explain a vampire society when you can just show audiences what that world is like?

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The To All The Boys Saga Continues In An Agreeable Though Traditional Sequel

It is a dark time for Sara Jean (Lana Condor). Although her fears over her love letters being released has been destroyed, anxiety over being enough of a “proper” girlfriend for her new boyfriend, Peter (Noah Centenio), have driven Sarah Jean to contemplate what could have been with former crush John Ambrose (Jordan Fisher). Evading the dreaded interactions with Peter, Sarah Jean has established a new volunteer opportunity in a local nursing home that reunites her with a teenage version of John Ambrose. The uncertain Sara Jean, obsessed with finding a perfect romance, has dispatched thousands of conversations to Ambrose to figure out if he, not Peter, is her true love...

In Laman's Terms: Two Years of Black Panther And The Need For Actually Risky Blockbusters

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has repeatedly found some of its best moments in defying the odds and doing what many perceived to be impossible. Granted, this is a franchise that, even in its most nascent state, was owned by a major comic book company and then absorbed into the Disney empire. Their artistic endeavors have always had a steady safety net that, say, your average Lynne Ramsey or Barry Jenkins movie doesn't have. Still, there was something daring about starting up an independent film studio in 2005 before embarking on a quest to translate the expanded connected universe of their comics into a cinematic format despite not having any of their A-list characters (like Spider-Man or Wolverine) at their disposal.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Bong Joon-ho's Best Qualities Were On Full Display In His Debut Feature Barking Dogs Never Bite

After his film Parasite scored a historic Best Picture win at the most recent Academy Awards ceremony, it's safe to say that South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho is a household name. However, he wasn't always this famous. Once upon a time, he was just a newbie filmmaker making his directorial debut with the 2000 feature Barking Dogs Never Bite. Though not as ambitious in scope as many of his subsequent films, Joon-ho is already demonstrating with this inaugural feature the kind of thoughtful filmmaking and impressive exploration of weighty themes that would come to define his output. Right from the get-go, Bong Joon-ho was making films that could stimulate your brain and provide entertainment without breaking a sweat.

Wacky Humor Helps To Make Emma. Stand Out Among Its Period Piece Brethren

The general perception of period piece movies, particularly those taking place in lavish European locales, is that their exceedingly stuffy affairs told through slowly-paced storytelling and characters going "quite" while sipping tea and adjusting their monocles. There are plenty of examples of these kinds of movies, of course, but such a perception feels inaccurate considering how many examples there are of period pieces that actually run in a far more entertaining counter direction. Amadeus, for instance, is rife with vibrant humanity and even the occasional fart joke while the Queen of anti-monotonous period piece movies has gotta be The Favourite. How could anyone conceive of that movie being humdrum when its plot makes use of zany elements like duck-racing and Wacky Lesbian Shenanigans.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Slumdog Millionaire is the Best Kind of Crowdpleaser Inspirational Drama

I went into Slumdog Millionaire dubious. It wasn't like I had heard overwhelmingly bad things about this 2008 Best Picture winner and I'm a massive fan of the film's director, Danny Boyle. However, the general perception I had gleaned of its rags-to-riches storyline made it sound like the kind of average cornball affair I'd probably end up being totally "meh" over. I could never have imagined that, by the time the third act of Slumdog Millionaire rolled around, I'd be totally enraptured by the lead characters story. Any movie that gets me that enamored with the lives of fictional characters may as well be a Billy Currington song, because they "must be doin' something right". Don't you love it when expectations get shattered?

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Todd Haynes Solidifed Himself As The GOAT of 1950's Period Pieces With Far From Heaven

When Todd Haynes goes to the 1950s, you better expect some remarkable cinema. Haynes is already a great filmmaker on his own merits but just like with Martin Scorsese doing religious-themed cinema or Agnes Varda doing intimate movies about the virtues of everyday people, dramas exploring issues relating to identity in the 1950's bring out the very best in Haynes. Much like Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, Haynes doesn't use period pieces to make the suffering of the marginalized a thing of the distant past for privileged viewers. Instead, both BlacKkKlansman and the Todd Haynes directorial effort Far From Heaven (the latter being the subject of this review) intend to make one contemplate how the horrors of the past reverbrate into the modern-day world.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life Is Worth Seeing Just For The Production Design Alone

Another day, another iconic filmmaker I'm watching for the first time. This time around, it's Douglas Sirk, the master of melodrama whose works influenced countless directors over the last 60 years, including the one, the only Todd Haynes. The movie that served as my introduction to Douglas Sirk was his 1959 take on Imitation of Life. Like many older Hollywood movies tackling the topic of race that aren't directed by Oscar Micheaux, it has its fair share of cringeworthy moments, it fails to really grapple with racism as the systemic evil that it is and the casting of a white actress in the role of a mixed-race person of color really is bad, especially since the earlier 1934 version actually managed to land non-white performer for the part.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Sonic the Hedgehog Goes Fast But Rarely Goes Anywhere Interesting

Sonic the Hedgehog is trapped between two influences. In one corner, we have the late-90's/mid-2000's approach to movies based on geeky source materials. Many of these titles were done on the cheap and retained only the most basic aspects of their distinct source material in favor of ripping off other then-popular blockbusters. In the other corner, we have the modern-day approach to movies based on geeky source materials, where adhere to classic comics/cartoons/video games is key and actors spend months promising in interviews that the movie they're starring in is "for the fans". Trying to indulge in both approaches leaves Sonic the Hedgehog a strange but not all that interesting creation.

Miss Americana Is a Taylor Swift Documentary That Could Have Stood To Be More Insightful

I've been on the Taylor Swift bandwagon from the get-go. As a country music obsessed youngster, I distinctly remember that point in 2006 where Swift's initial singles like Tim McGraw and Teardrops On My Guitar were omnipresent. In a country music scene dominated by Toby Keith and Trace Adkins machismo, Swift's tunes offered something very much different from the pack. They were unabashedly from the perspective of a woman and tended to emphasize an openly vulnerable perspective, two elements lacking in the country music scenes of the 2000s. Swift's ability to tap into distinct points-of-view helped to ensure that she was no one-hit-wonder, she's still delivering hit songs in the year 2020.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Director of Spotlight Delivers a Solid Family Movie With Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made

Tom McCarthy has had quite an eclectic career as a director and a writer. For one thing, he directed a Best Picture-winning movie in the form of 2015 title Spotlight and is also the filmmaker behind acclaimed titles like Win Win and The Visitor. Between such projects, he's also become a go-to writer for Disney. After scoring an Oscar nod for his work writing the story for Up, he's proceeded to become a regular writing fixture at the studio thanks to penning titles like Million Dollar Arm, Christopher Robin and even an uncredited polish on The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Given his extensive experience there, it was inevitable that Tom McCarthy would end up directing something for the Mouse House.

In Laman's Terms: Groundbreaking Oscar Wins, Bong Joon-Ho's Masterful Films & World Cinema

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

My first exposure to Bong Joon-Ho was through the poster art for The Host. As that weird eleven-year-old who frequently traveled across websites like IGN or, I frequently saw banner ads for The Host featuring that striking artwork of a tentacle emerging from the water clutching a screaming woman. How could such an image not immediately stimulate your imagination? What was that creature? What did it look like? Was that woman destined to be its only victim? It would take me about a decade before I finally watched The Host but that poster art was distinctive enough to make sure Bong Joon-Ho's first monster movie was seared into my brain. Even when that Host movie with Saroise Ronan and Max Irons was at the height of its marketing campaign, I always thought of Joon-Ho's feature first when it came to movies titled The Host!

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The 1934 Take on The Black Cat Makes Solid Use of its Two Iconic Horror Performers

One of the mos widely-hyped parts about Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood was the pairing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. In interviews for the project, creative participants of Quentin Tarantino's latest movie would talk about how impressive it was to see two big movie stars like this one be in the same movie together. Even Sony Pictures head Tom Rothman echoed such sentiments. DiCaprio and Pitt working together in the same movie is undeniably impressive, whenever you can get two movie stars to work together in a single project, it's a cause for celebration. See also: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, two Universal monsters legends, uniting for the 1934 movie The Black Cat.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Shoot 'Em Up Isn't Totally Consistent But It Is Quite Fun

One of the most distinctive features about Shoot 'Em Up is how thoroughly committed it is to its own brand of grim-faced madness. This is reflected in the protagonist, Smith (Clive Owen), who prides himself on constantly being a grouch. He's not so much a glass-half-empty guy as he is a guy who thinks the glass itself is so stupid it should be smashed on the ground. Smith is irritated by every person who crosses his path, the world is rife with hypocrites and rudeness. The movie similarly sees the planet Earth and all its inhabitants as mostly just fodder for high-level carnage. Sometimes that endlessly nihilistic routine gets old, but more often than not, Shoot 'Em Up does hit the sweet spot of enjoyable grimy R-rated action.

The DCEU Trades Grim n' Gritty For Glittery n' Grisly With The Delightfully Madcap Birds of Prey

Gosh, it's always tough to grapple with a break-up. But it's especially difficult when the spouse you're breaking up with is The Joker. That's the situation Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) finds herself in now that the Clown Prince of Crime has dumped her, presumably to spend more time focusing on stair dancing. Harley's spent so much of the last few years dedicating herself exclusively to her puddin' that she's never been able to establish herself as her own independent person. Figuring out who she is apart from The Joker will be difficult now that tons of Gotham gangsters, no longer worried about incurring the wrath of Mr. J, are out to settle some scores with Harley, with one such gangster is Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).

Saturday, February 8, 2020

The 1934 Take on Imitation of Life Leaves Much To Be Desired

The 1934 take on Imitation of Life reminds me of nothing so much as The Love Guru. Both are movies trying to make these big bold sweeping statements, with Imitation of Life trying to impart wisdom on race and Love Guru attempting to meditate on who has control of our happiness. However, both get heavily sidetracked by digressions into humor that’s like nails on a chalkboard. Just as elephants having sex on a hockey rink derails The Love Guru, so too do endless gags about the term Ichythology undercut Imitation of Life.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Fall In Love With Brief Encounter's Unique Take on Cinematic Love

Traditionally, movie romances are thought of in lush terms. Closing your eyes and picturing a typical movie romance sparks up images of brightly-colored sunsets, bouquets of decadent roses and other assorted vibrant entities. Even classic black-and-white movies compensated for their inability to present luscious visuals by having their characters engage in grand passionate gestures, like the iconic scene in From Here to Eternity depicting a couple passionately kissing on the beach while a wave of water crashes on top of them. These are the norms for movie romances but they are not the only way to explore such a topic. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Doesn't Rewrite the Book But Still Provides a Solid Thriller

For a hot moment there, the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books became the kind of worldwide literary sensation that you rarely see Swedish literature transform into. A little over a decade after the books reached their peak popularity, they've receded into the pop culture background more than a tad, but there was a period where Steig Larson's series of novels about hacker Lisbeth Salander were the new Da Vinci Code in becoming a modern adult book series reaching the kind of ubiquity and fame usually reserved for younger-skewing YA-titles. Such popularity meant that it was inevitable an American film adaptation would arrive.

Ambition and Thoughtfulness Are the Cornerstones of Within Our Gates

The widespread perception of independent American cinema was that it was limited to cheapie B-movie horror fare until the 1990's when the likes of Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez, plus less widely-discussed but no less pivotal figures Cheryl Dunye and Leslie Harris, used low-budget cinema to redefine who got to make movies and how. However, there have always been examples of people scraping together pennies to put together film productions divorced from the studio system. Heck, this practice dates all the way back to 1920 with Within Our Gates, the second directorial effort by Oscar Micheux and an early entry in the genre of "race films".

In Laman's Terms: How BoJack Horseman Horsed Around Into Our Hearts

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

It's funny to look back on how the first season of BoJack Horseman was received. Or, rather, I should say the first half of the first season of BoJack Horseman was received. Being one of the first original Netflix shows, this was back when people reviewing streaming shows in advance would only review a handful of episodes instead of the entire season. Thus, people's perception of BoJack Horseman was limited to just the first half-a-dozen or so episodes. In that respect, the program received mixed marks. Even yours truly was more reserved in reviewing just the first two episodes of BoJack Horseman. The consensus seemed to be that the show had moments of promise but was just another sitcom satirizing Hollywood culture ala 30 Rock.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Cline Scamia Successfully Contemplates How We Perceive Gender in Tomboy

Note: Laure is referred to with "they/them pronoun's throughout the piece in keeping with the film depicting the character in a gender-neutral manner.

I may be only two films into the filmography of Celine Scamia, but it's clear that color is a very important detail for this director. Her debut directorial effort Water Lillies used certain colors as extensions of certain characters or to even suggest conflict between specific characters. Whereas Water Lillies utilized vibrantly bright colors all throughout its production & costume design, Tomboy and its more grounded visual aesthetic are a touch more restrained in how they dish out color. Still, Scamia's thoughtful use of color still emerges throughout Tomboy, including in the title card that uses red & blue to suggest individual traditional binary genders before utilizing those same colors to visually communicate a more complex approach to gender.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Birth of a Nation Is Poorly Put-Together Cinema With An Evil Heart

CW: Discussions of racism ahead

It's racist.

There's really no other way to begin a review about D.W. Griffith's 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation. This is, in the words of Roger Ebert, "...a great film that argues for evil" and its evil is so omnipresent that it's the only place where a discussion on the project can begin and end, especially when one remembers that the project was considered racist all the way back in its initial theatrical release in 1915. Considering how much it influenced the last 105 years of cinema, it's important to take  The Birth of a Nation to task for its repugnant white supremacy, especially since pieces of rhetoric expressed via on-screen text in the intertitles is interchangeable with the rhetoric you'd hear Tucker Carlson espouse on an average Tuesday night.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Amadeus Sings a Tune of Haunting Regret Punctuated By Delightfully Wacky Humor

Technically, Amadeus is the story of Amadeus Mozart, one of the most famous composers of all-time. But despite having his first name in the title, Mozart is not the star of Amadeus. Instead, the focus is on a far less well-known person, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Whereas anyone in 2020 could pick out a Mozart tune just by hearing someone hum a few bars, you'd be hard-pressed to find somebody who'd instantly recognize a Salieri composition. Even in the early 1800s, when Amadeus begins, an elderly Salieri finds that his works have become quite obscure among the general populace.