2016 Summer Movie Review: Hell or High Water


Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) try to save their family’s ranch in Hell or High Water (Source: IMDb)

2016 has provided some of the most original films in recent memory. For Hell or High Water, it has the plot devices of a traditional Western. Two outlaws wreak havoc in town. They do everything they can to get away with it. Someone is out after them. This time, it’s set in modern times. Instead of riding on horses, the outlaws drive in cars and trucks. Instead of the good-ol’ saloon, they eat at restaurants and cafes. Along with Eye in the Sky and last week’s Don’t Breathe, I have never seen movie this thrilling all year. But, this is something quite special.

In West Texas, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is a divorced father who wants to do anything to be around his sons. The ranch operated by his family is being foreclosed by the Texas Midlands Bank. He calls upon his older ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to plan a series of heists in order to save their ranch. Meanwhile, the county sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is on the verge of retirement. As the brothers plan their final robbery, he and his deputy Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are out to put an end to it.

David Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens make every scene look like a painting. The robberies offer enough tension as if the audience feels like they are part of the robbery. In their first movie since The Finest Hours (one of Disney’s biggest box-office flops), Foster and Pine have never been better. The irony in Hell or High Water is the villains are the banks rather than the criminals. Toby is focused, while Tanner is a giant hothead. Together, they are trying everything to exceed their limits in saving the ranch. Even though this will be the last time they might see each other during this economic crisis.

The characters know how to get around every situation. As suspenseful as the movie is, the movie has a razor sharp wit, thanks to the wonderful screenplay by Taylor Sheridan of Sicario. In one scene, Hamilton likes to make jokes about Alberto’s Indian heritage. One day, they decide to get a bite to eat at a restaurant. “What don’t you want?” the waitress asks. These two are confused. She tells a story about a customer wanted trout instead of T-bone steak and baked potatoes.

Hell or High Water defines the summer. Let the Oscar buzz commence!


2016 Summer Movie Review: Don’t Breathe


A blind man (Stephen Lang) hears something going bump in the night in the Sam Raimi-produced Don’t Breathe

Imagine Home Alone as a horror-thriller, with Kevin McAllister as a middle-aged blind person.

The summer usually ends quite poorly. On the rare occasion, there comes a movie that is truly chilling to the core. Something so straight-forward yet so effective. Something that will be talked about for years to come.

Don’t Breathe is one of those movies.

Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are three friends breaking into houses in the Detroit area to earn enough money to go to California. They hear about a blind man (Stephen Lang) with a huge cash settlement after the death of his only child. Thinking they might get away with pulling off an easy heist, the trio break into the man’s home. But, it later becomes a death trap. They do everything they can to get the hell out.

Everyone knows the old saying, “Action speak louder than words”. Instead of relying on too much dialogue, director Fede Alverez uses a variety of film techniques to build up tension, with long, quiet tracking shots centering on our three protagonists, who are exceptionally performed (notably Jane Levy being the new scream queen of the horror genre), being in peril. The scene in the basement with the lights off is the best examples of night-vision filmmaking.

The city of Detroit serves as a quintessential role not only in this film, but the horror genre in general. As Justine Smith of RogerEbert.com puts it, “Detroit is presented as a city to be escaped, condemned by previous generations, leaving the city’s youth to pillage for survival. Frustratingly, the film aesthetically becomes little more than ‘ruin porn,’ showcasing Detroit only through collapsing infrastructure and absent or morally corrupt adults. The representation of the city itself shallow and vague, painting the city in broad strokes of misery.”

After starring in Avatar and FOX’s Terra Nova (which lasted for only a single season), it’s awesome to see Lang as a memorable horror movie villain. Even though his blind man cannot see anything, he can hear that something is up to no good. It goes in ways you would not expect in a typical home-invasion film. It provides enough to satisfy horror fans as well as those looking for some fun end-of-summer thrills.


2016 Summer Movie Review: War Dogs


Two arms dealers (Miles Teller and Jonah Hill) make a deal of a lifetime in Todd Phillips’ latest war comedy-drama War Dogs (Source: New York Post)

Fresh from created The Hangover trilogy, director Todd Phillips takes a step into a satirical yet darker reality: the war in Iraq. From the invasion to Saddam Hussein’s execution to the rise and fall of ISIS, it’s hard to figure out when the war will end. Of course, we can’t predict the future. The story about two arm dealers making a deal with the Pentagon has been all over the news in 2007. Unlike Due Date and the obnoxious sequels to The Hangover, Phillips crafts an amusing yet fascinating outlook on the arms industry.

Loosely based on a true story, David Packouz (Miles Teller) lives in Miami with his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas). He wants to do something rather than living his life as a massage therapist. He meets up with an old buddy of his Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) at a funeral. Together, they exploit a government initiative where they bid on military contracts. Little by little, they make deals internationally. Eventually, they make a $300 million contract to the Pentagon supply weapons and ammunition to the U.S. government in Afghanistan. They begin to face some serious business including arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper).

It does sound like a discount version of The Wolf of Wall Street. Apart from the fact that both movies star Jonah Hill, War Dogs is definitely less filthy yet quite informative. Phillips brings enough energy into his direction, some impressive shots of Miami, Las Vegas, and Albania, and a perfect rock soundtrack. However, it does fall short from some lousy attempts at laughs, Iz being the typical girlfriend, and the pacing feels a bit rushed. What makes the movie worth seeing is the chemistry between a scene-stealing Jonah Hill and a solid Miles Teller.


2016 Summer Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings


Kubo goes on a journey with two unlikely companions in Laika’s latest entry Kubo and the Two Strings (Source: IMDb)

The Nightmare Before Christmas set a new standard in stop-motion animation. The art form has improved ever since. Laika, the PIXAR of stop-motion animation, has been around for ten years. Their first feature, Coraline, introduced the company’s fair share of light and dark moments that older kids and adults would appreciate. It became their trademark with ParaNorman (sadly underrated) and The Boxtrolls (their weakest entry). Kubo and the Two Strings, their latest feat, has a poignancy that is lacking in your standard family films—let alone animated films (excluding anything from PIXAR).

Set in ancient Japan, Kubo (Art Parkinson, Game of Thrones) is living a peaceful life in a cave caring for his sick mother. He entertains the residents of a nearby village with his stories by playing his three-string instrument which has the power to bring his origami figures to life. One night, he accidentally stumbles upon a spirit from his past. He goes on the run with Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) to retrieve his father’s samurai armor. With it, he must defeat the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and his two evil aunts (Rooney Mara).

At the screening I attended, they were only six people—myself included. Two of them were younger kids (one was either three- or four-years-old, while the other was about six). When the two aunts made their first appearance, the kids were scared out of their minds.

Kubo and the Two Strings will most likely frighten young children. I think children over 10 will have a ball, while adults will get something special out of it. This is perhaps the most mature film from the guys of Laika. While it has its fair share of funny moments (notably McConaughey’s Beetle, with his puns and his personality of having little to no memory of his past albeit a fighting expert), one of the reasons why the movie shines other than the gorgeous animation and the edge-of-your-seat action is its moments of melancholy and sheer magic being brought to the screen. Kubo’s relationship with his dying mother is almost impossible to get tears in your eyes.

Legends never die; they live on for generations.


2016 Summer Movie Review: Sausage Party


My thoughts on Sausage Party in a nutshell (Source: Times Union)

How often do we get animated films intended only for adults? Rarely.

10 years in the making, Seth Rogen’s R-rated computer animated darker-than-dark comedy Sausage Party hits the silver screen. He can be really funny as long as he gets it right (e.g. Superbad). However, his humor can get a little too twisted for my cup of tea (e.g. This Is the End). Surprisingly, Sausage Party, directed by Greg Tiernan (of Thomas the Tank Engine fame) and Conrad Vernon (behind Shrek and Madagascar), does tackle religion, politics, and pop culture. Boy, I can’t believe my senses!

At the Shopwell’s supermarket, every single food item can hardly wait to be taken to the “Great Beyond” (home) by the “Gods” (customers). For instance, Frank, a hot dog (Seth Rogen), looks forward to be put on Brenda, a hot dog bun (Kristen Wiig)—sounds weird, I know. He finds out by Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) that the “Great Beyond” is actually a living hell. Scared out of their wits about their fates, Frank and every single food item in the store team up to escape from the “Gods”.

Sausage Party definitely earns its R-rating. It’s not the worst film I’ve seen, but I understand it’s intended to be raunchy to the max. That’s exactly what I got. There are times in which I laughed, but once the jokes start, they never stop. The movie opens up with a colorful musical number (written by Alan Menken, no less!) which sets the tone for the rest of the movie. With an exceptional voice cast (Edward Norton doing a wonderful Woody Allen impression as a bagel), almost all of them fall flat as a pancake. It does have promise in its theme of expecting the worse while having faith in something big. But, it doesn’t help it from being gross, juvenile, racially insensitive, and surprisingly violent. Sausage Party will ruin your appetite.


2016 Summer Movie Review: Florence Foster Jenkins


Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) sings her heart out in Stephen Frear’s latest biopic of the world’s worst opera singer (Source: The Telegraph)

Director Stephen Frears has been directing movies ever since the 1970s. But, he didn’t became well-known until 1985 with My Beautiful Laundrette, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, which featured themes involving homosexuality and racism. Frears had some hits during the 21st century including High Fidelity, The Queen, and Philomena (one of my favorites). Given his old-fashioned style, it’s hard not to be impressed by him. With Florence Foster Jenkins, his latest about the world’s worst opera singer, this is another marvelous movie to add to his massive film repertoire.

Florence (Meryl Streep) is a socialite living in New York City with her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). She has dreams of becoming an opera singer. St. Clair hires pianist Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg a.k.a. Howard Wolowitz from The Big Bang Theory) to accompany her hitting the right notes. Once she hits the stage, Florence thinks she has the most beautiful soprano in the world; while others say she lacks any singing ability. She eventually plans on singing at Carnegie Hall. St. Clair does everything he can for his wife leading up to the big event.

Some of you might be thinking that this movie sounds too good to be true. That is correct. As the founder of the Verdi Club, Florence was really that bad of an opera singer. Almost every audience member tried desperately hard to hold in their laughter while performing in the 1930s and 1940s. However, she was influenced by some well-known singers. For instance, the late David Bowie has a copy of her infamous record The Glory (????) of the Human Voice. He stated, according to The Telegraph, “Florence had, and was unaware of, the worst set of pipes in the world.” He would say that she had so much enthusiasm on stage, she would throw roses to the audience and the basket itself. That’s one of the reasons why Streep’s portrayal is one of the best of the year.

It’s an odd performance for sure, given she can be a wonderful singer (e.g. Into the Woods) and is loved by every member of the Academy. Meryl Streep brings the eccentric personality with a passion for music almost to perfection. Once she starts singing badly, you can’t help but start cracking up on what you are hearing. At the same time it’s easy to feel bad for her since she had been chasing her dreams ever since she was a kid. In one peaceful moment, Florence talks to McMoon about how she wanted to be a concert pianist. “When the nerves damaged in my left arm, that’s not to be,” she says. Then, they start playing Chopin’s “Prelude in E Minor” together. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets an Oscar nod.

As amazing as Meryl Streep is, the biggest standout is Hugh Grant as her husband St. Clair Bayfield. He goes to great heights to make Florence not the best singer in the world, but good enough. Seeing him dancing is definitely worth the price of the ticket. If he doesn’t get nominated for Best Supporting Actor, maybe Helberg’s portrayal of McMoon will. Not only did he actually play the piano, but he also provides the film’s wit.

Stephen Frears brings the old-fashioned feel that the audience often sees every once in a while. Every shot is something to truly behold. It’s quite refreshing to see something as funny and delightful as Florence Foster Jenkins. One of 2016’s best.


2016 Summer Movie Review: Suicide Squad


A group of criminals team up to take down an entity in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (Source: IMDb)

After the disaster known as Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I wonder if the DC Extended Universe (starting with the 2013’s decent Man of Steel) will have a good movie for once. DC is remaining on the dark side with Suicide Squad. A great cast playing a group of supervillains under the direction of David Ayer—responsible for writing Training Day and directing End of Watch and the excellent WWII tank flick Fury.

After one year of anticipation, does it hold up? Not necessarily.

Is it better than Batman vs. Superman? You bet! But that’s not saying much.

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) is the head of an intelligence agency. She and her officials recruit a team of criminals including Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, a.k.a. Mr. Eko from Lost), among others. They form Task Force X to take down a witch known as Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) from taking over the world (insert Street Fighter reference here). While the Joker (Jared Leto) is on a mission of his own of getting even with his lover, the team must work together to save the world, or else they all get killed.

Suicide Squad has its moments. While every single character is as thin as a piece of paper, the performances are not bad. The only ones I cared for are Deadshot and Harley Quinn, kudos to the performances by Smith and Robbie, who reunite a year after Focus. The soundtrack—featuring the likes of The Rolling Stones, Credence Clearwater Revival, Eminem—is pretty awesome. There is plenty of dark humor sprinkled throughout the 130-minute duration (not surprisingly, this movie is the funniest in the DCEU). While Jared Leto breathes a different life into the Joker, the rest of the movie wouldn’t make a difference if his scenes got cut altogether.

The movie does not save itself from an incoherent script, choppy editing (notably the first act), an obnoxious action-filled finale, plot holes galore, and a lackluster villain (Delevingne’s Enchantress doesn’t look too bad visual-wise, but her purpose is beyond crap). Better luck next year, DC.


2016 Summer Movie Review: Café Society


Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is home away from home in Woody Allen’s latest.

Over the years, Allen had a fair share of hits as well as failures. Everyone would agree that he is a horrible human being, but there is no denying his talent as an actor and filmmaker. Spending almost a half-decade each working with companies such as MGM, Sony, Dreamworks, and the Weinstein Company, he is now working with Amazon Studios (sister company of Lionsgate).

Continuing his tradition of releasing one movie every year, Woody Allen brings the audience back to the 1930s with Café Society (his first film with the company). A time where the Depression was in full swing. But it didn’t stop people from moving out of their poor hometowns in search of something exciting. Movies have become the biggest escape of the era. Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper were among the many actors to pay attention. It might not be a masterpiece, but it is a step-up from his last two disappointments—Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man.

Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves the devastation of the Bronx for Hollywood. He lands a job with his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a talent agent. He is introduced to Phil’s secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, in the performance of her career), and falls for her almost immediately. She shows him around Hollywood until Bobby becomes depressed and moves back to the Bronx to run a nightclub owned by his brother Ben (Corey Stoll), who works in the Mafia. He can’t stop thinking of Vonnie.

Unlike his last two films, Allen captures the beauty and charm of Hollywood’s Golden Era, kudos to his witty yet occasionally stale screenplay. It’s about trying to embrace the American Dream during a rough time in history. As the off-beat Allenesque protagonist, Eisenberg fits the role perfectly; his wisecracks about being Jewish is classic Allen. His chemistry with Stewart is what makes the movie worth it. With a fine cast (Steve Carell is also very good as the cynical uncle) and that gorgeous vintage feel, Café Society feels like stepping into a dream.

As Bobby says momentarily, “Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.” I couldn’t say it better myself.


2016 Summer Movie Review: Jason Bourne


Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) gets out of the shadows after nine years in Jason Bourne.

Extreme ways are, indeed, back again!

In 2002, the world was introduced to a new anti-hero: Jason Bourne. Ever since The Bourne Identity, he tries to find answers on who he really is while the CIA is on his tail. The sequels, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum (the best film in the series), brings Paul Greengrass’ handheld camera work into good use, either it’s the brisk-paced energy of the action sequences or slowing down in order for the movie to explain how Bourne became such a badass. During his nine-year disappearance, another agent decides to finish what Bourne had started in The Bourne Legacy, which it isn’t terrible, but it’s easily forgettable. With Jason Bourne, now I can sigh with relief. It’s great to see Bourne back in action and Paul Greengrass back in the director’s chair nine years after Ultimatum.

We open the movie with our hero (Matt Damon) in Greece recovering from his amnesia. He spends his time becoming part of illegal fighting matches. Meanwhile, new CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and hacker expert Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) are out to stop Bourne once and for all after his involvement with the Treadstone program. He is on the run once again. Along the way, he encounters Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) on the streets of Greece during a violent protest. Not only is he racing around the clock but also around the world while Bourne tries to take down a network, led by social media extraordinaire Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), that might put a stop to hacking.

The handheld direction by Greengrass might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some people have to get used to it. If it worked in the two Bourne sequels and Captain Phillips, it certainly works here. It is rare, nowadays, for a summer blockbuster to have practical stunts. It gives the film a raw outlook of international justice. Damon kills it again as Bourne whose past comes back to haunt him while beating up bad guys along the way. It features two of the best action set pieces that you will see all year. Despite the formula staying the same and the supporting characters being underused (e.g. Alicia Vikander, who is great as she’s always been), I had a blast seeing it in theaters.


2016 Summer Movie Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople


Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) learns from his “Uncle” Hector (Sam Neill) how to survive in the wilderness in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Knowing almost nothing much about a movie so original does make the experience worthwhile. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of the best films of the year featuring the best Lord of the Rings reference. Juxtaposing offbeat humor with New Zealand’s majestic beauty (kudos to the awesome cinematography by Lachlin Milne), Kiwi director Taika Waititi—who directed last year’s What We Do in the Shadows and the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok; also the screenwriter for Disney’s upcoming animated film Moana—creates a quirky comedy about the importance of caring those around you. Julian Dennison and Jurassic Park’s Sam Neill are the heart and soul as this odd yet dynamic duo while all these hijinks ensue. I had never laughed so hard yet felt so engaged at the same time. Good stuff!