I’ll never forget when I first watched The Exorcist. It was the morning after a bunch of us spent the night at a middle school friend’s house. Her mom had left for work, and our parents wouldn’t be picking us up for another few hours. I sat enveloped by an 80s-style velvet sofa, with my feet grazing the family room’s plush carpet, and the afternoon sun streaming in through the vertical blinds. As we watched the iconic horror film, I knew I’d never forget the pea soup vomit, the obscene anti-religious scenes, or the pingy little theme song.
But I also knew that I’d missed out on something. Raised in the special effects of the 90s, a part of me knew that when my older siblings watched the film just ten years prior, they didn’t notice the mechanical way Regan’s head turned on her body, the awkward sound mixing that made her possessed voice fall far short of believable, or the painfully slow pace. While The Exorcist was the ultimate horror film of a generation, I knew some of its true beauty would be forever lost on me.
I felt the same when I saw the original It, the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s book. Confession: I hadn’t seen it until this year. I’d always skipped over the title simply because I never found clowns to be that scary. But in anticipation of this fall’s full-length feature film, I knew I had to see the original. Let me tell you, watching that film 17 years after its release didn’t help. The plot felt slow, I found the adult storylines annoying, and I More >
Birth of the Dragon weaves a strange, anachronistic, and ultimately limp story around a one-off 1960s fight between young Bruce Lee, who was at the time teaching Kung Fu to locals in San Francisco, and the perfectly-named Wong Jack Man, an unflappable papaya-robed Shaolin master. While this battle of titans, we’re told, actually happened, I’d wager that the rest of this movie most certainly did not.
Which is probably a good thing. Besides struggling under a decidedly direct-to-streaming feel, Birth of the Dragon curiously paints its alleged hero — the legendary Lee, played by Philip Wan-Lung Ng — as a self-important and preening side-note, a two-dimensional braggart whose main contribution is teasing his students and brooding in a just-so little clapboard office about how best to display his greatness. Lee himself may actually have been this way for all I know, but even so he probably deserved to at least play the leading role in what’s ostensibly his own picture.
Alas, he’s relegated to the sidelines in favor of Billy Magnussen — you’ll remember his brief stint as one of the bro-tastic mortgage brokers in The Big Short — who plays Steve McKee, one of Lee’s students. McKee improbably makes friends with Wong Jack Man, the swift-kicking monk who’s visiting Fog City to wash dishes (stay with me), and even more improbably wanders into a Westworld-worthy meet cute with a comely Chinese waitress, Xiulan Quan (Qu Jingjing). She’s captive, a work-slave to evil Chinatown masters More >
Oh, no thanks, no water for me. This face is purely decoration, really—about as plastered on as Renee Zellweger’s in 2014. That’s a joke. You can laugh, kid.
You know, after starring in two movies, you’d think my third go at this would be easier. But no, the press junket is the hardest part. They set you up in this hotel room—I mean look at this, what is this, polyester? Ugh—and you answer the same questions all day. It’s exhausting. It’s so nice to get a breather between those ridiculous Hollywood reporters who slap on grins that are more artificial than mine, and ask the fluffiest, ditziest of questions—“What’s it like to be the only actor in the film who is also an inanimate object?” or “Do you have elbows?” or “What made you decide to do a nude scene in this film?” Gag.
You wanna know what I really think about Annabelle: Creation? How much time until the next imbecile prances in here? Five minutes? Ok perfect. I’ll tell you. First of all, ask any big star of a horror franchise—from Jamie Lee Curtis to Courteney Cox to Vera Farmiga (who is great to work with, by the way, and who is likely my only competition out there for “best Edwardian high neck collar”)—and they will all tell you that sequels are tough. When my tiny little role in The Conjuring became a starring role in Annabelle, I knew I had to deliver. And deliver I did—that was a great film. Cool 1960s style, great scary scenes, and come on, this creepy face brought it. But still, it was not as scary as its More >
If you were to ask me what defines a horror film, I guess I’d say—of course only after pointing you to my eye-opening scary movie reviews and once I’ve fully extolled the glories of The Parsing Haus—that at its core, it’s a movie designed to scare the crap out of you. And in truth, that’s probably also the only thing that connects all those crazy horror films: fear. As you well know, the movies that frighten me the most are the ones that conjure up my own deepest fears—ghosts and possessed kids and twists on the religious symbols I grew up with. But these don’t terrify everyone. Other moviegoers have their own triggers. For sanguivoriphobes, it’s vampires, and agoraphobes would probably cringe in terror through a documentary film about the Sahara. So I guess in truth, any film could become a scary movie when offered up to the right audience.
At first, I almost dismissed A Ghost Story as a completely horror-less film. In fact, I worried that it would just be some moody romantic drama. And in a lot of ways, I’ll be honest, it is. But when you really dig deep, in its own way, A Ghost Story begs some of the most fundamental questions and triggers some of the darkest fears we humans face during our blip of existence on this big ol’ rock we call home. Let’s dive into this somber, cosmic gem of a film.
My texts are widely known (disparaged?) for their proper capitalization, syntax, and punctuation. Rarely, though, do I allow the words to speak for themselves. In the Simpler Times™️, I might have adorned iMessages with a “;)” or a “:P,” when feeling particularly playful. More elaborate constructs, ASCII emoticons in nerd parlance, never suited me. Why go through the pains of a “Sup Son” when “:-/”communicated the same ennui with fewer thumb strokes? The moment that emoji–yes, everyone, that is the preferred plural form–crossed the delicate threshold separating tween convos from adult dialogue, my reaction was a decided 🤔. Or was it 😐? Either way, I am now smitten. The emoji keyboard is imprinted on my cerebral cortex in a way that its QWERTY forebear never will be. If there were applications to the Unicode Consortium, I would hand mine in yesterday.
Imagine my delight, the ecstatic 😱+😍, with which I greeted the first rumors of “The Emoji Movie.” Now imagine my face as I exited the theater. No emoji face, hand, or symbol alone adequately reflects the feeling. Perhaps this chronology will do:
😏 (light amusement around 2:00) ➡️ 😬 (visible grimace around 5:01 after the first “joke” landed with a theater-shaking thud) ➡️ 😦 (creeping disbelief through 30:00) ➡️ 😒 (unmitigated annoyance by 59:59) ➡️ 🤢 (a well of sickness, aided by rapid ICEE consumption, rising around 1:00:00) ➡️ 😶 (loss of recognizable human emotion, cut to credits)
Through experience, a true aikido master pares his movements to the bare minimum, doing just enough to twist and deflect an assailant. It’s mesmerizing to watch such efficiency in action — the lightest touch deals a devastating result. That’s Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Faithfully depicting a real military event — the stranding and largely extemporaneous civilian-assisted rescue of some 400,000 allied troops from the French shores in the early months of the Second World War — Dunkirk is split into three stories: One, told from the perspective of troops on the beach, unfolds over a week. Another follows the civilian boats that sailed to effect their rescue, and is told over the period of one day. The third takes place in a single hour, featuring a group of Spitfires waging war in the air. These overlapping stories criss-cross, so the same events unfold at different times and from different perspectives. It’s a clever and effective way to draw in the full scope of the events, without cramming the soldiers’ multi-day ordeal into the span, say, of a single tank of fuel.
Dunkirk is a war movie stripped bare of context and politics, focusing from its first frame on the utter immediacy of conflict. Nolan keeps the cameras close in on his characters; we join them on the beach, at sea, and in the air. It’s More >
Second only perhaps to the prestige biopic, every filmmaker, actor, and other Hollywood hanger-on seeking the mantle of “serious artist” has turned his or head to the hellscape that was World War II. That specific trajectory assumes greater importance for those who established their names on popcorn-fueled blockbusters and action heroism. Even cinema’s mainstream iconoclasts have found reservoirs of inspiration in the European theater and “Natzi”-killing. The conflict proving that its predecessor had neither made the world completely safe for democracy nor ended all wars is tailor-made for silver screen appraisal. The villains were worse than any screenwriter could conjure. The settings crisscrossed continental Europe, North African deserts, the great oceans, and the deep blue skies. Is there any wonder that over 1300 movies have used its narrative to extract the best from the business?
Christopher Nolan takes this heritage seriously with his true magnum opus, “Dunkirk.” Very seriously. Just as his spiritual predecessor Steven Spielberg used the Second World War to break free of aliens and dinosaurs, Nolan invites us to witness his directorial prowess unburdened by comic book flash or CGI wizardry. And witness you should. “Dunkirk” is, hands down, the best genre entry since “Saving Private Ryan.” I might even wager that it’s better.
Leaflets raining down upon deserted streets announce that Germany has pushed Allied forces to the beaches of Dunkirk, France. By late May 1940, More >
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is about as jumbled and overstuffed as its title makes it sound, and it’s a real shame that Luc Besson’s baldfaced attempt to recapture the quirky, super-saturated essence of probably his best and certainly his trippiest film (The Fifth Element) collapses into a heaving, straining mess of dialogue best suited for a middle school play with a story to match even though the aliens are so quirky and shiny and very different looking and it’s in SPACE with lasers and star destroyers and the space weapons make noise which they of course wouldn’t do and there are stern-faced commanders in galactic uniforms and — oh look, another alien!
Boy, that was painful and I’m sorry to have written it. (Interestingly, this is also what Luc Besson said when he finished the script.) But swaddle that run-on opening in high-dollar CGI and you’ve pretty much got this movie.
Valerian tells the story of one Major Valerian — a hopelessly miscast Dane DeHaan, whose pasty emo loping does not sit well with the role of galactic federal super-agent — and his headstrong, quippy partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne). From their very first scene together we’re battered with shockingly unsubtle dialog that sets forth in no uncertain terms Valerian’s sole apparent motivation in this world: The dogged romantic pursuit of his partner and rank subordinate. (To the grand dismay of women and compliance officers everywhere, Laureline does not immediately report him to More >
World peace. Never-ending financial security. Unlimited wishes. If you paused to reflect for a few moments, I’m sure you could think of some pretty epic wishes you’d make if given the chance. At the very least, you’d likely choose your wishes with more forethought than a distractible, excruciatingly self-involved teenager. But that’s why there aren’t any teen terror films about you, and why Wish Upon will probably rake in more money from theatergoing horror fans than it deserves this summer.
In Wish Upon, protagonist Clare seeks what these films tell us any teenage girl wants—her crush to give her the time of day, the mean girls at school to finally welcome her to their inner circle, and of course, to move past witnessing her mother’s suicide—you know, classic coming-of-age stuff. Clare’s well-meaning dad is played by my generation’s middle-school crush, Ryan Phillippe—who wooed us all with his sweet nothings in I Know What You Did Last Summer: “You two should check out a mirror sometime. You look like shit run over twice.” Swoon. But I digress.
Anyway, Dreamboat Dad brings Clare a magical box with mystical Chinese symbols. Her basic Chinese language skills help her determine that the box offers her seven wishes. She gives it a try, and behold, it works. But as the people in her life start dropping like flies, Clare finds herself wondering if she may have missed something in translation. She revels in her wishes and basks in her greed, but at what cost?
Well, I’ll tell you: More >
June 2017, apparently.
I had high hopes for 47 Meters Down, and I still argue I had good reason to. For starters, Mandy Moore, a throwback favorite, is the star. A beautiful, down-to-earth, second-career actress who is actually not half bad at acting (especially when off-screen—sorry Mandy). And come on, sharks? Forty plus years after Jaws, we pretty much know by now exactly how to use our favorite fearsome fish to build the suspense.
Then for me there was this whole other layer of anticipation. I’ve always been fascinated by what goes on below the water’s surface, ever since I spent my childhood’s Independence Days fishing with my family in northern Michigan. Sitting in that little boat on a massive lake, it felt crazy to me that there was a whole world right below my seat that I’d never get to see.
But although it throws together the same ingredients used in last summer’s The Shallows (girls in bathing suits, huge sharks, bloody gore, beachy scenery), 47 Meters Down fails to deliver a dish we can sink our teeth into.
The premise really is beyond simple: a pair of sisters is diving in a shark cage when the cable snaps and they drop—you guessed it—47 meters down to the ocean floor. Getting back to the surface is complicated by the 25-foot sharks swirling around them, and they have no idea how to evade the predators and make it to safety without getting decompression sickness, or the bends.
But More >