Movies Reviews

Ingrid Personifies our Unsustainable Social Media Economy

Ingrid Goes West
Rating: R
Runtime: 1 hour 37 minutes
Director: Matt Spicer
Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Wyatt Russell

After a potentially career-defining turn as Lenny Busker in season 1 of Noah Hawley’s X-Men spin-off show Legion, popular awkward-girl Aubrey Plaza once again steps to up the proverbial plate in an dazzlingly dark and relevant film that can be best described as The Cable Guy (1996) for generation Y.

Taylor Sloan (Elizabeth Olsen) rides shotgun as Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) drives them out to Joshua Tree National Park

Ingrid Goes West follows the Instagram-obsessed Ingrid, played by Aubrey Plaza, after she’s released from a psychiatric ward following an incident with an acquaintance she knows through Instagram. At some in the recent past, Ingrid’s mother passes away and leaves her $60,000 through a life insurance policy. She then uses that money to move to Los Angeles to stalk and befriend a magazine-published Instagram star, Taylor Sloane, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Along the way she befriends her landlord and eventual romantic suitor, Dan Pinto, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr., and struggles to juggle her relationships with Taylor and Dan while doing everything she can to satiate her obsessive social media addiction.

The filmmaking on display here is lean, energetic, and compelling. First-time feature director Matt Spicer expertly stages the bizarre plot in a way that’s as disturbing as it is entertaining without a hitch. The cast (Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, and O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is every bit as responsible for the film’s success as the director. Plaza uses her innate awkwardness to her advantage, keeping her blatantly psychotic performance just understated enough to have you oddly rooting for her in one scene, but repulsive enough to still make you hate her (in a good way) in other scenes. Elizabeth Olson perfectly emulates the typical avocado-toast loving, LA white girl, so much so that you forget that she’s also an Avenger. O’Shea Jackson Jr. steals the show as Ingrid’s lovable partner-in-crime Dan, who often times falls victim to Ingrid’s destructive impulses. As soon as Jackson’s character is established as being an active participant to the plot, it’s obvious that Ingrid will end up screwing over at some point, and while she does in fact do that more than once, it’s heartwarming to see his persistent dedication to her – in a twisted, unhealthy kind of way. As a result, Ingrid Goes West avoids the easy trap that a lot of indie films fall into: being too boring for the casual moviegoer.

However, while the casual moviegoer may find a lot to like about this film, I suspect the film’s deeper meaning will be lost in its explicit conflict. The anti-social media sentiment that the movie appears to argue with is nothing new to anyone who’s seen even one of those preachy, masturbatory, pseudo-intellectual millennials-are-robots slam poems on Facebook or YouTube. Yes, Ingrid literally spends her days browsing Instagram and drinking beer. She is an antisocial hermit that lives through her phone, but there’s a deeper meaning to Ingrid below the surface. And that deeper message becomes clear about half way into film when Ingrid and Dan go on a date.

Ingrid’s charismatic landlord, Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is always willing to help out

Ingrid asks Dan about his obsession with the DC hero Batman, to which he explains that like Batman, he grew up an orphan and was deeply inspired by the character’s feats and successes despite him not having the guidance of his parents growing up, and not having super powers. However, it isn’t Dan who truly relates to the iconic superhero; it’s Ingrid. Like Batman, Ingrid too loses her parents (her mother, whom she calls her best friend, passing away at the start of the film) before assuming a faux-identity (Ingrid forcibly inserting herself into the Taylor’s life) in order to cope with her world. Like Batman, Ingrid doesn’t know who she is: her volatile, Instagram-inspired self or her natural-born self. Like Batman, Ingrid suffers from a total identity crisis. Likewise, all the characters of Ingrid Goes West, and really a lot of people that actively participate in social media, suffer from some form of perpetual existential crisis that is fostered and sustained by the commodification for profit, of self-perception through social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, albeit to a less extreme extent compared to Ingrid.

American culture is defined by consumerism. Nearly every aspect of American society is commodified for profit no matter the cost socially, economically, or psychologically. Ingrid is an eventuality of our commodity society, a consequence of unchecked Capitalism. Ingrid Goes West is a creatively-made commentary on the current and future state of American psychology on its present course; not to mention an especially accessible indie film that deserves to be seen by as many eyes as possible.


Movies Reviews

‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ is as Cliché as They Come, but Reynolds and Jackson Inject Enough Fun to make it Worthwhile

The Hitman’s Bodyguard
Rating: R
Runtime: 1 hour 58 minutes
Director: Patrick Hughes
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, and Salma Hayek

Would you believe this isn’t the first time Ryan Reynolds has been tasked with protecting a dangerous fugitive played by an acclaimed black actor?

After having to protect a fugitive played by Denzel Washington in 2012’s Safe House, Ryan Reynolds once again plays a highly skilled protector of a dangerous hitman, this time played by Samuel L. Jackson. Together, they must travel across Europe in time to make an international court hearing to testify against a genocidal Belarusian dictator. But this movie is really about high-stakes situational comedy, gratuitous violence, and expletive-ridden banter between the two lead actors. And that’s where all of the enjoyment to be had with The Hitman’s Bodyguard stems from.

Sonia Kincaid (Salma Hayek), Jackson’s on-screen wife, awaits release from an Amsterdam prison

Reynolds and Jackson are the heart of the film and do a great job of selling the mutual distaste for the other. Reynolds is an “AAA-rated” professional bodyguard who is regularly hired to protect high profile, and high-risk clients, while Jackson is a prolific contract killer who has made countless attempts on Reynolds’ clients over the years. As occupational adversaries, they have an organic reason to hate each other, which naturally sets the stage for some needless competition and violent shenanigans. That being said, the premise of this movie is nothing new. We’ve seen it a thousand times before in some way, shape, or form. All the twists, turns, and reveals are so obviously telegraphed, you’ll see them coming from a mile away. But while inherently stale, Bodyguard knows to utilize the comedic chops of its leads and tries to create some thematic uniqueness through its villain.

The villain of Bodyguard, played by Gary Oldman is a Belarusian dictator, perfectly smug, unapologetic, and intimidating in his portrayal. He’s actually very reminiscent to real-life Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov who has been accused of committing genocide on homosexuals in Chechnya. Oldman’s villain brings some weight to what’s at stake for the narrative. I have to say, it’s refreshing to see a serious villain in these kind of movies for once, even if it doesn’t make the movie better or worse.

Luckily for Bodyguard, it doesn’t matter how predictable or unoriginal it is as long as it manages to entertain and inspire laughs, and it succeeds in doing just that. There really isn’t much more to say about The Hitman’s Bodyguard; it’s a forgettable action comedy that tries to spice up it’s familiar premise with an of-the-times villain, but at the end of the day, it’s a perfectly watchable, fun movie that’s at least worth a single viewing.


Horror Movies Reviews

Like ‘Ouija: Origin of Evil’, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ is a Vast Improvement Over its Previous Installment

Annabelle: Creation
Rating: R
Runtime: 1 hour 49 minutes
Director: David F. Sandberg
Starring: Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, and Miranda Otto

Have major movie studios finally figured out the decades-long riddle of making good horror movies? With last year’s Ouija prequel-sequel and now this year’s Annabelle prequel-sequel, it certainly seems that they have.

Annabelle: Creation is a prequel to 2014’s Conjuring spinoff, Annabelle set 12 years before the events of the latter film. After a doll maker and his wife those their daughter in a car accident years prior, they open their pastoral home as a shelter for a group of orphaned girls and their supervising nun. When the orphans arrive at the rural home, they are amazed by its size and luxuriousness, however, the young, crippled orphan, Janice is attracted to a mysterious room in the house, belonging to the late doll maker’s daughter, whom sternly tells her not to go in there. On the first night, Janice sneaks into the forbidden bedroom and unwittingly unlocks a hidden room imprisoning the familiar Annabelle doll. And just like that, the demonic doll is again free to rein terror the girls in usual Conjuring fashion.

Linda (Lulu Wilson) attempts to dispose of the haunted Annabelle doll

Coming off the 2014 Annabelle, Creation has no right being as good as it is and that’s largely due to indie-horror director David F. Sandberg, who previously directed 2016’s Lights Out, based off of his brilliant short film of the same name. Sandberg brings a real nuance to what could have easily been the lazy cash-grab the first Annabelle film was. He expertly stages each horror set piece without over-reliance on jump scares and instead utilizes ambient dread and suspense to build effective scares. Being apart of the Conjuring cinematic universe, Creation maintains its unique horror style and adopts a similar narrative structure, however, it builds upon what the previous films have done by upping the ante of the scares. The Annabelle demon and the energy of the film itself, is noticeably more aggressive than it was in previous films: it actively tries to hurt the stranded characters rather than just opening and closing doors. However, when we get to the end of film’s final act, the momentum of the film kind of tapers out before reaching a satisfying crescendo, but that’s easily forgiven due to the all that the film did well earlier on.

Those who saw Ouija: Origin of Evil will notice that both that film and Creation share child actress Lulu Wilson as lead characters. In this film, Wilson does a great job of selling the close bond between her character Linda and Janice (Talitha Bateman) throughout the film. It’s the relationship between Linda and Janice that gives the film dramatic weight and makes you feel even more afraid for them when the spooky stuff begins happening. I have to say as of late, studio horror films like Ouija 2, Annabelle: Creation, Light’s Out, and the Conjuring films have consistently incorporated compelling drama and fleshed-out characters in such a way that one could even see those non-horror elements holding up their own stories. And I think I can attribute that to the studios’ decision to allow independent horror filmmakers to helm these films and bring their creativity and genre-awareness to them.

Say what you will about the cinematic universe craze, but this Conjuring-universe is not only a refreshing addition to the horror genre but also signals a major victory for passionate, independent filmmakers breaking into the mainstream and guiding the future of major studio filmmaking.

Horror Scale: 9.0/10

Movies Reviews

Cool Fight Scenes and 80’s Music Can’t Offset Insipid and Convoluted Cold War Spy Thriller

Atomic Blonde
Rating: R
Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes
Director: David Leitch
Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, and Sofia Boutella

Ever since the first ads for Atomic Blonde, I’ve seen nothing but reactionary contempt for the film’s apparent portrayal of a women pummeling men, supposedly perpetuating a shadowy anti-man conspiracy to eradicate males from the planet Earth. In light of its perceived feminist “agenda,” it’s quite ironic that the film itself is in many ways anti-feminist in the truest sense of the idea. Although I can’t entirely blame the masses for their condemnation considering the hack job mass media has performed on true feminism over the years, but that’s a topic for another post. Atomic Blonde is simply a classic Cold War spy intrigue that just happens to have a female protagonist. While the fact that the film’s protagonist is female is inherently meaningful, it’s difficult to make a case for the film being overtly concerned with feminist politics, or really any politics for that matter. The film instead commits itself to a straightforward, run-of-the-mill, James Bond spy story with some sweet fight scenes and Queen sprinkled on top.

James McAvoy plays James Percival, an undercover MI6 operative

Atomic Blonde takes place in 1989, immediately before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. After a KGB agent kills an undercover MI6 spy and steals the “List,” a piece of microfilm stored in a wristwatch naming every active field agent in the Soviet Union, top-level operative Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is tasked with a mission in Berlin to recover the List and assassinate a Soviet double agent named Satchel. To assist with her mission, Lorraine teams up with fellow agent David Percival (James McAvoy) and together they attempt to track down the List. Contrary to what the trailers revealed, the film actually takes on a flashback narrative, so the majority of the film is told within the dramatic frame of an interrogation of Lorraine after the completion of her mission. As straightforward as the plot sounds I actually had to look at the Wikipedia plot description in order to know what was actually going on, and that is my main grievance with Atomic Blonde, aside from also being so unimaginative.

Most noticeably, this film has too many moments of visual frivolity. That is, when something significant happens on screen, we don’t know that it’s significant until a character vocalizes that something important did in fact happen, which makes for a emotionally confusing viewing experience. This is especially relevant to the final twist/reveal at the end of the film, where the surprise comes seemingly out of nowhere because the film does nothing prior to buttress it. It surely doesn’t help that the majority of the narrative is framed within an interrogation where it isn’t clear what the dramatic stakes are, since after all we know she doesn’t die in her mission. Director David Leitch was so hell-bent on setting up a twist at the end of the film that he forgot to fill us in, neither through characterization nor direction.

A bruised and battered Lorraine (Charlize Theron) reflects in the mirror

In terms of the acting, the prime standout performance in Blonde comes from prolific actor James McAvoy as David Percival, the duplicitous associate of Charlize Theron’s Lorraine. Like virtually every movie he’s ever starred in, McAvoy fully commits to the role and gives it his all. Whenever the film is drudging on for a while, McAvoy re-entrance instantly improves the scenes he’s in. McAvoy plays his character with charisma, confidence, and unpredictability, easily making him into the most interesting character in the film. In that respect, Percival is a foil to Lorraine, both dramatically and literally. Charlize Theron plays the ass-kicking heroine Lorraine Broughton as stoic, calm, and deadly, much like a female James Bond. While she does in fact kick ass as Lorraine – even learning and executing the fight choreography without a stunt double – her character isn’t very interesting to watch outside of her action scenes. Theron’s character here feels frustratingly distant as opposed to her character Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), where she not only kicked major ass, but also had multiple layers of complexity that let her steal the movie. By the end of the Blonde however, Theron gets to reveal a more authentic character, but at that point the damage is already done. Nonetheless, Theron manages to materialize an at least memorable action heroine through her fight/stunt work alone. Her one-take stairwell fight scene is sure to make the best-movie-fight-scenes history books for years to come.

Atomic Blonde director David Leitch struck gold in his previous co-directorial effort for John Wick (2014), an instant classic, action B-movie with an impressively focused narrative and the some of the best action choreography in the business. In many ways Atomic Blonde and John Wick are quite similar: professional killer protagonists, authentic fight choreography, creative genre distortions. However, Blonde differs from Wick with its overdone premise and self-seriousness, and suffers for it. It’s clear that Leitch was chasing after the magic that made John Wick so satisfying; however, while the fight scenes are just as explosive as they are in John Wick and the off-kilter soundtrack is fun to hear, Leitch fails to deliver a trite narrative in a compelling enough fashion to maintain interest in a convoluted plot to backup the attractive theatrics.


Movies Reviews

Despite Gorgeous Visual Effects and Optimistic Global Politics, ‘Valerian’ Comes off as Derivative Sci-Fi Schlock

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hours 17 minutes
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, and Rihanna

French director Luc Besson has never been one to shy away from bizarre or surreal material. One of his most iconic films, The Fifth Element (1997), is a strange sci-fi odyssey with over-the-top performances (most notably from actors Chris Tucker and Gary Oldman), bizarre lore, and a well-executed artistic vision. In many ways, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is quite similar to The Fifth Element with the exception of one: being good.

Alpha is home to millions of creatures from various planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (or just Valerian for short) is about a pair of space soldiers Valerian, played by Dane DeHaan, and Laureline, played by Cara Delevingne, who are tasked with identifying a mysterious threat to Alpha, a gargantuan city composed of species from a thousand unique planets. Along the way, Valerian and Laureline encounter a slew of strange and zany characters that they must befriend, evade, or kill in order to complete their mission. If that rundown of the plot sounds pretty generic, it’s because it is. Valerian is based off an old French comic book called Valerian and Laureline that was initially published in 1967. Since its first publication, Valerian and Laureline has influenced some of pop-culture’s most popular franchises (e.g. Star Wars, Independence Day) and molded the science-fiction genre into what it is today. In other words, Valerian is in essence a cliché, a cinematic archetype. And that’s where virtually all of the film’s faults lie.

The film opens with an intriguing montage of humanity’s completion of an international space station called Alpha. Over time, more nations dock into the space station and are greeted with a handshake from the space station captain. Eventually, advanced alien races begin to dock at the station and before we know it the once average human space station becomes a mass of spaceships so big that it develops its own gravity, forcing the station to break off from Earth’s orbit and into deep space. The opening as I described along with a subsequent sequence on a beach planet with Na’vi-esque aliens, are easily the best parts of the movie. It would have been much better if the film had furthered the tone and direction that the prologue and opening scene started, but instead it insists on jumping headfirst into a stale, run-of-the-mill sci-fi plot with Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne at the helm. Almost immediately, it’s clear that DeHaan and Delevingne don’t exactly fit in the film as Valerian and Laureline, respectively. It’s implied that the character of Valerian is some kind of intergalactic badass like Starlord or Han Solo and that’s fine, however anyone that follows actor Dane DeHaan’s past performance will know that he does not nor has he ever conveyed that sense of “badass” on film. Rather than accommodate the actor’s inherent personality by adapting the Valerian character for the actor, Dane DeHaan is forced to do the best he can. While DeHaan is simply miscast in the film, Cara Delevingne actually isn’t that bad. The primary issue is on-screen chemistry between DeHaan and Delevingne. Their chemistry is very much presumed and undeveloped, so nearly all of their dramatic interactions fall flat and by the end of the film, not much changes that dynamic. However, I suspect that much of that lack of dramatic potency stems from the weak script.

Members of a low-tech humanoid species converse with Valerian and Laureline

Firstly, the dialogue between the two main characters is unoriginal through and through, echoing snarky quips and exchanges spouted by every action hero for the past 40 years. In fact, I found the dialogue in Valerian very reminiscent to the dialogue in Independence Day: Resurgence, a horrible sequel whose predecessor was aptly inspired by the old Valerian comic series. Both films presume that their dialogue is clever and witty when in reality it’s insipid, cliché, and uninspired. Secondly, the plot is not just sloppily executed, but it also feels awkwardly dated. Each location change is displayed like a new level in a videogame fit with characters that begin and end within the sequence. In fact, the film flows very much like a videogame plot minus the enjoyment of being able to play it.

It really is a shame that Valerian turned out the way it did, because there is a lot that’s good about it that is nullified by the poor casting and writing. The special effects on display are the most imaginative and fully realized since Avatar (2009). It’s clear that this was a passion project for director Luc Besson and for what it’s worth, the film never feels like a shameless cash grab. While the dialogue is often times bad, the screenplay does not shy away from the liberal humanist themes that were a staple of the original comic. The world the film inhabits is quite literally defined by diversity and it’s encouraging to see that some blockbusters are willing to risk financial profit for something they legitimately believe in, which ended up being the case since Valerian has yet to break even more than three weeks after release.

Valerian shows promise with impressive special effects and interesting lore, but a weak script and already established sci-fi culture keep it from materializing into a good film.