Mother’s Milk

Some movies are more intriguing than they are entertaining or technically sound. Mother’s Milk, a psychological horror film from first time director Edward Pionke, certainly falls into that category. There are some very good ideas here and, given the limitations of the ultra-low shoestring budget, what is presented to us onscreen is fairly well realized. There are certainly faults with the film, but they are of the variety that money and experience will likely fix. Mother’s Milk has the feel of a director learning his way around a camera, but is a strong enough debut that I look forward to his future projects. 

Mother’s Milk, in both tone and story, is Psycho and Misery mixed together and wrapped in sexual dysfunction. Claude is a statistics professor with a dark fetish stemming from his troubled past. He kidnaps a recent college graduate in order to try and fill a very specific role in his life. As the days and weeks go on a bizarre sort of relationship forms between Claude and Kim leaving the viewer wondering who is really trapped. This is an extremely dark film that will likely leave the audience uncomfortable. I’m not sure I would want to meet the person that believes this has any kind of rewatchability factor. I recommend watching it once, after that you’re on your own. 

I must give praise to the two leads as Casey Chapman (Claude Rainer) and Mackenzie Wiglesworth (Kim Rodgers) both do a superb job in the film. Chapman manages to give believability and sympathetic qualities to a monster with a delicate performance that could have easily gone wrong in numerous ways. Wiglesworth plays the victim with a strength not typically associated with that role. Both do a great job of playing off of each other, which is fortunate since they are essentially the only two characters we see on screen for the vast majority of the film. This is the first film I’ve seen for each of them, but they showed enough that I hope to see them again.

The technical aspects are where the film falters, especially in regards to the lighting and editing. The lighting was one of the first things to strike me. Pionke uses his lights to create an atmosphere of shadows and while this can create some striking images it tended to muddle the compositions of scenes taken as a whole. This mixed with the editing issues really dampened the emotional impact of a few key scenes. I’m going to bet that Pionke came out of stage theater productions because many of the films scenes are staged and edited as if they were a play. There is virtually no coverage and most of the movie is done with two shots where both actors are in the frame at the same time. When the majority of the film takes place in a basement it wouldn’t hurt to use the editing to spice things up a bit at times. 

All-in-all I was pleasantly surprised by Mother’s Milk. It’s a solid debut for director Edward Pionke and actors Chapman and Wiglesworth. They’ve created a very dark and disturbing film, and while the technical aspects may not be there quite yet, they did succeed in storytelling, tone, atmosphere, and the ability to create a whole lot of tension with just two people in a basement. I’ll forgive the flaws when that much goes right on the first time out. Grade:B-



Soul Plane

Soul Plane isn’t as bad as you think it’s going to be, but not nearly as good as it could have been. It’s a case study in wasted talent, but it does serve as an introduction to some actors that would go on to do some much better work. Soul Plane wants to be Airplane but it doesn’t have the wit and relies far too heavily on sex, bathroom jokes, and stereotypes to offer any lasting value. What is does give us is a few funny moments and a hint at what these actors can be capable of when given better material. 



I suppose Soul Plane’s biggest accomplishment is its ability to stuff as many racial stereotypes into one movie as possible. No race or gender is safe from the filmmaker’s version of comedy, but the intriguing thing is that no matter how many racial jabs are thrown they all land softly because the film never takes anything seriously. The plot concerns Nashawn (Kevin Hart) when he accidentally gets stuck in an airplane toilet and is awarded 100 million dollars in a lawsuit and decides that he is going to start his own airline. I’m not sure of any actual numbers, but 100 million dollars doesn’t seem like enough money to start an airline, let alone buy a two level airplane complete with spinners and the ability to bounce down the runway. Logic be damned. This isn’t that kind of movie. This is the kind of movie where Snoop Dogg plays a pilot who’s scared of heights.

There’s no point in trying to apply logic or criticism to a film like Soul Plane. It’s as futile as studying historical inaccuracies in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Soul Plane isn’t in the same class as Monty Python, but they are playing the same game. They’re both absurdist spoofs, but the difference is that Monty Python was continuously inventive. Soul Plane is content to take the easiest joke and be ok with that. Taken in that context, I’m also ok with Soul Plane. This is not a good film and you will forget it exists almost immediately after seeing it, but it is entertaining enough to act as a comedic diversion for an hour and a half. It’s also worth it to see some early attempts from future stars such as Kevin Hart, Sofia Vergera, Mo’Nique, and Terry Crews. Final verdict: if you’re desperate for a comedy and you are running low on your Netflix queue, you can do worse than Soul Plane. Grade: C-



John Wick

It is immensely interesting to me that John Wick is the first film I watched after seeing The Equalizer. The Equalizer is a film that I hated for a being a cliché-riddled action movie with zero originality. John Wick is a cliché-riddled action movie with zero originality, but it embraces those traits with such fervor that it is a joy to watch. The true difference between the films is that The Equalizer was a dour and somber affair with no charisma or style to brighten up the proceedings. John Wick is all style, with flashy camera moves and even flashier action scenes all set to an amazing soundtrack. If you’re going to make a by-the-numbers action movie you’d better make it fun to watch. The Equalizer felt like a chore to sit through and the 40 minute too long runtime didn’t help. John Wick is breezy, ultraviolent, and completely engaging all the way through. It is everything that The Equalizer wasn’t.

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John Wick stars Keanu Reeves in what is probably his best performance since the Matrix, but I admit that the bar was set extremely low. Wick is an ex-assassin/mythical legend in the New York underground criminal world who got out of the game when he got married. Now his wife has died of cancer and wouldn’t you know it, some Russian thugs drag Wick back into the scene by beating him up and killing his dog. With all the plot and backstory taken care of in the first five minutes that leaves the rest of the hour and a half runtime for John Wick to revenge kill everyone he sees. And revenge kill he does. With aplomb.

The wonderful thing about John Wick is that it sets up a criminal underworld that has distinct rules which all of the characters know. You can kill someone in this place, but not in that place. A particular form of currency is passed around as payment that doubles as a form of identification. Everyone knows everyone else and even when rival assassins are smashing each other up they are on a first name basis. All of these things are established in ways that make sense for the story. There is no long scene of exposition that spells everything out for the audience. This is a dumb action film that trusts its audience to be smarter than the material, and I love it for that. There is very little else to say about this film. John Wick is easily one of the better American action films I’ve seen in a long time and if you’re a fan of guns blazing, blood flying, revenge romps you’ll love it too. Grade: B+

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The Equalizer

If there was an award for the film that uses as many clichés as possible while still maintaining a stunning lack of knowledge of how anything works, that distinction would be held by The Equalizer. Denzel Washington stars in this action thriller that is not so much a movie, but a highlight reel of scenes we’ve seen done in better action movies of the past. Any tension that was intended quickly falls to the wayside as the audience realizes that we know exactly what is going to happen to each and every character because that’s what happened to that character in the last movie we saw them in. The only stunning thing to my eyes was that if you replace Denzel Washington with Cuba Gooding Jr. you could cut the budget by 40 million dollars and release it straight to DVD without changing anything else.

The film opens with Denzel Washington shaving in the dark. This is only the first scene that left me befuddled and it just continued from there. As we follow him throughout his day we’re meant to understand that he has a very specific routine which involves work, helping his chubby yet lovable friend lose weight, read a book while eating dinner at a diner, and never ever sleeping. The film’s MacGuffin appears at that diner played by Chloe Grace Moretz. She’s a prostitute with a heart of gold that really just wants to be a singer. Moretz and Washington strike up a hesitant familiarity over the untold number of times they frequent that diner and, wouldn’t you know it, Washington’s secret past resurfaces when Moretz is beaten to a pulp by her pimp and Washington must answer justice’s call.

The Equalizer is a re-teaming between Washington and director Antoine Fuqua who previously collaborated on Training Day, which is a far superior film and one I would gladly watch 100 times if I never had to watch this one again. Fuqua here directs the entire film using a color palette of black and off-black which does have the distinct advantage of never letting the viewer know what’s going on. Washington plays his character as a self-help and nutritional guru with MacGuyver like skills of making anything into a weapon and a superhuman ability to just shake off injuries and bullet wounds. Give him a cape and he’s essentially a sociopathic comic book character. Any semblance of nuance or subtlety that the pair showed on Training Day must have been lost in the conversation that included, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could do the whole walking in slow motion away from an explosion thing?”

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It’s hard to describe exactly what kind of a train wreck this film is so I’m going to use a scene from the climactic battle at the end to illustrate my point. Washington’s character has killed everyone involved with the Russian gang that was pimping out Moretz earlier until they are forced to send in a special team of Russian super-thugs to attack him at the Home Depot knock off. During this scene Washington shuts the power off (again with the darkness) and shoves a couple of combustible canisters into the break room microwave. At a pivotal moment he turns the power back on and the microwave starts up and promptly explodes ignoring the fact that no microwave I’ve ever seen turns on as soon as it receives power. This is the kind of logic that the film is working with.

The Equalizer is less a movie and more of a contest of “Who’s agent failed the hardest?” After watching the film I immediately envisioned a scenario where screenwriter Richard Wenk, Antoine Fuqua, and Denzel Washington got together to discuss this script before production was to begin and decided to play a drinking game where they take a shot every time there is a scene that take took place in a different movie. They would all have alcohol poisoning by page ten and maybe their ailments would have spared us from them continuing on to make the actual film. Sadly it didn’t happen and the result is The Equalizer. Grade: D+

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Spongebob Squarepants 2: Sponge Out of Water

Suppose you’ve found yourself accidentally wandering into a party for a child that you don’t know. Everyone there seems to be having a pretty good time. Even for yourself there are moments of amusement as you watch the children play even if you don’t have the slightest idea who those children are or why they’re acting the way they do. Now imagine that someone comes up to you after the party is over and asks what you thought of the proceedings. Do you tell them that it was great because everyone you saw seemed to enjoy themselves and those were the people that were clearly meant to be there? Or do you tell them that the whole party made no sense because you were clearly not meant to be there. That is the situation I find myself in after having seen Spongebob Squarepants 2.

I am aware that Spongebob Squarepants is a cartoon that has been on TV for quite a few years and even spawned a feature length movie in the past. However, I have never seen the show and the only knowledge I have of it is from cultural references. This makes me a prime candidate to skip this movie completely and leave it to those that may know a thing or two about it. However, My six year old son really wanted to see it, so off I went. He left happy. I left baffled.

From what I could gather Spongebob and his friends are in trouble because the secret formula for the Crabby Patty has been stolen and without it the entire community falls into Mad Max levels of apocalyptic despair. There is cultural satire here, but the movie never stops long enough to fully embrace a topic. It is a scattershot of jokes that all last about three seconds that are flung onto the wall just hoping that they stick long enough to run at a feature film length. I’m sure there was some kind of plot thread that connected the whole thing together, but even sitting here at full concentration I can’t remember what it was supposed to be. Something about Antonio Banderas as Burger Beard the pirate and a food truck that doubles as a pirate ship.

I chuckled a few times here and there, but when you throw in 1,000 jokes at least some of them have to hit right? I’m not exactly sure that’s an achievement. Normally I would take a film as its own entity and judge it based on that alone. However, in this case, the film is a sequel to an earlier film that was itself spun off of a TV show. All of which I haven’t seen. I’m going to give this movie a grade, but it’s fairly irrelevant. If you’ve seen the show and are a fan I’m guessing that your opinion will likely match the children around me at my screening and you will enjoy it wholeheartedly. I was left wishing to be anywhere else. Grade: D

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The Imitation Game

I’m not sure where to lay the blame for The Imitation Game’s problem. On one hand, the film depicts the “based on true life” story of famed British mathematician Alan Turing, and takes enough artistic license to render the “true life” part misleading, but as a high profile prestige picture it will get millions of people to see it and perhaps learn something along the way. On the other hand, the material is far better suited for a more accurate documentary, but no one would watch it. As a result of the compounding problems the film ends up doing nothing well, with the exception of allowing Benedict Cumberbatch to deliver a tour-de-force performance. Unless, that is, you were expecting Cumberbatch to portray Turing in some way that represents the true-life part of the biopic.

I struggled deeply with this film. I’m also struggling trying to figure out how to review it. Is it worth it to try and describe the plot of a true story? Especially when there’s not a lot of true in the story? Alan Turing was a world famous mathematician and early pioneer of the computer, but the film focuses almost entirely on how he pretty much won World War 2 all by himself, which is of course not even remotely true. The film is framed in three time periods: his early years (which are largely fabricated), his work during the war (which is largely exaggerated), and the controversy near the end off his life (which is largely disputed if not entirely made up). I don’t understand who this movie is for. Those that go into the film with a knowledge of the true story will be baffled and upset over the inaccuracies of it. Those that go in without any knowledge of Turing will leave in much the same manner.

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I am going to take a break here to praise the performance of Cumberbatch. He is brilliant throughout the film and displays a range of emotions that could not have been easy to bring to the surface. If you can imagine taking Cumberbatch’s own version of Sherlock and melding it with Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory you’d be pretty close to what you get on screen. It is a wonderful performance that is betrayed by the film and the circumstances around it. The blazing performance is also part of the problem with the film as a whole in that Cumberbatch’s performance feels like a performance. We know he’s acting his ass off and even though it’s fun to watch that doesn’t mean it fits into the film. Cumberbatch does a good job of showing off what he can do, but the film isn’t better for it.

The Imitation Game is so bloodless and inert for a subject matter so naturally interesting, but who’s at fault is difficult to pinpoint. The direction from Morten Tyldum is competent if a little clunky at times. The script is written so that everyone speaks in exposition and the only emotion allowed to creep into the dialogue must be delivered in overly dramatic monologues. Every actor besides Cumberbatch plays every scene on the edge of dull which may be a script/direction problem, or it may be to let Cumberbatch look even more manic. Either way it’s a disservice to the film as a whole. The only person to come out of this film untainted is composer Alexandre Desplat. The score is beautiful and carried more emotional weight than most of the actors.

I understand when a movie takes a real situation and uses artistic license to make the story a tad more entertaining. I don’t understand using artistic license and still leaving the film flat. If you’re going to change the story to make it more palatable or exciting it has to, in fact, BE more exciting. All of this run around brings me back to the question of why. Why was this film made and who is it for? When the obligatory information cards ran before the credits to tell us what happened to the people after the film ends, a woman behind me gave a slight gasp and asked her companion, “this is a real story?!” I suppose that’s the kind of person the film is for.
Grade: D+

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Birdman

Birdman is the kind of movie that should wrap in on itself and swallow its own tail while leaving the audience to stammer incoherently about what they just sat through for two hours. Instead, we get one of the most original, daring, and technical marvels in a very long time. From the very first hits of the jazz score in the opening moments I was entranced and the film never let up. Calling it a masterpiece would seem to border on hyperbole and may be a tad pretentious, so I’ll simply call it a masterpiece. I don’t care. The film deserves it.

There are layers, nuances, and subtleties around every nook and cranny of the film and with time I’m sure sure someone will unpack everything this film has to say. I will not be that person. It is enough for me to know that on first viewing I was blown away. It was a cinematic experience that I haven’t had in quite some time, possibly even years. This is the kind of film that I go to the movies for.

Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thompson, a washed up actor that made his claim to fame playing the superhero Birdman in a trilogy of films twenty some years ago. In a desperate attempt for legitimacy, admiration, love, or repentance (he’s never really sure which) he has written and staged an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story for Broadway that he himself is going to headline. In the days leading up to the opening performance Riggan tries to hold the show and himself together long enough to battle the loathing and self-doubt creeping just below the surface. Along the way he faces off with his co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who thinks he’s a movie hack that doesn’t belong on the stage where true actors work, his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who is fresh out of rehab and now working as his assistant even though she clearly hates him, and the voice in his own head who keeps reminding him of the glory days when Birdman was a hit and he was a star.

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Keaton is magnificent, giving a twitchy anxious performance that makes it seem as if the role was written for him and him alone. The fact that Keaton was a star twenty years ago for playing Batman and then drastically fell to the wayside after turning down the third installment probably doesn’t hurt. Keaton tackles this role with such guts and gumption that it seems as if he’s saying, “Look! I’m more than Batman too! Hollywood has wasted my talent for twenty years just because I didn’t want to play a vigilante bat anymore! I actually had to star in a damn Herbie movie with Lindsey Lohan! Where she was the headliner!” It’s possible that I’m projecting all of that onto him, but I’m pretty confident that’s what he was thinking. Whatever his actual reasons, Keaton definitely gives a performance that should be applauded and it might just remind everyone that he is a top-notch actor that has been sitting on the sidelines for far too long.

As much praise as Keaton deserves, an equal amount must be hefted onto director Alejandro Gonzalez Innarritu. This is filmmaking in a way that I’ve never seen before. Not only does Innarritu manage to blur the lines between fantasy and realism, but he also blurs the lines between movies and theater. The entire film is shot and edited to look like one take. It is such a breathtaking feat that I’m not sure how I can describe it that would do it any justice. The camera moves in and around the action, through windows and fences, and even through the streets all without stopping or cutting. It is a seamless two hour shot that only breaks off from the characters a few times to let the skyline show us the passage of time. It is a remarkable achievement.

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I am clearly smitten with this film. I don’t think I’m being all that coy about it either. I would easily recommend this film to anyone. I know there will probably be a few detractors here and there but they’re probably dead inside and unable to grasp how magnificent this film is. I wouldn’t worry about them if I were you. Don’t be dead inside. Watch Birdman. Enjoy it. Movies like this don’t come around very often. Grade: A+

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