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Editors Choice

Review: Raw

Mar 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221293:43454:0[/embed] Raw (Grave)Director: Julia DucournauRating: RRelease Date: March 10, 2017Country: France/Belgium Justine (Garance Marillier) is an in-coming freshman at a veterinary college. It's the same school that her parents attended and where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a current student. She's a lifelong vegetarian; at a buffet en route to the college, her mom berates a clerk for an errant meatball in Justine's mashed potatoes. During a hazing ritual at the vet school, Justine gets her first taste of meat when she's force fed a raw rabbit kidney. That fetid little taste awakens something sexy and dangerous in her. Raw is set in an off-kilter place where fictional conceits co-mingle with quotidian problems. It's the location for weird literary short fiction, allowing anything and everything to function as a metaphor or a metaphorical space. There's the familiar trope of the teenage girl whose sexual maturation is a source of horror for herself and others. Justine is the gawky young woman trying to figure out adulthood and sexiness and desire and how to juggle all of these new cravings she has. But Ducournau avoids many of the simple 1:1 ratios of familiar genre metaphors by complicating her world and its characters. Justine's taste for flesh is borne of freedom from home, and it becomes a point of sibling rivalry. I mentioned Ducournau's knack for the visceral, which is evidenced early in the film during the first hazing ritual. The freshman are forced out of bed and into some on-campus rave. Ducournau's camera follows Justine through the flashing lights and the throb of the music. First she's annoyed and alone, but as the scene continues to play out, she and the audience find the exhilaration of the moment, and the underlying emotional current of the scene changes. When Justine gets the shakes like a junkie in withdrawal, Ducournau closes the whole of the world into the hallucinatory nightmare of Justine in fetal position under her sheet. In what's sure to be the most talked about scene of the film, a silly, sisterly moment of bonding between Justine and Alexia becomes a squirmy horror set piece for the ages. As it happened, I smiled at the brilliant audacity of the execution. That "brilliant audacity" is what I liked about so much of Raw, and it's often pulled off throughout the film with casual unexpectedness. Justine seems to be going mad with her rush of desires, and occasionally some unexpected image would appear on screen and haunt me a bit. A horse on a treadmill or an animal carcass ready for class dissection is full of such fervid, dreamlike weight. Marillier plays fragile Justine and feral Justine so well and of a piece. Any interaction between Justine and her male roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) gets loaded with an expectant dread. Will she? Is this hunger? Won't she? Is this desire? Why not both? The way Justine and Alexia's antagonisms play out over the course of Raw is fascinating as well, and hints at a longer history. There's affection tinged with enmity between these sisters. The fact that so much of Raw works so well may be why I come back to the closing notes of Raw and why they fell so flat for me. So much of the movie is a gut punch filmed with such great craft. Justine is built up and broken and humiliated and I was hoping for one last moment that would linger the same way as so many others. I felt like the movie traded its gut punches for a rote, tepid, expected wind down, and then punctuated it with a flimsy punchline. And yet that wind down makes sense emotionally, and that punchline opens up this rich, sadly unexplored avenue of the story. That may speak to the promise of Ducournau as filmmaker to watch--that I think there's something good wrapped up in a sour note, something exciting in the shadow of a disappointing coda. I guess sometimes even great cuts of meat have a little gristle.
Review: Raw photo
Flesh, sex, and self-destruction
While playing at film festivals last year, the hype over Raw was insane. Writer/director Julia Ducournau's coming-of-age horror/cannibal drama purportedly caused audience members to faint, to vomit, to leave screenings in dis...

Review: Kong: Skull Island

Mar 09 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221357:43453:0[/embed] Kong: Skull IslandDirector: Jordan Vogt-RobertsRelease Date: March 10, 2017Rated: PG-13 Kong: Skull Island is literally exactly about what the title is. King Kong is on Skull Island. The problem is some people are about to show up. In the 1970s Bill Randa (John Goodman), head of the nearly defunded Monarch organization, launches one last expedition to a previously undiscovered island that is perpetually surrounded by storms. He believes that monsters do exist as he's the only survivor from the monster attack on a U.S. military boat that was mentioned in Godzilla. Along with him comes a group of scientists, an Vietnam helicopter platoon led by Preston Packard (Samual L. Jackson), a tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). They, of course make it to the island, and for some mcguffin of a reason start dropping bombs on it. Kong shows up and kicks there ass. And here's where Skull Island really starts to do things right. Instead of giving us 90 minutes of blurry fur and quick glimpses, Kong just shows up and starts being the man. This allows for not just one big monster sequence at the end, but instead battle after battle of insanely well designed monster fight scenes. Kong is actually the star of this movie, not a bunch of humans struggling to survive, but the ape himself. That's a lesson that so many monster films have yet to learn and one of the biggest problems with Godzilla. Skull Island knows what we came to see and it give it to us right off the bat. That's not to say there isn't plenty of human development. After Kong trashes the groups helicopters the survivors are left to try to make their way to the rendezvous point in order to get off the island. Packard, hell bent on winning "this war" against Kong, drives his group to get the ammunition to kill the primate while a smaller group led by Conrad wind up meeting the native people of the island and crashed WWII pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). They learn that Kong isn't the bad guy, but the defender of these people and the world against those weird lizard monsters that Godzilla helped defeat in his film. Yea, it's that blatantly connected. And, yes, it is also that blatantly a metaphor for Vietnam to the point where toxic gas is dropped. But given Godzilla's roots in nuclear war commentary the war commentary actually fits well enough. Skull Island likes to play with its tropes while reveling in them at the same time. A perfect example of this is two soldiers running away from a charging Kong as one peels off yelling "Run to the side, you idiot." The other guy doesn't and gets crushed. This playfulness with cliche makes the movie work on its own accord and pulls the actual cliche stuff out of the mire. Yes, it can get a little goofy at times, and that's when the film is at its worst, but for the most part everything clicks and Kong (or some other giant creature) is never of screen long enough for you to really start to hate the cookie cutter characters.  Probably the most disappointing part of the film is how flat Hiddleston's character is. If they're planning on having this character be a central piece of the MonsterVerse puzzle they better get him some more interesting dialog and plot lines. It isn't clear, however, if they are. From the attitude Skull Island takes to its human characters the only important carryover is Kong. Human beings are just there to stare at him in admiration or die. That's the way it should be it turns out. If this is the tone for the rest of the MonsterVerse then count me in. Kong brings a bit more fun to the series than Godzilla did and a whole lot more monster action. While Kong: Skull Island can get drastically stupid at times it always seem aware of this and it has figured out an antidote: Kong smash.
Kong: Skull Island photo
Welcome to the MonsterVerse
The monster movie is making a comeback. No, not the still-odd-to-me Universal Monster Cinematic Universe. I'm talking giant, city-destroying monsters. And yes, they're getting their own universe. Unbeknownst to us the kick of...

Review: My Life as a Zucchini

Mar 03 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221336:43439:0[/embed] My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)Director: Claude BarrasRating: PG-13Release Date: October 19, 2016 (France/Switzerland); February 24, 2017 (limited)Country: France/Switzerland My Life as a Zucchini opens with the accidental death of a boy's abusive, alcoholic mother. His father isn't around and never shows up, but he draws an idealized, superhero version of him on a homemade kite. The boy calls himself Zucchini (Erick Abbate), and as a police officer drives him to an orphanage, he flies the kite out of the car window. The moment is both beautiful and sad, just like so many other moments in My Life is a Zucchini. The other children at the orphanage are neglected, have had their parents deported, lost their parents in violent ways, or were physically or sexually abused. They're each around 10 years old. This is absolutely bleak material, and it's reflected in the look of the stop-motion puppets of the children. When a new girl named Camille (Ness Krell) arrives, one of the children remarks that she has sad eyes. It's a quality all of the children share. They all have huge, Margaret Keane-painting eyes, but they look wounded rather than doe-like, as if each of them might burst into tears at any moment out of sadness or a fleeting joy. While the situations these children face are so dark, My Life as a Zucchini is a hopeful film, and brimming with sympathy and empathy. I found myself crying through a lot of the film, which is a testament to the effectiveness of the animation. There's something important about the tactile nature of stop-motion I can't put my finger on. Maybe it's because the characters look like toys, and the settings feel like playsets--like the entire film functions as a space for a child to work through the dark things in their head. The English-language voice acting is commendable. The child actors sounded like actors rather than kids acting, if the distinction makes sense. Abbate and Krell have to do so much heavylifting whenever their characters are on screen, but there's no strain to it. I was so wrapped up in the emotion of the film that I didn't sense a flat line read or a sour delivery. Somehow, effortlessly, the child actors sounded vulnerable and true. The adult voice cast was good as well, with Nick Offerman, Will Forte, and Ellen Page disappearing into their roles as caretakers. Amy Sedaris' voice was distinct--very Strangers with Candy--though it fits with the brash, prickly character she portrays. Barras depicts kindness in various gestures between the kids and their caretakers at the orphanage. There's a snow trip with a tiny techno dance party in a cabin. There's play time. There's dress up and parties. When the children grow up, the psychological repercussions of what they've faced might be daunting, but at least there's this orphanage and these people who care about them. The adults try to create some semblance of a normal life free from from solitude and abuse. Things that seems so commonplace are suddenly imbued with a tremendous expression of love and humanity. How good it is, even if just briefly, to give someone the joy of a carefree childhood. My Life as a Zucchini is about children, but it's not a children's movie. That may have held it back in awards season. It was such a longshot to win a Golden Globe or an Oscar (Zootopia took both awards), and its bleakness didn't help matters. The film did wind up winning Best Animated Film and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Cesar Awards, however. Saying all this, part of me wonders how traumatized children might respond to the film. Would they feel less alone? Would they feel loved? Those concerns are more important than a statuette; they're what's most important in life.
My Life as a Zucchini photo
About kids but not a children's movie
There's this pervasive idea that children are resilient, that they're able to cope well even in dire circumstances. In stories about forlorn kids, a combination of optimistic pluck and boundless imagination helps them through...

Review: Before I Fall

Mar 03 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221343:43441:0[/embed] Before I FallDirector: Ry Russo-YoungRelease Date: Rating: PG-13  Up front (well, after the intro): I did not like the first third of Before I Fall. There are a variety of potential reasons for this, though most of them boil down to an inability to connect to the characters. They're popular girls; it's like a modern version of Mean Girls but without the funny. They're just terrible. And with a lack of humor, I had nothing to latch onto. I was never a teenage girl, but it's less that than the fact that I was never a popular teenager of any gender. I just simply couldn't relate. So, I was upset, because I wanted to like it, and the film was just making it so hard. But then things changed. Before I Fall's conceit is that its protagonist, Samantha (Zoey Deutch), dies in a car crash and then wakes up at the beginning of the same day. And even when she doesn't die in the car crash, she still wakes up the same day. It's "Cupid Day," a semi-bizarre variation on Valentine's Day. I've never heard anyone call it Cupid Day before, and at first I thought maybe it was a Pacific Northwest thing, since that's where the film is set, but apparently not; it comes from the book (which was actually set in New England). Looking up "Cupid Day" on Google brings up as its first result a question on Yahoo Answers specifically asking about its use in the book upon which this film is based (look at all the research I did for this review!). Still, it's definitely Valentine's Day because someone is like, "Happy Cupid Day" and someone else is like "THAT'S VALENTINE'S DAY TO YOU" and I dunno if that part was in the book. It felt kinda expository, like the moment was only there for the purpose of clarification... but whatever. Point is, its Cupid Day and that's what everyone says. (It's best not to get hung up on things like that.) We see the day play out. We see Samantha and her friends as garbage people. We see that there's something in Samantha that could be not garbage, but that only matters so much when she also shouts that the sad girl is a "Psycho." She piles on like everyone else. She's still a bad person. And then she dies, and she spends the rest of the film atoning for that sin.  Her first repeated day is whatever. I knew the conceit, so I more-or-less knew how it was gonna go down. She was still not a good person, but she was a not-good person who was starting her transition. But even if those glimmers of worthwhileness began around here, she was still fundamentally not worth caring about.  I don't remember if it's the next day or the one after, but at some point she decides to dress differently. She dresses like a goth kid. She wears all black, gets all made up, and then she starts speaking her mind to people. She calls out her friends on their shit. She then has a really awkward interaction with her teacher (I cringe just thinking about it), and she does it all because she has realized that it doesn't matter. That she is going to wake up the next day the same as ever. So why not be a different her for a day (maybe one that's closer to the real her? At this point, we don't actually know, though the answer seems to be "not quite" (though that begs the question of why she had those clothes in the first place))?  And that was interesting, of course, because we see different sides of the character, but it wasn't even that that did it for me; she goes in to the bathroom that I guess has been designated the one lesbian girl's bathroom, and then the two of them talk. And the talk that they have is genuinely interesting. It wasn't just showing more of Samantha, though it did do that; it was making a point about everything that those characters were. To paraphrase (because I didn't write down the actual line): "In two years, I won't remember any of you." And you look at Samantha's friends, the popular kids, and you think about where they're going to be in two years. After high school: Will they Matter? Will anyone remember them? The sickest parties and the cutest boys in high school are, one would assume, chump change compared to what's to come. But that's what they care about. Being cool. People thinking their cool. And the people who are actually cool are just biding their time until they don't have to deal with that shit anymore. (They'll have to deal with other shit, but that's not the point.) At that point, it becomes like a different movie, a movie about misfits. Because the truth is that, though Samantha somehow joined up with the popular girls, it's not really who she is. She isn't as "weird" as some of the people are, but she's definitely a lot less judgmental of oddities than she puts on. And as Before I Fall begins to explore that, it's suddenly like watching a different, much better movie. Samantha became multi-faceted, and her relationships became compelling. What happens with the family I found to be particularly feels-worthy, and it was this stuff, actually, that made me cry. Yeah. Before I Fall made me cry. And it wasn't like a cheap thing either. They didn't have to kill a cute animal (or even a person); they just had to start to mend something that was on the verge of being broken. I have a sister who is quite a bit younger than I am. I was definitely dismissive of her in the way that Samantha is of hers. But Samantha, as the day repeats and repeats, decides to own up to this and try to make things better. I felt that so freaking hard. (After the film ended, I immediately texted my sister to tell her I loved her.) And it wasn't just that. Many of the character arcs pay off in ways that feel honest in an almost surprising way, because sometimes the ways they get to those conclusions don't make a lot of sense. Certain characters do things that seem out of place, but where they end up as a result of them still works. It could be an adaptation thing: In the pages of the book, there is more time to get a character from A to B to C and so on, but we have to skip a few letters to get it into a film. But whatever the reason, it doesn't ultimately matter. What matters is how it feels right. Very right. In the first third of the film, I was just thinking, "Man, I want to go home and watch The Edge of Seventeen again." And, admittedly, I think that a lot, but after the switch, I thought, "No... this is the only thing I want to be watching. This is the thing that matters." And it does matter, because it really does get into some of the seedier aspects of high school popularity, and the gross things people do in order to move up a level. Also, it made me cry.
Before I Fall Review photo
Putting it on replay
If you read my Top 15 Movies of 2016 list, then you'll know that at the very top (number 0) was The Edge of Seventeen. Also worth noting: my favorite movie of ever continues to be Joseph Kahn's Detention. From that, we can de...


Review: Logan

Mar 03 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221303:43419:0[/embed] LoganDirector: James MangoldRelease Date: March 3, 2017Rating: R  Logan is both a sequel to 2013's The Wolverine and a ending to the entire X-Men franchise. In the far-ish future of 2029, we find Logan (Hugh Jackman) making his way across El Paso, driving a limo for money. It turns out mutants have essentially gone extinct, and he is only doing odd jobs in order to take care of the now dementia-suffering Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who's loss of control over his mind has made him a threat. But one day he's approached by a woman accompanied by a silent girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who needs help getting to the Canadian border and some place they call an "Eden for mutants." Begrudgingly accepting the task when he sees Laura shares a few similarities with him, revelations come to light as Logan has to come to terms with the man he's become. Logan is dramatically different than the rest of the X-Men films, and that's notably due to its R rating.  While I was initially afraid Deadpool's R rated success would mean Logan was full of extraneous foul language and violence (but without the cheekiness), what is present feels incredibly natural. Like we're actually seeing Wolverine for who he is for the first time, making every other performance seem neutered in comparison. This Logan is older, broken, and incredibly violent. He brutalizes enemies, but it's never portrayed as monstrous as his attacks could be because Jackman fills the role with a much needed humanity. The film always makes a point to note that he never initiates the attacks (unlike the brash Logan seen in, say, the first X-Men). The added caveat of slowly losing his healing abilities also grounds this comic book film in an unprecedented way. For all intents and purposes, Logan is a lonely, introspective character drama. While the character work admittedly will be more effective if you've seen some of the other X-Men films (at least the first one to explain some of the world's elements), it's not completely necessary. The film opens with a scene heartily establishing everything you need to know about this character, and I'll go as far to say it's the best opening scene in the franchise to date.  Logan is full of outstanding performances. While some kitchy turns from Boyd Holbrook's Pierce (a mysterious guy in sunglasses who's chasing after Laura, but Logan's not about that so mentioning his role in the story seems unnecessary), Stephen Merchant's Caliban, and a villain revealed later in the film tend to remind you it's a comic book film, the three central cast members anchor Logan's harsh reality. Hugh Jackman, drawing on his years of experience with the character, puts forth a stellar performance. As mentioned earlier, with the amenities afforded by the film's R rating, Jackman's performance rings more palpable than ever. Like this is the character he's wanted to portray since he signed on to these films all those years ago. His rapport with the sickly Charles is one of the best features in the film as he and Patrick Stewart have developed a mentor/pupil-father/son relationship over the years. Or at least ably portrayed as such. Then there's the young Dafne Keen, who's Laura is defined entirely through her physicality and manages to carve a distinct presence between the two.  Now Logan isn't perfect. One of the film's overlying themes of fighting one's past becomes a little too literal, the tone is so well established the encroaching X-Men talk feels out of place, and some of the dialogue unfortunately I felt I had to forgive under the "comic book film" qualifier, but thinking back on it, these issues didn't bother me as much as I thought they would have. Logan's imperfections lend credibility to the central character's imperfections. The film's problems mirror Logan's distraught sense of self. Is he the colorful hero of years past? Is he the beaten down man who's lost his sense of purpose after years of struggle? There's a distinct push and pull between the two tones as they blend into something not seen before in the genre. In fact, it seems, dare I say realistic?  Above all else, Logan is a film of consequence. It's the first comic book film weighted with actual drama and character work. There's an overwhelming sense of finality and dread permeating throughout making every one of Logan's struggles more tense than the last. If you've followed Wolverine through every one of his adventures, you're sure to be satisfied with Logan. If you haven't, there's still enough tactile emotion here seeping through Logan's ever-worsening wounds to draw you in even slightly.  I don't need to see another X-Men film, or another comic book film ever again. Thanks to Logan, they've become irrelevant. 
Logan Review photo
Brutal, harsh, and absolutely glorious
(This is a republishing of the original review, which posted two weeks ago.) Logan is a response to a litany of unprecedented events. Comic book films are more popular than ever, the X-Men series is still a via...

Review: Get Out

Feb 23 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221322:43429:0[/embed] Get OutDirector: Jordan PeeleRelease Date: February 24, 2017Rating: R The opening shot of Get Out is a tour de goshdarn force. If you've seen David Robert Mitchell's (exceptional) It Follows, this is in the same vein. We're in a suburb, and we're following a young black man as he talks on the phone. He's in white people country, and he's kind of lost. As he walks, the camera follows, and soon we see a car come up the street beside him. The car follows, and he turns around, because "No, not today" (cue first laugh of the movie). He goes into the street, and suddenly someone, face obscured, comes up behind him and chokes him out. This someone drags the man to his car and puts him in the trunk. The car drives away. Get Out. Nice. It's the perfect preparation for what is set to come: a horror comedy about racism. A great horror comedy about racism. Probably the best one, though I'm not really sure what its competition is. Like most people, I've been of a fan of Jordan Peele's since Key & Peele got started, and I greatly enjoyed his turn in Keanu (my review of which was also heavily focused on race; I don't know why this keeps happening). But this is different. Having skipped trailers or really any information of any kind, I had kind of expected to see Peele play some role in the film. In fact, there's a role that would have definitely gone to him were it in a K&P sketch. But that's not what this is. He was just the writer and director here, and his debut film is all the better for it. There will be people who say that this film spends too much time on race. They will say that, because more-or-less every single scene in Get Out is making a statement on race or racism, and that makes them uncomfortable. (I'm talking about white people.) Let's take the premise: Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a black man going to meet his girlfriend-of-four-months's parents for the first time. Allison Armitage: Man, what a white name, right? He asks her if her parents know that he's black. She says no but not to worry about it; her dad would have voted for Obama a third time, and he is definitely going to mention it. Because that's what white people do. Case in point: Me. Yesterday. Talking about this movie. Once I got to the office, I went around telling people in my office just how good Get Out was, but when I got to a black colleague of mine who I am friendly with but don't know very well, I went about it a little differently. I mentioned John Wick 2 first, which I recently rewatched (still loved it). After recommending that, I mentioned Get Out, almost as though it was an afterthought. It was not an afterthought: John Wick 2 was an afterthought. But I was concerned that he might think I was telling him because he was black, so I changed my behavior. And you know what that is? That's racism. Subtle, harmless(?) racism, to be sure, but racism nonetheless. Most of what we see in Get Out is a little less subtle than that. At the Armitage house, the parents are... off-putting, and Allison's brother is disturbing, but the friends of the family who come to visit are really the point. As they're introduced, they make various comments about blackness to Chris, seemingly expecting to be applauded for noticing his skin color without running away screaming. And through it all, Chris just smiles and nods. (When Allison goes on a tirade about her family's behavior, Chris just agrees with a knowing look; this scene got some of those loud laughs from select sections of the theater. I assume that, for some, it was a lived experience... For me, it was just a well-constructed joke, but I continue to wonder exactly what that means. Was I laughing with it, because it seemed "relatable" on some level... or was I laughing at it because I know that kind of thing happens and thank gosh I don't have to deal with it?) Things get strange pretty quick. The white family's hired help, a black man and black women, have terrifying smiles plastered onto their faces, and their actions and words feel... wrong. You know something is off pretty from the get-go, but you don't know what. And then you think you know what, but you're dead wrong. And you're dead wrong for two reasons: The movie sets up a fairly simple explanation and then half-subverts it in a fairly fascinating way. The implications of what is going on don't actually make a lot of sense (certainly less than the fairly simple explanation I was expecting). The more you consider what exactly happened to these people, the more confused you'll get. The conceit is cool. In the moment, it's terrifying. But on reflection, it's less "Ahhh!" and more "... Huh?" And, without spoiling it too much, the question becomes: Why? You can understand the expressions and actions to some extent, perhaps, but there's a deeper level that just doesn't make sense the more I think about it. (I'll be seeing the film again soon, which I think speaks to how much I enjoyed it, and this is something I'll be spending a lot of time trying to figure out if it feels Right. I hope that I'm being dumb and not the movie, but I fear it's the opposite.) Speaking of fear, aside from some Very Loud Noises early on, Get Out isn't really overtly "scary." It's more generally creepy, and I'm a big fan of Generally Creepy. The way everyone acts is unsettling (at the very least), and the descent into madness gets into your brain. You wonder, especially early on, if something like this could actually happen. Could actually be happening. (You don't wonder that in the final act.) There's probably an argument to be made that the comedy and horror stuff are too separated. There are the funny sequences, most of which involve Chris's friend Rod, who is watching his dog for the weekend, and there are scary sequences, most of which take place at the Armitage home. There's not a whole lot of overlap between the two. I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Someone I talked to afterwards didn't like it (he also felt like the race issues had somewhat of an anti-climax, a point on which I vehemently disagree). I think it's strange but not necessarily bad. I'm not sure how levity could have really been injected into the actually horror elements, because on the face of it, the way people act is kind of funny. But it's not actually funny. It's horrifying. (Racism is bad, you guys.) Before we wrap this thing up, let's have one final digression about race: Get Out was shot by a white man. I knew this before I looked it up, because I spent a large portion of the film thinking about lighting. In an interview with Dealine, Selma cinematographer talked about the complexity of lighting dark skin. It's relatively easy to light white skin, especially very pale white skin (we glow in the dark, so they say). But dark skin's harder. Lit poorly, they seem to disappear entirely. Vox has a fascinating video about how color film itself (the physical object, not the medium) was originally designed for white skin at the expense of all others. As one might expect, much of Get Out is shot at nighttime and in the dark. I mean, the dark is scary. However, said darkness should be obscuring the evil in the shadows and not the person who acts as our anchor. On more than a few occasions, it is difficult to make out Chris amongst all those shadows. Crucially: it doesn't feel intentional. It feels like a mistake, one made by a man used to lighting white people in the dark. (He does this well, in the moments where it's needed.) And that isn't to say that someone has to be black to know how to light black skin, but it's definitely not something that comes naturally. For the most, this is a film that looks quite good (I mean, that opening shot, though), but it's a pretty glaring fault there and Get Out suffers for it. But neither this nor any of its other faults keeps Get Out from greatness. It's objectively well made, and a fascinating way to visualize the black experience. I don't know how true to life it is, but my guess is that it's more real than any of us want it to be. Some will write it off as a flight of fancy, but they do so at society's peril. There are lessons to be learned from Get Out. I know I'm going to be thinking about it for a long, long time. And thinking about how I reacted and why I reacted the way I did. It got in my brain, and it's supposed to. That's what I'm focusing on, not the logical inconsistencies or any of the technical issues. I'm thinking about what matters. And sometimes the answers to those questions are tough to face. Jordan Peele has shown himself to be a very talented filmmaker with a unique voice and vision. I am very excited to see what he comes up with next.
Get Out Review photo
Wherein I Whitesplain Racism (Great...)
There's a story I heard but cannot verify about why Dave Chapelle ended The Chapelle Show when he did, with tens of millions of dollars on the line. So the story goes, he was working on a sketch that dealt prominently wi...

Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

Feb 10 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221140:43282:0[/embed] John Wick: Chapter 2 Director: Chad Stahelski Release Date: February 10, 2017Rating: R  John Wick: Chapter 2 is the movie you want it to be. It’s the movie it has to be. It begins with a Buster Keaton joke. The camera looks up at a wall in New York City that is projecting footage from one of his classic films, but as you watch, you see sounds that fit with it, and you think, “That’s not right. There wouldn’t be those sounds!” and then you see a man off his motorcycle with a badass car in pursuit. The sounds were diegetic. And then we realize that we’re about to watch a Buster Keaton movie, if The General was about a lone Confederate soldier violently murdering the entire Union army. Of course, it’s not really a slapstick comedy. There are some pretty great (CG-enhanced) stunts, many of which are effectively sight gags, but bringing Keaton’s name in will give you the wrong impression of what John Wick: Chapter 2 really is... though I stand by the comparison regardless. That scene is followed by John Wick getting back his car, a loose end from the last film that is dealt with in the first minutes of the film. For those who haven’t seen the original, it serves as a pretty effective entry point into the character. Cross-cutting John Wick’s any-means-necessary acquisition of his vehicle is a Russian mob-man, telling John Wick stories. (Again, everyone knows who he is.) And at the end of it, after a sizeable body count and significant financial damage, John Wick offers peace. And the mob man accepts. Because it doesn’t matter if John Wick just destroyed everything you own, you don’t come after him unless you have a death wish. It doesn’t matter who you are or how many you are; you cross him, and that’s good night.  So he tries to retire (again), and that works for several whole minutes of screen time. But, of course, nothing is ever so simple. Someone who knows John Wick very well indeed shows up, and after some… persuasion(?) gets The Boogeyman to do one last job. Things go badly. For everyone. Except us, the viewers; if people did the smart thing (not antagonizing John Wick), then we wouldn’t get badass movies out of it.  And oh man is Chapter 2 badass. The first film is pretty hardcore, but action sequels always have to Go Big or Go Home, and that’s taken to heart here. It’s not just that the fights are better and the body count larger (though they are), it’s that the staging of everything is just so much more impressive. There are three key fight locations –catacombs, subway* car, and an art installation – that stand out as being particularly spectacular, but all of the fights are great. Because of course they are. That's what the whole thing is about. Much like the first film, though, the gun stuff is better than the hand-to-hand. I am a big fan of the way the close-combat fights are filmed, what with the long takes and wide shots and everything. (Love of all that.) However, the actual fights themselves feel a little… deliberate. This is a problem I have with a lot of fight scenes, actually; it doesn’t feel like the moves that are happening are being decided and executed at the moment. I think you could make an argument that this is true about every single fight scene that Keanu Reeves has ever been in (sorry, The Matrix), and it’s still true here. (I have the same problems with all Christopher Nolan fight scenes, though the problem is much worse there than it is here.) Don’t get me wrong: They’re good fights, really good even, but they’re not Great the way the gunfights are. And the gunfights are really, really great. As in the first film, John Wick applies his bullets liberally; rarely do people get shot fewer than three times. Two to the chest and one to the head is most common, but you’ll see all kinds of combinations… as long as they all turn into headshots. And they have to. Because headshots are kinda his thing. Conveniently, though, he’s the only person as good at headshots as he is, because even though he has an (awesome) bullet-proof suit (justified well enough), he never covers his head. He gets shot at a lot of times, and even hit a couple, but they’re all aiming for the wrong place. Too bad for them. Before Chapter 2, there was (unsurprisingly) a trailer for the F8 of the Furious. It looks pretty cool. I should probably watch all those other ones to get ready for it. But I thought about it again while the credits were rolling. Assuming this does well (and I don’t see how it couldn’t), there will be a Chapter 3 at the very least, but why should it stop there? Why not keeping upping the ante until we hit John Wick: Chapter 8 (running alongside the trailer for Sixteen and Furious)? There’s a whole lot of creativity going on in the action here, and I think that it has a few more entries to go before it could really jump the shark. (Though, honestly, I think an ultra-violent Buster Keaton film would be pretty awesome.) I want our society, ultimately, to know John Wick like John Wick's does. I want to be able to walk into any social gathering, say the name, and have everyone together conjure up stories of multiple murders committed using a single pencil. I want him to be one of the all-time action greats. He deserves to be one of the action greats. And with Chapter 2, this franchise has started off right. Long live John Wick. (And long live John Wick.) *Don’t fuck with me, John Wick: Chapter 2. I know what the gosh darn PATH train looks like. At least put a “C” sticker somewhere on it if you’re going to pretend like it’s the C train. Sincerely,A Guy Who Lives in New York City.
John Wick 2 Review photo
You Will Know His Name
In the John Wick cinematic universe, everyone who matters knows John Wick, by face, name, and reputation. They know the stories, they see the man, and they get a little concerned: “You working again, John?” asked ...

Review: We Are the Flesh

Jan 12 // Hubert Vigilla
TRAILER IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK (NSFW) [embed]220963:43146:0[/embed] We Are the Flesh (Tenemos le carne)Director: Emiliano Rocha MinterRating: NRRelease Date: January 13, 2017 (limited)Country: Mexico  We Are the Flesh reminds me of early Clive Barker splatterpunk stories; one scene in thermal vision even recalls Barker's little-seen short film The Forbidden. There's also a hint of Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man, though it's shorn of the technological madness and kinetic stuff--this transgression is luridly organic. Maybe Tetsuo by way of Gaspar Noe, with occasional outbursts of hysterical excess straight out of Andrzej Zulawski (Possession). The film also has some moist, mucus-rich makeup effects that wouldn't be out of place in a Brian Yuzna movie (Society, From Beyond). This paragraph is either a warning or a recommendation--if you want blood, you got it. There's a man with a demonic smile (Noe Hernandez) who lives in an abandoned building. He gets high on homemade gasoline and gets off on solitude. A boy (Diego Gamaliel) and a girl (Maria Evoli), siblings, enter his building. They're desperately in search of food and shelter. The man lets them stay as long as they help him construct a claustrophobic landscape within the building. Think of something like a cave and a uterus complete with a pseudo birth canal; a psychoanalytic hellscape where the id can thrive. All the while, the man tries to coerce the boy and the girl to break social, sexual, and interpersonal taboos. Minter builds up dread through whispers and shouts as he mounts transgressions upon each other. There's incest, rape, murder, cannibalism, on-camera sex, and necrophilia, and even now I can't say what it all adds up to. We Are the Flesh may not add up to anything, to be honest. Even though Hernandez and Evoli give the film their all--Evoli in particular goes for psychotic broke--the movie may just be images and noise with the intent to shock. I think there's a political allegory about Mexico and poverty, that a lack of means reduces us to some base state of nature in which social mores no longer matter. But it's a bit of a guess. It might be a stretch. Sometimes extreme cinema is just extreme cinema, but I can't help but sense something more meaningful behind all of this given how repulsed yet affected I felt. When someone lets out a blood-curdling scream, there has to be a reason, right? Maybe? Or was it just the desire to scream? This struggle for meaning is probably an intentional provocation from Minter. When confronted with something shocking, I usually feel challenged to interpret it. Yet Minter evades overt meaning making. There seems to be 10 minutes missing from the final act of the 80-minute film. Several events take place off camera unexplained, and it leads to total narrative disorientation. We Are the Flesh was a feverish nightmare already, and then that skimpy dream logic breaks down completely. No order, not for this this movie. What Minter provides is a sustained sense of unease, however. That feeling remained with me even after a less than satisfying conclusion. Even if We Are the Flesh only prompts exasperation and disgust, it's such a strange trip into the abyss I want to send others down there into the dark who are willing. Minter, like or hate it, is a Mexican filmmaker to watch. I'm reminded of something Clive Barker said about movies once (paraphrased): I want to feel something, even if it's just disgust; better that than thinking, okay, let's go for a pizza. After We Are the Flesh, pizza was the last thing I wanted.
Review: We Are the Flesh photo
The ecstasy of pure id
Reviewing We Are the Flesh from writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter is tricky. On the one hand, it's a deeply flawed film aimed at a limited audience. It's transgressive in the extreme, sexually explicit bordering on pornog...

Review: Paterson

Dec 26 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220910:43125:0[/embed] PatersonDirector: Jim JarmuschRelease Date: December 21, 2016 (France); December 28, 2016 (USA, limited)Rating: R 2003's American Splendor may be the best companion to Paterson. That film chronicled the life of comics writer Harvey Pekar. Pekar lived and wrote in Cleveland, and kept a day job at a VA hospital. Paterson in Jarmusch's film works as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. He uses little catches of time through the day to write poetry in his notebook. This is the writing life of working people--no parties with literati, no salons, no scenester-ism, no pretension, just toil and care with words. Paterson follows a week in the life our bus driver. At the end of the first day, we get the broadstrokes of this character's routine. He wakes up beside his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), he walks to work, he eavesdrops on people's conversations, he returns home, he walks their bulldog, and he has a drink at the local bar. The routine might seem stifling, but Jarmusch enlarges the world that Paterson lives in. Side characters get fleshed out in unexpected ways, and we get new details about who Paterson and Laura are through careful reveals and well-observed scenes. The initial claustrophobia of the structure both folds out and opens inward. Paterson's acts of noticing help convey his sense of the city he lives in, his interior life, and the lives of people around him. Bad poetry ruins everything. To avoid that danger, Jarmusch hired New York School poet Ron Padgett to write original work for Paterson. Paterson's poetry reads like actual poetry (a pastiche of William Carlos Williams) rather than the hokey stuff that movie-poetry often sounds like. Jarmusch depicts the writing of this poetry through voiceover and superimposed text over montages. It isn't the most ideal representation of the creative process, but it works. The whole of Paterson is imbued with its own poetic flourishes, like the constant appearance of twins, doubles, or mirrored lines, as if trying to find a visual equivalent for internal rhyme or rhyming couplets. (Intentional correspondence: William Carlos Williams, writer of the five-book poem Paterson, is the favorite poet of a man named Paterson who lives in Paterson, NJ in a movie called Paterson. Coincidental correspondence: Adam Driver cast as a bus driver. ) One of the more fascinating things I noticed about Paterson was how it explores the relationship between Paterson and Laura. They spend most of their time apart, but thanks to the new information we get about each of them as the film unfolds, I'm able to understand not just how they work as a couple but why. On the surface, Laura seems like a manic pixie dream girl artist who wound up with a polite stoic, but they complement each other and know the importance of space and time in their relationship. Driver is a delicate soul in this film rather than his usual hipster scumbag. His performance reminds me of an artist friend back in the Bay Area who struggles to make time to paint. Farahani adds depth to Laura, who, like her boyfriend, is a type of optimistic American dreamer. Maybe this space and togetherness between Paterson and Laura is an example of the power of interpersonal enjambment. There's been a lot of discussion in the online literary community about the role of writing in the lives of writers. Is writing just a hobby? Can writing really be considered a job? As if those are the only options. Paterson seems to offer its own answers with a zen-like Jarmusch cool. While Paterson keeps so many of his poems to himself in a journal, he writes because he can't live without it. It's where he finds and creates meaning, and issues of ego, publication, notoriety, and the local scene never factor into the significance of what he does. It is significant simply because it is. Perhaps the melancholy of the score is meant as a counterpoint to Paterson the man. So much about the surface of his life suggests the misery of obscure solitude. That might be true in other stories, but Paterson is a writer, and in addition to his good fortune for having the friends he does, he has writing to fill the empty spaces of each day.
Review: Paterson photo
The city, the man, the joyous everday
Jim Jarmusch's Paterson is work of subtle optimism. It's a gentle film, kind and generous, funny, too. Watching the movie, I sensed Jarmusch giving me a reassuring push, like a parent at a swing or a child casting off a toy b...

Review: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Dec 25 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221155:43293:0[/embed] The Autopsy of Jane DoeDirector: André ØvredalRelease Date: December 21, 2016 (limited theaters and VOD) Rating: R The Autopsy of Jane Doe follows father and son pathologists, Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) Tilden operating out of their family owned morgue. When the body of an unidentified young woman (Olwen Kelly) is found, the two must figure out the mysterious circumstances behind her death. But as the autopsy rolls on, strange things begin happening and the Tildens find themselves struggling to escape the mortuary with their lives. This simple premise is what makes Autopsy work as well as it does. It's a tightly focused feature never losing sight of its central mystery. I'm going to try my best not to divulge the film's mystery, but honestly, the film isn't even about the reveal. It's all in the build-up. The entire film is built around this idea of confinement, and that's reflected in the film's editing and set design.  From the opening, there's a keen sense of dread permeating throughout the film. The inspired choices like an aged mortuary building (enhanced by a lack of natural light thanks to Autopsy taking place late at night), to the casting of Jane Doe herself, help make the audience uncomfortable. Taking something as inherently disturbing as a medical procedure is made doubly so thanks to quick cuts to Jane's face every time one of the Tilden's makes an incision. Thanks to these close ups, the autopsy becomes more like a creepy surgery that permeates with dramatic irony as the audience becomes more suspicious of Jane than the characters. There's also a refreshing flow to how much of Jane's mystery is revealed at a time. By halfway through, you already know most of what is necessary to move the plot forward without going overboard. Unfortunately, since the film's effort is put into Jane Doe, the Tildens get less development as a result.  There are some hints of tension between Austin and his father, but that's more credited to Hirsch's and Cox's performances than to any character building. Due to the film's tight focus and short time, there isn't much room in the narrative for anything other than the mystery. Even as the Tildens fear for their lives, I found myself lacking the necessary wherewithal to care whether or not they actually survived. Because of this, the film lacks tension once Jane Doe's origins are revealed. Since so much effort is put into its buildup, there sadly isn't enough effort left over for the denouement. In fact, the finale even goes on for a bit longer than it should. There's a particular scene toward the end that would've made for a perfect finale, but seeing Autopsy go beyond it lessened my enjoyment overall. I guess it's more of a sense of disappointment given how well Autopsy had edited itself to that point. But on the other hand, I do appreciate the uniqueness of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. While there are some ideas I would've liked to see the film explore further (especially when it teases metaphysical horror, which is something lacking from most current offerings in the genre), and I would've appreciated a better grasp on character, the film sets out to tell a certain story and competently does it.  The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a focused, chilling thriller that you should check out before you start writing your end of the year lists. 
Jane Doe Review photo
Doe-n't miss this one
Every year I wind up missing a good deal of films as their advertising end up swallowed by the huge hype machines of bigger studio releases. But the true gems make themselves known somehow. Usually it's through word of mouth,...

Review: Moana

Nov 23 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221047:43203:0[/embed] MoanaDirectors: John Musker and Ron ClementsRelease Date: November 23, 2016Rating: PG Moana follows the titular Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), a teenager who's always dreamed of traveling the seas beyond her island village, but is next in line for village chieftain and must stay home. When darkness begins rotting away her home, brought on when the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) steals the heart of the ancient goddess Te Fiti, Moana must journey across the sea, find Maui and ask him for help, and return the Heart of Te Fiti from where it came. From its core, Moana is much different from Disney's other princess films. Choosing instead to follow Moana on a hero's journey, rather than a quest for love, the film allows for individual character development thanks to its simplicity. While this simplicity may mirror Disney's previous films a bit too much, it is honestly what makes Moana work as well as it does.  Directors Musker and Clements have experience creating lasting Disney legacies with the two of them directing hits like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Great Mouse Detective. Basically, these two are responsible for a good deal of your favorite Disney moments and it's the same with Moana. The film may share too many structural similarities with previous films because of their choices, but it's also sure to make up for that simplicity with a complex emotional through line and culture. It's what previous Disney Princess films had lacked, and it's what Frozen experimented with. With a simplified tale, the film allows the characters to add layers of depth. Instead of growing as a character in relation to another person, i.e when Ariel changes herself for Prince Eric, for example, Moana's tale is all about self-improvement. It's not complicated with extraneous plot like a third act twist villain or jokes from a cartoon sidekick, Moana instead sticks to its heart with its two central characters and builds everything around them.  Being a character first type of fairy tale, Moana trusts in its two stars to make it work. Thankfully, Dwayne Johnson and the awesomely talented newcomer, Auli’i Cravalho more than hold their own. Johnson as Maui is energetic and as charming as he ever is, but, coupled with Maui's slightly mischievous character design, now has a slight edge missing from some of Johnson's work. His song, "You're Welcome" is also fantastic. His single is definitely a standout with a blend of humor and musicality. But I don't think I'll ever be able to fully express how impressed I am by the young Auli’i Cravalho. You would never be able to tell, but as her first major starring role, Cravalho is an absolute delight. Once again marrying character design and performance, Cravalho makes Moana a believable kid. Moana is astonishingly the first Disney Princess to act like an actual young girl. She's awkward sometimes, but has an endearing moxie that characterized classic princesses like Mulan, Ariel, and Tiana. But unlike the other Princesses, Moana is allowed to have non-romantic flaws.  You're probably a bit worried since I keep comparing Moana to previous films, but it's entirely intentional. Musker and Clements intended to recapture the spirit of the 2D films. Every part of its production fully embraces nostalgia, while making sure to change enough to keep the film from repeating the past too much. Thanks to the phenomenal soundtrack from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i, and Mark Mancina, every scene has just a bit more punch. The opening, for example, is kind of incredible. As the film introduces its setting and unique culture (as the Oceanic island culture is far more three dimensional than cultures seen in films past), its punctuated by an incredible chant-like song mirroring The Lion King's now prolific opening. While I'm not sure if its lead single's, "How Far I'll Go," contemporary style will outlast the Broadway appeal of its predecessor, it's still heart-opening. Jemaine Clement's surprise song performance is pretty great too, as it plays to his creepy wheelhouse. Also, the most beautiful song and performance overall is the ancestor song. I don't want to spoil it, but just trust that it's fantastic. But none of this character work or music would succeed without Moana's unbelievable visuals. Moana has Disney's most exemplary animation to date with its luscious landscape and gorgeous ocean animations. The setting itself is a main character, and somehow feels fantasical yet attainable. It's an island paradise capturing the mythical nature of its fairy tale, but also looks grounded enough to exist in our world. There's no skirting the Pacific Islander culture here, unlike the other Princess' films dilution of ethnicity. The character body design is diverse, with Moana herself looking less plastic and moving more fluidly than humans seen in Tangled or Frozen. Thanks to its full embrace of what makes it different, the story's complex emotion and culture seem simplistic. See? Full circle. It's simplicity by design. Blending its depth so well and sneaking in character development through song, I didn't realize how much I had experienced until I started writing this review. The only real problem I had with Moana overall was how some of its contemporary jokes and song arrangements (There's a Twitter reference and other meta jokes) betray the timeless quality of its setting, but honestly it's not that big of a deal. Moana is definitely one of the better theatrical experiences of 2016, and in a year full of strife, it's what we need right now.  Its nostalgic quality may turn some off of Moana, but the film is still incredibly fresh despite these parallels to the past. It's a Disney Princess film taking the successes of the past, fixes their problems, and injects a breath of life into Disney they haven't had for quite some time. Moana is for the child in you, your children, and even their children. And who knows? Moana may just go down as a "classic" years down the line. 
Moana Review photo
Hawaiian roller coaster ride
Disney Animation has had one critical success after another since they're in the middle of a new creative renaissance. Fully embracing CG animation, Disney has produced hits like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and most im...

Review: The Monster

Nov 21 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221043:43200:0[/embed] The MonsterDirector: Bryan BertinoRelease Date: November 11, 2016Rating: R  Though there are a couple of others who make brief appearances, The Monster is effectively a film with only two characters: Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). Kazan is 33 but looks ten years younger, and I'm pretty sure her character is closer to the latter than the former. Kathy is a terrible mother, pretty much what everyone assumes a young twenty-something with an already eight-or-nine-year-old child (or whatever age she is; Ballentine is 15, but I think she's also playing someone younger) is like. You don't root for her, and you definitely feel Lizzy's exasperation more than her mother's, but both of them feel extremely real, and their reactions to an increasingly horrific series of events serve as the focal point for everything that happens. And what happens? Well, late at night, as Kathy drives Lizzy to be with her father, they hit a wolf that runs out into the street in the pouring rain. The car breaks down. They call for help, but they have to wait. The wolf disappears from the road. There's a monster. Most of the film takes place on that road, in that car. Everything that matters takes place between Kathy and Lizzy. Everyone else is just filler. Fortunately, both actors give genuinely spectacular performances, and I became immediately invested in their struggles, and I was invested through all of the horrors. I mean, it made me cry. Actually and truly. Movies in general don't make me cry, and horror movies in particular don't (at least, not from anything other than fear). And yet, much to my surprise, The Monster got to me. Kathy and Lizzy got to me. Everything from the two of them felt so real, so earnest and heartfelt, even in the midst of ridiculous events, they were grounded. They made everything work. If you've seen It Follows (you should), or even just its trailer, you may remember the shot of the naked old man standing on the roof looking down at the main characters. It's a cool shot, but it's a problematic one. It doesn't make any sense in the narrative itself. The creature wouldn't do that for any reason other than because the director said, "This is gonna look awesome." And he's right, but it pulls you out of what is generally a pretty cohesive movie with reasonably well-conceived rules. Everything in The Monster is like that image on the roof. You can never know what the monster is going to do, but you always know when it's going to do it: Right when the film needs it to. It comes at the apex of tension, right when you expect it. Maybe you just see it in the background of a shot. Maybe it pulls a character underneath a truck. Maybe it throws a severed arm onto the windshield of a car. It does whatever with no rhyme or reason, but it does it exactly when anyone who has ever seen a horror movie would expect it to. The monster itself looks pretty good, and I am a fan of big practical effects, but it also is just... there. I went back and forth with the person I saw the film with on whether the monster represents anything (or whether The Monster is trying to make a grander point), and both of those conversations ended with a resounding, "Uhh... no?" Certainly the monster just seems like a monster, something there to drive the plot. It doesn't connect to the struggle that the characters are going through in any meaningful way, and the lack of clear rules makes it hard to pinpoint any real purpose at all. And that lack of clear rules gets really problematic in the final act. Really, it just serves to get in the way of the drama. So, the monster is by far the weakest part of the film whose name it occupies, but it's a testament to just how good the dramatic relationship between Kathy and Lizzy is that it doesn't really matter. While the monster waits in the darkness, biding its time for no clear reason, we get to spend time with Kathy and Lizzy. That's an emotional rollercoaster, one that is often difficult to watch but impossible to look away from. There's a decent argument to be made that the relationship deserves a better movie than the one it's in, but that's a needlessly negative way to look at it. We should be glad that we got to see it at all. I know I am.
The Monster Review photo
More tears, less fears
As often as I can, I like to go into films relatively blind. In the case of The Monster, my Facebook feed had been full of friends talking about how stellar the leading performances were and how great it was that they had gon...

Review: Manchester by the Sea

Nov 17 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220919:43136:0[/embed] Manchester by the SeaDirector: Kenneth LonerganRating: RRelease Date:  November 18, 2016 (limited) Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a handyman who lives in a small room in Boston. He's prickly and withdrawn, a brooding guy who spends a lot of time alone. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away, Lee reluctantly returns to his hometown to help settle affairs with Joe's teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Whenever Lee's name is mentioned, people around town perk up. They're surprised, shocked, that Lee Chandler, the Lee Chandler, is back. He's got a reputation for something. There's a reason he's avoided home. Affleck's troubled quiet is remarkable to watch. It's a nuanced performance built around restraint. I found myself wondering throughout the film what moments would cause his stoic facade to collapse. There's such an immense heartbreak and guilt in him, which is clear even before his past is revealed, yet he doesn't want to share his emotional and psychological burden with anyone else. As penitent as he is, an intimate human connection would hurt even more. He'd rather get drunk and get beat up. Lonergan drops several telling flashbacks, and he finds elegant ways to loop the past into the present and then out again. It adds dimension to Lee, and Affleck is superb at playing the same man in different keys. Michelle Williams plays Lee's ex-wife Randi, whose character is similarly constrained by her emotions. She wants to speak about their history together, but doing that may be more painful than staying bottled up. A phone call early in the film captures the tense awkwardness of two people who want to say more, say everything, but can't bring themselves to say much of anything. Williams has always been an excellent and underrated actress, and part of me wanted more of her in the film. It would be a different sort of movie. Manchester by the Sea is more about Lee and to a certain extent his nephew Patrick and the shortcomings of masculine tropes when it comes to raw emotional life. On the one hand the male-dominated story feels like a missed opportunity, but maybe it also emphasizes Lee and Patrick's solitude. With regard to family, this man and this boy are all that's left in each other's lives. The restraint in the lives of the characters may explain why I responded so much to the emotional highs and lows of Manchester by the Sea. It's the catharsis for the audience that the characters can't give themselves. All of the funny and sad material gives an alternately absurd and humane texture to these lives. Even the material that doesn't seem like it fits in a streamlined narrative--such as an unexpected but perfect cameo appearance, or Patrick's teenage horndog shtick--enrich the sad, beautiful whole. Admittedly this seismographic portrait of people's lives doesn't work for everyone. I had a pretty spirited back-and-forth with my friend and fellow film critic Nathanael Hood, and he was lukewarm on the film's jagged contours. Lonergan finds quiet and stillness amid mood swings, and also offers the actors ample room to emote or withhold. Frozen chicken falls from the freezer and a person finally breaks down; someone offers a small tip for service and the other person doesn't know how to interpret that sort of kindness. I laughed, I cried, and I laughed. All of the funny moments are punctuated by an unremitting sadness. Lee is comically bad at small talk and social gatherings, but the reasons for it, like so much about Manchester by the Sea, are so personal and painful.
Manchester by the Sea photo
Life is heartbreaking, and funny, too
Watching Manchester by the Sea, I was reminded of two lines from the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch: "I cry, because I will laugh if I don't" and "I laugh, because I will cry if I don't". Kenneth Lonergan's latest film is ...

DOC NYC Review: 13TH

Nov 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220907:43127:0[/embed] 13THDirector: Ava DuVernayRelease Date: October 7, 2016 (Netflix)Rating: TBD DuVernay's central thesis is that while the 13th Amendment ostensibly abolished slavery, the systems of oppression in the 1800s evolved into different forms of oppression that are currently in practice today. It's a compelling argument that begins with the Reconstruction Era following The Civil War, in which imprisoned black men were used as labor to rebuild the south. It continues into segregation and Jim Crow, the war on drugs, the Republican's Southern strategy, and so forth. DuVernay is expert at cycling various ideas, phrases, and images throughout 13TH, which helps make her overraching argument cohesive.  13TH generally follows a linear and chronological crawl through 150 years of American history, intercutting archival footage and talking heads. Our guides through history include activists (e.g., Angela Davis), academics (e.g., Henry Louis Gates Jr.), commentators (e.g., Van Jones), and politicians (e.g., Senator Cory Booker). While the primary draw of 13TH is the outrage at a corrupt criminal justice system, formal touches contribute to the riveting watch. The settings for each of the interviews, for instance, are often industrial spaces that evoke the feel of jails and prisons. DuVernay withholds identifying many interviewees until their third or fourth appearance on screen. I don't know why that seemed so novel, but I was hanging on people's words a little more that I might have been. There are a few contrarians among the interviewees who don't think systemic racism is a problem. Of course they're white dudes. Surprisingly, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich isn't one of these clueless white guys. Gingrich appears in 13TH and says that many white people don't understand what life is like for black people in America. I may not agree with his politics, but credit goes to Gingrich. He's relatively more woke than some people I know. 13TH is predominantly concerned with mass incarceration and how the prison population increased dramatically through the '70s, '80s, and '90s. It's neat and brisk through most of its 100-minute run time, though it becomes loose once we focus on the mid-2000s to today. From prison privatization we then cover issues of police militarization, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and even (perhaps unavoidably) Donald Trump's ugly rhetoric in the Presidential race. (Trump makes an earlier appearance when he calls for the execution of The Central Park Five.) If she wanted, DuVernay could have made a mini-series out of this, or a long-form doc in multiple parts a la Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America. DuVernay's such a skilled cinematic essayist that she's able to rein in 13TH even as it seems to stray. I mentioned her cycle of ideas and images earlier. Just when I felt like the movie was moving off track, she would reintroduce an idea or an image to show why one particular point is a reticulation of a previous one. The death of Emmett Till haunts the deaths that gave rise to Black Lives Matter. Phrases like "law and order" take on a sinister quality. The idea of the black man as a rapacious criminal similarly casts its unending shadow. The most memorable recurring image in 13TH involves a black man in a suit and hat. It must be from the 1950s. He's walking through a suburb. There's a mob of angry white men around him. They shove him. They yell at him. He gets punched in the back of the head. But the black man keeps walking. He's being insulted and assaulted, but he's carrying on unphased. During a press conference, DuVernay referred to this anonymous person as "the dignified man". I don't know where he was walking or if he got there, but I hope he made it okay. I hope everyone does somehow.
Review: The 13th photo
Slavery didn't end, it adapted
13TH feels like a culmination of Ava DuVernay's career to this point. The documentary brings together the racial and social history of Selma, her years of work as a documentarian, her stint as a journalist, and even her under...

DOC NYC Review: Weiner

Nov 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220984:43191:0[/embed] WeinerDirectors: Josh Kriegman and Elyse SteinbergRating: RRelease Date: May 20, 2016 Many have lamented that the 2016 election lacks big ideas. Where's the policy debate? Where's the climate change discussion? Where's the substance? Given, it's difficult to have any discussion of weight when one of the two major candidates knows less about governance than a 6th grader, but let's just entertain the idea that our public discourse has eroded. The public says it wants policy, but maybe it just wants a show. A reality show, no less. That's one of the underlying suggestions of Weiner. I remember learning more about sex from the Monica Lewinsky scandal on TV than from my folks--I even recall a debate on whether or not oral sex was sex per se on the second season of MTV's The Real World. Over the last 12 years, Donald Trump parlayed his reality TV stardom into a political run; and over the last eight years, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin parlayed her political stardom into a reality TV gig. In my previous piece on Weiner (which should be considered part one of this review), I mentioned there were moments in the film that reminded me of the faux-doc sitcom The Office. America's made a mockumentary out of politics, and I don't see that changing, or at least I don't know what the change will be. And there I go, clutching my pearls, telling the kids to get off my lawn, implicitly pining for some sort of high-minded policy debate. And yet here I am, writing about this great political documentary which captures the zeitgeist of our political moment precisely because it's about the spectacle of a disgraced man's downfall rather than the strengths and weaknesses of his political platform. The spectacle is more dazzling; or, to use that wretched overused word, the optics are more captivating. To put it another way, who wants to talk about the middle class and the working class--or, hell, Standing Rock--when we have blow jobs and cum on blue dresses and sexting and dick pics and pussy grabbing instead? Thinking about Weiner again (what a phrase), I feel even worse for Huma Abedin. She's suffered yet another indignity because of her husband. Regardless how you feel about their politics, Huma and Hillary Clinton have a lot in common when it comes to the men in their lives, which probably explains their close bond. Huma carries herself through the film with a semi-translucent veneer of grace that can't mask the extreme mortification and anger at her awful fucking husband. Meanwhile, Weiner smiles and laughs and grandstands, all the while grinning. He looks like the Epic Troll Face guy. It's armchair psychology at its worst, but he must get off on the attention. That would explain the recurring exhibitionism, and his most recent public disgrace. In my first piece on Weiner, I mentioned a kind of admiration for the guy given his persistence. Weiner tried, he failed, he tried again, and failed again. Worstward, ho! But given these latest allegations, the admiration vanishes. Some people are Sisyphus. Abedin, for instance. I compared her to Buster Keaton in the previous piece, and on she goes, walking, running, continuing despite the chaotic world around her; the straightwoman in a slapstick, dick pic world. Other people, like Anthony Weiner, are less like Sisyphus and are really just very compelling persistent assholes. Very compelling persistent assholes make for great television, and great films, too. Apparently, they also make for nightmarish presidential elections.
Review: Weiner photo
The rise and fall and rise and fall...
Weiner is an appropriate film to review on Election Day, and not just because it's one of the best political documentaries of the last 10 years. Former Congressman Anthony Weiner potentially put the 2016 election in jeopardy ...

Review: Pokemon: The First Movie

Nov 03 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221011:43182:0[/embed] Pokemon: The First MovieDirectors: Kunihiko Yuyama and Michael HaigneyRating: GRelease Date: November 6, 1999 (USA); November 1, 2016 (special event re-release) When a group of scientists sucessfully clone an ancient pokemon known as Mew, the resulting super pokemon breaks loose and wreaks havoc. The super clone, Mewtwo (Philip Bartlett), now in search of a purpose, invites the strongest pokemon trainers to a mysterious island to battle him. Ash Ketchum (Veronica Taylor), together with his friends Misty (Rachael Lillis), Brock (Eric Stuart), and Pikachu, meet Mewtwo's challenge and soon figure out there's more to this pokemon than they realized.  First things first, The First Movie is incredibly brisk. Choosing not to overstay its welcome (if you don't include the Pikachu's Island Adventure short), it instead tightly focuses on developing its central antagonist. Mewtwo themself is well defined with a clear existential crisis (as they try to clear the clouds of their mind, not so subtly represented by the storm they whip up with their powers), and it's a greater deal of characterization than anyone else gets in the film. It's such a well put together back story, in fact, it's surprising The First Movie is able to explore as much thematic territory as it does. It ends up questioning the philosophy behind the Pokémon series in full as it briefly challenges the "fighting vs. battling" argument within the Poké world. The film doesn't get as deep as I would've hoped, as the argument gives way to a hokey climax, but this amount of self-awareness is impressive for a children's film.  The laser focus on Mewtwo may help the film's pace within its short run time (as it rarely goes on tangents), but it's hard to care about anyone else involved with the plot since they fail to get the same attention. Since the film assumes the audience has working knowledge of the Pokémon TV series, and it's a fair assumption given the branding, Ash and his friends (along with Team Rocket, introduced into the plot in a Rosencrantz/Gildenstern, outsider looking in fashion) don't really have a reason to be involved. Their usual schtick of wandering into a plot in motion may work for a TV series needing a fresh story every week, but it falls flat here. Along with introducing seemingly important ancillary characters (like the kidnapped Nurse Joy or the random lady who knows storms or something) only to serve no purpose, The First Movie fails to turn Ash into a compelling protagonist.  With no real personality of his own, Ash instead becomes a moral mouthpiece. His base love for his pokemon is exaggerated into a love for everything and grand declarations of peace. It's a far cry from an Ash who, just minutes before, was willing to pit his pokemon against Mewtwo. The First Movie betrays its emotional themes with its own world, really. It's greater desire to stop senseless violence goes against everything Pokémon is known for. So it's okay to use your pokemon to fight when they use their abilities? Since there's never a clear difference between how Mewtwo forces a fight and how trainers could force a fight, the overall moral is clouded. Rather than focus on, say, the friendship between trainers and their pokes (thus enhancing its narrative overall), the film goes with a generic message. It almost feels like a cop out.  But in the end, Pokémon: The First Movie makes up for its shortcomings with pure entertainment value. Once you get passed the cheesy dialogue (complete with puns and jokes that didn't age well in the slightest) and the murky themes (which I give the film credit for attempting), there are plenty of rewards in store. A well written antagonist, slick animation, and a score that includes the ironically lovable "Brother Against Brother" song.  No matter what score I put here, it literally doesn't matter. You love it, you hate it, you already had an opinion 18 years in the making. But it was great to confirm that I liked a good thing back then, instead of figuring out yet another product from my childhood was hot garbage. My critic brain may settle on "Good," but my nostalgic one adds about 30 points. 
Pokemon The First Movie photo
"...and we succeeded"
One weekend, too many years ago, I spent a night over at my aunt's place. She didn't have cable, but she had a VCR. Which meant I could watch any movie I brought with me when I was bored of doing dumb kid stuff. Not thinking ...

Review: Tampopo

Oct 21 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220968:43157:0[/embed] TampopoDirector: Juzo ItamiRating: NRRelease Date: October 21, 2016 (limited)Country: Japan  There's a familiar old west tale in Tampopo, with variations on cowboys and saloons and pretty schoolmarms. Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) are a pair of truck-driving gourmands that mosey into town. They stop by a noddle shop in a sorry state run by a widow named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto). She's quaint, mousy, often dressed in gingham, demure to a fault. Also, her ramen just plain sucks. Since they're good cowboys, Goro and Gun help Tampopo improve her shop, sort of like working the farm or rebuilding this here schoolhouse. Tampopo spends the the film perfecting her ramen and in the process attempts to perfect herself. It's not just a western but, philosophically, a martial arts movie. This is a story about the discipline of mastery. Think Jiro Dreams of Sushi, except ramen: self-improvement through a process of trial and error and practice. It's a familiar narrative, but when filtered through an unexpected intermediary, it achieves remarkable existential heft. Even in a decidedly lighthearted comedy like Tampopo, it's moving to witness someone try and try again until they achieve some ennobling dignity, no matter how small. All that effort for a good bowl of soup. But that's just part of the oddball/heartfelt appeal of Tampopo. Soba isn't the only noodle. The movie starts with a gangster in white (Koji Yakusho) and his moll (Fukumi Kuroda) entering a movie theater, ostensibly to watch the main story of Tampopo described above. The gangster waxes philosophical about life, death, and the movies, and then roughs up a guy crinkling a bag of chips in the row behind him. Later in the film, the gangster and his moll reappear periodically, using food as foreplay. By comparison, these scenes make 9 1/2 Weeks seem like the missionary position in Mormon underwear. Swirling around these two recurring narratives are a series of one-off skits on the role of food in people's lives. So many rituals, roles, and social codes are built around food and propriety, and we take a break from our gal at the noodle shop to get a survey of food culture in 1980s Japan. What Tampopo seems to emphasize in most of these one-offs is the sensual pleasure of food, and how our desire for sweets and richness and even just sloppy eating can't be restrained. Yet even when defying restraint, our taste for the sensual can be refined and in the process our appreciation for pleasure deepened. Tampopo isn't a movie for foodies. What a wretched, bourgie word that is. Tampopo is a movie for uplifting gormandizers who want to suck marrow rather than spoon it from the bone. Tampopo was just the second film from Itami, though it seems so assured and confident. Who else but a confident filmmaker decides to include a goofy rice omelet scene with a hobo? At numerous times the actors address some off-camera interlocutor by looking directly at the audience. This recurring quirk is sort of like Ozu, but not like Ozu at all. Tonally I was reminded a little of A Christmas Story, but then in comes a sexy or dark or sensitive moment redolent of some separate influence. Every couple minutes, unexpected surprises, and just more and more delight.
Review: Tampopo photo
Zen and the sexiness of ramen making
Prior to this week, the last time I saw Juzo Itami's 1985 food comedy Tampopo was in the mid-90s. I remembered so little of the movie save for the fact that I enjoyed it. Some isolated scenes are easy to recall, though. There...

Review: Moonlight

Oct 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220901:43153:0[/embed] MoonlightDirector: Barry JenkinsRelease Date: October 21st, 2016Rating: R  Moonlight is told in three parts, each spaced a decade or so apart. In part one, Chiron is a child; people call him "Little." In part 2, he's a teenager; one person calls him "Black." In part 3, he's in his late 20s; everyone calls him "Black" now. Each of the three actors is in the poster, which I think is an excellent poster (there are also individual character posters of each actor in the same position, which is less cool). However, the posters all have the same, dumb tagline: "This is the story of a lifetime." That's a terrible tagline. Unlike, say, the Disney film that you might expect to have the tagline, it's more literal. It is, sort of, the story of someone's lifetime. But that's not a very good measuring stick. I look at that poster and think, "That looks really cool." I read that tagline and think, "That sounds really bland." Though that raises an interesting thought (more on that later). All three parts of Moonlight are good, though they are all good for totally different reasons. Part 1 sets Chiron up, but it's less about Chiron than the man who is his mentor: Juan. Part of me wonders if that's intentional, that it's supposed to be about Juan. Certainly he's a critical part of the narrative (and also of Chiron's development as the film progresses), but this is not his story ultimately. And it seems to me that part of the reason it feels so much like his story is because of just how spectacular Mahershala Ali is in the role. Every moment he's on screen belongs to him. If years down the road, Moonlight winds up forgotten (I don't think it will), Ali's performance will not. The conflict of his character — a drug dealer who sells to the mother of the kid he's now begun to take care of, in large part because the kid's mother is a drug addict — is compelling as heck, and the performance makes it all the more so. Juan isn't in Part 2 (and he's not really in Part 3, but he's also totally in Part 3). He's dead, but no one ever says it. That is actually one of my favorite things about the film. There's no, "Sucks that Juan died in that [whatever happened]." In fact, we don't ever find out what happened. We know from the bits and pieces, the "I haven't seen her since the funeral" and the "This is my house." There's nothing expository here; these words are natural and in character. Writer/director Barry Jenkins trusts the audience's intelligence enough to make basic connections. I have always appreciated that in a filmmaker, and Moonlight is no exception. That said, this is where we should double back to my earlier thought: "That sounds really bland." While no part of Moonlight could be justifiably called "bland," a case could be made that it feels oddly "typical." Chiron's story is, really, not a new one. I've long made a point that, if I can see something coming, it was telegraphed from a mile away, because I more often than not will be blindsided by twists that everyone else sees as painfully obvious. And Moonlight is not really a film about twists (the closest thing the story has to one has already been spoiled in this review (sorry)), but it's a film about a sequence of events. The sequence of events in each story can more or less be predicted within the first ten minutes of each time period. This is especially true of the teenage years, which follow an almost painfully conventional structure. Part 3 diverges most drastically, but the way Chiron would ultimately turn out is not unpredictable.  And yet, it didn't matter. In fact, I'd argue that the film is more effective rather than less as a result of this. Because this is something like a story we've seen time and time again, it highlights just how well crafted it is here. In reviews of foreign films, I've discussed how seeing a different culture's take on the Same Old Story can ultimately create something that feels new and fresh. I wasn't really thinking about it within our borders, but that's a matter of my own blindness. The creative minds behind Moonlight have had unique experiences that the white people who usually make decisions just can't grasp. I don't believe for a moment that a white person could not have made Moonlight feel so... vital, because it would have felt like every other story of its ilk. You may know the beats, but they still feel fresh. And it's a combination of everything, because the writing has to be there; the performances have to be there; the technical aspects have to be there. Truly great movies can't succeed on one level. They must succeed on every level. And Moonlight does. (I want to briefly call out the camerawork, which is spectacular. Hell, just that opening shot is a goddamn masterwork.) And so we return to this idea of representation, and the weight that rests on Moonlight's shoulders. People will look to it as the film that can keep the Oscars this year from being so white. If it doesn't get at least four nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography), well... I can't even fathom that possibility, because this is a film that more than deserves the praise that's been heaped upon it. By all accounts (again, I will not be watching it), the cracks in The Birth of a Nation as a work of art started to show as the narrative of Nate Parker's past emerged. And so were it to achieve ultimate success, some may have seen it more as a response to controversy than a justified win in and of itself. (That would be unfortunate, regardless of the film's quality, but I know more than a few people who would think that way.) There are no such concerns here. Any success that Moonlight has will come without reservation and without question. When the lights came up, I turned to the man beside me and asked what he had thought. "Beautiful," he answered. Nothing else needed to be said.
Moonlight Review photo
Able to bear the weight of its existence
I don't want to (and am not going to) make this review about the fact that Moonlight is a film about African Americans. It's not a topic I can avoid, but I want to get as much of that as I can out of the way in this intro. So...

Review: The Accountant

Oct 14 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220965:43147:0[/embed] The AccountantDirector: Gavin O'ConnorRelease Date: October 14th, 2016Rating: R  The Accountant feels like a television pilot, an origin story with a little bit of Case of the Week madness thrown in. Ben Affleck plays the eponymous accountant, constantly creating new identities based on famous people who were interested in math (at the start of this story: Christian Wolff) and then discarding them whenever his situation becomes compromised. And why would it do that? Because he works for some of the most dangerous people in the world: terrorists, thieves, cartels, you know name it and he does their books. Key to his success is his autism, which causes a number of problems but also unlocks an incredible ability to solve puzzles and make connections. He can do the work of a half-dozen neurotypicals in half the time. And he always finishes what he starts. I can only think of one other action movie with an autistic star, which would be Thai film Chocolate, by Prachya Pinkaew. In that film, an autistic girl watches martial arts movies and becomes a master. I bring it up solely because I think you should see it, because The Accountant isn't really like it at all, though Mr. Wolff is a more-than-capable fighter. He was trained by his father, a military man, and the men that his father hired to make sure he could take care of himself. The flashbacks to his younger self, often at his worst, in the midst of meltdowns or other crises, demonstrate the difficulty of having a child with autism while also showing a fascinating sort of respect for what it can do. I'll admit that my experience with autism is fairly limited, but what I saw felt pretty right. On the whole, the film is trying to make a pretty clear point: Autism is not a disorder or an illness; it's just a different way of being. It's not worse or better, just its own thing. And credit where credit is due: That's awesome. How many times have we seen an autistic protagonist who can genuinely take care of themselves in a major motion picture? Have we ever seen that? I'm honestly curious, so someone please tell me if that's a thing. Certainly it wouldn't be something like The Accountant. No, The Accountant is different. I mentioned in the intro that this is a film with a genuinely strange structure, and what I mean by that is that the story itself comes out in bursts that feel sort of haphazardly placed. After big action sequences we'll end up with long stretches of exposition that totally kill whatever intense pacing the film may have been building up. There is a lengthy subplot involving a pair from the Treasury trying to track him down, and as that story develops, we learn a lot about J.K. Simmons' character. None of that really felt necessary, and it kind of bogs down the movie in its second half, but it also felt a little bit like, "Why not?" The characters in general feel like they're being introduced for something grander, and we'll learn more about them in future episodes. J.K. Simmons is set to retire, so this is probably the last we'll be seeing of him. It was his time in the spotlight. Next week, we'll learn more about someone else. And while we're getting a lot of character exposition about Affleck and Simmons, we're getting pretty much nothing about the actual story itself. So, blah blah blah someone is cooking books. Affleck finds out about it. People need to die. Etc. We learn about the motivations of the bad guy, but his actual place in the film is so minor (and ultimately inconsequential) that the film may as well have no story at all. You might think that one of Wolff's obviously dangerous clients is after him, but that isn't it at all. As far as the film is concerned, he has successfully stayed off the grid. No one knows where to find him, so he only has to worry about the people right in front of him.  Which means that we're probably in for a franchise, assuming The Accountant does well at the box office. It doesn't end on a cliffhanger or anything, and it doesn't need a sequel, but the character and his work is structured in such a way that it would be exceedingly easy to make one. You'd think that Affleck's got his hands full with the whole Batman thing, but I imagine the dramatic work involved in The Accountant is a bit more satisfying. It's possible that the action is too, because the movie actually has some pretty great fight scenes, ones that don't need a whole bunch of purdy CGI to be cool. (Think Batman v. Superman's warehouse fight, which is easily the best part of that movie (except it's okay when Batman kills people in this one).) And so I hope this does become a franchise, and I hope we get to see more of Anna Kendrick in fights, because in the one fight where she has a minor role, she's a total badass about it. I heard a guy complaining after the film that she didn't seem Damsel-in-Distress-y enough. And thank gosh; she's way more interesting that. And I have to give the film credit for that, too. It treats pretty much all of its characters with a certain amount of dignity; they are (well, most of them) more complex than I had expected, and that made some of those slow, exposition-heavy moments a lot more bearable than they could have been. There are many things about The Accountant that I genuinely loved and nothing that I really disliked. Sure, some of its issues, particularly around structure and pacing, are irritating. They keep The Accountant from being truly brilliant. But they don't keep it from greatness. Bring on The Accountant Chapter 2. 
The Accountant Review photo
Ben Affleck's John Wick
I remember seeing the first trailer for The Accountant a few months back and thinking, "That's a hilarious premise that looks like it could be terrible, but I bet it's going to be awesome." It seemed like the kind of bizarre ...

NYFF Review: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography

Oct 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220930:43141:0[/embed] The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait PhotographyDirector: Errol MorrisRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD "Nice" is such a loaded word. It's often equivocal, a sly insult hidden in a mild compliment rather than a genuine endorsement of character. Stephen Sondheim parsed the word in the musical Into the Woods, noting that nice and good are two different things. (The latter is always preferable to the former.) It's telling that Dorfman uses it as part of her self-description. She's so humble and self-effacing on camera. It's the sort of goodness that can be passed off as niceness and/or mistaken for mere shyness. I got the feeling that this is how she is off camera as well. Morris' adoration for Dorfman comes through in the way he comments on her work and chronicles her career. These warm feelings wouldn't be possible if he subjected his friend to the Interrotron. Dorfman initially seems more like a friend's mom or an aunt than an artist, as if these identities are mutually exclusive. That distinction is ridiculous. Dorfman was something of a fixture in the New York literary scene in the 1960s, taking photos of literary luminaries passing through the city. It's there that she started a lifelong friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg. She would take portraits of him and with him for the next few decades. She's wistful when she looks at Ginsberg's portraits, and while I wondered what she was thinking, I didn't feel like prying. It's not as if I could. The large Polaroids shared in The B-Side are a mix of famous people and everyday folks. In addition to Ginsberg, Dorfman has a few images of Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman. Richman's earnest, wonkily cool/uncool music might be the proper sonic equivalent to Dorfman's portraiture and personality. The intimacy is palpable throughout The B-Side. Morris recreates the experience of hanging out with a good friend and looking at their body of work. If not looking through a portfolio, it's at least the experience of flipping through photo albums and mementos with a live commentary. This sounds merely nice, but there's more to it. Like the little details in a photo that bring it to life, there's an ineffable humane quality to The B-Side, and I think it has as much to do with Dorfman's personality as  her chosen medium. Polaroids are a "nice" format. There's a retro-chic about them, which explains their appeal--cooler than a disposable film camera--but they're impractical by today's standards. What's more, they're intended for common images and not the domain or typical format for high art. Dorfman is essentially offering a Polaroid photobooth experience (photobooths = nice), but she magnifies the internal life in her images. In her own self-portraits, there's an overwhelming domesticity, but her hand-written captions are revealing in the way that diaries and journals are revealing. The portraits themselves are art in plenty of ways: in how they play with expectations, in the way they hint at some story or feeling beneath the surface, in the way their material (Polaroid film) made me rethink the common uses of the material. When the meaning of the film's title is explained, the whole collection Dorfman's shared gains new and endearing meaning. There's something so likable about this nice Jewish girl who's been doing this since the 1970s. There's something charming about these imperfect images in this mostly dead format. There's something so delightful about The B-Side. It's not Morris' best film in terms of scope or depth, but it's also not just nice. I think The B-Side is Morris' most generous movie, and it's generous in a way that only friends can be to one another.
Review: The B-Side photo
There's something about Elsa
The B-Side is an atypical Errol Morris documentary. He doesn't use the Interrotron at all, his tool that allows interviewees to stare directly into the camera. Instead, the camera's just off to the side. The score is delicate...

Review: Under the Shadow

Oct 06 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220388:42856:0[/embed] Under the Shadow (زیر سایه)Director: Babak AnvariRating: PG-13Release Date: October 7, 2016 (limited)Country: Iran  It's easy to spot shadows everywhere in Anvari's film given the nature of the beast. Set in 1980s Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, there are frequent air raid sirens and the threat of missiles coming down on civilian targets at any moment. Anvari sets up a particularly memorable tableau of an unexploded missile that's come through an apartment ceiling. An elderly man lies prone on the ground as if pinned there beneath the shell; the pointed nose seems to have pierced him through the heart. Our hero Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives in the apartment below, and that particular attack has left her ceiling a mess of cracks. For the characters who live in the building, their meager defense against being blown to pieces involves taping their windows and waiting in the basement for the terror to pass. There's more than the threat of bombs. Under the Shadow opens with Shideh getting kicked out of medical school because of her activism during the Iranian revolution. She's maintained a defiantly western mentality even after the Shah was exiled. Shideh rarely wears a hijab or chador (traditional headscarf and cloak, respectively), and she owns a VCR--a Jane Fonda aerobic workout is a form of dissent. When her husband is called away to the frontlines, Shideh is left alone to look after their daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). The rest of the building seems to be fleeing, and there's talk of djinn, an ancient evil of legend, riding on the wind. Anvari gets a lot of thematic mileage out of the chador and masking tape on windows. Ana Lilly Amirpour, writer/director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, said that wearing a chador felt very bat-like to her, which helped inspire her chic vampire film (sort of like the Persian-language cousin of Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive). For Shideh in Under the Shadow, the chador is a stifling metaphor: an invisible specter delineated in a sheet, a manifestation of Iran's political oppression, the symbol of a gender role she's disavowed. These things cannot be kept out by putting masking tape on windows. At various times in the film, the tape is peeling away. Anvari was born in Iran and lived there 17 years, but is now based in the UK. While he's sometimes distanced himself from the film's politics to emphasize the personal story between Shideh and Dorsa, it's hard for me to view Under the Shadow apolitically. It's a political movie because Shideh's a politically involved hero. Even if it's not always front and center, her actions speak to her politics. Shideh's struggles to keep the bombs and the djinn out aren't just for her own dignity but for Dorsa's future. Dorsa's little doll goes missing amid the chaos, and by extension we're left to wonder what future Dorsa's daughter might face if they were to remain in Iran. (Under the Shadow was shot in Jordan given numerous government restrictions/requirements when making films in Iran.) I'll admit I didn't find much of Under the Shadow scary, but I rarely find horror movies scary. It's eerie, however, and well-crafted. Most times I appreciate a horror movie for being memorable more than being scary. Rashidi is a solid emotional anchor for the film. Manshadi's not given as much to do acting-wise, but that says more about the nature of Dorsa as a character, who's a little one-note adorable. Rashidi plays Shideh with that exasperated air of a parent pushed to her limit, a woman who cares for her daughter so much yet can't help but feel she's also failing her in some way. It might be the all the other worries of country and career that makes her feel this way, pressing down more and more. The cracks begin to show, and they grow bigger, and it's always getting darker.
Review: Under the Shadow photo
Darkness, darkness everywhere
Some of the most notable indie horror movies of the last few years have been by women or about women. For example, see Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, David Robert Mitchell's It Follows, and Robert Eggers' The Witch. Each ...

Review: American Honey

Oct 05 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220902:43130:0[/embed] American HoneyDirector: Andrea ArnoldRelease Date: October 7, 2016 Rating: NR  In 2013, at the New York Film Festival press screening of Claire Denis’s Bastards, a film critic (I don’t know who it was) asked a painfully stupid question, something to the effect of, “When I am watching the film, I think of the camera like an eye. And I want to know whose eye am I seeing this film through?” Denis also thought this was a stupid question and told the audience so. In that moment, I appreciated her candor. (I appreciated it less when we had a painfully awkward interview just a couple days later, where I opened with “I liked [insert film of hers here],” and she just said “Why?” (It only got worse from there.)) But I bring this up because, while I don’t believe that a camera has to be anyone’s eye, in American Honey, it is rather explicitly. This is a film about Sasha Lane’s (spectacular turn as) Star; it is her Instagram. She leaves an extremely disturbing home life and joins a bunch of societal rejects who drive around the country and sell magazines. It’s a simple narrative, one where nothing happens except for everything. It's told with all the complexity you would hope, everything required to capture a life. And the film works hard to capture Star’s specifically: the camera almost never leaves her side. We witness the events of the film pretty much the same way she does. When she (and by extension we) first sees Shia LaBeouf’s Jake, it’s from a distance. When we see him again, the two closer, but it’s still from Star’s perspective and not the film’s (whatever that means). We don’t cut to a closeup of his antics at the grocery store (set to Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love,” just one of a number of excellent musical cues that seem well outside the budget range for this film but somehow (very happily) make it in). You might expect his face doesn’t fill the frame as he looks at her in that way that only Shia LaBeouf can, to get that little moment to make you swoon. But we don’t get that. We see him as Star does, from where she does. This serves to make a film that is intensely personal, despite being in large part an ensemble piece. American Honey is about Star, but it’s also about the kind of people who Star would align herself to. And this, in part, serves to further develop Star as a character. Her interactions with the outside world say a whole lot about her, but the moments with the ragtag group of misfits in the van say even more. Even sitting in silence, we understand her. It’s a beautiful thing. I have no doubt that there is a cut of American Honey that is at least 11 hours long. It’s just that kind of movie. So much time is spent with the ragtag group of misfits sitting in a van, singing and talking and drinking and just existing. I said that they serve to expand on Star’s character, but let’s be clear: Each member of the group their own little backstory, and even if we don’t get much of it, each character was clearly defined. We may not know much about them, but we get a feeling for who they are on a fundamental level. You don’t always need words to express it, and the film embraces that. Even in their relatively small amounts of screentime, we got a whole bunch of People. Wikipedia tells me that most of the cast was just found around the place, so it’s entirely plausible that most of them aren’t playing characters at all. They’re just being themselves for the camera. And maybe that’s not the case, but it doesn’t matter. Each feels lived-in, and it feels like each could have been the star of (at the very least) their own short. It also feels like the proverbial cutting room floor of the film is probably so littered with character moments that someone could make short films about each and everyone else. If American Honey has a failing, it’s that it has a 2:43 runtime in an era where people claim to not have the attention span for two-thirds that length. I’d fully believe that none of the characters in American Honey would even give American Honey a chance because of its length. (I know that if I hadn’t heard so many great things about it, I probably would have skipped it myself.) But I had a sort of surprising reaction to the length: I checked my watch about an hour in and then never again – usually it’s quite the opposite. It’s not that the first hour is boring, but I was keenly aware of just how long it was going to be during that time. Around the hour mark, I settled into the rhythm of the film. It’s on a very particular wavelength, and if you can’t get into it, then you’re probably going to suffer for those 163 minutes. But if it grabs you, and it certainly grabbed me, then you’ll feel like you’re vicariously living as part of these peoples’ lives. I would never do what Star did or does, nor am I anything like any of the people in that van, but I am pretty damn sure I’d follow each and every one of them on Instagram.
American Honey Review photo
The social network
American Honey is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, where the image is approximately 1.33 times wider than it is tall. Movies looked like that a long time ago; TV looked like that much more recently. Neither looks like that anymore...

Review: Shin Godzilla

Sep 30 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220931:43124:0[/embed] Shin GodzillaDirectors: Hidaeki Anno and Shinji HiguchiRated: NRRelease Date: October 11th, 2016  Much like the original Godzilla (or Gojira) film released in 1954, Shin Godzilla is a natural disaster film through a political thriller lens. When a giant, radioactive monster suddenly rises out the sea and wanders through Tokyo, the Japanese government discusses how to handle the situation. But the focus is on the one lone dissenter, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), the Deputy Chief who's more interested in saving as many people as possible rather than rise through the political ranks. As he leads a task force, he must now work with the Japanese government members who have their own agendas, an American government with their own ideas as to how to handle the problem (both metaphorically and narratively), and of course, a giant monster slowly getting deadlier as time rolls on.  As you can gauge from the synopsis, Shin Godzilla is light on Godzilla action. It's reflective of that old school Toho mentality where Godzilla is merely a disaster punctuating the human drama. But unlike the similar criticism used against Edwards' Godzilla in 2014, this film makes sure each of those short bursts is treated with the appropriate amount of weight. When Godzilla attacks, or better yet walks, the action is grounded. You see citizens actively reacting to the monster and even witness some of their downfalls. When this Godzilla tears through a building, there's a sense that each of those buildings is populated. Like the film, Godzilla itself moves in a direct way. Using a traditional suit highlighted by CG also helps the titular kaiju feel real. There is an attention to detail that's been missing from the series for quite some time. It's part of the reason the new design is so effective as well. This "Shin" Godzilla radiates with bright reds and oranges, and I've never seen the series' radioactive fire breath be more effective. Watching deep purples giving way to the trademark blue flame crawling up through Godzilla's tail and then out of its mouth is honestly badass.  But the problem with having such a well thought out, weighted Godzilla is the absence felt when not on screen. By leaning so heavily into a political thriller, directors Anno and Higuchi bet everything on human drama. The main problem with this angle, however, is the political stuff isn't all that interesting. There are vague hints of government members who are making decisions in order to protect their own interests, but it neither helps build the world nor is relevant to the overall plot. The attention to detail also works against the team here as a lot of time is spent explaining minor details like evacuation plans or devoted to following down a chain of command as they issue orders. Leading to much of the dialogue feeling like wasted time. To their credit, Anno and Higuchi do their best to make the dialogue heavy scenes easy to digest. Much of the dialogue is framed through quick cuts (leading to these weird moments when characters speak directly to the camera), and little jokes give some of the members much needed personality. But it's not until the titular monster fully evolves does the film choose to evolve as well. Much like the 1954 original, Shin Godzilla is a thinly (then not so thinly) veiled metaphor for nuclear weapons. But before settling on the same commentary on the subject the series has been known for (making for a weak conclusion), directors Anno and Higuchi slip in some experimental commentary never seen in this series. For one, there are several direct references to America's vision of Godzilla. From its name change, as this film adopts "Godzilla" over the traditional "Gojira," to ridiculing American blockbusters' penchant for big, loud solutions to their problems. But oddly enough as the two ridicule Western film making sensibilities, a lot of its themes are adopted here. When the film works best, it lauds itself with a Japanese nationalism mirroring much of American disaster films. The "united we stand" mentality carries the film through its climax and eventually gives way to a cool "rah rah" moment. Which makes it all the more confusing when it reverts back to a somber, "nuclear weapons are bad" tone.  In the end, Shin Godzilla has me torn. While I appreciate a return to the series' deep thematic roots, the film is at its best when it flirts with ideas outside of the norm. It's a clash of old school Toho and modern monster movie filmmaking that ultimately leaves a lot to be desired by film's end. But at the end of the day, Shin Godzilla accomplishes what Toho set out to do. This new Godzilla is fearsome as it is toothsome. It simply beats out the American version with just the fire breath alone.  Regardless of what Toho decides to do with this new Godzilla series moving forward, I'll be there to watch it happen. 
Shin Godzilla Review photo
Godzilla got busy
When Gareth Edwards' take on Godzilla failed to light up screens here in the U.S., Godzilla's parent company, Toho, took the reboot as kind of an insult. Vowing to reclaim their famous monster, Toho unveiled a striking new de...

Review: Snowden

Sep 16 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220888:43108:0[/embed] SnowdenDirector: Oliver StoneRelease Date: September 16, 2016Rating: R  Snowden is a film steeped in dramatic irony. It opens with the first meeting of Snowden, Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto). We don't see (then or ever) how he got in touch with them or how he convinced them to go to Hong Kong to meet him. But we know why he's there and why they're there. Everyone knows his name, and I imagine the people who have forgotten what he did will remember pretty quickly once it's all underway. Much of the film takes place in the past, as we watch Snowden go from a young man kicked out of the army after he's injured during boot camp to a CIA employee to a CIA contractor to an NSA contractor to the most famous whistleblower of the modern era. But at each step, we know who and what he will become, and that colors each and every interaction. I imagine it must have been agonizing, during the scripting process, to not get too hammy. The lines exist here and there — perhaps most blatantly: "You won't regret this" after being hired by the CIA — but I imagine that some of those lines were actually said at the time. I would entirely believe that a man would tell his new boss that they wouldn't regret hiring him, for example. Sometime people say things like that. It's only because we know what ultimately happens that that line is seen as anything other than genuine gratitude. To the audience, it's a joke, though no one actually laughed. I don't know how much of Snowden is true and how much is dramatized. I know for a fact that certain things didn't go down the way they were depicted because I remember reading news reports that explained the actual (far less sexy) events three years ago, but those wouldn't have made for compelling drama. Like Snowden, you know something is going to happen, and it's probably bad. He knows it, because he knows what the people he's up against are capable of; you know it, because this isn't the first time you've seen a movie. Movies are all about information. This movie in particular is about information, but I mean in the broader sense of the word, because drama is about the conveying of information. When, where, and how information is presented to the audience can radically change their perception of, well, everything. Information is the most crucial thing in storytelling, and sometimes that information is simple and something it isn't.  What makes Snowden's story so complicated is that the programs he revealed to the world are so complicated. It's hard enough to condense Xkeyscore and Prism and everything else into an easy-to-understand package without needing to also tell a human story about the guy who unveiled it all. Sure, the movie could just not try, but as much as this is Snowden's story, it also is one that tries to explain Why This Matters. Just presenting Snowden is all well and good, but it's crucial that we understand the gravity of the things that Snowden revealed. We need to know why he would throw away his objectively-pretty-good life because something was gnawing at him and he couldn't get away from it. And I think that the film does a decent job of explaining how it all works. Is it oversimplified? Of course... but it's also basically accurate, and that's what matters. People who didn't really pay attention in 2013 or didn't understand what they were being told can learn at least a little bit about what Snowden leaked. That's a big deal. Because information is also power. It's power in the film, but it's also power beyond. In a Q&A session after the film, Oliver Stone was asked what the message of the film was. He rejected the question out of hand and let the others answer it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt said that he thought The Point was to rekindle the conversation, an interest in the things that are talked about. To get people to dig deeper and draw their own conclusions. (The Edward Snowden depicted in the film says something like that, and the real Edward Snowden, beamed in from Moscow during the Q&A, did as well.) They all understand the importance of information. And I think that anyone who sees Snowden will feel it as well. It's an undeniably political film, and Snowden's shift away from hyper-patriotic, semi-authoritarian conservatism is kind of interesting to watch in the context of our current climate. Having seen the general even-handedness of W., I know that Stone isn't out to just make conversatives look bad, but that doesn't mean the reaction to this film won't fall down party lines. Let's be clear: Oliver Stone thinks that what Snowden did is a very important thing, and he stands firmly on his side (though not in all matters, necessarily). As a result of that, I think reactions to it will be heavily partisan. And if not, then what lines does it fall down? Some people will just think it's a bad movie (it's not) because they don't like it. That's fair enough. But others will have a visceral reaction and reject it out of hand. And I want to know why those people do, because I think it matters. To answer the question I posed at the beginning, yes: I think it should start that conversation and bring the issue back to the forefront. But it's important that we start that conversation based on information rather than opinion. It doesn't matter what you think of what Edward Snowden did, whether you think he deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail or as a free man. What matters is that the conversation about privacy, about security, about all these extremely important topics can happen now in a way that they couldn't before. Snowden can be a jumping-off point. As the Q&A was getting set up, an older woman a few seats from me stood up. "You're a hero, Mr. Stone," she shouted. People clapped, but it was honestly a little awkward. I wondered how many people in the theater agreed with her. I don't, not really. I don't think that Snowden is a heroic film made by a heroic man. But it doesn't have to be. It just has to be good. To start that conversation, it needs to function as a cohesive narrative, tell a story that is compelling and do so in a compelling way. Snowden does all that. It does more than that. It makes you think. It makes you want to talk. It'll likely make you question your own beliefs about the power that a government should have, regardless of how you feel about it going in. Or maybe it won't, and that's interesting too. The point is that there's something to say, something substantive to discuss. And who know, maybe it can make a difference. How cool would that be?
Snowden Review photo
The power of information
I never saw Citizenfour, the documentary Laura Poitras made about Edward Snowden. I thought about it a lot and certainly meant to, but it was never really a priority for me. This was, in large part, because I followed along w...

Review: Sully

Sep 08 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220856:43091:0[/embed] SullyDirector: Clint EastwoodRated: PG-13Release Date: September 9, 2016  If you missed out on the year 2009 for some reason then you may not have heard the story of Sully Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), the lifetime pilot who successfully performed a water landing in the middle of the Hudson River after both engines of his plane were hit by geese after take off. We've all seen the iconic image of the airplane slowly sinking in the water as passengers stand on the wings and New York ferry boats speed to their rescue. It was miraculous and amazing and seemed to come just at the right time with just the right man. Very few people could have pulled off the landing. In fact water landings almost never work. Sully purports to tell the story behind the landing, but in reality there isn't that much story to tell. Instead Eastwood smartly focuses on just the 208 seconds and the split second decision that Captain Sullenberger had to make, driving the film into a character study instead of an action piece. To do this the film vilifies the NTSB, making them into a giant government organization that wants to protect itself from lawsuits. This casts doubts into the mind of Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) and it is within this frame that we relive the crash multiple times from multiple views. All this surrounded by Sullenberg's self doubt and determination to prove he's done the right thing. It is a brilliant construction for the film that avoids turning the movie into an overwrought action film and instead ratchets up the tension. Despite repeating the same 208 seconds multiple times you're drawn in each time, experiencing it in a different way. One time a nightmare of how everything could have gone wrong. The next glimpsing the fear New Yorkers had seeing a plane once again flying low in their city. Yet another pulling us into the passenger experience. Yet never once does it feel like pandering thanks to Eastwood jumping back to focus on the man himself and his inner demons.  That isn't to say the film avoids all issues of the standard "based on a true story" simplifications. A lot of the drama after the crash feels played up. The NTSB is turned into an evil organization intent on proving that Sullenberger shouldn't have landed in the river and tensions with his wife seem ratcheted up just for dramatic effect. In reality the NTSB was probably just doing its job and I'm hard pressed to find anything that justifies the innuendo of a troubled marriage. This is what we call dramatic licence, however, and without it Eastwood's movie would have been 208 seconds of excitement and then following a man on a press tour. The biggest issue here is that the two plot lines can take a bit away from the actual PTSD and stress the Sullenberger was under. They never get the chance to though as Eastwood keeps the film to just around 90 minutes, a true rarity in a time of bloated bio pics. He's also got a cast that could make almost anything work. Hanks exudes the charm and confidence that made Sully so likable to America. Yet his performance is tinged with a sadness that brings humanity to the character. The landing is not one of an action hero, but that of a man doing the best he can in very bad circumstances. Eckhart delivers a strong supporting role, though his character is mostly there as an exposition piece for Sully. What matters in the end is those 208 seconds, however. Somehow Eastwood pulls out more drama, feeling and emotion from just that brief amount of time than most epics do in three hour running periods. Sully is another testament to just how deft a filmmaker Eastwood is because it's easy to tell the "true" story of a hero, but it's hard to tell the true story of a man.
Sully photo
208 Seconds
It's a tricky thing about the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger. The true story of the man who landed an airplane in the Hudson River saving 155 lives, including two infants, is absolutely amazing. But it only lasted 208 ...

Review: Don't Breathe

Aug 31 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220826:43073:0[/embed] Don't BreatheDirector: Fede AlvarezRelease Date: August 26th, 2016Rating: R  Let's talk about genre for a minute: Don't Breathe is being sold as a home invasion film, and it is that; but it's also not really. It's not a home invasion film like The Strangers or Funny Games is. This isn't a film about a family whose home is being invaded by evil forces; it's about the invaders themselves. And, more importantly, it's about the invaders trying to escape. In this case, the invaders are three dumb young 20somethings(?) who rob houses because one of them, Alex, has a dad who works for a security company. They follow strict rules: No cash, a take under $10,000, because law enforcement will go easier on them as a result of it. (These are Alex's rules; he is very worried about things going wrong.) The team learns about an old, blind veteran, Norman Nordstrom, who won a lot of money in a settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident. To get out of Detroit, they decide to go after it, breaking their rules in the hopes of never needing to do it again. So they invade a home. It's locked with more than just the security key (odd) but make it in there anyway. And once they're inside, things go from bad to worse. Attempting to knock Norman out only serves to wake him up, and though he can't see anything that's around him, he's still plenty capable of causing serious damage to the people who have come into his home.  There are a lot of things about this premise that are interesting, but the best thing Don't Breathe has going for it is the inherent tension in a scene where one character is silent as Norman walks by them, oblivious to their presence. In these moments, you grip the arm of your chair (or whomever you're sitting next to), terrified that they'll make some kind of noise and end up maimed or dead or worse (and yeah, there's a "worse," which by now you've probably already heard about but I was (un?)fortunate enough to have not had that spoiled). I will admit that the tension is mildly undercut by the fact that sometimes it seems like he's too oblivious. And I don't mean that I think the guy should be Daredevil, but the moments where he notices things seem a bit arbitrary given some of the things he doesn't notice. It didn't really bother me much at the time, though, which I think is a testament to the effectiveness of the filmmaking. I like long takes. I like long takes a lot. And Don't Breathe makes excellent use of them. A few years back, a cabin-in-the-woods film called Honeymoon used a long take to introduce us to the house where much of the film would take place. Don't Breathe does something similar, going through and showing us pretty much everything we need to keep track of for the next hour or so. But as excellently staged as that is, the best uses come later. There are two that stick in my mind, but the one that exemplifies the unique tension this film can create comes in a long take as Alex tries to avoid Norman. You think he's gone, but then he appears again (something he does a Batman number of times over the course of the film (so maybe he should be Daredevil)), and it doesn't break away. It's a beautifully conceived scene and a brilliantly executed one. For that moment alone, this film is worthy of praise. One thing Don't Breathe is not, though, is particularly scary. There are jumpy moments (thankfully not accompanied by the obnoxiously loud sounds that tend to plague modern horror movies), but it's never really fear-inducing. It keeps you on the edge of your seat rather than trying to burrow into it. And it doesn't let up once it begins; many people have described the film as "relentless," and I think that's an excellent word for it. It just keeps going and going; there are probably five (maybe more) moments where you think it's over and then some new wrench gets thrown into the works. Still, though a couple people were shouting "ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!" at the screen by the end of it, it doesn't feel too long. It breaks you down just as it breaks down the characters, demoralizing you as it does them. It's efficient, effective, and ruthless. But, really, what else would you expect? This is the man who made Evil Dead. I like having directors whose work I can trust. I like to have people to follow and projects to hype for sight unseen. With his two films, I think Fede Alvarez has more than proved himself to be worthy of everyone's attention. His work has a unique (and honestly spectacular) style, and I am excited to see where he goes from here. Don't Breathe is great, and those flaws that it has don't spoil the experience. I expect I'll be seeing this one again soon, looking to see what things I missed the first time around and just enjoying a well-crafted and executed film. Bravo, Mr. Alvarez, this is your second Flixist Editor's Choice. I hope I don't have to wait another three years before we can give you another.
Don't Breathe Review photo
A different kind of home invasion
Three years ago, Fede Alvarez proved that he was a talent to watch. Evil Dead is a great film, tense and horrific and, more than anything else, polished (in stark contrast to the original film, which is anything but...

Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

Aug 19 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220794:43057:0[/embed] Kubo and the Two StringsDirector: Travis KnightRated: PGRelease Date: August 19, 2016 Kubo is a bit of a departure for Laika both visually and thematically. While their animation style still seeps through Kubo is far more inspired by Japanese art and anime than their previous work. It's also their most serious plot to date. Kubo is a young boy who lives with his mother in a cave hiding from his grandfather, who, when Kubo was a baby, stole his eye. His grandfather is now after his other eye for nefarious reasons. One day, when Kubo doesn't make it home before dark, his mother's evil sisters find him and adventure begins to find three pieces of magical armor in order to defeat Kubo's grandfather, the Moon King. Having to set out on his own, Kubo is accompanied by Monkey and Beetle on his grand adventure. It is a very traditional quest adventure, but the story is infused with themes of family, love and loss. If it weren't for the stop motion animation you would easily thing that this was a Pixar movie the story is so well executed and characters so likable. Kubo's tale isn't just one of high adventure, but also deep sorrow. It, like Pixar films, believe in the intelligence of the children it is geared towards and instead of pandering to them executes and story that engages both young and old.  It is, of course, easy to engage when your visuals are probably some of the most stunning of the year. You'll want to pause every scene to see the clear and crisp details while marveling at just how they could possibly do half the things they do with some lumps of clay. Even the simplest movements seem to stand out more thanks to the stop motion. The painstaking creation seeping through every scene.  Director Travis Knight, who is CEO of Laika but has never directed, paces what could be a very dull story beautifully. Despite the standard set up the story unfolds wonderfully, building tension between the characters fantastically. He also has an eye for pushing scary things just enough. Never letting them get so overwhelming that children won't enjoy it, but actually making villains menacing and powerful. Kubo is also being pushed hard in Dolby's new digital theaters where new projectors bring forth some the sharpest images you'll ever see and surround speakers shake the seats. It is possibly one of the best advertisements for these theaters, though whether or not the fantastically crisp picture and blacker than black blacks are worth the extra cost is up to you. I can only tell you that the movie looked better than anything I've seen outside of true IMAX. It isn't what size screen you see Kubo on or how earth shattering the sound is. Those things can make it better, but what make it great is its imagination. It's a stunning world that's hard to forget, and in that world a poignant story is told. The title may only mention two strings, but it will easily pull on all of your heart strings. 
Kubo Review photo
Stunning
If you know the name Laika then you know they do amazing things with stop motion. They may be the only ones doing it at the scale they do it too. Anyone who has seen Coraline or ParaNorman or any of their other work...

Review: Lake Nowhere

Aug 10 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220740:43043:0[/embed] Lake NowhereDirectors: Christopher Phelps, Maxim Van ScoyRelease Date: August 16 (DVD, Blu-Ray, VOD) Rating: NR  Lake Nowhere is a throwback to slasher movies from the Good Old Days. The Grindhouse days. It’s kinda like Grindhouse, actually, complete with fake trailers that run beforehand. But unlike the three-hour runtime that I’m fairly sure that movie had, Lake Nowhere clocks in at a brisk 51 minutes. (Note: It is not a “short,” though it is definitely short for a feature. More movies should be short, though; Lake Nowhere says everything it has to say and then ends, which is something we, as moviegoers, should celebrate.) The screening I attended was made up, as far as I could tell, pretty much exclusively of people who worked on the film. There might have been some other friends-of-the-cast-and-crew, but I dunno. I didn’t talk to any of them, because fun fact: I’m awkward as heck. I had come from a show played by Governor Bradford, who is the frontman of a band that I would probably listen to occasionally on Spotify if that were a thing I could do. I’m fairly sure I still have some demo tracks somewhere on my computer. I don’t listen to them. Anyways, I was one of, I believe, three people who came to see the show. It was pretty good. I had fun. Governor Bradford is a fascinating musician. I clapped very hard, because that’s what I do. Sometimes I clap like Heath Ledger’s Joker did in that one scene in the prison. I don’t remember if I did that then, but it’s very plausible. Anyways, they were the opening act, and the best one that I was there for. The band that played afterwards made terrible use of harmonizers. It was upsetting for everyone except them; the frontman of that band looked like he was having a grand old time. Anyways, after that and a couple of songs into the next band, we went and got dumplings. There’s a place in Manhattan that has pumpkin dumplings, and they are very good. It was Halloween, and I’m fairly sure that Governor Bradford was dressed as a character from a horror movie, but I hadn’t seen the movie (or whatever property they had based it on). Accompanying the costume was a plastic axe. While Governor Bradford ordered the dumplings, I held onto the plastic axe. Some hipsters (probably drunk) asked me if it was real. I told them no, because I’m bad at lying. Governor Bradford was disappointed. Sorry, bro. At some point, it became clear to me that I was horribly underdressed for the night’s proceedings. I usually start wearing long underwear in early fall, because I have very little body fat (not even the occasional pumpkin dumpling has been able to fix that) and don’t retain heat particularly well. I don’t know why I wasn’t wearing my long underwear that night – maybe I thought we were going to be inside? – but I wasn’t, and so fairly early on I started to shiver. And shiver. And shiver. It was pretty sad, honestly. I don’t even think I was wearing my coat, just a jacket. Or maybe I was wearing my coat when I needed a jacket? Look, this was nearly 10 months ago. I’m probably getting at least 15% of these details wrong without realizing it. I know for a fact that it was hellishly windy. And I can say that, because in Dante’s Inferno, which is at least in part responsible for our vision of Hell, the ninth circle of hell is windy and freezing the traitorous traitors who have died and aren’t the ones who are being constantly eaten by Satan for all eternity. Am I a traitor? I mean, probably. I dunno. The history books will decide that ultimately, I think. (Which isn’t to say I think I’ll be mentioned in the history books, but if I was a legit traitor, maybe I would be. If I’m not mentioned, then I think we can probably assume that I was not.) Point is: I was suffering like one, which was – to say the gosh darn least –  uncomfortable. On the way to the screening, we stopped off at Sam’s (remember him?), because it was hella convenient, and he had a hard drive of mine which contained footage for a movie that I still haven’t finished the final cut of (sorry, Kickstarter backers; it’s coming!) Then we crossed the street (the best) and sat down in the freezing cold to watch the movie. As I said, it’s super enjoyable. You should see it. You can now, if you’re reading this on or after August 16. If it’s before that, then you have to wait until August 16, but you’ve been waiting your whole life for this, so I think you can wait another few days. Of course, these sorts of events never really go the way you expect them to. It was a janky screening, which actually kinda worked on some level, given that it was trying to recapture the grindhouse thing. The city is loud, and it’s bright. The organizers put up tarps in an attempt to block out the latter; there’s not much you can do about the former but crank up the volume and try to drown them out. But, of course, legal sound limits, etc. And it’s not like you want to have your ears bleed while watching a movie just because everything else is so loud. Anyways, the point of this is that the wind literally pulled one of the tarps off of its ropes and it flew over into a neighboring yard. We didn’t get it back, and half the screen was washed out. It made a couple of moments a little difficult to see, but it was okay. It wasn’t really their fault that the elements conspired against them. That’s just a thing that happens. I have it on good authority that the weather made some aspects of the filming itself pretty hardcore, specifically with regards to Lake Nowhere itself, which was apparently even colder than I was while watching the movie. I grabbed onto Governor Bradford for warmth; more like we grabbed onto each other, huddling together because I cannot overstate how flipping cold it was. On a basically unrelated note: I learned from a trailer for a movie that I think has Vince Vaugh in it that you’re supposed to be naked with people for warmth. That was (like, duh) not the case here, for many, many reasons – obvious and not. Afterwards, there was talking amongst the people who knew each other. I awkwardly sat at a table and did not talk to anyone. That wasn’t great, but at least it was inside, so I wasn’t getting hypothermia anymore. I’m not friends with Governor Bradford anymore. The reason for that was, at least in part, the impetus for a horribly pretentious one-man show that I “performed” just a few weeks ago. An early version of said show actually had a version of this story in it, but it was cut for reasons that don’t matter. (If you’re at all curious what the show was like, reread the previous 1400ish words, because it was exactly like this, but 55 minutes long, in second person, and somehow with even less movie review in it). I hadn’t really thought about this night until a week ago, when I got an email asking me if I’d like to review it. The subject line alone – “Possible Flixist Interest? Retro Slasher LAKE NOWHERE to hit DVD/Blu-Ray and VOD on August 16!” – was enough to bring back wave after wave of memories. Looking back on this is weird, but for all of the oddities, there is one thing that isn’t in question, which is that I had a bunch of fun watching Lake Nowhere. You won’t be seeing it in quite the same context that I did, but if you get a group of friends together (definitely watch with friends (if that’s an option)), you’re going to have a blast too. And if you don’t? Well, that says more about you than it does the film. tl;dr: Great movie. Also, I need to gain weight and/or start wearing long underwear earlier in the year.
Lake Nowhere Review photo
(Wherein I do not talk about the movie)
I saw Lake Nowhere last Halloween. I first heard about the film about a month prior, at the press screening for The Last Witch Hunter. A friend of mine brought as his +1 someone who worked on the film, who for the purposes of...

Review: Star Trek Beyond

Jul 22 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220689:42999:0[/embed] Star Trek BeyondDirector: Justin LinRated: PG-13Release Date: July 22, 2016  While many Trek fans will probably balk at this idea, Justin Lin was the exact right man to helm a Star Trek. We'll never be returning to the all out, slow-pan-around-a-star-ship, philosophical, socially aware, political format of Star Trek of yesterday because that's not what makes money, but we can have a strong mixture of action and heart. Lin brought that to the Fast and the Furious franchise in spades, turning a crappy series into something spectacular that people want to see. He did this not just through action, but by turning a cast of characters into a #family. That's what he's done with Star Trek Beyond too. The crew of the Enterprise is finally on their five year mission. In fact, they're three years into it and, as Captain Kirk's (Chris Pine) captain's log tells us, they're all getting a little bored with the daily grind of exploration. Kirk is questioning whether he wants to be a captain anymore and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is shocked to find that his elder self has passed. Luckily they're docking for resupplies at the newest and largest Star Fleet space station, but before they can settle in an alien shows up requesting help to rescue her crew from an uncharted part of a nearby nebula. The crew of the Enterprise jumps into action and promptly gets the ship torn to shreds, crash landing on an alien planet run by an evil alien named Krall (Idris Elba).  The separation of the crew after the crash landing and the relatively small scale of the story overall delivers a Star Trek that is far closer to the original series in tone than either of the previous two films. The removal of larger political pictures and the Enterprise itself means the focus lands squarely on the crew and that works wonders for finally delivering a Star Trek where you feel the crew is anywhere near the family that the crew of the original series was. Spock and McCoy's (Karl Urban) relationship is especially fleshed out while Sulu (John Cho), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) actually become characters instead of plot devices. It's clear that screenwriters Pegg and Dough Jung along with Lin have a far better understanding of what makes Star Trek special than Abrams and crew did. That doesn't mean that the movie turns its back on the new Trek formula. This is still an action movie first and a space drama second. Lin, of course, is really good at action. Again, though, the fights feel more personal and well executed than the previous films. The action is possibly even more over-the-top, and yet it feels more grounded. More importantly Lin keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout every sequence. By the time the now obligatory Beastie Boys song comes on its hard not to be cracking a massive smile no matter how much of a dour original Trek fanboy you are (and I am a big one).  It's even more refreshing that Beyond finally pulls the rebooted franchise out of the shadow of its predecessors. Into Darkness's misguided attempts to recreate Wrath of Khan made the crew seem trite and the story not hit when it was supposed to. Beyond is finally its own story, defining its own crew and creating its own feeling. While it still makes a nod here and there to the original films, it is finally telling its own story -- even if that story isn't all that groundbreaking. I must also champion the film for finally ditching the under armor uniforms that made it look like they were all on the way to bro out at the gym for a bit. The new costume design is spot on and feels much more like something the crew of a starship would wear. The redesign (yet again) of the Enterprise is pretty stellar as well.  For all the fun (and it is really fun) of the movie it isn't really pushing any new boundaries. The story may be new and the cast finally feels like it's gelling, but the plot is paper thin overall. You don't really have time to catch your breathe and think about it while you're watching, but Beyond doesn't go very far beyond in terms of pushing ideas or themes. Maybe, in this case, it doesn't have to. It's focus on the characters overrides its need for a strong plot line and it clearly cares more about hashing out the crew as people than making a profound social statement.  That focus on the crew means that this is by far almost every actors best turn in the role. Pine seems especially comfortable as a more laid back, experienced Captain Kirk while Urban's McCoy becomes less homage to the original and more something of his own. Yelchin finally gets a chance to turn Chekov into something else than a funny accent and nails it, and it's a shame we won't get to see him take the character any further.  Star Trek beyond feels like a very big budget episode of the television show, and while that was a insult for Star Trek: Insurrection, here it is a compliment. The original series and all its progeny had a sort of magic to them, and it stemmed from a crew that felt like a family. That, it turns out, was missing from this new Star Trek thanks to Into Darkness's attempts to replicate instead of create. Thankfully, Beyond brings it back and turns the franchise into something you definitely want to see live long and prosper.
Star Trek photo
Going where no new Trek has gone before
The rebooted Star Trek franchise hasn't really had a bad movie. J.J. Abrams put together two highly entertaining pieces of cinema back to back. However, if you're a Star Trek fan Into Darkness was concerning. A...

Review: The Conjuring 2

Jun 10 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220610:42965:0[/embed] The Conjuring 2Directors: James WanRating: RRelease Date: June 10, 2016  Inspired by the events of the Enfield Poltergeist in 1970s London, and six years after the events of the first film, Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren find themselves in London where single mother Peggy (Frances O' Connor) and her four children are experiencing paranormal activity in their home. When the youngest, Janet (Madison Wolfe), begins acting strangely and claims to be the home's deceased previous owner, Ed and Lorraine are dispatched by the church to prove whether or not there's actually a spirit in their home. But in that search, darkness from the Warren's past comes back to wreck things for everyone.  As a sequel, Conjuring 2 makes a few interesting choices. First of all, it's left behind the metaphysical horrors of the first film and instead chooses a more physical force for the Warrens to combat with. In comparison, the only physical interaction the Warrens had with a ghost in the first film were a few things flying around the finale's exorcism. With a physical force resembling something from Wan's other well known horror series, Insidious, Conjuring 2 is directed with a more action heavy flow. The film's opening scene, which is the most important, tone establishing scene of any horror film, is punctuated by snaps so loud and at such a high frequency the scene loses the terror momentum. It abuses the "jump scare" (a sudden appearance of something punctuated by a loud noise) so much it exaggerates the action of the scene rather than revel in the horror. That's not necessarily a bad thing since the rest of the film adapts to this newer, more heightened pace and tone, but there's definitely a loss.  The newer direction undervalues the film's particularly creepy visuals. Now that there is something concrete to defeat, the tension comes from whether or not the Warrens can defeat the foe rather than the poltergeist in question getting under the audience's skin. Wan directs the brunt of the film's fear factor toward its characters and thus makes it "less scary" overall to the audience. It's fulfilling the need for suspense (and does make for a more gripping film once it gets going), but backs away from true terror. I am also not sure why it's rated R to begin with since most of the film's horror visuals are toned down in favor of this new, more exciting direction. This is also the reason comparisons to the first film are apt since it tends to cruise through the same plot points, hoping this new tone would make the story different. But try as it might to change itself, The Conjuring 2 never fully commits to either direction. It loses horror for its action, but never makes that action as compelling as it could be.  Conjuring 2 is just confused. What's most interesting about this confusion is that it births interesting elements where a more focused take would have benefited. When Wan truly dives into the horror setting, you get some unique and revelatory sequences (like with the upside down crosses or the painting scene). But it is in between horror build up that lacks the necessary pace to keep the film enthralling until the Warrens get there. For a chunk of the film I found myself waiting for the Warrens to pop in again rather than being creeped out by the setting. With such a confused take, nothing in the film quite grabs. The setting, the plot, and every character but Ed and Lorraine are entirely unremarkable. But when the Warrens finally show up to do some things, the film's action-y pace takes hold and it gets a shot in the arm.  Since The Conjuring 2 loses its horror focus, it is not too compelling when an action isn't taking place. But in that same breath, there are enough unique individual elements to make it enjoyable overall. To put it bluntly, the first film was "scarier" but the sequel handles itself better. It makes the kind of choices with its direction that serve to better the series moving forward.  To think we will get a series where an exorcist couple throws witty banter back and forth as they fight demons three or four films from now. There is just too much potential to miss. 
The Conjuring 2 Review photo
Conjures a good time
The Conjuring became quite the hidden gem when it was released three years ago. A nostalgic return to classic horror haunting roots, it breathed new life into the genre by shifting the focus to paranormal hunters Ed and ...


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