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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: 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: The Lovers And The Despot

Sep 22 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220842:43121:0[/embed] The Lovers and the DespotDirectors: Robert Cannan and Ross AdamRelease Date: September 23rd, 2016Rating: NR  It's 1978. Choi Eun-Hee is one of South Korea's top movie stars, often starring in the films of her husband, director Shin Sang-Ok. North Korean Kim Jong-Il kidnaps her in Hong Kong. Then he kidnaps her husband. After years in a prison camp, eventually the two of them are reunited. Kim Jong-Il tells them to make films. They do. They make lots of them (17, in fact) and even travel to foreign festivals to show them. And then, of course, they escape. It all sounds a bit silly, but, of course, it's all true. Oversimplified? More than likely, but ultimately True nonetheless.  The Lovers and the Despot tells this story almost exclusively through interviews, with Choi, her family, people involved with the case, etc. Shin passed away a decade ago, but some of his audio makes it in as well. The video and audio clips are interspersed with footage from Shin's films (including some of the ones made in North Korea) and reenactment shots. I thought the decision to do reenactments was interesting, but their effectiveness is diminished somewhat by the footage from the films. In a couple of cases, rather than using reenactments, they pull directly from his films. Those moments are some of the most compelling, and everything really comes together. The reenactments are fine, but you're hearing them narrated at the time, so they lacks any real oomph. They're just there to keep you from getting bored. They're successful in that regard, but they don't do much more. This stands in contrast with certain audio clips, which are literally just audio clips playing over a generic background. And they're fine, but they're also... ya know, audio clips playing over a generic background. At that point, you're not really watching anything. And maybe you're getting a little bored? Some people certainly might, though I can unequivocally say I did not. I didn't know anything about this story before going into The Lovers and the Despot, and I was enthralled by the story itself from beginning to end. The audio-only parts could have just as easily been an exceedingly compelling podcast or something, but what's important is that now I know this story, and that I have seen some footage from these North Korean films, and that I really, really want to see them now. Choi Eun-Hee says at one point in the film that, if she were to make a screenplay of her life, she would gloss over the bad things. She would focus only on the good. It seems to me that The Lovers and the Despot did as well. There are hints here and there of the horrors that they faced, but nothing is ever explicit and the filmmakers don't seem particularly interested in going down that path. Even though this is a film about the evil of North Korea, it's not about the evils of North Korea. And while that may sound like some obnoxious semantic thing, it's an important distinction. More often than not, Kim Jong-Il comes off as weird, to be sure, but not particularly scary. As citizens of the world, we know that he is, but there are only a handful of moments where that really comes across here, and the most impactful one is a scene that comes right from his mouth: Actual audio captured by the two of them of Kim Jong-Il. (It is genuinely fascinating to hear his voice, by the way; until that point, I was pretty sure he sounded like Trey Parker.) It's him talking to his kidnappees about that whole five years in prison that Shin went through. It basically amounts to an, "Oops. Sorry." That complete disregard for a person's existence — and of a person who was brought in to make him movies! — is kind of shocking. And, of course it's not all that shocking that the leader of North Flipping Korea would behave that way, but in a film that isn't about evils, it stands out as the exception that proves the rule. We're missing huge swaths of this story, and I'm conflicted about that. A very real part of me is glad for that, because it allows for some level of whimsy. This whole thing is so ridiculous, but it actually happened. And if you forget all of the awful things that came with it, it could totally be the plot of some weirdo comedy (possibly made by Matt Stone and Trey Parker). I liked being able to laugh and not have to constantly think about the awful things that weren't being said... But the other part of me thinks about sort-of-humanizing dictators and demagogues, and The Lovers and the Despot does a little bit of that. Is that a bad thing? I don't know. Probably. But I'm not going to damn it for that. It's sanitized a bit so that it can play to the widest possible audience, and that is a good thing, because everyone should see this movie. Everyone should learn more about this story. This story is truly incredible. Like, seriously, it's one of the craziest things I've ever heard, certainly the most interesting one related to cinema. And if glossing over the evils of dictatorship is what it takes to get it in front of people? Well that's alright by me.
The Lovers and The Despot photo
Truth is stranger than...
It can be kind of exhausting getting a dozen (or more) emails a day about movie X, Y, and Z. Do I want to see this? Do I want to learn more about this? And I'm sure I've turned down a lot of great movies because the sales pit...

Review: Blair Witch

Sep 16 // Matthew Razak
The Blair WitchDirector: Adam WingardRated: RRelease Date: September 16, 2016 [embed]220890:43113:0[/embed] If you haven't seen Wingard and Barrett's previous two films I would recommend going out and doing that now. They are two of the best horror movies of the past decade and take your expectations for the genre and flip them on its head. That is exactly what I was expecting out of Blair Witch. Why would the studio bring these guys in if they didn't want them to shake things up? Unfortunately Blair Witch feels more like standard found footage than a radical shift. Aside from the last 15 minutes or so of the film Blair Witch offers very little new to the genre, surviving only on the few interesting ideas that crop up. Blair Witch picks up 17 years after the original with James (James Allen McCune), the brother of Heather, one of the trio that went missing previously. After discovering some new footage online he and his friends Lisa (Callie Hernandez), Allie (Corbin Reid) and Peter (Brandon Scott) return to the Maryland woods in hopes of finding Heather. They're joined by the couple who uploaded the video to YouTube Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry). As if they hadn't seen the footage from the original movie despite it obviously existing in this film's universe they proceed to make all the same mistakes the original trio did and start to get picked off one by one. Oh, and Lisa is making a documentary for school, which is why everything gets recorded and they bring a drone along with them. Wineguard is a superb horror director, but the screenplay never lets him do anything with his skills until the very end. While the original's found footage shtick was revolutionary for the time it feels entirely needless here, especially considering everything is shot on tiny HD cameras mounted to the heads of the actors. Instead of the really-there feeling you got from the scratchy DV camera footage of the original everything feels glossy. It's a problem in general for the found footage genre and one of the reasons its fallen a bit out of use. More importantly, though, the film falls into horror movie genre conventions a bit too often. One of the things that makes the original film still work is that it's more about the three people falling apart than the demonic spirit chasing after them. It's psychological terror with a hint of monster movie, whereas this new version relies far more heavily on jump scares and glimpses of a monster in the woods. They're perfectly well executed and offer up some scary moments, but it's a big disappointment in general. Wineguard's direction saves a lot of it from being truly standard, throwing in homages to Evil Dead and other horror classics, but there's not enough there to make stand out. Until that last 15 minutes that is. Blair Witch's last 15 minutes would have made an incredible short film. You could easily cut off the proceeding 75 minutes and almost all of the action would have made sense considering the pervasiveness of the original film in today's culture. Those last 15 involve a claustrophobia-inducing scene in a tunnel, a horrifying escape through an abandon house, a clever hint at time manipulation and a conclusion that actually pulls the movie out of just being a redo of the original with HD cameras.  It does really feel like a redo, and that's the final nail in the coffin. Much of what made Blair Witch Project work originally was the ongoing belief that it was real. The found footage genre wasn't a thing then and so half the horror was thinking that this really happened. Blair Witch is at a disadvantage there. We've been over saturated with the genre and so to really stand out it needed to do something new, and it just doesn't. It's not a bad film and it does get scary, but it could have been more.  At least we can all still pretend that Book of Shadows doesn't exist.
Blair Witch photo
Lost in the woods
Back in July a pretty standard looking shaky cam movie called The Woods pulled off the impossible by actually surprising the Internet at SDCC. It turned out that the film was a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. Blair Wi...

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...


Jack Reacher: Never Go Back has new poster with less back

Sep 09
// Rick Lash
When last we heard from Tom Cruise, aka Jack Reacher, he had just released an itty bitty trailer to further whet our already dripping appetites for the impending release of the next adaptation of the Lee Child's series. Along...

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
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: Suicide Squad

Aug 05 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220744:43031:0[/embed] Suicide SquadDirector: David AyersRated: PG-13Release Date: August 5, 2016  There have been plenty of very harsh words thrown around about Suicide Squad already, and they really aren't all that deserved. This isn't a terrible movie, it just isn't great. What is happening is that the loss of potential and the clear mishandling of this film is making some overact to its flaws. In many ways Suicide Squad is a perfectly acceptable, if unremarkable, superhero (villain) flick, but it could have been more. That fact screams out through frame after frame of this film. The premise here is ripe for intrigue. Government agent (and most intriguing character of the film) Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has the bright idea to make a "superhero" team from a collection of super villains in order for the government to save the day, but also have plausible deniability when things go wrong. She convinces everyone this is a good idea gathers up Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margo Robbie), Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and Slipknot (Adam Beach). Then the world gets threatened so the team goes into action. The main thrust of this one is exceptionally lacking. That didn't have to be a problem. The characters here are varied and all have the chance to be incredibly interesting, even the guy who just throws boomerangs. The film chooses to focus especially on Deadshot and Harley Quinn. There's good reason for that: both Smith and Robbie are on their A game throughout the entire thing, often turning pedantic dialog into something that actually works. Robbie's Harley Quinn is especially on point and one can't help but wish she and Deadshot had their own films prior to this to actually flesh out the characters. Diablo is the other surprise of the film as most people won't even know who he is, but he delivers probably the most compelling story line of them all. Sadly, despite these individual strong performances the film is far too cramped to actually deliver the character study director David Ayers clearly wanted it to be. An awkward opening that was reportedly redone multiple times gives you a glimpse of the two films competing with each other as the competing styles are awkwardly mashed together. One is a comical action flick and the other is a look at bad people doing good things. The latter should have won out with hints of the former, but instead the movie often feels tone deaf to itself as it lurches from dark tones to one-liners. This balance can be handled well, but it isn't here as many of the jokes failed and often the comradely building got lost as the action movie took over. Ayers' action is also all over the place. His gritty style would have been a perfect fit for a much different Suicide Squad film, but instead he chops scenes together so roughly that it is hard to keep track of what is going on let alone stay within the momentum of a scene. He desperately needed the R rating to make the movie really work, but instead has to cut around a bunch of bad guys doing violence. The final fight, which is probably the weakest part of the film thanks to a paper-thin villain and plot, never earns its payoff and so the audience is left with a bit of fun, but no emotional conclusion. Meanwhile the most intriguing part of the story involves not the big bad, but Waller and her machinations. Mistakenly, it is pushed aside for a big flashy villain.  Speaking of big and flashy: Jared Leto's Joker. Early reports were that he had a small part in the film, but he probably gets more screen time and more to do than half of the Suicide Squad. Honestly, the man had the impossible feat of following up Heath Ledger's masterpiece. I'll give him credit for doing something different with the smooth, deranged, "pimp" Joker, but the performance lands awkwardly between Mark Hamill in the animated series, Ledger and a hint of the campy Cesar Romero. In short, it doesn't really land at all. One struggles to see this Joker facing off against Affleck's deadly serious Batman.  It's easy to come down harshly on the plethora of problems in Suicide Squad, but it's also easy enough to enjoy the movie once disappointment wares off. While the plot may feel horribly cliche, it is tried and true and checks all the right boxes. Smith and Robbie deliver enough to keep the rest of the rushed character development feel slightly acceptable and when the jokes hit they actually work. There is just enough here to enjoy yourself, which is more than I could say for BvS.  Suicide Squad feels like a knee jerk reaction to BvS, in fact. After WB was blindsided by the bad reviews and middling box office we know they ordered re-cuts of Suicide Squad to lighten it up. What they fail to realize is that the tone that BvS, a movie about redemption and hope, set was wrong for that movie, but would have worked wonders for Suicide Squad, a movie about bad guys doing bad things. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is often codified it at least allows the tones of its films to vary with the characters that are in it. Suicide Squad may work as a very basic film, but it isn't enough to pull DC's comic films into the light. Next up to bat: Wonder Woman.  Also, stop trying to make a Guardians of the Galaxy type soundtrack happen, Suicide Squad. It's not going to happen.
Suicide Squad photo
Death by a thousand cuts
Do I need to open this review explaining how important Suicide Squad was to DC and WB? After the poor reception that Batman v. Supermanm received and the less-than-expected box office this movie was what was going t...

Review: Train to Busan

Aug 04 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220738:43030:0[/embed] Train to Busan (부산행)Director: Yeon Sang-HoRelease Date: July 22, 2016Rating: NR I assumed while watching it that a big part of the reason Seoul Station was animated was the costs that would have been involved with making it for real. It's a sprawling narrative, going all around a city that I expect is very expensive to shoot in. A higher budget would have absolutely allowed the movie to be live-action, but the resources weren't available, so animation was the only way to tell the story. And that's fair enough; you do the best you can with the resources that you have.  Train to Busan solidifies that theory, because it works on a much smaller scale than its predecessor. Much of the film takes place in a train, bringing to mind Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer (which, it should be noted, is another film I liked less than most of my movie-obsessed friends), though it's on an even smaller scale than that. This isn't a future world train. It doesn't have greenhouses or saunas or crazy engine rooms. It's just a train, albeit a pretty nice one. (The KTX looks much nicer than the Amtrak train I took this past weekend, and I'm now extremely jealous of South Korea's infrastructure. But I digress:) The potential benefit of a movie with a small scale is the ability to really connect with its characters. Without crazy set pieces to eat up minutes, there's more time to learn about (and hopefully care about) everyone. And caring is crucial in a film like this, where, let's face it, major characters are going to die. That's a thing in zombie movies, and Train to Busan is no exception. It's also a Yeon Sang-Ho movie, which means a whole heckuva lot of people are going to die. Probably in terribly depressing ways.  Or so I had thought. And, look, characters do die in some horrible and depressing ways, but it didn't feel as consequential as I had expected. Part of me missed that pervasive horror that has defined Yeon Sang-Ho's earlier work, but another part of me was glad that things weren't quite so dark. Things definitely get bad, and there are bad people who do bad things (and make good people do bad things), but it just doesn't feel as horrible as it did in the earlier works. I assume that this has to do with the live-action thing and the fact that a larger budget (I'm guessing) means that someone somewhere said, "Hey, we need people to go to this thing, so cut back just a bit." It's not neutered, necessarily, but it's definitely scaled back. For most people, I think that's a positive, but I'm kind of on the fence. I know I felt more from the deaths in Seoul Station than I did in Train to Busan, even though I was distanced from the action. The characters themselves were just better developed. And perhaps that's because it was less ensemble-y than its sequel. There may only be one protagonist, but Train to Busan is as much about the other people on the train. There are multiple character threads, and while they're easy to keep track of, they all feel like they needed more time to build up. The most interesting character by leaps and bounds is Ma Dong-Seok's Sang-Hwa, whose personality is obvious from the moment you see him in his absolutely fantastic getup. Costuming says a lot, and his costuming is particularly on point. Other characters have pretty good costuming as well, but nothing is so interesting. You know who the other characters are by their clothes, but you don't know who they are deep down. He is the only character who really feels alive. But don't let this sound like it's all negative, because it's not. It's clear that Yeon Sang-Ho has learned a lot from his time directing animated films, and I hope that he goes forward with more live-action films, because it's a very nice looking one. It's very well directed, and I want to see him go further (and with more money). It's also got a different take on zombie mythology. These zombies function solely on vision (and, I guess, sound, but to a different extent). As soon as you're out of sight, you're instantly out of their minds. (Worth noting: I'm fairly sure that was not the case in Seoul Station, which (if true) is problematic, but eh. It's not that big a deal.) It's a change, and it means that hiding is a very effective tactic to stopping a zombie attack. And because of that, the characters are able to do some interesting things. In the cloak of darkness, they can play tricks in order to move the zombies as they like. There are some very clever moments as the characters attempt to get through the infested cars, and there are definitely some very intense moments. Part of what makes it intense is that this is a zombie movie completely devoid of firearms. No guns means no bullets to the head means no dead zombies. They can just keep coming and coming. And while it doesn't quite work out that way (the tension is diminished somewhat by unclear rules regarding the zombies), it's genuinely refreshing to see how characters try to deal with an enemy that they cannot kill. I am fairly sure that I've never seen a zombie film without guns before, and for that alone Train to Busan deserves props. For all the times it feels like Just Another Zombie Movie, it also feels like something unique, and in a genre that's this stale, that means a lot.
Train to Busan Review photo
A bit more than just Zombies On A Train
In my review of Yeon Sang-Ho's Seoul Station from this year's New York Asian Film Festival, I said that I felt it would have been better as a live-action film than it was as an animated one. There was just something...

Review: Jason Bourne

Jul 29 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220732:43028:0[/embed] Jason BourneDirector: Paul GreengrassRelease Date: July 28, 2016Rating: PG-13  Let’s talk about that name: Jason Bourne is an epically lazy name. The first three Bourne movies were named like novels, which makes sense because they were named after novels, though weren’t really based on them. The Bourne Legacy was also a novel. Since then: The Bourne Betrayal, The Bourne Sanction, The Bourne Deception, The Bourne Objective, The Bourne Dominion, The Bourne Imperative, The Bourne Retribution, The Bourne Ascendency, and (very recently) The Bourne Enigma. All of these are, I guess, perfectly accepted names for a new movie. Perhaps it’s because Jason Bourne wasn’t in the last film, and they really, really wanted you to know that Matt Damon was back to kick ass. Or maybe they just got bored taking names from books. I’m not sure which of those names would be most appropriate for Jason Bourne, but a little bit of creativity would have been appreciated. Then again, look at the number of Jason Bourne books there are. The original trilogy was written by one man, Robert Ludlum, over 10 years. Then he put down the mantle, and it was picked up by Eric Van Lustbader two years after the , who’s been pumping them out ever since. I can’t speak to the quality of any of these books, but it says something about franchising more broadly. Here was a trilogy that set out to do a thing, did that thing, and then its creator was done with it. Years later, someone else decides to continue it.  Jason Bourne feels like that. Sure, Paul Greengrass, who directed Supremacy and Ultimatum, helms this one as well, but it feels like a story that haphazardly thrown together just… because. I mean, Cinema Sins is going to have a field day with this movie; there are so many different levels on which the narrative doesn’t really work, but the problem for me was less the incoherence than the ludicrousness of its attempts to sound modern. I don’t really remember the earlier movies well enough to know how much technology was being used to track everything, but I know that technology plays a much more fundamental role in the world today and the film makes attempts to use that. There's a big narrative Point about the question of privacy versus security, centered around a Google/Facebook-analog called Deep Dream (which constantly made me think of Daydream, Google's upcoming Android VR platform), and it comes down pretty firmly on the side of governmental access to privacy. Normally, I might delve into that topic here, but honestly the film doesn't deserve it. It makes some vague platitudes about helping the good guys (i.e. the government), but it doesn't really do anything worthwhile with it, and it doesn't make any real arguments. Normally, I'd probably deconstruct it here... but it's just not worth it. The bigger issue than the film's politics is just how silly the use of tech is. You don't need to know much to know that the things these characters do are completely impossible. (My favorite moment is when a flip phone is remotely hacked into by the CIA and how that action somehow allows for a nearby laptop to have its hard drive wiped (lolwut); the "ENHANCE" moment is pretty good too (and, ya know, good on Alicia Vikander for not laughing while doing it).) In a film that's very, very serious, overtly ridiculous actions like these undermine any sense of drama. This is a fantasy film set in a fantasy world. The fairly realistic intrigue that I'm pretty sure the original trilogy had is nowhere to be found in Jason Bourne. But what we do have are some genuinely fantastic action sequences. Whether they're close-quarters fights or city-spanning car chases, Jason Bourne delivers that visceral intensity that I wanted from the movie. Yeah, the shaky cam is in full effect, making certain moments a bit, well, impossible to follow, but it's still more effectively utilized than 90% of the films that have aped the style since. It's disorienting, but it's just coherent enough that you can tell a whole bunch of awesome stuff has happened and that your brain will be registering it in 3... 2... WHOA THAT WAS COOL. And that's the film. In its narrative moments, it layers on the twists and double crosses and triple crosses seemingly at random, failing to create an ultimately satisfying series of events (though I'll be honest, I did like the ending, because I think it sets up a potentially more interesting (inevitable) sequel than I was expecting based on the previous few scenes). In its action moments, it hits hard and just keeps on hitting. I know some people who found it a bit overwhelming and almost desensitizing, but I didn't think that was the case. The scale keeps expanding, and the sequences themselves are different enough to make each new setpiece feel unique and exciting. You know, sort of, how it's going to end (someone with lines is going to die, but it won't be Jason Bourne), but how it gets there is consistently and thoroughly enjoyable. If you go into Jason Bourne expecting anything other than great action loosely strung together by stupid, stupid character moments, you're going to be sorely disappointed. But if you know what you're getting yourself into, then you can just sit back and enjoy it. Jason Bourne is not as good as the Matt Damon films that preceded it, but it's still a perfectly decent way to spend a couple of hours.
Jason Bourne Review photo
Punch punch crash crash boom
My memory of the first three Bourne films is a bit like Jason Bourne’s memories of, well, everything: It’s fuzzy, jumpy, and full of Matt Damon hitting things. I remember liking the movies, though being disoriente...

Review: Lights Out

Jul 25 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220670:42995:0[/embed] Lights OutDirector: David SandbergRelease Date: July 22, 2016Rating: PG-13  You wouldn't know that David Sandberg directed Lights Out if you had just seen the trailer. The only name I remember from it was James Wan, who produced the film. I saw The Conjuring 2 in theaters just a couple of weeks ago, and I can see why the comparisons were made. I will also say that I found Lights Out to be both more and less compelling than Wan's film. (I'm curious how long before we start seeing Sandberg's name on trailers for movies he didn't direct.) Those trailers tell you two things about the film: The mother is unwell, and the monster can only be seen in the darkness. The light turns on, and she (it) disappears. This plays out in the trailer as a red light from outside a character's window brings the shadow thing in and out of being. I remember watching the trailer thinking, "Is this the whole movie?" In the opening scene of Lights Out, the first time the monster appears, the woman who sees it flips a light switch at least six times. The audience started to laugh. The woman tells the father of the children in the trailer (and husband of the not-well mother) that something weird is going on and he should be careful. The only thing I could think was, "I don't remember this dad character from the trailer. He's going to die, isn't he?" (Yup.) A lot of Lights Out plays out the way you would expect it to. It's genuinely scary at times, though this is in large part due to the ease of jump scares when your monster effectively teleports. But it works (mostly). This is true because the monster itself is interesting. The origin story of Diana is sort of convoluted, and part of me wishes that they'd done less with it. There's a lot of detail for something that ultimately doesn't matter very much. You can grasp the fundamentals pretty quickly, without the hyper-expository (though admittedly creepy) flashbacks, but... whatever. It's fine. The more interesting thing is what Diana represents. It's not a spoiler to say that Diana is the specter of an abusive relationship. The way she treats the mother and terrifies her kids; the hold she has on everyone and everything. The way she explodes when anyone tries to get in her way. (And refuses to listen to the only "instruction" she's ever given.) The best monsters are ones that play on real fears, that represent terrible things. Ways for a fantastical version of a real horror as a way for audiences to confront that in a way that feels a bit less visceral but nonetheless meaningful. Diana is that. Lights Out does that. It's not effective all the time, in part because Diana periodically falls into the trap of being Just A Movie Monster on a few occasions (most obviously in a very creepy sequence lit by black light, where her reveal reads too "THIS IS A MOVIE JUMP SCARE" and not enough "THIS IS A REAL THING THAT MAKES SENSE"), but overall she's a fairly unique take on a ghost. I liked what they tried to do, and think they were more successful than not. But, there's a problem, one that has almost nothing to do with Diana. I want to talk about the ending. Spoilers, obviously, to follow: Lights Out ends with a suicide. The suicide of the mother (whose name is Sophie) in order to save her children. Diana only exists as long as Sophie is under her spell. Sophie suffers from severe depression, and Diana feeds off of it. Something terrible happens (the death of her husband, which is never really discussed, and no one seems to question it, despite the particularly horrific circumstances of it). Sophie goes off her meds, and Diana is there to pick up the pieces. She is Sophie's only friend. In order to keep Diana away, Sophie needs help. Therapy, medication, hospitalization, whatever. She clearly needs something, and just when you think she's going to get it, she kills herself. In that moment, it is truly the only way to stop Diana. I get that. I understand that her suicide is the "correct" thing to do. The person I saw it with said, not incorrectly, that Sophie made her bed (with Diana) and was forced to lie in it. She subjected her kids, her husbands, to the horror, and paid the price. But on a purely visceral level, I reject the notion that suicide is the correct answer. I reject the notion that the narrative had to go down that path. Given the path it went down, sure; but I don't see that as the inevitable path. It's only inevitable because of the tension the sequence created. The slow, methodical treatment of the mother from the brink wouldn't have made for a particularly satisfying resolution, but that doesn't mean that the film had to take the road it did. Unfriended should have ended in suicide rather than one last jump scare, because that's what the film was about. It would have brought everything full circle in a horrific (but meaningful) way. In Lights Out, it comes seemingly out of nowhere. It doesn't really build to that moment. It just happens. And then the movie is over just a couple minutes later. Maybe there will be a sequel where the kids have to grapple with what they witnessed (though the return of Diana would undermine rather than highlight the tragedy of Sophie's martyrdom, and would only make me angrier), but that's not what we get here. I have a problem with that. I have a serious problem with that. And it's unfortunate, because I liked so much of what Lights Out does and is. It's a well-crafted film, one that's absolutely worth watching. There is a fascinating divisiveness out there that I don't really understand (and would love to talk to someone who disagrees with me on any or all of this), because I think it's as effective a PG-13 horror movie as I've seen in quite some time. It's more effective than most R-rated ones I've seen recently. But I just can't abide by that ending.
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What's in an ending?
Last April (man, time flies), I saw a film called Unfriended. I liked it well enough, but as is so often the case, the things I didn't like about it were more interesting than the things I did, so I ended up writing an obscen...

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.
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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: Ghostbusters

Jul 15 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220661:42986:0[/embed] GhostbustersDirector: Paul FeigRated: PG-13Release Date: July 15, 2016  Ghostbusters is a hard reboot, though it finds plenty of ways to give some clever nods to the original while still staying its own thing. Like The Force Awakens, this is basically the same movie as the original, and yet unlike that movie it stands easily on its own. We find Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) attempting to get tenure at Columbia when her book about ghosts that she coauthored with Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) pops up online. She rushes to find her old friend, who she abandoned after deciding to not believe in ghosts, but gets carried away into a ghost hunt along with Abby's assistant Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon). Turns out ghosts do exist and as legitimate scientists the gang decides to catch one and thus the Ghosbusters are formed. The team is eventually rounded out when Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) joins. Let's just say this outright: this cast is fantastic and hilarious and wonderful. Those crappy jokes from the original trailer were the weak ones from the film. Who knows why the chose them, but maybe it was because so much of the movie's best comedy comes when the cast is riffing with each other and you just can't get that in a trailer. Director and co-writer Paul Feig's screenplay is full of comedy that is both perfect for its cast and incredibly meta for a film franchise. Despite some hefty plot holes (pretty much the same ones that appeared in the original) it works. It even makes a rock and roll concert actually function again as a plot device, which hasn't been done since Secret of the Ooze made it truly cliche.  Ghostbusters purists may not be happy with some of the changes, but (1) get over over yourself, and (2) they make the movie better for the most part. For one it's a bit more action oriented, with the proton beams turning into more whip-like weapons and plenty of random ghost busting toys (a ghost shredder?) being used. This one is far more comedic than the original, darker film was too. The first Ghostbusters, and to a lesser extent the second, played it a bit straight with its characters. This new one is more flat out comedy, though it never tumbles into full on parody. It all works, and helps to make this film different from the predecessors not just because it has a cast of women, but because it actually justifies its creation beyond a cash in on a brand.   Chris Hemsworth's character deserves an entire paragraph in and of himself. He plays Kevin, the new Ghosbuster's idiotic, but oh-so-pretty-to-look-at secretary, and he might be the most clever aspect of the film. MRAs may point to him as a perfect example of a double standard as half the lines said about him would be torn to shreds if a group of men were saying it about a woman, but that's probably the point. All the comedy at his stupidity and hotness has been used over and over again to make gags about dumb, pretty women since the film industry started and Kevin is a fantastic commentary on that. He's clearly not just there to be sexy and stupid, but to be the final, meta-commentary in a female lead film. Maybe one day we won't need that and it will come across as crass, but for now it's hilarious.  The movie is flawed in a few ways. While much of it comes together fantastically, especially when its relying on the chemistry of its cast (much like the original), other parts are just too cliche to pull off. It can fall into rote tropes too often, though the cast is always there to liven them up and make them work for the most part. There's a scene of them trying out new ghost busting tools that is so clunky not even the cast's comic timing can save it, and at points the story gets rushed through too quickly. Thank goodness Feig had the good sense to cut out a dance number that plays over the credits from the main film. Yes, I know that sounds exactly like something that happens in a really terrible remake, but that's just it: Feig cut it out. Ghostbusters is crisp and funny and it lets its stars chemistry steal the show over ghost busting action and special effects. That's what made the original work and that's what makes this one work. Men or women, what it comes down to is does the cast play off each other and these four do wonders. Hollywood has been churning out old franchise remakes pretty constantly now, and the best ones make a case for themselves as their own thing. Ghostbusters does that. It's its own movie.
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It's good. Stop being assholes.
Look, I wasn't that excited for a Ghostbusters reboot. It had nothing to do with the cast being women and everything to do with my boredom of Hollywood reboots and a really terrible initial trailer. It just didn't look g...

Review: Terrordactyl

Jun 17 // Rick Lash
In time for the weekend: B-movie review
With a clever pun served on a silver platter, Terrordactyl presents itself as a straight to video B-movie masterpiece ready to absorb two hours of your Saturday night. Hoping that prehistoric mayhem might be delivered with he...

Review: Warcraft

Jun 08 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220615:42967:0[/embed] WarcraftDirector: Duncan Jones Rated: PG-13Release Date: June 8, 2016  I will say off the bat that I have not been involved in the Warcraft universe in many years, and even then only with the RTS games, but I'm assuming that there's a very in depth, thought out and complicated world in place by now. It may help the film a lot if you know about this world, but coming from an outsider's eyes the world of Warcraft (sorry) feels hollow and cliche. Maybe that's because the game's basis was originally much the same, but however the game's world has evolved the movie can't capture it, and it's commitment to trying to do that may be it's greatest weakness. We open on some impressively done CGI and motion capture orcs as we're introduced to Durotan (Toby Kebell), a chieftain who has reservations about the obviously-evil Gul-dan's plan to use a an evil green magic gate to invade the human world as the orc's world is dying. Evil plan executed, a small team of elite orc warriors, some corrupted by said evil green magic, enter the human world and begin to build a new gate so as to open a path for the rest of the orcs. The humans (and other Alliance creatures) quickly realize they're being attacked and call upon  powerful magic being The Guardian (Ben Foster) to help protect them. Things are amiss, however, and the battle rages on with knight Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), magic guy Llane Wryne and sexy orc hybrid Garona (Paula Patton) taking the lead in orc killing.  The overarching premise is that there are good orcs out there. Durotan attempts to broker a peace with the humans as he realizes that Gul-dan's magic is evil and is what caused the death in the orc home world. It's clear this theme of telling both sides of a war is what Jones really wanted to do with the film, and at points he almost succeeds. There's a very interesting Game of Thrones political fantasy buried deep in Warcraft, but it never gets the chance to see the light of day. Warcraft has a pretty slavish dedication to the look and feel of the games, and that does it no favors. Instead of the awe-inspiring vistas of The Lord of the Rings the overall look of the film feels cheap. Armor and costume design feel like they were pulled out of a high-schooler's math class doodles, which, in fairness, most likely would be influenced by World of Warcraft. Sets are often small and fake looking and overall it just feels very cheap, like we're watching something out of early 00s SyFy. You've seen almost all of this before and done better.  It's especially odd because for the most part the orc stuff is absolutely fantastic. Character design, animation and setting all feel fresh and interesting. The motion capture and CGI technology for the orcs is spot on, though can sometimes hit the uncanny valley really, really hard. When that combines with the plastic-looking human world the entire affair feels like a shell of a fantasy world: empty except for pretty pictures and ideas too big to be executed well. The screenplay is unfortunately unbalanced as well. At points it actually shines, and you can see Jones' skills with handling genre material with a deft touch. The next moment its as clunky as as the massive orcs who are speaking it. Characters and their motivations get picked up and dropped as easily as the plethora of human knights thrown about by orcs. Massive plot points are glazed over and world creation often feels as if it was forgotten. Part of this stems from the film seeming to assume that we all have a basic foundation in Warcraft lore and part of it stems from the fact that sequels are blatantly already in the works. The story starts to stretch thin by the end and the conclusion really stops making much sense. It is far from the worst fantasy story ever put to screen by miles, but it never rings with the emotional power of truly great fantasy film making.  Jones does his best with his direction. It's easy to get into the action as he weaves together some impressive battle sequences, even using some top down aerial shots to reflect Warcraft's RTS roots. He actually does some really cool stuff that makes the film fun to watch even when it's not working as well as it could. It's just another way that glimpses of what the movie could be break out before being buried under the hollowness of it all. Have I used the term hollow enough? Warcraft isn't really a bad movie, it's a hollow one. It's surprisingly well executed visually at times, but there's nothing behind the pretty pictures. Its story is actually intriguing, but it never feels important. Its characters have depth to them, but it's never shown. Its not a mess because there is nothing to spill. The world of Warcraft (sorry, again) is a big, pretty, empty shell. 
Warcraft photo
Not one reference to Leeroy Jenkins
When Warcraft (then World of Warcraft) was first announced with Sam Raimi directing, I thought that was pretty perfect. Raimi has a deft touch for handling things that are slightly absurd. His almost tongue-in-...

Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

Jun 03 // Matthew Razak
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the ShadowsDirector: Dave GreenRated: PG-13Release Date: June 3, 2016] If you saw the first move you know that the films definitely bumped up the realism of the turtle design, and threw in a sexy April O'Neil (Megan Fox). The basics of the turtles are still the same, though. We find Leonardo trying his best to learn how to lead; Donatello acting all nerdy; Raphael having temper issues; and Michelangelo providing comic relief and pizza. The Shredder escapes from imprisonment with the help of Dr. Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry) and opens up a portal to another world where Krang, an evil brain housed in a robot body, strikes a deal to bring his Technodrome to Earth. Meanwhile, Casey Jones (Stephen Armell) shows up to beat up bad guys as well, like the new created Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (wrestler Sheamus). It's a plot so contrived  and cliche (*cough* Avengers *cough*) and stupid it feels torn right from a Saturday morning cartoon, and in this case I just can't be angry at that. When the first film worked it was when it was focusing on the turtles themselves and this is once again true here. Despite a clunkly script that basically tells the actors to say every emotion they're feeling out loud, the filmmakers once again nail the ninja turtles themselves. While their character arc is simply a retread of the original's plotline (brothers argues, brothers come back together to fight bad guy), it plays well thanks to some great motion capture performances and a general feel for the characters. It's fun to watch Mikey crack wise while Raph gets angry and stomps off. They also surprisingly nail Bepop and Rocksteady, making the two as comically idiotic as they are in the cartoon, and pushing the kid-geared humor up a notch (fart jokes, slapstick, etc.) At it's base the movie just gets the turtles and villains, even if it's attempts at almost everything else are ham-fisted.  Well, that's not entirely true. Much like the first movie the action sequences in this are pretty impressive. Possibly thanks to the entirely CGI makeup of its heroes the move pulls some ridiculous stuff off including a fight in an cargo plane that's fantastic. The turtles don't get to show off as much of their actual ninja fighting skills this time around, but the big action set pieces are a blast to watch. Plus, the turtle van makes an appearance so that was my childhood dreams come true. This is director Dave Green's first big action film, and at points it's clear he needs some practice getting action to flow together, but there's promise there and an eye for what makes action work.  Outside of the turtles things are a little rougher. Megan Fox's April seems to have only made it into the movie for exposition and eye candy, the latter of which is a bit contradictory to the clear target audience of the movie. Armell's Casey Jones is charming enough, but that's really only because Armell is charming, not because of the character himself. The screenplay does no favors to either character passing most of the good lines over to Will Arnett, returning as Vernon Fenwick. Somehow Laura Liney also accidentally accepted a role in the film. I think she may have been drugged, but it's pretty clear she doesn't want to be there. Out of the Shadows doesn't quite work as well as its predecessor overall, either. It's very clear that now that they've got the green light to move forward with the series they want to make their own ninja turtle universe. Baxter, Krang and Shredder are all set up for returns, which is great, but the problem is the the film sometimes feels like its playing for the future instead of focusing on the film itself. That's pretty evident in the movies piecemeal plot and often overbearing exposition.  Still, when it comes down to seeing the ninja turtles in action the movie delivers. While many of the same issues that the first film had are still present, and at times worse, Out of the Shadows delivers the team of mutants as they've should be. It's a fun, if not entirely well executed, bit of cinema that's geared not towards the elder nostalgia nerds, but the children who it probably should be. 
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These aren't your turtles
When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot happened I was mostly just worried since I'm of the age where I like to pretend that my generation can lay claim to the heroes in a half shell. But that's pretty ridiculous co...

Review: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Jun 03 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220607:42964:0[/embed] Popstar: Never Stop Never StoppingDirectors: Jorma Taccone, Akiva SchafferRelease Date: June 3, 2016Rating: R Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a mockumentary, and a great one at that. Following, primarily, the story of Conner 4 Real, a member of the Style Boyz, who broke off on his own after a fight with whoever Akiva Schaffer played. (Not gonna lie, I don't remember his character's name or Jorma Taccone's; then again, I probably wouldn't remember Conner's if it hadn't been seared into my retina from the repeated viewings of "Finest Girl.") Anyways, he's got a documentary being made about his life to coincide with the release of his second album. People went crazy for the first one, and now he's trying to top it, by hiring a metric fuckton of producers and making something that just... doesn't work. (Except to me, obviously. I thought it was all gold, but I understand why the fictional humans in this mockumentary might not take to it.) This is the first mockumentary I've seen in a while, or at least the first one I remember seeing. It was big for a while and then kinda fell by the wayside. I get that. The joke can get stale pretty quickly, which makes Popstar's brisk, 90-ish minute runtime perfect. There's enough variety to keep you entertained but not so much stuff that it ever feels padded or overlong. The only jokes that go on are the ones where that is, in fact, the joke, and the film only goes to that well a couple times (i.e. not enough to be irritating or gratuitous).  One of the potential issues with the format is that there are only so many places it can go. And, sure enough, from the moment Popstar begins, you can (successfully) guess every single story beat. Nothing about the narrative is even sort of surprising... but so what? For a film from The Lonely Island, that's pretty much exactly what I wanted. I wanted something that felt good and comfortable and also made me laugh while putting some new music into my head to obsess over for a little while. And the film absolutely succeeded on both those counts. The "Finest Girl" song actually plays a big early role in the film, and it was kinda cool for me to see how much different and also the same the "In Concert" version of the song was compared to the music video. And I loved his song about Equal Rights (I'm so excited for when that hits Spotify), being Humble (which is already there), the Mona Lisa (ditto), and everything else. Seriously, the music here is just stellar from start to finish. If this was actually just a concert film, I would still have loved it. [When this was written, the album hadn't hit Spotify yet. It's now up, but the Equal Rights song is not available. Which is hot garbage. - Ed] But there's more to it. It's a damning indictment of our modern pop culture and the way we treat our stars. (Sort of.) Conner gets big, in part, because he connects directly with fans. He records himself brushing his teeth and posts it. Everything is out there for the world to see. As someone who watches at least a couple of Youtubers consistently, it really struck a chord not just because it was funny but because it was real. Everything about the way his persona goes from public idol to public ridicule feels genuine, even if it's turned up to 11. So many moments are exaggerated versions of real headlines. (The music-in-your-appliances dig at Apple and U2? Spot on.) It's a parody of modern music, but it's also a celebration of the same. You can tell that everyone involved is genuinely enjoying what they're doing. This extends to an expectedly large cast of cameos, who really help sell the whole thing. The likes of Usher, Nas, and A$AP Rocky all help to ground the film in a bizarre alternate reality, and every one of them puts in a killer performance. I don't really want to ruin all the cameos, and we're not talking Muppets-level stuff here, but it's a pretty packed group, many (if not most) of whom are playing themselves. Usher is particularly compelling, and when says that it was the Style Boyz who made him want to start dancing, for just a moment, I totally believed him. Because, like, duh. The Donkey Roll is an awesome dance. How could it not inspire Usher to become Usher?  It's been a good Spring for comedies. Between The Boss (which I liked, despite knowing that no one else does), Neighbors 2 (which Nick didn't like but is awesome), and The Nice Guys (which isn't as good as Neighbors 2 and has some issues with the way it handles the "hilarity" of death but is the most genuinely original comedy I've seen in a while), there's been a lot to recommend. And though I recommend all those films, to varying degrees, Popstar stands above. This is The Lonely Island at the top of their, years after leaving SNL and mostly dropping off the map. They're back and as good as (if not better than) ever. If you don't like The Lonely Island, this film won't convince you to. But if you do, you're going to love each and every moment.
Popstar Review photo
Amazing 4 Real
A couple weeks ago was the finale for the forty-first season of Saturday Night Live. At one point, fairly late in the show, a familiar title screen came up: "An SNL Digital Short" For people who loved everything from "Lazy Su...

Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

Jun 02 // Rick Lash

My mind had accepted I’d not be seing X-Men: Apocalypse in theaters. I hadn’t seen X-Men: First Class, or X-Men: Days of Future Past in theaters, and I usually see comic book movies in theaters. Go big or go home....

Review: Hard Sell

May 23 // Rick Lash

I want to say nice things about this film. That's the feeling I'm left with as I'm watching it. I believe I understand where the Writer/Director, Sean Nalaboff, is coming from. Hard Sell is "a coming-of-age tale ... [abo...

Review: The Nice Guys

May 20 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220584:42955:0[/embed] The Nice GuysDirector: Shane BlackRated: RRelease Date: May 20, 2016 If you've seen the cult classic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang you know that Sean Black knows his way around the tropes and cliches of noir film and knows how to subvert them beautifully. His return to the genre is exciting to say the least. The Nice Guys starts up as many noir films do with narration from one of our lead private eyes: Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). He is soon joined in his narration efforts by Holland March (Ryan Gosling) as the two team up to find a missing girl -- Jackson out of misplaced duty and Holland out of greed. Tagging along is Holland's daughter Holly (Angourie Rice). A 70s, drug-fueled mystery unfolds replete with femme fatales, conspiracies, tragic downfalls and everything else you'd expect from a noir. Stir in some buddy cop banter (Black's other genre strong suit) and you've got yourself a perfect example of neo-noir on your hands. There's a lot to unpack here, especially since Black is clearly spending a lot of the movie simply deconstructing the noir genre. Sadly, the movies plot seems to suffer because of it. While it's two lead characters are fantastic, it's comedy crisp and its direction clever the film's story never lives up to any of it. Relying far too heavily on deus ex machina and cheap plot twists the mystery seems to be more in service of the themes than the other way around. That might be fine for an art house film, but this isn't that and it makes watching the movie start to get a bit boring. Thankfully, Crowe and Gosling are pretty fantastic together. Their chemistry takes a bit to work up, but once it does they're flinging insults off each other wonderfully. It helps that the two characters are really representations of the two major facets of noir gumshoes. Crowe's is the hard-edge moral code that classic noir anti-heroes abide by and Gosling's is the rampant self destruction and selfishness that makes them not entirely likeable. Together they basically make Humphrey Bogart in 70s suits and Hawaiian shirts. It's a wonderfully smart look at noir film archetypes made even more fun by the charm the two actors bring to the role.  On the other hand you have Holly, whose character seems almost unnecessary except to move the plot along. Her character is the worst aspect of the buddy cop movie (the unwanted sidekick) and feels especially out of place in a film crammed full of adult content. The emotional ticks she plays a part in could have been executed just as easily without her, and her involvement in some of the scenes feels inappropriate at times. She also seems out of place overall with the tone and genre of the film. A bit of 90s buddy cop movie pushing in a bit too much on what should be a noir with just a sprinkling of that genre.  I will say that the 70s are the perfect setting for neo-noir. The last decade of abandonment tinged with the knowledge that all the drugs, sex and crime we're leading to a crescendo that was the 80s. The movie doesn't quite make enough of its setting except to play off the emergence of pornography in cinema and show of some epic 70s fashion. It's another aspect that works really well for the noir part of the film, but feels like a gimmick when the more buddy cop tones play in.  The Nice Guys is a strange combination of what Sean Black does best, but his neo-noir feels awkward mixed with buddy cop. Maybe he was emboldened by his success at mashing together genres in Iron Man 3, but in this case Black should have stuck with what he does best: turning noir on its head in order to redefine it.
Nice Guys photo
Shane Black doing it oh so nice
There's something a little off about The Nice Guys. It should work really well. Two great actors who play off each other fantastically with director/writer Shane Black bringing his talents back to the neo-noir genre. Plus, it...

Review: Cash Only

May 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220586:42954:0[/embed] Cash OnlyDirector: Malik BaderRelease Date: March 13, 2016 Rating: NR Elvis Martini is down on his luck. After he inadvertently murdered (manslaughtered?) his wife in an arson attempt to get some insurance money from his house, he finds himself the landlord of a janky apartment building renting to some terrible tenants who, for the most part, don't pay their rent or, ya know, care about anything at all. He lives with his daughter, who plays video games all day (at least two console generations behind, but more like three to five), because her father can't afford to keep her in school. He owes some people money, and in the process winds up on the wrong side of some dangerous people. His daughter gets kidnapped, and suddenly he needs to get $25,000 together by midnight in order to get her back. For this story to work, you have to find Elvis Martini a relatable character, one you can root for and feel for. You need to develop a bond that will override your general distaste for the bad things he does and the way he hurts people in order to deal with the aftermath of a very stupid thing that he did. If you don't make that connection, then you're just watching a bad guy do bad things. But not, like, interesting ones. Just bad ones. At one point, soon after his daughter is taken, Martini asks one of his tenants for help. The tenant, a weed grower living in the basement, says no, because Martini's a bad dude who did bad things and is getting what he deserves. It feels like cruelty on the grower's part, like the movie wanted me to think, "Wow! What a terrible human being!" And, sure, that's not a great look for the character, but he was right. Plus, the entire movie is about how terrible Martini is at paying back his debts. The grower has no obligation to give his landlord thousands of dollars (that he'd probably never see again) for any reason. As a person who doesn't want to see anyone's daughter get eaten by dogs, I wanted him to help, but I really can't blame the guy for saying no. And maybe I wouldn't have felt that way were it not for Cash Only's biggest problem: It is anchored around a performance that never quite clicks. Everything about Nickola Shreli's performance just feels the slightest bit off. The words are fine (and written by Shreli, which is interesting), but there's a disconnect between the words and the voice at times, and there's almost always a disconnect between the voice and the body. This is especially true near the end, where Shreli' lack of affect becomes downright bizarre as it's played against an admittedly over-the-top caricature of an Eastern European mob boss. This scene, which I'm fairly sure was supposed to inspire tension, merely elicits confusion, because everything is in place... but it doesn't quite work. Parts of it do, but the overall effect is just kind of flat. There's yelling and screaming and barking, but it's – to quote people smarter than me quoting Hamlet – full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it goes beyond the narrative into the production itself. It doesn't feel motivated. Take the camerawork: I like handheld camera movement. I use it a lot in my own projects, because I think it can be extremely effective at adding a sense of urgency to a moment or giving the whole moment an air of instability. And, given its sequence of events, it makes sense that Cash Only is a film that heavily utilizes handheld camera work. There are a lot of shaky shots, sharp pans, etc. But the problem is that there is a fine line between Effective and Exhausting, and Cash Only doesn't walk it so well. Sometimes the intensity of the movement felt unmotivated; other times, particularly during runs, it felt like the operator forgot they were supposed to be pointing the camera at something in the first place. It's just shake for the sake of shake. And that's what this movie is, really. Shake for the sake of it. Story for the sake of it. Action for the sake of it. Cash Only isn't bad or anything, and there are worse ways you could spend 88 minutes, but it's not particularly good either, and there are a whole lot of better ones too. Like rewatching Taken. Yeah, just do that instead.
Cash Only Review photo
For a Klondike Bar
What would you do to get your daughter back from an Eastern European mob man? Your first answer is probably, "Become Liam Neeson." And that's basically the correct answer, even if it's laughable for a whole host of reasons. B...

Review: Captain America: Civil War

May 03 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220556:42944:0[/embed] Captain America: Civil WarDirectors: Anthony and Joe RussoRated: PG-13Release Date: May 6, 2016 Civil War is basically the Avengers movie we all hoped Avengers 2 would be. At the end of my review for that film I worried that the MCU might be buckling under its own weight thanks to the inconsistencies in the film, but Civil War abolishes that worry faster than the Hulk smashing Loki. It's tightly paced, full of both the fun and action we've come to know from Marvel's films and never feels rushed or bloated despite its more than two hour running time. Maybe we needed Avengers 2 to get us here, but this is the one you were waiting for. After the events of Avengers 2 (and any other Marvel film that came along since then) we find that people are getting a little tired of the world getting destroyed by super powered people. Enter the Sokovia Accords, a U.N. resolution that the Avengers and all powered people will not act without permission from the U.N. Captain America (Chris Evans), who distrust of the government was beautifully set up in Winter Soldier, finds himself disagreeing with this new law while Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) supports it. Most of the known Avengers split up to one side or the other with Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) hopping in on Caps side, Spider-Man  (Tom Holland) -- making his triumphant debut to the MCU -- on Iron Man's team and Black Panther somewhere in the middle (Chadwick Boseman). From there throw-downs ensue as Cap tries to save Buckey (Sebastian Stan) from being framed for killing the King of Wakanda. There is a big bad guy operating in the background, of course, but unlike in previous MCU films this one is impressively well toned and developed. The character perfectly supports the true themes of the film without being big or flashy. He's a refreshing divergence from what we've seen before and should come as a surprise to many. This all sounds like a lot for any movie to handle. BvS could barely handle three characters and Marvel is here telling a deep and emotional story with 12. They can pull it off easily thanks to experience and history. In fact it all banks on that history. What would traditionally be an overcrowded movie doesn't feel overcrowded at all because all the normal stuff (intros, character development, etc.) has already been done previously. In fact there's almost 10 years of it to work with. This allows breathing room in the script to introduce both Black Panther and Spider-Man with ease despite also developing Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) more, introducing a fantastically banal (in all the right ways) villain and covering that whole civil war thing. Oh, and the best action the MCU has ever seen. The Russo brothers outshine every other director in the MCU when it comes to their action sequences. There are moments in this film that will make your jaw drop because you've never seen anything like it before. The fights are fantastically choreographed and shot so well that they pull you to the edge of your seat breathless. Despite seeing most of these folks fight before everything feels fresh and powerful. Each hero has their own fighting style making every battle unique. Avengers and Avengers 2 may have given us giant action catastrophes, but Civil War brings the action to a personal level allowing for some truly amazing fight sequences littered with iconic shots ripped straight from the comics. There's plenty to be said about both Black Panther and Spider-Man, but to start it must be mentioned just how good Downey Jr. is as Stark/Iron Man. The hero, racked over guilt from his previous actions, is progressively more and more worn down throughout the film and Downey Jr. delivers what is probably his best performance as the character. The bravado steadily peeling away to reveal a truly flawed character. I'm surprised they didn't introduce the character's alcoholism here, but maybe they're just not going to tackle it at all. With the way the character is going they hardly need it at this point.  Meanwhile everyone else brings their A game as well. Boseman is sleek and confident as the Black Panther, pulling off a character that feels drastically different from the rest of the cast -- as he should. Even his movements and fighting style feel new and different, making it hard to wait for his stand alone film. Holland's Spider-Man is much the same, especially since Marvel smartly glazes over origins to get us right into the wise-cracking Spidey. It makes the wait for Homecoming even harder. Hell, every character makes the wait for their next movie even harder and we once again have to ask ourselves why Hawkeye and Black Widow don't at least have their own joint film if not stand alone ones. It's the strength of all these characters, lovingly developed over the years, that makes Civil War work so well. It also works because Marvel knows how to make these movies. If you've been dying for a massive divergence from the MCU's general feel (aside for Guardians) this isn't going to do anything for you. It's the exact right balance of emotion, humor and action that Marvel knows works so well because... it really does work so well. The film keeps things light when it needs to be, heavy when it should be and still progresses a universe building plot without getting in the way of the movie itself. It is the classic Marvel movie formula executed once again, and while you thought that might be getting stale you're once again forced to admit that it just works.  Did I mention the score? It's fantastic. Henry Jackman wonderfully mixes in new themes and old to deliver a musical triumph that never overpowers what is going on onscreen, but always works.  The film's biggest flaw is that it's a Captain America movie. This means that most of the plot and action revolve around him, and we seem to miss out on a bit of the other characters because of it. This leads to it being almost impossible to be on any side but #TeamCap. Yet it is an absolutely fantastic Cap story that helps bring Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Buckey to the forefront. The second biggest flaw may be for newcomers who might be lost without the context of the previous films. However, anyone who hasn't kept up a little with the MCU probably won't be seeing this movie in the first place and if they do the action is enough to keep you glued to the screen. By this time one would think that the Marvel formula was getting old and that it wouldn't work anymore, and yet the studio just keeps making it better. At some point they may truly stumble (maybe you think they already have), but it sure as hell isn't with Captain America: Civil War. 
Civil War photo
I can guarantee one thing about Captain America: Civil War. When you come out of the theater you will have an incredible appreciation for Chris Evans' biceps. Like... woh. I can almost guarantee another thing (though some people are just crazy): you're absolutely going to love it. 

Review: Mother's Day

Apr 29 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220546:42940:0[/embed] Mother's DayDirector: Garry MarshallRated: PG-13Release Date: April 28, 2016  I think Mother's Day is supposed to be about being a mom because it's called Mother's Day, which seems like it would be the name of a movie about being a mom. It really isn't though. We find Sandy (Jennifer Aniston), a divorced mom with two kids still kind of pining over her ex-husband who has recently married a 20-year-old. There's Miranda (Julia Roberts), a HSN host who is somehow actually famous. And then Jesse (Kate Hudson) who has married an Indian man, Russell (Aasif Mandvi), without her racist parents knowing. Finally Bradley (Jason Sudeikis) has just lost his wife and is raising two daughters. Children actually play a very small part in this film as it's more about romantic relationships than being a mom -- don't worry, it fails at romance as well. There are plot lines in here involving children and becoming a parent, but they're buried under what has to be the worst screenplay written this year. It's seriously bad, and I'm not even discussing the casual racism it tosses around for no reason. The movie feels like the its four screenwriters (two male, two female) got together and wrote conversations for a group of women characters based on advice from an alien race who had only experienced conversations between females by watching soap operas. It is easily the most stilted tripe to ever pour out of any of these actors mouths. Watching the legendary Julia Roberts stoop so low in such a bad wig as some sort of favor to Garry Marshall was revolting.  The entire movie is revolting, especially since it somehow mistakes flat out racism for comedy. When Jesse's parents find out she's married to Russell as he accidentally walks in after they surprise her with a visit their first reaction is to wonder what a "towel head" is doing in her house. The audience at my screening instantly gasped and then sat there in horror as it only got worse. For some reason the filmmakers thought that the parents' flat out offensive and racist actions would be charming and whimsical, as if we're supposed to laugh along at those silly old folks who just disowned their grandchild for being "a little dark." No really, someone says that. I want to make it perfectly clear that jokes about race can be hilarious. Comedy is one of the best ways to address race issues, but this movie confuses using race for humor with actually being racist. None of the lines are actually jokes, they're just racist (and sexist and homophobic) statements said out loud as if that's enough to make something funny. Just because you say you're a comedy doesn't mean you can say offensive things without a punchline. There's no deeper meaning here either. Sure, in the end everyone comes around and no one is racist anymore (because it's that simple), but it's handled with such dull-witted ineptitude that you can only sit there with your jaw open and wonder if anyone making the movie actually understood the history humanity. I want to really stress just how incredibly out of touch with reality this film is. We'll ignore the fact that all the characters are cliches, none of the actors seem to actually care that they're there and that it easily has one of the worst soundtracks in the past ten years. We're ignoring all of this because at the end of Mother's Day Asif Mandvi, the only minority in the vehicle, gets out of an RV and a group of cops go to pull their guns on him. This is a joke. In the middle of a crisis of violence on minorities by police this film deems it appropriate to have an Indian man pinned to the ground as a group of white people, who very recently called him racial slurs, stand around gawking. That's it by the way. That's the joke. It just happens and everyone is OK with it once one of the cops RECOGNIZES THE INDIAN GUY AS HER DOCTOR. If I was Mandvi I would have walked off the set faster than an American Indian in an Adam Sandler film.  The only reason this movie didn't get a zero is because Jason Sudeikis is so damn charming even when he's stuck in crap like this. Crap where his meet cute is based around awkwardly buying tampons and then followed up by a second meet cute where his hand is stuck in a candy machine. Only that man could make something that stupid work, and even then one has to ask oneself why, in a movie called Mother's Day, one fourth of the lead characters needs to be a father. I get that it's supposed to be about the hole a mother leaves when she dies, but it really isn't at all and it makes for just another bit of sexism to add into this already turgid pile of crap.  There's about 50 other things wrong with this movie like why all the women seem to be constantly working out or why the only minority character aside from Mandvi and his mother is a sassy black woman. It would be impossible to catalog every way this movie is the film equivalent of the KKK projectile vomiting onto celluloid while a group of men attempt to write a screenplay about women with their penises, but I'll digress because I'm getting too angry and this human excrement of a movie isn't worth it.
Mother's Day photo
A racist, sexist, unfunny pile of crap
I'm not going to pull punches here because Mother's Day is easily the worst movie I have seen in years. It is unfathombly offensive, boring, unfunny and terrible in every way possible. I didn't head into it thinking it was go...

Review: Ratchet & Clank

Apr 28 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220548:42938:0[/embed] Ratchet & ClankDirectors: Jericca Cleland and Kevin Munroe Rated: PGRelease Date: April 29, 2016 There's nothing really wrong with Ratchet & Clank. It's a perfectly standard set up that pulls from all your other favorite science-fiction classics. Ratchet (James Arnold Taylor) is a Lombax mechanic on a remote desert planet who dreams of being like his hero, Captain Qwark (Jim Ward), but when tryouts for Qwark's team of heroes roll around he's laughed out of the building by the man himself. Luckily for him Clank (David Kaye) has just escaped from the evil Chairman Drek (Paul Giamatti) and Dr. Nefarious (Armin Shimerman), who have a dastardly plan to blow up some planets and make a new one. Due to a crash landing Clank meets Ratchet, the two become friends and adventure ensues all culminating in that oh-so traditional children's film lesson that you can be whatever you want with the support of friends and a wide array of weaponry. There is not really much more to it. You can insert almost every standard joke you've come to expect from tongue-in-cheek children's films and then add a few references to the game. They actually really under utilize the latter. For a game that's known for its funky and fun weapons the movie barely plays around with them. There is the expected montage of weapon use, but from there on out most of the action could rely on the basic blaster. Maybe that's a super meta commentary the directors had about the game's gameplay, but I seriously doubt it. That's not the only opportunity missed. One of the mainstays of the games (or the first two at least) was the great dynamic between the excitable Ratchet and the reserved Clank. The film barely touches this. We have to be introduced to the characters separately, of course, but once they're together the action keeps tearing them apart. Their dynamic is sidelined in favor of more Captain Qwark and the Galactic Rangers. This isn't all bad as Qwark has some of the funniest lines, but you still feel like the movie is more about Ratchet on his own than his friendship with Clank.  However, judging a movie for what it is not, especially a children's movie, is a bit unfair. Ratchet & Clank does move along at a perfectly good clip and the plot holes are all within acceptable range for the target audience. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the sight gags, which kids will most likely love, and the screenplay puts in enough jokes to keep any parent relatively entertained even if you've heard almost every one before. This isn't a movie that's out to top Pixar, but it will stand with your more basic Dreamworks animations any day.  The animation itself is good too, though nothing stellar. Having just come off the revolutionary The Jungle Book my eye might be a bit jaded, but just as there's nothing that will wow you in terms of animation there's also nothing that's going to put you off. It's just middle of the road throughout as with the rest of the film.  That goes for the voice acting as well, which was very clearly taken more seriously by some. The filmmakers brought in the game's voices for Ratchet, Clank and Captain Qwark and it shows. The actors' performances stand out among phoned in turns from the "name" actors, especially John Goodman who sounds like he wasn't quite sure what movie he was reading for the entire time. Thankfully those roles are smaller in scale and never bad enough to break the film, just to keep it at its constant level of acceptability.  No one was really expecting stellar things out of Ratchet & Clank and if you go in with that mindset you're going to come out having definitely seen a movie that fit it. I can't see hardcore fans of the franchise coming out of the film upset in any way because the movie is so inoffensive. I can't see anyone really coming out of the theater too excited except for a five-year-old wanting a pet lombax... and then having his dreams crushed when he finds out they don't exist.
Ratchet & Clank photo
Clanking along
Ratchet & Clank is the epitome of a film that doesn't do anything wrong, but that doesn't make it right. I suppose I should start by saying that I have not kept up with the games this movie is based on. I played the ...


'Batman: The Killing Joke' Trailer Released, Rated-R

Apr 28
// Rick Lash
The trailer for Batman: The Killing Joke has been released and set the stage for a true-to-graphic-novel adaptation. This is the first time a DC Comics movie will be R-rated a fact which is actually not attributable...

Review: The Jungle Book

Apr 15 // Matthew Razak
The Jungle BookDirector: Jon FavreauRated: PGRelease Date: April 15, 2016 [embed]220509:42914:0[/embed] As a property it's hard to believe that one could bring something new to The Jungle Book. Mogli's (Neel Sethi) story has been told so many times in so many different ways that retelling it again seems a bit redundant. This seems especially true since this version is part of Disney's ongoing effort to remake or reimagine their animated classics as live action films (see: Cinderella or Maleficent). Yet despite the fact that this new version of The Jungle Book once again finds Mogli raised by a pack of wolves and the panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), hunted by the villainous tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) and eventually hanging out with the laid back bear Baloo (Bill Murray), it feels dramatically different from previous tellings of the story. The plot may be mostly the same as Disney's animated classic, but striking visuals and Favreau's surprisingly fluid direction make it an entirely new experience. Those visuals, though. You will spend half this movie wondering what is real and what isn't while marveling at the individual hairs on Baloo's back or how Baheera moves perfectly or how the fat on King Louie (Christopher Walken) is disturbingly realistic. If ever a film has crossed the uncanncy valley it is The Jungle Book. Yes, there are still some parts that get stuck in the low end of that valley, but overall it is a visual masterpiece. The most impressive part is that they did it all while featuring talking animals in situations that are sometimes entirely human. Everything feels real and yet is somehow full of the magic and wonder that more traditional animation brings. It is this combination of reality and magic that make The Jungle Book work so well. Hats off to Favreau for being able to pull this movie together. His direction is often striking and far more than you'd expect from a traditional children's film. Some shots seem to be pulled from an art house independent while others are pitch-perfect horror moments (still suitable for children). Most impressive though is the fluid way he moves Mogli and company through the jungle. Taking advantage of his almost entirely digital setting, Favreau stitches together fluid shots that make you feel like you're there. It helps that the IMAX 3D is simply breathtaking on the big screen and that digital animation always looks better in that setting. Though Favreau may miss a few beats here and there, they're mostly because he's playing towards a crowd of children who expect certain things from their movies.  The only truly inconsistent thing about the movie is Sethi, who, in all fairness, had an incredibly daunting task before him since he's the only actual person in the entire film. It's clear that he became more comfortable with that fact as shooting went on as his performance varies from absolutely stellar (banging out a rendition of "The Bear Necessities") to horribly awkward (being hypnotized by the snake Kaa, played by an utterly wasted Scarlet Johansson). Still, he performs admirably overall, and it's his animal counterparts who steal the show anyway. Murray's Baloo is both perfect casting and the chance to hear him sing Baloo's classic song would make any movie worth the price of admission. Throw in a rollicking scene with King Louie that has Walken delivering a mafia routine and a chilling rendition of "Be Like You" and it's hard not to be drawn in by the performances not to mention stopping your foot from tapping. Much of their performance can be chalked up to the stellar animation, especially Elba's Shere Khan, who lurks around the screen fearsomely while the actor's silky voice drips with menace.   This is a children's movie overall, however. In the end Disney wants kids to be pretending they're hanging out with Baloo, and the movie plays like that. It's almost a contradiction as they hyper-realism of the film means the darker parts have that much more impact and the scary parts are that much scarier. Often the look and tone of the film don't jive with each other, though that's probably only a complaint an adult would have.  That look is so good, however, that it almost doesn't matter if the tone feels off sometimes. This is a major step forward in what we should come to expect from our CGI, but more importantly to that target audience, it's actually fun. 
Jungle Book photo
More than the bear necessities
At this point in my jaded film critic life it takes a lot to actually impress me with special effects. We've seen Transformers and giant blue aliens and everything in between on screen by now, and great digital effects are al...

Review: The Boss

Apr 08 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220481:42895:0[/embed] The BossDirector: Ben FalconeRelease Date: April 8, 2016Rating: R  I don't think you should watch that trailer. You can if you want, but you really shouldn't. It's the film's official Red Band trailer. I watched it just now, and it made me wonder how it's possible that I so enjoyed the movie that this was selling. Because the trailer looks awful. And it looks awful on pretty much every level. Like, I feel bad as a critic to say that I really liked The Boss. But you know what? I'm gonna own it. I really liked The Boss. I loved the scene where T-Pain came out, when Melissa McCarthy raps along to DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win" (which, you should know, I listen to at least once every few days (usually multiple times in a row)) while dancing and showing off how rich and awesome she is. It's probably a stupid scene, but T-Pain comes out to sing the chorus when it plays again, and they're dancing, and it's awesome. I don't care what anyone says about the rest of the movie; that sequence is gold. And it was enough that I was content having seen it. From there, it would have had to go to some really bad places to have lost me completely. But it didn't.  Ugh... it looks so dumb. (But I laughed really hard at this scene.) The premise is stupid. An obscenely rich woman (McCarthy) does some insider trading, and six months later she comes out of jail completely broke. She finds her former assistant (Kristen Bell), and is offered a chance to stay with her for a little while while she finds her feet, despite the fact that McCarthy was terrible to her. At some point, McCarthy decides to create a for-profit rival to a Girl Scouts analog called the Dandelions. Ignoring child labor laws entirely, the girls start selling brownies made at a frankly impossible pace to meet a ridiculous demand (the child labor thing, by the way, is never addressed... though I do think that an interesting case could be made that the girls getting 10% of girl scout cookie sales (with another 10% being put towards college) wouldn't necessarily be such a bad thing (I bought six boxes of Thin Mints this year, and they lasted me about two weeks (unrelated but still kind of relevant)))). Other dumb things get in the way, and then it's dumb how other things don't get in the way. Honestly, if I look at this with even a vaguely objective lens, the narrative is a complete and utter catastrophe. But I so don't care about that, because I didn't care about it while I was watching it. Yes, it certainly occurred to me that X, Y, and Z were ridiculous, but I was too busy laughing to care. A shocking number of the jokes worked for me, including some of the same jokes that I really don't like out of context in the trailer. Yeah, sometimes things fell flat, but more often than not it got me. And it's possible that sometimes I was laughing at the movie and not with it, but I don't really know that that distinction matters. The point of the film, the only point of the film, is to make me (as an analog for the entire audience) laugh. Every sequence (except the one emotional one that you know is coming) is there in service of that goal. And if that goal is achieved, then the film succeeded. It didn't succeed as anything other than a thing that made me laugh, but it did that. And that's really what I care about here. Yeah... I dunno. Whatever. I saw Bridesmaids in theaters. During one particular scene, I literally cried laughing, and in general I found it to be a hysterically funny film. Months (years?) later, I watched it again. I laughed at the scene that made me cry the first time, and I'm sure I giggled here and there outside of that, but the second time around, I was really just hit by a general sense of, "Ehhhhhh." And I wondered why I liked it as much as I did the first time around. Maybe it's something about the big screen, or maybe it's the infectiousness of an audience. Maybe I've just got an objectively terrible sense of humor, and this sort of low-brow stuff is the best I can hope for. Or maybe everyone else is wrong. As I type this, The Boss has an 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. I am, unfortunately, not on there (yet), so this review won't change that number, but clearly everyone else in my field hates it. As I walked out of the theater, I heard someone call it a "horror show." And I know plenty of others who just thought it was awful. If I were to see The Boss again, it's entirely possible that I would hate it and look back on my feelings about it right now as a tragedy and a shame on my record as a critic. But as much as it can try to be representative of the future, a review is a document of right now. You might have noticed that it's sort of a weird document, hedging a whole bunch of bets on the future, but that's because I'm still kind of shocked by how much I liked the film (especially after watching that trailer... because, wow). Yeah, it's stupid as hell, and not always in a good way, but I nonetheless enjoyed the time I spent watching The Boss. And, really, nothing else matters.
The Boss Review photo
Win. Win. Win. (No Matter What)
The first time I saw a trailer for The Boss was just a few weeks ago. I'd kind of generally ignored its existence, because... why wouldn't I have? I mean, honestly, it looked terrible. I saw that trailer and thought, "Yu...

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