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Review: Baby Driver

Jun 28 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221653:43629:0[/embed] Baby DriverDirector: Edgar WrightRated: RRelease Date: June 28, 2017 Don't worry. Baby Driver isn't a musical in the traditional sense. It doesn't have characters breaking out in song and spiraling into wild, Busby Berkley style dance numbers (unless you count car chases as dance numbers). Instead, it features Baby (Ansel Elgort), an expert driver who is forced into being the driver on a series of heists by Doc (Kevin Spacey). Through a series of events, Baby tries to pull himself away from a life of crime while falling for Debora (Lily James), a charming waitress he meets at a diner. The plot itself is a little thin, but that's because it's not really the point. What Wright wants to do with this film is turn soundtrack into character; make a film that flows as well as its soundtrack. It's a bold effort, and it makes the soundtrack the leading star. It's an absolutely fantastic soundtrack that runs the gamut from classic rock to modern rap, each song cued up with the film's editing and action. The excuse is that Baby has tinnitus so he's always listening to music to get rid of the ringing. What that results in is car chases cued wonderfully to songs, entire scenes edited to the beat of whatever Baby is listening to, and a soundtrack that often informs the film more than anything else going on on screen. It also means that every character is defined by the music, every choice bent around what's playing. Even the dialog is often a diatribe on the meaning of music to people, and in that aspect the film is endlessly interesting. Wright's direction of the action is just as interesting. His shots and editing go beyond coherent, which is a base we shouldn't have to applaud, but will thanks to having just seen The Last Knight. He weaves together brilliant plot, music, and real driving into some masterful sequences. The first 20 minutes of this movie are an almost perfect execution of Wright's "car chase musical" idea form the opening beats featuring “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to the first moment that Baby's headphones sadly come off. Unfortunately, that marks a bit of a stumble for the film. The movie loses its thread a little bit once the full commitment to musical drops. Maybe it was impossible to really keep the entire film moving forward as a coherent whole while remaining faithful to the constant music (most musicals don't do that), but once the film ditches the idea to advance the plot it starts to lose some of its charm. There's still plenty of good to go around, and any time the film kicks back into car chase mode it picks the thread back up. But between these moments things get a little awkward. The movie still works, but it's disappointing it doesn't fully commit to its bold idea. Do not mistake a lack of fully successful execution with lack of quality. Part of the reason the film's inability to fully dive into its soundtrack-is-god style is so annoying is because what it's doing is so challenging and interesting, that when comes together it does it so well. This isn't some cheap gimmick like Suicide Squad tried to do. It's even a step up from Guardians of the Galaxy's use of soundtrack. It's a bold experiment in making music into a full blown character, and as an experiment it both works and fails. But man, when it works, like those first 20 minutes, it works so well.  I wish as much could be said for the story itself. While Baby and Deborah's story arc is pretty well flushed out, the rest of the characters lose a bit of push. This is especially true for Doc, who wavers between all out evil and a paternal gangster. With the focus on the music and action, the characters and their motivations get lost. The end of the film explodes into a bloody action flick that feels at odds with the almost charming tone of the rest of the film. Maybe this is a repudiation of the musical genre in general, and a wink at the soundtrack-as-character itself, but it feels almost like a cop-out. It's as if Wright realized he couldn't carry on his brilliant weaving of music and action so he just didn't. Baby Driver should be seen simply because it is such a bold and wonderful idea. It really does execute it well for most of the movie. That's why I kind of hate to say that it doesn't pull it off fully. That makes it sound like it has failed, but just trying to do this is a success. I'd rather have films that try something incredible and fall just a little short than ones that don't try at all.
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Fred Astaire meets Bullit
Edgar Wright is a director with a specific vision, and it's led him to make some of the most genre-bending films in the past decade, and some of the funniest. It's also led him to leave Ant-Man. How do you bounce back from so...

Review: Transformers: The Last Knight

Jun 21 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221624:43613:0[/embed] Transformers: The Last KnightDirector: Michael BayRated: PG-13Release Date: June 21, 2017 Transformers: The Last Knight doesn't so much have a plot as it has a bunch of action sequences attached together by people saying words that make no sense. If you recall from the end of the last film, Optimus Prime launched himself into space to find the Autobots' creator. In his absence more Transformers have come crashing to earth and humanity has started to be dicks to them and rounding them up. Cade Yaeger (Mark Wahlberg) is hanging out with the Autobots from the last film, including Bumble Bee, as an outlaw who is trying to protect as many of his robot friends as his can. Then... I don't know... some things happen in no logical order. Anthony Hopkins shows up along with Laura Haddock, and everyone stands around spewing incoherent exposition until the next action sequence is cued up. My ongoing complaint with these movies has always been that these Transformer films aren't about the Transformers, and The Last Knight is the culmination of this. The first three quarters of this movie is almost entirely "human" interaction. I put human in quotes because no actual humans interact like the characters in this movie, unless I've missed some universal memo where we're all supposed to speak as if we're delivering important one-liners every other sentence. There is so much illogical plot in this film and none of it involves the Transformers we're coming to see. I'm not sure who thought that Cade Yaeger (god, could that name be any douchier) was an interesting character, but he's not and none of the other characters are either, and I CAME TO A TRANSFORMERS MOVIE TO SEE TRANSFORMERS! The saving grace of the previous films was always Optimus Prime, voiced as wonderfully as ever by Peter Cullen. Cullen somehow made stilted dialog into into epic speeches, and Prime's constant Saturday morning cartoon proselytizing somehow made the idiocy of the films more palatable. So what does The Last Knight do? Removes him from the plot until the third act! Any hope that the end of the last film signaled that we'd get a Transformers-focused film for once are instantly dashed in the opening scene as Prime is basically tied up and not mentioned again for the next hour and half. When he does return the movie instantly moves from "stab me in the eyes for the love of god kill me now" to "OK, just put me in a coma," but that's not much of an improvement, obviously. I will say that the action is actually better than the last film in terms of execution. Age of Extinction was a directorial mess in this department for a variety of reasons, but Bay seems to have put his brains back in his head this time around, and edited together some crisp sequences. The last battle actually pulls you to the edge of your seat, and you can follow what's going on instead of being lost in a blur of cuts. However, being better than the last film in terms of action wasn't a high bar to jump, and this one barely clears it. Action sequence aren't put together to be complete scenes, but instead more of a series of ideas that Bay clearly thought would be cool. At one point there's a time freezing gun, and at another gravity just randomly disappears. Sure it makes for some cool shots, but the action itself becomes illogically incoherent -- a series of camera swoops mushed together into explosion porn. Another not-actually-impressive feat is that the film somehow goes on (and on and on and on) for two-and-half hours. I know these films make a lot of money, but could someone please reign Bay in just a little bit? Even a tiny modicum of restraint in terms of action sequences, slow motion pans over a woman's body, or hapless exposition could have saved trillions of theater goer's brain cells. As it stands Bay and the screenwriters are basically allowed to do whatever the hell pops into their head. Entire characters are introduced and then ignored for most of the running time of the film, and most of them aren't even needed in the first place. At one point a WWI tank Transformer just sort of rolls up, makes a random explosion and then is never seen again. It's like Star Magic Jackson Jr. walked into a room of 4-year-olds and green lit whatever the hell they wanted.  It's also hard to honestly express just how many plot holes are in this film. Plot hole is too light a term. Plot black hole? Plot hell hole? Using the word plot anywhere near The Last Knight just seems wrong. There are literally moments in the movie where they just make a joke about not caring about a coherent plot. I suppose they hoped poking fun at their inability to develop logical reasons for the characters to progress from one point to another would distract us from that very fact, but none of the humor is that funny either. Everything comes straight out of action movie screenplay 101, and it couldn't feel more contrived. Romance. Check. Family. Check. Old guy saying a bad word. Check. It's all so pandering that I can't believe that audiences can't see what they're doing. We can't be this stupid to eat this up and laugh at tired jokes. There is always a defense of films like this that we're just supposed to shut our brain down and enjoy the ride. But this isn't a ride, it's a death trap. Yes, there are films that are great for just enjoying. Michael Bay himself has directed many of them, but Transformers: The Last Knight should not be enjoyed. Giving this movie money is re-enforcing everything wrong with the industry, and possibly everything wrong with the world. It is a mountain of turgid garbage. It is elephant vomit expelled into a pile of rotting corpses. If it was a person it would be going to a very special circle of hell. It is, for lack of a better word, bad.  You got us, Kaufman. You got us good. 
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I'm running out of synonyms for bad
Transformers: The Last Knight is proof that Andy Kaufman is alive. When the first film arrived it was a classic Michael Bay film. Yes, it was dumb, and full of stupid, but it had awesome action, and Optimus Prime, and it...

Review: Cars 3

Jun 19 // Drew Stuart
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Here in my Car(s 3)
Pixar has made a name for itself these past few decades by delivering quality kids films that everyone can enjoy, regardless of age. Yet among those films, the Cars series is rarely included, and for good reason. The storytel...

Review: The Mummy

Jun 09 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221584:43585:0[/embed] The MummyDirector: Alex KurtzmanRelease Date: June 9, 2016Rated: PG-13 The Mummy has very little to do with the classic horror film from 1932 because that is a classic. Nor does it have much to do with the Brendan Fraser led (words I'll probably never type again) The Mummy from 1999 because that was fun. Nor does it really have anything to do with any mummy that you're thinking about unless you're thinking about a mostly naked Sofia Boutella with some rotting skin.  We find Boutella, playing the ancient and evil Princess Ahmanet, being buried alive because she's evil. Flash forward to modern day and tomb raider Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and his pal Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) discover her tomb after calling in an air strike because they're also in the army. From there the movie makes a lot of illogical leaps that basically lead Nick to become the chosen one, which means the evil god Set will inhabit his body after ceremony is performed by Ahmanet wherein she stabs him. Add in Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) to say a lot of exposition, and hint at the bigger Dark Universe as a whole, and a love interest for Nick (Annabelle Wallis), and you've got yourself... nearly nothing.  That is basically what The Mummy amounts to. By the time the film is nearing its ending it literally feels like it hasn't even started. You would think that issue would stem from the fact that they've shoved too much universe building into the film, but it is actually the opposite. The movie never seems to be able to establish any universe at all. We're supposed to care about Nick and his love interest, but she's such a 90s action movie MacGuffin that I've completely forgotten her name. We never get a true feeling for what Nick is going through, and Ahmanet's powers are so wishy washy and illogical that it creates plot holes that are hard to ignore. It's a superhero origin story where the superhero never shows up.  I will give credit where its due. I'm excited to see more of Russel Crowe's Jekyll/Hyde. The actor actually imbues his exposition with a bit of panache, and Jekyll's brief appearance is the most fun the movie has. In fact, aside from that the movie is just bland. Universal wants to establish a "dark" universe, but there's nothing dark about this movie at all except for its instance to mute every color in existence. It plays the same note throughout, feeling more like a dated action movie than a modern blockbuster. The DC Extended Universe may have its issues, but at least its got a tone and feeling of its own. The Mummy can't differentiate itself from the myriad of other action flicks released each year. That may come from Alex Kurtzman's directing. Why Universal would take the risk on a guy only known for producing is beyond me, but his first big studio movie lacks any character at all. His action sequences are competent enough, but rely a bit too much on unremarkable CGI, and he routinely wastes the charms of Tom Cruise, who wavers back and forth on whether he's really committed to playing the role. In fairness, if I saw the way the movie was unfolding, I'd probably stop caring too. Finally, Kurtzman just can't keep the pace. The film lulls and then picks up randomly and then lulls again. Part of that probably comes from the screenplay-by-committee (six credited writers) production, but Kurtzman could have made it flow better. The sad fact is that The Mummy isn't truly terrible. It isn't really anything. There's some decent action sequences with some clever gimmicks sprinkled in. There's a plot that's illogical, but passable, and actors who, under the right circumstances, could make something interesting happen. But nothing interesting does happen. The Mummy is two hours of nothing, and at this moment that means that the entirety of the Dark Universe is two hours of nothing. Universal better pray for a big bang soon or it'll keep on being nothing, and none of their stars will shine. 
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Don't universes get started with a bang?
Everybody wants a superhero movie universe now. Thanks to Marvel's insane success at stringing together a cinematic comic universe, every movie studio out there wants a piece of the pie. You can't really blame them. Cinematic...


Review: The Wall

May 03 // Rick Lash
The Wall photo
Anything but simple
The premise is simple, the film anything but. Iraq, 2007. The war is coming to an end, but maybe someone should have told that to the "bad guys." Two American soldiers. Not just any American soldiers, but a sniper team, ...

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 03 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221505:43546:0[/embed] Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2Director: James GunnRating: PG-13Release Date: May 5, 2017 We should just get this out of the way first: even if this movie sucked more than Suicide Squad I'd recommend it just to see baby Groot. Baby Groot is the cutest, adorablest, most bestest thing that has ever happened on a movie screen. His adorableness could reduce a theater of hardened criminals into a gaggle of teenage girls who have just seen 12 puppies playing with 12 kittens with some baby otters splashing in a pool nearby under the watchful eye of 3 baby pandas trying to lick fruit out of an ice cube while a group of babies give those tiny baby smiles that make your heart melt. You cannot even understand the level of Internet-breaking cute baby Groot is.  It's pretty clear director James Gunn understands what he has on his hands as well. The entire opening sequence trains the camera on baby Groot doing a dance number to ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" while the rest of the Guardians battle it out with a giant space creature in the background. It's a fantastically creative opening reestablishing why Guardians feels so different from the rest of the Marvel universe and brings us right back into the team's dynamics while making sure everyone understands baby Groot is the best.  Those team dynamics are at the forefront this time around. After establishing their new family the intrepid group of heroes -- consisting of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel) -- are still bickering among each other as they charge for their services throughout the universe. Rocket lands them in a heap of trouble by stealing some fancy batteries from some gold aliens called the Sovereign. This leads the Sovereign's high priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) to hunt them down, but the group is saved by none other than Star-Lord's father, Ego (Kurt Russel). Turns out Ego is a Celestial, an ancient being, and now a living planet. Basically Star-Lord has some god in him. Meanwhile Ayesha hires Yondu (Michael Rooker) to chase down the Guardians, and Nebula (Karen Gillan) is on her own quest to kill Gamora. Basically, the band's back together. Vol. 2 has a lot to unpack, and it spends a lot of time unpacking it. Its overall themes are about family and friendship, especially fatherhood, thanks to the parenting love triangle that is Star-Lord/Ego/Yondu, but it also needs to get through a ton of exposition because of the mass amount of character background it needs to unpack. That can get a bit cumbersome. While the original film moved effortlessly through its emotional cues and action, Vol. 2 sometimes feels like its pulling you along so we can get to those spots. Exposition dominates a lot of the interaction between Star-Lord and Ego; meaning the emotional punch gets a little lost. Luckily it's made up for in a lot of other areas. The relationship between the crew is still fantastic even when the screenplay gets a bit too on the nose. Gunn and the cast just know how to make this crew work, and they continue to do it all while merging Nebula and Yondu more fully into things. The clunkier segments of dialogue can't keep down the actual spark that these guys have on screen together (even if a chunk of the team is completely digital).  Then there's the action. Gunn was let loose on this one. I can see the Marvel execs giving him carte blanche the second the first film exploded, and he goes wild with it. The opening I described above is just one example of him having an absolute blast with the action. There is a Yondu fight scene that is one of the most clever pieces of action I've seen from Marvel, and the final battle is simply stunning, and, more importantly, coherent. With a plethora of characters doing a plethora of things, Gunn manages to pull together an impressive sequence, which is no easy task. He's also a master at making sure punchlines hit. Even some of the cheesiest lines in the film are timed wonderfully, leading to what is probably the funniest of the Marvel films. Of course letting loose isn't always a good thing. Vol. 2 is a very busy movie with a lot going on almost all the time. The color palette used is massive and sometimes Gunn can get a little carried away with what he's doing. He's a good enough director to keep everything coherent, but a little restraint here or there may have been in order at times. That doesn't mean anything is bad, but things get a little overwhelming at points.  It always helps that your cast is fully into it. Pratt shines again in his leading role, showing why the first film turned him into a superstar. However, the biggest standout is probably Bautista, who is given a lot more dialogue and screen time in Vol. 2. He nails it. While Drax's whole shtick is not emoting, there's a skill to doing that while still emoting and Bautista does it with surprising adeptness. Baby Groot may steal the show, but it's Drax who grounds the film more than anything.  The film still stands on its own in the Marvel universe. In fact, it quite wisely almost entirely ignores the rest of the universe and its ongoing plot. There are mentions of Thanos, but he doesn't show up this time. There are five(!) teasers at the end, but none of them connect to the other Marvel films. Much like its style, humor, and themes, Vol. 2 stands apart from the rest of Marvel for now. That doesn't mean that comic fans won't have a few jaw dropping moments, but this is as far away from an Avengers tie-in as you can get. What it comes down to is that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is just fun. It's funny as hell, full of touching and inspiring moments and despite its screenplay issues keeps its momentum going throughout. While it never quite captures the magic of the first film, it has its own. The first movie was such a surprise and so damn charming, that it's impossible for Vol. 2 to regain that feeling, but it makes its own, and it owns it. Even if it didn't it has baby Groot. -- After reviewing the first Guardians of the Galaxy, I noted it shared a lot of similarities with other films of its ilk while seeming unique enough through the Marvel lens. Vol. 2, however, throws that completely out the window and delivers an experience wholly its own. While Matt is absolutely correct about the sequels frantic nature, and stimulation overload, when the film focuses itself it can go to some truly remarkable depths not seen in many of the other MCU films. Dave Bautista is indeed the standout, once again, and grounds the crazy technicolor world in a way I didn't see coming. Gunn adds a unique flair to the MCU, again putting his stamp on the universe with some light body horror, soundtrack meshing with colorful action, but also doesn't let moments shine. Several emotional beats were undercut by constant jokes. The humor may land, but it's also constant. Taking a breath every so often would've been nice. -- Nick Valdez - 78
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Baby Groot is everything
When the first Guardians of the Galaxy hit I'm not sure any of us we're really prepared for it being as fantastic as it was. We weren't prepared for a team of mostly unknown superheroes being turned into one of Marvel's ...

Review: Kong: Skull Island

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

Review: Before I Fall

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

Review: Get Out

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

Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

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

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story promised to be what the seven other Star Wars films had not: a movie about ordinary people in the Star Wars universe. Promise delivered. But if you’re worried that ordinary people means an o...

Review: The Monster

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

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Nov 17 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220497:42908:0[/embed] Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemDirector: David YayesRelease Date: November 18, 2016Rating: PG-13  In 1920s New York City, muggles are called "nomags," a shortening of "no magic." I mentioned this to a friend, who said that sounded more offensive than "muggle." I disagreed. I think we're desensitized to the word muggle, but it sounds pretty mean to me. (Not mudblood level, obviously (that one's awful).)  In 1920s New York City, the President of America's magic society is a woman, which means that this fanciful version of 1920s America is more progressive than actual 2016 America (though this wasn't 2016 New York City's fault). In fact, there are a lot of females in power in 1920s magic world. To some degree, it feels like the least realistic thing about the entire film. But that's neither here nor there. In 1920s New York City, Newt Scamander (a very socially awkward Eddie Redmayne) causes mayhem. He carries with him a suitcase. In the suitcase is a whole host of fantastic beasts. Unfortunately, some of them escape. He has to find them. Ultimately, that isn't what the movie is about. It's simply a way to get him entangled with the other zany characters, primarily two of them: Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a nomag who doesn't get Men In Black mind-zapped and so is forced along on a wild adventure featuring magic and things, and Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), an ex-Auror who brings in Mr. Scamander for causing problems (mostly by not Men In Black mind-zapping Mr. Kowalski). Some others are involved in various forms.  Also, there's Colin Farrell AKA Percival Graves AKA a guy who can do magic with just his hand. Someone told me Voldemort could also do that (I know house elves can), but I don't remember that. I just remember him using his wand. Then again, Graves also uses his wand. And I have some questions. - Why can he magic without a wand, and why does no one seem impressed by that ability?- Why does he use a wand sometimes even though he doesn't need one?- Is it because he's dueling, and he can only deflect magic with a wand? - Someone just shouted "Take away his wand." Why? Would that impact him in any meaningful way? I have come to believe (in large part thanks to Film Crit Hulk) that if you only question something after the fact, then it doesn't ultimately matter. Many great films fall apart under close inspection, but in the moment, you're too caught up to notice or care. And so the movie is successful. On the other hand, if you think about the problems, that mean the film has failed to either keep my interest enough for me to not think about it, hide it well enough behind some sort of pseudo-logic that can keep me going for two hours, or both. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a little bit of both. I was constantly asking questions throughout the film (in my head, I'm not a monster), and precisely none of them were answered. I'm not going to list them all here for you, but many of them boil down to, "Wait, so how does that work?" Nowhere is this more problematic than with the film's actual conflict: An Obscurious (sp?) is wreaking havoc on the city. Who is it? How can they stop it? New Scamander might know the latter but no one knows the former. It's probably related to the creepy anti-witch cult that the film keeps cutting back to, because that's the only reason we would be spending so much time with them. Anyways, once things are revealed and we see the Obscurious at work, the whole thing kind of falls apart. Someone might be able to explain this using overly technical language that will confuse me into thinking maybe it made sense, and others will say that it doesn't matter, this is for children, and I should stop being such a spoilsport... but really, I have so many questions relating to literally everything about it, and none of the answers I come up with are satisfying. The Harry Potter books have issues, but they're satisfying. They scratch an itch and do what you want them to do. Much of the time, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does too. Jacob Kowalski, for example, is a great character, and pretty much every scene with him in it was at least good if not great. I dunno why I liked him so much, but he's probably my favorite character in any Harry Potter story. Maybe it's because he's a Nomag and I liked seeing how a non-magical person really reacts to all of the craziness? I dunno. He's great. The actors in general are quite good. No more weird, wooden performances from children who were chosen before anyone knew if they could actually act. The dialogue, written by J.K. Rowling herself, is also fine. Many of my friends who did read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child complained that the dialogue was clearly not written by Rowling, so I expect they will enjoy this more. The pacing is off, and the movie is about 20 minutes too long, but those 20 minutes of meh are scattered throughout and not in one big, boring chunk. And though some moments may drag, some genuinely excite. There are a couple of thrilling action sequences (even if they're a bit contrived), and there are some genuinely inventive things, like some of the weirder Fantastic Beasts. I liked seeing the expansion of Harry Potter. I'm glad that this isn't another Harry Potter story. I like the idea of a series of spin-offs for the same reason I'm excited about all of the Star Wars Stories that aren't numbered episodes. And for all of my issues with this first installment, there are definitely things to like, and the good outweighs the bad. If you can see past the massive gaps in logic and just say "The wizard did it" and be content with that, you may very well love Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. If you thought Harry Potter was dumb, this sure as hell won't change your mind. But if you're a fan (even a lapsed one), you should most certainly check it out.
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I have some questions
On my right wrist is a scar given to me by the seventh Harry Potter book. I was abroad at the time, at a language school. The book had just launched, and my Turkish roomate (not my French or Croatian ones) got a copy. I asked...

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?
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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...

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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.
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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. 
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Stunning
If you know the name Laika then you know they do amazing things with stop motion. They may be the only ones doing it at the scale they do it too. Anyone who has seen Coraline or ParaNorman or any of their other work...

Review: Lake Nowhere

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

Review: 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.
Lights Out photo
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
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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...


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