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Reviews

Review: Hail, Caesar!

Feb 05 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220336:42811:0[/embed] Hail, Caesar!Directors: Joel and Ethan CoenRelease Date: February 5th, 2016Rating: PG-13  I feel for whoever it was who had to cut together the trailer for Hail, Caesar! I imagine it was a nightmare scenario, trying to take what is really just a series of occasionally linked comedic sequences and turn it into something that appears to be dramatic and compelling. And so whoever it was built a narrative, one where George Clooney, a big-name actor who sometimes forgets his lines at key moments, is kidnapped by a mysterious organization, and stars like Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson are enlisted to help get him back. Cameo appearances by Tilda Swinton and Jonah Hill and the like just serve to make it all one big star-studded Hollywood mystery. But… no. That’s not what Hail, Caesar! is at all. A couple of those things happen, but the context presented in the trailer is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. In fact, that opening, with George Clooney’s big speech? That takes place less than ten minutes from the end of the film. Yeah. That’s not the introduction to that character. It’s the resolution. In fact, much of the trailer comes from the second half of the film, and it almost feels like it went in reverse chronological order. The “reveal” of the secret society that ends the trailer feels like a big end-of-act reveal. Maybe the end of the first act? And sure enough, that does happen around then. Problem is, all of the imagery the trailer subjected us to up until that point takes place after we already know who they are. Because it’s not even really a secret. I’m not going to tell you, but that’s pretty much entirely because you’ve already had the ending spoiled, so why not give you something?  You don’t watch Hail, Caesar! for the narrative, because there is no narrative. As I said, it’s a series of occasionally linked comedic sequences. That’s honestly the best way to describe it. Characters come in, do their funny thing, and then are never seen from again. Or they come in briefly a handful of times, all teasing some far more interesting existence than the one we’re seeing. It’s all potential. This is a film of unending potential. Each character has a backstory that seems rich enough to justify not necessarily a movie, but certainly an episode of a series. I would watch Hail, Caesar! the series. None of the myriad characters really gets their due, and it’s such a shame. I wanted more of damn near everyone. And arguments could be made that being left wanting is better than the alternative, but I have to wonder: What’s the point of it all? It’s like a cupcake with a nice foil wrapper. You look at it, and it looks good. You take a first bite, and it is good. But then you pull back the foil wrapper, and you realize that there’s nothing more to the cupcake. It’s just air. You liked those couple of bites you got, but you’re so disappointed that that’s all there was. No cream filling? Heck, you would have even accepted just more cake! But you don’t get that. Instead, you just have a well-crafted cupcake top in the guise of something more. Of course, what is there is good. Let’s not pretend otherwise. The Coen Brothers are beloved for a reason: They know how to make good movies. Hail, Caesar! is pretty, funny, fun, and any number of other adjectives, but that’s just baseline. There’s nothing more here to remind you of why the Coen Brothers are a household name. You get some really fun sequences – and I sincerely hope that the musical numbers are practice for a full-blown musical film that they’ve got up their sleeves – but there’s nothing to really bite into. You go from fun thing to fun thing, always expecting more. Always hoping for more. Always feeling that there is more, but the Coen Brothers don’t think you’re cool enough to see it. When I think about the movie, I don’t really have any “complaints,” per se. I have my big fundamental issue, but from moment to moment, there’s not really much negative to say. But there’s also nothing wildly positive to say. This is a movie that is Good and nothing more. It doesn’t even really aspire to be more. It seems content in its Goodness. I don’t have a problem with Good movies – I appreciate any movie that has the audacity to be simply enjoyable – but I wanted this to be great. And it just isn’t. I never thought that word, or felt it, but I wanted to oh so badly. I felt like there were times where I should have thought, “Wow! That was great!” but I just… didn’t. And from the Coen Brothers, that stings. They’ve made so many classics, comedic and otherwise, that something merely Good from them feels lazy. This is a Coen Brothers puff piece, some something they did to fulfill a contract. And a Coen Brothers puff piece is still worth seeing, but it’s certainly not something worth celebrating.
Hail, Caesar! Review photo
Act One?
Joseph Kahn, director of Detention, the best film ever made, is an exceedingly well respected music video director. Most recently, he’s known as the guy who makes all those amazing Taylor Swift music videos. Together, t...

Review: Ip Man 3

Jan 22 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220266:42751:0[/embed] Ip Man 3 (葉問3)Director: Wilson YipRelease Date: January 22, 2016Rating: NRCountry: China In the three Donnie Yen Ip Man films, the constant concern has been how a person can remain righteous while dividing energies between country, family, and the martial arts. This boils down to the obligations a person has to the future of a culture, to immediate loved ones, and to the self. It's also about punching people in the face repeatedly very fast, sure, but if we're looking at the martial arts as a way of being (i.e., a way), Ip Man's always been about how a person takes a core belief, universalizes these dictums, and then puts this into action. It's explored visually in The Grandmaster with the way every strike disturbs the environment, but watching so many kung-fu movies over the years has made this whole notion of the extension of thought into action into the world more apparent. Maybe what makes Ip Man such a compelling hero is that taking thought into action into the world is what makes all sorts of heroes memorable. There's philosophy behind every punch. Ip Man 3 continues this tradition of duties to country/family/self, and the plot is mostly  hinged to all three. The film opens irreverently with Ip Man meeting a young Bruce Lee, who proceeds to demonstrate his fighting prowess in what can only be described as a martial arts anti-smoking ad. The rest of the plot involves a foreign crime boss trying to shut down a school to claim the land for his own (Mike Tyson), a would-be Wing Chun master in search of fame (Max Zhang aka Jin Zhang), and the health of Ip Man's wife (Lynn Hung). Ip Man, a righteous dude, volunteers to defend the school--Ip Man tropes ensue. The fights in Ip Man 3 may some of the finest in the series in terms of variety and staging. Sammo Hung handled the choreography in the previous two films, but Ip Man 3 instead turns to Yuen Woo-Ping. The fights seem more grounded though just as brutal, and generally a little more old school than bombastic. Yen's talked about how his diet and training changes with each role to better embody the character. Playing Ip Man means cutting carbs and staying as slim as possible, and Yen looks especially thin here. As much as I love Ip Man and kind of liked Ip Man 2, the biggest hurdle to each fight was Ip Man's sense of invincibility. He spends all of the first movie in God Mode, dominating almost every fight he's in, even the final battle. In Ip Man 2, he's still in God Mode for much of the film, which makes that movie's final battle feel out of place; what's more, Ip Man's solution of how to best his overpowered opponent would have been the first thing a skilled martial artist would consider, not the last. There was rarely a sense of danger. Ip Man 3, by contrast, seems to acknowledge that Ip Man is nigh invulnerable despite his age. The danger comes from having to defend other people nearby rather than just defending himself. It's a simple but great idea, and it leads to a harrowing rescue attempt as well as an excellent sequence involving an elevator later in the film. Much has been made of Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson's bout in the film, and it's one of the film's highlights, and it was more exciting than the Wing Chun vs. boxing bout that finished Ip Man 2. And yet the fight reveals Tyson's presence in Ip Man 3 as some hollow stunt casting. There's something great about Tyson cursing people out in snatches of Cantonese, but the entire storyline involving his character is dropped at a certain point. The whole impetus for the action fades away, which makes me wonder if Tyson was only available for a week or so, or if a finger fracture Tyson sustained while filming the fight scene required changes to the script. Even though Tyson's plotline feels unfinished, it's fascinating where the other threads go, and how they reveal the foundation for Ip Man as a character, as if Yen and Yip are tying to make their final definitive statements about who Ip Man was and what he'll represent as a cinematic icon moving forward. Ip Man's a loving husband, for instance, but not always attentive (think about how Peter Parker's love life is ruined by having to be Spider-Man). Here, he tries to focus more on home and what matters to him most, and there are some tender moments between Yen and Hung, as if Yen's trying to channel the acting chops that Anthony Wong and Tony Leung brought to the role, and Hung is trying to find the right note of melancholy glamour that Zhang Ziyi brings to her roles. Some of these scenes between Ip Man and his wife are lensed with a level of attention that might have been inspired by The Grandmaster; more beautiful to look at than anything in the previous Ip Man films, though a few scenes are marred by a semi-chintzy nylon-string Spanish guitar love theme. I began to notice this steady evolution of Ip Man's presence as a political/cultural icon as well in Ip Man 3. The first film was decidedly against the Imperial Japanese forces, which places Ip Man in the home of a character like Chen Zhen from Fist of Fury. The second film skirted this line between anti-colonialism and Chinese nationalism, with the British aristocrats rendered as grotesques of the nobility. Ip Man 3 also has a scoffing, snooty British caricature (he sounds like he should be tying women to railroad tracks while twirling his mustache), but the political stance is decidedly anti-colonial in a universal way. Ip Man even has a monologue in which he rails against oligarchs and plutocrats. If Mike Tyson was cast as a way of garnering attention for Ip Man from western audiences, this populist shift in Ip Man may signal an attempt to position him as a cinematic hero with a strong cultural identity but no borders in terms of an audience's ability to identify with him. If this is Yen's last full-on kung-fu film (there's still that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel to consider), he's ending his career with the movie series that catapulted him into leading man status. I got a sense he was passing the torch to Max Zhang. Zhang's 41 years old, but he makes a strong impression here as a performer and fighter, just as he did in The Grandmaster. (In another strange coincidence, Zhang also starred in SPL 2, the sequel to the 2005 movie (aka Kill Zone) that boosted Donnie Yen's star and signaled a kind of comeback for Hong Kong action films.) Zhang's character is a Wing Chun up-and-comer eyeing Ip Man, sizing him up, wondering if he's better as new blood. This had to be intentional, they had know what they were doing. Ip Man 3 might be my favorite film of the trilogy because of how knowing and assured it is, and because it understands the core of its main character so well. It's also a film that knows where it stands in terms of martial arts film history, and the same goes for Donnie Yen's filmography. Really, there's something rather Ip Man-like about Ip Man 3.
Review: Ip Man 3 photo
An Ip Man movie about Ip Man movies
It's weird to think that the first Ip Man came out in 2008. It seems so much longer than that. Since then, the series has spawned two sequels as well as plenty of other media about the eponymous real-life practitioner of...

Review: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Jan 15 // Matthew Razak
13 Hours: The Secret Solidiers of BenghaziDirector: Michael BayRated: RRelease Date: January 15, 2016 [embed]220292:42774:0[/embed] For anyone running into 13 Hours hoping for some sort of political charged hit piece (on either side of the aisle) you'll be heavily disappointed. This movie is all Michael Bay and no Michael Moore. While there are a few snide remarks here and there, the movie is surprisingly apolitical, choosing to instead focus on the action-packed adventures of six CIA military contractors who protect a secret CIA base after the attack on the US "embassy" in Benghazi. Of course, if you go into the film believing in a certain narrative of what took place that night this movie is going to do nothing, but reaffirm your beliefs. It is stuffed full of Bay's die hard patriotism and love of people shooting things to solve problems.  The movie focuses on Jack Silva (John Krasinski) as he arrives in Benghazi just before the attacks on the embassy. He's introduced to the job by the team's lead Tyrone 'Rone' Woods (James Badge Dale) and then everything starts to catch on fire. The rest of the movie is a beefed up version on what may or may not have happened that night in Benghazi. While the film opens station that this is a true story it is very clearly Michael Bay's version of a true story. What does that mean? Prolific gun fights and plenty of explosions that may or may not have actually occurred. Block long drives, that were most likely very tense at the time, are turned into all out car chases. Bodies are mowed down left and right as bullets rip through them. A bus explodes in grandiose fashion. Men all have six packs and women -- sorry, make that woman -- are all gorgeous. It's pure Bay or it would be if it wasn't about an actual attack and incredibly politically charged. What's horribly annoying is this is probably Michael Bay's most competently made action film in quite some time. Despite it running longer than it needs to, Bay actually pieces together his action sequences with some understanding of the basic of film editing and pulls off an impressively decent pace for the film. The characters, while trite at times, are all given surprising emotional depth and handled with even more surprising care. As Pain & Gain showed us, when Bay wants to actually focus on something other than women's legs and explosions the results can actually be interesting.  However, it is nearly impossible to separate this film from the "true story" it is telling. The producers definitely didn't want to as they kept the horrendous subtitle attached to 13 Hours for all the promotion. In the case of saying something the movie fails again and again. It's blind belief in the heroism of the American soldier and inability to get out of its own cookie cutter cliches lead it from something that could offer some actual commentary into a simple, though emotional, action flick. Ignoring the politics of the subject matter might be both the worst and best thing the movie does, simultaneously making it work and fail at the exact same time. It can probably be best summed up by a point near the movies end after a truly tense 30 minutes of film one of the characters turns to the encampments translator and deadpans, "Your country's gotta figure this shit out." It's deep thoughts like that that rip away at the good parts of the film. Krasinki is probably the highlight and a brilliant bit of casting. His affable nature imbues Jack Silva with a humanity that defies the stereotypical tough-guy stuff. His performance adding layers to the normal bravado we get from patriotic cinema, and in turn pulling out more from the actors around him. It can't truly elevate the film above what it is, but damned if he doesn't try. Despite all the pretense and marketing and "true storying" 13 Hours turns out to be just a decent Michael Bay film made worse by its connection to a political scandal it seems to want nothing to do with. It turns out you can't have it both ways. Either you're making a movie about Benghazi or you're not. Bay tried so hard not to it ironically overwhelms everything else. 
Benghazi Review photo
Not so secret
(Editor's Note: This review was written before the knowledge that there was a 10 Cloverfield Lane trailer before the movie. Press did not get to see that trailer. If I had the film would have gotten a 10/10 off of the wa...

Review: The Forest

Jan 08 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220259:42746:0[/embed] The ForestDirector: Jason Zada Release Date: January 8, 2016Rating: PG-13  I knew I was going to dislike The Forest from the moment I was reminded of its premise. It’s about the Aokigahara Forest, one of two films about that in the works (the other is directed by Gus Van Sant, and by default I expect it will be the best Aokigahara-focused film of 2016). Aokigahara is a forest in Japan, the most popular suicide spot there and one of the most popular in the world. There are demons there, too, at least as far as the film is concerned. But none of that bothers me. I mean, who doesn’t love a good Japanese horror film? Problem is, it’s not a Japanese horror film. It’s a film about a white girl, a blonde white girl named Sarawho doesn’t speak Japanese going to find her not-blonde white girl twin sister, Jess, who may or may not speak Japanese. Jess went into the Suicide Forest (it’s actually called that, by the way), presumably to commit suicide. Sara goes to find her, because her twin sense continued to tingle. If something was really going to go wrong, she’d know because the twin sense would go silent. It’s a thing that twins have. (So they say.) It’s somewhere between familial bonding, quantum entanglement, and supernatural garbage. My instinct is that it falls towards that latter one, because that’s really the best way to explain the film. It makes me legitimately angry that I spent a fair portion of The Forest looking away from the screen. The easiest example to point to takes place… at some point, I don’t even remember when. Sarah is walking down a hallway, and the lights are flickering on and off. As she goes down, ON, flicker, OFF, pause. ON, flicker, OFF, pause. It’s quiet. You know and have known since she got into the hallway that at some point it’s going to flicker on and something is going to jump out at the screen. You know it because that’s how these things work, when they have nothing else to show. And The Forest does it. And I jumped a bit. I was looking just offscreen, but the sound and the sudden movement got me up a bit. And I was infuriated. Years ago, I reviewed a film called Replicas (later retitled In Their Skin). A commenter chastised me for being "defeated by that mediocre film." I stand by my glowing assessment of that film, but that comment has stuck with me ever since. It’s basically how I feel about my reaction to The Forest. In the climactic scenes, the ones where things are supposedly “scary,” I was able to watch the film just fine, because it wasn’t jumpy any more. It was just “atmospheric” or whatever. But, of course, it wasn’t. I stared at it, almost feeling bad for what didn’t even seem like an honest attempt at horror. I have trouble imagining anyone feeling the slightest twinge of fear while watching that final sequence. (The only legitimately unsettling sequence was in a cave with an overly happy Japanese girl. Her performance made me rather tense, though the ultimate place that encounter went didn’t even make sense with the narrative, so that one moment of potential good was ruined.) In those jump moments, I braced myself for the impact. I tensed my body, looked away from the screen, and hated everything about it. Every single scare was so obviously telegraphed literally minutes before it happened. And other people in the theater jumped each time as well. It felt so clinical, so scientific. Like they had focus tested exactly how many times the light should flicker before the elderly woman popped out. They knew how to get a rise out of people, and they knew that there was nothing else to get people into the theater. They could put out a trailer of just people jumping, like they did for Paranormal Activity all those years ago, and maybe a few people would go see it. But it’s a cheat. You take a forest. You take an issue like suicide. You tell people that the forest doesn’t kill you, it makes you kill yourself – which is a fascinating concept, by the way, and I would like to see it play out in a better film. At some point, it threatens to deliver on that concept, but the actual execution is so shoddy that it’s barely worth considering (and, like so much else, it can’t stick the landing). When I got out of the theater, I had these grand visions of writing a multi-thousand word essay on the nature of fear, but as I look back on it, The Forest doesn’t deserve that. It doesn’t really even deserve the thought that I’ve already given it. Don’t see The Forest. If it doesn’t make you angry, then you’ll just be bored, wishing you’d seen The Revenant instead. That’s sort of a horror movie, and it also takes place in the woods. And it’s awesome. Go see The Revenant. Forget The Forest exists. By the time this has posted, I know I will have.
The Forest Review photo
Nope
I’ve written before about how wimpy I am at horror movies. I don’t know that I’m “scared” easily, but I’m exceedingly jumpy. A loud sound, sudden movement, or anything of that sort will lau...


Review: The Revenant

Jan 08 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219682:42494:0[/embed] The RevenantDirector: Alejandro González IñárrituRelease Date: January 9th, 2016Rating: R  At least 30 times during The Revenant's 156 minute runtime, I thought the word "weird." It was the only word to describe what I was watching. "This is really weird... This is weird, right? ... It's weird AF that a studio funded this... This is the weirdest prestige drama in more than a decade, right? ... What kind of weird Oscar bait is this? ... Dude, this is so weird." When the credits rolled, I turned to our own Hubert Vigilla (his thoughts below), who sat beside me, and said, "That was really fucking weird, right?" He nodded. I belabor this point because I want to make it exceedingly clear that The Revenant is a constant surprise. I only saw that first, spoiler-free trailer, so I knew exactly three things going in: - Production was hell- It was shot in natural light on the Alexa 65- Leonardo DiCaprio sleeps in a dead animal carcass Had I waited another day or two, I would have known that some people believe the film features an extended scene where DiCaprio is raped by a bear. That would have made for a weirder film than this one... but perhaps less than you'd think. Instead, we're left with what is inarguably the most horrific animal attack ever put on screen. Five to eight minutes, a single take.  Earlier this year, I saw a film called Backcountry. I never wrote about it, but I was interested in something that the press notes said, paraphrased to "We want Backcountry to do for hiking what Jaws did for swimming." They wanted the bear attack to be so intense, visceral, and real that anyone who saw it would have nightmares about grizzly bears and be simply incapable of hiking again. The film failed in its quest; the scene was a mess of quick cuts and not-amazing effects. At the end of it, the mutilated corpse was rather unsettling, but the journey wasn't so impressive. The Revenant does what Backcountry wanted to do. The scene is horrific, mostly because of how freaking long it is. In one of many long takes in the film, we follow Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) as he goes out into the woods. We see young bears. We see a big bear. The big bear runs towards Glass. At this point, I thought, "No way. This guy's the protagonist, and we're like 40 minutes into this movie. He's not going to get—Oh shit." It's hardly a flawless sequence. The bear doesn't actually look "real" most of the time, and the bites and scratches felt a little off. I don't know what actually happened on set (and director Alejandro Iñárritu refused to explain it in the following Q&A), so I don't know entirely whose fault it is that the seams are there, but you know what? I'm nitpicking. That scene is incredible. It's shocking, possibly even revolting, and absolutely brilliant. It took guts to make that scene look like that. But they committed. It paid off. That's the film in a nutshell. It took guts. They committed. It paid off. It takes guts to make a movie that essentially begins with the biggest battle of the entire film. In fact, it's the only real battle in the film. In the first twenty or so minutes, you see more "action" (bear attack aside) than you'll see in the rest of the movie. To set up expectations like that and then completely ignore them in favor of a film that is actually rather slow is gutsy. Actually, no, it's crazy. This is a film that periodically cuts to beautiful shots of the wilderness or the skies or bugs or whatever, because art. It does it to evoke thoughts and emotions. This is a studio-funded film that actually requires you to think about what it's doing and why. There's only one moment in the entire film that could arguably be considered "hitting you over the head with The Point," and I take some issue with that moment for a few reasons, but ultimately it doesn't detract from the overall feeling that the film wanted me to think about what it was trying to say and not just say it. And again, this is a Hollywood movie that cost $135 million to make. This is the antithesis to the Superhero tentpole movie. You cannot sell this to the ADD generation, because as soon as they realize that this is a slow, gorgeous exploration of a man's suffering and not much more, they'll pull out their phones and start tweeting about how bullshit everything is. That scares me. It scares me that people will go into this movie expecting something totally different, something traditional, and not get it. But rather than appreciating the art, they'll be furious that they weren't given entertainment. They'll say it's the worst movie ever, because movies are supposed to be fast & furious. And then people will be scared off. Though the film is technically inspired by a book inspired by a true story, the only thing that was really taken from the real Hugh Glass's life was the fact that he was attacked by a bear and survived. The journey that follows, and probably the journey that got him there, was the brainchild of Iñárritu and Mark Smith, who co-wrote the film. This is, for all intents and purposes, and original work. I still can't believe it exists. Some years ago, I remember hearing someone talk about how we're no longer in the age of Torture Porn; rather, we're in the age of Suffering Porn. It probably had a different name, and that's why I can't find an actual source, but the point was this: It's not about seeing people get tortured anymore, enjoying the blood and viscera and all of that. It's about the suffering now. The Revenant is suffering porn. Glass is mauled by a bear in an excruciating, extended sequence, and perhaps that's torture porn. But, then he can't move. He can't speak. All he can do is suffer. And then when he finally builds up strength to move, it's belabored. It's pained. Every single movement and every single breath hurts this man, and you can feel it and hear it and see it. DiCaprio gives one hell of a performance, though it won't win him the Oscar. As spectacular as he is, this simply isn't an "Academy" performance.  And the same part of me that says that also thinks this isn't an Academy movie. It will be nominated, I think, because Birdman won Best Picture and Iñárritu won Best Director. These are also, I suspect, the reasons that The Revenant was made. Iñárritu built clout with that last film, and so he was able to go and do something crazy and keep people by his side as it got crazier and crazier. I believe it will be nominated, but I also believe that it has absolutely no chance at winning. It's too different, too weird, too brilliant. Birman won, but as much as I loved Birdman, it also hit the Academy notes. It was a movie about an actor who wants to do something Important. It lashes out at critics and audiences. It says the right things and bashes everyone over the head with its message over and over again. That message resonated with people in the Academy. There's no other way that script won Best Screenplay. There's no other way that film won Best Picture. What's the message of The Revenant? Well... that's a complicated question. And the fact that it's complicated means that this film will not win. But maybe it should. It's not my favorite film of the year, but I want this film to receive prestige because I want films like this to exist again. The Revenant is a ray of light in the black void of superhero movies. If it succeeds, it's evidence that not only can expensive and original ideas gain traction (something Christopher Nolan has proved) but so can expensive movies that make you think (something Christopher Nolan has not proved). If The Revenant fails, that's it. I don't think we'll see another film like it for a decade or more. And I hope beyond hope that that doesn't happen. I hope it becomes a massive success, in America and elsewhere. I hope it proves every single assumption that people (myself included) have about what sells nowadays wrong. I hope it proves that weird movies can succeed again. Please see The Revenant. If not because you want to (though you should, because it's excellent), then because you want it to set a precedent. You want to change things and show the studios that this was not a mistake. After the chaos of the production, I imagine there are at least a couple of people waiting for this film to fail. They'll write it off as a failure and use it as evidence that audiences just can't handle truly interesting big-budget movies. That can't happen.  I have the utmost respect for the people who allowed  The Revenant to be made. And I hope that it makes them all filthy stinking rich.   Hubert Vigilla: The Revenant feels like a strange, singular, director-driven project that could have only been made in the 1970s. After the screening, Alec and I kept asking each other, "How the hell did this thing get made?" The question was half bafflement, half admiration. There is so much to admire about The Revenant given its difficult production history. That it even exists is a kind of accomplishment. It's a visceral art movie, one that might in time be named alongside films such as Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, the Wrath of God for audacity and craft. Seriously, who is the studio person that gave a madman the keys to the car? I need to thank them. The cliché is that they don't make movies like this anymore, and they really don't make them like The Revenant, especially not end-of-the-year prestige pictures distributed by a major studio. The Revenant is full of hardship and grunting; heavy on slobber and scalps and hypermasculinity, light on dialogue and monologues and audience hand-holding. The film is uncompromising when it comes to its depictions of violence and its deeper spiritual concerns. Both are treated with equal measures of importance. Sure, it's self-indulgent, and the film takes itself extremely seriously, but it's this level of risk that makes Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest such a memorable, engrossing picture. Emmanuel Lubezki's imagery and meticulously choreographed long-takes are a wonder to behold. The look and feel is a mash-up of Terrence Malick, Werner Herzog, and even Alejandro Jodorowsky. (I spotted two potential Jodorowsky homages, possibly three.) Both Tom Hardy and Leonardo Di Caprio act their asses off, with Di Caprio turning in his least glamorous performance and maybe most unconventionally award-worthy. When not a raspy Sisyphisean hero driven to avenge a murder, he's Wile E. Coyote waving to the audience before gravity sends him crashing to the canyon floor. It's absurd, it's glorious, and there's no other movie like it this year. 86 - Great
The Revenant Review photo
Hope for the future
I follow twelve people on Instagram. I don't really use it much, but it's something I check every so often. Of those twelve, only one is a person I don't know personally: Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki. And honestly, how could I no...

Review: The Hateful Eight

Dec 24 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219767:42546:0[/embed] The Hateful EightDirector: Quentin TarantinoRelease Date: December 25, 2015 (Limited); January 6, 2015 (Wide)Rating: R  I’m certainly not the first (and will absolutely not be the last) to point out how fascinating it is that The Hateful Eight was shot on Ultra Panavision 70. As I said before, this format is meant for showing vistas. It’s wide, brilliant, epic. The movie, when seen in the road show format, runs more than 3 hours including its 12 minute intermission. There’s an overture, where you listen to Ennio Morricone’s score, which may not be his best but is certainly epic enough to get you pumped up for adventure. You assume that you’re gonna see sights, particularly landscapes, that will boggle your mind. The opening shot has something of an epic feel to it. It’s Jesus (oh hi there, Christmas!) on a cross in the middle of nowhere. The shot is obscenely long, showing you very little as the credits play. You get a vista at the end of it, a pretty cool one too, and it hopes you like that vista, because you ain’t getting many more like it.  It’s a slight exaggeration to say that this is a one-location film. It’s not an exaggeration at all to say it’s a two-location movie. The majority of the film, yes, takes place in a cabin. But the first couple of chapters take place in a carriage. There are run-ins with folk outside the carriage, but everything is based on what’s within, and there are some conversations where you sit and watch two people talk, knowing that those vistas you were expecting are off to the side, but wow can’t you just see every little detail in this carriage? You’re aware of the epic look and sound – movies just aren’t like this anymore – but you’re hyper-aware of it because it just doesn’t seem to fit the material. Here’s an intimate story about a bunch of dudes and one lady in a cabin. The lady, Jennifer Leigh, is the Important character. She’s the head of some gang, and she’s been bounty hunted by Kurt Russell. (They say “Dead or Alive,” but he likes them “Alive.”) He’s convinced people want to take her from him, since she’s worth a whole lot of money and is also the leader of a gang with plenty of people waiting to set her free. Some of the people in the cabin are on Kurt Russell’s side. Some are neutral. Some are not. At least one is indifferent to Kurt Russell but not particularly happy with Samuel L. Jackson. There's plenty of hate to go around, and much of it is played out in Tarantino's signature talk-y style.  Here's the thing: If you don't like Tarantino's writing, you're not going to like The Hateful Eight. You probably could have assumed that much, but it bears repeating, because this movie is absolute, unadulterated Tarantino. And how you feel about Tarantino will radically change how you perceive the effectiveness of the drama. One friend thought it was great and only periodically masturbatory, and another thought it was meh and little more than a one-man circlejerk. (How's that possible? I dunno, but Tarantino could definitely pull it off.) I fell closer to the former than the latter, but it honestly didn't bother me either way. I was swept up in the whole thing. With just two locations, the emphasis shifts to the actors, and Tarantino pulled in an all-star cast. Each person gets their time to shine, and all of them do. Alliances form and break, hidden motivations are revealed in spectacular fashion, and it's just generally full of wonderful intrigue. I can see why there was a reading of this script, because it would be cool as hell even without all of the extra stuff going on. Well, that's true for the first half. After the intermission, the film changes. It begins with voiceover, something you don't see in the first half, and it's bloodsoaked, the way Tarantino's movies often are. But it's also when the Big Reveals all take place, and boy are there some interesting ones. This is a film that begs for repeat viewings, because a whole lot of things happen that you realize in retrospect were telegraphed in fantastic ways. It makes you want to go back and see those things as they happen and then catch all the ones you missed. It's all this big, interconnected jumble of actions, and it's pretty freaking awesome. It's also imperfect, but in ways that ultimately don't matter. If you're a fan of Tarantino, you should see the movie. If you aren't but live in one of the selected cities, consider the Road Show version anyway, because the whole experience is Worth It. If you're not a fan and don't live in one of those cities, though, you shouldn't bother. This will not be the movie to change your mind about him and his work. This is typical Tarantino. I like that. I enjoyed it. And I'm going to see it again. I don't think that anything else needs to be said.
The Hateful Eight photo
Apt description
From the outset, The Hateful Eight has been a Big Deal. Tarantino was gonna do it, but the screenplay leaked, so he wasn’t gonna do it, until there was a reading, so he was doing it again. I paid pretty much zero attent...

Review: Where to Invade Next

Dec 22 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219845:42640:0[/embed] Where to Invade NextDirector: Michael MooreRating: RRelease Date: December 23, 2015 (NY/LA); February 12, 2016 (wide) We start the invasion in Italy. Moore sits down with a couple in their living room to discuss what their paid vacation situation is like in the country. They get more than a month off, not including national and local holidays, and any unused vacation time rolls over into the next year. Moore's mouth is agog most of the time--he was genuinely learning all of this for the first time. But there's more. The wages tend to be better, the lunches are longer, and employees tend to be more productive on the job because they are so relaxed. Moore's invasion continues through Europe, with stops in France, Germany, Finland, Slovenia, Norway, and Portugal, continuing over the Mediterranean to Tunisia, then across the Atlantic to Iceland. Each time, there's a novel innovation, and each time Moore seems surprised and inspired. He focuses on one thing each country seems to be doing right. In Slovenia, for instance, all college is free, even for students who've come from abroad. In Finland, they've abolished homework. Moore admits that these countries have their own problems and he's mostly accentuating the positive. My job is picking the flowers and not the weeds, he says. He's also picking cherries, but that's not the biggest problem with Where to Invade Next, which, when it works, offers a fine rebuke of the "Fuck you, I got mine" mentality that pervades much of American culture. Moore's generally at his best when he's a deadpan observer rather than a fiery polemicist. Roger and Me is still his finest film (even though he did fudge the timeline of events) since it's mostly Moore as a citizen journalist documenting others. While framed around Moore trying to get an audience with General Motors CEO Roger Smith, the movie is driven by people who get to tell their own stories about the painful decline of Flint, Michigan. As Moore's clout grew, he became a more prominent figure in his films, and in turn his movies were more about Michael Moore's opinions on a subject rather than the subject itself. Moore develops a feel-good thesis in Where to Invade Next. These innovations in other countries could make America a better place, and they all have a shared origin. But Moore oversteps his skills as a documentary essayist through sloppy thinking and oversimplification. He walks past part of an old section of the Berlin Wall with a friend, and they reminisce about being there as it came down. Hammering and chiseling--the solution was so simple, they say. Well, no. History doesn't work that way. The Berlin Wall didn't come down just because some people in West Germany began chipping away at it for a few nights. There were decades of global history that culminated in that moment, and none of it was easy. While Moore smartly identifies the systemic racism underlying the US drug war, he dumbs down cause and effect in other parts of the film to suggest that the catalyst for change is something really simple. By that logic, the Arab Spring was easy as pie: all it took was for someone to self-immolate. No problemo. The systems themselves are simple and elegant, and yet the implementation of these solutions--free college, prison reform, education reform, greater gender representation in government--would have to be accomplished through legislative action and, even more difficult, a fundamental ideological shift in American attitudes regarding the bullshit of global capitalism and antiquated gender roles. These aren't so simple, they'll take time. But they're worth fighting for, which is why there's an oddly ennobling aspect to Where to Invade Next even for its flaws. In my head during each slip up, all I could think was, "Your argument is facile, but yeah, I agree, Michael." Moore's rhetorical missteps in Where to Invade Next come from a genuine place of concern. It's like a bad college essay. The larger point is good, but it's articulated and argued inartfully, whether through selective anecdotes rather than facts, or through emotional appeals rather than reason. The pat close of the movie is mushy and inspirational at the same time. Moore references a well-known fairy tale that takes place in the Midwest, and in the process made me think of another work (a book by Thomas Frank) about the contradictory relationship between political ideology and voting against your best interests in the Midwest. When film critic Stephen Whitty reviewed Fahrenheit 9/11 back in 2004, he wrote that Moore tends to worry liberals about as much as he infuriates conservatives. "They're people who agree with what Michael Moore says--but refuse to defend to the death the way he insists on saying it," he wrote. Some things don't change.
Review: Where to Invade photo
A feel good movie (but oversimplified)
Michael Moore and Donald Trump have something in common. No, seriously. They want to make America great again. In Where to Invade Next, Moore pretends he's been sent by the Pentagon to invade other countries. His mission: to ...

Review: Sisters

Dec 18 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220235:42741:0[/embed] SistersDirector: Jason MooreRated: RRelease Date: December 18, 2015  Sisters is about Tina Fey and Amy Poehler playing sisters Maura and Kate Ellis. Maura is the goody-two-shoes and Kate is the partying train wreck and despite the fact that they clearly didn't do anything together as children they grew up the best of friends. But now their parents are going to sell their childhood home and so the two decide to throw one last "Ellis Island" party recapture their youth and get Maura a new man.  The comedy revolves around the somewhat tired trope of old people doing young people things. Because of this the movie really only survives on the strength of its two leading stars. As is par for the course Poehler and Fey turn it performances and chemistry that elevate the quality of the entire film. A lot of the jokes would just be flat out bad if you they weren't the ones delivering them, and the fact that they clearly act like sisters in real life makes it all the more fun to watch them joke around on screen. There's nothing special about the comedy here, but they make it work. The rest of the film is kind of perfunctory at best. The usual cast of SNL alum march out to deliver whatever comedy they've been assigned and most of the movie is taken up by the big party, during which a ludicrous amount of things go on. This includes the destruction and complete drywalling of an attic ceiling as if it was a ten minute project. I can suspend disbelief for most things, but as someone who has put up drywall this is just completely unbelievable. Thankfully it was followed up by a pretty hilarious scene where Ike Barinhotz gets a ballerina music box stuck where the sun don't shine. It's this really weird balance of Fey and Poehler's honest comedy and the far out slapstick that makes Sisters feel entirely unbalanced. At one point you're enjoying it thanks to the cast and at the next you're wondering how you accidentally started watching Grown Ups 2. That's not entirely fair. One shouldn't just throw around an insult like that. I went to far and I apologize. The point being that Sisters is a movie with some jokes that work and some jokes that don't. It features funny comedians who can take tepid content and turn it into something decent to good. You will laugh and you might even at some point feel something, despite the movie's insipid ending.  To conclude: this is a movie that is not Star Wars and there really isn't much more to say. 
Sisters Review photo
Movies that aren't Star Wars
For some reason someone out there thought that releasing a film the same week as Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a good idea. You can kind of see the logic in releasing Sisters this week, I suppose. The studio is h...

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Dec 16 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220217:42739:0[/embed] Star Wars: The Force AwakensDirector: J.J. AbramsRated: PG-13Release Date: December 16, 2015 After the conclusion of Return of the Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared and no one knows where to find him (Sidenote: In the meta world of J.J. Abrams this plays right into Hamill's absence from all advertising). In his absence the dark side has begun to establish itself once again in the form of The First Order, which is basically the Empire reconstituted. They are led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Sith lord in training and pupil of the Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Meanwhile the Resistance, commanded by General Leia (Carrie Fisher), is fighting back with the support of the Republic behind it. More importantly, though, on a small desert planet a map to Luke Skywalker ends up inside a droid called BB-8, who is subsequently found by a scavenger named Rey (Daisey Ridely). She is joined by a fleeing storm trooper named Finn (John Boyega) and a few other familiar faces as they try to get the map to the Resistance.  An adorable droid with a secret message found on a desert planet. A group of rag-tag rebels fighting against a militaristic empire. A dark lord in a black helmet. A young hero drawn into the fight through chance. Sound familiar? It should. You can simply pop in A New Hope and you'll have most of the plot for this one.  Much like J.J. Abrams did with Star Trek: Into Darkness he has taken a beloved movie and remade it for the fans. Almost everything is a throwback to the original movies, and only the original movies. It's very obvious that Abrams does not want anyone even remotely thinking about Episodes I-III. As such this is a giant film of fan service from throw away lines to cameos to plot to visuals. If it's a memorable moment from Episodes IV-VI it's probably somewhere in this movie. Whether you consider that a good thing or not is up to you, for this fan it was awesome, despite some concern that we're just seeing a bit of misguided fan placation like Into Darkness. Last week Lucas let slip his opinion of the film and he said that the fans would love it. It's easy to see why that's his opinion. The movie doesn't really break new ground, which is probably its most disappointing aspect. It definitely has plenty of twists and surprises for fans, but this isn't really a universe expanding premise. It feels more like a reset. The Force Awakens is the palette cleanser that's wrapping up everything with its nods to the old guard and its introduction to the new. Hopefully, it's the new that's going to stick around. The best part of the film are our two new heroes and villain, Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren, respectively. While old faces showing up is fun and all, it's these three newcomers who breath life into the movie. It's these characters that change the movie from a bunch of fan service into something genuine and good -- something that feels like Star Wars. They are us on screen: awed by the legends they're walking with, cowed by the power they have, and establishing a new struggle between dark and light. If these are the characters we'll be joining on this new journey then we're in good hands. With Abrams sticking around we'll be in good directing hands as well. To start, someone talked with him about lens flares and despite all the opportunities that lightsabers offer for such an effect he is impressively restrained with their use. This applies to his entire style for the film, which feels closer to the gritty-ness of the original trilogy than the high gloss of the second set. You'll also be happy to hear that Lucas' stilted dialog and wooden characters are gone. The screenplay is charming and witty and without any Jar Jar Binks type antics. While the plot relies on what can only be described as a Death-Star-sized McGuffin in a space opera such as this that's exactly how it should be. Abrams also isn't going to pull any punches. He's got this franchise in his hands and it's very clear from this movie that he's going to do whatever he wants with it. Thankfully what he wants to do is make you love it again.  That is probably most evident in the fact that actual star wars occur in this Star Wars. The action is superb and creates that sense of wonder you felt watching the original trilogy's outerspace dog fights. It makes you think back to the awe you felt watching the final attack on the Death Star in A New Hope. Part of that might be the fact that much of the direction steals directly from that film, but if you're going to "pay homage" might as well go all out. It's also ironic that it's the old school special effects (actual droids, no CGI when not needed) that make the film look even better. This franchise got its legs thanks to its advanced real-world special effects, and it's finding them again by going back to them. All this said, The Force Awakens is definitely only the beginning of something, and it can feel like that. There is a lot of necessary exposition that takes place to catch folks up. Abrams does his best to make you miss it, but it starts to stand out by the end. The film is also carrying the duty of establishing a new universe after Disney wiped the entire expanded universe from canon. They're doing a lot in this one film and it can make the movie feel a little heavy handed. Then again subtlety was never the franchise's strong point. This is the beginning of something, however. It's a farewell to the old guard and a welcome to the new. As such it's hard to begrudge the film its plethora of callbacks, repeated plot line and heavy exposition. These things are necessary to pull off what is needed in order to make new Star Wars movies that can stand on their own and don't alienate the fans, who already got burned once. This is a movie that honors what came, but leads into what is to come. Hopefully, when Episode VIII rolls around it can truly be its own thing.
Star Wars photo
This is the Star Wars you're looking for
Sixteen years ago Star Wars returned, but it wasn't the return we were all hoping for. It was the return George Lucas wanted, which turned out to be not so good. Fans had constructed decades worth of universe and build up in ...

Review: Very Semi-Serious

Dec 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220186:42734:0[/embed] Very Semi-SeriousDirector: Leah WolchokRelease Date: November 20, 2015 (limited); December 14, 2015 (HBO premiere)Rating: NR While Very Semi-Serious isn't wholly obsessed with the process of creation and failure (it's just semi-serious, after all), that process is just one of many small hooks that make the movie a light, funny, and enjoyable watch. Maybe it's lighter, funnier, and more enjoyable if you're already a reader of The New Yorker, or if a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the magazine and its editorial process is of interest to you. Wolchok spends a good amount of time focusing on Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff. A celebrated cartoonist himself, Mankoff is writing a memoir while sorting through new work by past contributors and up-and-coming artists. Humor is a matter of taste, and most of the cartoons are the kinds of things that appeal to Mankoff and ultimately to New Yorker EIC David Remnick. Sometimes he laughs at a gag and then dismisses it. "This is beneath him," he says as he rejects a cartoonist he likes. There's a gentle mentorship to Mankoff, who's picking and choosing magazine content but also finding ways of encouraging an artists' sensibilities. Their work may not be right at the moment, but there's talent worth cultivating and he encourages them to try again, fail again, and to fail better. Two of those young artists that Mankoff takes a liking to are Liana Finck and Ed Steed. Their quirky styles are closer to contemporary web comics rather than the droll New Yorker style, and it fits with their personalities. Steed speaks in a perpetual whisper that masks his comedic talent, and Finck is like a weird but lovable heroine in an indie film. Mankoff probably sees a bit of himself in each of them, and gives them the gentle push they need to keep doing their work. Before getting their work looked at in the New Yorker offices, the artists mull around with other cartoonists, almost all of them socially awkward and none of them speaking to one another. It's a nice visual gag. Very Semi-Serious covers a lot of ground, and does pretty well for its scope. There's the history of the cartoons, little nods to famous New Yorker cartoonists of the past like James Thurber, 9/11, Mankoff's life at home, and The New Yorker's recent move from Times Square to One World Trade Center. Nothing can be lingered on too long, so Wolchock juggles the elements that are important, presenting them and then passing them off with a certain light deftness. There's also the question of diversity. The New Yorker's cartoonists tend to be white and male. Even the handful of women cartoonists (Finck, Roz Chast, and Emily Flake) are white. During the scene of cartoonists waiting to be evaluated, I don't recall a single person of color, and I wonder if that will change, and if so when. Though maybe it says something about The New Yorker. Part of me wants a longer chronicle of a few New Yorker cartoonists given how long they've been in the industry and how it's changed. Cartooning can't be done full-time anymore, for instance, so the craft winds up a passion pursued on the side. I'm not necessarily expecting something like Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, but nearly all of the cartoonists are such characters themselves with stories to tell. (A documentary on New Yorker covers and cover artists could be interesting as well given the wide array of artists and subject matter.) Chast, for instance, has such a great on-screen presence. She's one of the few (if not only) women who contributed cartoons to The New Yorker decades ago and still contributes today. In archival footage, Chast slips through the background of the tuxedo-clad boys' club. It's funny and telling and smart the way Wolchok contextualizes the clip. It could have been a New Yorker cartoon--all three captions kind of work too.
Very Semi-Serious photo
More to it than "Christ, what an a-hole"
There's a joke about the cartoons seen in The New Yorker: pretty much all of them can be re-captioned "Christ, what an a**hole." It works surprisingly well about 90% of the time. (The other two evergreen captions for New York...

Review: Seven Weeks (Nononanananoka)

Dec 04 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220169:42720:0[/embed] Seven Weeks (野のなななのか, Nononanananoka)Director: Nobuhiko ObayashiRelease Date: March 2, 2014 (Japan)Rating: n/aCountry: Japan There's a line in Neil Gaiman's Sandman that goes, "If you keep [stories] going long enough, they always end in death." Ironically, death is also a great place to start a story. When a friend or relative passes away, loved ones gather to mourn and remember, and in the process they find something useful for the future. Seven Weeks opens on a similar note, commemorating the real-life passing of a director before saying that each time someone dies, someone else is born to take his or her place. So stories keep going, and there's death, but it's not necessarily the end; it's more like a continuing historical process. That's the broad shape of Seven Weeks. A family's 92-year-old patriarch, Dr. Suzuki Mitsuo (Shinagawa Toru), passes away, and the film proceeds to explore the town he lives in, his secret past during WWII, and the lives of his surviving family and friends. The film is set in Ashibetsu, a mining town whose population has dwindled as reliance on coal has declined. The characters in the film often have rapid, funny exchanges with one another, especially in the first hour, which plays out with the speed of a screwball comedy. It's not just Mitsuo's surviving family members doing the talking. The ghost of Mitsuo also has a chance to comment on his own life and death, which he does at length. Even though I'm only mildly familiar with the history and politics of post-war Japan, the setting is essential for Obayashi's concerns, which are at once distinctly Japanese and yet also universal. So many of the anxieties of every generation are rooted in the inability to account for a world that's constantly changing. Moving from coal power, Japan settled on nuclear energy, and yet with nuclear power comes a reminder of the atomic bomb and, more recently, the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima. What next, where to go, what to do? When Mitsuo's family brings these concerns up, Seven Weeks feels like a message movie about green energy, albeit a sincere one. The local economy in Ashibetsu isn't what it used to be and may continue to decline, and yet Obayashi lovingly photographs the rural landscape, always finding beauty and grace in the hillsides. It's as if somewhere in the past, in the very soil of this place, there's an answer, or at least a chance for beautiful reflection that can inspire worthwhile solutions. I sensed a few nods to Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, which is apt. Similar concerns of place and tradition come from a few of Mitsuo's drunk contemporaries, who talk about the loss of a traditional Japanese culture, the west exerting more cultural influence on the country and its youth in the post-war period. Mitsuo's own struggles with the past suggest an unwillingness to let go, haunted by a poem and the memory of a woman. His clinic even has an adjoining local history museum, which suggests different ways and reasons why we hold on to events from our past. Seven Weeks clocks in at nearly three hours. Some long films feel much shorter, but Seven Weeks feels like it's three hours. That's not really a bad thing, but anyone expecting the movie to be brisk will be disappointed. Anyone expecting an experience like Hausu will be especially disappointed. Seven Weeks contains a few flashes of anarchic experimentation like Hausu, but it's mostly a grounded affair given the subject matter. The characters are quirky, but mostly only just. There's a monk who plucks and admires his comically large ear hair, which has a nice payoff in a scene in which one of Mitsuo's grandsons starting picking his own nose hair. A few uses of blue screen and green screen to convey the passing of time and the change in the seasons are jarring since they look spotty, but for the most part there's a slow, deliberate confidence in much of Seven Weeks that reveals an old director in complete control of his material. There's an overture played throughout Seven Weeks by a group of marching ghosts. The spectral musicians are motif I've seen in a few other Japanese movies, though I'm still never quite sure what to make of them. The melody they play is rather charming, and the slow yet beautiful dazzle of the tune seems mirrored in the pace of the film. The ghosts walk the landscape and play their song, and they're a calming presence in Seven Weeks. The whole film has a calming and contemplative presence, in fact, like a grandfather telling a story. Sometimes we drift in and out when listening to the tale, but there are details and textures we recall vividly, and it's just nice to hear that voice.
Review: Seven Weeks photo
Past, present, future
Even though most people in the US know Nobuhiko Obayashi for his 1977 cult classic House (Hausu), he's remained a prolific filmmaker in Japan. His body of work is varied, including the body swap comedy Exchange Students ...

Non-Review: The World of Kanako

Dec 04 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
The World of KanakoDirector: Tetsuya NakashimaRelease Date: December 4th, 2015Country: Japan  The first time someone got raped in The World of Kanako, I knew I wasn't going to like the movie. I've written about rape too many goddamn times, and I'm not going to go into another tirade on the subject. I knew when the first rape happened (one committed by the protagonist, no less) that this was not a movie I was going to like. But I kept watching. The second time, the film lost me. I didn't "forgive" the first one, but there's something kind of magnetic about Kanako. I wanted to forgive it because of that magnetism. But the second rape is more horrific than the first, both visually and contextually. It's also one that drives the rest of the narrative forward. In that sense, it's "important" in a way the first rape is not. On some level that makes it "okay." But on every other level? Nope. The third time, that dislike turned to hate. I had been waffling on whether or not I "hated" the film for a while leading up to that moment. I was thinking I probably did, but I didn't feel the passion. Some part of me really wanted to like the film, for reasons I don't fully understand. But the third rape clinched it. The passion was ignited. "Fuck this movie," I thought. But I kept watching. So I could write this review. Or, I guess this non-review. Because there's no score at the end. Only regrets.  I spent a lot of The World of Kanako thinking about other movies and my reactions to those movies. I also thought about other peoples' reactions to those movies. I thought about Lesson of the Evil, a film which Fangoria's Michael Gingold found morally abhorrent. He hated it. I kinda liked it. I understood where he was coming from, though. The content is such that it's an easy movie to hate (in America especially (and now especially especially)). But there was something about Takashi Miike's style that just won me over. I didn't like the fact that I kinda liked a movie about massacring school children, but I couldn't deny just how well-crafted the film was. My technical appreciation overrode my conceptual disgust. The World of Kanako is also very well made. It's fascinating, structurally. I think I would need to watch it at least seven times to truly understand what I saw, because the jumping timelines and differing viewpoints and legitimately schizophrenic protagonist all serve to make a film that is a mindfuck at best, possibly completely opaque. It's pretty, and though the editing is exhausting, I can't deny its style. There's a flair to the whole production that I wanted to love, but here the content . It wasn't just the rape, either, though that certainly factored into it heavily. The characters across the board are terrible, and though that's kinda the point, it doesn't mean I have to like it. I don't have to bring myself down to the film's level to judge it. I can sit on my high horse and simply toss it aside. I thought about Hard Romanticker, a film I also hated. I opened that review by comparing it to a much older film called The Cruel Story of Youth . The final line of the intro to that review: "I hated The Cruel Story of Youth." (I guess things haven't changed much in the past three and a half years.) But the reason I thought about Hard Romanticker wasn't because I hated it; it was because other people really liked it. I couldn't understand why. I still can't. I think it's an objectively bad movie about bad characters doing bad things. It's irredeemable. But people liked it. Maybe they were drawn to its irredeemability. I don't know. Likewise, there will be people who like The World of Kanako. Maybe they'll be drawn into it the way I was with Lesson of the Evil. Maybe they're the same people who like Hard Romanticker. I don't know. I guess I can see the allure, but I can't see how they aren't repulsed. I thought about a lot of movies for a lot of reasons, most of them Japanese. This film is very Japanese, for better and for worse. Oftentimes I like that. Sometimes I love it. And sometimes I hate it. Sometimes the cultural divide is too big, and I can't even be bothered to try to bridge it. This is one of those times. I could go on... but I don't see the point. The things it does well (and it does do some things well) don't matter. It's almost like The World of Kanako wants to be hated. Mission accomplished.
The World of Kanako photo
Cool story, bro.
I haven't hated a movie in a very long time. It's happened (oh it has happened), but it takes a certain special something to bring me over from annoyance or general dislike into sheer, visceral hatred.  The World of Kanako has that special something. It has it in spades. It is a film that cannot really be considered "bad." But it can absolutely be considered The Worst.

Review: Creed

Nov 29 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220168:42717:0[/embed] CreedDirector: Ryan CooglerRated: PG-13Release Date: November 25th, 2015 Rocky started out as a humble film where the titular character was in search of his prime. Themes of resurrection, Jesus imagery, and bouts between mythical legends blew the series into the huge proportions its known by today. But just like how the sixth film, Rocky Balboa, saw to end the series, Creed chooses to bring it back down to Earth. Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) is Apollo's illegitimate son and after years of self-taught boxing and fighting underground in Mexico, he's ready to take on the sport full time in order to break out of the shadow of his famous father. After heading to Philadelphia, he convinces his father's old rival and friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), to train him through some of the biggest fights of his life.  Creed manages to accomplish something I've never seen before. It's only something a series seven films in can do, really. Although it can technically be the start of a whole new set of films, it feels like an appropriate epilogue to Balboa's saga. Stallone may not have written this film, but lots of the film's lines and themes fit right in with the other six films. Everything from the little story touches (Balboa knows every person in town, and people still call him "Champ"), to Balboa's dialogue sounding exactly like how he should (he's a big dumb lug, but he's got heart), and to little homages folks can miss completely. It's a film informed by history so fans of the series will absolutely love all the shout outs, but newer viewers won't feel lost without that knowledge. The homage is all in the background (other than two scenes, and only one of those is a major setpiece); stuff you'd pick up if you're paying attention. Like its major theme of trying to break out and create its own legacy, Creed isn't weighed down by the past but is made that much better for acknowledging it a little.  Creed is also a technical marvel. It's running time (two hours and 14 minutes) gave me pause at first because while the Rocky saga was always great, it tended to run long. And while Creed does indeed have some scenes that could be skimmed down, it's edited kind of perfectly. The story has the time it needs to breathe, and it allows the audience to get used to this new perspective of this old world. We have enough story bits to move the film forward, but there's still plenty time to develop the characters. The story isn't perfect as there are a few threads that get lost with an entire secondary group of characters that get shoved aside for an odd feeling title match we're not really invested in (so Wood Harris is ultimately wasted as a result but I don't want to talk about it too much because it'll spoil the film), Phylicia Rashad isn't really needed, the love interest seems tacked on (but Tessa Thompson is great), and unfortunately we don't get to the root of why Adonis wants to be a boxer other than the fact that his father once was. But it's hard to mind because everything works so well. Especially watching the fights unfold. The film strives for a realistic take on boxing. Unlike the grandiose nature the sport takes in the later films of the Rocky saga, director Ryan Coogler brings the sport back down to its gritty appeal. Fights are visceral, we're reminded on a few occasions of the damage boxing can do as Apollo's death in the ring comes up a few times (and feels real each time), and watching Stallone as a older, weaker Balboa who's been ravaged by the sport is very compelling. And the matches themselves are some of the most engrossing fights I've ever seen in boxing films. One of the weaker aspects of the Rocky saga has always been the boxing matches themselves. That's why there was always care to develop the personalities of the fighters themselves because we're more likely to get invested in an admittedly goofy fight regardless. But in Creed it's the other way around. While there's some attention to fighter detail, it's more about what happens in the ring. And it's definitely something I'd like to see more of should there be more films (of which I'd gladly see). It's a cool way to modernize the typically old fashioned saga for sure. Adonis' first official match is a huge stand out, and I want to talk about how marvelous it is here but I want you to experience it for yourself. It's quite a sight.  Now for the part I've wanted to talk about the most. As mentioned before, Sylvester Stallone may not have written the film this time around, but it definitely feels like it. As the new school props up the legends of old, every scene with Stallone is absolutely enthralling. Stallone wears Balboa's iconic image like a glove, and it's like the saga never ended. It's kind of amazing how he nails each bit of dialogue, humor, and physicality. His arc in the film is fantastic, and it's quite emotional given our history with the character. If you've watched any of the films in the past, expect to cry a little. It's a staunch reminder of the kind of actor Stallone can be in case you've forgotten after watching him in films like The Expendables. Creed subdues his image a bit, but as much as the film tries, it doesn't dim Balboa completely. Michael B. Jordan turns in quite a performance here, adding the necessary believable edge and charisma, but he's pretty much outclassed by Stallone in their scenes together. It's to be expected since Stallone has many years of the role under his belt, but it doesn't even matter too much since this is a bridge film that serves to pass the torch along. So even this slight negative feels like another positive.  My only major concern is whether or not someone unfamiliar with the Rocky series will be able to enjoy Creed to its full potential. Since I'm far removed from that position, I can only offer a few key points: Creed is an entertaining boxing film in its own right, so you're likely to get invested without knowing the history, there are a few iconic Rocky images that float around in the pop culture space and they're paid homage to here so you'll at least recognize those, and it's just a fantastic film all around. Creed isn't a perfect film, but it's as close to perfect as you can get.  Folks, let me let you in on some behind the scenes stuff for a bit. The first thing I've ever written for this site was, in fact, a post about Rocky's training montage.  I started writing community posts here and there before being brought on to the staff full time, eventually working my way up to the guy who gets to review stuff every now and then. So three years later, it's surreal to take on Creed for my 100th review. Creed hit me hard, folks. I've been writing, re-writing, and completely erased a draft to write it all over again just to get it right. It's a film I liked so much that it was hard to put in words. It's the best film I've seen all year, and there's a good chance nothing will top it for some time. Whether there are more or whether this is the last Rocky universe thing I'll ever see, I'm perfectly happy.  Hollywood, if you want to reboot everything, give every old property sequels, spin-off into cinematic universes, take note of Ryan Googler's Creed. This is how you do it. 
Creed Review photo
Gonna fly now, gonna fly forever
Twenty years ago, my father had a bout with lymphoma. In the following years of recovery, I searched for any means to get closer to him. One of the first things we did together was watch a bunch of his favorite films. Godzill...

Review: The Night Before

Nov 26 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220167:42716:0[/embed] The Night BeforeDirector: Johnathan LevineRated: RRelease Date: November 20th, 2015 When Ethan's (Joseph Godon-Levitt) parents pass away, his friends Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris Roberts (Anthony Mackie) decide to start a new holiday tradition where they combine all of their usual traditions and party. 14 years later, that tradition is coming to an end as Isaac's becoming a father and Chris is now too famous an athlete to hang out. As their lives drift apart and Ethan's seems to be going nowhere, he clings to the last hope for their tradition: The Nutcracker Ball, a secret super party which the three have been trying to go to for years. As they look for the party, drug laced Christmas shenanigans ensue.  Night Before is incredibly nostalgic. From the outset you'll notice plenty of shout outs to films of Christmas past (like Home Alone and It's a Wonderful Life), but your enjoyment of these references and gags only really work if you remember them well enough. These gags don't have much at face value, but utilize that nostalgic work around to get a pleasant chuckle every now and then. Thankfully the film doesn't do this too much, but the gags that don't work because of this stick out even more so when the original jokes land much better. These little references feel too much like an afterthought, so I'm just left trying to figure why'd they'd even include these in the first place. It brings the film down a notch since this noticeable roughness often comes paired with bouts of awkward silence rather than laughs.  We could debate taste in humor all day, but the main core of the film is decidedly within its three main characters. Each one having their own little adventure, with only two getting true resolution, Ethan, Isaac, and Chris are crafted well. Thanks to the writing, and how comfortable the trio of actors is with one another, these guys feel lived in. Each character has a strong emotional, and most importantly human, center that helps anchor the film when it goes off the rails. Unfortunately, there are points when they get a bit cartoonish (especially during most of Isaac's drug binge or Chris' encounter with a strange thief) and the story goes through these weird non-sequitors which only serve to diminish the film's actual plot. It just seems weird to, at one point, focus on cocaine shenanigans and then try and remind us there's a Christmas story being told. Rogen and Goldberg's films do this all the time, but I guess there's just a more noticeable juxtaposition when the main story is all about holiday niceties.  Johnathan Levine, who's directed Rogen and Gordon-Levitt before in 50/50, captures the spirit of the holiday film quite well. The little details sprinkled throughout the film like the trio's holiday sweaters, the entrance to the Nutcracker Ball feeling appropriately magical, or even not including any holiday music to keep it all inclusive, help to make it timeless, but there are some odd cameos that really date the film and will set it back. And I know the trio have to separate to serve the story, but I wish we were able to enjoy Rogen, Gordon-Levitt, and Mackie in the same room more. Each of their scenes together is an absolute highlight as they bounce jokes off one another and generally charm up the place. Even some of the film's occasional wonky dialogue comes across natural for them. It's pretty neat to see in action. I hope they find themselves all together in another project someday. Also, if they could somehow get another appearance from the actor that plays Mr. Green, I'd be there day one.  In the end, there's not really much else to say about The Night Before. I had a good time watching, even if there were a couple of times I found myself scratching my head over their comedic choices. If you've seen Rogen and Goldberg's films in the past, you already know what to expect and have decided whether or not to see this already. The addition of Anthony Mackie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to the mix helps take the film to a more emotional place than usual, but you're constantly reminded that this is another film in a long line of others like it. It's like that one Christmas where you got a cool Nintendo 64, and you're older cousin keeps telling you he got one first. You're going to have a good time, but it's a little less fun than it should be. 
Night Before Review photo
A partridge in a burning tree
When Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg produce a film, you pretty much know what you're going to get. As the duo have made their way through the romantic comedy, high school buddy film, stoner comedy, old Hollywood existential, su...

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

Nov 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219544:42428:0[/embed] The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2Director: Francis LawrenceRelease Date: November 20, 2015Rating: PG-13 "Whoa. Philip Seymour Hoffman." Not having prepared for the film in any way, I had completely forgotten that Mockingjay marked the actor's final performance. More than a year and a half after he died, he's onscreen again. And it's weird. Really, really weird. When he first showed up, moments into the film, the person I was sitting next to turned: "Is he real?" The answer to the question – "No" – is simple, but the implications of that answer are a little more complicated. It was decided pretty much immediately that there would be no CGI Philip Seymour Hoffman walking around, monologuing in place of the actor. It's a sign of respect, and it's one that I commend the team for doing. I'm sure the pressure to digitize him was fairly high, because his absence is felt rather heavily. Plutarch Heavensbee (ugh) is an important character to the plot, someone always lurking in the shadows and pulling the strings. But not in Mockingjay - Part 2. Here, he simply is a shadow. The film cries out for his presence, and a scene late in the film was switched up in a way that is functional but also fairly awkward. Hoffman's death complicated things, as such things so often do. That's actually a good way to describe Mockingjay - Part 2: complicated. It's complicated because it's the second part of a movie that didn't need to be two parts. These two (good) 2+ hour films could have been turned into one great three hour one. Heck, you could probably go shorter, because fully half of Part 2's runtime is taken up by scenes that aren't "bad" but also don't really do much. There's a lot of sitting around and talking, or walking around and talking, or running around and talking. The pacing is molasses slow, and ultimately a film that is only a bit over two hours (with 10-15 minutes of credits on top) feels nearly double that. This is honestly felt like one of the longest films I have ever seen, because so much time is spent on a series of very different things, but they're presented in such a way that it seems like the movie is just going to go on forever. And it does, sort of. A lot of it builds to a few different things, and though they all ultimately come to pass, it feels like they were glossed over to make way for less interesting things.  Which isn't to say that the film is boring, because it's not. It's just slow. And though it ratchets up tension at various points with interesting and strange (and kinda horrific) setpieces, the momentum doesn't continue to build. After the sequence, it just stops. And so, bizarrely, it actually feels like there are multiple films worth of narrative here that have been stripped down. It's almost episodic, with a "beginning," middle, and end for each of the different plotlines. But a lot of those episodes are just filler, and the ones that aren't could have easily been much shorter. As the second part in a two-part film, discussing specifics seems even less important than usual. You decided whether or not you were going to see this movie as soon as the credits in Mockingjay - Part 1 rolled. If you saw that cliffhanger and needed to know what happens to Katniss, Peeta, Snow, and everyone else, then you're hooked and you'll see this movie no matter what. And if you decided you didn't care? I'm not going to change your mind, because this movie isn't either. There's nothing about the narrative here that is going to appeal to anyone who didn't like the first three movies or didn't want to see what's next. I'm here not really to tell you if the movie is good, because ultimately that doesn't matter. I'm just here to think about what the experience of seeing it's like. And it boils down to this: Exhausting or not, I liked Mockingjay - Part 2. As a fan of the earlier films, I feel relatively satisfied. It's worth it to see where these characters end up and see who they are underneath it all. Some of the characters are given weird motivations that I didn't totally understand and others grew in interesting ways. But at least it all ended. After two years of cliffhangers, it was nice to get see credits set by something other than a close-up of Katniss's stressed-out face. The actual ending made me groan out loud for four solid minutes, but at this point I just wanted to know. And I got my answers. I don't need anything more from The Hunger Games. I can go on and live my life and never think about it again. I can wish that a tighter and more cohesive film ended the franchise, but why? We've got an ending, it did what it had to do, did it competently, and now it's done. Goodbye, Hunger Games. It's been fun.
Mockingjay Part 2 Review photo
The end of time
I didn't read The Hunger Games or its sequels. When the first film came to theaters, I had heard a whole lot of people talking about the books, but I didn't know anything beyond the "It's pretty much Battle Royale" premi...

Review: The 33

Nov 13 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220135:42699:0[/embed] The 33Director: Patricia RiggenRated: PG-13Release Date: November 13, 2015 What is this story we're talking about? Back in 2010 33 Chilean miners got trapped when a very large chunk of rock collapsed the mine they were working in. Against all odds, and while the entire world watched, the 33 were eventually rescued. This is ostensibly their story of survival, but it's also the story of how they were rescued. It is a plot so full of happiness, wonder and cliche that if it weren't for the fact that it actually happened you'd be reading a review about how the film was too unbelievable.  To be sure The 33 probably plays it a little loose with events and characters. While the miners themselves, led by Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) and Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips), are treated pretty well their above ground counterparts get a lot of fluffing. Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), Chile's minister of mining, gets a very flattering coat of paint with the casting of a ridiculously good looking actor and the insertion of hints of romance with one of the miner's sisters. Luckily the plot line never bores out, but it speaks to just how rote the film can be. The movie hits every survival plot point it can with the emotional gusto you expect, but nothing actually special. This is especially true in the latter half of the film. While the miners are struggling to survive and the rescuers are desperately drilling down to them the film is actually surprisingly tense. Riggen does a fantastic job of developing the 33 as people and a group. The stress of being trapped in the mine is reflected and paralleled with the desperate attempts to rescue the miners. A particularly good scene brings the miners into the realm of fantasy as they eat their last supper around a long wooden table. The heavy hints of what faith means to these men reflected in the visuals of the scene. Riggen may get a bit heavy handed with her visual metaphors for faith, but she plays them well. Unfortunately the moment the drill pierces the cave it all seems to get lost. The screenplay jumps from subtle character study, to obvious social commentary as the miners become international sensations and a miniature revolution starts to occur. The moment the focus is taken off the minors and put onto the rescue the film jumps into cliche and begins to hamper everything that was built in the first half. Riggens visuals fall away as the screenplay struggles to keep the miners relevant for the months they must wait for rescue. Once survival is not longer the driving factor it seems the movie doesn't know what to do with them. It definitely grinds the performances to a halt as well. Banderas is powerful as Mario in the first half of the movie, lacing a relentless force into his performance while Phillips plays behind him, worn and afraid. I was seriously leaning towards Oscar thoughts as I watched Banderas rally the miners in the key survival speech, but as his character devolves into the film's representation for the corruption of the outside world (before, of course, redeeming himself quickly) his performance suffers. We lose the connection to the miners as the plot opens up and in turn lose the connection to the performances. What's most tragic is that The 33 never confronts anything. At the end of the film text points out that the mining company was never punished and the miners never got an retribution from them. However, the movie never really addresses this situation it's so focused on being triumphant for its last half. It hits its dramatic points just fine, but never pushes to the next level where were allowed to talk about what happened. This movie should never need to be made, but instead of looking into that fact when it has the chance it instead revels in its glorious rescue. It's a great rescue story for sure, but The 33 could have been more. 
The 33 Review photo
How do you say 'meh' in Spanish?
You could mess up the story of The 33 I suppose. It would be hard, but not impossible. You could get over melodramatic, but you'd have to try hard because the story its based on is damn melodramatic. You could screw up t...

Review: The Peanuts Movie

Nov 06 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220109:42688:0[/embed] The Peanuts Movie Director: Steve MartinoRated: GRelease Date: November 6th, 2015 The Peanuts Movie is all about Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp), an awkward kid with a debilitating self-esteem issue thanks to years and years of being teased by the other neighborhood kids. Just as he was wishing for a blank slate, a mysterious new, red-haired girl moves into town. After falling hard for her, Charlie's got to muster up the courage and do some crazy things in order to impress her and get her to notice him. While he's doin all of that, his dog Snoopy (thanks to Bill Melendez's archived voice work) finds a typewriter and begins writing about the WWI Flying Ace and his rivalry with the infamous Red Baron.  First things first, Peanuts is absolutely stunning. I honestly have no idea how Blue Sky Studios managed to pull this off. Just like the film's content, Peanuts' visuals are both heartily nostalgic (thanks to a few 2D flourishes like little hearts and backgrounds every now and then) and groundbreaking in its effort. Characters move as smoothly as they would in 2D while avoiding CG's blurring motions thanks to an adept use of choppy movement. I guess the closest thing I can compare it to is Blue Sky's mascot Scrat (from the Ice Age series). Just as his movement is broken, yet fluid so it captures the essence of old Looney Tunes shorts, Peanuts' animation captures the essence of the TV specials. And then there are all the little details therein like Snoopy's fur, the whiskers in Charlie's lone curl of hair, and the Flying Ace sequences look pretty good in 3D. But once you get beyond how great it looks, you'll soon realize that it may be too comfortable taking yet another trip down memory lane.  Because it's both a reinvention and a reintroduction to the Peanuts series, the film is almost required to make the necessary homages to its classic jokes and settings. Every classic Peanuts joke is here, quite literally, and you'll be hard pressed to find them funny again in this new setting. These jokes have already been made available through the specials replayed through the holidays each year, so it's really a matter of whether or not you'll appreciate them again through this new filter. It's a celebration unfortunately caught in the past, and while these jokes are definitely delightful and may mean more to new audiences, it's just a shame that this new film didn't take the chance to create new memories for Charlie Brown. It's even more glaring when the newer bits work very well. There's this scene where Charlie is getting "Psychiatric Help" from Lucy that's absolutely fabulous in how dark the writing duo of Bryan and Craig Schulz take it. At one point, she shoves a mirror in his face and asks Charlie what he sees, and all he can say in response is "A loser." While it sounds wonky on paper, it's a sequence that actually utilizes our knowledge of the characters in the past rather than be hindered by it.  In fact, that's one of the boldest choices The Peanuts Movie makes. While the humor and most of the content is stuck in the past (thus making sequences featuring new pop music from Meghan Trainor feel even more out of place), Charlie Brown has actually become a mix of his many identities. The film only works because the writing, actor Noah Schnapp, and visuals have mastered this newest iteration of Charlie Brown. He's a mix of many of his past incarnations: The outright loser from Schulz's original comic strips. the awkward kid from the holiday specials, and the more positive Charlie from later direct to video specials. Yet with all of those influences, he's still got his own new layer in the film. They've added this crippling self-doubt that's so current, it clashes with the rest of the film's nostalgic tone. As the kids exist in a world with rotary phones, Charlie's pondering existential crises in love.  While the humor can be a bit clunky, and Charlie Brown is fantastic, the film does take some getting used to. Since it is so stuck in the past, it's taking on a format we haven't seen in quite a while. Broken into vignettes fueling a central arc, each major sequence in Peanuts feels like it could be a stand-alone special of its own. Each major scene has a beginning middle and end, so it doesn't really flow like a traditional film, per se. It's an odd pacing that, while not entirely bad, does detract from the enjoyment overall. Going in you've got to realize that you're taking the good with the bad, but the "bad" isn't the worst thing in the world. The Peanuts Movie's biggest flaw is that it's too celebratory and nostalgic, but that's also such a non-problem to have.  I certainly have enjoyed myself, but I also don't feel compelled to watch this over and over again like every other Peanuts thing I've revisited in the past. It's a delightful and breezy film, but I'm not sure if everyone will have the same reaction to it that I did. It's fun to walk down memory lane every once in a while, but you can't expect everyone to stick around.
Peanuts Review photo
Good grief?
Thanks to my mom, I've been following Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang for as long as I can remember. Like Charlie, I too am a sad sack who's life the universe sees fit to ruin at all cost. So when I first heard 20th Centur...

Review: Spectre

Nov 06 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220108:42687:0[/embed] SpectreDirector: Sam MendesRated: PG-13Release Date: November 6, 2015  Spectre is relentlessly old school Bond for better or for worse. It harkens back to the tongue-in-cheek playfulness of Moore, the swagger of Connery and even a bit of the romance of Lazenby. This is all pretty interesting since the Craig era of Bond has been marked pointedly by a intentional move away from such things as site gags and gadgets. The return to this style of Bond is both jarring and reassuring, but what can easily be said is this is Craig's most Bond film, complying with all the stereotypes, tropes and action that one came to expect from Bond pre-Craig. It is repeatedly, and possibly a little overbearingly, wistful about Bond's past. Almost every scene could be considered a throwback or nod to older Bond films. Then again when you've got more than 50 years of cinematic history under your belt it's hard to avoid not paying homage, which is the nice way of saying copying. The plot is definitely a repeat. In fact, much like Moonraker after The Spy Who Loved Me, Spectre is the same general idea as Skyfall, but bigger and more ridiculous. We open with Bond pursuing some extra curricular assassination in Mexico City. Turns out he's hot on the trail of an evil organization, eventually revealed to be Spectre, who Bond must destroy in order to save the world from domination. Spectre is basically Quantum from the first two films, but now they're calling it Spectre because old Bond is back (and legal reasons). Much like Skyfall the villain has a personal connection with Bond, is obsessed with collecting information for power and is looking to overthrow MI6. Bond proceeds to jump from one action sequences in a stunning locale to another as the movie attempts to unfold a lackluster mystery and develop an even more confusing relationship between Bond and Mr. White's (remember him) daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux). If you're one for logic, pacing and avoiding plot holes this Bond is not for you.  However, if you're one for fast cars, gadgets, one-liners, prolific actions sequences and a general sense of fun then strap in. This film is all style and no substance, but, man, does it have style. This is easily the most charming Craig's Bond has been, which isn't too difficult since the previous three films focused more on the man than the myth. The screenplay, full of the kind of one-liners and site gags that made Bond Bond, might fall through in many ways, but it gives Craig a chance to have a lot of fun. Thanks to the comments he's made after shooting the film it's hard to say if he actually enjoyed the process, but there are moments here that rival Connery in their flippant bravado including what might be the sexiest delivery of the line, "Bond, James Bond," ever spoken. He an Seydoux have fantastic chemistry on screen, and if they're taking the character the direction it seems they are then that's going to be incredibly important. The action is also easily Craig's best. Casino Royale barely had any as it was far more a character study, Quantum's was shoddily directed and Skyfall featured some amazing set pieces, but nothing that compares to the brutal fights and overblown action of Spectre. The opening sequence is a stunning helicopter battle that's an airborne take on the historic train fight from From Russia With Love. It opens the film with a bang, that is unfortunately followed by Sam Smith's disappointment of a song and an opening credits sequence that involves some tentacle porn and will illicit giggles. Get through that, however, and you're slam back into the action, which doesn't let up until the very end of the film's more than two-and-half hour running time. We're treated to what is easily some of the franchise's best action. Sam Mendes's direction is once again stunningly gorgeous and despite the departure of cinematographer Richard Deakins the movie is still one of Bond's most striking. Bond has never looked sharper, with Craig going through more outfit changes than a female Oscar host and Mendes doing everything in his power to make him look awesome. A perfectly tailored white dinner jacket (this is the latter) in a train ripped from the 50s lit like it's Casablanca pulls an entire scene together and makes you happy they went so old school this time around.  Unfortunately, when style isn't a factor things start to fall apart. This is especially true for the villains of the film who are universally wasted. Christoph Waltz's Hans Oberhauser spends the first half of the film in the shadows only to be revealed as a limp, uninteresting character who can barely muster up a convincing monomaniacal monologue. How can you so misuse Waltz as a Bond villain? It seems almost criminal in and of itself, and yet the character is flat and hampered with a plot line that doesn't just make his character worse, but the entire movie. The sad part is this specific piece of the story is almost entirely unnecessary, and seems to have been stuck into the movie simply to attempt to put some of Craig's Bond's "emotion" into the story. It doesn't work, and in turn detracts from where the true emotional focus should be between Bond, Swann and M -- the true character conflict of the film that gets totally lost in the movie's desperate attempts to offer up twists. Even the movie's henchman, another staple returning in true form for the first time in a Craig film, suffers from a lack of attention. Hinx (Dave Bautista) bursts on the scene showing off his metal thumbnails, giving off echoes of Jaws, and then is relegated to a large thug for the rest of the movie. It's a completely illogical choice, especially with such a charming guy as Bautista. Imagine if Oddjob simply threw his hat once in Goldfinger and the decided not to use it again. Hinx does just this and spends the rest of the film running after Bond in cars. Now, he is involved in a fantastic train fight, but he really could have been replaced by any brute. It's just another way Spectre wastes its potential to be a truly great Bond film. SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPHS I hate to write about spoilers for a movie most people haven't seen, but it plays such a large role in this movie and fails so badly that I must bring it up. You've probably guessed it by now anyway: Christoph Waltz plays Blofeld. The film treats this as if we're all supposed to be surprised, but they gave it away by naming the movie Spectre and so when the foot drops it lands with a dull thud. They may have known this as they attempt to pile on other plot twists from here on out to make up for it, but there are about a million different ways this could have played out better, especially if Waltz had decided to bring any life to his character. This all concludes in an ending that is flat and disconnected. In a film filled with prolific action sequences the movie ends with nothing. Instead of an epic take-down of the villain we're given a tepid gun shot that culminates more than two ours of action with no emotional punch. This is followed by a conclusion that feels confusing and out of character for Bond. That may be because the next film is going to bring back the Lea Sedoux character. If this is so it could make the ending work, but as it stands on its own it leaves an odd taste in one's mouth.  END SPOILERS It's also odd that in a film that is clearly obsessed with bringing Bond back to his roots that they ignore one of the most unique aspects of the franchise: it's almost complete disregard for continuity. Instead a ham-fisted attempt is made to connect Bond's last three adventures to this one. Much like Obenhauser's plot points it is generally not needed and only serves to convolute the story. The problem is this clearly wasn't intended from the start. Yes, Quantum may have been a big, evil organization that the filmmakers originally intended to develop, but after they ditched it in Skyfall their plot line fell apart. Now we get a forced conclusion to the story that tries to tie up loose ends as if Bond wasn't a film franchise that was built on completely ignoring whatever happened in the previous films. How many Bond girls have completely disappeared? How many villains are never mentioned again? Why force continuity on a movie that doesn't need it? The question becomes what do you want from your Bond film? If the hard reset we received when Craig took over the mantle was up your alley then this step back in time is going to seriously disappoint. If you've missed the days of ejection seats, gadget-filled cars and perfectly timed quips then Spectre is the Bond you've been waiting for. It's a return to form for Bond, but that form was never for everybody. In the pantheon of Bond films Spectre is definitely on the middle-high end, but in Craig's tenure it is an outlier filled with things that will either make you love it or hate it. The big problem is if you don't love the things its brought back then it's flaws are too great to get over. It's ramshackle plot and poor villains make it incredibly difficult to enjoy if you don't enjoy Bond. When I wrote my review of Casino Royale many years ago I noted that Bond's gun barrel opening had been changed, it was then shoved to the end of Quantum of Solace and again to the end of Skyfall. I noted that this was all well and good since these films were about Bond becoming Bond, but that eventually the gun barrel would have to return to the beginning of the film once the character had returned to has traditional ways. In Spectre the barrel is back at the beginning and Bond is definitely back to his old ways. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is entirely up to you. I think it's a great thing, but it could have been done in a better movie. 
Spectre Review photo
Bond is back, but is that good?
When Skyfall landed James Bond rose to a whole new level. We were treated to a Bond film that both embraced the new, hard edge of Daniel Craig's Bond, but paid homage to Bond's past as well. Unlike the dreadfully dour Qu...

Review: Shrew's Nest

Nov 04 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220097:42685:0[/embed] Shrew's Nest (Musarañas)Directors: Juan Fernando Andrés and Esteban Roel Rating: NRCountry: Spain  The term "slow burn" gets thrown around a lot. I know I've used it more than once. Sometimes it's a useful term to describe how a film functions; other times it's a way to say something is boring without having to use that language. Sometimes people think things are a slow burn when they're really not. Shrew's Nest isn't a slow burn, though I know of others who say it is. Those people are either accidentally ignorant or willfully ignorant, but either way they're wrong. They're wrong, because the sequence of events that ultimately lead to the narrative boiling over aren't slow at all. They're very deliberate, placed perfectly in order to ratchet up the tension while also revealing the multiple facets of each character. At first, we see characters effectively through their own eyes, how they try to present themselves to the world. Then we see them through the eyes of others, where some of those seams start to show. Ultimately, we see them for who they truly are. And, not unexpectedly, what we find there isn't pretty. Montse is confined to the house. Not by some external force but an internal one. She can make it to the door, but she'll never go past it. Her sister, who she refers to as niña (translated as "the girl"), can go out. The girl goes to work during the day, and Montse stays home. She cooks and cleans and makes sure that her sister stays away from men. Because men are bad people who do bad things. (Note that it's clear almost immediately what happened to Montse, but that doesn't make the ultimate reveal any less painful, nor does it really prepare you for what follows.) One day, a man basically falls into her lap. As Carlos tries to leave his apartment (a floor above the girls'), he falls down the stairs, breaking his leg and hitting his head. After asking for her help, he faints. She brings him inside, binds his leg, and puts him in her bed. What follows, of course, is misery. Also, Misery. From the outset you know that Montse is unhinged, but the question is how far she'll go to keep Carlos there. The answer: Really Fucking Far. But in order to get to that point, we need context. Montse is viscous, something we learn early on, but seeing how her madness manifests itself is crucial to making the violence feel justified. Violence for the sake of violence can be fine, but there's something disquietingly realistic about characters in Shrew's Nest. Montse has had a rough time of it, and her psyche has been shaped accordingly. The girl is a little afraid of her sister, but the relationship is at the point where that's generally fine, until Carlos comes into the picture. Carlos isn't particularly concerned, particularly since Montse is so kind to him, but he doesn't understand the situation. He believes her when she says she had a doctor visit, but we know she's lying. Each time a character makes a decision, even if they make the wrong one, it felt fair. Characters do stupid things, but so do people. And characters don't do certain stupid things that they would be expected to do in a horror movie. Shrew's Nest is not particularly scary, but it is consistently unsettling. It's also claustrophobic, taking place entirely in a single apartment building (two apartments and the stairwell between them). That's good both for both budgetary and narrative reasons. The world never really feels larger than the one building, even as people other than the leads come in and out. That's important, because Shrew's Nest takes place in a place where other people live. Misery was in the middle of nowhere, but Montse doesn't have that sort of luxury, and neither do the filmmakers. This building – and really just the one apartment – needs to feel like the entire world, and it succeeds in that respect.  In fact, it succeeds in pretty much every respect. The minor issues I had ultimately don't matter, and as I think back on it, I barely even remember what they were. Only the good things stick in my brain, and there are a whole lot of good things. It's well crafted, well acted, well concepted, and well executed. There are some moments that are truly grotesque in the absolute best way, and there are images I'm not going to be able to scrub from my mind for quite some time. With a film like this, that's really all you can want. And Shrew's Nest delivers that and a whole lot more. 
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Shrew's Company
When I was in middle school, we'd periodically have a writer, Jon Land, come and talk to us. He'd talk about writing and life and whatever else. (Honestly, I don't really remember what most of those talks were about, but what...

Review: Summer Camp

Nov 03 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220098:42683:0[/embed] Summer CampDirector: Alberto MariniRating: NRCountry: Spain Summer Camp is sadly not a spiritual successor to the Sleepaway Camp films. Rather, it's a twist (sort of) on the zombie narrative. This is ultimately a zombie film, even if it would like you to think that it's not. After being subjected to some kind of substance, people (and animals) develop a nasty habit of bleeding from the mouth and attacking their fellow citizens (but not their fellow infected). The programmer who introduced the film said that it was a rather mean film, and it's hard to disagree. For a lot of reasons, what is ultimately a black comedy comes off as needlessly cruel to its main characters. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's something to be aware of. In the opening moments, we're told that four camp counselors have gone missing and are probably dead. We're then introduced to four camp counselors, and the film consists mostly of the audience waiting for them to die. And I don't mean "Waiting" as in "COME ON, JUST DIE ALREADY" (though I expect some people did feel that way) but the waiting that comes from knowing how something will turn out but not how it turns out that way. One dies almost immediately, which is fine because he's the worst. Then we follow three mildly more interesting characters as we watch them meet their ends. Watching that, though, is a fairly exhausting proposition, because Summer Camp's cinematography is brain-numbing at times. Shaky cam is everywhere, and during the action sequences, camera motion and rapid editing take the place of coherent choreography. What happened during those scenes? Heck if I know. I generally waited until after the scenes were over and then assessed the damages. "Oh, so she got hit with a rock but he was actually etc. etc." It's not awesome, but I can't say it doesn't make the scenes more tense, at least at first. The confusion inherent in that style fits with the confusion in the sequences, but it can only hold that attention so long. After 10-15 seconds, it just becomes tiresome. Eventually, you need to know who's doing what to whom, and Summer Camp doesn't really give that. It does, however, give a fair amount of blood. If that's what you're looking for, Summer Camp's got you covered. (That's a pun, because people get covered in blood. Get it? Hilarious.) There is some inconsistency in the actual damage caused by weaponry, and characters eventually seem to get over most non-fatal attacks, even if they should be crippling. Then they walk (or limp) around covered in blood but not bleeding out or really in danger of death from wounds. They're still in danger from the zombies and the inevitability of their fates, but it's hard to be truly concerned when some duct tape essentially fixes a drill through the foot. The one thing that really makes Summer Camp stand out is that thing I talked about in the introduction: The Resident Evil 4 thing, the Spanish thing. Even though it's a Spanish movie, most of the film takes place in English. It's set at an English-language immersion camp, and as such, the group is made of native English speakers. Even so, I assumed that any Spanish dialogue would be translated, because that just seemed like an appropriate thing to do. But no. The first time someone spoke it, for just a moment I thought it might have been a mistake. Maybe he was mumbling or another character was going to translate it and we were supposed to be in the dark in the meantime... but no. We just don't get to know. The characters' lack of knowledge is actually pretty fundamental to the plot, though. Like me, they recognize specific words or phrases but can't communicate in any meaningful way. And because of that, people die and signals for help get misunderstood. It's actually pretty awesome in a twisted sort of way. And I imagine knowing Spanish would completely undermine its effect. But if, like me, you only speak English, you'll get a harsh but interesting lesson in why multi-culturalism is so important in our increasingly globalized world. So ultimately I'm conflicted about Summer Camp. It does one thing really, really right (for a specific audience), but much of it is just kind of generic. It's got jump scares aplenty, some decent laughs, and plenty of groans, but not really moreso than any other horror black comedy out there. It's kind of generic but with one gimmick, and that gimmick serves to make it stand out just enough to be worthy of your consideration and perhaps even your time.
Summer Camp Review photo
More like bummer camp, am I right?
In Resident Evil 4, Leon S. Kennedy is dropped in a Spanish village. He's an all-American hero (by way of Japan), but his enemies don't speak his language. The characters talk, but they speak Spanish.  To a Spanish speak...

Review: Attack on Titan

Oct 29 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220069:42671:0[/embed] Attack on Titan: Parts 1 & 2Director: Shinji HiguchiRated: NRRelease Date: October 20, 22, and 27th, 2015 (limited) Attack on Titan (split into two 90 minute parts released a few months from one another) is the story of a small walled off city that's constantly being attacked by giant, grotesque man eating monsters known as the Titans. After a surprise attack leaves their city devastated, two boys, named Eren (Hamura Miura) and Armin (Kanata Hongo), join the military in order to fight them. Also, their friend Mikasa (Kiko Mizuhara), who was once thought to be eaten before being saved by super soldier Shikishima (Hiroki Hasegawa), is also there and very angsty. Then follows are soldier on titan fights, titan on titan fights, and lots of poorly conceived military conspiracy intrigue. I don't have a lot of experience with the original comics, but that's okay since the two films are their own entity and venture into different paths than the stories fans may be familiar with. The stories of the films have to end, after all, and who knows when the comics will do the same.  The first thing you'll notice about Attack on Titan is how great it all looks. Part 1 opens spectacularly as the initial titan attack is well storyboarded and the action flows well from scene to scene. It gives the titans an appropriate horrific weight despite how ridiculous some of them look. Rather than choose to go CG (the terrible green screen actions scenes later in the films notwithstanding), the titans are all people in body skin suits akin to Toho's Godzilla or a very gloomy episode of the Power Rangers. You'd figure it was a low budget shortcut, but it works. Thanks to using actual actors, we're given a chance to sink in to the titans' emotions rather than be distracted by the film's spotty CG. It's just that nothing in these films ever looks as good as the opening scene again.  I'd be willing to forgive the wonky effects had the rest of the film worked, but sadly that's also a problem. I'm not sure what's to blame here. Whether the two films are victims of adaptation, translation, or even the property's fandom, but nothing in the two films makes any sense. Although the film chooses to create its own narrative, it still bases some of the films' bigger scenes on scenes from the comics. But the problem with cherry picking key scenes in order to please its fans, is that without adapting the rest of the story those scenes won't make sense. It's also thanks to the films' short runtimes that everything moves at too brisk a pace to keep up with or even care about in the slightest. Like Eren, for instance. First he's got this plot about wanting to escape from the walls, to suddenly pulling an Ultraman and becoming a giant himself, to suddenly hatching a plot to blow up the walls with a discarded H-bomb. And within all of that, he's still got Mikasa's random angst to deal with. No character is developed well enough, and there're so many that none of them have any chance to leave a lasting impression.  The biggest flaw with either of these films was I couldn't really separate the two from one another. I initially wanted to review each part much akin to Hollywood films like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter, but neither part was substantial enough to warrant its own discussion. It only seemed fair to the film to just take it all in as one entity since the majority of the plot and backstory waits in part two, while the visual budget was clearly all exhausted back in part one. I'm not sure how these films were shot, but it's clear that by the end of part two, they had pretty much used all the money at their disposal. The film's big finale looked absolutely ridiculous. And since there isn't any real narrative reason to stay invested, it's all just a wash. At least the acting was good. I didn't personally note any bad performances, and even if an actor was chewing the scenery, they all tried their best. Bringing it back around to my Titanic metaphor earlier, it's like the cast was the string quartet composing a soundtrack for their imminent doom.  But at the end of the day, I understand the film isn't for me. But it really isn't for fans of the Attack on Titan series either. In fact, it may even be more of a detriment to the fandom itself. It's a hollow adaptation that only chooses particular moments from the story in order to manipulate the fans. They want the fans to go out and see the film, talk about seeing their favorite anime/comic scene in live action and hope those same fans ignore everything else.  A fan's worst nightmare is to see their favorite stories and characters wrung through an unrecognizable filter, and that's exactly what Attack on Titan is. I don't think that's the kind of horror the film wanted to embody. 
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Sinking ship
Much like how you'll see films based on comics like Marvel's Avengers or DC's Dark Knight Trilogy, manga comics get a huge following back in Japan they don't get here domestically. One of the biggest releases from the last fe...

Review: Knock Knock

Oct 23 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220064:42670:0[/embed] Knock KnockDirectors: Eli RothRated: RRelease Date: October 9th, 2015 (in theaters and VOD) Knock Knock stars Keanu Reeves as Evan Webber, a family man with a loving wife and two kids. When his family goes away for the weekend, two girls Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas) suddenly show up in the middle of the night asking for help. After seducing Evan, he ends up sleeping with them. But after he wakes up the next day, Evan realizes the two girls have some sinister motives. And that's pretty much it. The best thrillers can mine even the thinnest premises for good character work or story material, but that all hinges on whether or not the film has a strong written frame to build on. Unfortunately for all of us, Knock Knock is basically written like a film student's first draft hastily put together two hours before the assignment was due.  Don't get me wrong, I can accept bad dialogue in a horror/thriller because it's usually in service of a greater goal. Maybe the film's intentionally bad or its wackier elements help bring levity to the potentially gruesome nature of the genre, but there isn't just bad dialogue here. The entire package is crafted terribly. From how long it takes to actually get the story moving as the girls don't show up until a third into the film (thus making the terribly written and acted family scenes feel much longer and awkward), to the fact that Evan literally has to sleep with the girls to get to the core of the drama, to how many times it resorts to "crazy bitch!" whenever characters are under duress, to the girls' nonsensical motivations (half revenge, half complete banality), to Evan being a former DJ for some reason, and finally for weirdly off putting lines like "Bitch, you're barking up the wrong f**king tree! I'm from Oakland, hoe! I know two ghetto ass hoes when I see them!" Yeah, that's definitely a thing someone says in the movie. That line somehow made it through numerous edits, drafts, and cuts into the final product. I bet whoever wrote this line did one of those fist pumps to celebrate how clever he was.  I could write about how terribly everything was put together all day, but to get to the core of my issues with Knock Knock I need to do something I've never done in one of my reviews before. I have to outright spoil one of the key plot points of the film because it's something I desperately want to tell you about. I'm sorry if you were still somehow interested in the film after reading thus far, but I promise I'll keep the spoilers limited to this chunk of the review. Okay, so you know why the girls are invading houses and having sex with men in order to humiliate them and ruin their lives? Because men are monsters. There's a hint at some child abuse (which also compounds yet another horribly conceived "idea" on top of this garbage heap), but we're just supposed to believe that these two girls are going around messing with dudes as some kind of misappropriation of the "femme fatale" concept. Sex as a weapon can be fine in media, but if the justification for its use is just so that same character can "trap" a man, it's completely backwards thinking and singlehandedly sets back all of the good work women have done in media I would've accepted these extremely thin motivations had there been actual depth with the two girls, but their actions far exceed the range of their revenge. And Knock Knock goes out of its way multiple times to remove any sense of sympathy or even desire to exist from the characters entirely.  When Evan threatens to call the police, the two girls threaten to send him to prison with cries of not just rape, but statutory rape. Thus adding yet another mysogynistic reason this film is really just for older dudes unhappy with their marriages. In fact, Knock Knock's death knell is a speech Reeves gives that somehow sets his own career back a few years. You could hear his soul dying a little bit when he says, I kid you not, "You f**ked me! You came to me! You wanted it, you came on to me!...It was free pizza! Free f**king pizza! What was I supposed to do?!?"  Sure Knock Knock has one or two moments where all of its badness coalesces into a surprisingly humorous bit, as every film gets one regardless of how bad it truly is, but nothing is good enough to warrant wading through the rest of it. Knock Knock isn't just an embarrassment for all involved, but for the first time, Keanu Reeves looked like he was genuinely phoning it in. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but I was almost enamored by how much Reeves was trying to distance himself from the character. He gets bad dialogue and weird movies all the time, but he usually can transcend the material thanks to his effort. And the saddest thing is this is coming after one of his biggest triumphs in the last few years, John Wick, which was also a film caught in this very situation. It was too a film full of cheesy dialogue and clunky writing work, but he made it something special.  Knock Knock is such a worthless heap of garbage, not even Keanu Reeves wanted to try to save it. If Keanu Reeves didn't deem this worthy, why should we? This review is more attention than this film deserves, and I can't wait until this fades from memory. 
Knock Knock Review photo
Who's there? Garbage
Keanu Reeves is a treasure. Thanks to his genuine love of the craft, I'm always willing to see whatever he decides to be a part of. No matter the project he always gives as much effort as possible, sometimes even elevating th...

Review: The Last Witch Hunter

Oct 23 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219379:42358:0[/embed] The Last Witch HunterDirector: Breck EisnerRelease Date: October 23, 2015Rating: PG-13  The best moment in The Last Witch Hunter comes less than ten minutes in. It's a small thing, when Vin Diesel acknowledges a child in the middle of some intense supernatural setpiece. It's badass, and it's funny – intentionally so. It's the only moment in the movie that I look back on with legitimate fondness. Because it's all downhill from there.  For reasons that don't matter, Vin Diesel is immortal, and because he is immortal, he has taken on the role of The Last Witch Hunter. He's basically a beat cop, and his beat is the supernatural. Witches do things, and he comes and gets them. Maybe they're arrested, or maybe they're executed (they're not executed). But the people around him aren't immortal. Like Michael Caine, for example, who Vin Diesel refers to as "kid" (which is the second best thing about the film). Michael Caine is a priest of some sort, and his job is to basically watch the Watchman. He writes down the oral history of the deeds and the life. I wonder how interesting those stories are. If this is what the writers thought was the story that needed to be told, well... maybe his life's been pretty boring. I'm not the first person to say this, and I won't be the last, but the cardinal sin of a bad movie is being boring. If you're going to be bad, at least be entertaining. If I look at my watch during a schlocky movie, that's a bad sign. If I look at my watch knowing full well that my batteries are dead, that's an awful one.  I wanted to like the movie, at least a little bit. I mean, heck, I kinda did like it a little bit. I was bored, but I wasn't angry. I get angry at movies sometimes, but this wasn't one of them. I felt more or less indifferent, which is also bad... but less so. The Last Witch Hunter's biggest failing is literally every single aspect of it. The acting is bad (although Rose Leslie does a decent job considering what she's got (unless they were trying to make her a Vin Diesel love interest, in which case that was horrifying)), the writing is bad, the CGI is garbage, the action scenes are among the worst I've seen in years, and it's just like... why? What was the purpose of this movie? I legitimately and honestly wonder that, because some part of me hears the name Vin Diesel: Witch Hunter and gets excited by the prospect. Because it sounds pretty awesome. Like, in a bad way, but awesome. And it's just disappointing that the film isn't that. But there's just something about it that kept me from actively disliking The Last Witch Hunter, and I've been trying (and failing) to figure out what it is. But what makes it more frustrating is that I don't care enough to figure out why. My job as a critic is to be able to answer these questions (or at least pose more interesting ones), and I really can't do my job here. Aside from a few moments here and there, there's not a whole lot to redeem The Last Witch Hunter, but I also wouldn't call it a "bad film." Perhaps it's because there's nothing to really damn it either? No scene in the movie goes so far off the rails as to be anything more than eye-roll worthy. I can't bring myself to actively dislike it because it's just... there. This movie is more bad than good, but the reality is that it's just painfully average. Maybe average plus. But if you asked me where the plus came from (which you implicitly did by clicking on this review), I honestly couldn't tell you. Sorry. About ten minutes before the film ended, I thought: "Oh how cute! It thinks it's going to get a sequel!" Many films like this throw a last-minute twist in there that sets up a sequel. This devotes a whole bunch of time to it. The final climactic battle is shorter than the setup for a sequel that this film will never get. That's some serious prioritization failure right there. But some part of me also wishes that there was going to be a sequel... not because it would have been good, but because maybe it could have been more bad. Good bad. It could have been the thing that this promised to be with its premise but was not.  We're not going to get that. There is no way this film is anything but a colossal failure at the box office. And if I'm wrong? Well... I'll be shocked and possibly hopeful that the second movie will try a little bit harder to make something fun. But it's a moot point, because yeah... no one's gonna go see this thing. And really, they shouldn't. 
The Last Witch Hunter photo
A thing I have seen
There are movies that you know you will like before you see them. You'll hear the premise and it'll grab you. You don't need to see a trailer or read a synopsis. All you need to know is a few key words, the ones that get you ...

Review: Jem and the Holograms

Oct 23 // Matthew Razak
[embed]220058:42666:0[/embed] Jem and the HologramsDirector: Jon M. ChuRated: PGRelease Date: October 23, 2015 What I want to believe is that Jem and the Holograms is really an incredibly smart meta film about our current culture and it's emotional immaturity caused by split second reactions on social media. I want to believe that so badly, but more likely it's just a incredibly sloppy screenplay and forced direction that takes what could have been a decent story and turns it into the worst mish-mash of story lines since the original Casino Royale (that film at least works as camp). We meet Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples), a painfully shy teenager, and her sisters: Kimber (Stefanie Scott), Shana (Aurora Perrineau) and Aja (Hayley Kiyoko). A musically talented group, they live with their mother (Molly Ringwald). When Jerrica records herself singing a song and Kimber uploads it to the Internet it goes viral overnight and big time record producer Erica Raymond (Julliette Lewis) steps in to sign Jerrica, now known as Jem, to a record deal. Of course becoming big and famous leads to terribly traumatic events over the next month (yes, only a month) and soon everything starts falling apart even though Jem is falling for the totally dreamy son of Erica, Rio (Ryan Guzman). Also, there's a toy robot that Jem's father made sending her on a secret quest. You know, because the plot wasn't random enough. At first glance one may think that the cliche plot and groan worthy moments -- such as the four girls and Rio kicking into a random sing along after committing a crime -- are intentional. The film makes heavy use of social media and maybe a commentary on the web's short attention span is why they've condensed the normal "band gets together/band falls apart" into only a month of time. Characters go from best friends to mortal enemies to apologizing to each other in the span of an hour. It is the most ludicrously paced and plotted film I've seen in a long while and I kept telling myself it had to be intentional; it had to be a social commentary of some sort. But it isn't because it never makes a point. Jem and her sisters never turn to the camera and admit they're just terrible people. The movie is just plain bad. The plot careens from one random occurrence to another attempting to show... something. Instead it just fulfills cliches. A bunch of privileged teenagers struggle with their inability to get along for a single month. One month! That's all it takes for Jem to fall apart at the hands of all the pressure she's feeling by being torn into two personas (Jem and Jerrica) and getting lots of money. It would be infuriating if it wasn't so laughable. Every time the movie even attempts to make an emotional connection between characters it feels feeble and pointless since Jem and her sister's emotions are about as stable as a table with uneven legs.  Maybe all that would have been OK for Jon M. Chu had directed the movie with any panache at all. Instead it feels like he's bored with it and just checking off every request from the studio for a movie that will appeal to teens. Instead of playing up the camp -- aside from a single (and fantastic) teaser at the end -- Chu takes his bi-polar characters far too seriously. More importantly, the man responsible for making dance movies fun with his stellar direction of dance numbers can't seem to direct his way through a single musical sequence in this film. The entire thing is sloppy and devoid of any tone. Chu could have at least put in a few scenes of the band working together or something to make it feel like times is passing, but instead he wastes the almost two hour (!) running time on repeating the same scene over and over. We get it. Jem and Jerrica are two different people. When a Saturday morning cartoon involving a woman literally projecting a different person on top of herself handles this metaphor better than you do then you've got serious problems. Throw in a strange plot line about Jem's father and the mystical robot Synergy, that was clearly just added to appeal to fans of the cartoon, and you've got a mess no director could piece together, but that Chu does a horrifically bad job of.  It's all too bad because somewhere in there is a movie that could have worked. The hints at camp are there during some of the more ridiculous parts, the musical numbers could have worked with a bit more effort, and with just a bit of ironing out and trimming down the film could have felt like something mattered. Chu even uses a neat trick by inter-cutting YouTube musician's music and videos into the movie as a sort of soundtrack. Unfortunately instead of being innovative it feels forced and tacky like the rest of the film. Eventually they even use YouTuber's videos talking about the influence of the Jem cartoon on them to make it appear they're talking about the life changing film Jem. Again, this all takes place over the matter of a month.  Jem and the Holograms is a mess. It's confusing and directionless and by trying to appeal to everyone appeals to no one. Somewhere, buried deep within this film, is a cult classic that cries to be let out right at the end, but was lost at some point between shoving in a robot mystery and forcing a creepy romance between a possibly underage teen and a college intern.   
Jem photo
Truly, truly outrageously terrible
I have memories of the 80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms. They aren't fond and they aren't bad, they just are. A movie based on the show didn't really get me excited in that way that most nostalgia does, but I could see how i...

Review: Steve Jobs

Oct 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219839:42637:0[/embed] Steve JobsDirector: Danny BoyleRating: RRelease Date: October 9, 2015 (limited); October 23, 2015 (wide) Even though he was an ideal public persona for Apple products, Steve Jobs was not a good person behind the scenes. There are numerous examples of Steve Jobs being a giant jerk, and the Steve Jobs of the film played by Michael Fassbender is superbly unrepentant. Before the launch of the original Macintosh computer, Steve throws tantrums. He's abusive to his staff, and he continues to avoid his financial and personal responsibilities to his daughter Lisa and her mother. (He's only 94.1% likely to be Lisa's father, he keeps pointing out.) Steve Jobs was a self-centered prick, a long-view Machiavellian entrenched in the tech industry, and there are times in this film that he verges on pure supervillainy. But he was also a savvy businessman. Based on this performance, you know who would make a great Lex Luthor? Michael Fassbender. (Also, Steve Jobs.) With some historical figures, we ponder the link between madness and genius. With Steve Jobs it's maybe more a question of morality and genius. The big conversation that the film wants to provoke is whether Steve Jobs could have been successful if he weren't such a raging douchebag. There's a pivotal argument in the third act with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who calls Jobs out for all of his persistent moral shortcomings. Fassbender plays Steve Jobs as this ethically challenged, emotionally unmoored figure, and the rest of the cast helps make this work by playing moral counterpoint for the wretch. Picture people holding down a hot air balloon with rope. The task is to keep this thing grounded as much as possible. Rogen's Wozniak is one of these people, and he's mainly seeking recognition for his hard work. There's also steady and loyal Andy Hertzfeld played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and a warmly paternal Jeff Daniels as former Pepsi and Apple CEO John Sculley. The most set upon moral figure in the film, though, is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). She's portrayed as a kind of power-personal assistant to Steve Jobs, though her marketing roles at Apple and NeXT were probably far different. Ditto her overall career trajectory. Hoffman apparently retired in 1995, years before the iMac launch, though she's at Jobs' side in the film in each act. This deviation makes sense for the sake of the screenplay, which requires a character as morally resolute as Jobs is morally aloof. In real life, Hoffman was considered the person who was best able to stand up to Jobs, and that kind of figure--the immovable moral object to Steve Job's unstoppable narcissistic force--is necessary in this particular type of story. Winslet disappears into the role. I didn't even realize it was her until the second act of Steve Jobs. Many of the best scenes involve Winslet verbally grappling with Fassbender. There are Sorkin-isms throughout the briskly paced Steve Jobs (e.g., the walk-and-talks, the trivia, the impeccable ripostes), and Boyle does a good job of differentiating the look and feel of each section of the film. The world of 1984 is shot in a grainy 16mm, for instance. The film's acts were shot independently, which allowed the actors to tailor their performances to each year before reconsidering their character for the next. Certain gags or lines or ticks in a performance call back to others. As strong as Steve Jobs is for its first two-thirds, it gets a little soft by 1998. I don't know if it's the Hollywood aspect (or Danny Boyle) shining through at this point, but the movie begins making these overtures of Steve Jobs' redemption, all with a heavy dose of crowd-pleasing schmaltz. I didn't buy any of it. A cringeworthy cutesiness also creeps into the iMac section of the movie. Here and there, Steve critiques the limitations of 1990s technology and hints at 21st century Apple products, as if we're watching a winky retroactive commercial. The lines are clunkers when they come, and one of them is a total eyeroller. It doesn't help that I'd been rolling my eyes at the triumphalism that the movie takes on in the final act even as elements of the script do its best to keep the man and the story on the ground. The argument between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak I mentioned earlier offers a great encapsulation of the film's underlying concerns. And sure, while the story chronicles one man's ability to overcome years of failure, Steve Jobs does this mostly by screwing over other people. During the NeXT section of the film, Jobs calls it "playing the orchestra." In real life, most people call it "being a dick." In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge has his three visions, wakes up in the morning, and reforms. In Steve Jobs, there are three products and a hint of a better Steve Jobs in the future. Bah humbug. In real life, Steve Jobs woke up after the iMac was released and was still Steve Jobs.
Review: Steve Jobs photo
A better way to do a biopic about a jerk
I was texting a friend about Steve Jobs over the weekend, the new biopic written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle. Sorkin thankfully avoided the birth-to-death biopic that we've all seen and grown tired of by now. ...

Review: Experimenter

Oct 16 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219963:42636:0[/embed] ExperimenterDirector: Michael AlmereydaRating: PG-13Release Date:  October 16, 2015 In my review of Steve Jobs, I mentioned how Aaron Sorkin avoided the trap of the traditional biopic by creating a three-act structure. With Experimenter, writer/director Michael Almereyda also avoids the traditional biopic, in this case by treating his film like a kind of posthumous memoir. Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) goes about his life, but he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera with some commentary. Milgram also provides narration throughout the film, a kind of guided tour through his own life, or maybe through a fictional journal he kept in the afterlife. Though not identical, Experimenter reminded me at times of the Harvey Pekar movie American Splendor. The Milgram of the movie even gets to see a fictionalized version of himself on a TV shoot. Experimenter has moments of visual whimsy as well. When noting the links between his shock experiments and the rise of Nazism, an elephant stalks behind him in the hall. Backgrounds are sometimes projected onto a screen, which give a few moments the chintzy feel of a made-for-TV movie as well as a theatrical flair. A lot of Experimenter feels as if it could have been done on stage. I'm still note sure if the whimsy is justified--justifying whimsy makes me sound like a killjoy--but it keeps Experimenter visually interesting even if whimsy is just some play with the biopic form. The idea of deception is key in the ethical discussions about Milgram's shock experiments, so that may also be a loose justification for all the meta material and artifice. Since his breakthrough in Boys Don't Cry, Sarsgaard has been one of America's most reliably good and yet underrated actors. Even when the role isn't that great, Sarsgaard has a knack for at least making it work. As Milgram, Sarsgaard provides a sense of scientific remove. The delivery is clinical yet ruminative, as if every few lines should be followed by a curious hum. Winona Ryder plays his wife, Sasha, and though never given a lot to do in the film, she's solid with what she's given. The same could be said of the rest of the cast, which is filled with other recognizable character actors and that-guy/that-gal performers, like comedian Jim Gaffigan, Dennis Haysbert, Taryn Manning, Anthony Edwards, and John Leguizamo. The first third of Experimenter is centered on the shock experiments and meeting Sasha, and the eventual fallout of the experiments in terms of Milgram's career. His methods are questioned since they are dependent on an ethical breech, but the film's concern isn't just the moral issue of the experiment or the ethical conundrums of Milgram's methods. It branches outward, showing Milgram's other work as a social psychologist and contributions to his area of study and pop culture. One of Milgram's other experiments, briefly depicted, involved how we're all roughly six degrees of separation from one another--it's from Milgram that we got that phrase. If Experimenter falters, it's because it loses focus and a sense of momentum after the shock experiments are over, which might mirror the public interest in Milgram's post-shock work. We follow Milgram as he grows facial hair and as fashions change, but there's not necessarily an underlying thesis to latch onto, or a neatly shaped narrative to this take on Milgram's life. At a certain point, I was watching mostly for Sarsgaard, who held my interest like he usually does. Maybe Experimenter is a little too clinical and too removed from the urgent human stuff. There's an overarching sense about moral obligations to help others, and a fundamental interconnectedness about humanity that should make us feel less alone in the world. And yet instead of feeling moved emotionally, I was swayed intellectually. It's the sensation of hearing someone say something intelligent and showing assent with a hum.
Review: Experimenter photo
Stanley Milgram's noble experiment
If you've taken an Intro to Psychology class, you've heard about Stanley Milgram. His most famous experiments involved obedience and how normal people succumb to the effects of authority. The set up: Subject A is asked to tes...

Review: Crimson Peak

Oct 16 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219445:42381:0[/embed] Crimson PeakDirector: Guillermo del ToroRelease Date: October 16, 2015Rating: R  Here is a brief synopsis of the movie I thought I was going to see: Blonde girl falls in love with Tom Hiddleston (and, I mean, who wouldn't?), who lives in a creepy haunted house with creepy ghosts. All kinds of strange things happen, and ultimately we find out that Tom Hiddleston and his creepy sister are actually dead/supposed to be dead but is being kept alive by this house and are confined by these ghosts or something. Terror ensues and probably bloodshed also. Based on the way the trailer is edited, all of this is crystal clear. Spoiler alert. Nope.  I got a few things right: blonde girl, Tom Hiddleston, creepy ghosts, bloodshed. So... the imagery. I was able to see those four things and think, "Yes. I recognize that." But the actual narrative? Not even close. And I tell you all of this because there's a fairly decent chance you are expecting the same thing. And even if you weren't expecting that, you were likely expecting a scary ghost story about scary ghosts. And once again you will be wrong. Because it's not a ghost story. It's a story with ghosts in it.  It's kinda funny, really, because something like ten minutes in, Crimson Peak tells you exactly what it's going to be. You see, Edith is a would-be novelist. She says that she wants to be the next Mary Shelley. She shows her manuscript to someone, who asks about the ghosts. She says it's not a ghost story; it's a story with ghosts; the ghosts are a metaphor. He tells her it needs a love story. And so that's what we really get: a love story with ghosts that are a metaphor. If that sounds good to you, then you may well enjoy Crimson Peak. If it doesn't, you should skip it. I found myself somewhere in between. The narrative is pretty flat and the characters kinda bland, but I will admit that there was an upside to the false marketing: I legitimately didn't know what was coming next. The reality is both more and less interesting than what I was expecting, but the surprise in and of itself is... something. It's certainly not amazing, but it's something. It's worth noting here that the audience laughed a number of times during my screening. At least a half dozen moments elicited not just one or two chuckles but actual laughter. I've discussed this with a couple of others who've seen it, and though some people think those laughs were intentional I don't. If I had been watching it on my own, I would have laughed... once? It was all very serious, even things that were fairly easy to laugh at. There's no humor in the whole thing, and while that can be funny in and of itself, there's no hint here that it's anything but serious. It's just drama all the damn time. It's hard to know actual intent without asking, but I'll say this: If it was supposed to be funny, it half-succeeded at best. You need to surrender to the melodrama. Or, you can just pay attention to the visuals. Because while I can rip apart the film's concept and execution, its production design is unimpeachable. This is a gorgeous movie through and through (with the exception of a single outdoor scene early on in a sunny park that has some seriously weird coloring choices; also, some of the ghosts are a bit too CG for my liking). As soon as they reach Crimson Peak itself, you're in for nothing but amazing visual after amazing visual. And it's really this that kept the film going for me. I was lukewarm at best on pretty much everything that the film contains, but holy cow do I love the way it looks. That adds at least 10 points to my final score and brings it from a "meh" to "ya know, consider it." Just be sure to temper your expectations.
Crimson Peak Review photo
Great Expectations
The best piece of advice I ever got about writing film criticism was this: "Don't write about what the film isn't." Going for long tangents about What Could Have Been doesn't do any of us any good. Let's talk about what the f...

Review: Bridge of Spies

Oct 15 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219841:42639:0[/embed] Bridge of SpiesDirector: Steven SpielbergRating: PG-13Release Date: October 16, 2015 Based on a true story, Bridge of Spies centers on James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer in Brooklyn who's asked to defend Colonel Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is a suspected Russian spy, and the film opens on him as he goes about his daily routine. He's a good artist, though he uses his talents as subterfuge in order to get around the city and receive messages from his superiors. The opening minutes of the film are without dialogue, and showcase some nice bits of spycraft. Rylance remains stonefaced but vigilant. Donovan's expected to deliver a mere token defense for Abel. He's a speed bump en route to a commie's execution. Donovan's a principled litigator, however, and he wants to extend Constitutional protections to the captured spy. Donovan even urges the judge to avoid the death penalty. A spy of Abel's caliber--Donovan constantly refers to him as "a good soldier"--would be a worthwhile bargaining chip if the US ever had to negotiate with the Soviets. Donovan's neighbors and colleagues begin to turn on him for taking a stand. Casting Tom Hanks as Donovan is a given. There's an innate trustworthiness about Hanks' screen presence, and he exudes the kind of everyman likability you'd expect out of your favorite friend or neighbor. At a party, people may ask when Tom's showing up. Since the early 90s, Hanks has become the go-to common-man good-guy in the mold of Jimmy Stewart; if Bridge of Spies were made decades ago, Stewart would probably play Donovan. (Okay, maybe not. If it were made decades ago the entire crew would be blacklisted and seated before a HUAC hearing.) Then there's Mark Rylance as Colonel Abel. His performance is all about the poker face. Colonel Abel's low-key and could pass as a plain old man, but to the intelligence community, they know what's up. He plays so dumb that he's obviously got a lot secrets. There's a lot to read into Hanks' and Rylance's performances when they share the screen together--what's being said and not said, what they're saying with looks--but there's also a kind of mutual respect; not just something lawyer-client based but an admiration for such staunch resoluteness. Bridge of Spies switches from a courtroom drama to small-scale espionage movie for the last half or two-thirds. US government sends Donovan to negotiate the release of a US soldier named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) who's being held by the Soviets. Good thing Donovan fought so hard to keep his chip from the chair. And so we go from Brooklyn to Berlin, where the wall has just gone up and a clash between Soviet and East German interests might complicate the deal that Donovan has been sent to broker. Bridge of Spies tries to braid in two additional threads of narrative over the Donovan-driven and Abel-driven dramas. It's here that some seams become visible--it's easy to spot seams in an otherwise handsome film. Powers' mission helps get across the amount of spying going on between the US and Russia, and it culminates in a daring set piece involving a spy plane, but it doesn't quite flow with the legal drama unfolding on the ground. At least it has some creative smash cuts and cross cuts. The film gets much clunkier as we introduce the other thread involving an economics student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who's suspected of being an American spy in East Germany. It's introduced and dropped as a narrative expedient--a story for the main story but not a story on its own. It's almost like a stray movie lost in the bigger one, and some of the brief drama involving Pryor and his girlfriend are never touched on again. Even with the seams and loose threads, Bridge of Spies is steadily carried by Hanks' amiability and Spielberg and his craft. Once we're back with Donovan, the film regains its footing (and handsomeness). I sense some audiences might be put off by the film's high-mindedness. Conservatives in particular may take issue with Donovan's heroic idealism even if it's so earnestly American. There's one speech Donovan makes before the Supreme Court that's Capraesque bordering on cloying. Even if taken directly from a transcript, the speech seems like it's directed at a contemporary audience rather than the Justices of the 1950s. Donovan speaks about the heart of the country and the fundaments of the Constitution and how it ought to be applied even to America's enemies. The contemporary read is not about Soviets but soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq who are detained in Guantanamo. Spielberg even seems to offer an indictment of prisoner abuse by contrasting Powers in a Soviet prison with Abel in an American one. The appeal is clear and you don't even have to look that hard--we're Americans, and we should be good even to our enemies. This kind of black-and-white appeal to good old-fashioned American decency works in movies since it's about an abstraction of Jimmy Stewart America or Gregory Peck America--a kind of aspirational Platonic form of what people in America can strive to be. (Ronald Reagan's America is probably more pervasive. Make of that what you will.) In that way, Bridge of Spies shares some Constitutional connective tissue with Amistad and Lincoln, while also being a kind of post-war counterpart to Saving Private Ryan--it's a mission to bring our boys home. It's hokey, but the takeaway is to be the best the country has to offer, or at least to try. If that corny idealism isn't good old-fashioned American decency, I don't know what is.
Review: Bridge of Spies photo
When Spielbergian goes Capraesque
Watching Bridge of Spies, I realized almost immediately the difference between a beautiful film and a handsome film. Steven Spielberg's latest movie is handsome. It's cleanly shot, polished, glossy, with impeccable acting in ...

Review: The Forbidden Room

Oct 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219842:42634:0[/embed] The Forbidden RoomDirectors: Guy Maddin and Evan JohnsonRating: NRRelease Date: October 7, 2015 (limited)Country: Canada  The Forbidden Room is a movie parody made of multiple movies tossed together, all in the form of an out-of-control lucid dream. There's a submarine thriller in which doomed seamen are running out of air and must figure out how to surface without blowing up. (They're hauling explosive jelly, you see.) One of the crewmen, coming out from a portal in the sub, is also a woodsman from another movie who's on a hypermasculine quest to save a woman from a group of rough and tumble feral group of cave dwellers. (Goofy feats of strength ensue.) But then we're on an island with an active volcano, and then we're experiencing the dream of a dying man's mustache, and then we're in a nightclub talking about Filipino vampires, and then we back and the sub, and then we're on a train, and then we're on a farm; and then, and then, and then. The breathless way an excited child tells a story--always, and then. Oh, also the poet John Ashbery shows up periodically in The Forbidden Room for a quirky educational film on how you're supposed to take a bath. "Hoo boy. Who's the wiseguy who put all the peyote buttons in the mulligan stew?" With so much talk of "the molten dream" in the film, it's as if we're experiencing the dream of the volcano, or that the lava from this volcano is comprised of all these stories joined together from the stuff that comprises the ground; a mingling of film history and the collective unconscious. ("Hey! Who's the mook that put the metaphorical lava in the mulligan stew?") We may simply be walking through a series of half-formed ideas in Maddin's head. Moments of The Forbidden Room reminded me of listening to friends describe their dreams, and admittedly there were times in the film where inattention set in--sometimes a dream goes on too long that's unengaging--but I would be snapped back into the molten dream by a shift in the narrative. It's as if the adult mind is at odds with the child mind of the movie. In the former, the need to explore an idea to its deeper intellectual and aesthetic ends. In the latter, the rush of the enthused conjunction "and then" until the end of the story arrives. Both, however, wind up being discursive, and the further we get from the sub and its confined spaces and singular focus, the stranger and better things get. (Did I mention the doomed submarine crew eats flapjacks for oxygen because of the air pockets?) Maddin's films tend to have a hand-made, analog quality to them, like My Winnipeg or Brand Upon the Brain. As sumptuous as the colors are in The Forbidden Room, it often doesn't feel handmade or old-timey. That due to the digital cinematography and color manipulation. The grainy "silent film look" was done in post, and it can be inconsistent, even from shot to shot in the same segment. The distortions on the images similarly have a digital sheen, as one image morphs into the next; there are even digital snowflakes at one point, and I never realized how much I longed for the fake stuff shaken out of a box from above the frame. While I don't mind digital cameras, there's something about the look of the film that took me out of its attempt at creating a vivid and continuous dream made of old movies. I also sensed a certain lack of distinction from certain movies to the next, which may have been a result of the digital shooting. The Ashbery educational film certainly look different from the sub movie, but at times the side movies seem to meld into each other--flavors blending together in the pot, multiple rocks now just a single lava flow. In some instances it's fine since characters, actors, and flapjacks crisscross through the different subfilms of the main film. One of my favorite stretches of The Forbidden Room involved a murder and the dream of a mustache and the diary of a madman since the sections were so distinctly severed. Then again, this bit was neatly nested rather than molten, and I wonder if that says more about my taste than anything else. For Maddin's fans, The Forbidden Room should feel comfy and maddening at once, and there's a lot to pick apart in this bowl of mulligan stew. Newcomers to Maddin might want to start with My Winnipeg and move on from there. Best to start in shallow and warm waters before jumping into an active volcano.
The Forbidden Room review photo
Dreaming the winding, molten dream
Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room has been described as a series of nested movies, but I don't think that description is accurate. "Nested" seems more about neat structure to me, the way that Matryoshka dolls fit neatly (or nea...

Review: Junun

Oct 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219966:42655:0[/embed] JununDirector: Paul Thomas AndersonRating: NRRelease Date: October 9, 2015 (MUBI) Junun is all about the music being made, so much so that the filmmaking seems a secondary concern. While multiple angles are covered during the recording sessions, we still see cameras suddenly picked up and repositioned, and get views of the ornately designed ceilings of the fort in the process. It sets the viewer down among the musicians as they perform or just outside the room looking in. There are a few humorous moments, like when a pesky pigeon winds up in the room, and there are moments of downtime when the musicians wait for rolling blackouts to pass. Occasionally Anderson offers a sublime cinematic flourish, like a drone shot of dozens of falcons swirling around the top of the fort as a man tosses them bits of meat. In the sunset and sunrise, Rajasthan looks gorgeous--gold skies, and many of the buildings an inviting blue--and a few times in Junun there are excursions into the bustle of the city itself. Anderson returns continually to the music--and more so the members of the Rajasthan Express and Tzur than Greenwood--blanketing the film in the songs from end to end. The collaborative compositions are mesmerizing, structured on galloping percussion, repetition and variation, and virtuosic touches. It might be a testament to the music that it elevates many of the images that would seem otherwise too much like home movie fare. The falcon shot might be the best marriage of sound and vision, though the music also invigorates plain moments walking the streets or shooting the people of Rajasthan from a tuk-tuk. I caught Junun in the Walter Reade Theater. The music resounded through the space and the seats. It made me wonder how different my experience would have been if I watched it via the VOD service MUBI. Something visceral might be lost from the big screen to the laptop, and unless you've got a really good sound system, it might fail to have the same impact. But Junun is worth a watch, or even just worth a listen, and not because it's a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie. It's more like a Paul Thomas Anderson music recommendation--check these guys out. It might be the first of his movies you can just play in the background.
Review: Junun photo
It's about the music (film is secondary)
How do you review a home movie with a great soundtrack? In a lot of ways that's precisely what Paul Thomas Anderson's Junun is. Anderson shot the footage earlier this year, chronicling a month-long recording session between R...


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