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Review: Hard Sell

May 23 // Rick Lash
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I want to say nice things about this film. That's the feeling I'm left with as I'm watching it. I believe I understand where the Writer/Director, Sean Nalaboff, is coming from. Hard Sell is "a coming-of-age tale ... [abo...

Beauty and the Beast photo
What? You gotta admit it's catchy.
I'm still weirded out by the fact that Disney is making adaptations of their adaptations of famous fairy tales, but so far they've been pretty good or even revolutionary so let's roll with it. The next one up is Bea...

Review: The Angry Birds Movie

May 22 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220589:42956:0[/embed] The Angry Birds MovieDirectors: Clay Kaytis and Fergal ReillyRating: PGRelease Date: May 20, 2016  At the center of The Angry Birds Movie is Red (Jason Sudeikis), a bird with an unchecked anger issue because he's been alone his entire life. He's been separated from the rest of the birds in town until he's forced to spend time in anger management which leads him to his future partners in crime Chuck (Josh Gad) and Bomb (Danny McBride). When a ship full of pigs, led by the sneaky Leonard (Bill Hader), pulls up to bird island claiming to be friendly, Red leaves in search of the legendary hero known as Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage) for help. After shenanigans from the pigs, it's up to Red, Chuck, and Bomb to find the hero and save the island.  Before getting into the nitty gritty, I want to take some time out to comment on how much work went into Angry Birds. It is honestly refreshing to see decent production and time on what seemed like a total cash-in project (from its inception to its last couple of trailers the film reeked of things other than quality) has . The animation is slick, the bird designs have a simple, easy to manipulate geometry (utilizing both hard angles and softer, cutesy spherical shapes), and the cast handles the material as well as they can. Sudeikis has already proved his capacity to lead a film time and time again, and now he can add voice over work to that list. Red's as charming as he needs to be without the script resorting to the same types of "kooky" dialogue the rest of the characters are subjected to. None of the actors come across as phony, with the weakest performance coming from Hader's Leaonard. Then again, even a weak Hader is better than you'd expect so it's a roundabout positive.  Once you get past the bread, you realize there's not a lot of meat on this chicken sandwich. Trying as hard as the visuals might, The Angry Birds Movie simply can't shake off how generic it is. It may not have the luxury of a videogame narrative to adapt, but that doesn't excuse a lot of its choices. While the freedom of a creating a whole universe brings about some neat little oddities differentiating it from other animated films (like anger management having weight in the plot, for example), the same is true for the opposite end of the spectrum. Quite a few quirks and dialogue choices should have been reconsidered. At one point, Angry Birds crosses the line into full-on annoying territory when Chuck and Bomb degenerate into incessant noise making machines for two minutes just so it can get a reaction from its kid audience.  The Angry Birds Movie is at a constant state of flux. Battling between originality and what's easier to write, the film is always holding itself back. In fact, it even takes a hit whenever it has to reference the videogame series. Like when the series' famous slingshot is introduced, it feels forced in. But in that same breath, that very slingshot leads to a well storyboarded climax. So it's an odd toss up between the film's potential audiences. Rather than create a film that's ultimately appealing to the widest demographic possible, you have a film that appeals to folks with select scenes. Some scenes will appeal to the two year olds who like to repeat funny sounds, the three year olds who like gross out humor, the adult who appreciates good animation, or that one parent in my screening who lost his mind the entire time. I'm glad at least that guy had a good time.  I'd hate to end a review with nothing more than an "it could've been worse" sentiment, but honestly that's all I feel about The Angry Birds Movie. It came, it went, it's probably coming back (or at least confident in a sequel enough to promote it during the credits and the extra scene available on mobile phones), and yet it doesn't really deserve any hearty emotions.  The Angry Birds Movie is not terrible enough to earn your rage, but it's not good enough to earn your praise either. A decent outcome from a numerous range of negative potential outcomes earns the film a small victory. 
Angry Birds Review photo
Nothing to get too angry at
With videogame adaptations becoming more common, it was only a matter of time before we would end up in this situation. A videogame popular for its gameplay and mechanics rather than its story would get the big screen treatme...

Review: The Nice Guys

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


Review: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

May 20 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220574:42953:0[/embed] Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising Director: Nicholas StollerRating: RRelease Date: May 20, 2016  A few years after the events of the first film, parents Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are selling their home because they're expecting their next child. But not realizing what they had agreed to, the two end up in escrow. Meaning they have to keep their home buyer friendly for 30 days lest they end owning two homes. At the same time, Shelby (Chloe Grace-Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons), and Nora (Beanie Feldstein) are three college girls who find out sororities aren't allowed to throw parties. Deciding to start a sorority of their own, and with the help of first film antagonist Teddy (Zac Efron), they move in next door to Mac and Kelly. After a series of shenanigans, Mac and Kelly once again find themselves in a prank war against the rowdy college kids next door.  Although Neighbors 2 tries its best to be different, it falls into the same traps most comedy sequels do. Given the nature of comedies in general, with each of them intentionally being a one-off story, all any sequel can do is try and capture what worked before and improve what did not. So if you enjoyed the first film, you might not enjoy this one. Everything's basically the same between the two films and there's not a lot added here to differentiate. There's the same air-bag gag, the same weak jokes about Rogen's body compared to Efron's, and despite poking fun on the mysoginistic voice of the first film, there's the same type of penis jokes. Which means that what it's trying to do thematically, presenting a "feminist" comedy (despite being written by five white men), is already worse for wear. It's hard to take anything seriously when one huge sequence ends with Zac Efron dancing until he shows his privates to a huge crowd.  Even if it doesn't change much of the story elements, Neighbors 2 still does an admirable job in turning the comedy sequel on its head. Simultaneously ridiculing and reveling in the premise, each of the characters have been surprisingly developed. Capitalizing on the character's ages (and further expanding on the "Dad Rogen" type introduced in the first film), there's a slightly compelling emotional current underneath all of the penis jokes. As everyone tries to figure out their identity in the film (whether Mac and Kelly can admit to being bad parents or Zac Efron's Teddy realizing he needs to move forward in life after being stuck in his millenial childlike state), Neighbors 2 touches on a slightly more level headed take on uncertain futures. But sadly this is all in between bursts of juvenile story telling. It's a shame too because when Neighbors 2 does distance itself from standard bro comedy jokes, it's quite refreshing. Despite being a film where terrible people do terrible things to one another, the few moments where it acknowledges the shortcomings are pretty great. Once again, Zac Efron steals the show. Elaborating on the lovable loser story from the first film, Teddy's become even more pathetic as he's basically aged out of the genre. A lot of the jokes in this revolve around how the entire crew would rather be doing something else (down to Mac and Kelly's terrible absentee parenting) and this nihilism is charming in a roundabout way. If you look in a little deeper, it's almost as if the film is telling Zac Efron to go ahead and move on to even bigger roles. It's pretty much time anyway. In that same breath, he's the only one that gets this kind of attention. Every other character is practically window dressing to Teddy's evolution, and it only makes you wish for a film that focused on this theme alone. I want to reward these attempts at new types of humor and themes, but they never quite go anywhere. For example while the sorority in the film is sincere and founded on equal rights ideals, the girls themselves aren't characterized well enough to truly make an impact of any kind. It's impossible for a comedy to accomplish that within 90 minutes, so these ideals feel like an afterthought. It feels like the change from a fraternity to a sorority is more cosmetic and a feminist lead character was only added only to be a plot contrivance to start the whole prank war. In fact, one character in the film literally says the sorority is "untouchable" in order to speed up the extremeness of Mac and Kelly's actions. Neighbors 2 does deserve credit for adding these elements when it could've been just another bro comedy, but it's not enough to acknowledge issues or inherent problems with the bro comedy genre while still trying to utilize the cruder elements of it.  Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising isn't the best film, or the funniest, but it's at least visibly trying to do something different. It's a groundbreaking comedy sequel in that it's not just doing the exact same thing over again for quick money. I mean it is still doing a lot of the same stuff, and while the new ideas aren't explored enough to warrant any kind of real change, the fact there is a refreshing seeming film at the end of the day is pleasant.  The only problem overall is both films just aren't memorable. It's not like you'll be quoting its jokes years later or even remember what happened a week down the line. 
Neighbors 2 Review photo
Well, at least it tried
In my long tenure here at Flixist I've carved out a niche for myself. If you see a review for a Seth Rogen film or a sequel to a comedy, chances are it's my words you're reading. So little did I know I'd stick around here lon...

James Bond photo
Bond is dead. Long live Bond.
Daniel Craig is leaving the Bond franchise according to the Daily Mail, which is more of a gossip rag than anything else. The actor may have turned down a £68 million deal to star in the next two Bond films, w...

Thoughts on the documentary Weiner by Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg

May 17 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220420:42870:0[/embed] Weiner is cringe comedy at its most painful, with so much said in clenched jaws, nervous posture, and sad eyes. What's most fascinating is how, at least for me, the initial schedenfreude turned into empathy. I felt bad for Weiner, sure, but more so for and his wife, Huma Abedin, who suffers the failed campaign mostly in silence. Huma's appearances are brief but momentous. When she occasionally looks at the camera and emotes, I'm reminded of Jim from The Office or Buster Keaton; when the camera catches her in a candid moment, I'm reminded of seeing distressed strangers suffering through some private turmoil on the subway. While watching Weiner, I kept thinking about Marshall Curry's 2005 documentary Street Fight, which covered Cory Booker's run for mayor of Newark. Booker remains a rising star in the Democratic Party (though he seemed to burn brighter as a mayor than he currently does as a US senator), and Street Fight is all about his high-minded, aspirational campaign which was characterized by an inexhaustible surfeit dignity. Weiner, on the other hand, is all about exponentially expanding indignity, both on the part of the candidate and also on the part of a media obsessed with salaciousness, moral outrage, and sanctimony. [embed]220420:42872:0[/embed] The early buzz over Weiner is that the film's release could have an impact on the general election. Huma is a close confidante of Hillary Clinton and currently serves as vice chairwoman of Clinton's presidential campaign. I don't think this will have much sway on the primaries or the big vote in November, but it may help people reflect on what matters in politics. With so much focus on personality and personal lives, the focus on policy gets lost. In other words, Dick Pics > The Middle Class. As we watch Weiner struggle to get his message out on the campaign trail, all anyone can talk about are his personal indiscretions and how they affect perceptions of trustworthiness. Some express moral outrage, and use it as an excuse for the worst kind of bullying. How much of this is rooted in legitimate concern for New York City politics, and how much of it is just a love of political theater? [embed]220420:42871:0[/embed] I developed a strange admiration for Weiner as the documentary progressed. Part of that is how we begin to feel bad for a person when they've been publicly humiliated, but Weiner is also a fighter. When I first heard about him several years back, it was because of his passion as a Congressman when advocating for 9/11 first responders. The first sexual disgrace would come a year later, but that fighting spirit carried on in his comeback/mayoral bid, though he became a total palooka for the public. Even with everything collapsing, he continued into the fray, taking punch after punch after punch, and yet, against all good judgement, he decided to stand and fight rather than fall. Is it odd to admire the punching bag and the punch-drunk? The big question is if Weiner believed he could salvage his comeback or if it was just the weight of expectation and obligation that kept him going. Most likely both. Maybe it was also a kind of public flogging that he secretly agreed with. It's weird to admire that, but people are strange and complicated, and sometimes they run for office. Whether or not I'd vote for them is a different matter entirely.
Weiner documentary photo
Politics (and dick pics) in our time
Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's Weiner was one of the must-sees at New Directors/New Films earlier this year. The documentary chronicles the inspiring comeback and catastrophic implosion of Anthony Weiner's 2013 bid to be...

Harley Quinn to get her own movie

May 16 // Matthew Razak
Harley Quinn photo
Gee, Mr. J! My very own movie!
Suicide Squad isn't even out yet, but DC is pretty sure they've got something good with Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn. THR is reporting that Warner Bros. will be launching a stand-alone Harley Quinn movie... or a movie ce...

Review: High-Rise

May 12 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220425:42900:0[/embed] High-RiseDirector: Ben WheatleyRating: RRelease Date: March 18, 2016 (UK); May 13, 2016 (USA)Country: UK Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is a brain surgeon who's taken a flat in a new luxury high rise. In the apartment above there's Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a flirty socialite who makes eyes with the good doctor as he sunbathes nude on his balcony. Building designer Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives in the penthouse, where his wife rides white horses on the rooftop garden and he looks down on his grand social experiment: all the comforts one could need, a hermetic society. And yet the parties and the supermarket and the pool access is never enough to keep people compliant. They isolate themselves, they become tribal. The opening of the film, which looks downright post-apocalyptic, shows how far the high rise life has decayed. Laing scavenges the dumpsite foyer of his building for food, dressed in the tatters of a business suit. He's gone from doctor to concrete pirate. There's no food, but thank goodness for stray dogs. Like the upper-middle-class residents of the skyscraper, I'm not sure director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump get what they want out of High-Rise; the same may go for the audience. Adapted from the J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, it's a sordid and decadent movie about people going native in their own crowded living quarters, but it's even looser and sloppier than that. As society crumbles, the narrative structure of the film breaks down as well. The last half of the movie eschews traditional narrative and tells the rest of the building's decay in a series of loud vignettes and montages. I can pinpoint the exact moment midway through High-Rise where I lost a lot of my patience. Before a raging bastard of a man named Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) goes on a dominating rampage, he tapes his own voice in a cassette recorder. He repeats "I am Richard Wilder!" On the one hand, I get it (Wild, yes, and you're wilder than others, like this is the wild, okay), but on the other hand I rolled my eyes because I couldn't have not gotten it already (yeah, Dick wilder, I noticed). The scene that follows it is ugly and uncomfortable; obviously by design, and yet. High-Rise isn't bad so much as it's convoluted in its execution and maybe wishy-washy with its cultural critique. There's something Gilliam-esque about some of the scenes. The aristocratic party in 18th century garb is a nice bit of upper class affectation, and ditto the block party out in the hall. Similarly, the growing squalor of the building looks like something out of Brazil combined with a third-world landfill. The lights flicker out periodically, and nothing quite works the way it should in this place, and yet one carries on. Laing is no Sam Lowry from Brazil, however. Like some of the characters in High-Rise, Laing is passive and content to sit back as the world around him devolves and crumbles, which sort of squanders Hiddleston's natural charisma. He exists as a metaphor, a symbol, not a person. Meanwhile, others act or are acted upon; most of them also metaphors or symbols rather than people. It's the difference between facades and actual domiciles. There's a clinical lens about High-Rise, which makes sense since the breakdown is about observing the devaluation of others. It's like watching a crowded cage full of rats who are bound, at some point, to destroy each other just given the crowding and the lack of resources. And yet it's not quite like that since our ability to observe this cannibalization is interrupted. The sense of cause-and-effect is broken up, it feels like there's something missing. The vignettes that comprise the final half of High-Rise become frustrating since we're rarely offered a chance to explore the emerging tribes of the building. Here are tribal cultures and subcultures organizing themselves inside of a multi-tiered concrete petri dish (e.g., a matriarchal society of women and orphaned children), and we barely get an opportunity to observe their method of survival. MILD SPOILERS ABOUT THE FINAL SCENE The final words of the film don't belong to any of the characters we've spent time with. Instead it's the voice of Margaret Thatcher extolling the virtues of capitalism. Nevermind that there's little in the movie about capitalism per se. Maybe this is Thatcher suggesting capitalism as a solution to the egalitarian nightmare whose failure we just watched? And given our place in time, maybe the state of nature isn't quite as bad as the current state of government-approved inequality. High-Rise is a work of interesting and extreme architecture, but I'm still not sure what to make of its design.
Review: High Rise photo
Going native in a concrete jungle
High-Rise is a bit all over the place, and it's a bit of a mess, but it also seems to be that way by design--a sort of warped architecture. I'd gone in sort of expecting a vertical version of Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer, but i...

Captain America: Civil War - #TeamIronMan v #TeamCap and Obama-era foreign intervention

May 11 // Hubert Vigilla
Both Iron Man and Captain America's sides are justified in-character by their experiences over the course of 12 other films. It might speak to the strength of long-form stories allowing characters to develop through choices and actions over time, and to then have a major interpersonal conflict stem from the ideological differences between characters. Given the collateral damage and technology-run-amok in Avengers: Age of Ultron, it makes sense for Tony Stark to consider international approval. It would keep his own ideas in check (i.e., creating something like Ultron) if there had to be political consensus before moving forward, and that consensus could then justify direct action and mitigate any personal guilt over the deaths of innocent people. This makes more sense than Tony Stark going full neoconservative fascist douchebag as he did in the Civil War comic by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven. HYDRA's decades-long infiltration of the US government and SHIELD in Captain America: The Winter Soldier leads to Steve Rogers' distrust of oversight, which may involve parties with motives and interests outside of the greater good. On top of that, we're talking about the United Nations as the overseeing body, an organization which stood idly by during the Rwandan genocide and whose actions these days include strongly worded letters of condemnation. Could you imagine the Avengers assembled to draft a letter? In a way, Tony's trust in his own judgment backfiring so badly led him to the security of the Sakovia Accords. On the other side, the complete failure of those in power to stop HYDRA led Steve away from the compromise and institutional oversight of the Sakovia Accords. There's also a generational conflict that tempers the Iron Man and Captain America worldviews. Tony Stark has grown up in the era after Vietnam with a certain gray or cynical view of military conflict. This is not a doveish view on Tony's part, however, but maybe one that adds ambivalence to the view of intervention and combat. Captain America, on the other hand, is a product of the greatest generation who could align in a black-and-white good-vs-evil battle against the Axis powers, HYDRA (i.e., science Nazis), and fascism. Of course, Cap doesn't really talk much about Dresden or the atomic bomb--that would complicate the moral arithmetic of utilitarianism. Civil War doesn't talk about the possibility of non-intervention and the use of diplomacy, but that sort of discussion would be silly in the context of superhero films. The Avengers fight massive hordes of faceless alien/robot/science Nazi goons hellbent on eradicating humanity. When that's the situation, the only viable option in the particular story being told is some sort of large-scale action set piece. (You don't bring a strongly worded letter to a gun fight.) It's maybe no surprise that in Alan Moore's Watchmen, the grand solution to fixing a world at war involves something extraterrestrial. Real life situations are far more complicated and can't be treated with the cavalier sense of moral righteousness seen in superhero movies. The foreign interventions of the Obama administration show how even careful deliberation or a humanitarian goal can backfire. Drone strikes are meant to eliminate select terror targets and reduce civilian deaths, but innocent men, women, and children have been murdered by American drones (see National Bird). The moral righteousness of Captain America's stance does nothing to mitigate the heartbreak and tragedy (and potential war crimes charges) of airstrikes against Doctors Without Border hospitals in Afghanistan or Yemen; Presidential apologies are of little consolation either. With regard to the Syrian Civil War, the complexities of the various factions involved, interfactional alliances, allegiances to various outside parties/countries, and a host of other factors have meant little direct or immediate action by the United States, which is still trying to figure out the quagmire it caused in Iraq under Bush; ditto the ISIS-led power vacuum the US created when Obama, under the counsel of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, used airstrikes along with French, British, and other NATO forces to assist Libyan rebels in the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi. All superhero movies often have something inherently hawkish and/or libertarian about them, sometimes occupying various ideologies at once. Some may have a more activist streak (many are vigilante stories, after all), while others are more authoritarian (many are world police stories, after all), and these Avengers movies tend to be all about the positive things that the Earth's mightiest heroes can do even when they accidentally kill innocent people. As our own Jackson Tyler pointed out last year, The Avengers is all about American exceptionalism, unable to commit to a full critique of its own ideological foundation. They're power fantasies, after all, and like fairy tales or myths or any fantastical stories that are told, maybe there are certain limitations in what can be addressed. These are simplifications of conflicts, and rarely with a one-to-one conversion regarding its real world referents. Superheroes can do a lot when it comes to embodying certain aspirations, ideals, and anxieties, but there isn't much room in a tentpole blockbuster to address the complications and nuances of real world national and international politics. The closest Captain America: Civil War can get to nuance is its ambivalence about the #TeamIronMan v #TeamCap argument. It comes down on neither side explicitly, allowing both to exist as the correct solution to a narrow hypothetical situation involving the world of the film. These are still heroes (again, the foundation remains), but one is a sheriff while the other is the gunslinger who turns in his tin star, one is the by-the-book cop while the other is the loose canon who lost his badge. This isn't neocons taking on liberals, it's more like Buzz Lightyear v Woody. Similarly, Captain America: Civil War isn't a diagnosis and treatment of the current state of the world but more of a collection of symptoms. I'm reminded of a two-page Superman story from 1940 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The Man of Tomorrow soars through the air, kidnaps Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, and then brings them both to justice before the League of Nations. All that power, and he rights major wrongs so easily and justly, preventing the deaths of countless millions in the process. If only real world foreign policy were that easy. In retrospect, it's a very sad Superman story.
Civil War and politics photo
Imperfect solutions, true believers
Now that we've all seen Captain America: Civil War, it's about time to open up the #TeamIronMan v #TeamCap debate. On the one hand, you have Iron Man as a guilt-addled pragmatist who feels UN/international oversight is a nece...

Power Rangers, reboots, and you

May 10 // Nick Valdez
We are currently in the midst of a 90s nostalgia boom. Just as the last decade was obsessed with capturing the vibe of the 80s, cocaine and all, the 2010s have seen an increase in 90s pop culture revivals. Because "90s kids" like myself have grown into a subculture with true buying power, cinema is trying its best to cater to that market, So that means stuff you used to love as a kid now has a chance of coming back. I'm sure you've seen some of the fruits of nostalgia lately: a new Powerpuff Girls series, Samurai Jack is returning to Cartoon Network, Hey Arnold is returning to Nickelodeon for a TV movie, Space Jam is finally getting that sequel, Gilmore Girls' new season, Fuller House and Netflix's upcoming slate in general. It has gotten so ridiculous there is even talk of more Star Kid, Cruel Intentions and The Craft. If you saw it on VHS as a kid, there's probably a new version of it in the works.  Given the reboot crazy nature of cinema at the moment, it was only a matter of time before Power Rangers would get the film treatment as well. As a property, it's a film company's dream. Sure it's going to be expensive, but Power Rangers has a rabid (and largely untapped) fanbase, name recognition, and more importantly, there are the toys. Saban has a history of focusing on toys more than everything else given that much of their production is reliant on Toei, the Japanese parent company that owns all of the footage Saban decides to use. From the beginning, any original idea Saban came up with was influenced by toy sales. The original Mighty Morphin ran for as long as it did (combining footage from two different Super Sentai series) because it was still a money-making juggernaut. So for the first few seasons, they kept the suits but changed most everything else.  Completely American additions such as Lord Zedd, the Tenga Warriors, Rito Repulsa, their shark cycles, the few times the Ninja Megazord combined with the first season zord Titanus, their weird sparkle suit power up, and even as far as keeping Jason David Frank on as the Green, and later White, ranger despite the sixth ranger being written out of the series early on were all a result of toys sales. This mentality followed the series through its entirety due to the superhero boom. Power Rangers has always competed with some sort of superhero material, and it has only gotten more egregious thanks to Marvel essentially dominating shelves. Thus Saban and toymaker Bandai are used to changing designs as they see fit in order to compensate. Back when Saban reacquired the Power Rangers license in 2011 and released Power Rangers Samurai, they tacked on original, "mega" armors each episode in order to not seem plain compared to the numerous Avengers toys littering the shelves.   With the toy design first mentality in mind, it is time to discuss the issue at hand. A few days ago, Entertainment Weekly revealed how Saban and Lionsgate's Power Rangers will look and it didn't exactly light the world on fire. The fans seemed divided between "Oh man, this is the mature Power Rangers I've always wanted" and "They're all Iron Man." Unfortunately, everyone is kind of right in this situation. Given the design, the upcoming reboot will most likely be a little darker. Hopefully not so dark as to either scare kids away or fill it with subjects that will fly over their heads, but it is definitely not being made with kids in mind. Given the sultrier design of Rita Repulsa (thus taking the meaning out of her name) and the rangers themselves, and the tone of the images released thus far, I'm not expecting anyone in this movie to say "morphinominal" or indulge in any of the goofiness the series made itself known for.  The "Iron Man" designs are, once again, reflective of Saban and Bandai's toy first outlook. Since the film is wholly an American creation, and since it cannot rely on the popularity of a currently running series like the first movie did, we've gotten designs reflective of it. Although the suits look terrible, expect a line of  light up chest toys or maybe the red, blue, and black rangers in a set in the same aisle as next year's Marvel films. That's also why these rangers, along with some leaked photos of their zords (which I'll post here once there's an official release), look alien and Transformer-esque. Saban is merely reflecting what is popular now, just as they did back when the first movie released. And although these designs are reminiscent of the original movie's suits, they lose what makes the property distinct. As production chases current pop culture and design, it further digs itself into a hole. Power Rangers is trying so hard to stand out among the rest of the toys, it is doing the exact opposite.  If the merchandise does not catch kids' attention, it's pretty much a death sentence. The first film may make enough money to warrant a sequel, due to folks appeasing a curiosity, but without the toy sales and child audience that keeps the TV show afloat the reboot and franchise potential will stagnate. That's why it is so important to keep the light and airy feel of the show intact. If you make the property more "grounded" or "mature" in order to appeal to the rose colored glasses of fans my age, it will lose the goofy stuff which made it fun to reenact at playtime. One of my favorite memories was playing with the morpher and blaster as a kid and pretending I was cool enough to be a "teenager with attitude." It was because everything was so brightly colored, and admittedly stupid, my parents didn't mind that I was actually watching a show with a lot of violence. Blood replaced by sparks, the kung-fu lite fight choreography on guys in suits was deemed "TV-Y7," and the people therein were talented and attractive enough (even Billy the "nerd" was jacked) to draw attention. But that is not the path the reboot is headed in. Instead it is already closing itself off.  At its core, Power Rangers has always been about equal opportunity power and this was reflected at playtime. Although the first American team featured two women in conventionally feminine colors like pink and yellow, it was a response to the lack of women in the Japanese version of the show, Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger. Realizing they wanted more girls to buy their toys, they cast a woman for the male yellow and the footage went on just fine. It was a show breaking ground in more ways than one. Multi cultured teams and a strong foundation of teamwork and gender equality. The first season may be filled with weak plots and PSAs a la Captain Planet, but as they got their footing things improved. As the show evolved over the years, it was also better to its women. Character development improved, they wore more masculine colors, and more toys depicting these women were made. The Japanese design of the suits themselves always were minimalist. The only way to really tell them apart was a skirt sometimes. In the reboot, the suits are definitely not appealing to little girls. The reboot design may take on the tightness of the original spandex (replaced by the alien technology the reboot is pushing), but they're far too detailed. The boob plates and heels are definitely unnerving and little girls are way smarter than that. And since the pink and yellow rangers look so feminine, it's going to mean boys won't want them either. Rather than the collect them all frenzy of the original rangers, boys are only going to want those rangers specifically designed with them in mind. And if boys don't buy the pink and yellow rangers, their toys will be produced less and they will get less development as a whole moving forward. Since this trend has a precedent in the way the TV show has been marketed, it only worries me more so. When Power Rangers Super Megaforce, the "anniversary" series, released, Bandai produced a line of "Legendary Ranger" keys. In the show, these keys were used to transform into any of the heroes from years past and they were definitely a money-making idea. But each set released only featured the red, blue, and black rangers from each team and neglected to include the women. Even their current running series, Dino Charge, has a weird production ratio. For every five red, blue, and black rangers, there are only one or two pink ones. And while that show has been better at capturing that feeling of nostalgia than the reboot likely will be, only two of the series's ten (TEN) Power Rangers are women. Despite the gender swap casting it has done in the past, Saban refuses to do so again because they have dug themselves into such a non-inclusive hole that they only safe way to make money is to double down on what little masculine audience they have left.  The Power Rangers are so dear to me, I really want the reboot to succeed. But seeing Saban make the same mistakes yet again on a larger scale is troublesome. In trying to put its best foot forward among the litany of comic book films and other nostalgia ridden properties, it is merely becoming a carbon copy of those that came before. But instead of doubling down on a troubling methodology, the production should double down on what really helped the original series succeed for as long as it did. After losing the rights to Disney, and only getting them back five years ago, Saban has never quite reached the same levels it used to.  Sure the show had bad writing or bad acting at times, but Power Rangers managed to capture the zeitgeist of living in the 90s. It truly understood what growing up at the time meant. It meant obnoxious colors, obnoxious sayings, and even more obnoxious styles. Part of what dates it also makes it that much more relevant. True nostalgia is all about recapturing the feeling of those halcyon days of youth. We have enough cinema making a statement or delving into gritty themes (just take a look at what are supposed to be the most comic booky films of the year, Captain America: Civil War or Batman v Super: Dawn of Justice), but we don't have enough films where teens just beat up on monsters while making forced puns. I mean, the reboot is so serious it doesn't even carry the Mighty Morphin' moniker.  As it stands, the Power Rangers reboot won't appeal to anyone. Not even adding the original show's theme to a trailer will save it. 
MMPR Reboot photo
Reboots with a negative attitude
I f**king love Power Rangers. When I say love, I mean I've been following the show for twenty-two years. Every awkward season, every bad theme song (Operation Overdrive has a rap, if you were wondering which one was the worst...

Review: Captain America: Civil War

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

Space Jam 2 photo
Welcome to the god damn Jam!
Holy mother of pearl, it's happening. It's really happening. We're about to return to the Jam and Lebron James is coming with us (also Justin Lin). THR is reporting that the basketball star is set to star in the Looney Toons ...

Punisher photo
One batch, two batch
If you watched this last season of Daredevil you know that someone finally nailed Punisher. Jon Bernthal absolutely stole the show with his slightly psychotic and entirely compelling portrayal of Frank Castle. People lov...

Review: Mother's Day

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

Review: Ratchet & Clank

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

Review: The Family Fang

Apr 28 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220426:42899:0[/embed] The Family FangDirector: Jason BatemanRating: RRelease Date: April 29, 2016 (limited); May 6, 2016 (wide, VOD) Caleb and Camille Fang are a pair of performance artists who used their two children to stage happenings around town. In the opening scene, the Fangs enter a bank, stage a lollipop robbery, and then have a shootout. The fake blood is sweet. It's an absurd flashback as seen through an Instagram filter, but it offers and idea of the Fang family's artistic MO, which is the MO of most performance art: to disrupt the regular flow of life, to make others pay attention, to cause a scene, which itself is a singular artistic act. Decades later, Annie Fang (Nicole Kidman) is a dysfunctional actress while her brother Buster (Jason Bateman, who also directed the film) is a dysfunctional writer. He suffers a potato gun injury while out on assignment, which makes the dysfunctional Fang parents (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett) offer to drive their son home. The children want to live their adult lives, the parents want to force their children to make disruptive art. Dysfunction ensues. After a nasty fight, Caleb and Camille leave their children. Their car is found on the side of the road with evidence of a violent abduction, which leaves Annie and Buster wondering if this is just another art-prank of if their parents are really in danger. There's so much possibility with set-up and the cast, so perhaps the ultimate disappointment is that The Family Fang feels so toothless. I haven't read the Kevin Wilson's acclaimed novel the film is based on, but I suspect there's something lost between text and screen. Every now and then, Bateman cuts to a documentary about the Fang parents and the art they created. They're important cult figures in the art world (think Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic), yet they've failed to create anything meaningful since their children left home. What's more, their art has an ugly domineering aspect to it, and they're oblivious to the ways they've hurt their children in selfish pursuit of their own interests. Art has consequences, and I sense that kind of conversation is easier to explore in text rather than on film. Debate can be carried on in every line and with periodic asides, yet in the film version of The Family Fang, that idea seems to be explored only out of obligation to the theme rather than full interest. There's also a tidiness to The Family Fang that's disappointingly pat. This is a story about people who are hurt and who hurt others because of it (themselves, most often), yet David Lindsay-Abaire's screenplay keeps the edges of the characters clean rather than jagged and more complicated. The mystery element is compelling enough to follow the story to its end, but the film never fully inhabits moments that should be more painful and honest. Consequently there's no catharsis or emotional release even though there are gestures made at both. If unhappy families are supposed to be unhappy in their own way, it's because of how richly the characters are rendered. In The Family Fang, I still felt like these were character types in a dysfunctional family movie rather than actual people dealing with a dysfunctional upbringing. The Fang MO is to make others wake up, yet the Fangs themselves emotionally sleepwalk through this trying time in their lives. Which is a shame since Kidman seems engaged yet relaxed in her character, enough that her accent occasionally slips--I can accept that as an Annie Fang artistic affectation. Walken is also good as Caleb Fang, though he never gets a chance to really let go. Ditto Plunkett, who's underused Camille Fang hints at a much deeper internal life than what shows up on screen. The same is true of Buster, the deadpan screw-up writer (all screw-up writers are alike, by the way). You sense that the Fang family members are each on the verge of some breakthrough, but, like the film, it never comes in a satisfying way.
Review: The Family Fang photo
The aesthetics of family dysfunction
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way... well, unless you're an unhappy family in a movie, in which case you're pretty much alike. Distant/absent parents. A dictatorial patriarch. A stran...

Tribeca Review: Rebirth

Apr 26 // Nick Valdez
RebirthDirector: Karl MuellerRating: NRRelease Date: April 17, 2016 (limited) Rebirth stars Fran Kranz as Kyle, a husband and father who's lives a well off life. But he's been a bit unfulfilled lately as his college dreams have been pushed aside in favor of his family and a boring desk job. When his old college buddy Zack (Adam Goldberg) invites him to a retreat for a weekend, and won't stop talking about how great this "Rebirth" seminar is, Kyle decides to go for it. But Kyle soon realizes that "Rebirth" might be a more twisted program then they initially let on. Despite their mantra of "You're free to leave whenever you want" escaping the seminar proves tough.  Rebirth is a Netflix Original production and the choices within reflect that. It's full of these quirky little details that releasing on streaming services would help it get away with. The film is open to to risks and, more often than not, those risks pay off. Unfortunately, the entertainment is too reliant on those little quirks to succeed. The film is fairly predictable and you can pretty much guess how it's going to get from point A to B, and because of this, the little detours every now and again are that much more interesting. They're often non-sequiturs, so as to not derail the main plot, so these little jokes feel more refreshing. For example, Kyle ends going through several different types of seminar rooms during his escape attempt. Each room has its own theme with the ultimate goal of keeping Kyle around, so the film spends time with each room and plays around with how they'd try and brainwash Kyle. Each of these moments are inconsequential, but fun.  These little touches may not be needed, but they help elevate the rest of the film. It's dark blend of humor and chills turns out to be the perfect take on its premise. And its loose structure of stumbling on room after room, along with Kranz's key performance, amplifies the plot's inherent frustration. You'll start feeling frustration as Kyle continues to fail and seeing how goofy some of the rooms and Rebirth's denizens are will only make you angrier. So while they're inconsequential to the plot, it helps the film's overall vibe and tension. What also helps is just how game everyone is with the film. Each actor turns in a kooky performance as the know exactly what kind of film Rebirth wants to be.  I love Adam Goldberg, and it's always a pleasure to see him pop up in a project. He's slightly underutilized here, but seeing as he steals every scene he's in that's probably best. Fran Kranz does a great job leading the film along, however. His neurotic, terrified performance gives the premise the credibility and weight it needs even when the seminar doesn't seem as dangerous as he's perceiving it to be. Rebirth is also shot in an interesting way with long periods of stillness coupled with short bursts of following Kyle through the dingy house the seminar is in. We're effectively put into Kyle's shoes and when the film truly goes off the rails, we're along for the ride.  Rebirth isn't a bad film at all, but it's not necessarily great either. But it's got such a well crafted personality and it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's a fun little romp that doesn't overstay its welcome. You won't exactly feel a rebirth afterwards, but you won't die either. 
Rebirth Tribeca Review photo
Cult of personality
Festivals are a great time to try out films you would never consider in your personal time. Like a Netflix queue, the options are endless and each film only has a short premise and cast listing to get our attention. Since m...

Tribeca Review: Nerdland

Apr 25 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220434:42928:0[/embed] NerdlandDirector: Chris PrynoskiRating: NRRelease Date: April 14, 2016 (limited) At the heart of Nerdland is veritable slacker stereotypes, Elliot (Patton Oswalt), an aspiring screenwriter who'd rather spend his days masturbating than write, and John (Paul Rudd), a film blogger who dreams of pursuing an acting career. When the two of them lose their jobs, they decide they've had enough with failure and venture on a last ditch effort to get their work recognized. The two slackers are willing to literally throw their lives away blindly hunting for fame and they'll do whatever to whoever to get what they want.  Nerdland has a strong core concept. Initially setting out to be a parodic take on the new wave of entitlement that's come from the digital age and increased publicity for the 'nerd' archetype, the film shines an ugly light on an ugly subset. This take works for a while as every aspect of the film contributes to this ugliness. The grungy art style and gross out humor establish an icky setting, Oswalt and Rudd adopt darker tones for their voice acting (but Rudd borders on being completely absent), and every character is a vapid shell of some kind. The style is a grand pastiche of the Hollywood/Tinseltown thought era, but all of that goes out the window the second a character speaks. Clearly the film's style and writing weren't developed jointly. There's definitely a better, or even good film lying underneath all of the garbage but it's being crushed.  Nerdland is trying its best to be a quirky dark comedy, but it reaches so far it becomes unintelligible. For one, there's no cemented plot. It's just a set of disjointed scenes with plot points capable of carrying several movies. The main story arc is intended to highlight how far Elliot and John fall, but even that arc is sullied by how nonsensical the plot seems. The character decisions are no longer informed by desperation but by how twisted the plot needs them to be at any given moment. Rather than a sign of devolution, their growth lacks fluidity and always breaks the flow of whatever plot Nerdland wants to cook up at the time. In a weird way, it's like the film realizes its own faults and resorts to just throwing whatever idea they have at a dartboard and hope one of those ideas leaves a lasting impact.  Treating your film with reckless abandon may be worth some credit, but it's absolutely worthless to the viewer. When the film literally becomes a veritable orgy of bad ideas, it's debilitating. There's a scene in Nerdland, about an hour in, so devoid of thought or even dark humor it sapped all good will I had. Since there's no natural progression of character or plot, the scene sticks out so much it's almost as if they created an entire film just to show two minutes of pure inanity. Don't get me wrong, it's not the concept I have a problem with it's the execution. There's an difference between mining a dark subject for humor (and the original thought behind it seems to be exaggerating violence in animation would merit a laugh) in a mature way and focusing on the most juvenile, low hanging fruit of a subject.  I'm not sure where Nerdland went so wrong. It's such a complicated mess of a film, so juvenile, so low reaching that it sets back adult animation for several years. You know, it's not even egregious enough to be offensive. It just kind of happens to you whether you like or not. It's so boring, so paper thin, that Nerdland is offensive to the very people who made it. It'd be a blight on everyone's career if it weren't guaranteed forgotten a few days after its release.  At least Hannibal Buress is good in it. Love that guy. 
Nerdland Tribeca Review photo
Nerds don't rule after all
Nerdland was the first film to stand out to me when I first signed on to cover the Tribeca Film Festival this year. Everything about it appealed to me. It's the first full length feature from Titmouse, an animated company mos...

Review: Green Room

Apr 25 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220533:42929:0[/embed] Green RoomDirector: Jeremy SaulnierRating: RRelease Date: April 22 and 29, 2016  At the center of Green Room is small town punk band The Ain't Rights, four kids Sam, Pat, Reece, and Tiger (Alia Shawkat, Anton Yelchin, Joe Cole and Callum Turner respectively). Everything goes awry during a performance at a Neo-Nazi den when they suddenly witness a murder and now they've got a veritable army of Nazis and their leader Darcy (Patrick Stewart) hunting them. Deciding to hole themselves up in the venue's green room, The Ain't Rights and their new ally, the mysterious Amber (Imogen Poots), try to survive the terrifying night to come.  To put it bluntly, at its core, Green Room is a film you've seen before. With its premise, it's easy to make comparisons to home invasions films or anything where it's one against many (Assault on Precinct 13 or even Die Hard come to mind), but that's where all of the similarities and predictability ends. Green Room takes the time to build an entire world around its tiny setting and it's all the more effective because of it. The film feels lived in, and it's almost as if we're jumping into a point of these kids' lives. The Ain't Rights themselves have a wonderful chemistry. An almost effortless gelling informs their life long friendship and I bought into it immediately. The four are given enough time as their characters to get comfortable and let each actor imbue themselves with little quirks and touches. In fact, some of the film's finest moments are early on when we're just getting to know the band. Because of the attention to the build up, it's all the more devastating when things come down around them.  I don't feel like I can stress this enough. Green Room is entirely unpredictable. The initial transition from humor to horror is seamless. Because of the care put into the characters, the audience essentially ends up in the confined space with them. The emotional stakes rise almost instantly and there's nary a bump in the production. It's like an emotional punch to gut, and that's before any violence takes place. Anton Yelchin and Patrick Stewart own these scenes in particular when the two of them speak on opposite ends of a door. Yelchin is constantly on the verge of tears (thus making us closer to him on a whole) while Stewart's eerily calm demeanor hides sinister motives. And just when you think you've got the film figured out, it changes tone completely. With controlled spontaneity through violence, Green Room continuously raises its stakes and never once feels overbearing in its tension.  The entire film's production is lined with a chilling vibe. From its metal and punk heavy soundtrack, its lighting (making sure everything is just dark enough to be unnerving while still making sure everything is visible and digestible), there's a special sense of dread permeating throughout and it's naturalistic. The crafted tone grounds its characters and setting begetting fear from a human place. Darcy's frightening introduction and speeches juxtapose Stewart's unassuming demeanor. It's kind of like how Breaking Bad slowly transformed Bryan Cranston's Walter White into Heisenberg over six seasons instead crammed into less than 90 minutes. Sometimes it doesn't work completely, but it's still utterly effective and damning. Thanks to the cast playing off of each other in such a tight space (and a stellar performance from everyone involved), it's an emotional thriller rather than a physical one. There are certainly visceral payoffs (and they're increasingly shocking in their brutality), but if you don't enjoy the film's emotional stakes then you won't connect as much overall.  Before seeing Green Room you need to know what you're getting yourself into. It's a nail biting thriller for sure, but if you're expecting some sort of all out knuckle brawl you'll be severely disappointed. This film is a thriller horror film in the traditional sense, so there's very little "action." When it does finally resort to such measures, Green Room excels. It's satisfying in such a weird, weird way.  And that's Green Room in a nutshell. It's disarming, gruesome, macabre, hilarious, cartoonish, will make you squirm, but it's a fun experience through and through. I'm going to remember this one for a while.
Green Room Review photo
Spontaneously brutal
Over the last few years, A24 has quickly become my favorite production studio. They've overseen everything from huge award winners like Room, Amy, and Ex Machina, critical darlings such as Spring Breakers and The End of the T...

Apocalypse Trailer photo
This is the best trailer yet
If you were somehow not convinced to see X-Men: Apocalypse, you sure will be after the final trailer for it. We get a little more footage than we have in the past, some cool looking fight scenes, a little bit of information f...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Abortion: Stories Women Tell

Apr 24 // Nick Valdez
Abortion: Stories Women TellDirector: Tracy Droz TragosRating: NRRelease Date: April 18, 2016 (limited) Abortion: Stories Women Tell is eye opening. I'm not going to sit here and pretend I knew everything about the subject, so some of the film's perspectives are heartbreaking. Stories follows two women for the most part: one who's about to undergo the procedure because she doesn't want another child (and has way too many responsibilities already) and one who's protesting the procedure because of religious beliefs. The doc takes care to normalizing the subject just in case you were squeamish to any part of the process. It's treated as just another part of life, another facet of heatlhcare, and regardless of your personal feelings the subject is standing on neutral ground. Sure there are some digs into either side in the way it's being filmed, but those are viewpoints the audience has to infer for themselves. It's great the final product is basically the open start to a conversation, presenting as many arguments as possible.  While this make the documentary sound weaker overall, it's true purpose is to inform rather than to judge. It's astounding to see how many viewpoints are represented here. Reflecting how wide open the subject is, and how many opposing views of it there are, Stories cast a wide net and talks to women of various ages, races, and creeds. And while Stories may follow one or two particular women for the majority, the audience is just witness to a particular moment of their lives. We're given a brief look into who these women are, but never enough to form attachment. Stories never loses sight of its subject for an instant, and that makes it all the more powerful. It's handled so well, in fact, I'm left wondering why it's regulated as much as it is now. But given the opposition opposes it so strongly, it's easy to see why. But as I mentioned before, the judgment is entirely ours to make as a viewer. This doc just wants to make sure you know what's going on.  Abortion: Stories Women Tell was the strongest documentary I'd seen at Tribeca. A strong, fair, and ultimately open ended film that captures a pocket of the frustration surrounding the issue. For letting me in on a fraction of what the women presented are feeling, this documentary has done a lot more for the issue than anything has done in the past.  To anyone unknowledgeable about abortion or the debate surrounding, you owe it yourselves to watch and listen to Abortion: Stories Women Tell. 
Stories Capsule Review photo

Although it's been technically legal ever since the famous Roe v. Wade legal battle in the 60s and 70s, states across America still do as much as they can to limit healthcare, and by extension abortion, to the nation's women....

Tribeca Review: Holidays

Apr 23 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220526:42927:0[/embed] HolidaysDirectors: Anthony Scott Burns, Kevin Kolsch, Sarah Adina Smith, Kevin Smith, Nicholas McCarthy, Adam Egypt Mortimer, Gary Shore, Scott Stewart, Dennis WidmyerRating: RRelease Date: April 15, 2016 (limited) As its title suggests, Holidays is an anthology all based around holiday horrors. Each short is around 12-15 minutes long, with the director and holiday revealed after. There are eight shorts in total, all set in chronological horror: Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day. Easter, Father's Day, Mother's Day, Halloween, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Each short pretty much ends in the way you'd expect a short horror story to, so it's all in the journey rather than the destination. Despite what I'm about to say in the next few paragraphs, I can't ever say Holidays is bland. The film overall is a slick production with each short looking completely different from what came before or after. Each director has their own style, and while some may have better camerawork than others (St. Patrick's Day is the standout in this case), there's a care into getting the horror tone just right.  Out of the eight films, I especially enjoyed Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, and Father's Day. Valentine's Day is the most straightforward story, but revels in 80s synth storytelling (likening it to other big recent throwbacks like The Guest) coupled with dream-like lighting and a kickass electropop soundtrack. Father's Day is strong and silent with very little dialogue from its main character (ably played by Jocelin Donahue) and is the creepiest film in the entire package. It's also the one I'd argue is closest to actually being "horror" rather than the twisted joke the rest of the shorts play with. On a smaller note, Mother's Day is much stronger given it's paired with this testosterone laced (and somber) short. But the best overall is most definitely St. Patrick's Day. It's got the best camera work, quick edits do a lot with the little time it has, Ruth Bradley steals the show, and its twist ending is the most effective given how absurd and cartoonish it gets. It's just a shame Holidays never quite reaches this peak again.  Since it's all in chronological order, there's no narrative cohesiveness. Other than lucking out with Father's/Mother's Day, the shorts never feel like they're in the same package. With very little narrative buffer in between each short (explaining why we're seeing these eight shorts for example), it's disjointed. Some shorts have a humorous ending, some end on a jump scare, but regardless it's all less effective since nothing really lingers. Since there's no narrative flow between each short, they become all about the formula. Nothing but build-up until a pop at the end of the short. And when you've come to expect the same kind of ending halfway in, the last four segments lose all their pizazz. This is not at all helped by the final four's weaknesses, either.  For example, Kevin Smith's Halloween segment is the most, uh, "divisive." It's the most obscene of the shorts and its tone is unlike any other. But it's entirely reliant on your personal tastes to succeed. It's a revenge short that has to instantly reach for the most extreme circumstances due to its length, and since it's not entirely earned, your enjoyment of it varies on whether or not you like seeing the guy from Epic Meal Time have a sex toy forced up his rear. And because of the film's chronological order, Holidays just comes to an unsatisfying end. It can't end with its best film (and furthered hindered by having the best shorts come first), and it gives New Year's Day too much responsibility. It isn't as bad of a short as Easter or Halloween, but it's clearly not a short designed to bring a fulfilling resolution.  Like other horror anthologies before, Holidays stumbles more often than not. That's just the nature of setups like these, and while the overall film is visually captivating it just doesn't keep the same level of tension or entertainment throughout. Maybe if it were organized into a more cohesive package, the less successful films wouldn't have seemed as bad.  But as it stands, you don't have to go home for the holidays. 
Holidays Tribeca Review photo
"Like a squeaky violin"
Horror anthologies are all the rage now. Get a couple of creatives together, pick a theme, and they're allowed to explore one of the smaller ideas they have in their heads. At best, you're in for a good time overall, at worst...

Tribeca Review: A Kind of Murder

Apr 22 // Nick Valdez
A Kind of MurderDirector: Andy GoddardRating: RRelease Date: April 17, 2016 (limited) Based on The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith, A Kind of Murder follows Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson), an architect who has everything you'd expect from someone living the high life in the 60s: his short mystery writing hobby has landed him in magazines, a beautiful wife Clara (Jessica Biel), a fancy home, money, and as many cigarettes as he could smoke. But almost instantly, the veneer of his life starts to unravel. His wife has mental health issues, their marriage is falling apart, he begins sleeping with the mysterious singer Ellie (Haley Bennett), and his tendency to follow murder stories in the paper catches up with him. When his wife suddenly dies, and the scene of her murder looks eerily close to the murder of the local bookshop owner Kimill (Eddie Marsan)'s wife, Stackhouse has to clear his name and move on with his life.  Murder does everything in its power to define its 60s setting and tone. Paying respect to its pulp-mystery origins, there is a heavy use of shadow and angular shots. Bouts of silence coupled with deep reds help sink you into the film's deep tone. Sets are well lit enough to see what's going on, while still being blacked out enough to leave you a little bit confused. Unfortunately, the score doesn't help or detract from the film so Murder is left with only its visuals to accomplish its goals. It's just a shame that once everyone starts talking, everything else falls apart. It's almost impossible to keep a consistent tone when some actor's performances are anachronistic and some are pulpy to a fault.  As examples of both extremes, Jessica Biel's Clara and Lucas Bentley's Detective Jackson are overwritten and overacted. Each time they're on screen. the energy from the scene is completely drained. Biel seems to be trying her best, but she can't get a grip on Clara's character. It doesn't help that the script doesn't seem to know what's wrong with Clara either. There's some sort of hint at a mental health issue, and while that's a strong characterization for a pulp mystery story (but out of place and time, for sure), we're stuck seeing it through Stackhouse's misogynystic POV. He's a terrible person, and it's reflected in how the story's told. We never quite get the full mystery or figure out why characters make certain decisions because we're stuck watching Stackhouse make his own baffling choices. For one, he's constantly lying to everyone. Namely, Bentley's terrible Detective whos' characterization is so rooted in the setting, he's sticks out like a cartoon.  The most important thing for a mystery is not its setting or tone, it's the integrity of the mystery itself. Whether you're focusing on a crime or the mystery of a character's personality, there needs to be a solid foundation for everything else to succeed. Unfortunately, Murder never quite figures out what kind of story it wants to tell. There's a secondary plot revolving Kimill and the murder of his wife, but Eddie Marsan doesn't add necessary layers to his performance to keep his story interesting. He's consistently sinister throughout and when a plot point is revealed later on, it didn't come as much of a surprise. He's effectively taking the air of mystery out of the mystery. And when the performances don't help, the holes in the story stick out that much more. We're left without so much crucial information seemingly happening off screen so there's no real way to connect and stick with the Murder.  At first it seemed like A Kind of Murder had all the pieces for success, but it gets so caught up in capturing the essence of its source material that it forgets to make everything else as engaging. A floundering mystery spawning waves upon waves of disconnect, its few good elements are completely snuffed by its poor organization. 
Tribeca Murder Review photo
A kind of mess
Patrick Wilson just can't catch a break. No matter how hard he tries, he has yet to break through into credible leading man territory. He's been wading in the shallow ends of roles landing somewhere between genre film and B m...

Review: The Huntsman: Winter's War

Apr 22 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220532:42925:0[/embed] The Huntsman: Winter's WarDirector: Cedric Nicolas-TroyanRating: PG-13Release Date: April 22, 2016 As its title suggests, The Huntsman: Winter's War shifts its main focus to its titular huntsman, Eric (Chris Hemsworth). Before the events of the first film, the Evil Queen Raveena (Charlize Theron) had a younger sister named Freya (Emily Blunt). After the death of her daughter, Freya gains ice powers and goes off to form her own kingdom (complete with a ban on love), kidnapping children and training them as huntsman along the way. Eric ends up falling in love with another huntsman, Sara (Jessica Chastain), but Freya puts a stop to that. Then seven years later (and after the events of the first film), Freya vows to get Raveena's magic mirror and take over Snow White's kingdom.  Just as with the first film, Winter's War oozes with style. While some of its visuals borrow heavily from other fantasy worlds (such as the design of the huntsman themselves), costume design is still top notch. Capitalizing on one of the better aspects of the first film, Raveena and Freya's outfits are outlandish and gaudy in the best way. And although it results in less gaudy but fabulous dresses, the set design has also received an upgrade. Scene settings are more varied and feel more inspired, such as the jungle look of the goblin's den (and the gold chained gorilla goblins), but there's a definite lack of budget that knocks the film's overall presentation down a peg. The film's CG isn't always seamless, but the film tries its best to make sure at least the central women look good. At least Winter's War succeeds in that regard. Because their looks are perfected, Theron and Blunt are free to chew the scenery as they see fit.  And boy does Charlize Theron run the show. It's just a shame that the film keeps her separated from Blunt for the majority of it. The scenes where she's allowed to cheesily tear into Blunt's Freya turns Winter's War into a fantasy version of Dynasty as the two actresses try to out soap opera each other. It's the only time Blunt seems bothered enough to try, and her scenes with Theron clearly make Blunt's performance ring hollow the rest of the time. At least Chris Hemsworth get more to do this time around. The first film was before his breakout in The Avengers, and now he's got this affable personality which helps ease some of Winter's War's more troublesome attempts at humor and personality. But while mostly everyone involved is having a good time, no one really seems to care about what they're saying. It's halfhearted throughout.  Winter's War is further crippled by its poor storytelling. When it succeeds it can be funny, or even compelling, but thanks to its need to clutch to the first film rather than reset everything, the film makes no damn sense for the first thirty minutes or so. Thanks to a weird flashback story then a time jump seven years into the future, everything is rushed. We're never given the time to invest in Eric and Sara's relationship because all we get between the two is a few make out sessions (that linger on for a bit too long) before they're separated. It doesn't help that Hemsworth and Chastain are clearly phoning it in. Their scenes together seem to take the longest, and their faux scottish accents are so heavy, they're almost parodic. These scenes make you wonder when Theron's going to show up again. Given that she's really only in the film for about 20 minutes, the wait seems even longer. Give up the ghost already and give us a full Charlize Theron ham sandwich, Universal.  The Huntsman: Winter's War is a piecemeal fantasy that's just other fairy tales duct taped together into a two hour project. There's clearly an underlying effort being drowned by everyone's apathy (there's not even an effort to keep background skeletons from looking like they were bought in one of those pop up Halloween shops), and Winter's War barely cares it exists. It just does.  Going in I was hoping Universal re-examined the Huntsman series and kept what worked and threw out what didn't. But it did the complete opposite. The Huntsman: Winter's War is less of what we want, and more nonsense we don't need. 
Winter's War Review photo
What is it good for? Absolutely nothing
Despite Kristen Stewart and director Rupert Saunders being pulled from the series after allegations of an affair, bumping up visual effects supervisor Cedric Nicolas-Troyan to debut as director, and the first film gettin...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four

Apr 21 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220511:42918:0[/embed] Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio FourDirector: Deborah EsquenaziRating: NRRelease Date: April 20, 2016 (limited) In 1994, four women, Anna Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh, were charged with the sexual assault of two underage girls, Elizabeth's nieces. And thus began a weird trial where the four defendants had to deal with a litany of accusations all stemming from their sexuality. With accusations ranging from the deplorable to the highly nonsensical (such as suggesting the crime committed was some sort of satanistic ritual), the four women just want to clear their names and be freed from the system that condemned their lifestyles. Thanks to the seemingly never ending nature of the trial, the four women are still contesting their convictions to this day and with the latest development happening only two months prior to the film's release. Unfortunately, with that big of a period to cover, Southwest of Salem fails to catch everything. As the case is constantly developing, we never quite get the full picture of it. Instead the film feels like an attempt at advocacy rather than a full fledged documentary. We're only told one side of the case, and it's clear what the filmmaker believes. But we're not given enough information to make a decision ourselves, and are instead told to believe what director Esquenazi believes. In the same breath, Southwest excels at telling that single side.  Since we're not given enough information on the case (Neither members of the prosecution nor expert testimony on the "bogus science" scrutinzed later on in the case were interviewed), director Esquenazi chooses to anchor the documentary with emotion. Following the four women on different stages of their incarceration and later release, Southwest benefits from having credible and highly personal footage for each of the women. Opting to capture a slice of each woman (namely Anna Vasquez, who's become the "face" of the four)'s life, the film creates a connection between the audience and subjects. Some of the footage is incredibly heartbreaking as the film manages to capture integral moments like their initial release from prison or home movies depicting the women's final moments of freedom. Southwest of Salem makes sure you care about the San Antonio Four. As the film's main goal is awareness, most of the film is dedicated to moments like these. And because of that laser focus, the film's emotion and heartache feels earned rather than manipulative.  Regardless of how you feel about the technical flaws of this documentary, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is a heartbreaking look into a little discussed case. Some of the developments are baffling. You'll feel rage, sadness, and hopelessness, and you'll still only feel a fraction of what these four women are going through. But for even capturing even a fraction of that feeling, Southwest of Salem is powerful, flaws and all. 
Salem Tribeca Review photo
Devastating
Growing up in San Antonio you witness a lot of things like gang violence, racial and class divides, and the occasional public drunkeness, but twenty two years ago something happened in my small town that changed it forever. I...

Magnificent Seven photo
Not that magnificent
When you're discussing The Magnificent Seven you're discussing some serious pedigree. The movies it is based on are two of the greatest of the genres (samurai and western) so remaking it is a daunting task. I thought tha...

Review: The Jungle Book

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

Tribeca: Allumette showcases the game-changing potential of immersive VR storytelling

Apr 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220506:42913:0[/embed] Allumette centers on a girl and her mother who sell large, magical matchsticks around town. The world they inhabit is sort of like Venice by way of Hayao Miyazaki and classic Final Fantasy--a city in the clouds with bridges and tiers, and little docks for the airships that course through the sky. Allumette is essentially a 20-minute silent movie, with the characters communicating in hums and sighs, expressing emotions through body language like classic pantomime. "Alfred Hitchcock said that to be good with spectacle you had to be a simplifier," Chung noted. "Painters and writers can be complicators, but when you're working in spectacle (i.e., cinema and now VR) you have to simplify. So you have to take something and strip it down to its core elements." The heart of the story concerns a mother's love for her child and the sacrifices people make, all rendered with simplicity and sincerity. Even if the core of the spectacle is simplified, there's lots of room for the viewer to explore. The very beginning of Allumette seems to invite a look around. As the opening credits appear against a black background, a window lights up as if watching a building across the street. The window dims. Then another window, then another in your peripheral vision, and then windows all around as you turn in a full circle. It's as if you're surrounded by dots of candlelight, each one a window, and you can walk up and peer in a little closer at the shadow puppet story inside of it. I found myself pacing around the virtual set of Allumette. At first I was trying to frame shots of these characters, like I was cinematographer, leaning in for close-ups, bending down for a slightly different angle, even trying to simulate a slow tracking shot. But every now and then I would feel less self-conscious about the HTC Vive on my face. In those moments of total immersion, I was just a bystander in the imaginary city watching a mother and daughter do their thing. Occasionally I'd stray too far to one side--there are edges to this virtual world--and I'd feel a gentle tap on my shoulder from someone nearby just to get me centered again. The mother and daughter's airship is one of the great elements of Allumette, and a source of wonderment as well. It docked in front of me after I'd watched it descend from above. Just through the headphones I heard Jimmy Maidens, lead technical director at Penrose, say that I could look inside. Until Maidens mentioned it, the thought had never occurred to me. The sense of immersion made me feel like there was an actual boundary between this object and me. My mind thought it was physical, real, like a dollhouse, but I could actually peer into it, as simple as dunking my face into a pool of water. The airship interior was a miniature world within this virtual world. It was one of many strange moments of realization, like when I first looked down at the lower level of the setting in Allumette. I expected to see my feet; instead, clouds and sky and a town square. This mix of emotion and technology seems to fit with Chung's own sensibilities. His mother was a CPA, and his father was an opera singer. "I've always had this duality of left-brain/right-brain all throughout my career, which is important for VR," he said. Even before founding Penrose, the duality is evident: Chung attended NYU Film School and Harvard Business School, he worked in production at Pixar and then became a venture capitalist. Allumette is the second project by Penrose Studios. The San Francisco-based startup is just a few months old but has assembled a team of artists, engineers, and storytellers with backgrounds at Oculus, Pixar, and Dreamworks. The company's previous VR piece, The Rose and I, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and was very well-received. Penrose has other VR projects in the works, though they have yet to announce their slate. They've been experimenting with an interactive component to VR at the moment, though Chung explained it's really a matter of how the interactivity can be used effectively as part of the storytelling experience of a piece. "Presence is that feeling of being someplace else; storytelling is storytelling," he said. He added, "When you're given agency, it changes the way you perceive the story." With the way things are looking, VR might change the world of storytelling.
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