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in theaters

Review: The Lovers And The Despot

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

Review: Blair Witch

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

Review: Snowden

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

Review: Sully

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


Review: Don't Breathe

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

Review: Kubo and the Two Strings

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

Review: Suicide Squad

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

Review: Train to Busan

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

Review: Jason Bourne

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

Review: Lights Out

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

Review: Star Trek Beyond

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

Review: Ghostbusters

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

Review: The Conjuring 2

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

Review: Warcraft

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

Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

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

Review: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

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

Review: 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...

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. 

Review: Keanu

May 01 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220303:42784:0[/embed] KeanuDirector: Peter AtencioRelease Date: April 29, 2016Rating: R  Because I know just what my audience wants from comedy film reviews, let's talk about race! (But, fortunately for most of us, not in the way you might think.) I've now seen Keanu twice: First at a press screening in New York City early last week, and then again yesterday at a movie theater in Seekonk, Massachusetts. The former was packed, in a large theater. But the audience wasn't just large; it was also mixed. There were all sorts of people there, from all walks of life. (Many NYC press screenings that take place in regular movie theaters allow for members of the public to join in, so it isn't just stuffy old critics.) The theater in Seekonk was nearly empty. As I walked in, I saw a group of half a dozen teenagers get turned away by the ticket taker. I assume they were trying to get into Keanu (because they sure as hell weren't trying to see Mother's Day). I was surprised, upon getting into the theater, to find it was occupied almost exclusively by old white people. Given the territory, I wasn't super surprised by the ethnicity, but I was surprised by the age. I think of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as comedians for the younger generation, and so I assumed that any movie that starred them would attract people my age, not twice or three times my age. It was fascinating, really, but what was much more fascinating was the response; specifically, the lack of response, from many of the people in the second theater versus those in the first. I could, probably fairly, argue that the first crowd laughed too often. When Key showed up for the first time, people laughed. It was like they didn't know he was going to be in the movie and this was a comedic surprise. In Seekonk, no one laughed. Stony silence.  But I preferred the former, obviously. Several years ago, I saw a film that ranks among my favorite of all time, Sunny. In my review, I mentioned how weird it felt to see the movie alone, because I spent so much time laughing hysterically, but there was no one there to share that with. Comedy isn't just about laughter; it's about shared laughter. I will always prefer a comedy with an audience, a receptive audience in particular.  The white crowd, however... I think they were uncomfortable. Some objectively great jokes early in the film were met with crickets, but many of them were not necessarily racially charged but were racially tinged. Some minor laughs here and there felt uncomfortable. And I stifled my own laughter as a result of it. There was a key moment in the film involving a backflip that marked the turning point. The characters' immediate reactions to said move are straight-up hilarious, and even stuffy old white men couldn't help themselves. It loosened them up, and that made the rest of the film more enjoyable for all of us. So, what's my point? If you can, see Keanu with a diverse crowd. That is, undoubtedly, an odd thing to say, and some part of me feels uncomfortable saying it, but... it's true. The fact that Key and Peele are biracial has always been a fundamental part of their comedy, and that is reflected in what they've done here. So: Big crowd. Diverse crowd. (We made it, y'all! Race talk, over! Let's talk about cats now!) The Keanu in the title refers to a kitten, who after escaping the site of a brutal massacre, shows up at the door of Jordan Peel's Rell. Rell is in a funk, because his girlfriend broke up with him, and at first you think that the movie might be about helping Rell get over that sadness, but... nope. Keanu shows up, and Rell is better by the time Key's Clarence gets to the door to help him out. Instead, Keanu is stolen by the leader of the Blips (the gang that replaced the Bloods and the Crips), and Rell decides it's time to go get their cat back. In the process, they are mistaken for the Allentown Brothers, two hitmen types (also played by Key and Peele), and it goes from there. But the crucial thing about all of it is that this truly is a film about one man's relationship with a cat that he has known for a very short period of time. Yeah, Clarence and Rell have their family whatever, and each character grows in some fun ways, and there are certainly other meaningful interactions, but when it comes down to it: Keanu. That's what this is all about. And you couldn't ask for a better heart to the movie. That cat is ludicrously adorable. A recent addition to the cast of New Girl is an animal talent agent, and I like to imagine a character like his bringing this kitten into the audition. I can't imagine that they didn't take one look and say, "We're done. This is the only kitten that anyone will ever need ever." Some people go to war over women, but Rell and co. go to war over a cat, and I think they're entirely justified in their actions, no matter how many terrible things they may have to do in the process. Keanu steals the show whenever he's onscreen, doing some of the best animal work I can think of in any show. I spent as much time thinking about how adorable he was as I spent awed by what the trainers were able to make him do. He's got a bright future ahead of him as a cat star, and I would be oh-so-okay with that, because he is the most adorable thing in the world. And honestly, what more to do you need? I could have actually talked about the movie in this review, but why? You don't need me to list my favorite moments to do that (I could, though (the followup to that backflip is really, really high on the list (just saying))). If you didn't see that cat and say, "Yup. I'm in," then there's nothing left for us to talk about. Of course you should see Keanu. Just, ya know, don't forget to see it with a crowd.
Keanu photo
Meow
I think everyone can agree that Key and Peele was a great show, and I think all of us were at least a little bit sad when it ended. Though it didn't hit with every sketch or every episode, the team's consistent creativity has...

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: 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...

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...

Review: The Jungle Book

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

Review: Hardcore Henry

Apr 10 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220494:42906:0[/embed] Hardcore HenryDirector: Ilya NaishullerRating: RRelease Date: April 8th, 2016 Cheesy as it is, Hardcore Henry is about you. When "Henry" (the audience) wakes up in a mysterious facility with no memory of how he got there, his wife Estelle (Haley Bennett) explains that he's suffered major disfigurement from an accident and this facility has put him back together using machinery (basically a more violent version of the Six Million Dollar Man). Then some shadow organization chases Henry down for 90 minutes. And all while during this, a mysterious man named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley) and his many faces seems to be the only one who knows what's going on.  While I'd hate to classify the film in such basic terms, comparisons to a videogame narrative are unfortunately apt. Hardcore Henry gleefully revels in juvenile wish fulfillment. You'll sit back and watch Henry mow down waves of spawning enemies (with little to nothing to distinguish between any of them), you'll see him utilize a variety of weapons he apparently loots from dead bodies, and you'll watch as he peers around corridors and fights in hallways. Every trope from first person shooter videogames is represented and, for a while, it's fun to see unfold. Characters make quips, the first person perspective leads to some enlightening action angles, and there's definitely a joy and humor to how grotesque its violence gets as it goes on. But after about fifteen minutes of these action scenes, the premise wears thin and the film turns into a collection of hollow gore shots trying to outdo one another in order to garner some kind of reaction. And that's only including the ones you can manage to follow.  Hardcore Henry is so focused on how cool things might look it forgets to tell any kind of story. The film essentially puts all of its eggs in one basket as it hopes the flow of the action will keep you invested. Unlike most action films, Henry's voiceless and faceless protagonist can't add anything to the overarching story. He's got no personality, no defining traits other than a relentless need to kill (for some reason that's never quite elaborated on), and it's not like Henry is an all inclusive point of view either as there as some unfortunate homophobic jokes thrown in the mix and it's heavily male friendly as it vies for that sweet 13 year old Mountain Dew demographic. So you can't even fully immerse yourself as a viewer as multiple moments in the narrative remind you Henry isn't you. At least when videogame narratives do things like this, it eventually hands back control to the individual and gives you other options for immersion. There's just nothing here to latch onto.  The film's one saving grace is by and far Sharlto Copley. He's an absolute joy every time he's on screen. It's just a shame he has to singlehandedly carry the film's weight. He's stuck providing so much exposition, jokes, and personality it's kind of running him thin. It's also not helped by the unintelligible scene settings. Henry ends up in several locations with no way other than Copley's Jimmy to help discern where the action is taking place. The film could take place anywhere between an entire city length and the walking distance between my kitchen and bathroom. The film's main device seems to be holding it back in that visual respect. In reference to an old Simpsons gag, every time Jimmy wasn't on screen I felt myself wondering when he was going to show up again. But I wonder if that's because I wanted more of Copley or I was just starved for something to get me through the rest of the film like a lone floating log in the middle of Hardcore Henry's bleak and monotonous ocean of gore.  Hardcore Henry touts itself as a cinematic experience. The first action film of its kind, it's certainly going to get a lot of attention and praise based on existence alone. But it's lacking the level of immersion or direction its premise promises. If I really had to compare it to videogames, watching Hardcore Henry is like going over to a buddy's house and watching him play a game for an hour. It looks neat, and there are bound to be some things that grab your attention, but before long you'll be so bored you'd rather be at home. 
Hardcore Review photo
Normcore
From its inception as music videos for director Ilya Naishuller's band Biting Elbows, Hardcore Henry boasted an unique central idea: crafting a well told action film entirely through the first person perspective on Go Pro cam...

Review: The Boss

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

Review: The Invitation

Apr 07 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220474:42893:0[/embed] The InvitationDirector: Karyn KusamaRelease Date: April 8, 2016Rating: R  The title of The Invitation does not, as you might expect early on, refer to the invitation that you see moments in: a party invitation to the house of Eden and David. Eden hasn’t seen her friends in two years, since the tragic death of her son, and Will’s. Will is our protagonist, and to some degree the only character that the audience can truly empathize with. (The reasons for that we’ll discuss in a little bit.) The Invitation actually refers to a group (read: cult) that Eden and David joined while they were in Mexico, where apparently they spent much of those two missing years. We see bits and pieces of the cult, presented mostly through videos featuring the founder. We also get to experience it vicariously through the actions of the couple, David in particular. During one scene in particular, a series of confessions presented as a sort of "game," a stranger to the group, played by John Carroll Lynch (whose presence in the film is rarely a good sign (plot-wise, at least; I think he’s a fine actor), starts talking about about a horrible thing he did. It was during that speech where I felt compelled to tell no one in particular that what I was watching was upsetting. The Invitation is a lot of things, but there is one crucial thing it is not: surprising. It’s probably a spoiler to say you know exactly where this movie is going almost as soon as the film begins, but not really. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that telegraphs its “twist” so overtly from the word Go. As soon as Will and Kira enter the house, Will knows something is wrong, and you, the viewer, know something is wrong. Everything about it is wrong. It’s wrong in exactly the way that these kinds of things are always wrong. And, of course, Will is the only one who notices it. And you wonder why he’s the only one who notices. He wonders (aloud) why he’s the only one who notices, and I couldn’t help but think about the Cinema Sin’s narrator saying, “Will would be excellent at Cinema Sins.” It’s a little hard to swallow that they would all continue just going along with it. Only one person decides to leave, after that same monologue that I mentioned before. But the lack of surprise isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Told well, even the most generic story can still be exciting, and I think that is absolutely the case here. No, you won’t be wondering what’s behind the next door, but you will be excited to get there. The sense of unease is pervasive, and every frame drips with dread. This is a very pretty movie, with spectacular lighting in particular but camerawork in general. A few days ago, I watched a movie shot a while back, on 35mm film. A helicopter shot of Los Angeles showed a dark city, a patchwork of lights but ultimately a very dim place. In the background of The Invitation’s gorgeous location, you see the lights of that same city. But where films of old are dark, modern films are bright. The city shines, and it grounds you in a sort of reality. You know where this is happening, give or take. This isn’t some remote cabin in the woods. This is a house on a hill overlooking one of the most famous cities in the world. The Invitation is being sold as a psychological thriller, and that’s truest if you see the film less as an objective view of the situation and more as Will’s interpretation of it. This is an interesting thought to consider, because it may very well mean that my irritation with the general group’s inability to see just how wrong everything was is less a function of the narrative than of the presentation. Of course, the friends can’t hear the unsettling music or the off-putting camerawork. The movie wants me to know that something’s up, because Will knows that something is up. We’re in his head, and his head is in a very different place than his compatriot’s. Which is what makes it all the more fascinating that he’s ultimately correct. Oftentimes, intensely psychological films will reveal that the protagonist is the crazy one, that you’ve been lulled into this false belief that your character is reliable. Even if you know that there’s something a little off about them, you convince yourself that they’re fundamentally in the right. And then, when the final confrontation comes, you realize that no, that’s not true at all. And thinking about it through that lens, perhaps The Invitation is a little less typical than I initially gave it credit for. But then again, maybe it’s not. The reality is that this question of how it fits into genre canon doesn’t really affect its very fundamental successes. This is a movie that gets its hooks into you right from the get-go, and you’re anxious to see where it goes. You’re anxious because you’re excited, but also because you know that things cannot possibly end well. You’re anxious for the characters, even if you don’t necessarily care about them the way you care about Will. I didn’t feel like the other characters were neglected so much as they didn’t matter. Focusing on them, telling their stories more deeply, wouldn’t have really benefited the story that The Invitation tells, but that doesn’t mean the holes in the characterizations don’t show. You get glimpses of these characters, but there are many more questions than answers. The final moments of the film bears that out, that there’s a whole world of stories out there that we’re not seeing. It’s just like the reminders in the back of shots that LA is out there, seemingly just a stone’s throw away. And though that image itself feels a little bit like it’s sacrificing narrative logic for the sake a really cool shot (and it is a really cool shot), the implication of it is one worth thinking about. Stories don’t happen in isolation, even in the most isolating environments. And as I think back on the film, I want to stop picking it apart, realizing that certain moments didn’t work quite as well as I thought they did at the time. Because whatever negative things I might have to say, The Invitation is an exceedingly well-crafted film, and I enjoyed damn near every minute. 
The Invitation Review photo
Saw that one coming
I watched The Invitation alone in my apartment. I left the lights on, because I expected it to be scary and wasn't too keen on having a heart attack in pitch black. As it turns out, the film wasn’t scary, at least not i...

Review: The Boy and the Beast

Mar 04 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220368:42844:0[/embed] The Boy and the BeastDirector: Mamoru HosodaRelease Date: March 4th, 2016 (limited English dub release) Rating: PG-13 After the death of his mother leaves him in the care of his extended family, Ren (Eric Vale) runs away from home and ends up stranded on the streets of Shibuya. After following a hooded figure he ends up in a secret world of beasts and gods, and after witnessing a fight between two animals squabbling over lordship, he decides to stick around in the world and become a disciple of one of them, Kumatetsu (John Swasey), a red bear man. With both characters in it for their own selfish purposes (Ren, now named Kyuta, doesn't want to go home and Kumatetsu wants to prove he's capable of being a leader), the two must find someway to get along and make each other stronger. The Boy and the Beast is ostensibly a film about growing up, yet it's awesomely a film about coping with one's own selfishness. Rather than the typical monomyth, or hero's journey, the stakes always remain personal despite its grandiose setting. In telling its personal tale, the art of the film is much more subdued than in Hosoda's previous work. It's definitely not the first thing you'd expect upon hearing the premise, but its certainly surprising when the fantastical world the film takes place in feels so grounded. Colors are a bit muted (but not washed out), the film doesn't involve as much action as you'd probably expect from the premise. and despite the mystical nature of the beast world the character designs are more rooted in reality. The beastmen themselves are usually bipedal in nature and have lots of "human like" features with beast accents. Grounding the film like this goes a long way toward making the entire thing more digestible even when it goes off the rails a bit near the end of the film. Above all, the film is absolutely gorgeous. Other than some weird CG use toward the end, it's full of great stylistic choices.  I've spent the past few days just trying to pin down exactly what kind of film The Boy and the Beast is. It's like Digimon, Spirited Away, Kingdom Hearts, and a couple of My Chemical Romance songs had a baby and read it really obscure poetry every night. Suffice to say, this film isn't like anything you've seen before. I'm not even sure how this package holds together so well given all of its zanier ideas, but it just works. Going back to what I said earlier about its atypical monomyth story, Boy and the Beast is a fairy tale about adolescence. Mainly how adolescence often breeds copious bouts of anxiety (and loneliness as a result) when trying to find one's identity. "Lordship" basically equates to some kind of adult responsibility which one would use to truly ascend into well adjusted adulthood. I'd discuss a bit more about it here, but it'd spoil a bit of the movie. But I can say that when Kyuta faces that all important adult question of whether to pursue a different way of life or keep chugging along his current path because that's all he knows, it'll resonate a bit.  But the film doesn't exactly explore these themes perfectly. Subtlety isn't Beast's strong suit. While its two leads are well characterized (they're basically bickering brothers), they do skew the film's effectiveness. The characters don't really move the story forward well enough to follow through on a lot of its ideas, so we're left with a truly confusing and rapidly paced final quarter of the film. The climax just sort of happens without a well established lead in so there's not as much of a connection to it as intended. Speaking to that, pacing is all over the place. Some plots move too quickly to be developed, and other scenes are dragged out further than they need to be. Rather than feel like we're soaking in every aspect of the film and its world, sometimes it feel like I was crawling along in the goo snails leave as they move.  Even if The Boy and the Beast has some story and editing issues, it's definitely one of the more interesting animated films I've seen in some time. It's full of charm and it packs a genuinely emotional wallop. It's full of such crazy ideas that's it's hard not to completely fall in love with this film. It's one of Hosoda's best, if not his most peculiar.  The Boy and the Beast is not, uh, the least. 
Boy and Beast Review photo
Boy, this is a good movie
Mamoru Hosoda is behind some of my favorite animated films: Summer Wars, Wolf Children, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and even The Digimon Movie. His direction always brings what's best about the animation medium to the fo...


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