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Review: The Divergent Series: Insurgent

Mar 19 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218713:42049:0[/embed] The Divergent Series: InsurgentDirector: Robert SchwentkeRelease Date: March 20, 2015Rating: PG-13  To use some teenage lingo, Insurgent is YA AF. The only thing I'd really heard about the Divergent series was that it's about as derivative as one of these things can be, and Insurgent is proof positive that that's so. I don't know how fair it was to compare Divergent to The Hunger Games beyond the broad strokes, but it's sure as hell fair to compare Insurgent to Mockingjay - Part 1. I wouldn't go so far as to say they're the same movie, but they're pretty gosh darn similar. If you know the basic beats of one film, you can pretty much figure out where the other one is going. A young woman with a silly name, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), is caught up as the centerpiece to her dystopian future's brewing civil war. She's different, you see, and that makes her a target for the city's light-haired tyrant. She's also upset about everything, and having nightmares about all of the terrible things she's had to do in order to survive. She's sad and doesn't want to keep going, because she knows doing so will hurt the people she's closest to. Sound familiar? Yeah, it does. The specifics are different, sure: there are Factions instead of Districts and Donald Sutherland's President Snow is replaced by Kate Winslet's Jeanine, who is equally ruthless but far less interesting. Tris isn't the Mockingjay, she's Divergent, which means that she's ostensibly a multi-faceted character. In a world where everyone is shoe-horned into one personality type or another, be that Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, or Abnegation, Divergent are able to be honest, fearless, intelligent, kind, and selfless (respectively) all at once, or some combination thereof. Tris is particularly Divergent, which is why she's the protagonist. But maybe you already knew that. So let's talk about something else.  A while back, I wrote about how shocking the violence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was. Not necessarily because the violence was so intense in and of itself (though it was), but because it was in a film made for young people. Usually the violence in PG-13 movies is something kind of like "fun," even when it's brutal. The hardcore stuff that makes you cringe is generally left to the R rating. Catching Fire subverted that and was yet more proof that the MPAA's ratings make no goddamn sense. Insurgent doesn't do that. There is a lot of violence in the film, but nearly all of it is implied. There are at least six separate moments where a character points a gun at someone's head, the camera shifts the victim off screen, and then the aggressor pulls the trigger. And if it cuts to a wide shot, there's no blood. In fact, the most horrific image of the entire film is misleading. You might think that dozens (or hundreds) of people have been killed, but they're just asleep. The film's general bloodlessness makes the difference between death and naptime conceptual rather than visceral. There are a lot of reasons why that's probably worse for developing minds, but that's really beyond the scope of this review. I bring it up because it means that the stakes in Insurgent never feel particularly high. Obviously Tris is never going to die, so even when a dozen trained soldiers are all firing automatic weapons in her general direction, every single bullet misses, but even moments with characters who could (and/or do) kick the bucket aren't tense. If something really bad is going to happen, we're not going to see it, and it'll be as palatable as humanly possible. (I expect the book is a bit more hardcore in this respect, though I couldn't say for sure.) But this puts me at an impasse: I don't necessarily want my 15 year old sister subjected to a film that accurately demonstrates the true horrors of war... but I also don't think the horrors of war should be sanitized for the entertainment value of my 15 year old sister. But the reality is that I'm overthinking it. That's a question that matters in the grand scheme of things, but it doesn't really matter in relation to Insurgent, because Insurgent needs to be taken at face value. If you go into Insurgent with great expectations, you'll be disappointed. If you go in expecting something that can stand on a level with the Hunger Games films, you'll be disappointed. But why would you do either of those things? Did you see the trailers? I mean, come on. I saw a short teaser in theaters before Mockingjay, featuring some of the worst CGI I've seen this decade, and I actually thought it was a joke. (The visuals have improved slightly in the final film, but they're still pretty damn bad.) No one should be expecting Insurgent to blow them away, and that's the right attitude to start with. Because Insurgent will not blow you away. But that doesn't mean it's not necessarily worthwhile. It's certainly got some things going for it: It's reasonably entertaining, features generally attractive people, and the ultimate message, generic and predictable as it may be, is a good one. Plus, it feels like a complete narrative. And that's actually what impressed me most. One of the biggest criticisms leveled against Divergent was related to its cliffhanger ending. The whole thing (apparently) felt like setup for this film. But if I didn't know that there was a third book in the Divergent trilogy (or two more movies being released under the Divergent Series tag), I would actually think that this film was the end. It wraps up rather quickly, and perhaps a bit too neatly, but everything that actually matters gets dealt with. As the credit rolled, I felt satisfied by the conclusion, something I cannot say about the past two Hunger Games films. It may end (literally) with a bang, but it's not a cliffhanger, and though I understand how it sets up the next film, it's also put together in such a way that it could be its own ending. I appreciated that. A lot. The film had started to lose me a little bit, but the ending brought me right back on its side. I won't pretend like I loved Insurgent (or that I'm not very excited to see what Cinema Sins has to say about it), but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I didn't dislike it. If you can't stand YA, you're not going to like it. Period. It doesn't transcend its genre in any way, shape, or form. But if you can accept it for what it is and perhaps even embrace its occasional blandness, you could really do a lot worse.
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Why not?
I never saw the original Divergent. I'm not a preteen girl or Flixist News Editor Nick Valdez, which means I have to ration my YA intake. I can only handle so many dystopian fantasies about chosen-ones that spend all the...

Review: It Follows

Mar 12 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218938:42208:0[/embed] It FollowsDirector: David Robert MitchellRelease Date: March 13, 2015Rating: R A black screen. Music builds, slowly at first, but then faster and faster until the film actually begins. And as it builds, there are only two possible options: Something crazy is about to happen. Absolutely nothing is about to happen. Number 2 is a trick, but it's a common one. The build up becomes total silence on a serene moment. It Follows is Number 2, and the music breaks into an image of a quiet suburb. But quiet suburbs don't stay quiet for long. Suddenly, the music swells again, and a teenage girl runs screaming from her house. The camera follows her, refusing to cut as she stops near enough for a neighbor to ask what's up. She brushes it off, and then runs back into the house, and the camera moves down its track with her. Moments later, she bursts out again, this time with keys, jumps in a car, and drives off. Only then does it cut to the girl, now on the beach, lit by her headlights. She pulls out a cell phone and calls her dad. She says she loves him.  Then she is dead. Watching all of this, you begin to make assumptions. Thinking back on all of those slasher movies you've seen, you begin to wonder: Was the camera the monster? Was that spectacular opening shot something POV? When you see that long camera zoom in on the protagonist soon afterwards, that's the killer selecting its prey, right? The camera must be a representation of the titular "It." Nope. You see, It Follows's trick runs much deeper than that. This is a teenage drama that tricks you into thinking it's horror. It is horror, of course, but it's not about horror. (Except in a kind of meta sense.) It's about a teenage girl, Jay, who has sex with a boy she really likes and is punished for it. But not some puritanical torture porn punishment: She's instead possessed by a shapeshifting thing that follows her. After "infecting" her, he explains everything to her, hoping she'll understand. The rules are simple: It follows you. Always. And if it touches you, it will kill you. But it doesn't run. It can't float through walls. It has to break windows and knocks on doors. It's a physical entity, albeit invisible to those who haven't been infected. If you're careful, you'll always know it's coming. But it's always coming, until you pass it on to someone else by having sex with them. But if that person dies, then it comes after you again. You're never truly safe. It only occurred to me when discussing the film with our very own Hubert Vigilla, who reviewed the film for some other, less cool publication, that this sequence is the kind of expository monologues that people (myself included) so often rail against. Expository dialogue is terrible, except when it isn't, and what happens here exemplifies the brilliance that underlies It Follows. It's a monologue given in fear, by a young man pacing the perimeter of a dilapidated building. Jay is tied to a wheelchair. She is also afraid. He doesn't want to hurt her, and he doesn't want her to be hurt, but it's selfish. He's telling her this for his benefit, not hers. It makes the moment real. It Follows is made of real moments like these. For the most part, these characters act like people might in a situation like this. Reactions make sense. Sometimes the characters are stupid, but that stupidity comes from an honest, if unfortunate place. And sometimes the characters have to do terrible things. Jay has to doom someone else in order to save herself, and hope that that person dooms someone else, over and over again. And you can see the toll it takes on her and the people around her.  But even if it's real, it's not always realistic. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell created a dreamscape world, and (like a dream) it doesn't always follow the rules. Both It Follows and Mitchell's first film, Myth of the American Sleepover, are "timeless" films, in the sense that trying to place them in time is nearly impossible, but there's a key different. Myth of the American Sleepover felt more like a period piece. It felt like it was a time, but you couldn't tell which. It Follows has no time. The Characters watch 50s sci-fi B movies on CRT televisions and talk on wired telephones. There are no computers, but one character has a clamshell phone(?) that is primarily used as an e-reader. One character looks at (terrifying) copies of Hustler that probably date back to the 70s or 80s. It's consistently inconsistent, and it makes the world fascinating. That isn't to say this alternate world doesn't have its problems. The monster in particular is deceptively complicated. Not because the rules are, but because it doesn't play out as simply as Jay is led to expect. The best example is actually shown directly in the trailer. Jay looks out a car window and sees It (in the form of a naked man) up on a nearby rooftop, staring down at her. It's a cool shot, right? Yeah, but it makes no goddamn sense. First up: it's not walking. It's just standing. And that's weird in and of itself. But try thinking about the logistics of it: This is a creature that must physically break windows and climb in if a door is locked. It can probably climb, but what it does it does in service of reaching its prey. There are no circumstances under which climbing onto the roof of a house (where your target will never be) makes sense. But it's a cool shot. And you have to accept that the rules don't always make sense, and that the world is similar to but not quite the same as the one we live in, to really click with the film. If you get bogged down in moments like that, the things that don't really make sense, you'll be pulled out of the experience. And that's a shame, because the monster kind of doesn't matter. And that's It Follows's true brilliance. This isn't a really film about a thing that is stalking sexually promiscuous teenagers (though it is also that); it's a film about oridinary people being put in extraordinary situations and learning to cope with it. It's about all sort of big concepts like life and death and love and friendship. But the only thing that's ever in your face is the beautiful, brilliant score by Disasterpeace. The film itself is surprisingly subtle, and it's most effective in the moments when two characters just talk to each other. The dialogue, like the characters, feels real. These sound like real conversations a couple of teenagers might be having, regardless of their situation. And that is what makes It Follows special, its ability to blend tense horror with believable drama in a way that few films have even tried, let alone pulled off. And it makes that obscenely difficult task look easy. Bravo, Mr. Mitchell. Bravo. Per Morten Mjolkeraaen: I too, like Hubert, reviewed It Follows for some other, less cool publication. Living in Norway, I was lucky enough to see the movie at last year's Bergen International Film Festival in September. I liked it so much that I actually saw it twice within a week, where I saw a combined thirty-four movies. That, and the fact that Alec saw it twice pre-review, says it all. Seeing as Alec is way more literate than me, I'll keep this short. The opening scene, which he so marvelously puts into words above, sets the mood immediately. The camera's movements is important in It Follows. It's sophisticated and patient, and always beautiful. Whether it's a close-up of Maika Monroe (whom many discovered in 2014s coolest movie, The Guest), or a long panning shot of the suburban neighborhoods. Every picture and frame is handled with care, but it transcends aesthetics, it becomes an extension of the narrative - a way to cement the inescapability of our characters. Accompanying these images, is the score by Disasterpeace. While Alec says it's the only aspect of the movie that's "in our face", I don't think those words cover it. The music blares from the speakers, and without any hesitation, slams into your eardrums to beat away at your senses. It's cathartic in its pure, unadulterated audaciousness.  Monroe is a millennial Janet Leigh. A bold statement, and one many people may disagree with, but nonetheless very true in my opinion. It Follows is an instant modern classic, and Monroe is fascinating to watch from beginning to end.  It's been roughly six months since I saw It Follows, and I can't stop thinking about it. It's a memory I can't escape. Few movies leave such an impression on me, even fewer when you consider the circumstances of which I saw the movie, so again, It Follows is a instant modern classic. 89 -- Exceptional
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Slasher subversion
I saw It Follows sort of on a whim. I went to two press screenings that day, because it was mostly a day off for me, and I'd heard good things. I figured, why the heck not? Worst case scenario: I have nightmares forever ...

Review: Chappie

Mar 06 // Per Morten Mjolkeraaen
[embed]218822:42142:0[/embed] ChappieDirector: Neill BlomkampRelease Date: March 6, 2015Rating: RCountry: South Africa  So, how is it that a man with such a track record is called a visionary? Why did everyone and their mothers lose their minds when he announced that he’d be directing the next movie in the Alien franchise? Well, because the science fiction genre has struggled for years when it comes to high-concept movies. There are of course masterpieces like Primer, Moon, and Sunshine, but all these are fairly limited in scope (except possibly Sunshine). In the science fiction genre, Blomkamp's voice was a breath of fresh air. Plus, he had an incredible eye for detail and a fundamental understanding of both characters and environmental storytelling. In District 9, he created a believable universe to tell his high-concept story. In a fictional dystopian future, an alien race has landed on earth, only to be quarantined in the slums of Johannesburg, where a local newsagent (Sharlto Copley) gets infected with a virus. Without Blomkamp's earnest wish to actually realize a deeply personal and resonant story, the entire project would have fallen on its face as an over-ambitious alien invasion story. Sadly, over-ambitious is exactly what Elysium was. It had potential, but it was neutered by Blomkamp's inability to hold back on the sociopolitical commentary, made worse by heavy studio involvement.  In Chappie, he takes us back to the not so distant future, and yet again we are in a downtrodden Johannesburg – in this case, the first city to use a full blown mechanized police force, created by a bunch of poorly-utilized Hollywood faces: Sigourney Weaver is criminally underutilized as the big boss, and Hugh Jackman plays a sullen asshole with a Mullet haircut, who hates everyone around him because his project - an even bigger and badder robot - doesn't get anywhere. (Maybe because it needs a human mind to function.) Last, but certainly not least, there's Dev Patel, as the enthusiastic, ambitious youngster, who wants to create the first droid that can think and feel for itself. This he does, but sadly, they get taken (I can't use the word "kidnapped" post-Taken) by a trio of criminals - played by Die Antwoord's Ninja and Yolandi Visser as well as the more low-key Jose Pablo Cantillo.   They do this because they need to pull off an impossible heist so a super scary gangsta criminal warlord won't murder them, and what better way to do that, than with a droid at their side? They get Chappie. Metaphorically born before their eyes, he is a child who needs to be taught and cared for. Thus Ninja and Yolandi take on the roles as his surrogate parents, and try to raise him as badass gangsta #1! But of course nerdy Mr. Patel has to get involved and teach Chappie right from wrong. As with Elysium, the narrative has tons of potential, so it's sad to say that it fails very hard, countless times. It's difficult to really understand the motivations of each character, and the movie is littered with crazy and unbelievable moments. Hugh Jackman's character pulling a gun on one of his co-workers IN THE OFFICE is simply glanced over. Big and seemingly important conversations about morality, and life and death, are handled with less care than any other scenes in the movie. It would be understandable, but no less poor, in a student film, where the self-proclaimed cinephile wants a scene or two to sound philosophical and important, so he can feel mature and clever. But in the third outing of a serious sci-fi director? Not a chance. There are countless problems like this, along with poorly written dialogue and scenes that ruin every illusion of realism – and that says a lot in a movie about droids and mechs fighting in the streets of Johannesburg.  Even so, there is a lot to enjoy about Chappie. Mostly, Chappie. I know a lot of people will dislike, maybe even hate, the character - motion captured by Sharlto Copley - but I found him to be a loveable goon, with more heart and soul than many actual human protagonists in recent blockbusters. The fact that Copley was on set in every scene lends a lot to the realism and physical space Chappie inhabits, and goes along way in adding to the environmental storytelling I like so much in Blomkamp's movies. It feels real. The dystopian Johannesburg looks and feels believable, like a place you could actually visit or see on television news. When you talk about production design, it's never as impressive as in Blomkamp's movies. Even Elysium looked and felt incredible. The high rise in the opening scene was so well constructed I had to use Google Image Search for hours upon hours when I got home, and the same goes for the slums in both District 9 and Elysium. They deserve all the recognition in the world, and showcases just how important production design is.   The music, composed by Hans Zimmer, is also on point. It fits the universe they've created beautifully, and mixes very well with the diegetic sounds of Die Antwoord. Because throughout the movie, the characters of Ninja and Yolandi listen a lot to their own music. As a huge Die Antwoord fan, I loved this. It made scenes memorable, and with some metahumor - I mean, Yolandi namedrops Neill Blomkamp in “Cookie Thumper!” saying "Neill Blomkamp's making me a movie star" – it's all in good fun. However, as with their abilities to act, I can't deny the fact that it doesn't really lend itself to the movie as a whole. It feels masturbatory at times, which fans of Die Antwoord will love, while those who are not – or the more cynical critic in me – will find it distracting. I will add, however, that Yolandi managed to find a maternal love in her role that was inarguably beautiful. Sadly, outside of these scenes, there wasn't too much to applaud in terms of acting abilities. Even worse are the Hollywood faces. Sigourney Weaver doesn't get a chance to shine, which is the real crime here – not Die Antwoord counting dope and stealing cash – and Hugh Jackman was laughably uninspired. I hesitate to use the word “bad,” because he is usually a decent actor, but this was a huge, catastrophic misstep. I struggle to describe it, because there are no comparisons to be made in his career. Dev Patel is Dev Patel. Charming and talented, but he very much plays himself - either it's the version we've seen in The Newsroom or on the couch with Graham Norton. Chappie is a difficult one to pin down for me. I found a lot to like about it, but cannot look past the obvious issues it has. The narrative doesn't work very well, and the characters are poorly developed and acted, but when it comes down to brass tacks, I know I'll re-watch this at some point. I loved Chappie's heart, Ninja's hilarity, Yolandi's affectionate maternal role, and the stunning production design, but beyond this, it's difficult to recommend.
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Because I'm Chappie!
I really do adore Neill Blomkamp, and his first film, District 9, in particular. Although it doesn’t have as many fans as it did back in 2009, I still hold it up as one of the most spectacular debuts in recent years. Hi...

Review: Focus

Feb 27 // Jackson Tyler
[embed]219045:42250:0[/embed] FocusDirectors: Glenn Ficarra and John RequaRated: RRelease Date: February 27, 2015 The movie begins with Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) attempting to pull an amateur con on Nicky Spurgeon (Smith), which he sees through instantly. After the requisite amount of flirting, she moves onto step two of Standard Con Movie Plot #3, begging to be let in on the con Nicky's running despite her relative inexperience. The film proceeds along all the expected beats, but whilst most films commit to the formula, Focus cares so little about its plot that about twenty minutes into the movie, it almost gives up on having one entirely. That sounds like a damning criticism, but it's ultimately wise move, as the movie is far more interested in simply letting characters banter back and forth, allowing the actual con part of the movie to drift into the background. Margot Robbie plays her part with aplomb, subtly mixing the fake naivete of a femme fatal she wants to be with the legitimate naivete of the young woman she is. The movie's at its best when she shares the screen with Adrian Martinez - the gross but endearing one of Nicky's crew - in conversations that are frequently laugh out loud hilarious. Surprisingly, the weak link here is Smith. He’s unusually reserved, playing his usual charm as low as he possibly can, attempting to dig into the conflict at the heart of his character, but sometimes seeming like he's the only person on set who isn't having any fun. He isn't bad by any means, keeping up his side of the bargain as it comes to comedy (at one point he needs to convince a crowd he's a disgruntled worker, so he punches a guy and yells "I am such a disgruntled worker!"), but otherwise refusing the audience a way in to caring about his character. It doesn't derail the movie, but you go to Smith because he's one of a few people who can sell a film on charisma alone, and it's more than a little surprising that he lets his foot off the gas, in a con movie of all places. It is that comedic edge that thankfully saves the movie. Smith and Robbie have chemistry, but it's all but impossible to root for their romance as a tragic tale of liars trapped in love and lovers trapped in lies. What is thoroughly possible to root for, is the possibility of another scene of the two bickering, comparing their pick pocketing technique, or just trying to make each other laugh. Focus is, to me, a testament to the cinematic strength of a good conversation. If the camera is pointed at good actors bouncing off one another, then nothing more is needed to have a good time. And luckily, despite the near-irrelevant plot, and despite one of Smith's weaker leading turns, a good time is not hard to be had. Focus is a fun con movie. Nothing less, and nothing more, it is content to be a mid-tier genre movie for adults in a way that is unfortunately going out of style. It's a movie that's confident in its restraint, knowing what it does well, and not overstepping its boundaries. It's never going to set the world on fire and it's not going to convert newcomers to the genre, but for those of us who have been hurting for a good con flick, Focus is here to brighten the day.
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Die With The Lie
I love a good con movie. From The Sting to Ocean’s Eleven to Catch Me If You Can, the genre is as formulaic as it is entertaining. The secret to its success is a combination of familiar warmth and detached unpredictab...

Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

Feb 13 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218941:42214:0[/embed] Fifty Shades of GreyDirectors: Sam Taylor-JohnsonRelease Date: February 13th, 2015Rating: R I'm at a weird place with Fifty Shades of Grey as I don't know what to credit or blame for its problems. As much as I want to point out the funkier stuff like its atrocious and pointed dialogue, it's hard to completely criticize given where this film comes from. Based on the Twilight fan fiction turned erotic novels, Fifty Shades of Grey is the first in a three story series where Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) gets into a dangerously abusive, yet apparently arousing relationship with distant billionaire bachelor Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). There're S&M sexy times, S&M horrifying times, and stalker times. It's your typical film relationship. But much of the story is unintelligible and if you're even slightly disconnected with the central relationship, there's nothing else to latch on to. Since I've been told that the film strictly follows the book material, good luck finding something you like.  For example, I still have no idea what exactly Christian Grey does. Even the context clues are all over the place. His company Grey House is apparently big in telemarketing, but also plants trees in Africa? And when he's questioned about the nature of his business, Grey's answer is always "don't worry about it." In fact, we're meant to "not worry" about so much in this story, it's incredibly frustrating. There's so much back and forth between Ana and Grey that it's hard to stay invested, and the sex scenes (numerous as they are) feel even more superfluous when there's no emotional attachment. When these scenes drawl on for an extended period of time, it feels incredibly manipulative (which is probably the worst thing a story in which a man wants to own another person can do).  But I bet you’re wondering about the sex, right? The rest of the film would've been easier to swallow had the film at least shown off inspired sex scenes. Unfortunately, book fans won't appreciate the sense of restraint the film has. Other than one sex scene in particular (there's ice involved, if you want to know which one I'm referring to), Fifty holds itself back from some tantalizing scenes. While the Fifty Shades books are widely regarded for their explicit depictions of S&M scenes, it's incredibly subdued. It's a shame that we could've had a positive depiction of S&M culture within a mainstream film, but even those aspects are fudged. Safe words are explained but never used, Ana never completely agrees with the play (and I'll give credit to the scene when she does finally say yes, and realizes how much she dislikes their relationship), and their relationship is always of sheer dominance rather than a shared knowledge between the two of each other's limits.  Honestly, I could've written all of that stuff off (as I'm willing to forgive so much with films aimed at a specific demographic) had Johnson and Dornan shared any believable semblance of chemistry. Credit to Johnson for making some of the dialogue work as her performance is kind of incredible. She's witty, has a good delivery, and drives home Ana's terribly written naivete (she doesn't know what butt plugs are, but is aware of genital clamps?). But it's a shame that she's essentially having sex with a brick wall. I can't tell if Jamie Dornan is intentionally wooden (as Grey is supposed to be this stoic, distant, and broken man), but even when he's turning up whatever he thinks passes for sexual gravitas it falls flat. That's Fifty Shades of Grey's biggest and most problematic issue. Without a compelling central relationship, the film falls apart at the seams. Once you lose interest, you realize how bad the pacing is, how insanely Grey obsesses over Ana (he finds her several times without her revealing her location), how lots of the sex scenes are similarly staged, and how emotionally manipulative the dialogue is.  Fifty Shades of Grey has a few redeeming qualities as some moments hit the right sensual tone, every scene hilariously has the color grey somewhere in it (which should be commended for commitment alone), and Dakota Johnson should use this bad film to star in better films. But the film is an extended tease with the promise of a payoff that never quite comes.  Now I won't spoil the film's ending, but the audience's reaction perfectly illustrates my point. Since the film's story is so horribly handled, it just blankly ends. When the credits started rolling, there was a loudly audible "WHAT," as one woman felt duped. That all comes back to the manipulative dialogue I mentioned earlier. You see, I understand why these types of fan service stories make money. Like those dollar store Fabio cover romance novels, they fulfill a need that isn't met elsewhere. It's a shame the market is so closed off that shoddy projects like this get so much attention because these women deserve something better than this boiled garbage served to them on a stagnant platter.
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Mr. Grey will bore you now
I should start this review by being as frank as possible. I'm not really sure who this review is for. With Fifty Shades of Grey, you'll fall into either one of two camps. You're either planning to see it (or have al...

Review: Seventh Son

Feb 09 // Megan Porch
[embed]218924:42201:0[/embed] Seventh SonDirector: Sergey BrodovRelease Date: February 6, 2015Rating: PG-13  In a world where only men who are the seventh son of seventh sons can learn to fight witches, and witches seem to be all over the place, Seventh Son starts out with a ton of over-dramatic cheese. Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges) and his apprentice, Bradley (Kit Harington), are asked to exorcise a demon out of a young girl. Gregory doesn't seem too interested, but Bradley drags him along to get the work done. It turns out it's not a demon possessing the girl at all; it's a horribly evil witch named Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore). Malkin had been sealed away years ago by Gregory, but thanks to something called a Blood Moon, she's back and is getting stronger than ever. So just when you think the story is about to get going, Gregory lets Bradley die by Malkin's hand, and he's out an apprentice. Enter Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), a character who's also a seventh son of a seventh son. He grew up on a tiny island with his family, and dreams of doing more than just feeding pigs. Gregory shows up at the island, throws some gold at Tom's parents, and the two of them are off on their adventure. This is the moment when the pace of this movie comes to a screeching halt. Yes, there's action, but none of it's all that interesting or engaging. Tom and Gregory have banter that's supposed to be funny and cutting, I guess, but a lot of it just feels like it's written by a fifteen year old running his first Dungeons & Dragons campaign. There's a lot of cutting back and forth between what Tom and Gregory are up to, and what Malkin and her evil lackies are doing, but it never feels like anything is happening because the movie just plods along, taking its time to make any progress. Despite the fact that Tom wants to learn how to fight witches and "things of the dark," he doesn't really seem to listen to anything that Gregory says. When told not to fall in love with a witch, the moment he sees one getting carried off to be burned in a very Monty Python-ish scene, he saves her and immediately falls in love with her. The romance between Tom and the witch, whose name is Alice (Alicia Vikander), is so shoe-horned in it's painful. Tom just doesn't really seem to care about anything that he's doing, regardless of what the consequences might be. But if I delve any more into the story, we'll get into spoiler territory, so instead... let's talk about the actors themselves. First of all, Jeff Bridges has been in a lot of other movies that are generally good. I totally loved him in True Grit, for example. He was funny, but he also knew when to be serious, and his character in that was believable either way. In Seventh Son, however, he doesn't really seem to know how to handle Gregory. The character is written like he's supposed to be this crusty old spook/witch-killer/whatever you want to call him, but then there are other times when he's written to be super serious. So because the personality of the character isn't very clear, Jeff Bridges just kind of... does whatever he wants, which also involves talking like he's got a mouthful of peanut butter. Julianne Moore is another actor who I usually like, but again, she didn't seem to know what to do with Malkin. It was obvious in a lot of scenes that she wanted to get really campy and silly, but the other actors were all so dull that she just decided to be boring, too. The worst one out of the main cast, though, was Ben Barnes. If this movie had been made a year or so after it actually was, I think he and Kit Harington would've had their roles swapped. While I don't think Kit is a great actor, I think he could've made Tom a bit more likeable than Ben Barnes did. Either way, the two of them are pretty much interchangeable in this movie. Also, why was Djimon Honsou in this movie? He can do so much better. At the end of the day, Seventh Son is a nonsensical, plodding adventure. This is better suited to being watched on TV with your friends so you can heckle it than in a movie theater.
Seventh Son Review photo
Jeff Bridges chews his way through a generic adventure
Many moons ago, at San Diego Comic Con 2013, my friend and I were sitting through all the panels in the infamous Hall H waiting to get to the Marvel movie panel. One of the panels we sat through showed some footage and brough...

Review: Jupiter Ascending

Feb 06 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218920:42196:0[/embed] Jupiter AscendingDirectors: The WachowskisRated: PG-13Release Date: February 6, 2015  It's not that Jupiter Ascending is bad in concept, it's that it is truly horrible in execution. The plot is layered, deep and complex, but not in the right ways. The Wachowski's clearly had a world they wanted to create and it has some really cool concepts, but unlike their previous films they're unable to establish this new world at all. There's so much to take in and they do a messy job of establishing the universe.  Here's the general gist of Jupiter Ascending's sci-fi world. Humans didn't start on earth and have been around for ages. They've developed a serum that keeps them young, but it's derived from harvesting other humans so in order to get "livestock" the original humans find inhabital worlds and blend their DNA with local inhabitants. They then let that world mature to full population and harvest it. Earth is one of those worlds and it is owned by a company run by three siblings who inherited it from their mother. Like all great space operas there is drama in the family with head son Balem Abrasax (Eddi Redmayne) leading the pack of three. DNA and gene splicing play a big, awkward role in the film -- one that could have been really interesting if it wasn't so mired in the rest of the movie's desperate attempts to feel like a cohesive whole. That's where Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) comes in. Once in a while a person's DNA is basically fully duplicated. The space humans know this and in their wills will bequeath things to them. Jones, and earthling, happens to be the Abrasax siblings mother's duplicate and so all her belongings go to her and that includes the earth. This makes her a threat so Balem goes after her, but not before Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a fallen Legion member who is now a bounty hunter and is also part wolf, catches her for his younger brother. Cue even more complex plotting, stupid decisions and Mila Kunis cowering in a ball or screaming and you've got yourself the makings of a space opera catastrophe. It's possible you've read the above plot description and asked yourself what the hell is going on. That's pretty much what the screenplay seems to be asking itself. The film implodes upon itself with illogical moment on top of illogical moment, often sacrificing the story in order to deliver a stunning visual. The Wachowski's clearly have so much they wanted to do in this world, but not enough time or skill to do it all. If the film had been a TV show with 20 episodes to unfold it's plot and back story then it actually could have worked really well. It's camp, family drama and feel vividly remind one of classic 90s science fiction. Instead it's crammed into a mess of a movie that makes characters jump from emotional stagnation to stupid decisions in the blink of an eye. It also doesn't help that the Wachowski's seem to want to make the film appeal to every popular trend that exists. Tatum is basically a werewolf, the Abrasax's are both vampires and elves, there's an entire fallen angel bit that gets almost completely ignored, space police come in for a bit of cop show stuff and Tatum flies around on weird hover shoes without a shirt for as much of the film as possible. Let's not forget the trope of a young woman thrust into wealth, adventure and power. It's like a teenage girl's check list of what she wants in a movie actually got vomited up onto the screen -- "Dear Diary, Channing Tatum is soooo cute. I wish he'd play a werewolf and fight vampires and wear eyeliner and no shirt." Visually, which is where you'll probably find most defenses for this movie, the film is both impressive and messy. Much like the over-stuffed plot and back story the costumes, design and look of the film is everywhere. Everything does look really cool, but it's often at the sacrifice of the story and logic of the universe. Stunning visuals are great in science fiction when they help to hold the world that is created together, but when they're just there to look pretty and actually create plot holes within themselves then they start to get really annoying. There's no cohesive whole to the worlds we see. Instead it just feels like a bunch of kids sitting down and just creating whatever they thought would look cool. It is a very pretty mess.  It is in fact so messy that the movie may push itself into camp. We'll leave that as a "time will tell" statement as it's hard to judge where it's going to land, but if Redmayne's ridiculous performance has anything to say about it then it's going to land firmly on the camp side of things. It isn't clear who Redmayne is trying to channel here, but his whispy voice and bat shit crazy performance is either the worst thing we'll see all year or the most brilliant bit of fun. Again, on the small screen, stretched out over a season of television, it would be an absolute blast to watch this character slowly unfold, but in this rushed mess it's just ridiculous. Kunis and Tatum by contrast seem like pieces of wood that the Wachowski's drew faces on and held up in front of a green screen. The truly interesting characters are the siblings, but the film doesn't let us play with them enough since it's so caught up in it's redemption story arcs.  You'd think that despite all of this that the action in the movie would be good, but that might be the most disappointing part of the film. The Wachowskis have shown that they can do fights and they can do speed, but neither of these things show up well here. There's only two major action sequences outside of the conclusion and they're both cutting room messes. One makes absolutely no sense at all and the other could be really cool if they'd manage to pull it off, but they don't. Instead we get far too many scenes of Tatum and Kunis pretending to be in love or Kunis coping with becoming royalty in the universe. It's all incredibly forced and means we get less action, which although mediocre would be far more welcome. Jupiter Ascending should have been a TV show. With a full season to actually put together their thoughts, unfold the characters and deliver on their fifty million different story lines the Wachowski's may have created something fun if not great. Instead we get a true mess on the screen. Overblown in every possible way the movie's only remaining value is that it can be entertaining just to watch it fall apart. There's camp hiding somewhere in here simply because it's very clear that the filmmakers are taking their ridiculousness very seriously. The Wachowski's think they created something amazing and fully commit to it. Sadly, they've only made a joke. At least we can get a laugh out of it.
Jupiter Review photo
A descending pun would not even come close to being harsh enough
I am a Wachowski defender. I have enjoyed if not down right liked every film they've made. Yes, even the second two Matrix films. If you insult Speed Racer I'll flip some tables. That movie was a kinetic and frantic mast...

Review: The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

Feb 06 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218919:42195:0[/embed] The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of WaterDirectors: Mike Mitchell and Paul TibittRelease Date: February 6th, 2015Rating: PG When the Krabby Patty formula mysteriously vanishes from the Krusty Krab, Spongebob (Tom Kenny) and Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) end up to blame for its disappearance after some hijinks. As Bikini Bottom falls into post-apocalyptic madness, Spongebob and Plankton form a te-am in order to find the formula and save the town. Their shenanigans eventually brings them to the mysterious pirate Burgerbeard (Antonio Banderas) and a magic book which seems to control their lives.  First off, Sponge Out of Water is definitely for kids. Unlike most animated films, Water isn't afraid to cater to its audience so it's full of hyperactivity a mile a minute. Fortunately, this isn't always a bad thing. While the rapid fire nature of the jokes might turn the older crowd off, enough of them land that the balance is tipped more in the film's favor. I found myself laughing quite a bit at the way the humor was crafted. While seemingly random, punchlines are stemmed from unlikely places and not wasted on obvious jokes. Like when Spongebob and Plankton first work together, there's so much humor mined from Plankton's inability to say the word "teamwork," and the dialogue exchanges during these bits is incredibly nuanced ("Teamwork." "Te-am wok." "Say 'team.'" "Team." "Now say 'work." "Work." "Teamwork." "Timebomb.") that it doesn't overstay its welcome. Or all the post-apocalyptic stuff. That's all golden. Sponge Out of Water is also incredibly animated. It's one of the few films that's absolutely better in 3D, and it's full of slick and gorgeous animation. The transition between the 2D plane and CG shenanigans seen in the trailers is seamless (although it's unfortunately relegated to a short finale). While the first Spongebob Movie felt more like a longer episode of the television show, Water's bigger budget and zealous effort really shines through. This is the first one that feels like a "movie," if that makes any sense. It's wonderfully experimental too. There's shifts in animation styles like with the time machine bits (which are so weirdly done, it's hard not to love), cotton candy brains, and of course with the guardian who watches over time. It's inventive, and these ever changing styles work well with this film's incredibly fast pace.  But the biggest problem with the film is simultaneously its biggest asset. It caters to its young audience, which also means it's of very little consequence. A film you can have on in the background and sort of watch, a film you can sit your kids in front of to buy you an hour of quiet time, and it's a film without some grand message about the human condition (or any message beyond "te-am wok") to interpret. And while the film is fun, there are some decisions that are far too zany and experimental to work even for the kids it's trying to entertain (the final few minutes will definitely make you scratch your head). Yet, it's hard not to love a film with a main character who, at his most rebellious, mixes garbage with the recycling. Oh, and I almost forgot about Antonio Banderas! He completely throws himself into this, and is in one of the funnest roles I've seen him in a long time.  While it's not perfect, Sponge Out of Water isn't afraid to have fun at its own expense. It's a party celebrating Spongebob Squarepants and the fact that it's still popular enough to churn out a movie ten years later. In fact, it won't care what I think as its naive charm will continue to entertain regardless of what I've said here.  If you're going to see The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water for more of Spongebob Squarepants (absorbent and yellow and porous is he) then you won't be disappointed. For everyone else, they'll drop on the deck and flop like a fish.
Spongebob Review photo
A good movie, if nautical nonsense be something you wish
This may come as a surprise to you, but Spongebob Squarepants is still the juggernaut of a cartoon it was when it first debuted back in 1999. Never ceasing to keep kids' attention thanks to its unique characters and ever evol...

Review: A Most Violent Year

Jan 30 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218877:42166:0[/embed] A Most Violent YearDirector: J.C. ChandorRelease Date: January 30th, 2015Rating: R Taking place in New York City, 1981, statistically the most violent year in the city's history, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a young man from an immigrant family who's just trying to run a legitimate heat and oil company without succumbing to the crooked nature of the business. But thanks to his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), and an ongoing investigation into the mafia from District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo), Abel is put through the ringer and it's up to him to decide whether or not to keep his hands free of corruption.  A Most Violent Year is an intense breakdown of the mafia genre. While the film does display a lot of the cornier characteristics of mafia films (meetings of all the head honchos, one mysterious man who dictates everything), the film's filter helps to dilute the inherent cartoonishness usually found. Thanks to its gritty, but not overtly so tone, the story is grounded within realistic bounds. Thanks to Abel's hands off approach, the criminal underworld is always kept on the sidelines and Year is left to critique its approach from an open perspective. It's a smart balance between utilizing the themes of the genre while telling a unique story. It turns out to be far more compelling watching Abel distance himself as you root against the American Dream.  You see, A Most Violent Year is one of the few films with a positive Latin protagonist (although the way everyone says his first and last name bugs me a bit), and for once it's what defines the film rather than a consequence. For example, the messages about the American Dream (in which we watch Abel, a successful man from an immigrant family, interact with Julian, a struggling man from an immigrant family) hit a bit harder given that you can feel the amount of struggle from a place of non-privilege. And a smaller, but important step forward is that it's never once implied that Abel is struggling because he's an non-white character. Sure it seems like a weird, non-sequitur of a critique but I can't help but celebrate well put together Latin characters.  What really helps the film sink in is the cast. While the deliberate pace of the film will turn some folks off (the narrative admittedly isn't engaging in certain spots), the cast helps anchor the film and once again reigns in the genre. For example Chastain's character Anna is completely stereotypical, but her performance adds a layer of depth not found in the writing (like that one speech about respect found in the trailer should've been completely flat, but is one of the best scenes in the film). It's a shame she's not in the film enough. A lot of the film's lines and sequences would've failed if weren't for the performances. They're kind of hokey and on the nose, but it's hard to care when Isaac and Chastain are allowed to play off each other. Good thing Oscar Isaac is going to be in more things too. He's fantastic in this.  A Most Violent Year is also a most exquisite one. While some of the scenes and dialogue don't mesh well with the film's grounded tone and serve to almost break the film's reality (and become the film it seeks to reinvent), the cast never once lets that get to them. With a Latin protagonist, a setting used in a new way (although the backdrop is "the most violent" in New York's history, violence never clouds the narrative), and a well thought out take on an aging genre, A Most Violent Year is definitely one of my favorites.  Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain should just be in every movie from now on. 
A Most Violent Review photo
This year shouldn't end
I had no idea what A Most Violent Year was before my screening. This was even before the smaller, limited release managed to gain traction and before I realized how good the cast assembled was. With little to no advertising, ...

Review: The Boy Next Door

Jan 23 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218857:42154:0[/embed] The Boy Next DoorDirector: Rob CohenRated: RRelease Date: January 23, 2015  I'll be the first to admit that The Boy Next Door can actually be a bit of fun. It's a classic crazed stalker exploitation film that banks on people's desire to see Jennifer Lopez in very explicit sex scenes and our strange love of obsessed lovers going insane. Claire Peterson (Jennifer Lopez) is a recently separated mother who is struggling to emotionally cope when the hunky Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman) moves in next door with his uncle. Through a series of events she ends up sleeping with him -- a bad move in general made even worse by the fact that she's his teacher. That kicks off the crazy as Noah begins to threaten her and her re-establishing family. While the movie starts out as the thriller you expect it to be things start veering into the horror zone as Noah's action become more psychotic, slasher killer and less obsessed teenager. This is honestly what saves the film from being bad bad and, in an firey conclusion that jumps all sorts of sharks, pushes it into ridiculous camp. There's something enjoyable about just how hard they're trying in this film. The opening flashbacks that establish everything are so awful that it's hard to imagine they didn't just add them in to really establish a tone of ridiculousness. The borderline pornographic sex feels like something out of a 90s thriller and as the plot unwinds there is just something fun about watching it get more ridiculous. That being said, if you pay full price (or any price, really) for this film you are making a terrible mistake. This is a find on TV and enjoy kind of crap. It's not so bad it's good, it's so bad it need to be seen. This isn't the kind of camp that makes a film a cult hit, it's the kind of camp that you can't believe actually happened. How did this redundant and cliche screenplay full of some of the worst dialog I've seen in a cheap thriller get green lit? Was it actually all about having JLo in a thong? That's quite possible, but man, does it make for bad movies. Some credit does have to be given to Guzman who you may remember from being shirtless on Pretty Little Liars or shirtless in Step Up All In or possibly just standing around being shirtless. He over commits to this role like a true camp champ. Everything the perfect over-the-top psychopath performance needs is there from the way-too-crazy eyes to the Shatner levels of over acting. When the film starts he's just another shirtless guy, but once the crazy kicks in Guzman is up there with the most ridiculous of crazy stalker performances. It's not good, but it's damn interesting to watch.  There's not much point in talking about the film's star, Jennifer Lopez, except to wonder if her American Idol paycheck is somehow not coming through. What other reason would she have to be in this movie? It's not the kind of film the rekindles an acting career and she can't be struggling for money. She's perfect for the role of milf, but she's almost too perfect as you wonder why no one else but this psychotic kid realizes just how attractive and well dressed this high school teacher is. Again, another aspect that makes the film just terrible, but also weirdly enjoyable. The Boy Next Door is a very bad movie with a very bad screenplay and performances so absurd they could only be described as, you guessed it, bad. Yet thanks to a sudden genre switch at the end and a feeling that everyone involved kind of knows just how bad things are it can be enjoyable -- not good, but enjoyable. Do not pay for this movie, do not rent this movie, but if, late one night, you find yourself flipping through channels and you see Jennifer Lopez in her underwear getting it on with a walking, talking six-pack stick around and have some fun.  
Boy Next Door Review photo
So close to camp and yet so far
I'm not actually sure who I'm writing this review for. Anyone whose seen the trailers for The Boy Next Door has undoubtedly made their made up about it. It's a trashy stalker film with Jennifer Lopez seducing a teenager ...

Review: R100

Jan 22 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218709:42046:0[/embed] R100 Director: Hitoshi MatsumotoRating: R100Release Date: January 23rd, 2015 (Theatrical and VOD)Country: Japan Takafumi Katayama (Nao Omori) is your average Joe (or whatever the Japanese equivalent to that is). He's a reasonably competent salesman at a large furnishing store. There's exactly nothing remarkable about him. If you saw him on the street, you wouldn't think twice about it. Unless, of course, he was being abused by a woman in leather. And while for many that seems a bit unlikely, for Katayama it's a daily occurance. You see, Katayama likes pain. Sexually. And since his wife went into a coma, he has had a rather involved method of having this particular desire fulfilled. For one reason or another, he ends up at a club called “Bondage.” The literal merry-go-round that follows convinces him to hire a particularly comprehensive S&M care package. As he goes about his life, various leather-clad "Queens" will come to him and make him feel. And it's not always physical abuse; any sort of humiliation will do. Lovely dinner at a sushi bar? Here comes a Queen to smash the food to bits and make him eat it in front of the extremely uncomfortable guests. And he loves it. You can tell, because his face contorts like a baloon, his eyes turn black, and ripples emanate from his head. By now, you should know if R100 is your type of film. If that previous paragraph sounds either titillating or hilarious, you've already figured out the next screening within 50 miles of you and are planning your weekend around it. If you find that conceptually retched, literally nothing about it is going to change your mind. This is a film intended to appall. But it also wants to make you laugh. And in that objective it is overwhelmingly successful. Right from the outset, I was completely and totally hooked. And so was everyone else. When that first Queen roundhouse kicks Katayama's head into a glass window, it was a taste of things to come but it couldn't prepare us. Nothing could. From there it builds and builds into this amorphous, incomprehensible blob of violent sexual comedy. And it's absolutely brilliant. I'm loathe to say more. Not that I'm really worried about spoilers, because R100 truly has to be seen to be believed. A whole bunch of text on the internet won't tell you shit. I could describe the above trailer – which is really just a clip from Katayama's introduction to his new pastime – in excrutiating detail, but until you actually saw it for yourself, you couldn't comprehend what I'm saying. And that's a pretty basic scene, all things considered. Around the 45-minute mark, things get Meta. People begin to react to the film’s content and note its narrative inconsistencies. I laughed as hard as anyone, but it was also the moment that I began to think that perhaps R100 was trying just a bit too hard. Pulling off Meta humor is extremely difficult, and generally it only works when it's a fundamental part of the narrative. That isn't the case here; the film literally pauses for comment a few times and then resumes. That's an issue in part because, as funny as it is, R100 presents itself seriously. Omori and co. aren’t in on the joke, so when someone flat out states that there are massive contradictions and continuity problems, it doesn’t really jive with the narrative as presented. It seems more like an attempt to shield itself from criticism. “Hey, you can’t criticize this story for being ridiculous, because we did it first. Aren’t we zany?” Calling attention to a story’s flaws rarely works. Rather than being cutesy and playing it off, I'd rather they just fix the problem in the first place. It still bothered me in R100, but it’s less of a problem, because the film was going to have those inconsistencies anyway. The film called attention to them because it does whatever it damn well pleases. Without those moments, nothing would have changed. And so they aren’t really flaws in the way these things usually are. They were clear, albeit insane, directorial decisions to drive forward the little bit of narrative that R100 pretends to have. They didn’t have to draw attention to them. But in the grand scheme of things, none of that really matters. Because this is a film where a platinum-blonde giantess screams American profanities while jumping into a pool on a continuity-shattering loop. I mean, come on. That's fucking amazing. And if that couldn’t inspire someone to literally eat their shirt, I have no idea what could.
R100 Review photo
Viewer discretion advised
Thanks to R100, we know the proper recipe for a shirt: 24 hours in a slow-cooker, with red wine sauce, celery and carrots. Not because the film involves shirt eating (not directly at least), but because it forced Twitch found...

Review: Blackhat

Jan 16 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218837:42147:0[/embed] BlackhatDirector: Michael MannRated: R Release Date: January 16, 2015  Blackhat may be timely in its release with all the issues going on with government hacking, but that doesn't mean it's actually all that interesting. Behind the fantastic direction is a plot so thin it makes single ply toilet paper look thick. Someone hacks into a nuclear power plant in China and blows it up. Surprisingly un-phased, the Chinese government sends Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) over to America to work with Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) of the FBI to track down the hacker. Chen also brings along his sister, Lien Chen (Wei Tang), for no other reason than they needed someone for Chris Hemsworth to fall in love with. Hemsworth, by the way, plays an elite hacker guy who Chen roomed with in college. Chen convinces the FBI to release Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth) so the two can track down he bad guys. The story is relentlessly full of people typing in front of computers saying things that don't actually mean anything. That's part of the requirement for a film about hacking and cyber terrorism of course, but Mann has trouble keeping so much exposition clear and with a muddled plot that limps along it's hard to care. It's even worse because when the film does get out from behind the computers and starts tearing through the streets of Hong Kong its a gorgeous feast. Mann's action chops kick back in and things look like they're going to pick up until the next scene in front of a computer. Nichalos and Lien's romance is also painful to get through. The pair spend a day together and suddenly we're supposed to believe they've fallen madly in love. Hemsworth and Tang have almost no chemistry together and the actor often doesn't seem to want to be there. The pacing for their relationship is about as muddled as the film's plot, which routinely asks you to make jumps in logic that make little sense all while attempting to string together a twist ending that renders most of the movie pointless. Once the plot gets to where it thinks it wanted to go the film really has an issue. It's built up this hacker into a demi-god, but he's really just a guy. Tacked on to the end of the movie is a sequence so preposterous and pointless it feels like it might be from a different film. Mann's direction once again saves the conclusion from being unwatchable, but it's still pretty laughable. You get the feeling that the screenwriters forgot they had to end the movie while they were writing it.  Finally, is the down right odd score. Mann loves his synthesized strings and usually uses them well to pull you into his films, but here the score is often at odds with the film. It's overbearing at times and pulls you away from what's going on screen. Other times it works just fine. It's slightly schizophrenic, which may come from the multiple composer credits the film had.  Blackhat features some of the best city filming Mann has done in a long while and Hong Kong, along with the plethora of other cities, are  fantastic locations for him to shoot in. The movie looks great, but it is not a great movie. The plot, story and romance are about as flat as can be. Mann does his best to make what is basically two hours of computer exposition out of the realm of boredom, but there's only so much stunning directorial work can do. Bad plots are bad plots. 
Blackhat review photo
Like a bad thriller trying to be a Michael Mann film
I am a big Michael Mann fan. Collateral might be one of my favorite films. The guy just knows how to direct. You can be guaranteed at least one breath taking, though provoking shot in one of his films. This is espec...

Review: Two Days, One Night

Jan 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218812:42122:0[/embed] Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)Directors: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne Release Date: January 6, 2015Rating: PG-13 Country: Belgium  I like Two Days, One Night's premise: While Sandra (Marion Cotillard) was on medical leave, her bosses put together a voting ballot. People could either vote for Sandra to stay on when she was feeling better, or they could keep their annual bonuses. The company can't (well, won't) afford to do both. Unsurprisingly, more went for the bonuses and suddenly Sandra was unemployed. But Sandra wasn't a part of the process, and she must go to each coworker one by one and ask (beg) them to reconsider. There are 16 people. She needs nine votes. On concept, that sounds like a really interesting way to develop a character. At the start of Two Days, One Night, we know almost nothing about Sandra other than that she's really sad. But a lot of people would be sad in that particular situation, so that barely even counts. We don't know why she left in the first place, what job it is that she's lost, or how she gets along with the others at her workplace. All we know is that Marion Cotillard is a good crier, and why wouldn't she be? She's a great actress. As it turns out, there's not really anything more to Sandra than that. Sandra is boring. It was depression that took her out of work, and while that's a totally valid reason to take some time off (she's medicated now), she is hampered at each and every moment of the film by her depression. She wants to keep her job, but she doesn't want to impose on others. She doesn't want to be told "No, I need my bonus more than I need you to have a job" by people she worked with. I get these things, but these issues manifest themselves as a constant game of Sandra refusing to do anything other than pop pills and her husband saying, "Come on!" until she eventually acquiesces. That's boring. And so is hearing Sandra explain why she has shown up unannounced on a colleague's doorstep over and over again. It's an issue of realism: Sure, most of them would not have heard of her new crusade to get her job back, but we (the audience) have heard her little introductory spiel way too many times, and it doesn't change. Nearly every single interaction starts the same way: - Sandra shows up at their house but the person is not there- She goes to wherever they are (usually pointed out by a spouse or child)- She explains the ballot- "But it's soooo much money!"- "But it's my job!" Over and over and over again. It's maddening, really.  So you'd think I didn't like Two Days, One Night, because it's boring and because its lead character is boring, but that's because what makes the film interesting (and ultimately worth watching) has almost nothing to do with its lead character. While Sandra as a character is never particularly interesting (even if the ultimate result shows something verging on character growth), the other people she interacts with are. There are only two possible responses – "I need the money, but okay" and "I need the money, so no" – but the situations that lead them to go from one answer to the other are occasionally fascinating to watch. The one-on-one interactions are by far the least interesting, because then it's just one person begging and the other person accepting or not. But when a third person (usually a spouse) becomes involved and it turns into a shouting match or some other intense moment, then you see what the money means to these people. Sandra needs a job, but these people have structured their lives around this 1,000 Euro annual bonus. It lets them pay their bills or get their children an education. Maybe it lets them do something cool and new for themselves where all of their other income had gone exclusively to the necessities. All of these are acceptable reasons to say no (even the latter, although it's a bit sketchy), and all of them get used. But seeing the way the co-worker (who usually has empathy) reacts versus the spouse (who has no love for Sandra) reveals a lot about who those people are and the fights that sometimes occur as a result are fascinating (and sometimes terrifying) glimpses into the lives of other characters. If Two Days, One Night succeeds at anything, it's at making these other characters feel like they're real people with actual lives. It feels like Sandra is intruding on them and they're just trying to keep on living. And because of that, I kept watching. Would they stick to their guns? Would they crack under pressure? Those questions propelled the narrative forward far more than the overarching "Would Sandra get to keep her job?" Because the film didn't make me care about Sandra, but it did make me care about everyone else.
Two Days One Night Review photo
Cotillard Cried
Sometimes you watch a movie and you immediately know how you're going to feel about it. There's something about the atmosphere that it creates that just strikes you. You know exactly what the film is trying to do, and you kno...

Review: Inherent Vice

Jan 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218407:41869:0[/embed] Inherent ViceDirector: Paul Thomas AndersonRelease Date: December 12th, 2014 (Limited); January 9th, 2015 (Wide)Rating: R  Inherent Vice is odd. As I watched it, I assumed I was missing something. I didn’t really connect with it or what I thought it might be trying to do, but at the same time I did feel like I understood basically what was going on. I actually thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure I understand this more than I think I do,” at least on a superficial level. But perhaps I didn’t. The basic narrative seems pretty simple (down to its bare essentials: a stoner private investigator is trying to find his ex-girlfriend and gets mixed up in some bad things), but beyond that things start to go in all kinds of bizarre directions. And the film doesn’t necessarily hit the points it needed to. Press notes fill in the blanks, and the number of copies of Pynchon’s novel that surrounded me in the theater made me feel like I had missed some vital memo. But then maybe it’s not my fault that I didn’t understand the film, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s. And here we get to the question of adaptation: What is the purpose of taking a thing and bringing it to a new medium? Is it just to delight fans of the original work, or is it to bring that original work to a new audience that can fall in love with it? If it were the former, anecdotal evidence would lead me to believe it’s a success… but if he was going for the latter, it’s a failure. But I don’t know what Paul Thomas Anderson was going for, and I’m not even sure he does. Anderson has compared Inherent Vice to Zucker Brothers comedies (Airplane, Naked Gun, etc.) and I can’t help but wonder if Paul Thomas Anderson has ever seen a Zucker Bros. film, or his own most recent effort. To be sure, Inherent Vice is a comedy, but it’s nothing like what the Zucker Bros. did. Their films featured a gag in nearly every single shot (if not multiple), and at their best there was barely a moment where you weren’t laughing at what they’d done. Inherent Vice made me laugh, and it made most of the other people in the theater laugh, but it’s no laugh riot. Not even close. Long moments of serious intensity and drama may be punctuated by a joke, but I can’t even begin to comprehend what would make him think of that comparison. (Other comedies that it’s compared to, such as The Long Goodbye, I haven’t seen and cannot speak to.) Then again, maybe there was a version of Inherent Vice with more laughs. At the ludicrously large press conference that followed our screening (twelve people), it was pretty clear that a lot of the cast wasn’t entirely sure what they had done. They talked about how much they enjoyed improvising and the “chaos” of the set. (Others disagreed with the fundamental premise of chaos. As is so often the case, the truth likely lies somewhere in between.) They said that they tried a bunch of different things and they trusted that in the editing room everything would be worked out. And that interests me more than anything the film actually did, because it means that if someone else had been given the exact same footage, we could have literally had an entirely different film. The performances are so uniformly strong that little tweaks to delivery and cadence could have made a world of difference in the way it all played out. Many characters are only in a few scenes (some just one), and the plethora of long takes means that it probably wasn’t all that hard to work around different versions of any individual performance. I can’t help but wonder if I would have liked another version of the film more. I certainly like The Naked Gun more than I liked Inherent Vice. (Which in and of itself says a lot about a lot of things.) Everyone has a bunch of lists of different books they need to read, movies they need to see, music they need to hear, and etc. The work of Thomas Pynchon in general has been on that list for some time. Inherent Vice has been described more than once as Pynchon-lite – whatever that means – and thus a good starting point into his work. (Many of those myriad copies around me in the theater were apparently breezed through.) So maybe I’ll read it down the line, and maybe it will retroactively make me appreciate the work that went into adapting a novel from a writer whose books are often deemed “unfilmable.” But I shouldn’t be required to read an adaptation to really grasp what a film is trying to do. An adaptation is not necessarily a replacement of a source material the way a remake might be, but it needs to stand on its own. Inherent Vice doesn’t really do that. But it’s not just that I haven’t read Pynchon. Perhaps my critical mind just doesn’t go deep enough. And perhaps my lack of knowledge of 1971 America exacerbated that issue. It’s something that didn’t occur to me until after the credits had rolled. I asked Hubert Vigilla (of our Gone Girl analysis discussion fame) what he thought of it, and he said something to the effect of “I think I’ll like it more after I’ve thought more about the way it uses teeth to represent the decay of consumerism in the late 1960s.” And the only thing I could say was, “Oh.” And perhaps, “Might you be overthinking it?” “No.” “Oh.” And that inability to respond was the moment when I realized that I really had missed something and that this wasn’t a film that could appeal to a broader audience on anything more than that superficial level. But here’s something true: that superficial level is very well-crafted, and no matter what your level of education or Pynchon literacy, you will almost definitely like Inherent Vice at least a little bit. Paul Thomas Anderson is undoubtedly a supremely talented filmmaker, and the ensemble he’s pulled together for the film is uniformly excellent. If you don’t think about what the film is trying to say or its narrative failings, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a truly fantastic film (if a bit long). But it’s not actually fantastic; it’s just good. And there is nothing wrong with being good. But while I haven’t seen everything Anderson has done, I can also say it’s the least compelling of the films that I’ve seen. And so I’ve met the film halfway. I may not really understand it, and I definitely think it failed in its attempt at bringing Pynchon’s story to a new audience in a way that is inherently compelling, but I know that so many others (who are better-read than I am) have really liked it that lambasting it for my own ignorance seems even more ignorant. But even so, I know that a lot of people who aren’t critics by hobby or trade will be put off by what Anderson has made. When you’re laughing and enjoying the craft, Inherent Vice is an easy film to like, but as soon as it gets into its esoteric meanderings, a lot of people will turn off. This will be a polarizing film, and unfortunately the debate surrounding it will be marred by pretension.  Though perhaps that's fitting.
Inherent Vice Review photo
Something Something Thomas Pynchon
I’m not educated enough to have an intelligent conversation about Inherent Vice. I’m smart enough, but to seriously wrestle with what Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s book is tryin...

Review: Foxcatcher

Dec 29 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218769:42086:0[/embed] FoxcatcherDirector: Bennett MillerRelease Date: November 14th, 2014 (limited), December 19th, 2014 (wide)Rating: R Foxcatcher is based off of millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) and his "training" of Olympic wrestlers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) Schultz in his home of Foxcatcher ranch. As John invites Mark to train at his state of the art facility for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Mark agrees to escape the shadow of his more successful brother. But Mark quickly learns that John is throwing his money behind the Schultz brothers in order to earn the respect of his mother and the world around him.  Foxcatcher is the argument against giving directors freedom from studio interference. Most of the time when you hear of heavy studio involvement, you hear of the bad things like censorship or hard to work conditions. But in an era where films see it fit to run an ungodly length of time (we've lost our chance at a concise masterpiece) just because they can, and every film in theaters is two hours plus, that's when the studios come in and adjust things. Regardless of the actual reason for those adjustments (budget reasons, for example), the tighter leash forces directors to think more creatively and effectively utilize what little run time they're allotted. But if a director is given all of this freedom but chooses not to use the empty space between narrative beats, you get long stretches of nothing. That's Foxcatcher in a nutshell.  It's just a shame too as there are quite a few interesting dramatic moments in between all of the filler.  Tatum as Mark Schultz is wonderful. An intentional stonefaced delivery complete with nuanced physicality, Tatum certainly has a future in films like these. I can't wait to see Tatum challenge himself more. Foxcatcher is at times intense and unforgiving, and during these brief scenes, it's compelling. For example when John du Pont is introduced, he gives this brief speech and Carell fills the air with a sinisterness by just breathing. In fact, Carell deserves whatever awards nominations or wins that he gets in the future. He is a commanding, yet fragile presence. A slightly unhinged individual with shallow breath, you spend the entire film waiting for the him to completely unravel. But if you already know the story that inspired Foxcatcher, there won't be payoff for you and all of the waiting you had to endure will be for naught. In fact, you'll wish it came sooner.  Foxcatcher could've been an interesting character study had it attempted to diversify its tone. There's never any attempt to present these individuals as something other than broken, and when you don't attempt to mask it (or explore that brokenness), there's very little in the narrative to chew on. There's never any attempt to bring the audience in, and your always left on the sidelines waiting for something to happen. When Foxcatcher gives you yet another pregnant pause, or yet another landscape shot, you've lost interest in all of it as you realize the narrative would rather wallow in its pretentiousness than dissect it.  Foxcatcher is a film where you watch a fox chase a rabbit for over two hours, taking time every now and then for a nap. By the time the fox actually catches the rabbit, you've been lulled into such a sleepy state it's impossible to stay invested in anything that happens on screen. It all just fades into the background.  It's a damn shame too as what is in that background is fantastic work. A good show of talent for all of the cast involved with a story based off a little known true story, and some fantastic transitions between scenes. But as mentioned, it's buried under tons and tons of bad pacing. When the most educated criticism I can come up with after immediately watching is "it's boring," I have no idea what to blame. Maybe myself. Maybe there's something here I just didn't connect with, but as it stands, Foxcatcher catches little. 
Foxcatcher Review photo
Catches cold
Foxcatcher quickly grabbed a lot of attention for its stark representation of some big named actors. While Steve Carell has tackled heavier material before, he had never looked as sinister as he did in the first couple of ima...

Review: Into the Woods

Dec 28 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218767:42088:0[/embed] Into the WoodsDirector: Rob MarshallRelease Date: December 25th, 2014 Rating: PG Based of the Stephen Sondheim stage musical, Into the Woods is five different fairy tales weaved together into one plot. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) wants to go to a festival but is afraid of Prince Charming (Chris Pine), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) trades some magic beans for his cow and ends up stealing from a giant, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) wants to visit her grandma but gets stopped by the Wolf (Johnny Depp), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) is stuck in a tower, and a poor Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) can't have a child until they gather important items from these stories for the Witch (Meryl Streep) who's put a curse on their house.  Director Rob Marshall once directed one my favorite musical adaptations, Chicago. But while that film kept some of the bombastic nature of the original stage version, it was toned down in most areas out of a self-inflicted need to keep the film grounded. When that film broke out one of its numbers, it was relegated to a dream sequence far and away from the "real" world. While I've never seen the Into the Woods stage play myself (and thus this is one of the few times I have no experience with a musical before it gets adapted), I was once again worried that these woven fairy tales would lose their mysticism and be grounded in some way. I was way off the mark there. Finally exploiting the inherent wackiness of every musical, Woods is a big, showy representation of what musicals can really do. While the lack of unsung dialogue (until the final third of the film) may throw a few people off as there are no clear starts and stops, it's impossible not to get swept up in the fun.  And there's so much fun to be had from Woods. While the staging itself is a bit small (instead of coming off as intimate, it's stifling when each of these bombastic musical numbers occurs within such a confined area), the cast uses the area given well. Sure it's weird to see so many of these characters cross paths often when the woods is shown as this big place, and it's a little hokey when you recognize certain areas, but that might be more attributed to the original version. A good example of marriage between good staging and cast is when Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen perform "Agony." As the two notably attractive Princes cavort and contort around a waterfall, it's a wonderfully self aware, boy band type of performance. It's goofy, wet, and they tear their shirts open for no reason. It's fantastic. There's plenty of that self aware goofiness here and it works for the kind of fantastical tale Woods tells.  As for the cast itself, every person holds their own with Lilla Crawford and Meryl Streep stealing the show. And in terms of arrangement, every song sounds good and there is nary a faulty note to be found. Although the flowing format of the film means I can't tell you about a specific song (as it's hard to gauge the title when so many songs start and stop over each other), it at least sounds nice. But notably, the songs get away with so much adult content. Johnny Depp gets a neat turn (an extended cameo, really) as a predatory wolf who exploits the inherent sexuality in the Red Riding Hood fairytale. But in most cases, I wished the film would've gone further. In the story there are multiple deaths, inappropriate sexual advances, and violent acts hidden within the songs, but it seems there was a bit of holding back. And this held back feeling clashes with the festival vibe the rest of the film gives off.  If there's one major problem with Into the Woods, it's that while it doesn't care what you think, it really should care a little bit. With no clear stopping points, the film hits a bit of a lull at several occasions. It's not impossible to glaze over certain events, and we'd have a much stronger film had it considered a tighter edit here or there. It's especially noticeable during the third act when you realize the characters have little nuance.  But in the end, Into the Woods is a celebration of musicals themselves. An adaptation that reminds you of the kind of fun you can only get from seeing attractive people sing beautifully. Sometimes, that's all you really need. 
Into the Woods Review photo
I'd visit these woods again
For a Disney adaptation of a popular musical, Into the Woods has flown surprisingly under the radar. Coming out of practically nowhere, and with all of the early advertising hiding the fact that it is a musical, you'd think D...

Review: Big Eyes

Dec 26 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218765:42091:0[/embed] Big EyeDirector: Tim BurtonRated: PG-13Release Date: December 25, 2014 Rounding out the "based on a true story" fare for Christmas (see: Selma, American Sniper, and Unbroken), Big Eyes tells the tale of "Big Eye" artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams). If you lived through the 50s and 60s you probably know who she is as her art work was everywhere and basically revolutionized how artwork was distributed and made money. There was great debate over whether or not her work, which featured small children with large sad eyes, was actually art or just kitsch. That isn't what the film is about, though. The film is about how Margaret Keane's husband, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), took credit for her work for nearly two decades. Now you're interested, hug? What is so incredible about this story is just how incredible it gets. Bouncing from one unbelievable twist to the next and all of them entirely true. By the end of the film you're simply stunned by just how great a conman Walter is. The star of this film is actually truth. It would be hard for any director to mess up a story that's just this compelling and ridiculous. Burton, however, does more with it. The story is so fantastical that his slightly otherworldly tilt to the proceedings lends it the perfect air. His characters push close to caricature levels, and yet seem right at home in the ridiculous story of the film. Waltz's Walter Keane is especially ridiculous, yet disturbingly dark. This tempered back Burton is surprisingly adept at minutia and tone.  Burton does lose a little credit by avoiding some of the greater themes that surround the story. The focus is definitely on Margaret and the absurdity of the entire situation, and this leads to an avoidance of just how brilliant Walter Keane was at marketing himself (or his fake self) and the greater debate over what art is. The New York Times art critic who routinely tears down "Big Eyes" is too much of a stereotype to truly develop into a discussion on art. It's too bad as the film could have had a lot to say on the subject as "Big Eyes" art is the perfect example of popular art that isn't high art. The movie even opens with a hint of the discussion forming with a quote from Andy Warhol, "I think what Walter Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it." It's a bold statement that says popularity makes art, but the movie never truly dives into this. Instead it is content to agree with the statement and carry on telling it's story. Luckily it's story is great so the lack of actual debate on the subject of art has a minimal effect, but it is definitely missing.  Big Eyes delivers an incredibly strange true story, with great help from two strong performances from Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. While it may not be the thought provoking picture it could have been, it's still a stellar story to see. Burton dives head first into telling it with a passion that is clear. The story alone is interesting, what Burton does with it takes it to an even better place. 
Big Eyes Review photo
Eyes wide open
Everyone, I'm about to shock you to your core. Big Eyes is a Tim Burton film and it is quite possible that the color black doesn't appear once. Shades of greys and shadows, yes, but the Gothic trendings of the director a...

Review: The Interview

Dec 25 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218768:42087:0[/embed] The InterviewDirectors: Seth Rogen and Evan GoldbergRelease Date: December 25th, 2014 (limited and VOD)Rating: R The Interview is the story of Dave Skylark (James Franco), a sensationalist TV journalist who specializes in celebrity gossip, and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen). After filming 1000 episodes, Aaron realizes he would like to cover more hard hitting news and after discovering that the dictator of The Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), was a fan of their show, he sets up a one-on-one interview. Then the two are tasked by CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) to assassinate the North Korean dictator.  I've been anticipating The Interview for some time. As the proper follow up to last year's extremely surprising This is the End (as I refuse to count Neighbors' major misstep), I've come to expect a certain level of intelligence from Rogen and Goldberg. Sure their screenplays are littered with crude jokes (and The Interview follows that trend for better or worse), but when broken down, the core of the comedy always comes from a well thought out place. The Interview does not disappoint in this area. The dialogue is tightly written and well delivered leading to some amazing back and forth from Rogen and Franco. As the two tap into a years developed chemistry (that's so fine tuned that Franco gets major laughs from just his facial expressions), the incredible ridiculousness of the premise is digestible. Even when the film goes to some outlandish lengths, the two always anchor the ship and point the comedy in the right direction.  While the comedy is well thought out, there is an unfortunate sense of familiarity however. As some of the better gags lead to callbacks later in the film, it's like the film depends on those gags to survive instead of crafting new ones. To be more specific, there's the term "honeypotting." Interview defines it as using seduction to manipulate (instead of the actual disgusting definition) and while it's a notable gag the first time it's used, it runs out of steam the more and more the term is thrown out during the film. Interview has a bad case of this with a few other jokes, but sometimes they're twisted in such a way that they're funny again. It's just an unfortunate case of becoming desensitized to the material after a while. And without giving too much away, Interview pulls the same trick seen in This is the End (with a small bit of dialogue heavily foreshadowing the film's events) and it's just not as great the second time around.  But when Interview works, it works splendidly. The cast is so well placed. Franco nearly steals the show as his performance is seemingly effortless (as he combines an intelligent naivete with a suave and narcissistic demeanor), but the casual racism given to his character is quite troublesome. Rogen is the literal butt of most of the crude humor, but he takes it like a champ, Lizzy Caplan gets very little to do and that's a shame, but Randall Park as Kim Jong-un is the real take away. His Kim Jong-un is at times humanized, but never quite able to shed the terrible image of the real thing. There are several nuances in his performances that could be easily ignored if you aren't paying attention. From the way he animates his face, to the way he can stare off blankly to the side and still command attention. Park definitely needs to be in more things.  I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the elephant in the room. The Interview has a weird portrayal of North Korea. Sort of non-committal, sort of racist and nowhere near as "America, f**k yeah!" as recent events would have you believe. There's always someone saying North Korea is a bad place, but there's never an offer for a better alternative. Both the USA and North Korea are treated as interfering and destructive entities as Dave and Aaron are just roped into this American plan despite their wishes, the United States is shown to have highly advanced military technology at their disposal, and North Korea becomes a cartoonish hellhole of a country. Yet despite all of this, the film just sort of ends. Sure I didn't expect an intense political discussion, and The Interview does get credit for bringing attention to North Korea's issues to people who wouldn't know about them, but it's weird to be wandering around in this grey area. But at the end of the day, The Interview is still a damn fine piece of entertainment. A concise, intelligent film that marks the maturing of the stereotypical "stoner comedy" framework (taking a crazy premise and sticking two random guys into it) as the actors themselves grow older and more confident in other styles of work and experiment with interesting ideas and perspectives. It's stylishly shot (with some wonderful red "communist" hues and backgrounds), and the soundtrack gives empty scenes poignancy. I mean, I had fun...unless I was honeypotted. Whatever, they hate us cause they ain't us. 
The Interview Review photo
Land of the free, home of the butthole
After a crazy couple of weeks of Sony hacks, full on terrorist attack threats, cancellations, and a last minute reneging, I sort of forgot that at the center of all this mess was a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco....

Review: American Sniper

Dec 24 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218766:42085:0[/embed] American SniperDirector: Clint EastwoodRated: RRelease Date: December 25, 2014 You may have heard of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in the news as he was the most successful sniper in American history. The man is a legend and American Sniper tracks that legend from his first shot to his last. Most of the film is spent in war zones, but it hops back to Kyle's home life every so often to show how his service in the field is tearing him down at home with his wife, Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller) and child. There's also a running story line of an ex-olympic sniper fighting for the bad guys that constantly haunts, kills and scares the soldiers that Chris is protecting. It's the mugguffin (whether he be real or not) that keeps the combat part of the film going. By bouncing Chris back and forth between deployments and home life the movie attempts to show us the effect that killing and constant war has on the sniper. It would be an incredibly interesting approach if the film ever fully committed to it. Instead it is content to focus on the war zone and leave Chris' PTSD and family issues to be background fodder to thrilling war sequences. There's an attempt to create a tension here, but it feels false as the film, much like the soldier, feels far more comfortable and happy when it's taking out enemy combatants. When the movie is doing this it is fantastic. Eastwood's direction is in your face and intense. The kind of war scenes that make your palms sweaty as you watch them. Chris' first shot is a perfect example of this as he is tasked with taking out a mother and child who are moving to destroy a garrison with a grenade. From the moment this scene begins Eastwood pulls you in with a dirty style of direction that is stunning. Every war scene in this film is fantastic. It makes it all the worse when it cuts back home and seems to almost lost interest. Yes, there is tension there, but the movie never cares about it. We get 20 minutes in a battle zone and then two at home until Chris is back again. While that may be an authentic representation of how his time was spent it turns Chris' mental health issues into nothing more than a throw away. The end of the film is a long battle when it should really be focusing on the man. To tell the story of a modern American war hero you can't just tell the story of war. Cooper seems to understand this, imbuing his performance with a certain timidity that you wouldn't expect from a NAVY Seal role. He's great from scene to scene, though nothing that will win him an Oscar. He definitely beefed up for the role though, and it is nice to see him take a departure from the smarmy characters he's been tackling recently. It is a different slant for him and it suits him well.  American Sniper hits on the sniper part of its title, but sadly forgets to talk about the American. This is a complex man who is a hero, but by marginalizing his home life and mental issues we do him and other Veterans a disservice. We should expect more out of our war movies, because our soldiers aren't just heroes, they're men. 
American Sniper Review photo
A missed shot
Clint Eastwood is easily one of the best directors in Hollywood so him tackling the incredible story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is something to get pretty excited about. We already know he has the war movie chops tha...

Review: Unbroken

Dec 24 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218764:42090:0[/embed] UnbrokenDirector: Angelina JolieRated: PG-13Release Date: December 25, 2014 In a surprising twist for Hollywood, it's quite possible you don't know the true story that the film is based on as the legend of Olympian Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) and his POW experience during WWII has faded into history. O'Connell gets shot down while bombing Japan and he, Francis 'Mac' McNamara (Finn Wittrock) and Russell Allen 'Phil' Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) are the only ones to survive in two tiny life crafts. After days at sea they are finally rescued by the Japanese and taken to a POW camp where Louis is tortured and beaten by Mutsushiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara). The film is basically his tail of survival. Sadly, Jolie doesn't quite have the skill to make it seem genuine. While there's plenty of budget and everything looks fine most scenes come off painfully contrived. The feeling is that the film is more concerned with tugging at your heartstrings than telling a truly affecting story. By the film's end you can guess every emotional key stroke the movie is going to make. The emotional impact of true heroism sucked out of the film because it is trying just so hard to be about true heroism. Jolie also makes the mistake of telling instead of showing (unlike the far superior Selma). The movie jumps back and forth in time as we go through the checklist of life moments that make the man into a legend. Instead of getting to know him we get to know a rough sketch of him. Instead of focusing on the character we focus on the life and lose the character because of it. This is especially true when Louis is in the prison camp. Great opportunities are missed to develop his relationship with Mutsushiro (and to develop Mutsushiro into a better character), but the film is so set on telling it's story points it never allows it. It's surprising since the Coen brothers took a crack at the script, but it's true. That's not to say the Jolie is completely incompetent behind the camera. The film looks fantastic, and when it isn't trying to pander it does some very interesting things. While the Louis/Mutshushiro relationship is not as good as it could have been it is still intriguing, and Jolie has shown that she can at least piece together a competent story, even if it doesn't strive to be anything more than what it looks like.  There are some fantastic performances buried in the melodrama and checkbox plotting as well. We're going to be seeing a lot more of Jack O'Connell if this is the kind of performance he's going to deliver. It isn't perfect as he's often played into some particularly cheesy scenes, but he does deliver. And any film with Domhnall Gleeson is going to get better not matter what it is.  Unbroken isn't a train wreck, but it just wants to be so much more than it is. A paint by numbers retelling of a fantastic story that pulls at the heartstrings with cliche rather than true emotion. It isn't a film that's not enjoyable to watch, it's just sad to see it try so hard doing all the wrong things. 
Unbroken Review photo
Can't be fixed
Unbroken is the first film directed by Angelina Jolie. That alone has given it a lot of hype, but it's easy to understand why it would be pushing at Oscars anyway. It's base on the true story of a WWII hero and Oscar jus...

Review: Selma

Dec 24 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218755:42084:0[/embed] SelmaDirector: Ava DuVernayRated: PG-13Release Date: December 25, 2014 There isn't a single moment of Selma that isn't riveting. In 1965 MLK (David Oyelowo) led his activists to Selma, Alabama where he planned a march that would put President Johnson on the spot to pass the civil rights voting act. Accompanied by his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) he leads three marches as public awareness grows and opposition does as well. This is the story of Selma. And yet the film captures so much more. Flitting around the edges of the march is the man. By focusing on this one act director Ava DuVernay allows the character of King to unfold. His troubled marriage and almost ruthless tactics to push civil rights to the forefront come through as the Selma unfolds. Unlike a bio pic this "moment pic" shows us who MLK was instead of telling us. It's a smart move for a man almost the entire world knows the bullet points about. Instead of dragging us through the highlights that make the myth we instead see one highlight that defines who the man is.  It is impressive and brave how open the film is about MLK and his imperfections. We're not just shown the orator here, but the politician, the husband, the preacher and the human being. It is a look at King that the textbooks don't give us and his stirring speeches avoid. It's also a look at the civil rights movement that doesn't flinch from showing its flaws and its successes. Infighting and differing ideals give a far more human view of how things operated, and make it all the easier to apply the film's story and lessons to modern day. It is an incredibly powerful moment -- thanks much in part to the film's release timing -- when King's work pays off, but it is the lesson in how he gets there that truly makes the film applicable today. All of this would have fallen apart if it weren't for Oyelowo's transformative performance. A depth lies behind his portrayal of King that is rare to find in biography pictures. It doesn't pander or imitate, but instead creates and defines. The best actors turn roles into their own and this is what Oyelowo has done here. It is a breakout performance that should skyrocket him to stardom despite the lack of comic book characters in the movie. Ejogo matches him note for note, though Oyelowo dominates the film's run time, almost making it a one man show. (Sidenote: Does Cuba Good Jr., who plays Fred Gray, have to be in every majority black cast film?) That lack of pandering in Oyelowo's performance resonates throughout the entire film. The fact that the splotches and faults are shown make the message all the more powerful. This isn't a mythic telling of a story and because of that the story never loses any feeling of truth. Is it dramatized? Of course, but it doesn't feel that way. It feels powerful and important. DuVernay's direction creates a stirring sea of momentum that caps off powerfully with Oyelowo delivering a stirring MLK speech. It may be impossible to stand up directly after this film. I had to take multiple minutes just to process what had gone on as John Legend and Common's powerful "Glory" played over the credits. Would it have this effect without the current protests going on? I'm not sure, but that doesn't really matter. What matters is that a film about a protest in 1965 is powerfully relevant to today and should be required viewing for the year. 
Selma Review photo
Right place, right time, great movie
There's something to be said for perfect timing. Would Selma be one of the best movies of the year if it had released in January? Yes. But coming out now makes it a true masterpiece of its time. As we try to wrap our hea...

Review: The Babadook

Dec 23 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218652:42068:0[/embed] The BabadookDirectors: Jennifer KentRelease Date: November 28th, 2014 (VOD) Rating: PG-13 After the untimely (and gruesome) death of her husband, newly widowed Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to raise her aggressively misbehaving son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The more her son misbehaves, the more Amelia pushes the two from society. Her son breaks a child's nose, loudly fits, and Amelia becomes a recluse in order to hide her constant shame of the lack of power she has. Then one day a pop up book, the story of Mr. Babadook, arrives on their doorstep and as the book reveals the sinister contents hidden inside, and her son cries over a monster hiding under his bed, Amelia realizes the storybook monster may be knocking on her door.   The Babadook is psychological thriller with a thin veil of horror. A meticulously crafted tale with darkness bubbling under the surface. It has this perfect way of getting under your skin. Unlike other, more traditional horror films, there are no big set pieces, no major scares, and nary a cheap cut or jump scare in sight. Babadook has a healthy amount of confidence in its concept, and we reap the rewards of that confidence. Thanks to a slow burning narrative done well (thankfully the pace doesn't reflect this), the foreshadowing is never heavy handed and dealt with the proper amount of ominousness. It's never teasing to the point of obnoxiousness. But that's also what brings it down.  Without going too much into detail (because even noting the story beats gives away a bit), nothing really "happens." When broken down to the core, the film's plot has very little progression. While notable story beats help the film's themes evolve, it asks quite a bit from the audience as those story bits are spread far apart (For example, they get the book and read it, several scenes of "living," and then the menacing stuff kicks in). It's like a twisted take on a slice of life film. Your enjoyment of Babadook resides completely with how much you can infer from the events of the film and enjoy the periods of wallowing. But if you do notice what's really happening, it's all wonderfully delivered. When Mr. Babadook himself literally becomes the anxiety barging in on Amelia's life, everything else the film's been working toward clicks (which Matt discussed in essay in greater, thematically spoilery detail). I get that it's a weird criticism to say "the film needs you to work," while simultaneously praising its confidence to exist, but that's just what The Babadook has done to me.  It's a film that made me look at myself more so than any other film this year. An introspective piece that makes me curious as to how I'd react to loss. While I will never know the emotional states of motherhood and child rearing, I feel like I know a little bit more. What if my kid were a big jerk to everyone? What if, like in the film, the only way to deal with that child is through solitary confinement, and he can't develop the proper social skills to survive? Will I ever want to potentially erase that child from my life? Will my child become a reflection of my feelings of incompetence? The Babadook delves into all of that and then some. A slow film about fighting stagnation while never becoming stale itself.  Oh, I didn't even talk about rest of the film. The Babadook is a very technically built thriller. The shots are seeped in the right blends of darkness and light, the camera is always angled in such a way that you never get a good look at Mr. Babadook (but it's never annoyingly so), and the sound design is fantastic with "Baa baaa dook dooooooooook" becoming my favorite horror phrase for years to come.  Guttural, emotionally progressive, and with director Jennifer Kent, we're introduced to whole new levels of horror that a female voice can bring to the genre. The Babadook is a film that reminds you of what a confident film can do to your state of being. If we get more films like this, we won't ever have to worry about the state of thrillers again. 
Babadook Review photo
Reading is the greatest horror
I've been interested in The Babadook ever since our editor supreme, Matthew Razak, wrote a feature detailing how progressive it was. If you've read any of my reviews in the past (or any of my other work here on Flixist), you ...

Review: Annie

Dec 19 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218715:42059:0[/embed] AnnieDirector: Will GluckRated: PGRelease Date: December 19, 2014 Annie is the story of little orphan sorry, foster kid Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) as she's stuck living under a terrible foster parent, Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), and hopes every day that she'll find her real parents. After cell phone mogul and New York City mayoral candidate, Benjamin Stacks (Jamie Foxx), saves her from a hit and run accident, the two pal around for publicity. Through their time spent together, the two realize they think they'll like it here. Then the sun comes out.  A good litmus test as to how much you'll enjoy this latest rendition of the famous musical is the film's opening. After a nice prelude featuring a mix of the musical's well known themes, we're introduced to a little red haired girl named Annie. She tap dances then is mockingly sent to her desk before the newest Annie loudly proclaims how much cooler she is. And that scene sets the tone for the rest of the film as it tries to distance itself as much as it can from its less hip history. As "coolness" influences the rest of the film, we're left with odd remixes, poor musical staging (and very rough choreography), and several new songs produced for the film. It's just a matter of how much you're willing to sit through a film that insults both its source material and the people who enjoy it.  The original songs and new arrangements would've been fine had they not been so badly handled. An overt use of autotune (especially noticeable during the film's atrocious "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here") saps the cast of all energy once they have to lip sync to the robot voices. And it's weird to see more attention paid to one of the film's newer pieces like the song "Moonquake Lake," (which is a theme to a joke that overlasts its welcome after two minutes) than say "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," which gets pushed to the background the scene after. It's like who ever produced Annie wanted to write an entirely new musical built on Sia sung pop tunes, but had to use the name in order to make any money. There's a noticeable lack of comfort from the cast when they perform the film's songs, and this awkward scenery weighs down what good there is.  It's just a shame because the stuff in between the music is well put together. There is nary a hint of cynicism to be had as the cast is believable. Quvenzhané Wallis is such a good choice for Annie, and her delivery and preciousness is never anything but enjoyable. Jamie Foxx seems to be enjoying himself, Rose Byrne doesn't do much but is charming, and the dialogue is actually witty. Even when it's corny, it's so full of genuine heart, it's acceptable. It's never overbearingly saccharine. The only blip on all of this is Cameron Diaz. A victim of a washed out role, she is the worst portrayal of Miss Hannigan in Annie's many years of production. From a performance that's too cheap for the film (it's way too on the nose even when the film doesn't call for it), to a shoddy new arrangement for "Little Girls" which only highlights her lack of talent.  That's what confuses me so much about Annie. No matter how much I wanted to like it, I was constantly reminded of how I shouldn't be enjoying myself (though kids won't mind either way, really. There are worst films to take your kids to). While there's no cynicism in the story itself, there is a density in the way it's been put together. It's like whoever produced this hated themselves the entire time and wanted us to feel the same way. It's a constant back and forth between enjoyment and self loathing. That's not how I wanted to see Annie. Don't bet your bottom dollar on Annie. There's no sun here. 
Annie Review photo
Full of hard knocks
Remakes are always at a disadvantage. Regardless of the final product's quality, it will always be compared to the film it's adapting. Remakes usually are stuck with two options: Either pay homage to the original and make fan...

Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

Dec 17 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218726:42055:0[/embed] The Hobbit: The Battle of Five ArmiesDirector: Peter JacksonRated: PG-13Release Date: December 17, 2014 The Battle of Five Armies picks up right where the last film left off, but this isn't a sequel picking up the story from a previous film. It is literally as if you hit pause on The Desolation of Smaug then came back a year later and remembered you had been watching it so decide to just hit play again. It makes sense since the film was clearly just meant to be one massive four-hour-long Tolkein wank, but that means if you haven't kept every character up to date in your memory or re-watched last year's film you're going to be rapidly attempting to remember what the hell was going on as Smaug starts to burn down Lake-town. Whose that guy with the bow and arrow? Oh that's right, it's Bard (Luke Evans), the heroic human who wants to protect his family from Smaug and eventually rebuild his now destroyed town with the help of the dwarves. And the dwarves? They've locked themselves in their new kingdom as Thorin (Richard Armitage) gets driven mad by his lust for gold. And what about the elves? Weren't there elves? Well one is Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the other is Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and they're there just to be elves it seems. Of course the good Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) returns as well to hobbit his way around. So now that we're all caught up what's the plot of this one? Get the gold. The real issue is we've played this game before in Middle Earth and on a much grander scale with far more plot to hold it up. Of all the Hobbit films this one feels the most like filler. It woefully steals from its LotR predecessors as if begging us to remember how awesome we felt about those films. The problem is reminding us of them only shows us how lacking this one is. Thorin's "dragon madness" reeks too heavily of the desire for the one ring and thanks to that the film's themes fall flat. What we're left with is what should be a 20 minute action sequence stretched out into two and half hours.  To be fair the movie starts off fantastically since it's basically the conclusion of the previous film, which ended with its own masterful action sequence. Bard's take down of Smaug is stunning and hearing Benedict Cumberbatch back voicing the dragon, however briefly, is fantastic. Then it just starts to unravel until at one point we're treated to some sort of hallucinatory dream Thorin has of being drowned in gold. That's the moment you know that they were out of ideas and just doing whatever the hell popped into Peter Jackson's head.  Jackson's head is an awesome place. This is a spectacular visual feast, even if they gave up on the 48 fps presentation. No one does giant battles and action sequences like Jackson and the special effects, direction and sets are just stunning. The movie is a visual triumph as all of the films have been, but pretty pictures only get you so far, and with five other films full of pretty Middle Earth pictures they garner even less distance here. There's just not enough to keep this one going. Freeman's Bilbo deserves to have been put into a two movies instead of stretched into three he's so enjoyable. Other actors seem a bit tired of the whole thing, though that may just be me applying personal opinion since they filmed this all at once. Ian Mckellan doesn't seem so into it anymore and I'm still not sure why Lilly or Bloom are in the films at all except for a lame attempt at a love triangle between a dwarf and two elves. Just more padding. In the end that's all The Battle of Five Armies is: a lot of padding. It's pretty padding. It looks good and feels like something you've enjoyed sitting on before, but once you sit down it starts to show it has no stuffing inside. The film desperately tries to rekindle the magic of its predecessor's, but it can't because it's run out of what makes the film's special. It isn't grand fantasy, it's personal story. Someone should have cut Jackson off and put the films into two long movies instead of letting him ramble on for three. As it stands I wish the one ring was real so we could make this film disappear. 
Hobbit Review photo
Care to see the Lord of the Rings again?
When Peter Jackson announced that he'd be stretching The Hobbit into three movies I was a bit wary, but excited. While the book itself could have easily been put into one, maybe two, films there's enough lore in the worl...

Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings

Dec 12 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218699:42044:0[/embed] Exodus: Gods and KingsDirectors: Ridley ScottRelease Date: December 12th, 2014 Rating: PG-13 Exodus: Gods and Kings is the story of Moses (Christian Bale), raised as the son of an Egyptian general and his close friend Ramses (Joel Edgerton), who's next in line to inherit the Egyptian throne. After Moses learns he's actually a Hebrew child saved from a disaster, Ramses sends him into exile. Through this exile and years of traveling, Moses discovers the Isreaelite God and learns he's been chosen to free the Isreaelites from slavery. Then we've got all the beats you remember: plagues, Passover, and an Isreaelite army training montage.  There was a big casting controversy surrounding this film before its release. When Ridley Scott revealed that the Egyptians (and Moses) were played by white actors while the non-white actors were stuck with the lesser roles (like slave and thief), it caused quite a stir. Arguments went back and forth as to what the cause was (ranging anywhere from "you can't sell a film with non-white actors" to "this is historically accurate"), but I'd like to confirm that at the end of the day, none of that actually matters. Exodus: Gods and Kings is a big, dumb, and goofy epic so the whitewashing is like vanilla icing on the cake. It's an oddly helpful anchor as you slowly realize the rest of the film lacks this kind of conviction. Exodus can't decide whether or not it wants to be religious as there are semblances of both anti and pro religious arguments. While there is an active presence of God in Exodus, it's portrayed as a young boy making rash and violent decisions, and it's wonderfully sacrilegious (He makes Moses raise an army of Hebrews, sends sharks and alligators as a plague, kills without hesitation) when there're hints that Moses might just be senile. But it totally backs out of this by falling back on the "faith over all" that's inherent in this story. It completely comes out of left field as "faith" isn't a major theme of this film before the final third.  Whether or not you agree with the faith, a story praising the work of God at least knows what it wants to do. And it's not like the other side of that coin wouldn't work either. A recent example, Darren Aronofsky's Noah, proves that you can tell an agnostic version of a religious story and still hold weight. Without the fervor brought on from commitment one way or the other, we're left wallowing in this grey matter. Add this to Exodus's overtly long run time, any period of indecisiveness is felt even more so. The pace is almost punishing (exacerbated by the amount of filler present in the narrative). And honestly the turgid pace and whitewashing would've been fine had anyone done anything of note. Other than Joel Edgerton as Ramses (who stands out with his prim, nervous take on the Pharoah), no other cast member (even Christian Bale) survives in this blob. It may be the fault of the source material, but there are far too many characters given far too little screen time to actually care what anyone is doing. And when someone does show up and says something, what little plot they're given is swept under the rug in favor of something else. It's like weaving a rug thread by thread, taking a break, and starting from a different end each time. Nothing's ever started, so nothing finishes.  Oh, and what was that accent Christian Bale? Seriously.  Exodus is evocative of classic Hollywood tropes in the best and worst ways. With biblical stories of this ilk, there's just some things you have to accept. You have to accept they're going to be a certain length, you have to accept it's going to retell the same story once again, and you've got to accept that it's going to have certain underlying messages. But you don't have to accept an un-entertaining film. While this bloated narrative does invoke the "epic" nature of classic Hollywood (and it looks pretty damn good in some areas), and is therefore coincidentally nostalgic (bad as it is, seeing white folks rescuing brown folks is something we've seen time and time again), it's so mismanaged that you're better off with one of the many other takes on this story.  If after reading this review you're still somehow compelled to go out and see Exodus: Gods and Kings, here's a funny tidbit. During my screening, a gentleman in the row in front of me fell asleep...twice. It wasn't the humble, slumped over sleep either. He had an abrasive, loud snore each time.  I don't think there's a criticism more fitting. 
Exodus Review photo
Like wandering the desert for forty years
Folks don't know this about me, but I have a soft spot for biblical stories. Having been raised half Roman Catholic, half who gives a hooey, I have an abundant knowledge of Christian bible quotes and intricacies. Regardless o...

Review: Horrible Bosses 2

Nov 26 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218648:42012:0[/embed] Horrible Bosses 2Director: Sean AndersRated: RRelease Date: November 26, 2014  With Horrible Bosses 2 we get a sequel to a movie that really didn't even remotely set up a plan for a sequel. Clearly a one off, the original kind of wrapped everything up so this movie has to reestablish everything all over again. Basically the film is about horrible bosses in name only. Now the three idiots find themselves screwed out of money by investor Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz) and in danger of losing the company they founded. In order to get their money back they decide to kidnap Hanson's son, Rex (Chris Pine). Of course they're just as inept, if not more so, as before so things spiral out of control and miraculously pull in their previous bosses played by Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey. Much like the first film this one survives entirely on the charm of its leading trio. Bateman, Sudeikis and Day work really well together even when the stuff they're doing isn't that funny. The movie can be down right stupid at times, but thanks to these guys playing off each other so well it's actually funny. If there's a reason to see this movie it's because these guys are hilarious even if they basically morphed Sudeikis' character into a second fall guy and had Bateman run the entire straight man routine. Kind of fair since there really isn't a better straight man working today than Bateman. That doesn't mean this is a classic or even as funny as the first. The premise is stretched incredibly thin, and while it sets up some truly hilarious scenes it doesn't work all that well as a whole. The trio may be good, but even they can't pull off some of the comedy that just isn't funny. Aniston's sex driven dentist jokes get especially old as the film wears on and Kevin Spacey is criminally underutilized. Surprisingly Pine pops right into the gang wonderfully, but Waltz seems like a fish out of water in his limited screen time. There's also very little to get attached to. Unlike the original where you could somewhat sympathize with the plight of the gang this time around they are truly just idiots. The premise that they'd be able to start their own company is laughable and as the laughs build up the actual plot disappears. A film full of funny scenes is fine, but something gets lost when that's all there is.  Is Horrible Bosses 2 a film with funny scenes? Yes, thanks to its awesome cast. Is it a good comedy? Not really.
Horrible Bosses Review photo
Dirty jobs
You know when something is funny you just have to do it again, right? That's the logic with Horrible Bosses 2. The original film actually had an appealing cast that worked well together pulling the film out of cliche and into...

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Nov 21 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218609:41995:0[/embed] The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1Directors: Francis LawrenceRelease Date: November 21st, 2014 Rating: PG-13 Based off some of Suzanne Collins' novel of the same name (to say where the cutoff point is would spoil it, sorry), Part 1 follows Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) just a short time after the events of Catching Fire (and for those oddly just joining, there's a quick recap which is something I truly appreciate). As District 13's President Coin (Julianne Moore) wants to film propaganda to turn Katniss into a symbol of the coming war with the Capitol (the titular "Mockingjay"), Katniss realizes President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has been keeping Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) alive in order to send her messages. As she discovers what kind of toll the war with the Capitol has taken on the Districts (as instability reaches a fever pitch), she has to decide whether or not she wants to move forward with the fight. Also some guy named Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is there, but he still refuses to do anything notable.  To be honest, I rolled my eyes when I first heard the final book would be split into two films. When you read the book itself there doesn't seem to be enough content to necessitate the split as the second half is really just one extended action sequence. I feared we'd get another Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows situation where one half is clearly superior to the other. With Part 1 my fears haven't been completely alleviated, but I don't really care. Part 1 is damn entertaining. Fixing a lot of the series' hokier elements, and finally exploring the nature of its dystopia, Part 1 is just a massive improvement all around.  For example, the tone is handled much better than before. In the first two films, the tone fluctuated rapidly It came across as comedic at times during inappropriate moments as the love triangle was forced into the forefront, or when death fights felt less threatening because Katniss was more of a superhuman than not. But there's no room for that here. While the darker tone might be a slight turn off (it's unfortunately overbearing at times as there's no ease, unless you count that one forced moment of Katniss singing by a lake), it gives weight to the world. Katniss is finally in some sort of danger and less in control than ever. And with that powerless direction, Jennifer Lawrence at last has something to work with as she's less wooden here in Part 1 than ever.  Anchoring a set of actors who've found their groove, Lawrence delivers on her initial promise. As Katniss emotes for the first time in the entire series, Lawrence makes sure to nail each opportunity. For example when Katniss delivers her speech to the Capitol after some violent events in District 8, I had a huge smile on my face. I don't know how I became so involved in a scene with such a funky set up (and it's even more egregious in text form), but with every crack in her voice, every boom, Lawrence reels you in. And the rest of the cast is no slouch either as the freedom of the new premise (we're no longer trapped in the "put on a show/fight in the games" setup of the first two films) gives every character but Gale something to do. Josh Hutcherson's physicality is finally put to some use (he's no longer lying on the ground all the time), Julianne Moore is a bit stiff but it works for her character, and Philip Seymour Hoffman's going to be truly missed as his Plutarch steals the show. Unfortunately, Part 1 isn't without its faults. Like most films of its ilk, it still falls into the same genre trappings as before (there's still a weird love triangle that feels more out of place than before, Katniss is more of an "It" Girl than ever). It's like a two steps forward, one step back situation. The film also has an odd pace issue which must be a result of splitting the story in two. A lot of the scenes feel like they're meant for some sort of Director's Cut as they're extended far beyond their welcome. That's not to say I didn't enjoy most of these scenes, but some of those longer scenes could be a deal breaker. It completely relies on emotional investment, so I could definitely see someone fighting with boredom by its end.  After my screening, I overheard a conversation between two women and it almost made me second guess myself. As the woman told her friend, "Nothing happened in that movie," I realized exactly how someone could see it that way. You have to know what you're getting into when a film has "Part 1" in its title. When broken down to the essential beats, Mockingjay - Part 1 is all setup for the final film in the series. But what I want you to understand is that it's damn good setup. Sure it's setting plot points for a later date, but there's also an arc (as the series finally elaborates on the meaning of imagery in its world) that's wonderfully realized here as well.  For once in this series, I truly want to see what's coming next instead of going through the motions because I've read the books.  The ultimate goal of the first part of a two part film is to make the audience anticipate the second half while still feeling like a complete film in its own right. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 accomplishes that and then some (At some points it's even better than the source material). I hope Part 2 can keep this momentum.
Mockingjay Part 1 Review photo
Smoke, she is a rising fire
The Hunger Games has come a long way. From humble meh-ish beginnings, to a sequel that, well, caught fire in theaters, the films have gotten increasingly better the more comfortable everyone gets with the material. Going into...

Review: Dumb and Dumber To

Nov 14 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218593:41973:0[/embed] Dumb and Dumber ToDirectors: Bobby and Peter FarrellyRelease Date: November 14th, 2014 Rating: PG-13 Taking place twenty years after the events of Dumb and Dumber, Harry (Jeff Daniels) discovers he's had a child with Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner) that he's neglected for the past two decades. He wants to track down his kid now that he needs a kidney transplant, and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) wasn't feeling it until he suddenly develops a crush for Harry's young daughter, Penny (Rachel Melvin). As the two set their sights on a cross country trip, some dumb stuff happens including murder plots, farts, and a whole heap of mean, mean jokes from cranky old men. I should probably say this right off the bat; Dumb and Dumber To is an incredibly polarizing film. It's a film dealing in extremes, so you're either going to love it or hate it. There's no middle ground. As is the case with most comedy sequels stemmed from a nostalgic property, To is content to wallow in what the writers 'think' made the original so appealing. I'll commend To for doing its homework and delivering quite a few little tidbits for fans of the first film, but it's like they focused on the completely wrong thing here. While Dumb and Dumber mined its laughs from Harry and Lloyd's oblivious optimism toward the (literally) sh*tty world around them, To decides to roll around in that poop and hopes the smell doesn't make you gag.  Seeing as many films as I do eventually takes a toll on you. As current films become so parallel to one another drawing toward an ever approaching horizon, I always hold out hope for something different. And that something to me was Dumb and Dumber To. As a big fan of the first film (I'd dare say that "I like it a lot"), I was ready to laugh at butts because not every film needs to be a thesis on the human condition. But (hah, see I laughed there) To, as the film explicitly points out, is "not as" funny. Sure there are potential laughs to be had (the "Stinker" beer gag is an interesting play between crude and intelligent, and the initial road trip fake out got one of the biggest laughs in the film), but they're entirely hollow and forgettable. Harmless really until you get to the crux of most of these jokes. The film really takes a turn when you see these two fifty something year old men yell "Show us your tits!" and watch a girl bounce in her underwear because she's "dumb." Then all of the harmless stuff begins to unravel. Dumb and Dumber To intentionally retreads old ground but, while that'd be fine if it led to new jokes, all that's left are the bad ideas. I'm not sure whether it's because these two actors are older, or if the tone of the film is intentionally more cynical than before, but Harry and Lloyd have become worse since we've last seen them. What was once two guys not spreading ill will toward others has led to full on attacks. Sicking a cat on birds, using colloquialisms like "Gran-gina," unleashing many derogatory slugs toward women, and just tiredly prancing about in general. It kind of makes you question why anyone agreed to the sequel as it plays out like no one wanted to participate in To in the first place. There's such an overbearing sense of "Why are we here?" (especially from Jeff Daniels) that insults your intelligence as a viewer. It's one thing to say these two guys are dummies, it's another to call me one.  Dumb and Dumber To left me with such an overwhelming sadness. Leaving me to question whether or not I fabricated what little charm the first Dumb and Dumber has, To is a textbook example of why these years-in-the-making sequels shouldn't happen. A battle of attrition that challenges the very limits of taste that somehow still wants folks to celebrate its existence.  Now even with all of that said, I'll concede that some of you will still find the film humorous as different strokes/different folks are want to do. But I implore you to find something better. You know what? The first Dumb and Dumber just happens to be on Netflix Instant right now, and it hasn't aged as badly as you'd think. 
Dumb and Dumber To Review photo
To dumb is human, to think divine
Twenty years is a long, long time. I was five years old when Dumb and Dumber first hit theaters in 1994, so the madcap antics of Harry and Lloyd appealed to me. Fart jokes, sex jokes I was not yet old enough to comprehend com...

Review: Rosewater

Nov 13 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218565:41964:0[/embed] RosewaterDirector: Jon StewartRelease Date: November 14, 2014Rating:  R Rosewater is based on a true story. Usually, "Based on a true story" or "Based on This Person's Autobiography" or whatever means that the film was inspired by reality but does not necessarily reflect reality. That isn't the case here. Jon Stewart was invested in this story long before the concept of a film about these events was even conceived. After Bahari's arrest, Stewart covered it on The Daily Show throughout the 118 day confinement, hoping that it might put some pressure on the Iranian leadership to release him from prison. And though he didn't know it at the time, Stewart's show was actually used as evidence against Bahari. In the days leading up to his arrest, Maziar Bahari did an interview with Jason Jones of The Daily Show fame. If you've ever seen The Daily Show, you can probably guess what it was like, but now pretend like the viewer doesn't have a sense of humor. Jason Jones says that he is an American spy, and obviously he's joking... but how is an Iranian interrogator to know that? And so, here is a dangerous man asking why Bernal is talking to an American spy, and Bernal can't really do anything but laugh. Because... what else can you do? Beyond the personal connection, it's that absurdity that drew Stewart to the project. From the outset, he had been talking to Bahari about adapting his novel, Then They Came For Me, and when it all came down to it, the easiest way to make it happen was for Stewart to do it himself. And he did. But what this all boils down to is the fact that Rosewater is an accurate representation of the events in a way that so few "True" movies are. Bahari was consulted during the writing process and was on set throughout the production. He saw multiple rough cuts and was integral in the creative process. And even if things are condensed or skipped over for this reason or that, it comes from a desire to tell this story as it was rather than some romanticized version of it. And that leads to a film that is particularly poignant. This is a film that has things to say, and it wants you to hear them. This isn't just the story of Maziar Bahari, because there are so many others now who are in exactly his position. There are people undergoing the exact same treatment (and worse), and those people don't have the backing of major international news publications behind them calling for their release. Bahari was lucky, in that sense, to be who he was. Perhaps he wouldn't have been in the position at all, but his 118 day confinement could have (likely would have) been far, far longer than it was. But even knowing that Bahari gets out (and that there is something akin to a happy ending) does little to diminish the horrors of his captivity. But it's not horrible in the way you might expect. This isn't National Security, nor even the first ten minutes of Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, the torture itself barely even comes off as torture. But, of course, keeping a man in isolation for 118 days is torture. Bringing him out of solitary confinement only to berate him with the same questions over and over and over again is torture. Threatening his life and his family's is torture. Forcing him to write and sign a false confession and humiliating himself on national television is torture. And it's effective, but it's effective mostly because it's real. There's something inherently meaningful in knowing that the events being depicted actually happened. If Rosewater were an original idea, then the whole thing would fall apart. The narrative structure is somewhat odd, and I was particularly confused/bothered by the periodic conversations between Bahari and an imagined vision of his father. While in solitary confinement, he is frequently "visited" by his father, and they talk about this and that. And although it was clear that Bahari was alone thanks to the wide shots of an empty room, his father's presence felt real enough to be distracting, especially because the character seemed to reveal things that Bahari himself didn't know. Considering his father wasn't actually there, it made the whole thing feel very odd. Odder still was how on-the-nose the discussions were. And that's actually a problem with the dialogue in general. There isn't a whole lot of subtlety in the script, which is fine sometimes but hurts it elsewhere. There's a surprising amount of humor (though perhaps not, considering Stewart was at the helm), which mixes things up in an interesting way, but I wish people had spent a little less time talking about their feelings and a little more time just feeling. Gael Garcia Bernal is a supremely talented actor, and he gives an excellent performance. He doesn't need to state the obvious, and the fact that he so frequently does is unfortunate. But despite these issues and any others I have, everything is still bound by the phrase, "Based on a true story." And because of that, Rosewater hits home, whether or not it deserves to.
Rosewater Review photo
Jon Stewart gets serious
I remember distinctly when Jon Stewart left The Daily Show for three months to head to Jordan to shoot his directorial debut. It was an interesting time both because John Oliver took his spot (and did an excellent job there) ...







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