Review: The Walk

Oct 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219838:42632:0[/embed] The WalkDirector: Robert ZemeckisRated: PGRelease Date: September 30, 2015 (IMAX); October 9, 2015 (wide) Throughout The Walk, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his associates speak of artists as anarchists. Artists shake things up, cause people to reconsider the world around them, do things because they are beautiful and new. Yet these statements about the anarchic qualities of artists and their art feel like a form of unintentional self-indictment. The Walk is so painfully conventional, a shiny Hollywood product that wants to inspire its audience to dream big while simultaneously suffering from a deficit of imagination. The biopic cliches are everywhere. While the events in France may be true to Petit's life, Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne make them feel like part of a screenplay checklist: tightrope origin story (check), disowned by parents (check), finds begrudging mentor (check, Sir Ben Kingsley), finds love interest (check, Charlotte Le Bon), establish flaw(s) to be overcome in film's third act (check), fails first attempt at vocation (check) only to triumph immediately after (check), mentor becomes father figure (check). Because these moments feel so perfunctory and familiar rather than lived-in, the first half of The Walk drags. The meet-cute between Philippe and Annie is particularly embarrassing—there's mime involved, and also rain (check). They go from adversaries to lovers bathed in candlelight (check) over the course of an afternoon. But Annie isn't given much to do throughout the rest of the film. She's just there to be Philippe's girlfriend. In another act of unintentional self-indictment, Annie tells Philippe that she's here to help him realize his dream, but she ultimately has to find a dream of her own. The film's finale is 110 stories in the air, but The Walk can't even get over the low hurdle of the Bechdel test. Yet this isn't just Annie's plight. Most of the side characters in the film are generally devoid of personality; they are Philippe's props. Philippe comes across as an angry narcissistic madman in The Walk rather than a charismatic madman, and it's unclear why anyone would want to work with him the way he's written in this film. Once The Walk winds up in New York, the movie picks up the pace and finally becomes enjoyable. Rather than a schlocky, inspirational biopic, the film goes into heist-movie mode. The plan starts to come together, and rhythm becomes brisk, and the movie has an enjoyable breeziness to it. Heist-mode is brief, but it's a welcome reprieve from the biopic stuff, and it sets up the big walk along the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, there are moments of heightened artificial drama (e.g., one of Philippe's friends is extremeley acrophobic). The walk itself is good as a set piece but not all that great. For all the hype about the use of 3D, Zemeckis never exploits image depth to its fullest ability. Staring down from the towers in 3D creates an illusion of height, that's true, but it felt to me like 20 feet (maybe) rather than 1,350 feet. There's little sense of weight or gravity to this world; it's all just lightness. It doesn't help that the towers, the sky, and the city below all feel like CG. Actual photos taken of Petit's walk show a New York that's cool and gray-toned, muted, in the dawn. Zemeckis instead bathes the towers and the digital cityscape in gold and pink hues. The eye notices; the real world is not a Thomas Kinkade painting. The coda to The Walk is a series of uncomfortable allusions to 9/11 that feel cheap and exploitative, even borderline offensive. At one point someone praises Philippe for giving the buildings a soul and making people love The Twin Towers, and they look up longingly into the night sky. It's a cringeworthy attempt to earn your tears. Gordon-Levitt's narration throughout the film doesn't help matters. He speaks French like Inspector Clouseau, situated atop the torch of The Statute of Liberty with the World Trade Center visible in the skyline behind him. It's CG, it's garish, it's surprisingly chintzy, though the worst case of bathos may be a certain moment in the movie that involves a CG bird. In real life there's no actual film footage of Philippe Petit's walk along The Twin Towers. This was likely the impetus for The Walk. It's admirable that Zemeckis would want to re-create a singular event, but I can't help but feel like this is also the reason the event shouldn't be recreated on film. In Man on Wire, Marsh shows stills of the moment accompanied by the quiet, melancholy beauty of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 1." (In The Walk, we hear Beethoven's "Fur Elise," which has never sounded more cliched.) In Let the Great World Spin, McCann recreates the New York of 1974 from different characters and perspectives. Using Petit's singular act, Marsh and McCann invite their viewers/readers to co-create the event in their minds—to be up with Petit, or below watching a dot in the sky from the ground. At no point during The Walk's major set piece did I think, "It feels like I'm there" or "I wish I was there." Zemeckis doesn't give any room for the audience's imagination or co-authorship. There is more danger and beauty in a still photo of Petit on a wire than the whole of The Walk's recreation of the moment. That might speak to the power of Petit's actual work of art.
Review: The Walk photo
A collection of weightless cliches
It's impossible to watch The Walk without thinking about James Marsh's 2008 film Man on Wire. The Academy Award-winning documentary chronicled French tightrope walker Philippe Petit's high-wire act between the towers of the W...

NYFF Review: Bridge of Spies

Oct 06 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219841:42639:0[/embed] Bridge of SpiesDirector: Steven SpielbergRating: PG-13Release Date: October 16, 2015 Based on a true story, Bridge of Spies centers on James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer in Brooklyn who's asked to defend Colonel Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is a suspected Russian spy, and the film opens on him as he goes about his daily routine. He's a good artist, though he uses his talents as subterfuge in order to get around the city and receive messages from his superiors. The opening minutes of the film are without dialogue, and showcase some nice bits of spycraft. Rylance remains stonefaced but vigilant. Donovan's expected to deliver a mere token defense for Abel. He's a speed bump en route to a commie's execution. Donovan's a principled litigator, however, and he wants to extend Constitutional protections to the captured spy. Donovan even urges the judge to avoid the death penalty. A spy of Abel's caliber--Donovan constantly refers to him as "a good soldier"--would be a worthwhile bargaining chip if the US ever had to negotiate with the Soviets. Donovan's neighbors and colleagues begin to turn on him for taking a stand. Casting Tom Hanks as Donovan is a given. There's an innate trustworthiness about Hanks' screen presence, and he exudes the kind of everyman likability you'd expect out of your favorite friend or neighbor. At a party, people may ask when Tom's showing up. Since the early 90s, Hanks has become the go-to common-man good-guy in the mold of Jimmy Stewart; if Bridge of Spies were made decades ago, Stewart would probably play Donovan. (Okay, maybe not. If it were made decades ago the entire crew would be blacklisted and seated before a HUAC hearing.) Then there's Mark Rylance as Colonel Abel. His performance is all about the poker face. Colonel Abel's low-key and could pass as a plain old man, but to the intelligence community, they know what's up. He plays so dumb that he's obviously got a lot secrets. There's a lot to read into Hanks' and Rylance's performances when they share the screen together--what's being said and not said, what they're saying with looks--but there's also a kind of mutual respect; not just something lawyer-client based but an admiration for such staunch resoluteness. Bridge of Spies switches from a courtroom drama to small-scale espionage movie for the last half or two-thirds. US government sends Donovan to negotiate the release of a US soldier named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) who's being held by the Soviets. Good thing Donovan fought so hard to keep his chip from the chair. And so we go from Brooklyn to Berlin, where the wall has just gone up and a clash between Soviet and East German interests might complicate the deal that Donovan has been sent to broker. Bridge of Spies tries to braid in two additional threads of narrative over the Donovan-driven and Abel-driven dramas. It's here that some seams become visible--it's easy to spot seams in an otherwise handsome film. Powers' mission helps get across the amount of spying going on between the US and Russia, and it culminates in a daring set piece involving a spy plane, but it doesn't quite flow with the legal drama unfolding on the ground. At least it has some creative smash cuts and cross cuts. The film gets much clunkier as we introduce the other thread involving an economics student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who's suspected of being an American spy in East Germany. It's introduced and dropped as a narrative expedient--a story for the main story but not a story on its own. It's almost like a stray movie lost in the bigger one, and some of the brief drama involving Pryor and his girlfriend are never touched on again. Even with the seams and loose threads, Bridge of Spies is steadily carried by Hanks' amiability and Spielberg and his craft. Once we're back with Donovan, the film regains its footing (and handsomeness). I sense some audiences might be put off by the film's high-mindedness. Conservatives in particular may take issue with Donovan's heroic idealism even if it's so earnestly American. There's one speech Donovan makes before the Supreme Court that's Capraesque bordering on cloying. Even if taken directly from a transcript, the speech seems like it's directed at a contemporary audience rather than the Justices of the 1950s. Donovan speaks about the heart of the country and the fundaments of the Constitution and how it ought to be applied even to America's enemies. The contemporary read is not about Soviets but soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq who are detained in Guantanamo. Spielberg even seems to offer an indictment of prisoner abuse by contrasting Powers in a Soviet prison with Abel in an American one. The appeal is clear and you don't even have to look that hard--we're Americans, and we should be good even to our enemies. This kind of black-and-white appeal to good old-fashioned American decency works in movies since it's about an abstraction of Jimmy Stewart America or Gregory Peck America--a kind of aspirational Platonic form of what people in America can strive to be. (Ronald Reagan's America is probably more pervasive. Make of that what you will.) In that way, Bridge of Spies shares some Constitutional connective tissue with Amistad and Lincoln, while also being a kind of post-war counterpart to Saving Private Ryan--it's a mission to bring our boys home. It's hokey, but the takeaway is to be the best the country has to offer, or at least to try. If that corny idealism isn't good old-fashioned American decency, I don't know what is.
Review: Bridge of Spies photo
When Spielbergian goes Capraesque
Watching Bridge of Spies, I realized almost immediately the difference between a beautiful film and a handsome film. Steven Spielberg's latest movie is handsome. It's cleanly shot, polished, glossy, with impeccable acting in ...

NYFF Review: Steve Jobs

Oct 05 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219839:42637:0[/embed] Steve JobsDirector: Danny BoyleRating: RRelease Date: October 9, 2015 Even though he was an ideal public persona for Apple products, Steve Jobs was not a good person behind the scenes. There are numerous examples of Steve Jobs being a giant jerk, and the Steve Jobs of the film played by Michael Fassbender is superbly unrepentant. Before the launch of the original Macintosh computer, Steve throws tantrums. He's abusive to his staff, and he continues to avoid his financial and personal responsibilities to his daughter Lisa and her mother. (He's only 94.1% likely to be Lisa's father, he keeps pointing out.) Steve Jobs was a self-centered prick, a long-view Machiavellian entrenched in the tech industry, and there are times in this film that he verges on pure supervillainy. But he was also a savvy businessman. Based on this performance, you know who would make a great Lex Luthor? Michael Fassbender. (Also, Steve Jobs.) With some historical figures, we ponder the link between madness and genius. With Steve Jobs it's maybe more a question of morality and genius. The big conversation that the film wants to provoke is whether Steve Jobs could have been successful if he weren't such a raging douchebag. There's a pivotal argument in the third act with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who calls Jobs out for all of his persistent moral shortcomings. Fassbender plays Steve Jobs as this ethically challenged, emotionally unmoored figure, and the rest of the cast helps make this work by playing moral counterpoint for the wretch. Picture people holding down a hot air balloon with rope. The task is to keep this thing grounded as much as possible. Rogen's Wozniak is one of these people, and he's mainly seeking recognition for his hard work. There's also steady and loyal Andy Hertzfeld played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and a warmly paternal Jeff Daniels as former Pepsi and Apple CEO John Sculley. The most set upon moral figure in the film, though, is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). She's portrayed as a kind of power-personal assistant to Steve Jobs, though her marketing roles at Apple and NeXT were probably far different. Ditto her overall career trajectory. Hoffman apparently retired in 1995, years before the iMac launch, though she's at Jobs' side in the film in each act. This deviation makes sense for the sake of the screenplay, which requires a character as morally resolute as Jobs is morally aloof. In real life, Hoffman was considered the person who was best able to stand up to Jobs, and that kind of figure--the immovable moral object to Steve Job's unstoppable narcissistic force--is necessary in this particular type of story. Winslet disappears into the role. I didn't even realize it was her until the second act of Steve Jobs. Many of the best scenes involve Winslet verbally grappling with Fassbender. There are Sorkin-isms throughout the briskly paced Steve Jobs (e.g., the walk-and-talks, the trivia, the impeccable ripostes), and Boyle does a good job of differentiating the look and feel of each section of the film. The world of 1984 is shot in a grainy 16mm, for instance. The film's acts were shot independently, which allowed the actors to tailor their performances to each year before reconsidering their character for the next. Certain gags or lines or ticks in a performance call back to others. As strong as Steve Jobs is for its first two-thirds, it gets a little soft by 1998. I don't know if it's the Hollywood aspect (or Danny Boyle) shining through at this point, but the movie begins making these overtures of Steve Jobs' redemption, all with a heavy dose of crowd-pleasing schmaltz. I didn't buy any of it. A cringeworthy cutesiness also creeps into the iMac section of the movie. Here and there, Steve critiques the limitations of 1990s technology and hints at 21st century Apple products, as if we're watching a winky retroactive commercial. The lines are clunkers when they come, and one of them is a total eyeroller. It doesn't help that I'd been rolling my eyes at the triumphalism that the movie takes on in the final act even as elements of the script do its best to keep the man and the story on the ground. The argument between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak I mentioned earlier offers a great encapsulation of the film's underlying concerns. And sure, while the story chronicles one man's ability to overcome years of failure, Steve Jobs does this mostly by screwing over other people. During the NeXT section of the film, Jobs calls it "playing the orchestra." In real life, most people call it "being a dick." In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge has his three visions, wakes up in the morning, and reforms. In Steve Jobs, there are three products and a hint of a better Steve Jobs in the future. Bah humbug. In real life, Steve Jobs woke up after the iMac was released and was still Steve Jobs.
Review: Steve Jobs photo
A better way to do a biopic about a jerk
I was texting a friend about Steve Jobs over the weekend, the new biopic written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle. Sorkin thankfully avoided the birth-to-death biopic that we've all seen and grown tired of by now. ...

NYFF Review: Where to Invade Next

Oct 04 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219845:42640:0[/embed] Where to Invade NextDirector: Michael MooreRating: n/aRelease Date: TBD We start the invasion in Italy. Moore sits down with a couple in their living room to discuss what their paid vacation situation is like in the country. They get more than a month off, not including national and local holidays, and any unused vacation time rolls over into the next year. Moore's mouth is agog most of the time--he was genuinely learning all of this for the first time. But there's more. The wages tend to be better, the lunches are longer, and employees tend to be more productive on the job because they are so relaxed. Moore's invasion continues through Europe, with stops in France, Germany, Finland, Slovenia, and Portugal, continuing over the Mediterranean to Tunisia, then across the Atlantic to Iceland. Each time, there's a novel innovation, and each time Moore seems surprised and inspired. He focuses on one thing each country seems to be doing right. In Slovenia, for instance, all college is free, even for students who've come from abroad. In Finland, they've abolished homework. Moore admits that these countries have their own problems and he's mostly accentuating the positive. My job is picking the flowers and not the weeds, he says. He's also picking cherries, but that's not the biggest problem with Where to Invade Next, which, when it works, offers a fine rebuke of the "Fuck you, I got mine" mentality that pervades much of American culture. Moore's generally at his best when he's a deadpan observer rather than a fiery polemicist. Roger and Me is still his finest film (even though he did fudge the timeline of events) since it's mostly Moore as a citizen journalist documenting others. While framed around Moore trying to get an audience with General Motors CEO Roger Smith, the movie is driven by people who get to tell their own stories about the painful decline of Flint, Michigan. As Moore's clout grew, he became a more prominent figure in his films, and in turn his movies were more about Michael Moore's opinions on a subject rather than the subject itself. Moore develops a feel-good thesis in Where to Invade Next. These innovations in other countries could make America a better place, and they all have a shared origin. But Moore oversteps his skills as a documentary essayist through sloppy thinking and oversimplification. He walks past part of an old section of the Berlin Wall with a friend, and they reminisce about being there as it came down. Hammering and chiseling--the solution was so simple, they say. Well, no. History doesn't work that way. The Berlin Wall didn't come down just because some people in West Germany began chipping away at it for a few nights. There were decades of global history that culminated in that moment, and none of it was easy. While Moore smartly identifies the systemic racism underlying the US drug war, he dumbs down cause and effect in other parts of the film to suggest that the catalyst for change is something really simple. By that logic, the Arab Spring was easy as pie: all it took was for someone to self-immolate. No problemo. The systems themselves are simple and elegant, and yet the implementation of these solutions--free college, prison reform, education reform, greater gender representation in government--would have to be accomplished through legislative action and, even more difficult, a fundamental ideological shift in American attitudes regarding the bullshit of global capitalism and antiquated gender roles. These aren't so simple, they'll take time. But they're worth fighting for, which is why there's an oddly ennobling aspect to Where to Invade Next even for its flaws. In my head during each slip up, all I could think was, "Your argument is facile, but yeah, I agree, Michael." Moore's rhetorical missteps in Where to Invade Next come from a genuine place of concern. It's like a bad college essay. The larger point is good, but it's articulated and argued inartfully, whether through selective anecdotes rather than facts, or through emotional appeals rather than reason. The pat close of the movie is mushy and inspirational at the same time. Moore references a well-known fairy tale that takes place in the Midwest, and in the process made me think of another work about the contradictory relationship between political ideology and voting against your best interests in the Midwest (Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas). When film critic Stephen Whitty reviewed Fahrenheit 9/11 back in 2004, he wrote that Moore tends to worry liberals about as much as he infuriates conservatives. "They're people who agree with what Michael Moore says--but refuse to defend to the death the way he insists on saying it," he wrote. Some things don't change.
Review: Where to Invade photo
A feel good movie (but oversimplified)
Michael Moore and Donald Trump have something in common. No, seriously. They want to make America great again. In Where to Invade Next, Moore pretends he's been sent by the Pentagon to invade other countries. His mission: to ...

Review: The Martian

Oct 02 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219989:42650:0[/embed] The MartianDirector: Ridley ScottRated: PG-13Release Date: October 2, 2015  Despite what you might think from the title The Martian does not have any actual aliens in it. This isn't John Carter. This is science fiction at its most sciencey and its least fictiony. On what is now a relatively routine trip to study mars Mark Watney is left behind by the rest of his crew during an evacuation. The Martian is about his survival. It's also about his rescue. The crew, consisting of Captain Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan) and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), are on a months long trip back to earth thinking he's dead. Meanwhile NASA, led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and Mars lead Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) struggle to find a way to save Watney. If you've read the book you probably already recognize that Damon is the perfect casting for the wisecracking Mark Watney. The character might be one of the most likableprotagonists ever. Damon brings a layered performance to the stranded astronaut that not only captures the charm of the character from the book, but adds an extra layer of fear and anger that is sometimes missing from the prose. He turns the Watney of the page into an actual person and it is a powerful performance. The rest of the cast keeps pace, though they obviously don't take up as much screen time. Especially surprising is Daniels' performance, which takes an all out heel from the book and makes him far more relatable. There are other changes from the book. For the sake of time and the elimination of hours worth of exposition dialog the science has definitely been dumbed down a bit. More importantly, though, our time with Watney is far less. Since it's a film with less time the NASA parts are brought in earlier and we get less Watney on Mars action. It's a elimination that had to be made, especially to fit in the movie's stunning ending, but it means less Watney. That's actually a testament to just how well the movie plays. If you're sitting in your seat wishing it could have been an hour longer just so you could watch Matt Damon drive around what is basically a big red desert then a film has done something right.  In all honesty the subtraction of more Watney time makes the film work better. Drew Goddard shaped this film into a finely honed screenplay that retains the humor and passion of the book. It jumps back and forth perfectly between Mars and Earth. Tension is derived not from big action sequences (except the aforementioned thrilling conclusion), but instead human interaction and tiny drams. There's a great fluidity to the film that somehow helps contrast the wonder of Mars with the doldrums of Earth. Looking at this movie you can't help but want to strap on a suit and launch into space to explore whatever is out there because it's going to be amazing. Mars is vibrant red, stunningly beautiful and engrossingly alive despite not hosting any actual life. Earth by contrast is dull, full of cramped office space and dreary colors. The film is a visual explanation of humanity's love for exploring even if there was no sound. This may be Ridley Scotts best film since Gladiator and it's definitely his best science fiction since Blade Runner. Prometheus was Scott trying to be philosophical, but The Martian is him getting back to his grounded roots and that's what he's good at. At the intersection of science fiction and thrillers is where Scott hits his sweet spot and it's very evident with this film. He's a master of building tension, especially when isolation is involved. And yet, The Martian is drastically different from his previous science fiction movies. It is both humorous and hopeful. Space is still out to get us, but it's not something to run away from, but a challenge to be conquered. Maybe this is why it is just so awe inspiring. Years of Scott's pent up love for all things outer space seem to flow out onto the screen in this film. There has never been and may never be a better advertisement for NASA or a better explanation of why it's so important for us to explore. Sometimes we need a little great science fiction to know just what reality can be. 
Martian Review photo
Un-sciencing the sh*t out of this
If you haven't read The Martian you should because it's better than whatever you're reading now (most likely). It's one of the most enthralling pieces of science fiction to come along in ages and it's an incredibly quick...

NYFF Review: Microbe & Gasoline

Oct 01 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219843:42635:0[/embed] Microbe and Gasoline (Microbe et Gasoil)Director: Michel GondryRated: n/aRelease Date: TBDCountry: France Daniel (Ange Dargent) is an introverted budding artist with an eye for portraits as well as the crude porno pics he hides under his bed. He's small and looks younger than 14, which is why everyone calls him "Microbe." Worse, most people mistake him for a girl. There's the new kid, Theo (Theophile Baquet), who has a penchant for swagger, Michael Jackson leather jackets, and tinkering with machines. He's poor and there's grease under his fingernails, so they call him "Gasoline." The outsiders bond over a sound board that Gasoline has attached to his bike handles. It's a movie, and they're loners who represent divergent social classes and upbringings. So of course they become friends. It's the logic of the misfit buddy movie, and I don't object to it. Misfits attract misfits, but like magnets, the bond between cinematic misfits is between opposite poles rather than like ones. That might be why so many misfit kid movies often feature groups comprised of individual specialists--the tough one, the scientific one, the artsy one, the charismatic one, the one who knows Spanish--rather than people who are identical. Besides, who wants to hang out with someone who's exactly the same? How boring. Microbe and Gasoline are both 14, which is that point when kids want to be (or seem) more adult but don't quite know how that works. They act like they think adults should act, which is mostly learned from movies and TV rather than life. At a costume party, the boys are dressed like old men, and they loaf on the couch, world weary and judgmental, though Microbe looks on longingly at a girl from class. As Microbe obsesses over his crush, Gasoline offers advice as if he's had a decades-long history of loves and losses. There are limits to maturity, no matter how precocious a teenager is, and most of the comedy is rooted in this teenage worldview. It pervades the whole film, but it really takes charge in the second half of Microbe and Gasoline. With school out for the summer, the boys build a mobile home and go out on the road together. Many of Michel Gondry's films have an adorably ramshackle, handmade look about them, like the sweded movies in Be Kind Rewind or the hand-drawn animation from his Noam Chomsky documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? The boys' mobile home--part tiny house, part go-kart--is such a Gondry-looking contraption; wood, nuts, bolts, inventive gimmickry. You feel the splinters and rust, same goes for the gas fumes. From here the film embarks on an odyssey through Gondryland, and the teenage point of view takes over completely. The danger of being a runaway is relatively low. There's just freedom. Some might find the shift from a grounded world to Gondryland jarring. Picture riffs on fairy tales by way of Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend and you get some inkling of what happens. But I felt this change was a charming way to invoke the youthful promise of summer. It also shows just how out of their element the boys are. The parents have no sway over the kids, so the kids have to find their own way. (Microbe's mom is played by Audrey Tautou of Amelie fame, though she's a bit of a non-presence in the film even before summer begins.) Plus, it's all pretty funny. Earlier I mentioned the idea of sameness and difference when it comes to the people we hang out with. This become an important component of Microbe and Gasoline's friendship, and maybe most friendships. Our teenage years are about trying to figure out what adulthood is like, sure, but they're really about trying to define ourselves. Microbe is worried he's too much of a blank slate, and he's anxious that other people are doing the work of defining him, including Gasoline. And we do wind up mimicking our friends to a certain degree just like, earlier in life, we mimicked our parents/guardians and siblings. It's the inescapable fact of interaction. This is all a roundabout way of saying that the friends we love--the ones that matter and that we think of even years later after losing touch--are people who changed us in some way. We take on some of their qualities, they take on some of ours, and in this synthesis of personalities there's something new that's brought out in ourselves and sometimes into the world. An inside joke, maybe, or an experience of some kind that wouldn't have existed without that other person. Gondry captures the way these kinds of friendships can change us, and why they're so important when we're young works-in-progress. Even when Microbe and Gasoline leaves grounded reality, it's all tethered to that genuine, warm feeling we get whenever we meet and befriend someone who really gets us. The boys made a sweet ride, but not a saccharine one.
Review: Microbe & Gasolin photo
Friendship is magic
When Michel Gondry writes his own films, I've noticed that his protagonists have a tendency to act like quirky, whimsical teenagers. The misfit oddballs of The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind probably found a Zoltar machi...

NYFF Review: The Lobster

Sep 30 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219844:42633:0[/embed] The LobsterDirector: Yorgos LanthimosRating: n/aRelease Date: TBD In the world of The Lobster, single people are social pariahs. After the death of a spouse or a divorce, a single person is forced to check into a hotel filled with other single people. They have forty-five days to pair up and get married, otherwise they are killed and have their consciousness transferred to an animal. Lots of people choose dogs, but throughout the movie we also see horses, pigs, and peacocks. Our hero David (Colin Ferrell, with a slight gut) chooses a lobster; he brings his brother (who is now a dog) with him to the hotel. You can earn extra time to prevent metempsychosis by hunting down single people in the woods with a tranquilizer gun. The hotel operates with business-like efficiency, providing scheduled social activities like some bad singles cruise from hell. To reinforce the importance of relationships, the hotel staff puts on skits: A single man pantomimes eating a meal alone, he chokes, he dies; a man and his wife pantomime eating a meal together, he chokes, she administers the Heimlich maneuver, he lives--applause. To determine whom you can pair up with, you're asked whether you're straight or homosexual (the latter sounds so much like business-ese in the context of the film). David asks if there's a bi-sexual option and is shot down--you can only choose one or the other, not both. Paper or plastic, soup or salad, efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. And it's blackly hilarious. The international cast adds to the oddball appeal of The Lobster, and they deliver their lines in an intentionally stilted manner. Olivia Colman's hotel manager strikes just the right balance between clinical, supportive, and fascistic to make her moments memorable. As for the guests, at times they seem like awkward pre-teens going through the early stages of adolescence. David befriends men played by John C. Reilly (with a slight lisp) and Ben Wishaw (with a slight limp), but they act like boys in the schoolyard. In some scenes the lines are bumbled or devoid of actual human emotion, like they're reading a script or they're pod people acting like humans are supposed to act. Flirtation is no longer about attraction or fun but learned behaviors about how people are supposed to flirt, or the desperation of a ticking clock scenario; relationships are a form of mutually beneficial transaction (i.e., we get to remain humans) that's not necessarily satisfying. Some of the best moments in The Lobster come from Lanthimos' exploration of the various forces that urge people to get into relationships against their will. The time limit might be taken as a biological imperative to have kids, or even just a desire to get married by a certain age; the pressures of the hotel staff are the different cultural, familial, and religious expectations attached to marriage and relationships. Any time your relatives have nagged you about dating, marriage, or kids, you have occupied a room in Lanthimos' hotel. Lanthimos also pokes fun at the arbitrary ways we sometimes choose who we want to be with. Limping Wishaw is looking for a woman who also has a limp, because something in common (no matter how arbitrary) might mean greater compatibility. Sometimes shared interests or traits are an arbitrary reason to get into a relationship. Does he or she really need to like your favorite band? Is a 99% match on OK Cupid really a guarantee of compatibility? A number is just a number like a limp is just a limp, and what people share together isn't a matter of arithmetic or mere reflection; there's a kind of private language and grammar that develops between people who are really fond of one another, and these things can't be forced or imposed from the outside. Since The Lobster is rooted in binaries, we also get to learn about the harshness of single-life out in the woods. In the wild and the damp, we meet the leader of The Loners played by Lea Seydoux, who's both a kind of political revolutionary and a radicalized kook. She asserts her own absurd will over The Loners that is in stark contrast to the rules of the hotel--instead of relationships, it's all about forceful solitude. And yet like the hotel, her rules are equally arbitrary, equally absurd, and also blackly hilarious. It's no longer a case of "paper or plastic" among The Loners, but rather "with us or against us." Lanthimos is equally suspicious of these denials of attraction and the repression of our desire to connect with someone else; it's another imposition on human nature and individual choice. In the woods, animals who were single people wander through shots. They're probably better off. For all the absurd and anarchic humor throughout The Lobster, the movie loses momentum before it comes to an end. It's as if Lanthimos exhausted the possibilities of his conceit and didn't figure out the final pivot his story could take. (I mentioned Barthelme earlier, and his best stories often have a sort of pivot near the end, revealing an additional train of thought that's been operating, parallel or hidden, all along.) The Lobster can feel a little one-note at times, but I suppose it's really one note that's played by two opposing sides, a kind of tyranny of logic. During the New York Film Festival press conference after the screening, Lanthimos said his screenplay was very logical. The comment drew some giggles from the press, yet it's true. The Lobster adheres to the logic of its conceit, and maybe too much. But there's still enough to love.
Review: The Lobster photo
Love is strange
I still haven't gotten around to seeing Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, though I intend to. The blackly surreal 2009 film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar and drew favorable comparisons to the work of Luis Bunuel ...

Review: Cooties

Sep 18 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219880:42604:0[/embed] CootiesDirectors: Jonathan Milott and Cary MurnionRated: RRelease Date: September 18, 2015 At the center of Cooties is Clint, a guy who moved to the bright lights of New York City after graduation to become a big shot writer. But after a few failed attempts has moved back home and is forced to take a substitute teaching gig at his old elementary school. There he meets his old school crush Lucy (Alison Pill), her meathead boyfriend Wade (Rainn Wilson), and a bevy of other weird faculty members like the evolution debunker Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad) and the socially inept bio teacher Doug (Leigh Whannell). When a contaminated shipment of chicken nuggets (as seen through such a grossly awesome intro, you won't eat chicken nuggets again) turns the kids of the school into flesh eating monsters, Clint and the other teachers have to escape the school to survive.  The biggest draw, or warning sign depending on your humor, is the writing duo of Saw's Leigh Whannell and Glee's Ian Brennan. The two have crafted a wonderfully twisted horror premise, but the dialogue is distinctly Brennan's. As someone who religiously followed Glee through its six seasons (including, but not limited to, buying the Glee karaoke games and soundtrack CDs and watching the short lived Glee Project reality show on Oxygen), I can safely attribute the brunt of the film's humor to him. That's probably going to shy folks away, however. Just like Glee, Cooties' idea of parody is to come of with jokes that are a few years too old. A post 9/11 kid who wants to join the army named Patriot? A closeted gay teacher making innuendos? The vice principal (Brennan himself) saying "Stop it, kids!" before getting ripped apart? Yeah, those jokes are as tired as they seem. As the film's humor gets sidetracked with these weird jokes, it never quite takes the premise as far as it could. But the cast's ability to complete gel with what they're saying is fantastic.  In Cooties, it's the cast that makes it work. They're completely game with the film's wacky tone, and their performances elevate the film to awesomely cartoonish levels. Since you can't get too overtly violent with children and still try and be a comedy, the action has to be more humorous than not to succeed. Since directors Milott and Murnion can't seem to handle action scenes (as most of the action involves the teachers moving from one room to the other and staying there for a few scenes), the cast should be commended for their ability to command attention. As the film itself strays and lingers on a few scenes, the cast is delivering the dialogue with the quickness it needs to make it work and helps make the hokey bits a little more digestible. As Elijah Wood has shown in the past with films like The Faculty, he's perfectly capable of leading a horror comedy. He's still charming as ever even when he starts, literally, pooping himself. The scene stealer, however, is Leigh Whannell. His stunted delivery finally works for his awkward bio teacher as he delivers the film's hilarious science.  While the directors may not handle action scenes too well (leading to a ending scene that feels convoluted and tacked on while completely undermining the film's bittersweet climax), the duo have got a good grasp on imagery. Cooties looks fantastic. Insidious reds, taut greens and shading, and you definitely get the most out of zombie kids. The kids are covered in gross puss and blood (instead of becoming too gruesome, it goes for the comedic route) and aren't too horrendously attacked, there's a girl playing jump rope with an intestine, a kid riding a tricycle covered in blood, zombie kids playing blood hopscotch, and so on. It's pretty much the embodiment of the "kids are terrifying" mantra. The film never quite reaches the level of visual you'd hope with a premise like this, but what is here is well crafted. There's definitely an attention to detail in the visuals even if there's a lack of it elsewhere.  Cooties has its share of faults, but none of them are completely damaging to the overall package. There'll be stuff within the film that bothers you here and there, but when watching the cast and the kids enjoy themselves it's hard not to follow in their footsteps. For every hokey joke, there's one that works. For every clunky action scene, there's a hilarious conversation between two characters.  By the time it makes the egregious mistake of going on past its natural ending, you won't even care too much. You'll have a big smile on your face. 
Cooties Review photo
Might not need that cootie shot
Zombies are everywhere. Name an object and add zombie or "of the dead" to it, and I guarantee there's a film out there with that title. Bong of the Dead? Exists. Toilet of the Dead? Surprisingly a thing. Redneck or stripper z...

Review: Everest

Sep 18 // Matthew Razak
Everest is based on the real life events of what was then the deadliest day in the mountain's history. A collection of poor decisions, freak occurrences and bad luck that led to the death of eight climbers in 1996. Famed climber Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) leads Everest climbing expeditions for groups of climbers, however, in their push for the summit they make a series of poor decisions and a dangerous storm catches them leading to the death of multiple people and daring rescues. I suppose some spoiler alerts should have gone there, but I think we're well past the time limit for this story on those. Interestingly the film is not based on Jon Krakauer's (Michael Kelly) book, Into Thin Air, and ditches much of the editorializing that the book did about the issues with an overcrowded Everest making safety measures a concern. This is both a boon and a bane for the film. The loss of this commentary does mean that the film loses some of its punch. We're never given an overall cause for the events of that day and so the movie can feel pointless in its story. On the flip side we're allowed far more focus on the characters because commentary is removed. It ditches the why for the who and instead of placing blame focuses on the tragedy of the event. This is why, despite being redundant, the isn't a failure. I believe that part of what is supposed to be different about this film is that it's in IMAX 3D. The sweeping vistas and digital recreations of Everest are definitely something to behold on a massive screen for sure, but not enough to excuse the fact that we've seen it all before. The movie does look great, but there's legitimate IMAX Everest movies that look even better that anyone who has been to a natural history museum in the past 35 years has seen. We've also been flooded with disaster movies in this format so it's getting harder and harder to make "Oooo pretty" into something worth putting your money down. As a selling point Everest's grandeur doesn't really work. Thankfully it doesn't just rely on that, nor does it rely on being a disaster flick. While the movie ratchets up the action here and there it's surprisingly more human focused. Aside from a bit in the middle when the storm hits the film is almost entirely character driven, focusing on the lives of these people and not their deaths. It's a great move, especially with the actors they have. A film simply full of destruction would have felt cheap in the face of so much death. Instead we spend the majority of the opening finding out about the characters before we watch them slowly die on the mountain side. Emotionally Everest can pack a punch, and that's where it stands out from the lesser survival films out there whose main focus is to put their characters into harrowing situations. The cast is pretty all star (Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllyenhal, Keira Knightly, Sam Worthington and a bunch of "that guys") so it stand to reason that they can handle the deeper stuff. Most of the emotional punch comes from the folks not climbing, though. It's their reactions that hit you in the gut as they slowly listen to more and more climbers die. The ones on the mountain are covered in snow and winter coats so it means the guys on the ground are where we get the feeling from.  Everest may not be doing anything new, but it does a good enough job of nailing what has already been done. It looks gorgeous and piles on the drama instead of the action. While it might not be anything that's going to change how you see survival movies it will reconfirm one thing: climbing a mountain is not something you want to do.
Everest Review photo
Now in 3D!
You've seen Everist before. Not just in the sense that we've all seen a billion movies about mountains killing people or in the sense that it's based on the same true story that Into Thin Air was based on. You've se...

Review: The Beauty Inside

Sep 14 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219909:42609:0[/embed] The Beauty InsideDirector: Baek Jong-yeolRelease Date: September 11, 2015Country: South Korea  As a remake, The Beauty Inside is an interesting beast. It takes a 40 minute, episodic experiment and makes it two hours long. It keeps some many of the same moments, but there are some crucial changes that speak to broader cultural differences between America and Korea. Early on I had thought that The Beauty Inside 2015 might go exactly where the 2012 film did. It didn't, of course, and what it does is ultimately far more compelling and meaningful, but the fact that I had those expectations (and that the American version of the story met those expectations) says a lot of things. It seemed like a logical conclusion. But then again, I also thought it would have been a bit too neat, tying things off too nicely at the expense of a greater message. TBI2012 does that. The Beauty Inside does not. But while we're thinking about cultural differences, let's think about the title. I spend a lot of time thinking about movie titles. In the grand scheme of things, they're all sort of irrelevant (especially with translated titles, since they're often different (which is, in and of itself, kind of interesting), but there's something significant in the way a film is presented. Someone(s) thought that any given name was the best way to sell it. "The Beauty Inside" made me think of another Korean film: 200 Pounds Beauty. When I first saw that film, I expected it to have a message like The Beauty Inside, that looks are only skin deep and what really matters is who you are underneath. Cliches, etc. That's not what the film is about. It almost seems like it's going to be... but then it turns out the actual message is that you have to be both interesting and extremely attractive to get the guy. I had a big problem with that. Sure, it's better than just being pretty... but come on. I get it, superficial culture and all that, but that's bad. The Beauty Inside doesn't have that message, though its inspiration's parting note is closer to that than I think anyone involved would like to admit. [embed]219909:42608:0[/embed] Kim Woo-jin wakes up every day as a different person. His running internal monologue (always the same voice) is the only thing we really have to latch onto. One day, an old woman; the next day, a young boy. And on and on. Some days he's extremely attractive, goes out, and has a one night stand (which he runs from in the morning). Other times he just does his work. He's a furniture designer, half of the brains behind the customizable furniture company ALX. He has one friend – the other man behind ALX – and his mom, both of whom know his secret and accept him. But, as is wont to happen, something is changed by the power of love. Not the secret, but Woo-jin's reaction to it. He was cool with the whole isolation thing, but then he fell for Yi-soo, a furniture saleswoman. And eventually, she falls for Woo-jin too. But there are a lot of questions there, big ones, existential ones, for both sides of the relationship.  It's not easy. Obviously. There was a movie I saw at the Japan Cuts Film Festival this year called Forget Me Not. I liked it a whole bunch but I couldn't bring myself to write about it. It was a romance about a high school girl who is forgotten by everyone around her: her teachers, her classmates, even her parents. I didn't write about the film because the whole thing was just too damn bleak. I couldn't get up the energy to write something that did it justice. I bring Forget Me Not up because I was absolutely terrified for about two thirds of The Beauty Inside that it would turn out a similar way. When I figured out that it wasn't going to end the way the 2012 film did, I thought that maybe it would go there; eventually E-soo would forget about him or something to that effect. There's already a supernatural element, so why not add another one? Woo-jin is easy to forget. Everything about him changes from day to day. Some days he can't even speak Korean, but he can always understand it. (This is particularly interesting, since he doesn't actually learn this new language, as evidenced by a back-and-forth in Japanese and Korean where his conversation partner slips into Japanese and he can't translate.) And so some day, he could easily just disappear and no one would ever know.  What makes The Beauty Inside fundamentally more interesting than its source material is its focus on society. In the original experiment, it was just the two characters. But Yi-soo has a family and colleagues and friends. She's not isolated, and so dating becomes a Thing. Colleagues start rumors about her, saying she goes through a new man every day. And... they're right, sort of. But that starts to wear on her. How does she respond to that? How would she introduce him to her family? Where does all of this lead? These are those existential questions, and the way they motivate the characters is fascinating to watch.  This may be a bit too clinical, but I sort of think of it as its own kind of experiment. We take a guy who, every day since he turned 18, has become a new person. We take a woman who, it turns out, he gets on rather well with. Then they just go. It has a very naturalistic style (ripped straight from the social film), and so the whole thing feels oddly real. It looks like a movie, but it feels distinctly non-cinematic. It feels like a bizarrely good looking documentary. The whole thing played out in a way that felt right, and with a narrative like this that's crucial. When things are sad, any overtly manipulative move feels cheap, but so does any deus ex machina. Things don't just get better because they get better. If they get better, it has to feel natural and earned. It may leave plenty of questions open, but you don't need to have all the answers all the time. It's about the moment and making that moment feel as honest as possible. And that's where The Beauty Inside succeeds. It feels honest. And a film (a romance at that) that can feel honest when its protagonist is played by 123 different people is a special one indeed. 
The Beauty Inside Review photo
Thankfully more than skin deep
The Beauty Inside is a remake of sorts. It's taken from a 2012 social film of the same name. "Social film" is a term I learned while writing this introduction. Social films are episodic and feature integration with socia...

Review: Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh)

Sep 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219860:42583:0[/embed] Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, ich seh)Directors: Veronika Franz and Severin FialaRated: RRelease Date: September 11, 2015Country: Austria Your opinion of Goodnight Mommy may be contingent on your stomach for plot twists. I don't like them about 99% of the time since they usually feel like hollow gimmicks rather than essential parts of the storytelling machinery. Twists feel cheap, and while I won't spoil the twist of Goodnight Mommy, it certainly feels cheap when you know what it is. As a character uttered the line that reveals the twist, I thought, "Oh come on, Goodnight Mommy--I thought you were above this." In retrospect, the twist is there early in the film if I were to look for it, but I wasn't looking for it because I thought Goodnight Mommy would be a much more original and interesting film rather than one that relies on a bad cliche. The excellent craft displayed by co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is what makes Goodnight Mommy's reliance on a twist so disappointing and its unraveling sense of purpose in the last third (maybe, really, the last fifth) baffling. Consider the movie's visual style for the first two-thirds of its run time. Many of the shots divide the frame into vertical halves, thirds, and quarters to emphasize elements in the foreground and background, all the while playing with light, shadow, and negative space. Large photos of the mother (Susanne Wuest) adorn the walls, but her face is blurry in all of them. On the one hand, this is the kind of artsy, pretentious portraiture you'd expect in an upscale home, and on the other, we have two boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) who question the identity of their mother. It's the sort of detail organic to the world of the film and a visual representation of its central concern (i.e., Who are you really?). And then there are details that seem like the cinematic attempt to recreate aspects of a dream. The boys keep Madagascar hissing cockroaches as pets. These are the massive sorts of roaches that are common in movies that feature cockroaches, and they look a lot more exotic than your foul, run-of-the-mill New York City waterbugs. The roaches hiss like they're shushing the boys, like there are secrets in the house that are being kept, or as if the children remind themselves they need to be quiet in order to spy on this person who may or may not be their mother. The wallpaper in the boys' room is covered in a googie-style wallpaper covered in ants. It reminded me of the popular design elements of the 1950s and the sort of playful decor you'd find in a day care or nursery, but also the crawly feeling one gets when something isn't quite right. That sense of contradiction--googie wallpaper that's both cute and off-putting, the comforts and terrors of a home--is carried through in the performances. Lukas and Elias Schwarz seem both playfully insular together and yet they also have a touch of something sinister, which may simply be a symptom of seeing twins together in a movie (thanks a lot, Stanley Kubrick). Wuest plays the mother with emotional highs and lows. She's tender, and she's also terrifying. She nurtures, she scolds, and hugs, and she slaps. The performances may be mannered, but like the visuals and the production design, the actors propel the film forward and help evoke the uncertainties of dark rooms and nightmares. So much ambiguity and promise to play with, and yet it comes back to the twist. The twist reduces all of the possibilities of this eerie, dreamlike world into a single possibility, and one that isn't that interesting. This may explain why that trailer for Goodnight Mommy so good and the film doesn't reach that level. I might have loved the movie if it wasn't for that pesky story.
Review: Goodnight Mommy photo
Are you my mommy?
The trailer for Goodnight Mommy is one of the best horror trailers in a while--evocative, menacing, unreal. The mother of twin boys returns home, her face bandaged after a major surgical procedure. The boys think there's some...

Review: The Transporter Refueled

Sep 04 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219881:42589:0[/embed] The Transporter RefueledDirector: Camille DelamarreRated: PG-13Release Date: September 4, 2015  The Transporter Refueled is basically The Transporter, but with a different actor and four girls instead of one. Yes, there's some minor plot differences, but the general gist is that a professional driver, Frank Martin (Ed Skrein), is called into a job and then gets sucked into some drama he doesn't want to be in. In this case it involves a group of sex slaves led by Anna (Loan Chabonal) and his father Frank Sr. (Ray Stevenson). The premise, much like in the first films, is that this is very against Frank's rules and his personal coda. The problem with that premise is that it's never executed. Unlike in the original film where you felt like Frank was constantly upset by this shift in his life this time around it feels like he's all in from the start. It takes away one of the unique edges that the franchise had and instead of a character you get an archetype. Frank stoically goes from fight sequence to chase sequence on the most predictable path there is. His character never really gets pushed into interesting places, and that makes the rest of the flaws in the film stand out even more. Of course part of the charm of the original character was what Jason Statham brought to the role. Skrein brings none of it. Statham's charm, wit and style are replaced by what appears to be a very handsome wood carving. Skreim lacks the every-man demeanor that Statham brings to a role and that means that his Frank Martin is just boring. It doesn't help that he clearly doesn't have the fighting skills to handle the role. He's slow in the sequences he's in and the director has to overly rely on quick edits to make it seem like fights have impact. Not that Camille Delamarre (another failed Luc Besson protege) does very much with his directing. There are admittedly some fantastic ideas for fights and action sequences in this film, but Delamarre can't piece them together no matter how hard he tries. Chases are disjointed to the point of confusion leaving them uninteresting despite copious amounts of flipping cars. A fight sequence in an enclosed hallway with small drawers on its walls is completely wasted while the premise of Frank fighting along side his slowly moving car is awesome, but never executed in a way that makes it feel so. I made the horrible mistake of watching Mad Max: Fury Road the night before this. It was like watching the London Symphony Orchestra perform and then listening to a five-year-old smash his hands into a Casio keyboard. That's clearly not a fair comparison. Comparing anything to the best action movie ever isn't fair, but I'll do it anyway because we should start expecting more.  The film never commits to a style of action either. Switching randomly between a serious car chase movie and ridiculous uber-action, the movie just feels awkward all the time. When some sort of physics defying stunt occurs it feels out of place instead of awesome. If you're going to be ridiculous be ridiculous. Don't try to be grounded and then have your hero fly off a jet ski through a car window with pin point accuracy. Also, jet skis aren't cool. They're never cool. As an action film Refueled fails pretty hard, but it's even worse in terms of its treatment of women characters. Not to keep bringing up Mad Max, but this is the exact opposite of how that film perfectly pulled off a plot about kept and abused women. The four fleeing sex workers in Refueled were all kidnapped as children and forced into the trade. The movie attempts to turn their story into one of triumph over an evil doer, but they're still basically there as sex objects for Frank and his father to play with. What's the first thing these abused women do when Frank helps them escape? They show up in lingerie and reward him with sex. Haven't we moved past crap like that? Do we really need some empty love story just so we can have a sex scene, especially for a character whose entire drive is to be detached. The original at least kept its female "lead" clothed for the majority of the film. This one has them stripping as an older man ogles their body in the first 15 minutes.   Maybe I'm coming down incredibly harsh on The Transporter Refueled. After all it's just supposed to be a dumb action flick. The problem is it can't even pull that off. It's failure at even being popcorn fun opens it up to deeper and deeper ridicule. Honestly, we should expect more from our action flicks anyways. The world of action cinema has improved drastically since the original film released and yet this franchise seems to be going in reverse.
Transporter photo
Empty tank
Many people brush off the Transporter films as crappy, but the first two are actually great examples of 2000s action. The first was around for the birth of the cheap European action flick. Taken also falls into...

Review: Hitman: Agent 47

Aug 19 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219790:42560:0[/embed] Hitman: Agent 47Director: Aleksander BachRated: RRelease Date: August 21, 2015 Based on IO-Interactive's Hitman series, Agent 47 follows Katia (Hannah Ware) a woman with mysterious heightened skills searching for her father, a man who once ran a covert government (which government? Who cares!) experiment that lead to the creation of super soldiers with highly advanced tactical skills known as "Agents." When Agent 47 (Rupert Friend) claims he's trying to help save Katia and her father from Syndicate agent John Smith (Zachary Quinto), she doesn't know who to believe and must decide whether or not to rely on her mysterious abilities to survive. As you can probably gauge from the synopsis, 47 is as generic as they come. It's a trite plot that doesn't waste time with intricacies or honest characterization. But in the same vein, the flow of the film benefits from the lack of plot or heavy knowledge of the characters. For example, Rupert Friend is "fine" as Agent 47. The film specifically doesn't ask much more of him than to be an emotionless blank slate, but it's strangely never boring. It adds an interesting air of sterility to the film that pushes all of the violence of the film into hilarious territory (since the grit stands out so much). When you watch a guy listlessly kill a guy with a bible while a techno-metal soundtrack blares in the background, you can't help but laugh.  It's almost as if the film is trying to replicate the videogame series in that sense. By having a blank slate as the main character, 47 is trying its best to capture the feeling of experiencing the beats of the story through a direct avatar. It doesn't always work since cinema fundamentally can't connect with an audience at such a base level, but that's why 47 makes the inspired decision to choose a different main character. Rather than follow the blank slate, we're supposed to care about Katia. While that doesn't quite work either since she eventually collapses into the violent world of the film, it allows 47 to be "inhuman" for a bit and lets the audience enjoy how ridiculous the film's world is. It's a near perfect action formula which almost feels nostalgic in the way it wants us to just enjoy this guy shooting other guys.  Evidence of this is 47's fantastically storyboarded opening. With airs of Terminator, two agents follow Katia. The "inhuman" 47 does this awesome slow walk (but thanks to his emotionless state, the film believes in its audience enough to infer that he's walking with pompous confidence), while Quinto's John Smith has this awesome Kyle Reese vibe. Then they fight on the subway tracks and the film becomes a cartoon. It's pretty awesome. To explain why it turns into Terminator would give away the fun of the opening, but it really isn't a big twist if you've seen these films before. Although the plot is generic, Agent 47 does whatever it can to make everything else super fun: action sequences are faithful to the videogames as 47 uses the environment around him to take down a room, the bad dialogue makes the banter between the action hilarious, and the soundtrack seems overbearing at first but eventually subsides.  I'm left wondering whether or not I was "supposed" to enjoy Hitman: Agent 47 in the way I did. The film begs the question of whether or not we're "supposed" to laugh with it or at it. After writing my thoughts down here, I think it's a little bit of both columns. Hitman: Agent 47 is full of intentional goofy choices in order to keep the film fresh. Unlike films that try and be a bad movie in order to reach a cult status, 47 doesn't care whether or not you're going to watch it later. It's invested in keeping you entertained now and doesn't care whether or not you're invested back.  While Hitman: Agent 47 is too generic of an action film for pure action fans, it's got enough flair to appease casual fans of its namesake. It's got bad dialogue, bland characters, but it's so brisk only some of that matters. Hitman: Agent 47 hits its target well enough I'd be interested in seeing what another of these can bring. 
Agent 47 Review photo
A near hit, man
Despite never quite getting a videogame adaptation right, studios are still trying to churn out film after film in order to hit that elusive sweet spot where they please both new audiences and fans of the original videogame. ...

Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Aug 14 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219771:42550:0[/embed] The Man From U.N.C.L.E.Director: Guy RitchieRated: PG-13Release Date: August 14, 2015  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is an old school, James Bond, spy thriller. Quite literally, really. Instead of updating the premise of the show -- an American and Russian spy team up to fight world threats -- to meet modern times they simply went back to the cold war setting of the show. Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is an American spy and master thief and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is basically his Russian counterpart, but he's better at beating people up. They're teamed up to rescue a nuclear scientist from the hands of an evil Italian fascist named Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki). The plot involves his daughter Gaby (Alicia Vikander) and more fashion, travel and quick one-liners than three Bond films put together. Of course the basis for a film like this has to be the chemistry between its leads. Hammer and Cavill can both easily handle sharp dialog and dressing well, but can they do it together? The answer turns out to be: if they work on it. The chemistry is a little rocky at first, especially since everyone in the film has clearly been told to overplay their adopted accents. The two seem wary of each other for the first half of the film until they fall into a solid patter. Maybe that was intentional, but it makes for a first half that feels a bit awkward, especially with Vikander thrown into the mix as Hammer's love interest. What helps it along is Guy Ritchie's direction (some words I never thought I'd be saying). The film is free over his usual over indulgences or maybe they just fit into the glamorous setting better. The movie feels smooth and stylish throughout and almost has a rhythmic flow to it that ramps up the feeling of a classic 60s spy film. He paces his action surprisingly well and often completely ignores it in favor of a solid gag or split screen montage. It's quite an adept piece of work that feels unique in a summer of action blockbuster that stood out for great stunts, but not so creative direction.  The screenplay isn't quite as suave, though Ritchie tries to imbue it with a little more tension than it deserves. It features twists and turns aplenty, but they don't always pay off as they should. The movie attempts to do what I'm going to call micro-twists. Instead of one big twist (there is one of those too) a scene will be a twist in itself. Multiple times we're shown only half of a sequence only to be filled in minutes later on the rest of what happened. It's an interesting execution and definitely works sometimes. Other times it feels forced, as if Ritchie were trying to add drama to a scene that wasn't working. As a film reviewer it was just interesting to watch it being executed, as a basic audience member I could see it getting annoying. What isn't annoying is that when the movie is clicking it's just plain fun. Once you realize that Cavill's pin-point perfect American accent and Hammer's resoundingly stereotypical Russian are indications that this film is as much a send up of 60s spy thrillers as it is an homage things start working really well. There's a certain je ne sais quoi to the Connery Bonds and their likes from the time period that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. actually grasps at every so often. Considering that most films can't even come close every so often is pretty damn good.  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. concludes in such a way that it's pretty obvious that they want another franchise (where this leaves Ritchie for directing another Sherlock Holmes movie is anyone's guess), but I think it's just a little too quirky to get the audience to come. That might be a good thing in the end. The movie feels like something from out of the past, especially with its lackluster plotting. It's smooth and crammed with tight dialog. It forgoes big action for clever direction. It focuses on the spies and not the toys, even if it isn't so good at the spy thing. It isn't always successful, but when it works  The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a film out of its time.
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Smooth operator
Does anyone below the age of 60 have super fond memories of the original TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? I'm sure they're out there, but the new movie remake can't really be hitting on the nostalgia gas that hard when half t...

Review: I Am Chris Farley

Aug 11 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219746:42540:0[/embed] I Am Chris FarleyDirectors: Derik Murray & Brent HodgeRelease Date: August 11, 2015 (VOD & DVD)Rating: NR  I Am Chris Farley is an interesting mix of interviews and video clips, most of which appear to have been ripped from VHS tapes. They span his time at Second City all the way through his various film appearances. It periodically cuts to an interview with David Letterman which is probably supposed to be representative of his success... but looking at his eyes, I only saw fear. The bulk of the film is made up of interviews. School friends, family, other actors. Big names, small names, no names. There were so many of them that I often forgot who the smaller names were. It seems to be intended for TV (made by Spike), as every so often it decides to reintroduce them with new title cards. Every 20-30 minutes or so, after they're back from the commercial break. I wish they'd done that more, honestly. But at some point, it didn't matter if that was the guy who was with him at Second City or the one who played Rugby. They're not there to serve themselves. They're there to help document Chris Farley. The whole thing is pretty straightforward. It starts with his youth and ends with his death. We're walked through the kind of person he was and the near-inevitability that he would end up a star. He was the entertainer, always looking for the spotlight. Of course he was. He was Chris Freaking Farley. And, as I sort of knew but very clearly learned, he was really flipping funny. But even if you know that, there's a lot of interesting stuff to be gleaned from these interviews. He used to be a jock, for example, super into football and rugby. He was an excellent improvisor but he never wrote any of the sketches he was in. He was the mold that everyone else used to make beautiful sketch sculptures. And oh what a mold he was. [embed]219746:42544:0[/embed] You could argue that I Am Chris Farley is a little on the shallow side. It's not until the last fifteen or so minutes that his death even comes up. Heavy on the happiness and nostalgia and then just a little bit of, "Also, the bad." And it's something I'm sort of conflicted about. By virtue of this fact, I Am Chris Farley is not really an accurate representation of who he was. If he was in and out of rehab, then a couple of mentions towards the end are hardly enough to accurately depict his struggle. This is a whitewashed version of Chris Farley. But I can also appreciate the desire to not dwell on the negative. It makes the film less of a historical document, but I also don't think that makes it somehow less worthwhile. Just go in with your expectations in check. This is how people want to remember him, all of the good times they had together and the laughs that everyone shared. This is about the idyllic version of the man – the myth and the legend. I think that's okay. I honestly do. There's something unfortunate about it, perhaps, but this was a man who just wanted to make people laugh. He wanted to be famous so he could go make sick children at the hospital happy. That's the stuff people want to think about and remember. Everyone has their flaws... but sometimes ignorance is bliss. I think this is one of those times.
I Am Chris Farley Review photo
Some version of him, anyhow
When I went into I Am Chris Farley, I couldn't have honestly said that I was a fan of his work. Not because I didn't like it, but because I didn't know it particularly well. I'd seen some stuff over the years, but I miss...

Review: Assassination

Aug 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219742:42539:0[/embed] Assassination (Amsal | 암살)Director: Choi Dong-HoonRelease Date: August 7, 2015Country: South Korea  An American version of Assassination would be rated PG-13. On the whole, the amount of action in the film would be similar, but the effect of that action would be radically different. Why? Well, because there wouldn't be any blood. American action films are bloodless, often problematically so. A lot of people die in Mission Impossible - Rogue Agent, but oftentimes I straight up didn't realize it until I was told afterwards. Is someone dead or just unconscious? You never know, because it all looks the same. It's an important distinction to make. It's important to know if the characters we're rooting for/fighting against are cold-blooded killers or just really good at getting KOs. (I think about this College Humor sketch about Batman and death constantly.) Guns mitigate that to some degree, but a bloodless hail of bullets is always sort of off-putting.  One of the things I like about Korean films is that they rarely have guns. Gangsters use bats because they don't have guns. Getting a gun is a Big Deal that requires actual Effort, whereas in American films (and America in general), everyone and their newborn has access to a firearm. To put it plainly: Guns are boring. There are exceptions to that rule (Hong Kong films with guns are certainly more exciting than American ones), but given the choice between a gunfight and a fist/bat/knifefight, I'd always choose the latter.  There are a lot of guns in Assassination. It's a period piece set in the early 1900s, and I guess guns were more prevalent back then. Whether that's historical license or not, it definitely factors into the way the film's action plays out. There are a few close-quarters encounters, but they're the exception, not the rule. Still, the crucial thing to point out is that the film is anything but bloodless. You always know when someone's been hit, because it's always accompanied by a spray of the red stuff. And to my eye, they looked like they were actual squibs for the most part. If they weren't, that was some of the most effective blood CG I've seen. (Then again, the version of the film I saw was kinda fuzzy at times, so it's possible that the image smoothed out. Either way, the blood looked good.) Assassination follows a ragtag group of killers during the period in which Korea was under Japanese rule. The Korean government was forced underground, and they were being smoked out by the Japanese. So they pull together this group of three killers (and a few pointmen) to take down two figures in the Japanese military regime, one Japanese and one Korean, to hit them where it hurts. From there, things get complicated (as they often do), because one of the pointmen is a double agent (you learn this almost immediately, so… not a spoiler) and he hires an infamous Korean killer to take down the other Korean killers by claiming that they’re a bunch of Japanese spies. And then everyone fools everyone else into thinking that they’re all different people or on different sides or have different intentions. Trying to keep track of everyone’s particular goals at any given moment is difficult, but fortunately their motives remain consistent throughout. The closest thing anyone has to a change of heart seemed to follow that character’s overall desires pretty closely, so it didn’t even feel like a big moment. It was just the next thing that happened. Which isn’t to say there aren’t surprises (there are), just that the surprises aren’t left-field twists. The biggest “surprise” was more a reminder: Anyone can die. Not everyone does die, but there are no immortals in Assassination. Those guns I was talking about earlier, they are lethal (or at least crippling) to anyone and everyone who stands in their path. It’s a breath of fresh air, really, actually fearing for the lives of characters you’re rooting for. In Mission Impossible, you know who will and won’t survive. There’s no such guarantees here. And it results in some legitimately sad moments that fit surprisingly well with the often over-the-top action that surrounds them. You get the high of the ultra-bloody violence followed by the low of ultra-bloody violence against a character that you've been rooting for. It's emotional, but it's also not a bleak "there is no good in the world" sort of thing either. More often than not, the film can (and should) be described as "fun." That may come with a few caveats, but this is a film that's meant to be enjoyed. It undoubtedly succeeds.
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Asassinations, more like
Director Choi Dong-Hoon's last film, The Thieves, was a thoroughly enjoyable film. It wasn't the smartest or most unique thing, but it wasn't dumb or bland either. It was stylish and interesting and fun, so much so that ...

Review: Fantastic Four

Aug 08 // John-Charles Holmes
[embed]219745:42538:0[/embed] Fantastic FourDirector: Josh TrankRelease Date: August 7, 2015Rating: PG-13 The Fantastic Four is one of Marvel’s oldest comic book series, telling the tale of a group of scientists turned into mutants after a freak experiment goes awry. There’s Reed Richards (Miles Teller), who can stretch his body like elastic, Sue Storm (Kate Mara), who can turn invisible and produce energetic shields, Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), who becomes a living fireball, and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), whose entire exterior is turned into cragged rock. The team decide to use these powers to fight crime and protect the world—it’s one of Marvel’s most colorful send-up series, and this recent movie just decides not to take advantage of its classic appeal. Fantastic Four is much more concerned with focusing on their origins. That’s right, the entire two hours of this film is one big origin story. In this interpretation, Reed and Ben are childhood friends who grow up together to work on and eventually travel through an interdimensional teleporter which causes of the horrific accident. By the time the accident actually creates the Fantastic Four and villain Doctor Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbel) the rest of the running time is spent watching the characters explore their powers and keep themselves out of the hands of the government. You know, because government is bad? Folks, I’m gonna be upfront with you-- this movie is an absolute mess. By focusing so much on where the Fantastic Four comes from, we never get a good idea of who they are. Ben Grimm aka “The Thing” is arguably one of Marvel’s most tragic heroes next to the Hulk and that’s never really touched on over the course of the film. Just about every character is a one-dimensional caricature that gets across basic personalities fast. The scientists are curt and over-analytical, Sue and Johnny’s father is the overprotective parent, Victor von Doom is the aloof hacker kid—there’s just not much the movie has to work with in terms of character here and it hurts for it. There are some great opportunities for character development, be it how Reed and Ben grow distant after being childhood best friends, how Ben has his humanity stripped away when he becomes a living mountain, or Sue and Doom’s past romance that is briefly teased a few times… but instead the movie is constantly jumping ahead in time, just skipping over what would make for an interesting film. Instead, the focus goes entirely on lightly exploring their powers. To their credit, this does lead up to the only worthwhile sequence in the film, with everyone realizing just how their bodies have mutated. The tension and horror of this moment is ripped straight out of a horror film, but ultimately lacks any lasting punch as they never even revisit this trauma any further. Recent Marvel productions have proven that they have a good sense of how to manage the emotional budget of characters, story, and action. Without this balance, Fantastic Four feels more like a superhero movie from the mid-2000’s—all origin, no character, and those really awkward looking “contemporary” costume designs. Even the action of the movie is lackluster—in fact, there’s only one fight scene and its at the very end of the movie. By the time the movie got there, I had no investment, no interest, and minimal context. Honestly, if I didn’t have to watch it to write this review, I would’ve walked out in the final 20 minutes of the film. Perhaps this film may see a second life on home media where internet critics and drunken friends alike will laugh at the Asylum quality special effects (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a man get pelted with styrofoam rocks, thusly transforming him into The Thing), the stilted writing, the painful acting, and awkward pacing. I can think of no good reason why anyone should watch this movie. It feels outdated, boring, and about half an hour way too long. In favor of going on for a few more paragraphs as to why Fantastic Four is a mess of a movie that should be avoided at all costs, I instead choose to leave you with a short list of notes I made on the movie while watching it, as they are far more entertaining than this movie itself will ever be. For the entirety of the movie, The Thing does not wear pants. An entire year passes in movie time and he still does not wear pants. This is made more distressing by the fact that he has a rock ass and also possibly a rock dick. This movie was so bad, Stan Lee didn’t even make a cameo. Is this the first time he just hasn’t shown up during a Marvel movie? (Note: It is not. He has a history of not appearing in some of the worst Marvel features.) At one point, Doctor Doom blows up a government man with his mind like in Scanners. It is never explained what his powers are or why he becomes evil. The highlight of the entire film was a five second cameo by Tim Heidecker as Reed’s father. He actually gets a full screen credit at the end. I remind you once more that The Thing doesn’t wear pants and has a visible ass-crack throughout the span of the movie. Do not see this movie.
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Fantastic floor
Marvel Studios has landed on a winning formula in their own films with its vast catalog of films over the past decade. They seamlessly blend lovable characters, engaging stories, amazing effects, enthralling action, charming ...

Review: Dragonball Z: Resurrection 'F'

Aug 04 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219696:42515:0[/embed] Dragonball Z: Resurrection 'F'Director: Tadayoshi YamamuroRated: NRRelease Date: August 4-12, 2015 Sometime after the events of the last film Dragonball Z: Battle of Gods, and a few years after the end of Dragonball Z, the remaining commanders in Frieza's army use the titular dragonballs (seven mystical items that grant anyone who collects them two wishes) to bring the long dead villain, Frieza (Chris Ayres), back to life. Seeking revenge against Goku (Sean Schemmel) for his loss, Frieza trains for a few months for their ultimate showdown. Now that Goku, Vegeta (Christopher Sabat), and Frieza have reached a new level of power, it's time for them to settle years of regret and anger. That's quite a bit of story for an hour of punches, right? That's exactly why the film deserves your attention.  I should state this right off the bat: There isn't a lot to attach to if you're not a regular fan of the series. It's made with a certain demographic in mind, and because of that, there's quite a hurdle to overcome. Not narratively, as what little story therein is easy to follow for both newcomers and old fans of the series drawn for a nostalgic romp, but grasping what exactly Dragonball Z is and why the film's conflict is so special. In terms of introductions, however, there isn't a better encapsulation of the series' tone and characters. So to make this review easier, the rest of this will be written with the intended audience and fans in mind.  There have been numerous Dragonball films over the years, but they've all been non-sequitur works which never tied into the series proper. Resurrection benefits from both past and future influences, and it gives the punches thrown in the film (which you can always argue as superfluous) added weight. The film's enemy, Frieza, isn't some random alien or purple cat god, it's a villain with an entire "saga" worth of backstory and thankfully the character work done here can pull from it. In fact, the villain's even a bit sympathetic as you realize he's just a privileged kid who lost for the first time. The film wonderfully highlights this as Frieza becomes more and more visibly frustrated as the film rolls on (which is why he's one of the better villains of the series). Goku and Vegeta also get some great character work in as Resurrection takes their arcs to the next logical step. Now that they've grown to such a power level they're essentially gods, Goku is now an awesomely condescending fighter brimming with confidence. And although the finale takes away a huge moment for Vegeta (that could've settled a series long character arc, but runs from it) Vegeta and Goku have some great bits with one another. There're also some nice scenes for the rest of the "Z Fighter" gang who're usually pushed to the sidelines. After some explanation (which actually makes sense story wise), every one is on an equal playing field. And without dragging in some of the weaker cast, each fighter gets a chance to shine. It's going to be a major pleasure for fans to see these guys back in action, for sure.  On the technical end, the film is absolutely gorgeous. Fully representative of the series, the fights take characters through various landscapes instead of the standard cliffs you'd usually see, movement is slick, and as one of the last proponents for traditional hand drawn animation it's great to see it succeed fully. Other than some odd looking CG that really take you out of the moment, the main fight between Goku and Frieza is a Dragonball fan's dream. I wish the fight between the two would've looked this way all those years ago.  While it's definitely not for everyone, Dragonball Z: Resurrection 'F' hits all the high points with the folks it's meant for. Capturing both the spirit of the original series and hope for the future, this is a full blown revival. Dragonball used to dominate action cartoons, and it's come back to take the crown once more.  Neither gods, hundred strong armies, or golden alien super monsters can stop this juggernaut. 
Dragonball Z Review photo
A legend reborn
Dragonball Z holds a special place in my heart. It was my first experience with more adult oriented action shows, and it changed my childhood for the better. All these years later, here's a brand new movie featuring one of th...

Review: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

Jul 31 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219530:42420:0[/embed] Mission: Impossible – Rogue NationDirector: Christopher McQuarrieRelease Date:  July 31, 2015Rating: PG-13  The first time you see Tom Cruise in Rogue Nation, he's running. Of course he is. He has to run. It's a contractual thing (probably). He spends a lot of the film running. It makes sense, since he's really on the run this time. In Ghost Protocol, the IMF (which I always get confused with the International Monetary Fund, which says something weird about me) was publicly disavowed but still privately accepted. In Rogue Nation, the CIA is after Ethan Hunt's head. Following the events of Ghost Protocol, with a destroyed Kremlin and the aftermath of a freaking warhead hitting a building (not causing much damage in the process, but none-the-less), everything is blamed on the IMF. No one knows that the Syndicate he's been tracking is a real thing. There's been no evidence that anyone else could see, so... Ethan becomes a wanted man. But you don't catch Ethan Hunt. Unless, of course, you work the Syndicate. Because Rogue Nation gets interesting really early. Every movie, you get to enjoy the hoops that Hunt has to go through in order to hear his mission. It's fun and always a little bit silly. But things are different this time. After picking up the proper vinyl record, he goes to listen. It sounds normal at first, confirming his suspicions about the Syndicate's existence, but then you realize that the use of subjects is... odd. The phrasing doesn't quite sound like something the IMF would have in a transmission. And, of course, it's not an IMF transmission. It's the Syndicate's. Hunt turns around to see the man at the top of the organization put a bullet into the head of the young record store owner who was so excited to actually see Ethan Hunt in person as sleeping gas fills his room. A little much, perhaps, but interesting. Subversion, right? I like subversion. Parts of Rogue Nation are surprisingly subversive. Many of them are not, but with a film of this magnitude, you kinda have to take what you can get.  I saw the film in IMAX. Ghost Protocol remains the only film I've ever seen in LIEMAX, as they call it, and while seeing it big was a treat, there's nothing in the film that quite has the majesty of that tower scaling scene from the previous film. There are some fantastic sights and sounds, and it's definitely a film that takes advantage of a theater, but you'd get pretty much the same experience on a traditional screen that I got on one the size of a building. One of the few things I genuinely like about big budget films is their ability to literally span the globe. In that respect, Rogue Nation doesn't disappoint. Its intrigue takes you through numerous countries across at least three continents. You'll see familiar landmarks and some totally new terrain. It's awesome, really. (As an aside: If you're a big budget movie that doesn't use multiple countries for locations, what are you doing with your life?) And the things that happen in those countries are pretty cool too. There are crazy foot chases, motorcycle chases, car chases, fist fights, knife fights, gunfights etc. It's all very exciting, and it takes place in some excellent locations (the catwalk battle at the Viennese opera house is a personal favorite, though I did spend the entire time internally shouting, "JUST THROW HIM OFF! OH MY GOD!"). That parenthetical does bring me to something that won't come as a surprise but will still affect whether or not you can really get into the film: Rogue Nation insults your intelligence, just a little bit. It explains and overexplains everything, just in case you missed it the first time. Characters will describe what things are, not because they need to know them but because they think the audience does. (Sometimes, they're right, but heavy-handed exposition isn't really the most enjoyable way to get crucial information.)  That said, it's not quite as dumb as it could have been. You could pick it apart until there was nothing left (I expect the fine folks at Cinema Sins will do just that before too long), but... why? What's to be gained from wondering how and why characters do the things they do? They're complicated – too complicated, probably – but that's not always a bad thing. In fact, it allows for some interesting development from Ilsa, the sole female character of substance. Ilsa's a badass, too. Like, an actual one, who can kill people and don't need no man. (Most of the time.) And really, her final interaction with Ethan Hunt was invigorating, not because of what it was but what it wasn't. It's not what you expect these moments to be like, but it's what you hope they will. For all of my complaints, I just sat back and let it wash over me. And I enjoyed the heck out of it. Good on you, Rogue Nation. Good on you.
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Exactly what you want it to be
When Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol ended, I couldn't fathom how a sequel could top it. It went so far over the top that I truly believed it was un-toppable. (Turns out, I actually wrote something to tha...

Review: Vacation

Jul 30 // Matthew Razak
VacationDirectors: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. GoldsteinRated: RRelease Date: July 29, 2015 [embed]219710:42514:0[/embed] First off lets give props where props are due. New Line could have geared this film for a PG-13 rating to pull in more people, but they didn't (as Hemsworth's wang below shows). They kept it R like the original and for that they should be applauded because the R-rated comedy is a dying breed. It was a signal that the this new Vacation might just pull itself up by its own boot straps and be funny. The signal got a little diluted. The movie picks up years after the original films. Rusty (Ed Helms) is all grown up, and even more out of touch with his own family than his dad was. His wife, Debbie (Christina Applegate) and kids James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins) hate the normal cabin vacation they go on so Rusty decides he'll pack everyone into a car and recreate his family's trip to Wally World. That one went pretty poorly as we all may remember, but they're doing it again. In fairness the film is blatantly forward about the fact that it's a remake and that takes some of the sting out of the copped comedy from the original. There is something refreshingly old school about Vacation's comedy. It feels a bit out of date in its gross out site gags and senseless punchlines. Honestly, it's a bit refreshing in a land of comedies that take themselves too seriously or have forgotten how to properly kick a guy in the nuts for comic effect. Slapstick is a sadly dying art. The problem is that Vacation doesn't really execute its slapstick that well. There are definitely moments when the movie pulls off some solid comedy, but it too often feels forced. The film constantly seems to want to push boundaries with its comedy, but never checks to see if that boundary is worth breaking. The movie works here and there, but never long enough to make it any good. James and Kevin's relationship is actually pretty funny, but it pounds the same joke into the ground for far too long. Helms delivers a solidly oblivious father, but the family relations never feel real thanks to how dumb he is. You never get the connection you got with Chevy Chase's increasingly grumpy Clark Griswold. And not that continuity is something you'd expect in this case, but it's very unclear how the Rusty of the original films turned into the Rusty of this film. Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo's cameo is also horribly wasted making the connections to the original feel more like a cash grab than actual care. The biggest problem, however, is when Vacation goes way beyond where it should. It mocks murder, suicide and sexual abuse of a minor. I'm all for comedy being allowed to make fun of disturbing subjects; it's one of the ways we cope. The problem is when that comedy isn't funny. Vacations jokes in these departments fall horrendously flat meaning they're both offensive and unfunny. They're clearly trying to make themselves edgy, but they stink at doing it. It pushes the old school comedy into the background and turns the film into something more akin to a Scary Movie sequel. Vacation is a movie that no one wanted so its hard to say that it's a major disappointment. It can actually be funny at times, especially thanks the Helms being a funny person, but it's mostly just retreaded jokes and poorly delivered gross out comedy. The vacation from Vacation films really shouldn't have ended. 
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Vacation, all I never wanted
National Lampoon's Vacation is a comedy landmark. A boundary pushing bit of hilarity that stands the test of time and spawned two sequels funnier than the original (and Vegas Vacation). Of course National Lampoon has bee...

Review: Pixels

Jul 24 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219694:42503:0[/embed] PixelsDirector: Chris ColumbusRated: PG-13Release Date: July 24, 2015 In Pixels, Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler) was a kid who was nearly the Donkey Kong National Champion. After losing the big match against Eddie "Fireblaster" Plant (Peter Dinklage), he resigns to an unfulfilling life of installing televisions for a Best Buy-esque company while his best friend "Chewie" (Kevin James) becomes a down on his luck President of the Untied States. When a probe full of their videogames is seen as an act of war by an alien race, Sam and conspiracy nut Ludlow (Josh Gad) have to step up and save the world from three rounds of pixel fueled shenanigans. Also Lt. Colonel Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) and her son are there to give Sam something to fight for, I guess.  Pixels may share some troubling similarities with Adam Sandler's recent glut of films (which I'll get to in a minute), but it's also got a faint sense of the good kind of nostalgia. You see, his standard schlub act works well here since the entire film is meant to invoke that 80s "average guy with inane skill becomes big hero" trope. And because it works so well, the rest of the film almost plays out like one of Sandler's early 90s comedies (albeit without the jokes). In terms of overall tone, once the film delves deep into the premise and Sam starts playing against the aliens, Pixels is a lot of healthy fun. Everything's wonderfully simplified. The aliens (who deliver their messages through stock footage of 80s icons) don't have a motive other than to destroy the Earth (or needing a million allowances worth of quarters to do their laundry), the games involved (like Breakout, Centipede, and Pac-Man) aren't filled with complicated rules to weigh the fun down, and the pixelated monsters themselves are gorgeous. But that's unfortunately where the positive stuff ends.  Pixels may be a reminder of the fun these kinds of movies used to be, but it also reminds you of how much movies have evolved since then. Because Pixels leans so heavily on the past, it can't help but trudge up all of the problematic elements of the era it wants to embody. For example, there are only two women featured in the film and they're treated horribly (which doesn't reflect well on the current perception of gaming culture as a whole). Lt. Colonel Van Patten is meant to be this "strong" female character, and she even gets one well choreographed bit toward the end, but her first introduction is belittled by Sandler's character. After he compliments her looks, he finds her crying as a result of her sudden divorce not two minutes later. And the second character, a videogame heroine named Lady Lisa, is literally a trophy the aliens give the Earth for winning one of the games which one of the characters ends up marrying. She gets no dialogue, and ends up with most mentally unstable of the "Arcaders" Ludlow, the conspiracy nut who lives with his grandmother and worships the character.  The lack of agency just feeds into the old mindset of gamers being older white males with social misgivings. One of the running jokes is these guys are only acknowledged as "the nerds." In this day and age where every literal kid and grandparent is able to play games on some kind of device, it's jarring to go back to hearing such close mindedness. Especially from a film that wants to celebrate these games (going so far as to have Sam explain why arcades were so important, and feature a scene where he decries the current violent nature of videogames). It's totally a "cake and eat it too" situation where Pixels definitely wants to mirror classic films like Ghostbusters, yet have a cynical eye toward the folks who might enjoy themselves while watching. It's that kind of self loathing that brings the whole film down.  There's just so much more to talk about, yet so little time. That's why I was so confused when I initially started writing this review. Even after all of this, I still have idea who Pixels is meant for, nor do I know who to blame for its existence. I can't even say Adam Sandler did a bad job because he actually wasn't his usual self. Lacking his usual lethargic attitude (which he starts off with then hastily has to change out of thanks to some well placed dialogue degrading his love of shorts), Sandler's never been more physical. There's also a lack of the standard poop and fart jokes you'd expect because the film's not really for kids (there's no way they'd appreciate seeing Paperboy and Joust sprites on the same screen).  Oh right, I guess I should mention there were zero jokes that appealed to me. While there is fun in the way sequences are set up, none of the fun is stemmed from the dialogue. Also, I saw in 3D and would definitely recommend seeing the pixelated monsters in that fashion. Then again, maybe you should avoid this altogether so you don't end up feeling the same confusion? I don't know.  Pixels plays so poorly, it doesn't even get to put its initials on the high score screen. 
Pixels Review photo
Insert coin to ignore
I really have no idea where to start with this. Usually when I sit down to write a review I'll have an angle by which to tackle a film, but with Pixels, I'm at a loss. I don't really know who the film is for. Is it a comedy a...

Review: Southpaw

Jul 24 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219692:42504:0[/embed] SouthpawDirector: Antoine FuquaRated: RRelease Date: July 24, 2015 If you've seen any boxing movie you've seen Southpaw. This one picks up in the "boxing movie career timeline" around where Rocky V does, but instead of Rocky we've got Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he defends his title once again. However, truly great boxers can't be rich, they have to work from the ground up and so after a tragedy Billy loses all his money, custody of his daughter, and his manager (50 Cent). That means he's got to return to his roots and get a new trainer in the form of Tick Will (Forest Whitaker), who runs a boxing center in Hell's Kitchen for poor youths. You literally can find every single aspect of this film in a film that has come before it. There is not an original concept going for it in terms of story. There's even less going for it in terms of pacing. The screenplay is horrendously light on tension building and this means that by the time the final fight has rolled in you don't feel like you should be there. The conflict between Gyllenhaal and his opponent is so lightly touched on and poorly handled that the guy just becomes a punching bag. Even the sports training montages feel like they're rushed and disconnected. At no point does the movie build successfully in emotion, leaving its talented actors and director with little to grab the viewer with.  They all try, though. The cast is obviously fantastic and without them the film would be utterly boring. We've seen it all before and we've seen it done better so it's a good thing the actors turn redundancy into something slightly original. Gyllenhaal, who must have had a sculptor chisel his abs for the film, seems to think he's in a quality movie. His tortured and enraged performance brings back echoes of Stallone's perfectly countenanced delivery in the original Rocky.  Whitaker also layers in nuances to a character so cookie cutter you wonder how much the spent at William and Sonoma on him. Tick Will's motivations and character are so awkwardly crammed in that he's barely there yet Whitaker makes his presence known.  Director Antoine Fuqua does as well. While the story may be slapdash and contrived his direction is anything but. Boxing matches are notoriously hard to direct, but Fuqua does a fantastic job of putting his together. His direction is visceral during the matches, sometimes even cutting into first-person -- a risk that pays off thanks to his skill. This move uses its R-rating hard during the matches as they're bloody and powerful. It just can't sustain that feeling throughout, getting bogged down in melodrama too often and forgetting we all came to see a boxer train. Another sticking point for me was the almost forced use of Eminem's music in the film. He was a producer on the movie, and has a single for the film called "Phenomenal." It plays over a training montage, but just feels awkward. It's angry and loud and out of place. That's really a problem for a lot of the film. There's a lot of sound and fury, but in the end it signifies nothing (to steal from the Bard). You know you've watched some great things, but they sure didn't make a great movie. Southpaw is a boxing movie made out of other boxing movies and is only buoyed by the fact that its director and actors thought they were in something more. There's not much of an original thought in here, but that doesn't always matter for a sports movie. What does matter is that you get that little thrill in your heart as our underdog hero climbs up from whatever depths he's been flung into. Southpaw doesn't give you that thrill and because of that it can throw a few good punches, but it never lands a KO.
Southpaw Review photo
No punch
It's pretty obvious why America loves boxing movies despite the fact that boxing itself is dwindling in popularity. Ever since Rocky the genre has proven that it can easily deliver the best of what we want out of our spo...

NYAFF Capsule Review: Partners in Crime

Jul 23 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219686:42500:0[/embed] Partners in Crime (共犯)Director:Country: Taiwan  
Partners in Crime photo
Jungle of breadcrumbs
Partners in Crime is the reason I love the New York Asian Film Festival. It's the reason I love film festivals in general. It's the sort of gem that you will likely never see outside of a festival. I have always been imp...

Japan Cuts Capsule Review: Pieta in the Toilet

Jul 23 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219688:42498:0[/embed] Pieta in the Toilet (Toire No Pieta | トイレのピエタ)Director: Daishi MatsunagaCountry: Japan 
Pieta in the Toilet photo
Don't let the name fool you
Pieta in The Toilet is done a disservice by its name. From the country that brought us Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead, there are certain expectations that come with a name of that sort. And the use of such a well-known religi...

Japan Cuts Capsule Review: Strayer's Chronicle

Jul 22 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219670:42496:0[/embed] Strayer's Chronicle (Sutoreiyazu Kuronikuru | ストレイヤーズ・クロニクル)Director: Takahisa ZezeCountry: Japan 
Strayer's Chronicle photo
X-Men for nihilists
It's hard to make a rip-off of X-Men without hundreds of millions of dollars to back up the production. With a relatively minimal budget, any version of the mutants with superpowers who have to fight other mutants with (bette...

NYAFF Capsule Review: Kabukicho Love Hotel

Jul 22 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219626:42495:0[/embed] Kabukicho Love Hotel (Sayonara Kabukicho | さよなら歌舞伎町)Director: Ryuichi HirokiCountry: Japan 
Kabukicho Love Hotel photo
No hope for the hopeless
When director Ryuichi Hiroki came out to introduce Kabukicho Love Hotel, he said something to the effect of, “Please stay through the credits. After the credits, you will see some hope.” It wasn’t really adv...

Japan Cuts Capsule Review: I Alone

Jul 21 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219665:42490:0[/embed] I Alone (この世で俺/僕だけ | Kono yo de ore/Boku dake)Director: Sho TsukikawaCountry: Japan 
I Alone Review photo
Save the baby
I Alone is a film about a lot of things. It's about political corruption and kidnapping, sure, but it's also about responsibility and staying true to one's own beliefs. It's about fighting until the bitter end, because i...

Review: Trainwreck

Jul 17 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219680:42492:0[/embed] TrainwreckDirector: Judd ApatowRated: RRelease Date: July 17, 2015 In Trainwreck, Amy Townsend (Amy Schumer) is a woman who's just enjoying her life. She's got a good job writing for a magazine and doesn't see the need to get into a monogamous relationship any time soon thanks to her father's (Colin Quinn) teachings ("Can you imagine playing with the same toy the rest of your life?"). One day she's assigned an article about Dr. Aaron Connors (Bill Hader), a sports medicine practicioner who's about to go through an intense surgery. Then through some ups and downs, the two eventually fall for each other. Through the synopsis you can't really gauge why Trainwreck is great, and that's one of the biggest drawbacks. You have to be willing to accept the film's traditional style in order to enjoy its personality. But this film's been about personality from the beginning.  I've seen so many romantic comedies over the years, I've been able to break them down into four main components: quirky girl is an outsider for some reason, quirky girl meets guy who changes her life, random man candy to oggle, and the quirky girl becomes the most important person in the film's world by the end. Unfortunately, Trainwreck has all of these components. It's completely predictable from beginning to end, but the film would rather you enjoy its components rather than the package as a whole. That's not necessarily a bad thing by any means when all of the individual pieces are as well put together as they are here.  As Schumer has proven in the past, she's a comedic dynamo. Couple that with an amazing cast for her to bounce off of, and we've got a romantic comedy more grounded than anything in years past. Her charm just oozes off the screen and effects the rest of the cast. Everyone in the film has such a natural chemistry it makes Apatow's tendency to run his films a bit long all the more bearable. In fact, I wish there was more of her conversations with Brie Larsen as Amy's sister. There are a bunch of scenes between the two where Brie cracks a laugh, and you can tell that it wasn't an intentional one. It's the little things like that which give the film a lot of character. Something that's always hollow in these romantic comedies. Speaking of chemistry, Schumer and Hader are magnetic. While Hader's character could use more development, Hader fills the role with enough quirk that it elevates it from the material. Schumer's script is amazingly put together too. While there're some jokes that don't work, and Judd Apatow's direction does seep through and you notice a few bits that could've been cut for time (and because they weren't really funny), when the two meet in the middle they knock it out of the park. Like John Cena and Lebron James, for instance. A typical quality of an Apatow directed film are the numerous celebrity cameos from folks you wouldn't usually see in a movie like this. While a bunch of unfunny cameos are here in spades, Cena and James are almost too perfect. As the two fill the conventional "bad bro date" and "quirky guy's best friend," Schumer's writing mixed with their surprising talent completely blindsides. James' acting may be a bit stilted, but he gets the best lines in the film (my personal favorite being a Kanye West riff), and I can't tell you how many times I laughed at John Cena. That guy has a future in comedy. Also, if you wanted to see him naked here's your chance.  Trainwreck is somehow both traditional and unconventional. I don't know how the film managed to find a perfect balance between being an entertaining comedy while still dealing an effective romantic push, but there's so much charm it's easy to write off a lot of the film's technical issues. Normally I'm so jaded with films like these, so I would've torn into how much like other movies it is. But it's not. It's sort of the anti-27 Dresses.  Maybe it's Amy Schumer's persona, or maybe it's how down to Earth it all feels, but when I saw Schumer dancing as a grand romantic gesture at Trainwreck's end (so predictable, I told you), I couldn't help but fall in love with her myself. 
Trainwreck Review photo
John Cena has a great ass
Whether or not you're a fan of her comedy, Amy Schumer is not going anywhere. Comedy's current "It" girl, Schumer's earned all of the accolades through her comedy specials and often hilarious television show, Inside Amy Schum...

Review: Ant-Man

Jul 17 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219677:42491:0[/embed] Ant-ManDirector: Peyton ReedRelease Date: July 17, 2015 Rated: PG-13  Ant-Man might be the most divergent from the original Marvel comic yet. Instead of focusing on the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the movie skips over to the modern iteration: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). As Pym, and his then wife The Wasp, were two founding members of the Avengers in the comics this is kind of a big deal, but it's what you get when you can't roll out a movie based on a shrinking superhero until you've established everything you do is going to be a hit. Marvel has done that and so we get an up-to-date Ant-Man, and Pym's daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), instead of Pym. That doesn't mean Pym was never Ant-Man nor that there was no Wasp. The movie picks up in the past as Pym quits his superhero heroics for the then new S.H.I.E.L.D. after the death of his wife and vows to hide the technologies that allow him to shrink and control ants. Jump forward to modern day and we find Lang just getting out of prison and unable to find a job so he goes on one more heist... and steals the Ant-Man suit. Meanwhile, Pym has been forced out of the technology company he runs and his predecessor Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has finally, after years of denial from Pym, discovered how to shrink people. He's built a suit called the Yellowjacket. The only way to stop him from misusing this power? Steal it. There, my friends, you have a set up for a heist movie, and for the most part this heist works. It's a fun and enjoyable romp highlighted by the great use of Ant-Man's powers throughout. Though his powers cause some of the movie's problems. Any good heist movie is pretty complex, but with Ant-Man's abilities it kind of simplifies things down. The rest of the gang (including T.I. and Michael Peña) seem to be there more for comic relief and to fill a heist movie quota than anything else. The heist itself isn't that clever either as it plays out in a very straight forward manner that you don't see very often in modern heist films. There's no Now You See Me twist coming with this one. The movie does feature a heavier dose of comedy than other Marvel films. This one is very in line with modern heist films that incorporate a humorous gang into the proceedings to liven things up. Plus, you've got Rudd, who delivers his normal comedic talents to the proceedings. This makes Ant-Man easily the lightest of the Marvel films and probably the funniest, though Guardians is right there with it. The problem with the film's focus on traditional heist film tactics is that it trips into cliche constantly. There's a training montage, and a planning montage and a group of stereotypical teammates. Ironically by differentiating itself from other Marvel films it becomes more generic as a whole.  What's great is that it doesn't especially matter because the fun comes straight from the superpowers. Ant-Man's abilities are so unique in comparison to the rest of the heroes out there that it gives a new spin to things. The action is impressively done and uses the shrinking/growing dynamic in some really awesome ways. The final fight between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket is especially well done as they shrink and grow in and out of a variety of locations. Director Peyton Reed did a really admirable job putting the scenes together with just the right amount of comedy mixed into the fight. I'd still rather see what Edgar Wright could have done (he does get screenwriting credit), but Reed does some very cool things here that turn a very straightforward heist into something awesome. One of the possible holdovers from Wright's time is just how referential this movie is to the history of heist films. It is often an homage to the classics of the genre. There's a train fight sequence hearkening back to train robbery westerns, a little Mission: Impossible thrown in, some subtle references to Ocean's Eleven and plenty more for those who know their heist movie history. While other Marvel films have given nods to their respective genres, Ant-Man is by far the most meta of them all. I half expected Rudd to pull a Deadpool and talk to the camera at some point.  Sadly, one of the other effects of Wright leaving is that the story isn't as fleshed out as it should be. At points it feels rushed, as a condensed production schedule would make it. This is especially true of the character Hope, who was created specifically for the film, and creates one of the film's most blatant plot holes. She's a trained fighter who knows how to use the suit thanks to her dad, but we can't have her using it because Lang needs to be Ant-Man. They wrote themselves into a corner with the issue and use the excuse that her father doesn't want her using it to make sure she doesn't. It feels even more forced thanks to the first end credit sequence in which (spoilers) her father shows her the Wasp suit he was working on with her mother (end spoilers). One wonders if Wright had been allowed to finish his version if this pretty sexist problem would still be around.  What really works about Ant-Man, and what keeps its problems at bay is that it's small and and practically immaterial. Much like the hero himself, the film is incredibly micro. It, for the most part, ditches the wider Marvel universes and focuses on fun and adventure. It's not the bloated, overwhelming Age of Ultron and its not the completely disconnected Iron Man 3. It's exactly what the MCU needs right now: a creative dose of fun. 
Ant-Man Review photo
Shrinking down the MCU
Marvel has a problem on their hands with the MCU. They've got a cohesive style that can make all the Marvel films feel very similar. The way they've attempted to address this is to deliver movies that are stylistically simila...

NYAFF Capsule Review: Revivre

Jul 14 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219609:42489:0[/embed] RevivreDirector: Im Kwon-TaekCountry: South Korea 
Revivre Review photo
The End
Revivre is director Im Kwon-Taek’s 102nd film. Think about that. Really, really think about what that means. Even if most of his early films were essentially throwaways created to entertain the unwashed masses, this man...

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