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reviews

Review: Hard Sell

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

Review: The Angry Birds Movie

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

Review: The Nice Guys

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

Review: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

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


Review: Cash Only

May 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220586:42954:0[/embed] Cash OnlyDirector: Malik BaderRelease Date: March 13, 2016 Rating: NR Elvis Martini is down on his luck. After he inadvertently murdered (manslaughtered?) his wife in an arson attempt to get some insurance money from his house, he finds himself the landlord of a janky apartment building renting to some terrible tenants who, for the most part, don't pay their rent or, ya know, care about anything at all. He lives with his daughter, who plays video games all day (at least two console generations behind, but more like three to five), because her father can't afford to keep her in school. He owes some people money, and in the process winds up on the wrong side of some dangerous people. His daughter gets kidnapped, and suddenly he needs to get $25,000 together by midnight in order to get her back. For this story to work, you have to find Elvis Martini a relatable character, one you can root for and feel for. You need to develop a bond that will override your general distaste for the bad things he does and the way he hurts people in order to deal with the aftermath of a very stupid thing that he did. If you don't make that connection, then you're just watching a bad guy do bad things. But not, like, interesting ones. Just bad ones. At one point, soon after his daughter is taken, Martini asks one of his tenants for help. The tenant, a weed grower living in the basement, says no, because Martini's a bad dude who did bad things and is getting what he deserves. It feels like cruelty on the grower's part, like the movie wanted me to think, "Wow! What a terrible human being!" And, sure, that's not a great look for the character, but he was right. Plus, the entire movie is about how terrible Martini is at paying back his debts. The grower has no obligation to give his landlord thousands of dollars (that he'd probably never see again) for any reason. As a person who doesn't want to see anyone's daughter get eaten by dogs, I wanted him to help, but I really can't blame the guy for saying no. And maybe I wouldn't have felt that way were it not for Cash Only's biggest problem: It is anchored around a performance that never quite clicks. Everything about Nickola Shreli's performance just feels the slightest bit off. The words are fine (and written by Shreli, which is interesting), but there's a disconnect between the words and the voice at times, and there's almost always a disconnect between the voice and the body. This is especially true near the end, where Shreli' lack of affect becomes downright bizarre as it's played against an admittedly over-the-top caricature of an Eastern European mob boss. This scene, which I'm fairly sure was supposed to inspire tension, merely elicits confusion, because everything is in place... but it doesn't quite work. Parts of it do, but the overall effect is just kind of flat. There's yelling and screaming and barking, but it's – to quote people smarter than me quoting Hamlet – full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it goes beyond the narrative into the production itself. It doesn't feel motivated. Take the camerawork: I like handheld camera movement. I use it a lot in my own projects, because I think it can be extremely effective at adding a sense of urgency to a moment or giving the whole moment an air of instability. And, given its sequence of events, it makes sense that Cash Only is a film that heavily utilizes handheld camera work. There are a lot of shaky shots, sharp pans, etc. But the problem is that there is a fine line between Effective and Exhausting, and Cash Only doesn't walk it so well. Sometimes the intensity of the movement felt unmotivated; other times, particularly during runs, it felt like the operator forgot they were supposed to be pointing the camera at something in the first place. It's just shake for the sake of shake. And that's what this movie is, really. Shake for the sake of it. Story for the sake of it. Action for the sake of it. Cash Only isn't bad or anything, and there are worse ways you could spend 88 minutes, but it's not particularly good either, and there are a whole lot of better ones too. Like rewatching Taken. Yeah, just do that instead.
Cash Only Review photo
For a Klondike Bar
What would you do to get your daughter back from an Eastern European mob man? Your first answer is probably, "Become Liam Neeson." And that's basically the correct answer, even if it's laughable for a whole host of reasons. B...

Review: High-Rise

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

Review: The Lobster

May 12 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219844:42633:0[/embed] The LobsterDirector: Yorgos LanthimosRating: n/aRelease Date: October 16, 2015 (UK); May 13, 2016 (USA)Country: UK, Greece, France  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 (so is loneliness)
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: Dragon Inn

May 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220493:42920:0[/embed] Dragon Inn (Long Men Ke Zhan, 龍門客棧)Director: King HuRating: NRRelease Date: May 6, 2016 (limited)Country: Taiwan An evil eunuch named Cao (Ying Bai) has seized power from one of his political enemies, putting him to death and exiling his children. Cao makes a power play to assassinate these exiles, which leads to a conflict with three heroes on a mission to prevent this from happening. There's a dashing rogue who carries an umbrella (Shih Chun), and there's a swashbuckling brother and sister duo consisting of a bullish hot-head (Hsieh Han) and a woman so skilled with a sword she causes gender confusion among her foes (Lingfeng Shangguan). There's conflict between these warriors, which has to be set aside to save the day. Sure, it's a familiar dynamic that isn't particularly complicated, but Dragon Inn is such an undeniable joy, like a grandparent's cooking. Yet to call it high-end cinematic comfort food sells Hu's craftsmanship short. He's mastering the form with just his second film in the genre. Like certain scenes of Come Drink with Me, much of the tension in Dragon Inn is the result of keeping heroes and villains in close quarters with one another. Cao's goons overrun the eponymous inn, which is situated in the middle of a rocky wasteland--part sanctuary, part target; a little bit Motel 6, a little bit Alamo. The heroes are grossly outnumbered, and they're always targets or under siege. When Chun's dashing rogue appears, there's a sense of calm about him, as if all is well while he tries to control the situation, eventually leading to a scruff. Lingfeng and Han have some comic moments, particularly during one scene where they dine with their enemies as a bit of subterfuge and do their darndest to avoid being poisoned. I mentioned the gender confusion earlier, which is a common trope of martial stories of all kinds--women warriors mistaken for men given their prowess. In many of King Hu's films, he has women as the front-and-center heroes. It's Cheng Pei-pei in Come Drink with Me (who would later play Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Hsu Feng in A Touch of Zen. Though Chun's mysterious rogue is the primary badass of the movie, Lingfeng's young heroine in Dragon Inn gets a fine moment to shine against dozens of goons, and this gender confusion offers a great way of undercutting traditional gender roles and gender expectations with the draw of action, as if skewering sexism, the patriarchy, and machismo with an elegant jian. The fights of Dragon Inn are staged like a movie musical, which may have a lot to do with the influence of Peking Opera. There's also the feel of a samurai movie about the fights since the visual rhythms and vocabulary of the Chinese martial arts movie were still in development. There's a major leap made between Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen in terms of the pacing, staging, movements, and editing of the fight scenes, which makes both films essential for action aficionados. There's a softness to the fights here that hardens in Zen, as if Hu would ironically discover the visceral stuff of combat while making his meditative spiritual epic. A similar leap was made from Come Drink with Me to Dragon Inn. When the genre eventually turned away from swordsman pictures to the unarmed fighting genre, the vocabulary, grammar, and sheet forcefulness of the action would change again. Beyond its history, Dragon Inn is so watchable because it's a pure delight. The rousing Lan-ping Chow score is like some sonic representation of a dashing chilvaric code, all flight and blades and evasions. The height of the wuxia film in the late 1960s is still a glorious landmark nearly 50 years later.
Review: Dragon Inn photo
King Hu's landmark early wuxia film
While King Hu's 1971 epic A Touch of Zen is his towering masterpiece, his earlier film Dragon Inn may be the best entry point into the director's work. This 1967 adventure is one of the essential early martial arts ...

Review: Captain America: Civil War

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

Review: Eva Hesse

May 03 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220557:42943:0[/embed] Eva HesseDirector: Marcie BegleiterRating: NRRelease Date: April 27, 2016 (NYC, with future limited release in select cities) Hesse began her career as a painter and illustrator, and her early work could be described as abstract expressionist or post-abstract expressionist. She'd later flourish by combining painting and sculpture, using texture, repetition, humor, protrusion, interruption, surrealism, and absurdity to create a style all her own. The film develops connections between the work, Hesse's Jewish identity, and her strained or distant personal relationships, and with varying degrees of success. It's all engaging, yet I felt the movie was in a more comfortable groove when in the thick of the art and the art scene. Hesse's best known works are generally her post-minimalist sculptures crafted from industrial materials like resin, fiberglass, plastic, and rubber. Many of these materials were purchased along Canal Street back when New York City was a bohemian wonderland. Like all movies about that creative boom period, the images of dangerous and affordable squalor left me wistful for a place and a scene that no longer exists. Pearl Paint was still there, today it's no more. Director Marcie Begleiter uses Hesse's diaries, letters, and calendars to structure a intimate portrait of the artist and her work. Yet Begleiter is careful in her approach, suggesting connections between life and work without delving into the psychological drives or underpinnings. Writer Lucy Lippard, a friend of Hesse's who's interviewed in the film, even stops herself mid-answer from making any definitive psychological pronouncements about the work. It's a careful balance, the difference between appreciation and diagnosis, and while the life is the material of the work just as much as string and resin, the work is more than just the manifestation of an irresolvable turmoil. Hesse is anxious over a trip to Germany given her childhood anxieties and strife about her homeland, and yet she's able to find her own voice as an artist by being there. Later as Hesse struggles with her health, her reliance on chance, gravity, and materials that degrade may suggest a kind of resignation and acceptance. As a nice correlative, Begleiter punctuates a celebration of the artist's legacy with a memento mori straight from Hesse's journals. Even without this knowledge, Hesse's work has this beguiling power given its singular vision. This may just speak to the autobiographical nature of encountering artwork. It's an imperfect Venn diagram: the life and times of the artist and the life and times of the person encountering the art meet in the middle-space of the work itself. Selma Blair reads excerpts from Hesse's journals with a lulled sadness, sort of like an adult Wednesday Addams, yet Blair's croaks and pauses in delivery have bruises in them. We only hear Hesse's real voice once in the film, and it's totally different from Blair's line reading. Hesse's New York accent is thick and endearing and vulnerable in its own way. It got me wondering about the different ways we read and interpret writings aloud, and how there's a seriousness about reading from diaries and letters that's never quite present in our extemporaneous speech. Even when Blair's voicing letters between Hesse and her friends, the read is more like a monologue than a conversation. Maybe even private writings are really conversational. Whatever minor qualms I might have about form and content, it doesn't detract from the documentary's primary focus, which is an appreciation of Eva Hesse the artist and Eva Hesse the woman. Hesse's life, like her work, leaves an impression, a little fingerprint on a plastic vessel, or the drip of resin on the floor of a Bowery loft.
Review: Eva Hesse photo
The artist is her material
Almost every creative work is inescapably autobiographical. We can't get outside ourselves, so whatever's been experienced finds expression in the work, whether consciously or unconsciously. Even formal attempts to divest the...

Review: Keanu

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

Review: Mother's Day

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

Review: Ratchet & Clank

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

Review: The Family Fang

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

Tribeca Review: Rebirth

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

Tribeca Review: The Banksy Job

Apr 25 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220520:42931:0[/embed] The Banksy JobDirectors: Ian Roderick Gray and Dylan HarveyRating: TBDRelease Date: TBDCountry: UK  AK47 is the head of the art collective Art Kieda, a self-described "arto-politico humorist movement" (because who else would describe it that way?). He becomes obsessed with Banksy after the artist refused to sign a print purchased at a party. AK47 could have purchased a signed print from the same party, but he wanted to save money. Out of spite, he steals The Drinker. Seriously. Is a Heist a Work of Art? Maybe. The heist itself plays out like a sloppy, slackery bit of municipal roadwork, but there's a kind of brazen moxie about it all. If it's not a work of performance art, it may be a great bit of silliness. You get a sense watching AK47 that he views everything as a kind of lark, from his previous careers as a rave organizer and amateur porn star/pornographer to his current attempts at art making. And yet saying it's a work of art might be off--is any act a work of art simply because someone says so, even if they're taking the piss? The way AK47 giggles and preens during and in retrospect, it almost seems as if he's also having a wank. Is AK47 an artist? AK47 calls himself an art-terrorist, and to the extent that this entire act of thievery caused a kind of interruption of routine he's accurately described himself. And yet in stealing the art and later trying to sell it (after a series of unexpected complications), he offers a weird exercise in the philosophy of art. AK47 delves into the origins of The Drinker's creation and presents the audience with the kitsch equivalent of the Theseus' Ship Paradox. Maybe AK47 is an artist who relies on the work of others--Banksy, Al Qaeda, Plutarch, Exit Through the Gift Shop--to arrive at salient aesthetic ideas. It's sort of like being drunk and finding the $20 that someone else left in the ATM at the bar.  Is The Banksy Job Just Taking the Piss? Like Exit Through the Gift Shop, much of The Banksy Job leaves the viewer wondering how much is real, how much is invented, and how much is just a series of weird half-truths. There's a bit of everything in there, including a recitation of the Art Kieda code, yet something tells me the collective isn't quite the army AK47 suggests. Banksy appears in the film as an interviewee, or at least it's some guy with his face blacked out and his voice digitally altered to protect his identity. It fits the AK47/Art Kieda aesthetic, though--whether real or not, it's all pretty much about taking the piss. Okay, But Is It Art? Good question. Hell if I know. The safe answer is "Maybe?"
Review: The Banksy Job photo
Taking the piss, but is it art?
There are cock and bull stories and there are shaggy dog stories and there are complete piss-takes. The Banksy Job is kind of a mix of all three. At its center is a Bansky obsessive who goes by the artsy sobriquet AK47. His r...

Tribeca Review: Nerdland

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

Tribeca Capsule Review: The Last Laugh

Apr 25 // Hubert Vigilla
The Last LaughDirector: Ferne PearlsteinRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD  It seems a cop out to say your mileage may vary, and yet that seems the only viable answer. Mel Brooks appears in the film doing an excellent Hitler impersonation using a black comb. (A subtle adjustment of the comb and he becomes Joseph Stalin--tada!) Brooks will mock Hitler relentlessly and delights in it, but could never make a joke about The Holocaust itself. It's his personal limit. The Spanish Inquisition is fine, though--jokes are all about the timing. Sarah Silverman, on the other hand, goes all out. There's even mention of the mixed response to Hogan's Heroes and Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, with polarized opinions coming from comedians, filmmakers, and a representative from the Anti-Defamation League. The discussions aren't particularly new since any discussion of the uses of comedy has to consider the limits (if any) of comedic material. There's the idea of inflicting ridicule as a type of power for the powerless and the idea of hope and the idea that certain communities and groups are able to make certain kinds of jokes while others aren't--with Holocaust jokes, the suffering is a Jewish experience and so should be the comedic catharsis. What's interesting is the juggling act between Firestone as a survivor and an speaker at museums who shares her pain and the comedians who never had to live through her experiences. A generational aspect is added to the subjective one. Yet the two sides don't quite gel, which makes the movie feel like a bit of a Venn diagram--two separate docs with something common between them. There's probably a more substantive discussion about comedy, its limits, and what comedians should consider when making jokes about oppressed groups or about a particularly dark period in history. The Last Laugh might not delve much deeper into that discussion about the art of comedy, but that's fine. It gives a human face to a survivor of the worst indignities of the 20th century. That Renee smiles is hopeful. We can't possibly laugh at her, and it's presumptuous to say we laugh for her just given the subjectivity of humor. We laugh with her because she's still able to do so herself; maybe we laugh because otherwise we'd just cry.
Review: The Last Laugh photo
There's no accounting for bad taste
As I've gotten older, I've noticed more conversations and thinkpieces about what topics are off-limits for comedians, such as racist jokes, jokes about rape, jokes about The Holocaust, and so on. This might stray into a large...

Review: Green Room

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

Tribeca Capsule Review: Abortion: Stories Women Tell

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

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

Tribeca Review: Holidays

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

Review: A Touch of Zen

Apr 22 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220492:42919:0[/embed] A Touch of Zen (Xia Nu, 俠女)Director: King HuRating: NRRelease Date: April 22, 2016 (New York, with subsequent expansion)Country: Taiwan A Touch of Zen is such a singular sort of movie. After the success of Come Drink with Me and Dragon Inn, Hu had the creative freedom to do what he wanted, and the result was a movie of different moods and different modes. There is the wuxia element centered around a heroic fugitive named Yang (Feng Hsu), a swordswoman fighting for her life after corrupt government officials have murdered the rest of her family. She's one of Hu's many female heroes, though this movie doesn't have the same level of gender role confusion seen in other martial arts films. Yang is a woman but never mistaken for a man (the common genre convention), and she's the most capable fighter in the film. The centerpiece fight in the bamboo grove is an exhilarating bit of old school swordsman action. When A Touch of Zen was released as two films, the bamboo fight concluded the first movie and opened the second. Hu further adapts the theatrical movements of Peking Opera and the visual style of Japanese samurai pictures (en vogue at the time) to a swashbuckling cinematic form uniquely suited to Chinese martial arts. Trampolines give the heroes and villains a kind of superheroic flair as they clash with one another on rooftops and treetops. Hsu slashes, evades, and ripostes, and Hu cuts the action together to add intensity to the elegant movements on display. The action in A Touch of Zen feels like a transition period in fight choreography between the stage-like combat of the 1960s to the faster-paced cinematic combat that would be pioneered by later Shaw Brothers filmmakers Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung. Yet the first fight doesn't occur until at least one hour into the film. Instead of rollicking adventure, A Touch of Zen opens with the banal rhythms of pastoral life. We follow a bumbling mama's boy/artist-scholar named Ku (Chun Shih), who takes an interest in Yang and a blind man (Ying Bai) who are hiding in an abandoned ruin. Ku is an archetypal fool, and a great vessel for the audience into the story (which has an archetypal opening: a stranger comes into town). While he's crafty, Ku's a coward and he falls in love too easily, which is a great contrast to Yang's ruggedly stoic heroism. Before A Touch of Zen, Chun Shih played the hero of Hu's Dragon Inn. In a subversive move, Hu has a previous star play against type and also against gender stereotype. And then there's the Zen Buddhism, which pervades the film's visual style emphasizing nature, seasons, and impermanence. I mentioned patience at the beginning of the review, and Hu's return to slow rhythms and long takes seems to give the audience a chance to breathe and take in each scene. A group of Buddhist monks show up when Yang is on the run, and they are unstoppable force and immovable object. They're shot with diffuse or star-filtered light emanating from behind them, and they seem to be followed by a supernatural veil of mist. The Zen aspects figure heavily in the film's unexpectedly bonkers finale, which I can only be described as 2001: A Space Odyssey meets El Topo.  The 4K digital restoration looks great during the daytime shots--you can make out the dust on King Hu's camera lenses as he lovingly absorbs hillsides and waterfalls and sky--though I noticed some major issues with image noise during the nighttime scenes. One of the pivotal action sequences in the last half of the film is at night, and it was often difficult to make out what was happening in each scene. Part of it may be the limitations of lighting and photography that Hu had to work with back then, though I sense there might have been an issue with the projection and/or the copy I saw during my screening. I'm curious to see A Touch of Zen again now that it's out in theaters, just to see for myself if the digital noise has been eliminated/addressed. Besides, I could use a little more patience and adventure in my life.
Review: A Touch of Zen photo
The beguiling wuxia masterpiece in 4k
A Touch of Zen is King Hu's masterpiece, yet unless you're patient and a bit adventurous, it may not be the best introduction to his work. Dragon Inn, his straightforward wuxia classic from 1967, might be a more palatable ent...

Tribeca Review: A Kind of Murder

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

Review: The Huntsman: Winter's War

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

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

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

Review: A Hologram for the King

Apr 21 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220438:42905:0[/embed] A Hologram for the KingDirector: Tom TykwerRating: RRelease Date: April 22, 2016 And you may ask yourself,"How can they make movie trailers that awful?"And you may ask yourself,"Is this portrayal of Saudi Arabian culture problematic or simply the use of a foreign land as a pretext for self-discovery (i.e. Japan in Lost in Translation [which, come to think of it, may be inherently problematic])?"And you may tell yourself,"This is a lot like the plot in a Cameron Crowe movie (i.e., a lost man needs the love a good woman to show him the way)."And you may tell yourself,"The first half of the movie is quirky, likable enough, and not so bad." Letting the days go byAlan Clay (Hanks) is waiting for the Saudi KingLetting the days go byThe king seems like he'll never show up in a vast, unmade desert megalopolisDriving around againAlan's showing the king holographic teleconferencing technology"Once in a Lifetime"Is a recurring motif that's introduced and dropped after two scenes Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was... (Alan thinks again and again about working for Schwinn, his gig before this IT job. He downsized the bike company and outsourced factory jobs to China. This mix of jetlag and class guilt causes him to wake up later and later each day, requiring the services of a private driver named Yousef played by Alexander Black to shuttle him from his hotel to the unmade desert megalopolis. Black is at once a guide through Saudi Arabian life and yet also a kind of silly and maybe even condescending caricature of the Saudi working class who loves prog rock and American AM radio hits. This may be unavoidable given the western outsider perspective that the story takes, and it allows someone to play sidekick to the archetypal good-old-fashioned American that Hanks excels at portraying at this point of his career. But yeah, problematic. It's as if all people and all things are tools to be used by this visiting outsider, each thing he encounters a potential mid-life crisis lesson rather than a thing unto itself. A consequence of globalization: American mid-life crises take hold anywhere around the world the narrative chooses.) A cyst forms on Alan's back, and the cyst needs to be removedThe cyst is a metaphor for the sadness/guilt of the American upper middle classAlan finds solace in a place he'd never intended to travel toHe might find home by leaving the place he's lived in all his life Letting the pat life lessons go byOne involves a camping trip with Alan's dadLetting the expedient romance go byDr. Zahara played by Sarita Choudhury is an interesting and nuanced character, though a utilitarian love interestDriving around againShe's struggling with culture and modernityOnce in a lifetimeIf only the middle-age romance that develops wasn't so trite and treacly And you may ask yourself,"Would I watch this on cable if it was free?" (Maybe just the first half, but maybe not)And you may ask yourself,"Could more have been done with the quirkiness at the start?" (This definitely doesn't feel like a Tykwer movie in general, it's a bit staid)And you may ask yourself,"Should I have gone to a different screening this morning instead?"And you may say to yourself,"My God!...What have I done?!" Letting the days go byUnresolved subplots keep pulling the movie downLetting the days go byHanks sustains the lulls with his affability, but it only goes so farInto the blue againYousef's car is colored blueUnder the quirks and veilsThe movie's just a competent shrug Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was...Look where my mind went by the second halfThe interest isn't holding upTime is an asteriskSame as it ever was... Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was...Yeah, the gimmick review's overHere comes the review scoreSame as it ever was...
A Hologram for the King photo
Eat, Pray, Love, Sell IT Solutions
And you may find yourself sitting in a press screening for A Hologram for the KingAnd you may find yourself wondering if Tom Hanks can pull off another mid-life crisisAnd you may find yourself wondering if you should have rea...

Tribeca Review: My Scientology Movie

Apr 19 // Hubert Vigilla
My Scientology MovieDirector: John DowerRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD Gibney's documentary--an adaptation of Lawrence Wright's book of the same name--is a top-to-bottom takedown of the entire Church of Scientology, looking at the group's origins via the eccentric L. Ron Hubbard to its current state. Sweeney's Panorama pieces were more upsetting. The first, Scientology and Me, and featured Sweeney getting stalked and harassed by high-level members of the Church of Scientology; the follow-up, The Secrets of Scientology, revealed how the Scientology operatives intimidated Sweeney, with the go-ahead coming from Scientology leader David Miscaviage himself. I mention the above works for their clarity of purpose and strong execution. Theroux's movie is more impish by comparison just based on circumstance. He'd originally intended to make a documentary on Scientology and sought full cooperation of the cult. The Church of Scientology declined his request. They no longer allow journalists access to the church, perhaps because of Sweeney's damning work, which revealed just how nuts the organization is at its core. Undeterred, Theroux makes his own movie about Scientology featuring dramatic recreations and reinterpretations of events. There's an open casting call for people to play David Miscaviage and Tom Cruise, the former played by an alarmingly talented guy named Andrew Perez. For accuracy and insight into his film (and to bait the Church of Scientology), Theroux also contacts Mark Rathbun to help as a consultant. Rathbun was a former high-ranking member of the Church of Scientology, at times a brutal protector and enforcer for the church. He's now an apostate who suffers continual harassment from Scientology operatives. My Scientology Movie sort of reminded me of Theorux's 2003 special Louis, Martin & Michael, in which he tried to get an interview with Michael Jackson but instead wound up hanging out with Michael's father and Uri Gellar. By not getting directly to Michael Jackson, Theroux got a great portrait of the strange world that Michael lives in. Similarly, by not working directly with the Church of Scientology, Theroux maybe gets a more unique portrait of Scientology. The film isn't a takedown in the Gibney mode and it's nowhere near as intense as Sweeney's pieces, but Theroux's clever ability to disarm offers a roundabout look at Scientology and how it affects former members. One of the film's recreations centers around a detention center for misbehaving Scientologists. We witness the kind of intimidation and humiliation that church members endured at the hands of their leader. Perez shifts into Miscaviage mode, becoming an abusive, self-righteous demon eager to demean as he is to shove and to strike and to break furniture to make a point. The Church of Scientology sends its team of stalkers to see what Theroux is up to. What might be unnerving is oddly undone thanks to Theroux's unshakable calm. Theroux does what he's always done best in these sorts of situations: he renders scary things absurd. Theroux does get to apply his trademark naivete, though it's on Rathbun rather than a current cult official. Rathbun's the closest that Theroux can get to the church directly, and he tries to ask questions, discern original motives, and get into the mind of a high-level Scientologist. Rathbun is practiced in the art of manipulation and intimidation, however, and a resentment builds between them. Those awkward moments in a Theroux piece are compelling to watch because they are such unguarded moments. Theroux is able to get a slight glimpse at the innerworkings of Rathbun, a complicated man who is much more of a mystery (and maybe more interesting) than whatever's going on in the Church of Scientology.
My Scientology Movie photo
A Theroux perspective, but not thorough
Louis Theroux won me over many years ago with the show Weird Weekends. In each episode, Theroux embedded himself in a subculture and use his extreme mild-mannered niceness to disarm his subjects. He'd hang out with porn stars...

Tribeca Review: Equals

Apr 19 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220427:42901:0[/embed] EqualsDirector: Drake DoremusRating: PG-13Release Date: July 15, 2016 In order to maintain a tranquilized world, the characters of Equals avoid intimate contact with one another, living alone in apartments that are modular and compartmentalized to maximize space. Everything has a kind of mechanical efficiency, including the way people walk purposefully like automatons. We're told of a wild outside world early in the film as Silas (Nicholas Hoult) works on images for a book of speculative non-fiction. He begins to show symptoms of emotions, which the world of the film refers to as "switched on syndrome" or SOS. High-level SOS is considered terminal. Part of Silas' SOS is rooted in his growing attraction to co-worker Nia (Kristen Stewart). Stewart's withdrawn and wounded gaze suggests she may be going through the same surge of emotions. They give in to this growing desire, because if two centuries of dystopian literature has taught us anything, love, sex, and the basic biological imperatives of lust offer some private liberation--an act of rebellion, even-- from the prisons that characters have imposed upon them. The world of Equals is a world of individuals kept apart but level through drugs and the trappings of an egalitarian society, which gives Silas and Nia's trysts in a company bathroom an added charge. Being human: it's messy, it's clumsy, but it feels great sometimes. Silas and Nia are essentially a pair of gaga-eyed teens, and they exchange the kind of first-love niceties you'd have with a high school boyfriend or girlfriend. Their words have an embarrassing earnestness to them, but it's because the words hang between them, connect them, and bring them closer together. Their fear of getting caught leads them to a sympathetic band of SOS patients who can offer sympathy and maybe even a way out. This all sounds a little too familiar, sure, and the clean aesthetic and cool-to-warm color scheme are predictable, albeit so competently often effectively executed. It's the nature of the subject matter and the long history of tropes associated with dystopias; the same goes for science fiction about deadening or mastering human emotions. Director Drake Doremus and screenwriter Nathan Parker don't bring much novelty to their future world, and yet I found something potent in the way Equals explored the stigmatization of depression, much of which is self-imposed. When Silas' co-workers discover he has SOS, they treat him as if he's got an infectious disease. They isolate him so they won't catch what he has, and he internalizes this aversion, which seems to increase his degree of SOS; isolation begetting isolation. People who conceal their undiagnosed SOS are called "hiders," a not too subtle reference. Equals is something of a cutter narrative or teenage depression narrative with just a touch, however chintzy, of Romeo and Juliet. While the world Silas and Nia inhabit is superficially utopian but a dystopia within, characters with SOS are inwardly depressed or dysphoric but forced to hide beneath an even-keeled veneer. They're the perfect kinds of citizens for this medicated hellscape. It's those little things that made Equals enjoyable. Its metaphor held solid while I acknowledge the elements surrounding it seemed shaky. If not shaky, then maybe too similar to things I've seen before. But again we have that outer/inner distinction that I've continually mentioned in this review. On the outside Equals is your standard-issue dystopian yarn with just a little bit of love for the misfit teenage set, but within there's something different and more messily human than the surface suggests.
Review: Equals photo
Star-crossed depression and dystopia
Any society that appears outwardly utopian is really just a nicely packaged dystopia. The orgiastic bacchanal of Logan's Run was really just an ugly form of institutionalized ignorance and population control. Gattaca was a st...

Tribeca Review: National Bird

Apr 18 // Hubert Vigilla
National BirdDirector: Sonia KennebeckRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD We're introduced to three American whistleblowers involved with drone warfare in Afghanistan--two women and a man--each of them haunted by their role in the U.S. Air Force program. There are supposed to be checks between various operatives in charge of a drone strike, and yet something is bound to go wrong. We've all read or watched stories about innocent victims of this type of warfare, and in the most disturbing and important moment of National Bird--maybe the primary reason the documentary exists and is essential--we watch actual footage of a drone strike mistake. Targets enter vehicles and they drive down a road in no particular rush. They stop somewhere to pray. They drive again. Prior to this tense situation we're told that the Air Force trains their people to distinguish between civilians (particularly women and children) and actual terror suspects, but from so high up they're just black and white blobs. Two voices recreate the conversation between operatives, who receive incentives to strike rather than show discretion. They're like sadistic children waiting above a trail ants with magnifying glasses. There is no human regard in their words. We watch the strike and its aftermath. The explosions are like a futurist nightmare, and victims rush away waving for mercy. Cutting from the cameras in the sky, we go to cell phone footage on the ground of the murdered men, women, and children. The images are from their relatives. The up-close footage is thankfully grainy, and the bodies are difficult to discern in the digital noise, but you can easily make out the wails of grief and rage from their loved ones. There were 23 deaths in this strike, none were militants. According to a report from The Intercept, the United States killed more than 200 people using drone strikes between January 2012 and February 2013; only 35 of them were the intended targets. These tragedies are common, and given the increased reliance on unmanned warfare, they tragedies may become even more common. Even U.S. optimistic numbers suggest that innocent civilians are killed between 10% to 15% of the time. Despite the power the film achieves in its final half, I can't help but think there's a structural flaw in National Bird. Kennebeck spends a long time with the whistleblowers in the United States first, introducing their issues with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and overwhelming guilt for their role in the deaths of civilians. Yet in many ways the film doesn't really begin until we get to the sequences in Afghanistan. It's Afghan innocents that ground the film since its their tragedy that drives the three whistleblowers to speak out. The last half of the movie lends the first half some much needed weight, but I wondered if there was a way to braid the stories of drone-strike victims with the whistleblower narratives rather than saving the Afghan side of the story for later. At one point of National Bird, we watch dozens of Afghani amputees getting fit for prostheses. Many of them are victims of drone strikes and the other hazards of war. Back in the United States, one of the whistleblowers talks about her depression and PTSD, and she breaks down in uncontrollable sobs. Kennebeck sends a camera drone over an American suburb, and in those images of houses laid in a grid there's a hypothetical implication: someday someone might use drones to attack people within the United States. The technology is there, and time moves forward. The fear is the reality: we can't go back.
Review: National Bird photo
Eyes in the sky
One of the most memorable passages in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five involves World War II played in reverse. Bombers flying backwards rebuild cities, and the dead become high school students and babies, and everything r...

Tribeca Review: After Spring

Apr 17 // Hubert Vigilla
After SpringDirector: Ellen Martinez and Steph ChingRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD A man gets an order on the phone: pizza for delivery. We're in the Zaatari camp. The pizza man makes the pie in a small oven, boxes it up, and has his son deliver the pizza on his bike. It's strange (is it condescending to use the word "strange"?) to think of a Syrian pizza parlor that delivers in a Jordanian refugee camp, yet this is the new normal for those who no longer have a home. In Zaatari, there are restaurants and rows of shops. After arriving at the camp, displaced Syrians decided to rebuild the quotidian as best as they could. You can buy cell phones, you can rent formal wear, you can buy little toys and bric-a-brac. New arrivals tend to stay in tents first before given mobile trailers to live in. There are 80,000 people in the camp, and more than half of them are children. It's not Syria before the war, but it'll do, at least for now--a prolonged now. Martinez and Ching divide their focus between families who live in Zaatari and a handful of the aid workers there. The head of the camp, Kilian Kleinschmidt, has years of experience in humanitarian aid, and he approaches his job with equal measures of optimism and grim reality. Zaatari is one of the biggest and most well-known refugee camps in the world, and Kleinschmidt hopes to leverage the camp's profile to attract celebrities and world leaders to visit, make donations, and raise awareness, There's an air of marketing in this approach, but maybe that's what donors will respond to more than the moral obligation to the refugees per se. Ching and Martinez rarely leave Zaatari in their film, a spend most of the documentary chronicling the daily rhythms of displaced life. Babies are born, aid requests are made, and some of the people in camp even contemplate a return to Syria. Life outside of the camp is much more difficult, even outside of Syria. Ching and Martinez catch up with one woman and her family who left Zaatari to live in Jordan, but her struggles have made her consider a return to the camp. Getting to the camp was difficult enough, but leaving its confines might prove more difficult. Jon Stewart added his name to After Spring as an executive producer, which will hopefully get more eyes on the movie. With the new wave of international Islamophobia spurred by the ISIS attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels, After Spring is much-needed counterweight. It's a humanizing movie, one about empathy and our duty to others (literally millions) in need. It's far too easy to discount the lives of other people when they're just an abstract ethnic group or religious group. After Spring gives faces to the Syrians similarly affected by the war. One of the refugees at Zaatari mentions bringing down Bashar al-Assad toward the end of the film, and that sudden injection of politics and factionalism reminded me that the conflict within Syria is maybe as irresolvable as this humanitarian crisis. With so many children in the camps, one of the aid workers sets up a taekwondo academy to provide structure and discipline. There's hope in this--something so simple and suburban, yet it provides a center that holds. Like ordering a pizza for delivery, here's a reminder of the comforts that give people a sense of home, and the little things people do to restore humanity to others. It's a small bloom in the desert, a fragile and beautiful thing.
Review: After Spring photo
A day in the life of a Syrian refugee
The Syrian Civil War has led to a humanitarian crisis that's only getting worse. As of now, roughly 4.6 million Syrians have left the country, many of whom have fled to neighboring Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, with others fle...


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