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reviews

Review: Your Name

Apr 04 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221337:43448:0[/embed] Your Name (Kimi no Na wa, 君の名は。)Director: Makoto ShinkaiRating: PGRelease Date: August 26, 2016 (Japan); April 7, 2017 (USA)Country: Japan Our two body-swapped and star-crossed heroes are a country girl named Mitsuha and a city boy named Taki. Apropos of nothing, the two teens swap bodies. At first they think they're dreaming--as Mitsuha in Taki's body struggles as a waiter in a restaurant, she wonders when her long and bizarre dream will end. Taki in Mitsuha's body begins each morning copping a feel like a creeper. They intermittently lead each other's lives, and they come to enjoy the ability to live a life so different from their own day-to-day. The allure, like most body swap films, is in the contrast of experiences--metropolitan and pastoral, modern and traditional, the social norms of male and female, etc. My enjoyment of Your Name can be broken into quarters. I loved the first quarter of the movie, which was a great modern take on the body swap genre. The city boy and the country girl get to know each other obliquely, corresponding through their own cellphones with do's and don'ts about each other's lives. Shinkai closes that opening quarter with a fantastic montage of the joys and frustrations of living another life only to return to the mucked-up nature of your own. I liked the second quarter of Your Name, which, without spoilers, involves a mystery and a journey. Tonally it reminded me a little of Hirokazu Koreeda's charming I Wish, though an adolescent version. As for the last half of Your Name? It was all right. "Generally acceptable" may be a more accurate phrase. So much about Your Name hinges on a major plot twist and the way the narrative treats this revealed information. If I wasn't on board with the first portion of the film, the swerve at the halfway mark would have soured me on the whole movie. It's all dependent on a series of narrative conveniences that the story doesn't attempt to explain: spotty memory, technological failure, the loose rules of the body swapping, a lack of common sense from the characters, lapses in human curiosity. And yet, somehow, I think Your Name still works by the end because it is so earnest about its teenage feelings. There's the desire to be understood by someone, to forge a lasting connection, to make sense of your own life. That's all there. I watched the movie in a crowded theater full of teens and young adults. As a plot twist occurred in the second half, gasps rustled through the crowd. After that emotional gut reaction, the analytical bits in my brain stepped forward and processed the information. No, a little too convenient, but just go with it. This kept happening in the last half of the movie. I found myself liking moments even though I was of two minds about them. There's a gorgeous scene set at dusk before a dimming sky. It's quiet, it's memorable, it was enough for me to disregard a lapse in logic a few scenes before. A young woman in the crowd, excited by the connection that occurred on screen, whispered an elated "Yes". Minutes later, sighs from the crowd, crestfallen, like everyone had breathed out at once. I couldn't help but be moved as well--I felt what someone else was feeling, which is what Your Name is about at its best. Oddly, some of my qualms come from understanding Shinkai's point of view as a storyteller. To affect the audience the way he wants to, Shinkai needs to move the story in direction P, therefore actions L, M, N, and O have to occur. I saw the movie with Steve over at Unseen Films, and his immediate feelings for the movie were far more tepid than mine. The logical lapses were so apparent to him. My own fondness for the first half of the film led me to justify those logical lapses to him even though I noticed them as well. And I have to admit, my justification was because I understood Shinkai's storytelling motivations rather than any diegetic explanation provided by the film. I can't recall who said this or if I'm even getting it right, but there's a sandwich rule when it comes to storytelling. Say you make a movie. Part of it doesn't make sense. If an audience member doesn't realize there's a lapse in logic until hours later when they're making a sandwich, the story is successful. Your Name didn't pass the sandwich test with me, but I could sense it did with many others in the crowd. Even without the sandwich test, there was a lot to admire. If only the last half had hooked me more, not by plot twists but through the characters, not by letters signifying Shinkai's moves but rather that ineffable emotional stuff that's harder to figure out and impossible to name.
Review: Your Name photo
The body swap movie with a swerve
Makoto Shinkai's Your Name is the highest-grossing anime film of all-time, and it hasn't even come out in the United States yet. It beat Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away; give it a few more months and Your Name may beat Spirite...

Review: Ghost in the Shell

Apr 01 // Rick Lash
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Ghost in the Shell has been on my list of to-sees for some time. While I was never a reader of the original Japanese manga which premiered in 1989, I am a fan of the televised anime from 2002. Indeed, Ghost in the Shell: Stan...

Review: David Lynch: The Art Life

Mar 31 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221368:43488:0[/embed] David Lynch: The Art LifeDirectors: Jon Nguyen and Rick BarnesRating: NRRelease Date: March 31, 2017  The Art Life is like passing a flashlight along a bumpy surface to watch the way the shadows shift, or standing near a painting at a weird angle to admire the thickness of the paint and note the interruptions in the path of a brushstroke. Lynch mentions that the past can often inform images or ideas, and then gets talking about an early childhood memory. In his childhood suburb standing outside, a naked woman in distress across the street; he didn't know what was wrong but just that something was wrong. Accompanying artwork fills the screen. While Nguyen and Barnes never show the corresponding clip from Blue Velvet, I couldn't help but think of that scene in Blue Velvet. Yet that's the point. This memory has been with Lynch his entire life, and there are plenty of manifestations of it in his art. This made me think about the way Lynch speaks and how that's a study in vocal texture. He uses simple language to convey deep feelings that are maybe too complex to describe. Weird Director affectation, sure maybe, yet there's also the way Lynch says what he says. I can hear the verbal underlining and italicizing, and some of the (intentionally or unintentionally) arch delivery when he means more than he's willing to say. While sharing another childhood memory, Lynch stops abruptly. Something really bad happened, and we know nothing more, so it must have been that bad. The texture of the memory but not the memory directly. As an aggregate of these biographical textures, it's fascinating to consider The Art Life as a lens through which to view Eraserhead. The documentary covers Lynch's childhood to the making of his first feature film. If the past informs images and ideas, this must be a sample of the mental material Lynch brought to Eraserhead; all that unease in Philadelphia and the intense poverty and the unspoken difficulties of Lynch's first marriage. Yet Eraserhead is still an inscrutable masterpiece of personal associations and whatever its viewer brings to it. Beyond texture, I think The Art Life is a great display of Lynch's creative process. There's something wonderful about seeing visual artists at work. How they do what they do is often an expression of who they are. Lynch is especially hands-on, and almost childlike in terms of his approach, but there's also an intuitive intellect at work that knows how to manipulate the material being worked. He uses paint layered thick for textures, sometimes applied to panels with his hands, smeared across. What better way to really control texture? Every now and then, Lynch's 3-year-old daughter Lula appears on screen, painting alongside dad. It's so idyllic in that industrial workspace of Lynch's home. It reminds me of a well-kept metalshop/woodshop class in a good public high school. I'd like to revisit the 1997 documentary Pretty As a Picture: The Art of David Lynch, which seems like a strong companion piece to The Art Life. In that documentary, Lynch mentions how he liked using latex paints and house paints when he does visual art, and how he used to incorporate raw meat into his artwork so ants and flies could pick away at the paintings and allow interesting things to happen to the images. Maybe the past doc will inform the present doc and vice versa, and maybe the old Lynch will illuminate something the younger Lynch said. The art life is a long one. Strange too, and worthwhile.
David Lynch documentary photo
For fans of Lynch's films and artwork
David Lynch: The Art Life hits a sweet spot in terms of its release date. Lynch's feature-length debut Eraserhead has just turned 40 years old, and the new season of Twin Peaks starts in May. There's bound to be a resurg...

Review: Power Rangers

Mar 23 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221258:43472:0[/embed] Power RangersDirector: Dean IsrealiteRelease Date: March 24, 2017Rated: PG-13 Power Rangers follows the well-known roots of the original TV series. Five teenagers -- Jason (Dacre Montgomery), Billy (RJ Cyler), Kimberly (Naomi Scott), Zack (Ludi Lin), and Trini (Becky G) -- stumble on five mysterious coins granting them superpowers. Upon discovering a spaceship deep underground along with a giant face-in-the-wall Zordon (Bryan Cranston) and robot Alpha 5 (Bill Hader), the teens learn they're the latest team of Power Rangers, colorful suited heroes who need to protect the Zeo Crystal from good-girl-gone-bad Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks). The PG-13 rating and big screen budget affords the film some great updates to the original series' ideas, but at times also feels like a two hour fan film when the goofy series terminology (words like "morph" and the "Zeo Crystal," which will mean more to fans) is juxtaposed with the grounded world of the film.  Thankfully when I say "grounded," I actually mean a deeper look at characterization and themes inherent in the series and not "dark and gritty." You're not going to, say, see Zack shoot someone in the face but will definitely hear him make a masturbation joke. The risque' jokes and sultrier villain help carve out a much needed separate identity from the TV series, but these kinds of additions tend to make for a confusing film overall. It's hard to gauge exactly who the film is meant for when some of the jokes and situations may be a bit too complicated for the current intended fanbase (kids) yet it's not afraid to dive into hokey territory at times to make cede kids happy. There's also so much drastically different from the original production it'll alienate nostalgic curiosity. But in that same breath, Power Rangers often bends over backwards to include bits of unnecessary fan service to cater to old fans, undercutting its own footprint. So it ends up perceived as non-committal to either vision. No one is going to be truly happy with the film's tone.  While its tone may be at war with itself, Power Rangers absolutely nails the chemistry of the core five. Aided by the fact they're all relatively unknown (save for RJ Cyler and Becky G, who turn in the best performances of the group), these five carry the film through its rougher patches. Scenes that wouldn't work elsewhere or ebb the flow of plot, such as one where five teens sit around a campfire and share their biggest secrets without prompting, manage to land because the cast is so enjoyable to watch. The great focus on characterization allows each of them to find their groove in the film and give the Rangers a much needed personality. It's why you see their faces during the big Man of Steel/Transformers sequence (where the Megazord fights Goldar through Krispy Kreme Grove), too. As unique as Power Rangers' fights should be, they devolve into CG nonsense you'll find elsewhere. But the chemistry of the team I came to love by the end adds a much needed humanity and fun while teasing much better films (presumably) to come.  Elizabeth Banks' Rita is also truly remarkable. Finding the sweet spot between scenery chewing and serious, each of her scenes is a highlight. Banks helps to balance the sometimes overwrought seriousness of the Power Rangers' tone with her charismatic cheese. Bryan Cranston's Zordon is fine, but I'll give him credit for going full body make-up for the role. I find myself at war with my "fan" reaction to the film since I dig the layered characters (as Billy reveals he's on the Autism spectrum and one character hints at a potential homosexual identity), the original theme gets used once (it's poorly timed, but has a nostalgic angle fans would instantly recognize), and even the suits look nice when standing still (which is something I never thought I'd believe, really), but then there's a masturbation joke not five minutes in after a boring "gritty" title card once again revealing a clash of tones holding the film back. I suppose the project would have landed better had it a director who wasn't prone to much of the generic blockbuster film camera angles and quirks. Power Rangers' flow stutters as development often comes to complete standstills, but then moves to scenes where concepts are introduced pretty rapidly (and several poorly soundtracked montages). I know this is probably weird to say with as loud of a property as this, but I enjoyed the quiet moments of the film rather than when it played out like an expensive music video. The final battle has something, like, six track changes and that's only one example of the film never quite getting comfortable with itself save for a few brief scenes. Even if it's not comfortable with itself, that does not mean it escapes franchise building. There's no saving it from feeling like the first entry of a larger series rather than a single entity. Make no mistake, I have no delusions over the quality of the Power Rangers property. This was tough to adapt, I'm sure, and the end result is much better and worse than I had anticipated.  Much like Power Rangers, I too am confused. Although I didn't like a lot of its editing choices, and feel like it could've been trimmed for brevity, I want to see this cast in another film with all of the kinks ironed out. There's powerful potential here, you just have to sit through this one first. 
Power Rangers Review photo
Oh, I have a headache
More so than any of the reviews I've written, I feel I have to preface this one a bit. Since I (literally in some cases) hold the Power Rangers brand so close to my chest, I've been keeping a close eye on the reboot since the...

Review: Iron Fist (Season 1)

Mar 20 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221385:43469:0[/embed] Iron Fist (Season 1)Director: VariousRating: TV-MARelease Date: March 17, 2017 (Netflix) Everyone thought Danny Rand died with his parents in a plane crash 15 years ago, but he really survived and learned martial arts in a magic Himalayan city called K'un-L'un. He shows up barefoot in New York at his family's building, spouting off fortune cookie mysticism like a low-rent Billy Jack. This kicks off a protracted battle for control of the company rooted in childhood bullying and soap opera-style family resentments, which is just what fans of the character wanted to see, obviously. The pilot episode is so dully inert. with Rand trying to assert his identity while former childhood friends Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup) find different ways of say, "Nuh-uh, no you're not." Riveting. There's one slow, klutzy, 30-second fight in the episode with security guards. There is also a wise, disposable homeless supporting character who dies of a heroin overdose, seeding another season-long plot point. Iron Fist is a character who got his superpowers by punching a dragon in the chest, yet the show is treated with the aggravating seriousness of a prestige cable drama. The only saving grace of the plodding business drama stuff is Harold Meachum (David Wenham), the father of Ward and Joy who lives in hiding after faking his own death. Wenham is so invested in his character's giddy evil, and he oozes the charisma that's lacking in Jones as a lead. I can't blame Jones entirely for being so unintersting. He's not a good actor, but the writers give him nothing to work with. The second episode of Iron First takes place in a mental hospital, with Danny strapped to a bed most of the time. Beds are what I think about when I think of martial arts. Even a pseudo-tournament episode directed by the RZA feels static: Iron Fist ascends each level of a building fighting characters who have more personality than him. A skirmish in a later episode with a drunken-style fighter made me realize yet again how awful Danny is on so many levels. Iron Fist has feet of clay and a brain of rock. When he's not making the dumbest or wrongest decision, he's pilloried with self-doubt. His scowling facial expressions hint at tears on the verge. He's often so flummoxed with anger that he can't use his magic fist to punch things really hard. Danny Rand is Anakin Skywalker with erectile dysfunction. But yes, the fights. Oh god, the fights. Good fights tell stories. A character's fighting style reveals something about who they are inside, like some external manifestation of the self. They may have a signature move (Ric Fair's figure four leglock) or a unique weapon (Captain America's shield) or a personal fighting style (Ip Man's wing chun) that differentiates them from others. The primary characters in Iron Fist fight the same way--slow, clumsily, like actors in a martial arts show rather than martial artists. Their movements vary only superficially, and there is nothing dynamic or unique about the fights that pepper the series. Danny essentially fights just like fellow martial artist Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) even though she uses a sword and they have entirely different martial arts backgrounds. The fights of Iron Fist all look like glacial, inartful brawls. Seasoned fighters are turned into mere goons. I expected more from a martial arts show, namely decent martial arts. The fights of Daredevil put this show to shame; ditto the action in Arrow and Into the Badlands and even every iteration of Power Rangers. The camera angles obscure movement in the frame, the shots are banal and shaky, and there are so many confusing cuts that interrupt the flow of the action to the point of incoherence. It's amateur hour in the dojo and the editing bay. What's more, the fights all feel so perfunctory, or even like a chore, as if the writers thought, "A fight scene? Aww, do we have to? I really wanted to get into that class action lawsuit subplot." We're told that the Danny Rand is the world's greatest martial artist, but he fights like a guy who took karate at the Y two summers ago. Why does a security guard with a knife give this guy so much trouble? The person Danny dispenses of the fastest in the entire show is a teenager he hits in the ankle with a shinai. He wasn't expecting it either (sucker shinai?) and Danny preceded his assault by verbally berating the dojo for not taking martial arts seriously. Some hero, right? Hell, Danny doesn't even take off his shoes when he's in the dojo. Didn't they teach you anything in K'un-L'un, buddy? I'm pretty sure they at least took off their shoes at the Cobra Kai dojo. A great martial artist and he has the emotional intelligence of a bratty 10 year old and the balance of a newborn fawn. Later episodes of the show seem to break the fourth wall and acknowledge that Danny is a really crummy character. While he's trying to rescue a person being held captive, Danny's scuffle with a goon leads to said captive getting stabbed in the chest. What a hero. After watching him fight, one character even says, "Wow, you really are the worst Iron Fist ever." The final scene of season one even has Danny tacitly acknowledge that yes, he really does suck at everything, doesn't he? Danny Rand's bumbling heroism makes Colleen Wing that much more compelling as the show's secret protagonist. She's a poor martial arts instructor who helps her students make smart, moral choices while she's struggling to make ends meet. She compromises principles, she shows generosity to others, she learns and grows from her mistakes. Henwick does what she can with the script, and she has enough presence to carry the scenes she's in amiably. I found myself grateful for every Colleen Wing scene--finally a character to care about (other than David Wenham's Evil Faramir). There's so much at stake for Colleen, and she has so much potential to carry a show on her own, but she's relegated to supporting status. Danny Rand is Jack Burton to Colleen Wing's Wang Chi, but in a boring version of Big Trouble in Little China that's mostly about the intricacies of the commercial trucking industry. "Have you paid your dues? Well, let me explain the importance of unionization in a field such as ours over a power lunch." By the way, we never see Iron Fist punch the dragon in the chest. We don't even see the dragon and we barely get a look at K'un-L'un. This was probably due to budgetary constraints. Everything about Iron Fist looks laughably cheap. I didn't touch on the issue of cultural appropriation or orientalism in this review, which is oddly the least of the show's problems. I'm actually okay in theory with Danny Rand being white so long as the show was interesting. The show is not interesting. You don't even need to watch it to understand what will happen in Netflix's The Defenders. That sort of completism is for rubes. Just read about the set up online. There'll be more illumination in three or four sentences than there is in 13 hours of dreck with a weaksauce ending. The story in your head will probably be better anyways. There's so much you can do in life with 13 precious, precious hours. Don't make the mistake of watching Iron Fist.
Iron Fist (Season 1) photo
Booooooooooooooring
Iron Fist is such a tremendous failure on so many levels that it's fascinating to dissect. It's not fascinating to watch, however. The latest Marvel series on Netflix is a 13-hour bore that's 15% martial arts show and 85% boa...

Review: Raw

Mar 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221293:43454:0[/embed] Raw (Grave)Director: Julia DucournauRating: RRelease Date: March 10, 2017Country: France/Belgium Justine (Garance Marillier) is an in-coming freshman at a veterinary college. It's the same school that her parents attended and where her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a current student. She's a lifelong vegetarian; at a buffet en route to the college, her mom berates a clerk for an errant meatball in Justine's mashed potatoes. During a hazing ritual at the vet school, Justine gets her first taste of meat when she's force fed a raw rabbit kidney. That fetid little taste awakens something sexy and dangerous in her. Raw is set in an off-kilter place where fictional conceits co-mingle with quotidian problems. It's the location for weird literary short fiction, allowing anything and everything to function as a metaphor or a metaphorical space. There's the familiar trope of the teenage girl whose sexual maturation is a source of horror for herself and others. Justine is the gawky young woman trying to figure out adulthood and sexiness and desire and how to juggle all of these new cravings she has. But Ducournau avoids many of the simple 1:1 ratios of familiar genre metaphors by complicating her world and its characters. Justine's taste for flesh is borne of freedom from home, and it becomes a point of sibling rivalry. I mentioned Ducournau's knack for the visceral, which is evidenced early in the film during the first hazing ritual. The freshman are forced out of bed and into some on-campus rave. Ducournau's camera follows Justine through the flashing lights and the throb of the music. First she's annoyed and alone, but as the scene continues to play out, she and the audience find the exhilaration of the moment, and the underlying emotional current of the scene changes. When Justine gets the shakes like a junkie in withdrawal, Ducournau closes the whole of the world into the hallucinatory nightmare of Justine in fetal position under her sheet. In what's sure to be the most talked about scene of the film, a silly, sisterly moment of bonding between Justine and Alexia becomes a squirmy horror set piece for the ages. As it happened, I smiled at the brilliant audacity of the execution. That "brilliant audacity" is what I liked about so much of Raw, and it's often pulled off throughout the film with casual unexpectedness. Justine seems to be going mad with her rush of desires, and occasionally some unexpected image would appear on screen and haunt me a bit. A horse on a treadmill or an animal carcass ready for class dissection is full of such fervid, dreamlike weight. Marillier plays fragile Justine and feral Justine so well and of a piece. Any interaction between Justine and her male roommate Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella) gets loaded with an expectant dread. Will she? Is this hunger? Won't she? Is this desire? Why not both? The way Justine and Alexia's antagonisms play out over the course of Raw is fascinating as well, and hints at a longer history. There's affection tinged with enmity between these sisters. The fact that so much of Raw works so well may be why I come back to the closing notes of Raw and why they fell so flat for me. So much of the movie is a gut punch filmed with such great craft. Justine is built up and broken and humiliated and I was hoping for one last moment that would linger the same way as so many others. I felt like the movie traded its gut punches for a rote, tepid, expected wind down, and then punctuated it with a flimsy punchline. And yet that wind down makes sense emotionally, and that punchline opens up this rich, sadly unexplored avenue of the story. That may speak to the promise of Ducournau as filmmaker to watch--that I think there's something good wrapped up in a sour note, something exciting in the shadow of a disappointing coda. I guess sometimes even great cuts of meat have a little gristle.
Review: Raw photo
Flesh, sex, and self-destruction
While playing at film festivals last year, the hype over Raw was insane. Writer/director Julia Ducournau's coming-of-age horror/cannibal drama purportedly caused audience members to faint, to vomit, to leave screenings in dis...

Review: Kong: Skull Island

Mar 09 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221357:43453:0[/embed] Kong: Skull IslandDirector: Jordan Vogt-RobertsRelease Date: March 10, 2017Rated: PG-13 Kong: Skull Island is literally exactly about what the title is. King Kong is on Skull Island. The problem is some people are about to show up. In the 1970s Bill Randa (John Goodman), head of the nearly defunded Monarch organization, launches one last expedition to a previously undiscovered island that is perpetually surrounded by storms. He believes that monsters do exist as he's the only survivor from the monster attack on a U.S. military boat that was mentioned in Godzilla. Along with him comes a group of scientists, an Vietnam helicopter platoon led by Preston Packard (Samual L. Jackson), a tracker named James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). They, of course make it to the island, and for some mcguffin of a reason start dropping bombs on it. Kong shows up and kicks there ass. And here's where Skull Island really starts to do things right. Instead of giving us 90 minutes of blurry fur and quick glimpses, Kong just shows up and starts being the man. This allows for not just one big monster sequence at the end, but instead battle after battle of insanely well designed monster fight scenes. Kong is actually the star of this movie, not a bunch of humans struggling to survive, but the ape himself. That's a lesson that so many monster films have yet to learn and one of the biggest problems with Godzilla. Skull Island knows what we came to see and it give it to us right off the bat. That's not to say there isn't plenty of human development. After Kong trashes the groups helicopters the survivors are left to try to make their way to the rendezvous point in order to get off the island. Packard, hell bent on winning "this war" against Kong, drives his group to get the ammunition to kill the primate while a smaller group led by Conrad wind up meeting the native people of the island and crashed WWII pilot Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly). They learn that Kong isn't the bad guy, but the defender of these people and the world against those weird lizard monsters that Godzilla helped defeat in his film. Yea, it's that blatantly connected. And, yes, it is also that blatantly a metaphor for Vietnam to the point where toxic gas is dropped. But given Godzilla's roots in nuclear war commentary the war commentary actually fits well enough. Skull Island likes to play with its tropes while reveling in them at the same time. A perfect example of this is two soldiers running away from a charging Kong as one peels off yelling "Run to the side, you idiot." The other guy doesn't and gets crushed. This playfulness with cliche makes the movie work on its own accord and pulls the actual cliche stuff out of the mire. Yes, it can get a little goofy at times, and that's when the film is at its worst, but for the most part everything clicks and Kong (or some other giant creature) is never of screen long enough for you to really start to hate the cookie cutter characters.  Probably the most disappointing part of the film is how flat Hiddleston's character is. If they're planning on having this character be a central piece of the MonsterVerse puzzle they better get him some more interesting dialog and plot lines. It isn't clear, however, if they are. From the attitude Skull Island takes to its human characters the only important carryover is Kong. Human beings are just there to stare at him in admiration or die. That's the way it should be it turns out. If this is the tone for the rest of the MonsterVerse then count me in. Kong brings a bit more fun to the series than Godzilla did and a whole lot more monster action. While Kong: Skull Island can get drastically stupid at times it always seem aware of this and it has figured out an antidote: Kong smash.
Kong: Skull Island photo
Welcome to the MonsterVerse
The monster movie is making a comeback. No, not the still-odd-to-me Universal Monster Cinematic Universe. I'm talking giant, city-destroying monsters. And yes, they're getting their own universe. Unbeknownst to us the kick of...

Review: My Scientology Movie

Mar 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220428:43450:0[/embed] My Scientology MovieDirector: John DowerRating: NRRelease Date: March 10, 2017 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, 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 far lighter on substance and information to its detriment, and much 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. 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 gets an oblique portrait of Scientology. The film isn't a takedown in the Gibney mode and it's nowhere near as intense as Sweeney's pieces (it's not even as good as Louis, Martin & Michael, to be honest), but Theroux's ability to disarm offers an all right roundabout look at how Scientology affects former members. Long-time Theroux fans like myself might be left wanting. 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 applies 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 gets a slight glimpse at the innerworkings of Rathbun, a complicated man who is much more of a mystery 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...

Review: My Life as a Zucchini

Mar 03 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221336:43439:0[/embed] My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette)Director: Claude BarrasRating: PG-13Release Date: October 19, 2016 (France/Switzerland); February 24, 2017 (limited)Country: France/Switzerland My Life as a Zucchini opens with the accidental death of a boy's abusive, alcoholic mother. His father isn't around and never shows up, but he draws an idealized, superhero version of him on a homemade kite. The boy calls himself Zucchini (Erick Abbate), and as a police officer drives him to an orphanage, he flies the kite out of the car window. The moment is both beautiful and sad, just like so many other moments in My Life is a Zucchini. The other children at the orphanage are neglected, have had their parents deported, lost their parents in violent ways, or were physically or sexually abused. They're each around 10 years old. This is absolutely bleak material, and it's reflected in the look of the stop-motion puppets of the children. When a new girl named Camille (Ness Krell) arrives, one of the children remarks that she has sad eyes. It's a quality all of the children share. They all have huge, Margaret Keane-painting eyes, but they look wounded rather than doe-like, as if each of them might burst into tears at any moment out of sadness or a fleeting joy. While the situations these children face are so dark, My Life as a Zucchini is a hopeful film, and brimming with sympathy and empathy. I found myself crying through a lot of the film, which is a testament to the effectiveness of the animation. There's something important about the tactile nature of stop-motion I can't put my finger on. Maybe it's because the characters look like toys, and the settings feel like playsets--like the entire film functions as a space for a child to work through the dark things in their head. The English-language voice acting is commendable. The child actors sounded like actors rather than kids acting, if the distinction makes sense. Abbate and Krell have to do so much heavylifting whenever their characters are on screen, but there's no strain to it. I was so wrapped up in the emotion of the film that I didn't sense a flat line read or a sour delivery. Somehow, effortlessly, the child actors sounded vulnerable and true. The adult voice cast was good as well, with Nick Offerman, Will Forte, and Ellen Page disappearing into their roles as caretakers. Amy Sedaris' voice was distinct--very Strangers with Candy--though it fits with the brash, prickly character she portrays. Barras depicts kindness in various gestures between the kids and their caretakers at the orphanage. There's a snow trip with a tiny techno dance party in a cabin. There's play time. There's dress up and parties. When the children grow up, the psychological repercussions of what they've faced might be daunting, but at least there's this orphanage and these people who care about them. The adults try to create some semblance of a normal life free from from solitude and abuse. Things that seems so commonplace are suddenly imbued with a tremendous expression of love and humanity. How good it is, even if just briefly, to give someone the joy of a carefree childhood. My Life as a Zucchini is about children, but it's not a children's movie. That may have held it back in awards season. It was such a longshot to win a Golden Globe or an Oscar (Zootopia took both awards), and its bleakness didn't help matters. The film did wind up winning Best Animated Film and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Cesar Awards, however. Saying all this, part of me wonders how traumatized children might respond to the film. Would they feel less alone? Would they feel loved? Those concerns are more important than a statuette; they're what's most important in life.
My Life as a Zucchini photo
About kids but not a children's movie
There's this pervasive idea that children are resilient, that they're able to cope well even in dire circumstances. In stories about forlorn kids, a combination of optimistic pluck and boundless imagination helps them through...

Review: Before I Fall

Mar 03 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221343:43441:0[/embed] Before I FallDirector: Ry Russo-YoungRelease Date: Rating: PG-13  Up front (well, after the intro): I did not like the first third of Before I Fall. There are a variety of potential reasons for this, though most of them boil down to an inability to connect to the characters. They're popular girls; it's like a modern version of Mean Girls but without the funny. They're just terrible. And with a lack of humor, I had nothing to latch onto. I was never a teenage girl, but it's less that than the fact that I was never a popular teenager of any gender. I just simply couldn't relate. So, I was upset, because I wanted to like it, and the film was just making it so hard. But then things changed. Before I Fall's conceit is that its protagonist, Samantha (Zoey Deutch), dies in a car crash and then wakes up at the beginning of the same day. And even when she doesn't die in the car crash, she still wakes up the same day. It's "Cupid Day," a semi-bizarre variation on Valentine's Day. I've never heard anyone call it Cupid Day before, and at first I thought maybe it was a Pacific Northwest thing, since that's where the film is set, but apparently not; it comes from the book (which was actually set in New England). Looking up "Cupid Day" on Google brings up as its first result a question on Yahoo Answers specifically asking about its use in the book upon which this film is based (look at all the research I did for this review!). Still, it's definitely Valentine's Day because someone is like, "Happy Cupid Day" and someone else is like "THAT'S VALENTINE'S DAY TO YOU" and I dunno if that part was in the book. It felt kinda expository, like the moment was only there for the purpose of clarification... but whatever. Point is, its Cupid Day and that's what everyone says. (It's best not to get hung up on things like that.) We see the day play out. We see Samantha and her friends as garbage people. We see that there's something in Samantha that could be not garbage, but that only matters so much when she also shouts that the sad girl is a "Psycho." She piles on like everyone else. She's still a bad person. And then she dies, and she spends the rest of the film atoning for that sin.  Her first repeated day is whatever. I knew the conceit, so I more-or-less knew how it was gonna go down. She was still not a good person, but she was a not-good person who was starting her transition. But even if those glimmers of worthwhileness began around here, she was still fundamentally not worth caring about.  I don't remember if it's the next day or the one after, but at some point she decides to dress differently. She dresses like a goth kid. She wears all black, gets all made up, and then she starts speaking her mind to people. She calls out her friends on their shit. She then has a really awkward interaction with her teacher (I cringe just thinking about it), and she does it all because she has realized that it doesn't matter. That she is going to wake up the next day the same as ever. So why not be a different her for a day (maybe one that's closer to the real her? At this point, we don't actually know, though the answer seems to be "not quite" (though that begs the question of why she had those clothes in the first place))?  And that was interesting, of course, because we see different sides of the character, but it wasn't even that that did it for me; she goes in to the bathroom that I guess has been designated the one lesbian girl's bathroom, and then the two of them talk. And the talk that they have is genuinely interesting. It wasn't just showing more of Samantha, though it did do that; it was making a point about everything that those characters were. To paraphrase (because I didn't write down the actual line): "In two years, I won't remember any of you." And you look at Samantha's friends, the popular kids, and you think about where they're going to be in two years. After high school: Will they Matter? Will anyone remember them? The sickest parties and the cutest boys in high school are, one would assume, chump change compared to what's to come. But that's what they care about. Being cool. People thinking their cool. And the people who are actually cool are just biding their time until they don't have to deal with that shit anymore. (They'll have to deal with other shit, but that's not the point.) At that point, it becomes like a different movie, a movie about misfits. Because the truth is that, though Samantha somehow joined up with the popular girls, it's not really who she is. She isn't as "weird" as some of the people are, but she's definitely a lot less judgmental of oddities than she puts on. And as Before I Fall begins to explore that, it's suddenly like watching a different, much better movie. Samantha became multi-faceted, and her relationships became compelling. What happens with the family I found to be particularly feels-worthy, and it was this stuff, actually, that made me cry. Yeah. Before I Fall made me cry. And it wasn't like a cheap thing either. They didn't have to kill a cute animal (or even a person); they just had to start to mend something that was on the verge of being broken. I have a sister who is quite a bit younger than I am. I was definitely dismissive of her in the way that Samantha is of hers. But Samantha, as the day repeats and repeats, decides to own up to this and try to make things better. I felt that so freaking hard. (After the film ended, I immediately texted my sister to tell her I loved her.) And it wasn't just that. Many of the character arcs pay off in ways that feel honest in an almost surprising way, because sometimes the ways they get to those conclusions don't make a lot of sense. Certain characters do things that seem out of place, but where they end up as a result of them still works. It could be an adaptation thing: In the pages of the book, there is more time to get a character from A to B to C and so on, but we have to skip a few letters to get it into a film. But whatever the reason, it doesn't ultimately matter. What matters is how it feels right. Very right. In the first third of the film, I was just thinking, "Man, I want to go home and watch The Edge of Seventeen again." And, admittedly, I think that a lot, but after the switch, I thought, "No... this is the only thing I want to be watching. This is the thing that matters." And it does matter, because it really does get into some of the seedier aspects of high school popularity, and the gross things people do in order to move up a level. Also, it made me cry.
Before I Fall Review photo
Putting it on replay
If you read my Top 15 Movies of 2016 list, then you'll know that at the very top (number 0) was The Edge of Seventeen. Also worth noting: my favorite movie of ever continues to be Joseph Kahn's Detention. From that, we can de...

Review: Ugetsu

Mar 03 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221341:43446:0[/embed] Ugetsu (Ugetsu Monogatari, 雨月物語)Director: Kenji MizoguchiRating: NRRelease Date: March 3, 2017 (limited)Country: Japan  Watching Ugetsu felt like walking into an austere room where an ancient handscroll has been unrolled, spread out, and hung up to observe. Its meters and meters of period narrative are told along the four walls. The scroll starts in one corner, traces the length of the room, and ends in the corner it began. Ugetsu is wonderfully looped and completed, wrapped neatly like an old-fashioned fable or tale. The return to the starting point of the story, that initial tableau, is marked by change, much like the lives of characters in the film. Ugetsu is an adaptation of two braided plots from Ueda Akinar's 1776 book of ghost stories of the same name. One story follows Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), a bumbling peasant who dreams of becoming a samurai. The other story follows Genjuro (Masayuki Mori), a potter who is seduced and waylaid by a mysterious noblewoman called Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo). In the backdrop is a senseless war that ravages the countryside, with samurais pillaging and looting from peasants. In a tense moment early in the film, Genjuro risks his life waiting at a kiln as samurai approach on a rampage. His wife tells him to wise up and flee, yet Genjuro knows that the only future he and his family has are those pots that are firing away, just not fast enough. Throughout the film, the gentry and the warrior classes disregard the people beneath them, while Tobei and Genjuro dream of wealth and status. Both will risk everything for armor and kimonos. Ugetsu contains those perennial critiques of greed and vanity, sins for which the wives of the two men suffer. Even before researching Mizoguchi's background, I could sense his love of kabuki and painting in the visual style and rhythms of the Ugetsu. The film ushers itself in with traditional song, and there's a measured theatricality to the blocking, staging, and performances of this period ghost story. The first time Lady Wakasa appears on screen, she is an otherworldly presence. It's not just the manner of dress, but a manner of being. Her servant follows to her side slowly, and she approaches Genjuro at a pace of her own that defies the bustle of the market. She is not one of these people, that much is clear. Mizoguchi's extended takes are marvels of deliberation. Contemporary filmmakers tend to use long takes as a sort of spectacle, calling attention to ballsy filmmaking craft (i.e., the long-takeness of the long-take) while paradoxically aiming at audience immersion (i.e., this unfolds continuously like real life). There's little sense of how form and content are wed in the contradictory presentation. For Mizoguchi, the extended take is part of the period storytelling. I mentioned the wall scroll idea earlier, which is a fitting way to depict a period tale. The story is fantasy touched by reality; its form and content are rooted in a time and a place and an art tradition that is tied to said time and said place. The 4K restoration of Ugetsu looks excellent, and I was actually thrown by it for a moment. It may have been the digital projection, but there was an uncanny sense of movement about some objects in the frame. They moved a little too smooth, a little too fast, sort of like when watching a new movie on a new TV with the settings just a little off. I don't know if that's a flaw since I eventually adjusted to it, but maybe it speaks to the film being so much an evocation of a period centuries ago that a contemporary presentation made uncanny movement more apparent. But hey, a classic is a classic.
Review: Ugetsu photo
A wall scroll on ghosts, war, and class
The films of Kenji Mizoguchi have been a major blind spot in my life as a filmgoer. I've seen plenty of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu films, but for some reason Mizoguchi had always hovered on my to-watch list, always put o...

Review: Logan

Mar 03 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221303:43419:0[/embed] LoganDirector: James MangoldRelease Date: March 3, 2017Rating: R  Logan is both a sequel to 2013's The Wolverine and a ending to the entire X-Men franchise. In the far-ish future of 2029, we find Logan (Hugh Jackman) making his way across El Paso, driving a limo for money. It turns out mutants have essentially gone extinct, and he is only doing odd jobs in order to take care of the now dementia-suffering Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who's loss of control over his mind has made him a threat. But one day he's approached by a woman accompanied by a silent girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who needs help getting to the Canadian border and some place they call an "Eden for mutants." Begrudgingly accepting the task when he sees Laura shares a few similarities with him, revelations come to light as Logan has to come to terms with the man he's become. Logan is dramatically different than the rest of the X-Men films, and that's notably due to its R rating.  While I was initially afraid Deadpool's R rated success would mean Logan was full of extraneous foul language and violence (but without the cheekiness), what is present feels incredibly natural. Like we're actually seeing Wolverine for who he is for the first time, making every other performance seem neutered in comparison. This Logan is older, broken, and incredibly violent. He brutalizes enemies, but it's never portrayed as monstrous as his attacks could be because Jackman fills the role with a much needed humanity. The film always makes a point to note that he never initiates the attacks (unlike the brash Logan seen in, say, the first X-Men). The added caveat of slowly losing his healing abilities also grounds this comic book film in an unprecedented way. For all intents and purposes, Logan is a lonely, introspective character drama. While the character work admittedly will be more effective if you've seen some of the other X-Men films (at least the first one to explain some of the world's elements), it's not completely necessary. The film opens with a scene heartily establishing everything you need to know about this character, and I'll go as far to say it's the best opening scene in the franchise to date.  Logan is full of outstanding performances. While some kitchy turns from Boyd Holbrook's Pierce (a mysterious guy in sunglasses who's chasing after Laura, but Logan's not about that so mentioning his role in the story seems unnecessary), Stephen Merchant's Caliban, and a villain revealed later in the film tend to remind you it's a comic book film, the three central cast members anchor Logan's harsh reality. Hugh Jackman, drawing on his years of experience with the character, puts forth a stellar performance. As mentioned earlier, with the amenities afforded by the film's R rating, Jackman's performance rings more palpable than ever. Like this is the character he's wanted to portray since he signed on to these films all those years ago. His rapport with the sickly Charles is one of the best features in the film as he and Patrick Stewart have developed a mentor/pupil-father/son relationship over the years. Or at least ably portrayed as such. Then there's the young Dafne Keen, who's Laura is defined entirely through her physicality and manages to carve a distinct presence between the two.  Now Logan isn't perfect. One of the film's overlying themes of fighting one's past becomes a little too literal, the tone is so well established the encroaching X-Men talk feels out of place, and some of the dialogue unfortunately I felt I had to forgive under the "comic book film" qualifier, but thinking back on it, these issues didn't bother me as much as I thought they would have. Logan's imperfections lend credibility to the central character's imperfections. The film's problems mirror Logan's distraught sense of self. Is he the colorful hero of years past? Is he the beaten down man who's lost his sense of purpose after years of struggle? There's a distinct push and pull between the two tones as they blend into something not seen before in the genre. In fact, it seems, dare I say realistic?  Above all else, Logan is a film of consequence. It's the first comic book film weighted with actual drama and character work. There's an overwhelming sense of finality and dread permeating throughout making every one of Logan's struggles more tense than the last. If you've followed Wolverine through every one of his adventures, you're sure to be satisfied with Logan. If you haven't, there's still enough tactile emotion here seeping through Logan's ever-worsening wounds to draw you in even slightly.  I don't need to see another X-Men film, or another comic book film ever again. Thanks to Logan, they've become irrelevant. 
Logan Review photo
Brutal, harsh, and absolutely glorious
(This is a republishing of the original review, which posted two weeks ago.) Logan is a response to a litany of unprecedented events. Comic book films are more popular than ever, the X-Men series is still a via...

Review: Get Out

Feb 23 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221322:43429:0[/embed] Get OutDirector: Jordan PeeleRelease Date: February 24, 2017Rating: R The opening shot of Get Out is a tour de goshdarn force. If you've seen David Robert Mitchell's (exceptional) It Follows, this is in the same vein. We're in a suburb, and we're following a young black man as he talks on the phone. He's in white people country, and he's kind of lost. As he walks, the camera follows, and soon we see a car come up the street beside him. The car follows, and he turns around, because "No, not today" (cue first laugh of the movie). He goes into the street, and suddenly someone, face obscured, comes up behind him and chokes him out. This someone drags the man to his car and puts him in the trunk. The car drives away. Get Out. Nice. It's the perfect preparation for what is set to come: a horror comedy about racism. A great horror comedy about racism. Probably the best one, though I'm not really sure what its competition is. Like most people, I've been of a fan of Jordan Peele's since Key & Peele got started, and I greatly enjoyed his turn in Keanu (my review of which was also heavily focused on race; I don't know why this keeps happening). But this is different. Having skipped trailers or really any information of any kind, I had kind of expected to see Peele play some role in the film. In fact, there's a role that would have definitely gone to him were it in a K&P sketch. But that's not what this is. He was just the writer and director here, and his debut film is all the better for it. There will be people who say that this film spends too much time on race. They will say that, because more-or-less every single scene in Get Out is making a statement on race or racism, and that makes them uncomfortable. (I'm talking about white people.) Let's take the premise: Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a black man going to meet his girlfriend-of-four-months's parents for the first time. Allison Armitage: Man, what a white name, right? He asks her if her parents know that he's black. She says no but not to worry about it; her dad would have voted for Obama a third time, and he is definitely going to mention it. Because that's what white people do. Case in point: Me. Yesterday. Talking about this movie. Once I got to the office, I went around telling people in my office just how good Get Out was, but when I got to a black colleague of mine who I am friendly with but don't know very well, I went about it a little differently. I mentioned John Wick 2 first, which I recently rewatched (still loved it). After recommending that, I mentioned Get Out, almost as though it was an afterthought. It was not an afterthought: John Wick 2 was an afterthought. But I was concerned that he might think I was telling him because he was black, so I changed my behavior. And you know what that is? That's racism. Subtle, harmless(?) racism, to be sure, but racism nonetheless. Most of what we see in Get Out is a little less subtle than that. At the Armitage house, the parents are... off-putting, and Allison's brother is disturbing, but the friends of the family who come to visit are really the point. As they're introduced, they make various comments about blackness to Chris, seemingly expecting to be applauded for noticing his skin color without running away screaming. And through it all, Chris just smiles and nods. (When Allison goes on a tirade about her family's behavior, Chris just agrees with a knowing look; this scene got some of those loud laughs from select sections of the theater. I assume that, for some, it was a lived experience... For me, it was just a well-constructed joke, but I continue to wonder exactly what that means. Was I laughing with it, because it seemed "relatable" on some level... or was I laughing at it because I know that kind of thing happens and thank gosh I don't have to deal with it?) Things get strange pretty quick. The white family's hired help, a black man and black women, have terrifying smiles plastered onto their faces, and their actions and words feel... wrong. You know something is off pretty from the get-go, but you don't know what. And then you think you know what, but you're dead wrong. And you're dead wrong for two reasons: The movie sets up a fairly simple explanation and then half-subverts it in a fairly fascinating way. The implications of what is going on don't actually make a lot of sense (certainly less than the fairly simple explanation I was expecting). The more you consider what exactly happened to these people, the more confused you'll get. The conceit is cool. In the moment, it's terrifying. But on reflection, it's less "Ahhh!" and more "... Huh?" And, without spoiling it too much, the question becomes: Why? You can understand the expressions and actions to some extent, perhaps, but there's a deeper level that just doesn't make sense the more I think about it. (I'll be seeing the film again soon, which I think speaks to how much I enjoyed it, and this is something I'll be spending a lot of time trying to figure out if it feels Right. I hope that I'm being dumb and not the movie, but I fear it's the opposite.) Speaking of fear, aside from some Very Loud Noises early on, Get Out isn't really overtly "scary." It's more generally creepy, and I'm a big fan of Generally Creepy. The way everyone acts is unsettling (at the very least), and the descent into madness gets into your brain. You wonder, especially early on, if something like this could actually happen. Could actually be happening. (You don't wonder that in the final act.) There's probably an argument to be made that the comedy and horror stuff are too separated. There are the funny sequences, most of which involve Chris's friend Rod, who is watching his dog for the weekend, and there are scary sequences, most of which take place at the Armitage home. There's not a whole lot of overlap between the two. I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Someone I talked to afterwards didn't like it (he also felt like the race issues had somewhat of an anti-climax, a point on which I vehemently disagree). I think it's strange but not necessarily bad. I'm not sure how levity could have really been injected into the actually horror elements, because on the face of it, the way people act is kind of funny. But it's not actually funny. It's horrifying. (Racism is bad, you guys.) Before we wrap this thing up, let's have one final digression about race: Get Out was shot by a white man. I knew this before I looked it up, because I spent a large portion of the film thinking about lighting. In an interview with Dealine, Selma cinematographer talked about the complexity of lighting dark skin. It's relatively easy to light white skin, especially very pale white skin (we glow in the dark, so they say). But dark skin's harder. Lit poorly, they seem to disappear entirely. Vox has a fascinating video about how color film itself (the physical object, not the medium) was originally designed for white skin at the expense of all others. As one might expect, much of Get Out is shot at nighttime and in the dark. I mean, the dark is scary. However, said darkness should be obscuring the evil in the shadows and not the person who acts as our anchor. On more than a few occasions, it is difficult to make out Chris amongst all those shadows. Crucially: it doesn't feel intentional. It feels like a mistake, one made by a man used to lighting white people in the dark. (He does this well, in the moments where it's needed.) And that isn't to say that someone has to be black to know how to light black skin, but it's definitely not something that comes naturally. For the most, this is a film that looks quite good (I mean, that opening shot, though), but it's a pretty glaring fault there and Get Out suffers for it. But neither this nor any of its other faults keeps Get Out from greatness. It's objectively well made, and a fascinating way to visualize the black experience. I don't know how true to life it is, but my guess is that it's more real than any of us want it to be. Some will write it off as a flight of fancy, but they do so at society's peril. There are lessons to be learned from Get Out. I know I'm going to be thinking about it for a long, long time. And thinking about how I reacted and why I reacted the way I did. It got in my brain, and it's supposed to. That's what I'm focusing on, not the logical inconsistencies or any of the technical issues. I'm thinking about what matters. And sometimes the answers to those questions are tough to face. Jordan Peele has shown himself to be a very talented filmmaker with a unique voice and vision. I am very excited to see what he comes up with next.
Get Out Review photo
Wherein I Whitesplain Racism (Great...)
There's a story I heard but cannot verify about why Dave Chapelle ended The Chapelle Show when he did, with tens of millions of dollars on the line. So the story goes, he was working on a sketch that dealt prominently wi...

Review: A Cure for Wellness

Feb 17 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221240:43388:0[/embed] A Cure for WellnessDirector: Gore VerbinskiRelease Date: February 17, 2017Rating: R Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a young, successful businessman who's tasked by his company to retrieve an executive who's vacationed to a wellness center in the Swiss Alps. But when he shows up to the center, a castle on top of a hill, and meets the mysterious Hannah (Mia Goth) and Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) he discovers something's a miss in the Swiss. Especially when he's forcibly admitted to the asylum. A Cure for Wellness tests the limits of environmental characterization. It's almost as if it's a thesis statement positing how much a film's setting can balance out faults in its characters as long as its engagingly built. Wellness puts the bulk of its work behind building its central asylum, and thus every human character therein is overwhelmingly unlikable as a result. Lockhart's especially troublesome from the second he shows up on screen. While this is clearly an intentional choice, there's very little to invest in when you care so little about Lockhart's well being. Lockhart's put through the ringer, but the film never quite reaches a place where we care about anything happening to him. As he falls victim to various levels of body disfigurement and gross out torture, it becomes more about enjoying the visceral nature of its imagery rather than further the tension of Lockhart's situation. To slightly remedy this, Mia Goth's Hannah is this childlike sprite of a character who seems out of time and place. Every member of this asylum is an wealthy elderly individual leaving their life behind, but Hannah doesn't seem to have a life of her own. When Lockhart's goal transitions from escape to rescuing Hannah, there's a slight shift in his character but he's still very much irredeemable. Thankfully, Goth portrays the right sense of naivete but Hannah's characterization is all in the performance as the film gives her very little to work with.  The flat characters are only a reflection of the film's setting. But while the drab colors and muted tones do not do them any favors, it works wonderfully for the asylum. Verbinski, most likely culminating a career's worth of visual trickery, absolutely nails a creepy vibe. Stark whites (both in the asylum's outfits and staff) juxtaposed with slimy greens coupled with an overall sepia-toned frame to lock the asylum in a past time. Wellness also surprises with a couple of well composed shots (one of which can be sort of seen in the image below) that provide a welcome breather from the asylum's dank nature. This dankness elevates Verbinkski's eventual gross out, masturbatory thrills and truly reaches a point where it can get under your skin. It just never does. Despite this well crafted world, the narrative falls as flat as the characters. Wellness asks for a hefty amount of investment and forgiveness in order to truly enjoy it.  Due to the magical realism of the setting (where slightly mystical themes and subjects coexist with the modern world), and Lockhart's constantly medicated physiology, Wellness essentially follows an unreliable narrator. But this great idea is stifled by a core mystery that's solvable within the first quarter of the film. Which means, you're left with characters making dumb decisions and have overall less sense plodding through the film's run time. It's Verbinkski's recent editing folly that also gives way to six different climaxes. There was a scene about two hours in that would've been a perfect end, but then it just kept going. That's only one example of this too. There are several sequences that feel entirely unnecessary as they neither build character or flesh out the ickiness of the surroundings. Speaking of icky, the actual ending of the film crosses from cool gross out horror into sexual assault and reaches 'B' movie levels of cheese. It's an unfortunate break in tone from the film's build up, and weird to have it both played straight and ridiculed concurrently. It's kind of a kick in the teeth for those who might've enjoyed the rest of the film.  A Cure for Wellness is a "glass half full or glass half empty" situation. It all depends on your perspective of its waters. Half full of good ideas, but half is brought down by poor execution of those ideas. A film I'd slightly recommend as a cautionary tale for film school students or as some goofy entertainment you'd drink through the first half but pass out before the end.  Unfortunately, A Cure for Wellness isn't even a cure for boredom. 
Wellness Review  photo
Remove the cause but not the symptom
Gore Verbinski has always been a peculiar director. I've been a fan of his ever since he did remarkable work adapting the Japanese film Ringu into The Ring (a series that has not fared well in his absence), but choices in Pir...

Review: Fifty Shades Darker

Feb 13 // Rick Lash
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  Yeah, none of us here at Flixist actually saw it (so far, and Nick, I'm looking at you) ... Fifty Shades DarkerDirector: James FoleyRelease Date: February 10, 2017Rating: R  So, I'm going to pretend I did! Wait. ...

Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

Feb 10 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221140:43282:0[/embed] John Wick: Chapter 2 Director: Chad Stahelski Release Date: February 10, 2017Rating: R  John Wick: Chapter 2 is the movie you want it to be. It’s the movie it has to be. It begins with a Buster Keaton joke. The camera looks up at a wall in New York City that is projecting footage from one of his classic films, but as you watch, you see sounds that fit with it, and you think, “That’s not right. There wouldn’t be those sounds!” and then you see a man off his motorcycle with a badass car in pursuit. The sounds were diegetic. And then we realize that we’re about to watch a Buster Keaton movie, if The General was about a lone Confederate soldier violently murdering the entire Union army. Of course, it’s not really a slapstick comedy. There are some pretty great (CG-enhanced) stunts, many of which are effectively sight gags, but bringing Keaton’s name in will give you the wrong impression of what John Wick: Chapter 2 really is... though I stand by the comparison regardless. That scene is followed by John Wick getting back his car, a loose end from the last film that is dealt with in the first minutes of the film. For those who haven’t seen the original, it serves as a pretty effective entry point into the character. Cross-cutting John Wick’s any-means-necessary acquisition of his vehicle is a Russian mob-man, telling John Wick stories. (Again, everyone knows who he is.) And at the end of it, after a sizeable body count and significant financial damage, John Wick offers peace. And the mob man accepts. Because it doesn’t matter if John Wick just destroyed everything you own, you don’t come after him unless you have a death wish. It doesn’t matter who you are or how many you are; you cross him, and that’s good night.  So he tries to retire (again), and that works for several whole minutes of screen time. But, of course, nothing is ever so simple. Someone who knows John Wick very well indeed shows up, and after some… persuasion(?) gets The Boogeyman to do one last job. Things go badly. For everyone. Except us, the viewers; if people did the smart thing (not antagonizing John Wick), then we wouldn’t get badass movies out of it.  And oh man is Chapter 2 badass. The first film is pretty hardcore, but action sequels always have to Go Big or Go Home, and that’s taken to heart here. It’s not just that the fights are better and the body count larger (though they are), it’s that the staging of everything is just so much more impressive. There are three key fight locations –catacombs, subway* car, and an art installation – that stand out as being particularly spectacular, but all of the fights are great. Because of course they are. That's what the whole thing is about. Much like the first film, though, the gun stuff is better than the hand-to-hand. I am a big fan of the way the close-combat fights are filmed, what with the long takes and wide shots and everything. (Love of all that.) However, the actual fights themselves feel a little… deliberate. This is a problem I have with a lot of fight scenes, actually; it doesn’t feel like the moves that are happening are being decided and executed at the moment. I think you could make an argument that this is true about every single fight scene that Keanu Reeves has ever been in (sorry, The Matrix), and it’s still true here. (I have the same problems with all Christopher Nolan fight scenes, though the problem is much worse there than it is here.) Don’t get me wrong: They’re good fights, really good even, but they’re not Great the way the gunfights are. And the gunfights are really, really great. As in the first film, John Wick applies his bullets liberally; rarely do people get shot fewer than three times. Two to the chest and one to the head is most common, but you’ll see all kinds of combinations… as long as they all turn into headshots. And they have to. Because headshots are kinda his thing. Conveniently, though, he’s the only person as good at headshots as he is, because even though he has an (awesome) bullet-proof suit (justified well enough), he never covers his head. He gets shot at a lot of times, and even hit a couple, but they’re all aiming for the wrong place. Too bad for them. Before Chapter 2, there was (unsurprisingly) a trailer for the F8 of the Furious. It looks pretty cool. I should probably watch all those other ones to get ready for it. But I thought about it again while the credits were rolling. Assuming this does well (and I don’t see how it couldn’t), there will be a Chapter 3 at the very least, but why should it stop there? Why not keeping upping the ante until we hit John Wick: Chapter 8 (running alongside the trailer for Sixteen and Furious)? There’s a whole lot of creativity going on in the action here, and I think that it has a few more entries to go before it could really jump the shark. (Though, honestly, I think an ultra-violent Buster Keaton film would be pretty awesome.) I want our society, ultimately, to know John Wick like John Wick's does. I want to be able to walk into any social gathering, say the name, and have everyone together conjure up stories of multiple murders committed using a single pencil. I want him to be one of the all-time action greats. He deserves to be one of the action greats. And with Chapter 2, this franchise has started off right. Long live John Wick. (And long live John Wick.) *Don’t fuck with me, John Wick: Chapter 2. I know what the gosh darn PATH train looks like. At least put a “C” sticker somewhere on it if you’re going to pretend like it’s the C train. Sincerely,A Guy Who Lives in New York City.
John Wick 2 Review photo
You Will Know His Name
In the John Wick cinematic universe, everyone who matters knows John Wick, by face, name, and reputation. They know the stories, they see the man, and they get a little concerned: “You working again, John?” asked ...

Review: The Lego Batman Movie

Feb 10 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221270:43398:0[/embed] The Lego Batman MovieDirector: Chris McKayRelease Date: February 10, 2017Rating: PG The Lego Batman Movie opening with Batman (Will Arnett) parodying traditional film credits and openings (narrating over the DC Comics logo, etc.) pretty much tells you all you need to know about the film. This is indeed a love letter to Batman's goofy past, and isn't afraid to openly mock the mistakes DC's live action films have made. In this film, Batman is happy being alone. He eats alone, laughs at romantic comedies, and groans when his butler/surrogate father Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) tells him what to do. Aping Batman's more childish tendencies this Batman ignores the help and warnings of others; especially the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson). But when the Joker (Zack Galifianakis) kickstarts a plan to destroy Gotham City and prove to Batman that he's his number one enemy, Batman must learn to work together with his new makeshift family. Including a son, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who Batman unwillingly adopts and brings along as his crime fighting partner.  Wearing its heart and fun on its sleeve, Lego Batman goes for a full-on kitchen sink approach. There's tons of fan service as it alludes to every iteration of the Batman, ranging from the 60's show to the famous animated series, and as much of its 78 year long comic history as it can. Villains like Condiment King and friggin' Orca, DC heroes like Apache Chief and even some pretty damn great surprises from its Warner Bros licensor pop up here. This stuff is certainly going to be great visual candy for its adult fan audience, and the voice cameos are great for everyone (Mariah Carey is the mayor, folks), but it's definitely going to fly over the heads of most of the audience. But there's so much going on at a time, Lego Batman feels too packed to work. It's literally bursting at the seams every scene with visual information packing every corner of the screen. It's so rife and busy with gags, it's tough to suss out what your eyes are supposed to focus on.  To make its visual matters worse, Lego Batman often features tons of rapid-fire jokes (sharing a problem with weaker animated films), and while some of the gags hit hard, a good amount of them are average. The film compounds its bad joke ratio by offering so many, and there were times where I wish it relaxed on them a bit more given how affecting its emotional core can be. The emotional core of Batman learning the meaning of ohana (and no one gets left behind) is drowned out by the chaos. It's even more of a bummer considering how great the film can be when it actually focuses for second. For example, the opening is fantastic as it provides a packed, yet focused narrative. Broken down it's basically: Joker and some villains attack Gotham with a bomb, Batman saves the day, and Batman goes home alone. Yet the opening features tons of characters, an original theme (with beat boxing and guitar solos), establishes its central conflict (as Batman refuses to let anyone into his life, even his most hated enemy). and wonderfully characterizes this Batman as a lonely, showboating blowhard. It's just a shame the film never reaches the same level of awesomeness as its opening twenty minutes.  The Lego Batman Movie's weakness are stemmed from trying to mine a narrative from a one-note character we've already seen the full extent of in another film. Will Arnett is great as a lead, but his performance reeks of diminishing returns. As his Batman constantly speaks, the blowhard nature of the character crosses over into annoying territory. Luckily, Rosario Dawson and Ralph Fiennes pick up the slack. Just as how Batman stole the show in The Lego Movie as a supporting character, however, Michael Cera's Robin is the clear standout in Lego Batman. His Dick Grayson is infectiously joyous, the character has a cute design (those bug-eyed glasses are inspired) thus amplifying the naivete Cera gives him, and Robin is tasked with driving the familial themes of the plot forward. He also gets the best running gag, constantly referring to Batman as various versions of "Papa," also. It's pretty funny to see Lego Batman showcasing someone other than its main character like its predecessor.  I've been trying my hardest not to compare The Lego Batman Movie to 2014's The Lego Movie, but it's hard not to when the films are ultimately similar. Aspects of the first film's production which worked so well for me before, just don't share the same level of finesse in its spin-off. The Lego Batman Movie works well as a loving parody of Batman fiction, but it's not going to carry as much weight to those who don't really know (or care) too much about it.  The Lego Batman Movie just isn't as complex as I had hoped it'd be. Sure it's nuts to ask a children's film to be complex, but after its predecessor balanced its audiences so well it stings to watch Batman Movie to go for such cheap gags and greatly limit its audience to a very distinct subset of viewers.  But at least it's not a gritty and mean Batman. Little victories. 
Lego Batman Review photo
Better than Batman v Superman anyway
The Lego Movie was my favorite animated film of 2014. It felt fresh, had a story and jokes fit for both children and their parents, and even managed to deliver a heartfelt message at the end. The big standout was Will Arnett ...

Review: Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

Jan 27 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221227:43368:0[/embed] Resident Evil: The Final ChapterDirector: Paul W.S. AndersonRelease Date: January 27, 2017Rating: R Much like previous entries in this series (a technique unique to this and the Saw series, hilariously enough), Final Chapter begins immediately after the events of the previous film, 2012's Retribution. After a failed attack on the Umbrella Corporation in Washington D.C. -- causing the deaths of all but one of the remaining characters from the video game series -- leaves Alice (Milla Jovovich) alone and broken, she learns of a cure to the T-Virus locked within the corporation's base from the first film. But with only 48 hours until the last settlements of humanity are wiped out, Alice is forced to race against time and face villains from her past like Dr. Isaacs (Iain Glen) last seen in the third film, Extinction. Also Ali Larter shows up.  Final Chapter is an aggressively busy film. The camera is constantly in motion. Whether it's shaky cam during dialogue, quick cuts of the same fight scene from different angles, or zoom-ins to Jovovich's face, the camera is rarely still, if ever. Coupled with sound mixing making everything about ten times louder than it needs to be (making the numerous jump scares in the film's opening much more abrasive than they should be), and the film has a high barrier to entry to those outside of its fan base. Sure it may be ridiculous to assume a person would watch Final Chapter before any of the other films, but I could only assume those without background knowledge of the series would be completely lost. With only a brief primer outlining the series thus far at the opening, there's not much to latch onto since the story is too bare bones to stand out beyond its technical mayhem.  But while the film is a technical mess, and its story is spread too thin to work anywhere else, somehow Final Chapter's bits of awfulness coalesce into a workable package. It's the "so bad it's good" film conundrum the series has found itself in the past, and pockets of that occasionally pop up here. The film hits such a height of ridiculousness at certain points, I didn't really know how to react to it. While Final Chapter is indeed taking itself seriously, its punctuated by fun, action film choices. Triple barreled shotguns, rivers of fire, and even fan service like the return of the series famous laser grid. It may all be incredibly juvenile, but I still appreciate seeing Milla tear up the joint. This film reminded me how well the Resident Evil series has focused action films around a female lead, and how much better these films are when Jovovich is clearly enjoying her work.  As for everyone else involved, I couldn't say the same. While there are other actors in this film, I couldn't say there were any real characters. The Final Chapter has such a brisk pace, there's no room for development for other characters than Alice. The Alice-focused narrative works for Jovovich's performance, but lowers the film's stakes and tension. Characters fight and die, but there's little reason to care about any of it. The only performances worth noting beyond Jovovich are Ali Larter's and Iain Glen's because they've nailed down the strange seriousness they need to deliver their lines. And since I'll probably never get the chance to mention this again, I just want to declare how much I've missed Ali Larter. Seeing her in Final Chapter reminded me how much I loved seeing her on-screen. There may not be any more Resident Evil films in the works (presumably), but I hope she pops up somewhere. Same for Jovovich, too.  Your mileage will vary with Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. If you've never seen the Resident Evil films, don't bother. If you're slightly interested in it because the newest Resident Evil game piqued you curiousity, don't bother. If you've watched the other films but only slightly curious to see how the series ends, you're better off waiting a while until you can watch it a home with a bunch of drinking buddies.  But for those of you who absolutely love the Resident Evil films, and there are some of you out there, you won't get a better ending than this. Final Chapter is passionately, crazily built for you, and you won't get the same care anywhere else.  Sadly, however, this film was released to everyone. 
RE Review photo
At least it's the last one
The Resident Evil films have always been a special kind of terrible. While not great films in their own right, each film is part of a larger ambitious tale further spurned on by both fan and creator devotion. Each one might n...

Review: We Are the Flesh

Jan 12 // Hubert Vigilla
TRAILER IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK (NSFW) [embed]220963:43146:0[/embed] We Are the Flesh (Tenemos le carne)Director: Emiliano Rocha MinterRating: NRRelease Date: January 13, 2017 (limited)Country: Mexico  We Are the Flesh reminds me of early Clive Barker splatterpunk stories; one scene in thermal vision even recalls Barker's little-seen short film The Forbidden. There's also a hint of Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo: The Iron Man, though it's shorn of the technological madness and kinetic stuff--this transgression is luridly organic. Maybe Tetsuo by way of Gaspar Noe, with occasional outbursts of hysterical excess straight out of Andrzej Zulawski (Possession). The film also has some moist, mucus-rich makeup effects that wouldn't be out of place in a Brian Yuzna movie (Society, From Beyond). This paragraph is either a warning or a recommendation--if you want blood, you got it. There's a man with a demonic smile (Noe Hernandez) who lives in an abandoned building. He gets high on homemade gasoline and gets off on solitude. A boy (Diego Gamaliel) and a girl (Maria Evoli), siblings, enter his building. They're desperately in search of food and shelter. The man lets them stay as long as they help him construct a claustrophobic landscape within the building. Think of something like a cave and a uterus complete with a pseudo birth canal; a psychoanalytic hellscape where the id can thrive. All the while, the man tries to coerce the boy and the girl to break social, sexual, and interpersonal taboos. Minter builds up dread through whispers and shouts as he mounts transgressions upon each other. There's incest, rape, murder, cannibalism, on-camera sex, and necrophilia, and even now I can't say what it all adds up to. We Are the Flesh may not add up to anything, to be honest. Even though Hernandez and Evoli give the film their all--Evoli in particular goes for psychotic broke--the movie may just be images and noise with the intent to shock. I think there's a political allegory about Mexico and poverty, that a lack of means reduces us to some base state of nature in which social mores no longer matter. But it's a bit of a guess. It might be a stretch. Sometimes extreme cinema is just extreme cinema, but I can't help but sense something more meaningful behind all of this given how repulsed yet affected I felt. When someone lets out a blood-curdling scream, there has to be a reason, right? Maybe? Or was it just the desire to scream? This struggle for meaning is probably an intentional provocation from Minter. When confronted with something shocking, I usually feel challenged to interpret it. Yet Minter evades overt meaning making. There seems to be 10 minutes missing from the final act of the 80-minute film. Several events take place off camera unexplained, and it leads to total narrative disorientation. We Are the Flesh was a feverish nightmare already, and then that skimpy dream logic breaks down completely. No order, not for this this movie. What Minter provides is a sustained sense of unease, however. That feeling remained with me even after a less than satisfying conclusion. Even if We Are the Flesh only prompts exasperation and disgust, it's such a strange trip into the abyss I want to send others down there into the dark who are willing. Minter, like or hate it, is a Mexican filmmaker to watch. I'm reminded of something Clive Barker said about movies once (paraphrased): I want to feel something, even if it's just disgust; better that than thinking, okay, let's go for a pizza. After We Are the Flesh, pizza was the last thing I wanted.
Review: We Are the Flesh photo
The ecstasy of pure id
Reviewing We Are the Flesh from writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter is tricky. On the one hand, it's a deeply flawed film aimed at a limited audience. It's transgressive in the extreme, sexually explicit bordering on pornog...

Review: Paterson

Dec 26 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220910:43125:0[/embed] PatersonDirector: Jim JarmuschRelease Date: December 21, 2016 (France); December 28, 2016 (USA, limited)Rating: R 2003's American Splendor may be the best companion to Paterson. That film chronicled the life of comics writer Harvey Pekar. Pekar lived and wrote in Cleveland, and kept a day job at a VA hospital. Paterson in Jarmusch's film works as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. He uses little catches of time through the day to write poetry in his notebook. This is the writing life of working people--no parties with literati, no salons, no scenester-ism, no pretension, just toil and care with words. Paterson follows a week in the life our bus driver. At the end of the first day, we get the broadstrokes of this character's routine. He wakes up beside his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), he walks to work, he eavesdrops on people's conversations, he returns home, he walks their bulldog, and he has a drink at the local bar. The routine might seem stifling, but Jarmusch enlarges the world that Paterson lives in. Side characters get fleshed out in unexpected ways, and we get new details about who Paterson and Laura are through careful reveals and well-observed scenes. The initial claustrophobia of the structure both folds out and opens inward. Paterson's acts of noticing help convey his sense of the city he lives in, his interior life, and the lives of people around him. Bad poetry ruins everything. To avoid that danger, Jarmusch hired New York School poet Ron Padgett to write original work for Paterson. Paterson's poetry reads like actual poetry (a pastiche of William Carlos Williams) rather than the hokey stuff that movie-poetry often sounds like. Jarmusch depicts the writing of this poetry through voiceover and superimposed text over montages. It isn't the most ideal representation of the creative process, but it works. The whole of Paterson is imbued with its own poetic flourishes, like the constant appearance of twins, doubles, or mirrored lines, as if trying to find a visual equivalent for internal rhyme or rhyming couplets. (Intentional correspondence: William Carlos Williams, writer of the five-book poem Paterson, is the favorite poet of a man named Paterson who lives in Paterson, NJ in a movie called Paterson. Coincidental correspondence: Adam Driver cast as a bus driver. ) One of the more fascinating things I noticed about Paterson was how it explores the relationship between Paterson and Laura. They spend most of their time apart, but thanks to the new information we get about each of them as the film unfolds, I'm able to understand not just how they work as a couple but why. On the surface, Laura seems like a manic pixie dream girl artist who wound up with a polite stoic, but they complement each other and know the importance of space and time in their relationship. Driver is a delicate soul in this film rather than his usual hipster scumbag. His performance reminds me of an artist friend back in the Bay Area who struggles to make time to paint. Farahani adds depth to Laura, who, like her boyfriend, is a type of optimistic American dreamer. Maybe this space and togetherness between Paterson and Laura is an example of the power of interpersonal enjambment. There's been a lot of discussion in the online literary community about the role of writing in the lives of writers. Is writing just a hobby? Can writing really be considered a job? As if those are the only options. Paterson seems to offer its own answers with a zen-like Jarmusch cool. While Paterson keeps so many of his poems to himself in a journal, he writes because he can't live without it. It's where he finds and creates meaning, and issues of ego, publication, notoriety, and the local scene never factor into the significance of what he does. It is significant simply because it is. Perhaps the melancholy of the score is meant as a counterpoint to Paterson the man. So much about the surface of his life suggests the misery of obscure solitude. That might be true in other stories, but Paterson is a writer, and in addition to his good fortune for having the friends he does, he has writing to fill the empty spaces of each day.
Review: Paterson photo
The city, the man, the joyous everday
Jim Jarmusch's Paterson is work of subtle optimism. It's a gentle film, kind and generous, funny, too. Watching the movie, I sensed Jarmusch giving me a reassuring push, like a parent at a swing or a child casting off a toy b...

Review: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Dec 25 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221155:43293:0[/embed] The Autopsy of Jane DoeDirector: André ØvredalRelease Date: December 21, 2016 (limited theaters and VOD) Rating: R The Autopsy of Jane Doe follows father and son pathologists, Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) Tilden operating out of their family owned morgue. When the body of an unidentified young woman (Olwen Kelly) is found, the two must figure out the mysterious circumstances behind her death. But as the autopsy rolls on, strange things begin happening and the Tildens find themselves struggling to escape the mortuary with their lives. This simple premise is what makes Autopsy work as well as it does. It's a tightly focused feature never losing sight of its central mystery. I'm going to try my best not to divulge the film's mystery, but honestly, the film isn't even about the reveal. It's all in the build-up. The entire film is built around this idea of confinement, and that's reflected in the film's editing and set design.  From the opening, there's a keen sense of dread permeating throughout the film. The inspired choices like an aged mortuary building (enhanced by a lack of natural light thanks to Autopsy taking place late at night), to the casting of Jane Doe herself, help make the audience uncomfortable. Taking something as inherently disturbing as a medical procedure is made doubly so thanks to quick cuts to Jane's face every time one of the Tilden's makes an incision. Thanks to these close ups, the autopsy becomes more like a creepy surgery that permeates with dramatic irony as the audience becomes more suspicious of Jane than the characters. There's also a refreshing flow to how much of Jane's mystery is revealed at a time. By halfway through, you already know most of what is necessary to move the plot forward without going overboard. Unfortunately, since the film's effort is put into Jane Doe, the Tildens get less development as a result.  There are some hints of tension between Austin and his father, but that's more credited to Hirsch's and Cox's performances than to any character building. Due to the film's tight focus and short time, there isn't much room in the narrative for anything other than the mystery. Even as the Tildens fear for their lives, I found myself lacking the necessary wherewithal to care whether or not they actually survived. Because of this, the film lacks tension once Jane Doe's origins are revealed. Since so much effort is put into its buildup, there sadly isn't enough effort left over for the denouement. In fact, the finale even goes on for a bit longer than it should. There's a particular scene toward the end that would've made for a perfect finale, but seeing Autopsy go beyond it lessened my enjoyment overall. I guess it's more of a sense of disappointment given how well Autopsy had edited itself to that point. But on the other hand, I do appreciate the uniqueness of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. While there are some ideas I would've liked to see the film explore further (especially when it teases metaphysical horror, which is something lacking from most current offerings in the genre), and I would've appreciated a better grasp on character, the film sets out to tell a certain story and competently does it.  The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a focused, chilling thriller that you should check out before you start writing your end of the year lists. 
Jane Doe Review photo
Doe-n't miss this one
Every year I wind up missing a good deal of films as their advertising end up swallowed by the huge hype machines of bigger studio releases. But the true gems make themselves known somehow. Usually it's through word of mouth,...

Review: Why Him?

Dec 25 // Rick Lash
[embed]221153:43291:0[/embed] Why Him?Director: John HamburgRelease Date: December 23, 2016Rating: R Why Him? is the story of a wholesome Midwest family from Michigan comprised of a well-regarded father Ned Fleming (Brian Cranston) who runs a printing business, his loving wife Barb Fleming (Megan Mullally), and their clean-cut son Scotty Fleming (Griffin Gluck) who clearly idolizes his father. It turns out there’s also a sister, Stephanie Fleming (Zoey Deutch), but she’s in college in California, and apparently the family hasn’t used phones, the internet, Snapchat, Skype, Facetime, Messenger, or beam-me-over technology to keep in touch during the span she’s been away. It’s true that the Rocky Mountains are still a cool, inhospitable, Donner-party producing, block to human travel and communication. It turns out that things aren’t so hot for this all-American family: the family printing business is in the red, and Dad doesn’t know what to do facing the challenges of a changing world and evolving print needs for his traditional client-base. Enter an, apparently, rare video phone call from said cutoff daughter and the testy revelation that she has a boyfriend (James Franco). Oh, and by the way Mom, Pops, and Junior: could you all forego any existing Christmas plans and fly to California to meet my boyfriend? Obviously, they can, or else we wouldn’t have much of a movie. California. A foreign land to a family from Michigan. Filled with strange peoples with stranger cultural habits. Or that seems to be the message of the film. Writer-Director John Hamburg, perhaps best known for I Love You Man (a solid comedy pairing with Jason Segal and Paul Rudd from 2009) teamed with Johan Hill to pen this one: and it shows. The movie is filled with a veritable thesaurus for the f-bomb, as well as references to obscure (and not so obscure) sexual practices--hallmarks of the Shat Pack (Hill, Seth Rogen, Franco, Michael Cera, Segal, Jay Baruchel, and the rest of the amorphous gang that comprises this group of miscreants that would make Cranston’s Ned Fleming cringe, especially if any of them were to date his daughter. It doesn’t matter if they’re rich, incredibly rich, live in a mansion nestled into private acreage, or run their own business: if they have tattoos and swear (“cuss”) frequently, they’re not good enough for you or your daughter. And thus begins the purported conflict of the movie. It doesn’t matter that Deucht’s Stephanie is bright, levelheaded, and apparently not prone to poor judgement; daddy knows best—and every fiber of his mid-west being is saying no to this California tech hippy. But to me, the premise seems as outdated as the beliefs espoused by Ned. Lots of people have tattoos these days, dare I say even in Michigan, and swearing is is the new Oxford English. The fact that this father is so opposed to this man he’s just met, primarily to either evidence A (poor judgement in the face of genuine excitement—if you’ve seen the trailers, you know Franco has a tattoo of the Fleming Christmas card done on his back) or evidence B (he’s sleeping with his daughter and therefore cannot be any good) does not ring true. That’s the true problem with the film: it’s hollow, as its premises are loosely constructed anachronisms that might have been more applicable a decade ago. Who in the printing business, in this day and age, could be caught unaware of the shifting landscape and needs of their clientele? The Office was dealing with this same fact for much of the prescribed decade earlier. Given these issues of authenticity and realism, there are laughs to be found. But these are the forced, awkward laughs that come from watching a son suddenly subjected to viewing an explicit love scene with his mother. It’s the forced awkward laughter that’s more cringe inducement by baby head cresting a vagina vis-à-vis Knocked Up. This awkward humor is reinforced by a score that is largely absent; large swaths of film are destroyed in conversational silence. When music does happen, it is conspicuous and perhaps feels forced (the one notable exception being a party designed to further emphasize the generational gap at work here. Humor that does work is found in unexpected twists like cameos and extended cameos from Adam Devine and Keegan-Michael Key. Or in the Siri-wannabe Kaley Cuoco voice that lives in the airspace of Franco’s mansion. This could have been done to better success, and I’d expect word of mouth box office results to confirm as much, especially given the level of talent featured in the film.
Why Him? Review photo
Why me?
Sometimes questions shouldn't be begged in the titles of pieces lacking the substance to back up or even fully answer the suggested question. Why Him? Falls victim to this trope. Why him? Why me? Why see this movie?  

Review: Toni Erdmann

Dec 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220911:43142:0[/embed] Toni ErdmannDirector: Maren AdeRating: RRelease Date: July 16, 2016 (Germany); December 25, 2016 (USA)Country: Germany/Austria I love Groucho Marx as a character, but I would never want someone like that as a father. In some ways, Toni Erdmann is what it would be like if Groucho Marx was Margaret Dumont's dad. Ines (Sandra Huller) is our girl Dumont. She's a high-level consultant working in Romania to negotiate an outsourcing deal. Like so many women in the business world, she needs to work twice as hard as her male counterparts, fighting the entrenched sexism of the workplace while out-politicking others in the office. She's always working and seems to get off on forceful shows of control. While trying to unwind at a day spa, she complains that her masseuse was too gentle. "I want to be roughed up," she smiles. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is her dad Groucho. Rather than a painted mustache, Winfried's got a pair of ugly false teeth and a wig. It's not hard to see why Ines' mother divorced Winfried, or why Ines tries to avoid her dad. He imposes, he mocks, he's a bit of a chaos agent. The man can't take anything seriously. After his dog dies, Winfried spontaneously vacations in Romania to connect with his daughter, eventually adopting the persona of Toni Erdmann. The name sounds so serious and German (redundant?), but in English the name apparently translates into "Toni Meerkat". Ines is too ruthless and needs to lighten up, and her father is a potential catalyst for that change. Questions of value are pretty common in works about corporate life (i.e., human value vs. the bottom line), and these are often the weakest parts of Toni Erdmann. They're familiar in an obvious way, as if from another movie that's far safer and more conventional. Perhaps Ade sensed this slip into the obvious when sculpting the final edit. A character and a plot thread totally vanishes from the movie at a certain point. It doesn't prevent Ines' reconnection with the world of the common folk from feeling like an expected destination. Toni isn't just his daughter's Groucho but her Drop Dead Fred. Ade even uses the common grammar of these contrasts between wealth and poverty in the globalized world: from Ines' office window, she can look over a Romanian hovel. Consequently, other reconciliations in the movie felt inevitable to me. When Toni Erdmann lets go, it's at its best, whether it's a bit of kink involving pastries or a belting out a tune. Huller plays so many of her scenes like she's at the verge of a breakdown. She's a great straightwoman, but there are moments of absurd release that hint at the person Ines was before she bought into the quest for status. There are different Ines facades for the different roles she has to play or the tasks thrust upon her, but rarely does she get to be herself. Winfried is a little more one-note on the surface since his solution for everything is a joke, but there are moments of vulnerability between father and daughter that suggest that jokes are all he has left. Connecting with someone emotionally can be painful and awkward, and humor is one way of circumventing those difficulties. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you wind up hammering everything. That goes for both father and daughter. A lot of what works in Toni Erdmann depends on what the audience brings to it, which might be the case of any movie about parents and children. The way we measure other families inevitably winds up being our own family experiences, which is what makes Toni Erdmann familiar in a surprising way. What is it about Ines that I see in myself, or Winfied in my own dad, or vice versa? Sometimes I look at these on-screen family relationships and see myself or people I know. Other times I see versions of characters. Families are weird like that; so is Toni Erdmann.
NYFF Review: Toni Erdmann photo
Estranged daughter, strange father
There's no way Toni Erdmann could ever live up to its hype. Reviews from Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival touted the German film as a 162-minute screwball comedy masterpiece, packed with high emotional stake...

Review: I, Daniel Blake

Dec 22 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220904:43138:0[/embed] I, Daniel BlakeDirector: Ken LoachRating: TBDRelease Date: October 21, 2016 (UK); December 23, 2016 (USA)Country: UK Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widower who's been denied disability benefits after suffering a heart attack. He's an everyman figure for the vulnerable elderly, and for anyone who's been on hold with customer service for longer than necessary. Daniel doesn't have any family or friends to help him in this situation, so he needs the social safety net. There's a catch: in order to receive any benefits, he has to look for work, and yet he can't work at the moment because his doctor says it will aggravate his heart condition. His plight may sound familiar, but that's because it's a reality for many older people. The elderly and other vulnerable populations often face these kinds of helpless situations. Rather than receive individual assistance with computers or paperwork, the system wants to push him through and out as quickly as possible--men and women chewed up and spat. While Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty may heighten the dire situation, Johns' performance grounds Daniel. He's an individual man and a common man metaphor, and achingly human. Daniel's path crosses with Katie (Hayley Squires), a struggling single-mother from London trying to resettle in New Castle. Hers is a life of constant denial. Spaghetti for the kids at dinner, and just an apple for herself until morning. She can't find work because there aren't any jobs, and so that cycle of denial continues. In one of the movie's most moving and empathetic moments, we watch Katie overcome by hunger at a food bank. She breaks down. Squires brings a lot of heart to her performance, but in this scene Katie's courage has faltered. There's only a debased shame. Somewhere, mixed in, there's also dread. Together, Daniel and Katie offer a glimmer of hope for the people failed by the system. When vulnerable people slip through the country's social safety net, perhaps their only shot at dignity is to be there for one another. And perhaps because this plight is so familiar--seen on film, TV, in families or down the street--struggling people can feel a little less alone in the world. The situation in I, Daniel Blake is so specific to the UK, and yet the pain and the hardship is relatable throughout the western world. Knowing that someone else has experienced the same thing can help reduce that sense of hopeless desperation that accompanies poverty. It's a meek hope, though, a faint and brief glimmer, which may explain the fervor of the film, like something off a Billy Bragg record. I, Daniel Blake feels like a rallying cry for reform and greater egalitarianism, or at least some restoration of humanity and kindness to systems that have become so good at stripping humanity away. If the characters seem familiar, it's probably because the same tragedies happen so often and have happened for so long to so many. If the story beats sound familiar, it's probably because the cadence of protest chants often have a common pattern. I, Daniel Blake is ostensibly about a man named Daniel and a woman named Katie, but I know these people by other names and with other faces.
Review: I, Daniel Blake photo
Familiar yet powerfully urgent
Bureaucracies make great villains. Faceless and absurd, they operate in such nefarious ways and are perfect machines for dehumanization. Bureaucracies are reliably inefficient, needlessly hierarchical, ruthlessly procedure-ob...

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If only yours were this good ...
The grand holiday tradition happens on a yearly basis. You gather your friends and loved ones. You pop open a bottle of wine. You silence your phone, sit back, and hope that this year’s Christmas comedy is as good as th...

Review: Assassin's Creed

Dec 21 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221143:43283:0[/embed] Assassin's CreedDirectors: Justin KurzelRelease Date: December 21, 2016Rating: PG-13 After being executed in a Texas prison, Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is held under the control of the Abstergo Foundation, a company that wants to "end violence." His caretaker, Sofia (Marion Cotillard), explains one of his ancestors was an assassin in 1400s Spain (named Aguilar) and wants to use his memories to help Abstergo locate the Apple of Eden, a magical macguffin that would eliminate free will. Lynch is then plugged into the Animus, a machine that allows Lynch to live his ancestor Aguilar's life and gain his abilities. As more of Abstergo's plot comes to light, Lynch has to decide whether or not to carry on the creed of an ancient assassin's group and fight the coming evil.   As you can most likely gauge from the synopsis, there's a lot going on in Assassin's Creed. Like its smooth action scenes, the film's plot and premise move along with a breakneck pace. There's a bit of plot-specific terminology thrown into the film's dialogue, but it never rests enough within its character interactions for these terms to make sense. It's almost as if the film expects its audience to be familiar with the game series, so cool ideas like The Templars and the Creed don't have enough development. Despite the film running over two hours, things just kind of "happen" and often don't get enough follow through to make sense. Which is even more of a shame since the premise does inherently have a religion versus science debate in the root of it all.  But the film does succeed when it takes the time to develop its world.  If you're a fan of the videogame series, you'll be glad to know Assassin's Creed translates one of the series' core elements, the Animus, extremely well. Lynch plugging into the Animus leads to some of the coolest scenes in the film as the machine translates Aguilar's flashly assassin movements in real time. Cutting back to Lynch every few minutes during the film's well choreographed fights may get annoying later on as they take you out of the action, but it's still an initially intriguing and distinct look only capable here. That's also because the film took a moment to establish the Animus which is, as mentioned earlier, a luxury only briefly afforded. But although most of the story is a befuddling mess, it's visually appealing. Andalucia in 1492 is an incredible display of set and costume design, which makes its short time in the film even more egregious. When not covered in a notable amount in dust storms, Assassin's Creed spends the bulk of its time in yet another in a long line of plain, white science fiction sets.  Director Kurziel also films some impressive battle scenes. Although the point-of-view sometimes get lost in the fight choreography (as Kurziel at times can't fully grasp the geography of the setting), they flow well and incorporate many tactics and weapons (which is reminiscent of the game series, also). But Assassin's Creed doesn't have much going on for it beyond its look. Fassbender is, undoubtedly, the standout but even he struggles with the film's script. Failing to give Lynch's words the proper amount of weight as the film speeds on, Fassbender is just trying his best to push on. His scenes with Cotillard's Sofia are also a highlight, but that's only because he has Cotillard's near-deadpan delivery to bounce off of. In fact, you could've scrapped the bulk of Abstergo-set scenes altogether and the film would've been a triumph. Aguilar's romps through a mid-Inquisition Spain are the best the film has to offer, but there's never enough time to develop either Aguilar or Lynch to make any of this matter.  In a film where a man defies the laws of time and space, time is ironically Assassin's Creed's biggest enemy. A lack of time spent with its characters, lack of time spent with its ideas, and lack of follow through muddy the film's experience. In fact, the film seems to only want to translate the videogame series to film without caring whether or not it succeeds as a film. Much like direct to home video videogame adaptations like Dead or Alive and Tekken, Assassin's Creed captures the spirit of the videogame series but won't have the appeal for those outside of its fan base.  Assassin's Creed is such a good videogame adaptation, hilariously enough, it already expects to come back for yearly outings. 
Assassin's Creed Review photo
With flaws wide open
Assassin's Creed has been in the works for a long time. The videogame series' developer Ubisoft has been trying to get the project off the ground since 2011, but was marred with production and release date delays. When Michae...

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story promised to be what the seven other Star Wars films had not: a movie about ordinary people in the Star Wars universe. Promise delivered. But if you’re worried that ordinary people means an o...

Review: Moana

Nov 23 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221047:43203:0[/embed] MoanaDirectors: John Musker and Ron ClementsRelease Date: November 23, 2016Rating: PG Moana follows the titular Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), a teenager who's always dreamed of traveling the seas beyond her island village, but is next in line for village chieftain and must stay home. When darkness begins rotting away her home, brought on when the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) steals the heart of the ancient goddess Te Fiti, Moana must journey across the sea, find Maui and ask him for help, and return the Heart of Te Fiti from where it came. From its core, Moana is much different from Disney's other princess films. Choosing instead to follow Moana on a hero's journey, rather than a quest for love, the film allows for individual character development thanks to its simplicity. While this simplicity may mirror Disney's previous films a bit too much, it is honestly what makes Moana work as well as it does.  Directors Musker and Clements have experience creating lasting Disney legacies with the two of them directing hits like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Great Mouse Detective. Basically, these two are responsible for a good deal of your favorite Disney moments and it's the same with Moana. The film may share too many structural similarities with previous films because of their choices, but it's also sure to make up for that simplicity with a complex emotional through line and culture. It's what previous Disney Princess films had lacked, and it's what Frozen experimented with. With a simplified tale, the film allows the characters to add layers of depth. Instead of growing as a character in relation to another person, i.e when Ariel changes herself for Prince Eric, for example, Moana's tale is all about self-improvement. It's not complicated with extraneous plot like a third act twist villain or jokes from a cartoon sidekick, Moana instead sticks to its heart with its two central characters and builds everything around them.  Being a character first type of fairy tale, Moana trusts in its two stars to make it work. Thankfully, Dwayne Johnson and the awesomely talented newcomer, Auli’i Cravalho more than hold their own. Johnson as Maui is energetic and as charming as he ever is, but, coupled with Maui's slightly mischievous character design, now has a slight edge missing from some of Johnson's work. His song, "You're Welcome" is also fantastic. His single is definitely a standout with a blend of humor and musicality. But I don't think I'll ever be able to fully express how impressed I am by the young Auli’i Cravalho. You would never be able to tell, but as her first major starring role, Cravalho is an absolute delight. Once again marrying character design and performance, Cravalho makes Moana a believable kid. Moana is astonishingly the first Disney Princess to act like an actual young girl. She's awkward sometimes, but has an endearing moxie that characterized classic princesses like Mulan, Ariel, and Tiana. But unlike the other Princesses, Moana is allowed to have non-romantic flaws.  You're probably a bit worried since I keep comparing Moana to previous films, but it's entirely intentional. Musker and Clements intended to recapture the spirit of the 2D films. Every part of its production fully embraces nostalgia, while making sure to change enough to keep the film from repeating the past too much. Thanks to the phenomenal soundtrack from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i, and Mark Mancina, every scene has just a bit more punch. The opening, for example, is kind of incredible. As the film introduces its setting and unique culture (as the Oceanic island culture is far more three dimensional than cultures seen in films past), its punctuated by an incredible chant-like song mirroring The Lion King's now prolific opening. While I'm not sure if its lead single's, "How Far I'll Go," contemporary style will outlast the Broadway appeal of its predecessor, it's still heart-opening. Jemaine Clement's surprise song performance is pretty great too, as it plays to his creepy wheelhouse. Also, the most beautiful song and performance overall is the ancestor song. I don't want to spoil it, but just trust that it's fantastic. But none of this character work or music would succeed without Moana's unbelievable visuals. Moana has Disney's most exemplary animation to date with its luscious landscape and gorgeous ocean animations. The setting itself is a main character, and somehow feels fantasical yet attainable. It's an island paradise capturing the mythical nature of its fairy tale, but also looks grounded enough to exist in our world. There's no skirting the Pacific Islander culture here, unlike the other Princess' films dilution of ethnicity. The character body design is diverse, with Moana herself looking less plastic and moving more fluidly than humans seen in Tangled or Frozen. Thanks to its full embrace of what makes it different, the story's complex emotion and culture seem simplistic. See? Full circle. It's simplicity by design. Blending its depth so well and sneaking in character development through song, I didn't realize how much I had experienced until I started writing this review. The only real problem I had with Moana overall was how some of its contemporary jokes and song arrangements (There's a Twitter reference and other meta jokes) betray the timeless quality of its setting, but honestly it's not that big of a deal. Moana is definitely one of the better theatrical experiences of 2016, and in a year full of strife, it's what we need right now.  Its nostalgic quality may turn some off of Moana, but the film is still incredibly fresh despite these parallels to the past. It's a Disney Princess film taking the successes of the past, fixes their problems, and injects a breath of life into Disney they haven't had for quite some time. Moana is for the child in you, your children, and even their children. And who knows? Moana may just go down as a "classic" years down the line. 
Moana Review photo
Hawaiian roller coaster ride
Disney Animation has had one critical success after another since they're in the middle of a new creative renaissance. Fully embracing CG animation, Disney has produced hits like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and most im...

Review: Evolution

Nov 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220389:42858:0[/embed] EvolutionDirector: Lucile HadzihalilovicRelease Date: November 25, 2016 (limited/VOD)Rating: NRCountry: France The world of Evolution is mysterious from the get go, which is due largely to the coastal locale where the film is set. We don't know what year it is, or quite where this place is either. It's all so otherworldly, the sort of setting for tales, allegories, and de Chirico paintings. There are white stucco buildings built near the water, and the sand is black leading to the turbulent shore. It's beautiful in how stark it is. In the distance, there's a medical facility that looks like it was abandoned years ago, but boys and their mothers walk back and forth for periodic examinations. There are only grown women and young boys on this island. There are no men, there are no girls, and the mothers have a sinister uniformity about them. At night, the mothers leave their homes carrying hand lanterns and congregate near the water. The boys are just boys but are in the dark about their caretakers. The boys are raised on a diet of mashed kelp and something like worms, one of those foods that while heated in a saucepan still looks cold when it's served. Evolution centers primarily on Nicolas (Max Brebant) and his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), and what Nicolas discovers about this town and where babies come from. We follow him into the night, down long corridors, to water in the dark, and in the process participate in the act of discovery, unwrapping the allegory along with Nicolas, sharing in his repulsion and curiosity. Roughly midway through Evolution, this dive into the unknown slows, maybe too much for what's revealed about the mothers and their boys. Yet even what's revealed is just enough to suggest larger possibilities and delve deeper into the thematic territory of the movie--sex, childbirth, asexuality, violation, flesh, reproduction, biological processes. I sensed in the film's lull that Hadzihalilovic was signalling a move away from an explicit exploration of the plot and the machinery of the world to a series of ruminative brushstrokes, each one a deliberate move to the film's finale, which is more conceptual than visceral. In the immediate aftermath of Evolution, I felt a little let down, expecting more of a resolution to what's introduced early on. Yet the movie has this strange, lingering quality thanks to its pervasive otherworldliness. I mentioned Lovecraft and Cronenbeg earlier, but Hadzihalilovic makes this movie her own, invested with unique hobbyhorses and a fascinating sensibility. It's rare to see a movie that sticks around in your mind after an initial sense of disappointment. The fact I'm still thinking about Evolution, and deeper now than in the hours after the first viewing, have made me reevaluate Hadzihalilovic's languid pace, which unfolds with the same speed as a dream verging on a nightmare but never quite arriving there. Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse does a magnificent job in rendering these images and giving them such a haunting quality that I can't get several of them out of my head. Evolution's grown on me, like a skin graft or like coral, or maybe it's grown in me, like the stuff of recurring bad dreams.
Review: Evolution photo
Lingering, haunting, and yet
There's so much going for Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Evolution, a film expertly lensed from the deliberate first shot: looking up to the sky from underwater. From beneath, the ripples and waves on the ocean surface produce undul...

Review: The Monster

Nov 21 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221043:43200:0[/embed] The MonsterDirector: Bryan BertinoRelease Date: November 11, 2016Rating: R  Though there are a couple of others who make brief appearances, The Monster is effectively a film with only two characters: Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and her daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine). Kazan is 33 but looks ten years younger, and I'm pretty sure her character is closer to the latter than the former. Kathy is a terrible mother, pretty much what everyone assumes a young twenty-something with an already eight-or-nine-year-old child (or whatever age she is; Ballentine is 15, but I think she's also playing someone younger) is like. You don't root for her, and you definitely feel Lizzy's exasperation more than her mother's, but both of them feel extremely real, and their reactions to an increasingly horrific series of events serve as the focal point for everything that happens. And what happens? Well, late at night, as Kathy drives Lizzy to be with her father, they hit a wolf that runs out into the street in the pouring rain. The car breaks down. They call for help, but they have to wait. The wolf disappears from the road. There's a monster. Most of the film takes place on that road, in that car. Everything that matters takes place between Kathy and Lizzy. Everyone else is just filler. Fortunately, both actors give genuinely spectacular performances, and I became immediately invested in their struggles, and I was invested through all of the horrors. I mean, it made me cry. Actually and truly. Movies in general don't make me cry, and horror movies in particular don't (at least, not from anything other than fear). And yet, much to my surprise, The Monster got to me. Kathy and Lizzy got to me. Everything from the two of them felt so real, so earnest and heartfelt, even in the midst of ridiculous events, they were grounded. They made everything work. If you've seen It Follows (you should), or even just its trailer, you may remember the shot of the naked old man standing on the roof looking down at the main characters. It's a cool shot, but it's a problematic one. It doesn't make any sense in the narrative itself. The creature wouldn't do that for any reason other than because the director said, "This is gonna look awesome." And he's right, but it pulls you out of what is generally a pretty cohesive movie with reasonably well-conceived rules. Everything in The Monster is like that image on the roof. You can never know what the monster is going to do, but you always know when it's going to do it: Right when the film needs it to. It comes at the apex of tension, right when you expect it. Maybe you just see it in the background of a shot. Maybe it pulls a character underneath a truck. Maybe it throws a severed arm onto the windshield of a car. It does whatever with no rhyme or reason, but it does it exactly when anyone who has ever seen a horror movie would expect it to. The monster itself looks pretty good, and I am a fan of big practical effects, but it also is just... there. I went back and forth with the person I saw the film with on whether the monster represents anything (or whether The Monster is trying to make a grander point), and both of those conversations ended with a resounding, "Uhh... no?" Certainly the monster just seems like a monster, something there to drive the plot. It doesn't connect to the struggle that the characters are going through in any meaningful way, and the lack of clear rules makes it hard to pinpoint any real purpose at all. And that lack of clear rules gets really problematic in the final act. Really, it just serves to get in the way of the drama. So, the monster is by far the weakest part of the film whose name it occupies, but it's a testament to just how good the dramatic relationship between Kathy and Lizzy is that it doesn't really matter. While the monster waits in the darkness, biding its time for no clear reason, we get to spend time with Kathy and Lizzy. That's an emotional rollercoaster, one that is often difficult to watch but impossible to look away from. There's a decent argument to be made that the relationship deserves a better movie than the one it's in, but that's a needlessly negative way to look at it. We should be glad that we got to see it at all. I know I am.
The Monster Review photo
More tears, less fears
As often as I can, I like to go into films relatively blind. In the case of The Monster, my Facebook feed had been full of friends talking about how stellar the leading performances were and how great it was that they had gon...


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