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reviews

Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Jun 29 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221639:43619:0[/embed] Spider-Man: HomecomingDirector: Jon WattsRelease Date: July 7th, 2017Rated: PG-13 Spider-Man: Homecoming isn't concerned with re-telling Peter Parker's origin story. Instead, we're introduced to a Peter (Tom Holland) that's already been established around his borough of Queens, NY. But after getting a taste of Avenger-like action during Civil War, Peter's been anxious to fight some big time crime. Stumbling on Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton)'s band of thieves powered by alien technology (left behind after The Avengers), Peter's out to prove to his mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that he can handle it. But the 15 year old Peter finds he struggles with balancing his Spider-Man duties, school life with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), love life, and home life with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).  The Homecoming subtitle is both a play on Peter's newfound high school age, and a "homecoming" to the MCU. With how prevalent Downey Jr.'s Iron Man was featured in advertising, I was worried poor little Peter would take a backseat to all of The Avengers craziness. We've seen the result of universe building bogging down some of the Marvel properties, but thankfully Homecoming doesn't concern itself with that too much either. The events of the MCU proper have informed some of the character motivations for sure, as Adrian gets his villainous start after the Battle of NY, but there's been a great effort to ground Spider-Man in his own little pocket of the world. Thus, Homecoming is free to not only tell its story at its own pace, but isn't afraid to explore Peter as a character.  Director Jon Watts takes great pains to make Homecoming feel more intimate. From the opening scene featuring Peter's video diary, to the pacing of conversations between characters, there are plenty of scenes given time to breathe and fully flesh out the film's extended cast. Tom Holland is a dream, and his awkward yet full-hearted take on the hero is much different than we've seen in the past. Holland portraying a teenage Peter is not only believable, but incredibly refreshing. When Holland's Peter jokes around, or accidentally saves the day, it always comes across as natural. Because of this, the threats to him become even more engrossing as a literal child is now fighting to save his loved ones. It's a tonal balance we've yet to see from Spider-Man, and I'm very curious as to where it can go from here.  But it's not like Holland steals the show, either. Homecoming has an incredible cast, and the script is laid out so every character has time to shine. Michael Keaton playing a birdman after, well, Birdman, may be ripe for jokes, but Keaton's soft spoken menace gives him a presence we've yet to see from other MCU villains. Spider-Man's villains are probably the most famous in Marvel Comics, so it feels so right to see Keaton stake his claim. Adrian is complex, has a reasonable motivation, and seems better written overall than a good chunk of Marvel's other baddies. Peter's classmates are all fabulous as well. Zendaya shines as a brilliant loner, Tony Revolori's Flash is the right kind of bully, it's great to see Jon Favreau's Happy Hogan again, and Jacob Batalon's Ned is so damn adorable I can't wait to see him again. The cast is just so well put together, and Queens has such a lived in feel, Homecoming absolutely nails the "neighborhood" in "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man." We haven't experienced Spider-Man like this before.  And, uh, Marisa Tomei is a goddess and I'm so glad Homecoming addresses the shift in Aunt May's age.  Now Spider-Man: Homecoming isn't a perfect film, as the plot tends to get lost during the deliberate pacing of the second act, and it's still an origin story thematically, but it's still entirely successful. I mean, we finally get an action scene that isn't about fighting a bad guy, but saving people. I can't believe that hasn't happened yet. Even if I'm reviewing Homecoming in the comic book movie bubble, I feel like this world is so well established that the film's weakness are a reflection of its central character.  This new Peter is flawed, but attacks his flaws head on. Homecoming has so much fun just living and swinging with Spider-Man, it's hard not to accept those flaws and just go with the swing of things. Spider-Man has come home, and I can't wait to see what Sony and Marvel do with him next. 
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Third time's the charm
Spider-Man films have been through all sorts of ups and downs. What was once the biggest comic book property on film has since been the victim of studio craziness, failed attempts, and just an overall bad reception by th...

Review: Okja

Jun 28 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221603:43630:0[/embed] OkjaDirector: Bong Joon-hoRating: N/ARelease Date: June 28, 2017 (Netflix, limited theatrical)Country: South Korea/United States Okja opens with a press conference as preface. CEO Lucy Mirando announces the creation of special mutant super pigs made to address the world's food shortages revamp its brand. She's played by Tilda Swinton, who looks and acts like a character in a Christopher Guest movie. Those bangs, those braces, and later, that twitchy, insecure overbite. The initial super pigs have been given to farmers around the globe, and in 10 years the best one will be picked to publicly launch a line of tasty, savory mutant food products. Okja, the only pig we follow, was raised in the mountains of Korea by Mija and her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong). The film lingers with Mija and Okja a while as they spend afternoons in the forests eating persimmons in sun and swimming by a waterfall. Bong builds the kinship between his lead and his digital warm-cuddly; there's a shorthand for 10 loving years in 10 or so lackadaisical minutes. The lush mountaintop idyll also works as a counterpoint to the madness that follows--colors darken down below as our characters descend. Okja is taken away, and the movie becomes a series of pursuits. A daring chase through the streets of Seoul is one of the highlights of the film. In America, Okja goes through a series of upsetting and disturbing events that reveal the ugly side of Mirando's shiny new product. A little past the midway point of Okja, I can see some people souring on the movie because of what happens in the plot. Rather than make a family film for all ages, Bong's story gets much darker than the initial fun in the sun would suggest. (More Babe: Pig in the City than Babe.) This darkness follows logically and diegetically, however, and it's the point. This mutant movie, among other things, is an indictment of factory farming and corporate culture. It's why Mija just wants to bring Okja back up to the mountain, above all of those concerns. Like any CG creature, Okja looks better in some scenes and worse than others. When it works, she's got the expressiveness of an actual animal, with mannerisms less like a pig and more like a lumbering puppy/hippo. (She even poops like a hippo. Okja is the sort of movie in which the bowel movements of an animal figure into the plot. Glorious.) Something about Okja's eyes and snout, and maybe a certain floppiness or articulation of her ears, communicate a fair amount of emotion. When Mija is there to react, she complements and enhances the CG performance. Other times, Okja is clearly just a big digital thing dropped into a shot. I was generally able to stay with the world of the movie even when the CG was obvious. The world of Okja is messy and cartoony, and the CG is never too bad to be totally distracting from everything else that's going on. And there's a lot going on. Mija is an immutable moral center in the movie, and though she's a newcomer, Ahn is good as a determined lead. The supporting characters are varying levels of quirky, and many get to play off Ahn as the straightwoman. Paul Dano is very Paul Dano as Jay, the leader of an Animal Liberation Front group. His misfit band of eco-terrorists squabble over the carbon footprint of cherry tomatoes and suckle on asparagus spears. Bong and co-writer Jon Ronson mock the ideological minutiae of some ALF characters (extremism is inherently funny), but they're careful not to target the core humanity of their beliefs. Jay and his band are goofy, but they're also the good guys. The most overblown performance is surprisingly not Tilda Swinton but Jake Gyllenhaal. He plays Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a nasally TV wildlife personality. Off-camera, he's like an evil Ned Flanders by way of bizarro Ace Ventura and Rip Taylor; a sadistic narcissist who hides his ugly-streak under layers of gee willikers and aww shucks. When the camera is on Dr. Johnny, his persona changes. His voice lowers and slows and he speaks from the diaphragm rather than the nose. The highs and lows of Gyllenhaal's performance may best the representation of Okja's highs and lows. The man contains multitudes, some hilarious and some terrifying. (Jaeil Jung's score also contains multitudes: a little bit of folk, a little bit of traditional orchestral music, and there's also something for the oompah band fans out there.) If the tone shifts and genre-bending don't push away some viewers, I sense that Bong's preachiness might do the trick. Okja isn't particularly subtle about its stance on GMOs and the food business; the subtlest the film gets is a brief and passing implication that Okja is such a healthy and hearty mutant super pig because she is a free-range mutant super pig. Yet subtlety might be unnecessary here, and the same goes for genre and tone conventions. Netflix gave Bong final cut and full creative control over Okja. The result is free-range Bong Joon-Ho, which is, admittedly, an acquired taste, but it's linked to the love people have for their favorite childhood pet. That's a familiar, perennial flavor--narrative comfort food. As Lucy Mirando tells us at the start of Okja, the most important thing is that the mutant super pig tastes f**king good. And it does. Weird but good, sure, but good mainly because it is so weird.
Review: Okja photo
That'll do, mutant super pig, that'll do
Bong Joon-Ho's Okja is a chimera of genre and tone. It's a lovable mutant like its titular super pig--the best super pig, we're told, the superlative like something out of Charlotte's Web. Which makes sense. As a director, Bo...

Review: Baby Driver

Jun 28 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221653:43629:0[/embed] Baby DriverDirector: Edgar WrightRated: RRelease Date: June 28, 2017 Don't worry. Baby Driver isn't a musical in the traditional sense. It doesn't have characters breaking out in song and spiraling into wild, Busby Berkley style dance numbers (unless you count car chases as dance numbers). Instead, it features Baby (Ansel Elgort), an expert driver who is forced into being the driver on a series of heists by Doc (Kevin Spacey). Through a series of events, Baby tries to pull himself away from a life of crime while falling for Debora (Lily James), a charming waitress he meets at a diner. The plot itself is a little thin, but that's because it's not really the point. What Wright wants to do with this film is turn soundtrack into character; make a film that flows as well as its soundtrack. It's a bold effort, and it makes the soundtrack the leading star. It's an absolutely fantastic soundtrack that runs the gamut from classic rock to modern rap, each song cued up with the film's editing and action. The excuse is that Baby has tinnitus so he's always listening to music to get rid of the ringing. What that results in is car chases cued wonderfully to songs, entire scenes edited to the beat of whatever Baby is listening to, and a soundtrack that often informs the film more than anything else going on on screen. It also means that every character is defined by the music, every choice bent around what's playing. Even the dialog is often a diatribe on the meaning of music to people, and in that aspect the film is endlessly interesting. Wright's direction of the action is just as interesting. His shots and editing go beyond coherent, which is a base we shouldn't have to applaud, but will thanks to having just seen The Last Knight. He weaves together brilliant plot, music, and real driving into some masterful sequences. The first 20 minutes of this movie are an almost perfect execution of Wright's "car chase musical" idea form the opening beats featuring “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to the first moment that Baby's headphones sadly come off. Unfortunately, that marks a bit of a stumble for the film. The movie loses its thread a little bit once the full commitment to musical drops. Maybe it was impossible to really keep the entire film moving forward as a coherent whole while remaining faithful to the constant music (most musicals don't do that), but once the film ditches the idea to advance the plot it starts to lose some of its charm. There's still plenty of good to go around, and any time the film kicks back into car chase mode it picks the thread back up. But between these moments things get a little awkward. The movie still works, but it's disappointing it doesn't fully commit to its bold idea. Do not mistake a lack of fully successful execution with lack of quality. Part of the reason the film's inability to fully dive into its soundtrack-is-god style is so annoying is because what it's doing is so challenging and interesting, that when comes together it does it so well. This isn't some cheap gimmick like Suicide Squad tried to do. It's even a step up from Guardians of the Galaxy's use of soundtrack. It's a bold experiment in making music into a full blown character, and as an experiment it both works and fails. But man, when it works, like those first 20 minutes, it works so well.  I wish as much could be said for the story itself. While Baby and Deborah's story arc is pretty well flushed out, the rest of the characters lose a bit of push. This is especially true for Doc, who wavers between all out evil and a paternal gangster. With the focus on the music and action, the characters and their motivations get lost. The end of the film explodes into a bloody action flick that feels at odds with the almost charming tone of the rest of the film. Maybe this is a repudiation of the musical genre in general, and a wink at the soundtrack-as-character itself, but it feels almost like a cop-out. It's as if Wright realized he couldn't carry on his brilliant weaving of music and action so he just didn't. Baby Driver should be seen simply because it is such a bold and wonderful idea. It really does execute it well for most of the movie. That's why I kind of hate to say that it doesn't pull it off fully. That makes it sound like it has failed, but just trying to do this is a success. I'd rather have films that try something incredible and fall just a little short than ones that don't try at all.
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Fred Astaire meets Bullit
Edgar Wright is a director with a specific vision, and it's led him to make some of the most genre-bending films in the past decade, and some of the funniest. It's also led him to leave Ant-Man. How do you bounce back from so...

Review: The Bad Batch

Jun 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221600:43618:0[/embed] The Bad BatchDirector: Ana Lily AmirpourRating: RRelease Date: June 23, 2017 (limited) Don't get me wrong. There are things about The Bad Batch that I love, but they're undermined by boring self-satisfied self-indulgence. In the film's post-apocalyptic world, prisoners are released at the Texas border and left to fend for themselves. Arlen starts the movie wandering the wasteland but is soon kidnapped by cannibals. She loses an arm and a leg before she escapes to a makeshift town called Comfort. (On the way she meets a mute and nearly unrecognizable Jim Carrey.) Comfort is run by a charismatic cult leader surrounded by an army of bodyguards/brides. He's played by Keanu Reeves, who seems to be doing his best impression of Edgar Allan Poe doing a bad Keanu Reeves impression. At night, Comfort becomes a small scale post-apocalyptic Burning Man, complete with a DJ bumping tunes in a giant, light-up boombox. In all that I've written, what's not to love? The answer is Arlen. After about 30 minutes in a two-hour movie, my patience and goodwill dissipated because of her and the film's unwillingness to do anything interesting with her. Maybe it's odd of me to expect character from a moody would-be cult movie, but Arlen's lack of character causes The Bad Batch to implode around her. She doesn't want anything, doesn't need anything, has no sense of motivation or an internal life. She just kind of wanders around. For a movie with such a strange world, it's too content with being listless. Arlen is a non-character surrounded by more interesting supporting characters. There's no compelling story to tell in The Bad Batch; it's just a bunch of sets, locations, a primary cast, and a little stunt casting. In one of the early moments of The Bad Batch, Arlen meets a scavenger and her daughter. They both come from the cannibal colony that Arlen fled, but she's never interacted with either of these characters before. She murders the mother in cold blood even as she begs for mercy, but spares the daughter, Miel (Jayda Fink). The little girl mutely follows her mother's killer. It's done out of revenge, I get it, and yet Arlen doesn't seek further revenge on those who actually amputated her limbs. She just hangs out in Comfort and that's it. Miel would have made a more interesting main character. Miel's father, Miami Man, could have carried the film as well. He's a hulking bodybuilder cannibal played by Jason Momoa doing an impression of a good Keanu Reeves doing a bad Cuban accent. Like really, really bad. Momoa's at least a driven presence on screen since I knew what he wanted (i.e., to find his daughter... and maybe eat someone). Arlen and Miami Man meet and strike up a bond that verges on attraction but, like so much else about the movie, goes nowhere. They hide beneath a sheet during a sandstorm, intimately close, Miami Man unaware that his companion is his enemy. In a different film this moment could be filled with a edgy or even erotic charge. In The Bad Batch, it's just two attractive people under a flapping white sheet. In my head, I keep thinking of The Bad Batch in terms of El Topo since they're such opposites. Everything in El Topo feels meaningful because Jodorwosky builds his movie around a character's spiritual quest and obsessions. All objects are symbols, actions have cosmic consequence, the finale is apotheosis. The Bad Batch reduces its symbols to objects, strips actions of their greater meaning, turns dialogue into babble. A rambling Reeves monologue late in the film is tedious nonsense about seeds and plumbing. Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain summed up the gist in just nine words: "You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold." Though beautiful, The Bad Batch is a tautological movie rather than spiritual or philosophical: a meaningless wasteland about a meaningless wasteland. It's not gold, that's for sure.
Review: The Bad Batch photo
What if El Topo was about nothing?
Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was a sparse yet stunning debut that overflowed with languid cool. So much of Girl Walks gets by on its moody/artsy posturing, which had shades of Jim Jarmusch's early work...

Review: Transformers: The Last Knight

Jun 21 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221624:43613:0[/embed] Transformers: The Last KnightDirector: Michael BayRated: PG-13Release Date: June 21, 2017 Transformers: The Last Knight doesn't so much have a plot as it has a bunch of action sequences attached together by people saying words that make no sense. If you recall from the end of the last film, Optimus Prime launched himself into space to find the Autobots' creator. In his absence more Transformers have come crashing to earth and humanity has started to be dicks to them and rounding them up. Cade Yaeger (Mark Wahlberg) is hanging out with the Autobots from the last film, including Bumble Bee, as an outlaw who is trying to protect as many of his robot friends as his can. Then... I don't know... some things happen in no logical order. Anthony Hopkins shows up along with Laura Haddock, and everyone stands around spewing incoherent exposition until the next action sequence is cued up. My ongoing complaint with these movies has always been that these Transformer films aren't about the Transformers, and The Last Knight is the culmination of this. The first three quarters of this movie is almost entirely "human" interaction. I put human in quotes because no actual humans interact like the characters in this movie, unless I've missed some universal memo where we're all supposed to speak as if we're delivering important one-liners every other sentence. There is so much illogical plot in this film and none of it involves the Transformers we're coming to see. I'm not sure who thought that Cade Yaeger (god, could that name be any douchier) was an interesting character, but he's not and none of the other characters are either, and I CAME TO A TRANSFORMERS MOVIE TO SEE TRANSFORMERS! The saving grace of the previous films was always Optimus Prime, voiced as wonderfully as ever by Peter Cullen. Cullen somehow made stilted dialog into into epic speeches, and Prime's constant Saturday morning cartoon proselytizing somehow made the idiocy of the films more palatable. So what does The Last Knight do? Removes him from the plot until the third act! Any hope that the end of the last film signaled that we'd get a Transformers-focused film for once are instantly dashed in the opening scene as Prime is basically tied up and not mentioned again for the next hour and half. When he does return the movie instantly moves from "stab me in the eyes for the love of god kill me now" to "OK, just put me in a coma," but that's not much of an improvement, obviously. I will say that the action is actually better than the last film in terms of execution. Age of Extinction was a directorial mess in this department for a variety of reasons, but Bay seems to have put his brains back in his head this time around, and edited together some crisp sequences. The last battle actually pulls you to the edge of your seat, and you can follow what's going on instead of being lost in a blur of cuts. However, being better than the last film in terms of action wasn't a high bar to jump, and this one barely clears it. Action sequence aren't put together to be complete scenes, but instead more of a series of ideas that Bay clearly thought would be cool. At one point there's a time freezing gun, and at another gravity just randomly disappears. Sure it makes for some cool shots, but the action itself becomes illogically incoherent -- a series of camera swoops mushed together into explosion porn. Another not-actually-impressive feat is that the film somehow goes on (and on and on and on) for two-and-half hours. I know these films make a lot of money, but could someone please reign Bay in just a little bit? Even a tiny modicum of restraint in terms of action sequences, slow motion pans over a woman's body, or hapless exposition could have saved trillions of theater goer's brain cells. As it stands Bay and the screenwriters are basically allowed to do whatever the hell pops into their head. Entire characters are introduced and then ignored for most of the running time of the film, and most of them aren't even needed in the first place. At one point a WWI tank Transformer just sort of rolls up, makes a random explosion and then is never seen again. It's like Star Magic Jackson Jr. walked into a room of 4-year-olds and green lit whatever the hell they wanted.  It's also hard to honestly express just how many plot holes are in this film. Plot hole is too light a term. Plot black hole? Plot hell hole? Using the word plot anywhere near The Last Knight just seems wrong. There are literally moments in the movie where they just make a joke about not caring about a coherent plot. I suppose they hoped poking fun at their inability to develop logical reasons for the characters to progress from one point to another would distract us from that very fact, but none of the humor is that funny either. Everything comes straight out of action movie screenplay 101, and it couldn't feel more contrived. Romance. Check. Family. Check. Old guy saying a bad word. Check. It's all so pandering that I can't believe that audiences can't see what they're doing. We can't be this stupid to eat this up and laugh at tired jokes. There is always a defense of films like this that we're just supposed to shut our brain down and enjoy the ride. But this isn't a ride, it's a death trap. Yes, there are films that are great for just enjoying. Michael Bay himself has directed many of them, but Transformers: The Last Knight should not be enjoyed. Giving this movie money is re-enforcing everything wrong with the industry, and possibly everything wrong with the world. It is a mountain of turgid garbage. It is elephant vomit expelled into a pile of rotting corpses. If it was a person it would be going to a very special circle of hell. It is, for lack of a better word, bad.  You got us, Kaufman. You got us good. 
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I'm running out of synonyms for bad
Transformers: The Last Knight is proof that Andy Kaufman is alive. When the first film arrived it was a classic Michael Bay film. Yes, it was dumb, and full of stupid, but it had awesome action, and Optimus Prime, and it...

Review: Cars 3

Jun 19 // Drew Stuart
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Here in my Car(s 3)
Pixar has made a name for itself these past few decades by delivering quality kids films that everyone can enjoy, regardless of age. Yet among those films, the Cars series is rarely included, and for good reason. The storytel...

Review: 47 Meters Down

Jun 16 // Rick Lash
[embed]221613:43604:0[/embed] 47 Meters DownDirector: Johannes RobertRelease Date: June 16, 2016Rated: PG-13 By and large, director Johannes Robert managed this film masterfully. Little is wasted, and most stays true to form. The opening title sequence of a dark, ominous underwater scene proves to be the inside of a swimming pool. And one girl overturns another on a raft, causing a glass of wine to hit water and spread in pure imitation of blood. It’s one of the few times the director gets too heavyhanded: we know it’s a shark movie; no portent necessary. It’s then that we’re introduced to sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt). Lisa’s the stick in the mud whose boyfriend has left her because she’s too boring, while Kate’s the sort to tell her sister to get over it by banging the first bar fly she can find their side of the border in Mexico. When said bar fly recommends the sisters go cage diving with great white sharks, our story is set in motion. Writer Anthony Jaswinski admits the film follows the 127 Hours format—he means that you’re predominantly with one (or in this case, two) character for the duration, after some early introductions. But the similarities don’t end there; the format also calls for a sticky situation to keep your character alone, and we’re quickly provided one when the cage the girls go diving in proves to be of less than reliable quality and ends up on the ocean’s floor. That’s the premise. The cage is separated from boat. There are hungry, 25-foot sharks in the water. And our sisters are stuck in said cage with limited air supply. The film’s stars have said that this is not just a shark movie; it’s more than that. It’s a movie about being stuck at sea. This is true. It’s not just a shark movie; it’s really a movie that draws on and capitalizes on the many primal fears inherent in mankind: fear of being adrift at sea; fear of being adrift and immersed at sea; fear of the unknown (either under the water, or in the dark); fear of drowning; fear or suffocation; fear of being trapped; the fear of the immensity of everything else versus your own insignificance; fear of being at the mercy of forces greater than you; fear of being eaten alive. Where The Shallows began, 47 Meters Down continues, and ups the ante, allowing murphy’s law to dictate events. In an underwater cage surrounded by massive sharks? The cage will fail and leave you stranded. Have air tanks? Your supply is low. Have radios in rebreathers? You will be out of range. Reconnect the cage to a winch? The cable will fail. Get extra air tanks? You will face sharks. You get the idea. It’s a litany of what can go wrong, will go wrong, to the point where it borders on association with torture porn. These girls cannot catch a break, up until the film’s conclusion. And maybe not even then. The twists and turns deserve to remain in tact, in the dark, for you to enjoy unspoiled. But what can safely be said is that 47 Meters Down plays on your worst fears and delivers psychological terror. I had to detach myself to the ninth degree to watch it passively in order to write about it now. But if you allow yourself to be immersed in the dark of the theater, you’ll find yourself helplessly dragged in the film’s jaws, kicking and screaming, for the duration. The emotions are real; both Moore and Hoult spent more time underwater filming than is normal, and it reads. Robert directed them from above the water’s surface and had underwater crew on a different radio channel so that only he could communicate with the girls. They got a small taste of what they portrayed, and this was captured wonderfully and transcribed expertly. While, as noted, this is a shark film, the director must know the material well; where other films would get lost in the violence, Robert uses tension to perfection, and deaths, when they come, are impactful, but not focused on, and the tension is instantly restrung, meaning that you’re never quite off the hook. With few miscues—an unnecessary camera spin in one ascending shott--the film succeeds independently of the its sister film from 2016—even if you’ve seen The Shallows, you should still see 47 Meters Down.
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Measures Up
47 Meters Down is a shark movie—if shark movie is a genre. No, not the campy, so-good-they’re-bad shark movies we’ve been getting for a decade and a half now [ask anyone I know—my favorite of these is ...

Review: Rough Night

Jun 16 // Rick Lash
[embed]221612:43603:0[/embed] Rough NightDirector: Lucia AnielloRelease Date: June 16, 2016Rated: R Rough Night is the story of four college friends who promise to always be there for each other, and of how life sometimes has a way of getting in the way of the best laid plans. Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is a state politician of some sort (or on her way to becoming one) and is also getting married. Alice (Jillian Bell) is her overeager friend planning her bachelorette party. The gang is rounded out by Blair (Zoe Kravitz) and Frankie (Ilana Glazer). Oh, and then there’s Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jess’s college friend from semester abroad, and a convenient Aussie accent to add to the mix. The friends convene in Miami for shenanigans, but, after drinking, weed, coke, puking, and penis shaped paraphernalia, things go awry with the arrival of a male stripper. If you’ve seen the film’s marketing, you may be aware of what comes next. I was, and I’ll admit that I was quite curious about how writer / director Lucia Aniello intended to deal with this twist. SPOILER ALERT: the stripper is killed; another senseless victim of bachelorette party extravagance and overindulgence. It was obvious from the same marketing, that the film wasn’t going to hide from this plot point: it was going to own it. This movie might even revolve around the death of a stripper: it’s, at the very least, the major plot point development in the movie. Stripper-based humor and even dead stripper humor is nothing new, and yes, it’s refreshing that the tables are turned here, reversing what have become standard gender roles: all good—like I said, I was really curious how this would be dealt with, as it’s a bit dark for comedy dealing with a bachelor / bachelorette scenario. Unfortunately, the answer is, poorly. Going back to that fine line between a rough night and a my life is over night, this moment is clearly filmed as the later. Aniello never makes light of the seriousness of what’s happening, while it’s happening. The music shifts, the action plays out all to graphically and convincingly, and I, for one, found myself wondering if this was actually a comedy, or was going to reveal itself to be quite a dark drama disguised under opening volleys of laughter and comedic humor. Thankfully, mercifully, it is a comedy, and the seriousness given to a woman accidentally killing a man in a moment quite reminiscent of the defining murder from Unfaithful (in which Gere slams a snow globe over a man’s head, killing him). They’re visceral deaths, blood is not spared, and they’re not humorous, in any sense. It’s jarring, to go from jokes about swimming in a sea of dicks, to involuntary manslaughter, and back to dick jokes (putting dick-nose sunglasses on the corpse to cover its creepy, dead eyes). The theater became quite silent when it happened. People were groaning and turning away even. Like I say, we are not in the midst of a drama, it’s a comedy, and after Jess and gang make every wrong decision you might possibly make in their situation, we’re steered back towards comedy. But it’s always a little off from that moment on. It’s irreconcilable how the characters react to having taken a life, through that jarring transition, to how they deal with the body and crack light of it afterwards—not enough time has elapsed, consequences are still unfolding rather quickly in rather frightening, real terms (as Blair calls her criminal defense lawyer slash uncle and learns that by moving the body and altering the crime scene they’re commiting serious crimes—no shit—but they are all on drugs and booze, so understandable). It would be OK, if this were a dark comedy and this was just the moment where it goes dark--but it's clearly not. It’s not that there’s something wrong with characters forgetting what’s morally center, or committing crimes and laughing about it, it’s the inconsistency of mood from Act I (weekend away in Miami) to the Turning Point (Stripper’s head is cracked on fireplace hearth before he bleeds out) to Act II (disposing of the body and consequences). They just don’t gel. And, to be fair, if one of the Hangover films had dealt with the guys killing a stripper and then going through the emotional impact of what that really means immediately after, that wouldn’t have been funny either. Those characters do incredibly stupid things, highly illegal things, and do sometimes face unnervingly real consequences, but it never goes full dark comedy. It finds the line, hugs it, and then drunkenly walks it just well enough to pass the sobriety test (there’s a great scene in Rough Night dealing with one of these moments—more on that later). There's just something about cleaning a crime scene, and toweling up liters of blood, as a musical montage that didn't quite work. In another film sure to draw comparisons, Weekend at Bernie’s (and its eponymous sequel), we don’t get too real. The protagonists never deal with Bernie’s body voiding the contents of its bowels and how the guys deal with that while cops and potential witnesses linger nearby. Rough Night delivers laughs, don’t get me wrong. Act I is full of them. Bell and Glazer are at their usual best and do not disappoint. Clearly, pairing them with their known collaborator and director of Broad City was a win-win. It’s their standard best. Kate McKinnon is also great in her role as outsider, bringing just the right amount of wrong throughout. Johansson is more inhibited by her role as (maybe) uptight-wannabe-politician; she’s never able to fully break loose of her character role to sling banter with the comedic regulars. She does her best in whoo girl moments, but her biggest wins are born from clever writing that pokes fun at tiny everyday moments like a politician’s forced smile in a political TV spot and the difficulty in holding it naturally; or in great post-coke snorting tirades. In fairness, her character is a passive one, who’s more out there friends take actions that dictate her own; in American Pie terminology, she’s the Kevin of the group. One of her more genuine comedic moments may have been when the movie opens in full-on college flashback with the four friends gathered around a beer pong table. It’s a fun scene, one carefully reconstructed from a college frat house a decade passed as they even have J-Kwon’s Tipsy playing in the background. Let’s be clear, it was humorous, in of itself, to see Johansson, Glazer, Bell, and Kravitz pretending to be college-aged. Kravitz is great, perhaps seeming more natural than in other turns (the Divergent series, Fantastic Beasts), but isn’t able to flex true comedic muscles as her role is relegated to satiating an odd plotline with some hedonistic locals (and a random cameo from Demi Moore). Then too, there’s an unexpected parallel series of events unfolding as Jess’s fiancé, Peter (Paul Downs, co-writer) has an incredibly mild “bachelor party.”These asides to the men enjoying a quiet wine tasting, or Peter and co. buying adult diapers (for a reason I won’t spoil) are pleasantly interjected in a way as to add levity to the seriousness of unfolding events in Miami where people are literally dying. These deft touches, throwing convention on its head, or alluding to those things we all know to be true (a drunk girl bursting into the flashback college dorm room to pee on the floor--something she does on a weekly basis), are the bread and butter here and in earlier successes from this team--successes that have made Broad City and all associated with it so wildly popular. It’s a stellar cast being directed by a comedic powerhouse based off a script by that same powerhouse and her writing partner: it’s not unfair to expect great things, and they do deliver laughs, and a good number. There’s just one hell of a downer right in the middle of it; a downer that sours half the movie.    
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Dead Stripper > Dick Jokes
Maybe I should have taken a cue from the title. After all, Rough Night is fairly self-explanatory. I'm a fan of irreverent comedies where protagonists can behave the way less ideal versions of ourselves might, all with n...

Review: The Mummy

Jun 09 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221584:43585:0[/embed] The MummyDirector: Alex KurtzmanRelease Date: June 9, 2016Rated: PG-13 The Mummy has very little to do with the classic horror film from 1932 because that is a classic. Nor does it have much to do with the Brendan Fraser led (words I'll probably never type again) The Mummy from 1999 because that was fun. Nor does it really have anything to do with any mummy that you're thinking about unless you're thinking about a mostly naked Sofia Boutella with some rotting skin.  We find Boutella, playing the ancient and evil Princess Ahmanet, being buried alive because she's evil. Flash forward to modern day and tomb raider Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and his pal Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) discover her tomb after calling in an air strike because they're also in the army. From there the movie makes a lot of illogical leaps that basically lead Nick to become the chosen one, which means the evil god Set will inhabit his body after ceremony is performed by Ahmanet wherein she stabs him. Add in Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) to say a lot of exposition, and hint at the bigger Dark Universe as a whole, and a love interest for Nick (Annabelle Wallis), and you've got yourself... nearly nothing.  That is basically what The Mummy amounts to. By the time the film is nearing its ending it literally feels like it hasn't even started. You would think that issue would stem from the fact that they've shoved too much universe building into the film, but it is actually the opposite. The movie never seems to be able to establish any universe at all. We're supposed to care about Nick and his love interest, but she's such a 90s action movie MacGuffin that I've completely forgotten her name. We never get a true feeling for what Nick is going through, and Ahmanet's powers are so wishy washy and illogical that it creates plot holes that are hard to ignore. It's a superhero origin story where the superhero never shows up.  I will give credit where its due. I'm excited to see more of Russel Crowe's Jekyll/Hyde. The actor actually imbues his exposition with a bit of panache, and Jekyll's brief appearance is the most fun the movie has. In fact, aside from that the movie is just bland. Universal wants to establish a "dark" universe, but there's nothing dark about this movie at all except for its instance to mute every color in existence. It plays the same note throughout, feeling more like a dated action movie than a modern blockbuster. The DC Extended Universe may have its issues, but at least its got a tone and feeling of its own. The Mummy can't differentiate itself from the myriad of other action flicks released each year. That may come from Alex Kurtzman's directing. Why Universal would take the risk on a guy only known for producing is beyond me, but his first big studio movie lacks any character at all. His action sequences are competent enough, but rely a bit too much on unremarkable CGI, and he routinely wastes the charms of Tom Cruise, who wavers back and forth on whether he's really committed to playing the role. In fairness, if I saw the way the movie was unfolding, I'd probably stop caring too. Finally, Kurtzman just can't keep the pace. The film lulls and then picks up randomly and then lulls again. Part of that probably comes from the screenplay-by-committee (six credited writers) production, but Kurtzman could have made it flow better. The sad fact is that The Mummy isn't truly terrible. It isn't really anything. There's some decent action sequences with some clever gimmicks sprinkled in. There's a plot that's illogical, but passable, and actors who, under the right circumstances, could make something interesting happen. But nothing interesting does happen. The Mummy is two hours of nothing, and at this moment that means that the entirety of the Dark Universe is two hours of nothing. Universal better pray for a big bang soon or it'll keep on being nothing, and none of their stars will shine. 
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Don't universes get started with a bang?
Everybody wants a superhero movie universe now. Thanks to Marvel's insane success at stringing together a cinematic comic universe, every movie studio out there wants a piece of the pie. You can't really blame them. Cinematic...

Review: Wonder Woman

May 31 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221570:43578:0[/embed] Wonder WomanDirector: Patty JenkinsRelease Date: June 2, 2017Rated: PG-13 Diana (Gal Gadot) is the Princess of Themyscira, an island inhabiting an ancient Amazonian race put on the Earth by Zeus to stifle mankind's need for war. Molded from clay and birthed by Zeus, Diana has always been a little different from the rest of her Amazonian sisters and put to the true test when Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an English spy, crash lands on her home and brings news of a great war happening around the world (WWI). Figuring it to be the work of Ares, the god of war, Diana demands to be taken to the front line. But when in the outside world, Diana has to come to grips with her own humanity as she learns the real driving force behind the war.  Let's get this out of the way first. Wonder Woman is an origin story. The plot follows a lot of the standard beats you've come to expect from origin stories (complete with a sequence introducing the flashback in question), but unlike other films of its ilk, rather than a character slowly becoming a mythological being, Wonder Woman essentially works backwards. As it's introducing Diana and her world, the film takes an already established higher being and challenges her infallibility. Always being sure to treat her as a goddess, the narrative instead veers away from the stereotypical physical change and focuses on internal struggle and strife. Momentous scenes in origin stories like first donning of the famous suit, fighting the main villain, and the original call to action, are subdued in favor of zeroing in on Diana's matter-of-fact perspective. Basically, there's no need to have Diana change into a hero since she already is one, and I can't understate how refreshing it is to learn about her humanity instead.  Ambitious as the internal narrative is, it wouldn't have worked without a strong performance from its lead. To be completely honest, I was worried about Gal Gadot's strength as a lead actress going into this. Thankfully, that worry only lasted about 20 minutes. While the first chunk of the film is stilted and full of bad acting and accents (likening it to a more generic version of Xena: Warrior Princess), once Gadot is introduced everything perks right up. She's kind of incredible in the way she commands attention here (befitting the character too). Director Patty Jenkins takes a little time each shot to make Gadot stand out a little more, whether its subtly pointing out the fact she is taller than most of her co-stars, or the costume design making her look just different enough from everyone else. Gadot and Jenkins work together to really nail the fish out of water angle here, and further smooth out any edges Gadot could have in her performance.  But Gadot's performance wouldn't have meant anything without a great script. Wonder Woman may not be perfectly written in all areas (as one big moment diminishes her character), but there's a great balance of levity and drama. What I came to appreciate the most were smaller beats allowing the actors to really dig into their characters. Chris Pine is as charming as he's ever been, so the best scenes of the film are simply subdued conversations between Steve and Diana. These smaller, character intense moments also help to elevate the later generic superhero action taking place toward the climax. There's an added layer of catharsis, but it doesn't mean the climax is safe from gender normative action where Diana is suddenly not the character she was the rest of the film. The climax will need further discussion once more folks see it for sure.  As for the action, it's fine. The action scenes are a bit Snyder-esque as they use slow motion to emphasize movement, but there is a greater sense of fluidity in the motion. Once Diana starts whipping around dudes with a golden rope, the film basks in some very cool visuals. There's unfortunately a bit of unintentional slapstick during some of the scenes, but it gives the film a little flavor not seen in other DC Comics films. I'll give it a pass.  The fear when reviewing superhero films is critically analyzing them within a bubble. Initially, I was worried I'd attribute Wonder Woman's success to being a well made film within the DC Extended Universe (and we've been burned so many times), and just clinging to it like a life raft in a sea of schmaltz. But, after writing this review, I've come to the conclusion it's just a damn good film.  Wonder Woman, the oft-misplaced icon in DC's Holy Trinity, has truly made her mark on cinema. Less Batmen and supermenches, more wonderful women please.  Second Opinion: Wonder Woman gets almost everything right for its first two acts. Its action sequences are impressive, and utilize Wonder Woman's superpowers in unique and awesome ways. Patty Jenkins has a surprising eye for action for a drama director that allows it to flow and build, a feature many directors seem to lack. But more important than the kick ass action sequences is the fact the film works as a character piece. Unlike other DCEU films, you actually care about what's going on, the plot unfolds in a coherent way, and the characters act like they should. Yes, it may hit on a few (OK, a lot) of cliches, but it implements them to a tee. A lot of the charm comes from Chris Pine and Gal Gadot, who turn their relationship into something special. The film actually hits emotionally, which is why it's too bad the third act turns into nothing more than an action brawler. It doesn't fit with the rest of the film's tone, and feels more like a Zack Snyder movie than anything else. This doesn't sully the film as a whole, however, leading to a superhero movie that feels like its own thing. 80 -- Matthew Razak
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Some kind of wonderful
DC Comics and Warner Bros have been, well, let's say misguided in their attempts at launching a series of films comparable to Marvel's success. Deciding to push through critical failure (thanks to overall box office success),...

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell no Tales

May 26 // Rick Lash
[embed]221557:43576:0[/embed] Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No TalesDirectors:  Joachim Rønning and Espen SandbergRelease Date: May 26, 2017Rated: PG-13 Both Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightly) have been absent from the franchise since At World’s End, so it may come as a surprise that the first character we meet, a young boy and expert on the sea’s supernatural lore, actually turns out to be their progeny. The opening scene quickly puts him in touch with Orlando Bloom, but my gut worried, watching it play out, that Orlando wasn’t really back for the film, more as a cameo—a nod to the Pirates glory days, and I didn’t expect to see him again until the film’s conclusion. Sadly, this proved true. But this sequence informs us of the driving narrative need of the film: Will Turner’s son, Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) wants to break his father’s curse that binds him to the Flying Dutchman, the ship that Will inherited from Davey Jones, and prevents Will from returning to his family. Let’s be clear about this, while Depp and Rush, in faithful turns as Captains Sparrow and Barbosa, carry the film, their narrative needs do not. This story is not theirs; it’s a story driven by a new, younger generation, Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario (Carina Smyth), and their mutual quest to find the Trident of Poseidon, the only object powerful enough to break all the sea’s curses. This is a problem, to a degree structurally, as Depp and Rush are there to support Thwaites and Scodelario, but the opposite plays out onscreen. Depp and Rush remain instrumental to not only the story, but the heart of the film. Their characters are fully developed, have history and depth, lending weight to what happens. While our new characters are not as emotionally resonant, despite admirable attempts to add depth in the brief time allotted by the script. Scodelario shines as a smart woman immersed in heavy colonial ignorance, whose education, drive, and intelligence are quickly branded and trumped by labels of “witch” at every turn to effective fanfare and laughs. But this imbalance in story and reality carries further. Sparrow particularly, goes through the motions without clear motivation. He’s drinking, wenching, and getting in and out of trouble with the same brilliance-come-ineptitude he always does, but here he has no drive and seems simply along for the ride. One can only assume because a Pirates movie without Depp / Jack Sparrow would not be a Pirates movie—a fact producers must have admitted, despite Depp’s box office woes, massive losses for another Disney vehicle (The Lone Ranger), and owing to his massive pay day for this turn. Javier Bardem plays the villain, Captain Salazar, to appropriate levels of villainy, but in this, he and his crew are weak, third iterations of undead pirate miscreants. They seem very much par for the course, and are feared, inexplicably, by men who have faced the same and worse in Pirates films past. What adds a fresh ocean breeze are the infusion of undead gulls and, particularly, sharks—a nice expansion of the undead monkey theme (little Jack does make his own appearance, to useful purpose as well). Similarly, it’s the undead pirates’ walking and running across the water’s surface (very much biblical in allusion) adding a nice correlation to the pirates from the original when they “take a walk” underwater. In many ways, what works best here is what has always worked for the franchise (including Hans Zimmer’s wonderful orchestral and epic score). The same can be said for the film’s over the top action sequences and elaborate stunts. Almost zany in nature, the stunts are as true to the franchise as ever. And, as usual, they are made to work through humor and well placed gags and jokes. The film is funny, I found myself laughing often, partly just in plain appreciation for the continuation of what made earlier Pirates films successful—and here Dead Men Tell no Tales may even succeed more than some of the other sequels. It is quite funny. The audience I viewed it with were laughing more than many audiences at pure comedies. It was hearty, and again, appreciative. Carina’s misfortune at having studied astronomy and horology (the study of time) are used wonderfully for extended bits. There’s probably room for a more meritorious review to dive deep into the depths of how female protagonists in these films are sexualized, reduced to heaving bosoms (albeit heaving bosoms that continually outmaneuver and perform their male counterparts), and stereotypes quite aware of their misfortune of living in the age they do. And there’s probably something to say regarding how these heroines are denied true independence as men continually feel the need to sacrifice themselves on their behalf, denying them their own narrative decision making power. But we’ll only hint that this imagined meritorious review can do this, and better—for we are not said review. Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg purportedly tried to emulate Gore Verbinski’s directing of the first three films, and you do feel it here, but the heart they tried to infuse is meek and only succeeds by forced inclusions of plot developments that seem tacked on and don’t serve the majority of the movie. Here, see twists on why exactly this new female protagonist, Scodelario, has been introduced. Or what exactly happens when Will Turner’s curse is lifted, as you must come to expect will come to pass. What succeeds is what has always succeeded, and here, in film five, with apparent plans for more, pending the financial success or failure of the latest (by no means guaranteed given a $230M production budget), I imagine this franchise isn’t going anywhere. To me, seeing new characters come and go to flesh these vessels out while the underlying bones remain the same is reminiscent of the James Bond franchise; perhaps one day we will get another actor to play Jack Sparrow (though they successfully prove they can CGI him younger here), as unimaginable as that seems, and the franchise will reinvent itself by progression. Let’s just hope Johnny Depp and Disney learn from Sean Connery’s mistakes—once you’re out, you’re out: don’t come back.
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18 pound balls
It’s been nearly 14 years since audiences were first treated to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. At the time, Roger Ebert said that Depp’s “performance is original in its every atom. There has ...

Review: Baywatch

May 24 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221553:43568:0[/embed] BaywatchDirector: Seth GordonRelease Date: May 26, 2017Rated: R Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) is a lifeguard everyone loves. He may take his job a bit too seriously, but in the world of Baywatch, his lifeguard post includes its own arm of the local government (complete with enough of a budget to afford things like ATVs). When confronted with the disgraced, former Olympian Matt Brody (Zac Efron), he's forced to put his feelings about the new recruit aside when they uncover a larger drug plot at hand that's threatening the entire bay. But when the police won't investigate, Lt. Mitch and his lifeguard crew decide to take matters into their own hands and dicks and boobs.  Like most unfortunate comedies to fall in this category, Baywatch substitutes actual jokes with raunchy humor. Now I don't have a problem with raunch in practice, as dick jokes are as classic as apple pie, but they're only great when they don't disrupt the flow of the film. It's hard to explain, but I'll try and elaborate on my problem with Baywatch's genitalia humor by outlining one of its more problematic scenes. In the first fifteen minutes or so, Ronnie (Jon Bass), the archetypal loser of the bunch, has a crush on the lifeguard CJ (Kelly Rohrback) -- who's only purpose in this film is to be ogled -- and chokes on some food when she runs by. After CJ delivers the heimlich maneuver (complete with thrusting), Ronnie becomes erect. But to hide it from her, he nervously stumbles until he falls and gets stuck, dick first, in a beach chair. Thus resulting in a large crowd of people surrounding Ronnie as CJ and Mitch talk about setting him free. If it sounds like my summary made the scene seem devoid of charm, it was actually much worse experiencing it first hand. Sure it serves the purpose of introducing Ronnie and CJ's dynamic, but paints their friendship in an unpleasant, slog of a light.  It's a shame Baywatch relies so much on low hanging fruit humor, since it can be intelligent when it puts forth an effort. When the film allows itself to be made fun of, it actually makes for pretty fantastic sequences. The film's opening, for example, combines all that you'd expect to see (Johnson diving in slow motion, wide shots of the beach) but injects with a major nod to how ridiculous it all is once the title card shows up. There are even a few inspired raunchy bits (like the talking balls gag), and the fact that Mitch never refers to Brody by his real name. These occasional bright spots in the dialogue only make the rest of the script more disappointing by comparison.  But the major factor at play is how straight it plays the premise. Baywatch, while occasionally winking at itself, also takes things much more seriously than you'd hope. Long stretches are dedicated to plot exposition, or un-interestingly shot action sequences. Rather than laugh, or even question what I was watching, I often found myself having no reaction at all. And with a comedy that clocks in at two hours, that's pretty much the equivalent of drowning in shallow water. It's something that could've easily been avoided had you tried to kick around a bit.  Like the vapid characters of its source material, Baywatch is great to look at but once it opens its mouth you realize how hollow it is. It's almost as if the entire film plays in slow motion.  Baywatch is a bad watch. I know I should feel guilty about not ending this review on a better joke, but that'd mean putting in more effort than the film did. 
Baywatch Review photo
So much emocean
Baywatch is another film in the same vein of nostalgic television reboots like The A-Team, CHiPs, and the crazily successful 21 Jump Street. A show known only for attractive people running in slow motion serving as a sor...

Review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

May 17 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220905:43129:0[/embed] Abacus: Small Enough to JailDirector: Steve JamesRating: NRRelease Date: May 17, 2017 Thomas Sung seems like a model for the Asian-American immigrant experience. He helped found the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown during the 80s to serve the local community. He knows his customers, he does right by them, and the bank has given his kids opportunities for success. His two eldest daughters, Vera and Jill, help run the bank and will eventually take over. Here's a healthy slice of promising Americana served in Chinatown. But then, Murphy's Law: a handful of Abacus employees commit loan fraud, and then the housing crisis strikes, and then the great recession. Rather than go after Chase, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office throws the book at Abacus. Even though Abacus cooperated fully with authorities for a loan fraud investigation and did everything ethically and by the books in the aftermath, they were considered easy prey. At the beginning of the documentary, Thomas and his wife, Hwei Lin, are watching Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. James returns to that yuletide staple again and again, finding parallels between George Bailey's savings and loan and the Thomas Sung's Abacus. Similarly, the Sungs come across as Capraesque heroes--the set-upon optimists, the embattled idealists, everymen and everywomen always trying. This might be why the film doesn't feel like most other Frontline documentaries. Abacus is in many ways a character-driven film. I feel odd thinking about real people in documentaries as characters, but the Sung family is comprised of memorable personalities. Thomas, Hwei Lin, and their daughters are strong in their own ways. They're admirably resilient, to put it politely. (At a certain point, the resilience turns into take-no-shit toughness, especially from the Sung daughters.) James films the family alone and in conversation with one another. The interactions can get nervy and uncomfortable as so many family interactions can, but they're all well-picked given how well they reveal the family's dynamic. James offers another compelling thread in his exploration NYC's Chinese community. Chinatown residents (Abacus' primary clientele) tend to be tight-knit and insular, which goes back to the formation of family-based support groups. The representatives from the DA's office interviewed in the film are baffled by what goes on there. Jurors on the case similarly don't understand how Chinatown operates. I worried that this confusion from non-Chinese people would affect the case. There's such a fascinating contradiction at play. The closeness of the Chinese community gives them a collective strength that they wouldn't have otherwise as a minority group, but the foreign nature of these cultural practices and their minority status make the residents of Chinatown more vulnerable. I mentioned that a sense of Capraesque optimism pervades the film, and yet I couldn't help but read a larger brand of pessimism into the proceedings. The little guy can always get picked on. While it's nice to see the little guy fight, there's a knowledge that this won't be the last time it happens. What about the major banks, who really should have been held accountable somehow for what they've done? But the world isn't so kind to those that are easily trampled. And yet. This reminds me of one the great lines about disillusionment in film: "Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown."
Review: Abacus photo
Mr. Capra Goes to Chinatown
Steve James may be incapable of directing a bad documentary. His films includes Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, and Life Itself. With Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, James continues his record as one of America's most relia...

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Friends. Countrymen. Britons. There are so many places (read: quips) I’d like to begin. From the guy who dated an already older-ish Madonna. Comes the prettiest Arthur you’ve ever seen (seriously, the header image...

Review: Manifesto

May 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221523:43554:0[/embed] ManifestoDirector: Julian RosefeldtRating: NRRelease Date: May 10, 2017 The art installation version of Manifesto takes just over two hours to complete if you were to watch every screen. As a film, Manifesto is only 90 minutes long. Rosefeldt chops up many of the monologues, and only a handful of them get to play out on screen in their entirety. There's only one moment of synchronized harmony at the very end of the film, which probably doesn't make much sense to people who haven't seen the art installation. I couldn't stop comparing the film to the art installation. Yet I think that's a fair comparison since Manifesto was an art installation first and its strengths as an art object are unique to that medium. As a film, Manifesto brings the texts of the manifestos and the brilliance of Blanchett's multiple performances to the forefront. Blanchett leaps from persona to persona seamlessly, playing a Russian vagrant, a garbage crane operator, a punk nihilist, and so on. During a funeral, a veiled Blanchett delivers a stirring eulogy by way of the Dada Manifesto. In a class full of children, Blanchett warmly instructs the minds of future through the words of Werner Herzog, Jim Jarmusch, and the Dogme 95 Manifesto. One of the standouts is her dual performance as a cable news host and a field reporter. Blanchett nails the cadence and rhythms of news, which is all false gravitas, falser sincerity, and manufactured conviviality. Both the installation and the film reminded me a lot of Cindy Sherman's work and how she portrays herself through shifting personas. Rosefeldt's able to do a few fun things with editing that simply couldn't be done with the art installation. One segment features Blanchett as a God-lovin' housewife leading her family in grace before supper. She goes on and on about the ideal art she wants in her life and the lives of others. The film cuts away and returns to this domestic tableau multiple times, drawing out all the laughs it can from the interminable prayer and the bored looks on the faces of her family. And yet while the text and the performances are important, I couldn't help but feel Manifesto is also a work about time, space, and the way its audience organizes and interprets the experience of the installation in their heads. People who see the art installation can wander if they want, and divert their attention to other screens, or to other people, or even to the potential synchronicities of different manifestos being recited simultaneously on separate screens. For instance, standing in the center of the Park Avenue Armory during the harmonious synchronization of all the screens, I noticed a lone voice at the end of the harmony. Cutting through the silence was Blanchett the Dada Manifesto mourner. She said, "Nothing, nothing, nothing" into the void of space. That's an experience that felt so personal and even so secret--as if only I noticed it, and as if Rosefeldt set that moment up just for those people who happened to be there and I was momentarily a co-conspirator, a member of this clandestine treehouse art club. I loved the way that armory space and my own ideological hobby horses played a role in my attention to Manifesto as an art installation. That's impossible to recreate as a film. Rosefeldt's is bound to guide his audience down a set path rather than giving the audience the ability to get lost in the experience of the various screens. Thinking about it in terms of game design and video games, if Manifesto the art installation is an aesthetic and intellectual sandbox, Manifesto the art film is an ideological rail shooter. Given what's lost in the translation, there were times that I felt like Manifesto the film was a supplement to the art installation rather than a fully realized art object in its own right. And yet maybe that's where the dimension of time and space comes back into play. I think what I think about Manifesto because I saw the art installation before the film. A work by an artist and an actress in conversation with another work by the same artist and the same actress. Manifesto the film might be considered a response to Manifesto the art installation. In other words, a 14th screen. Even when I thought Manifesto the film loses the unique aspects of time and space that made the art installation work so well, I am now forced to consider new dimensions of time (the order in which I saw the different iterations of Manifesto, the runtime of each) and space (the venues in which I saw each work, the strengths of the two different mediums). I may have a strong preference for one version of Manifesto over the other, but I'm glad to have been engaged and enthralled by each in their own way.
Review: Manifesto photo
Art installation becomes an art movie
When a work is adapted to another medium, it almost always loses something in translation. Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto started its life as a multi-screen art installation. I had an opportunity to see it here in New York at t...

Review: Alien: Covenant

May 06 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221515:43550:0[/embed] Alien: CovenantDirector: Ridley ScottRelease Date: May 18, 2017Rating: R  Coming from Covenant’s marketing campaign, you might be surprised by the first name in its opening credits: Michael Fassbender. And right off the bat we know that something is wrong, because in the trailer that was pretty cool for two minutes (before being very, very stupid right at the end), you see Fassbender… twice? We’ve been led to believe that Katherine Waterson is our protagonist, and yet we don’t begin the film with her (rather with Fassbender’s David character, from Prometheus). And then we go to Fassbender’s other character, an android named Walter. We aren’t introduced to the cast until after the first exciting thing happens: A solar event damages the ship and forces the crew members from their cryosleep. In the chaos that ensues, we finally meet our Ripley. And it just goes downhill from there. The first thing you see Daniels – the Strong Independent Woman who is going to take down the xenomorph at the end (one would assume) – do is fail to get out of her sleeping pod. You see some guys get out, then they help her. And then her husband, played perplexingly for less than two minutes by James Franco, can’t get out… but no one can get him out either and he burns up in his pod. And then we’re treated to our Strong Independent Woman being sad about her dead husband while watching a video he left her on a tablet. Ugh. But Daniels doesn’t take over; she’s second in command to Billy Krudup’s character, who is sad that no one respects him and thinks it is because he is a man of faith (there is no evidence to support this). Their ship is transporting a couple thousand colonists to their new home, but after the solar incident and the death of their captain, everyone is a little iffy about getting back into their cryogenic pods – especially since Walter tells them there is a not-insignificant chance that this kind of thing could happen again. Conveniently (or not), they receive a distress beacon from a nearby planet that falls perfectly within the habitable zone. It’s weeks away rather than years, so Krudup decides they should go check it out. When hell breaks loose however many minutes later, I found myself thinking not about what I was seeing but about my complete lack of reaction to it. Technically, there’s some good stuff here. There are some genuinely great shots, and the production design in general is very cool. But functionally there’s nothing. You know what emotion you’re supposed to feel because you have an understanding of cinematic language. The music swells, the camera gets shaky, and the editing gets jumping; oh, something tense is going on. But I don’t feel any tension. And then I’m watching Amy Seimetz fire on a baby xenomorph and thinking about why this doesn’t work for me. Even the body horror stuff that sort of worked didn’t really work. [embed]221515:43549:0[/embed] The Chestburster in the original Alien was a genuinely shocking moment. It’s probably one of cinema’s most iconic images, and works on pretty much every level. Alien: Covenant knows that a xenomorph bursting from a chest isn’t good enough anymore, so it has a few much more disturbing ways to birth aliens from a human body. And they’re definitely disgusting, getting the grossed-out reaction from the crowd that they were going for, but the intensity of the violence doesn’t actually serve the plot in any meaningful way. It’s just horrific imagery for the sake of it, there to shock the audience more than the characters in the film. You may appreciate the inventiveness for a moment, but then you have to deal with the CGI xenomorphs that come out and all the gorgeous practical effects that lead up to it can’t stop you from groaning. Or laughing. The audience laughed a lot. They actually clapped a couple of times, usually after the Xenomorph had killed someone in a particularly vicious way. I wondered about that: Why? Was it because the characters were so boring that everyone was just glad they were dead? I mean, I had already forgotten several of the characters by the time the credits rolled, only remembering once I rewatched the trailer just to make sure that it was, in fact, selling the same product that I had just witnessed. The crew on the Covenant probably had names, but I only remember two of them: Daniels and Tennessee. (There is also Walter, but we’ll get to that later.) Tennessee is played by Danny McBride, and he’s got a fairly unpleasant personality, but he’s the only one who actually has personality at all. The characters are largely expendable, and the script seems well aware of that, because it makes no attempt to develop anyone who dies early and only a marginal effort to develop the ones who make it to the third act. The four-plus-minute scene that I mentioned earlier, a slice of which is featured in that trailer, is important because it’s not actually in the movie. Like, at all. And it’s interesting because watching that clip after seeing the film, I saw more character development for some of those people than in the entire two hours of nonsense I sat through. I would assume that it was originally supposed to be part of the film; it seems odd that it wouldn’t be, and it’s the only time James Franco says things while alive. It actually feels like it’s from a completely different movie. They talk about the crew members, but make no reference to all of the other (sleeping) colonists on the ship. Watching that, I would never have known that they weren’t the sole bodies aboard the Covenant. And sure, it makes only marginally less sense than the stuff the characters actually do say, but it leads me to wonder what place it was supposed to serve… and what the movie was supposed to look like. Because I don’t believe for a second that Alien: Covenant is the movie that it was supposed to be. Clearly it’s not the movie that Fox’s marketing department wanted it to be, but I have trouble believing it’s the movie Ridley Scott was trying to make. Then again, I don’t have any idea what movie he was trying to make, because there’s no consistency of any sort. Really, it feels like the movie is fucking with you sometimes. Nowhere is this clearer than the truly bizarre sequences like the one where Michael Fassbender as David (who just-so-happens to be on this planet) is showing Michael Fassbender as Walter how to play the recorder. The camera swings back and forth in a long take as one Fassbender tells the other about “fingering holes,” something that happens for several straight minutes. That sequence is probably as long as the character-building clip I mentioned that didn’t make it into the film… yet somehow the innuendo-filled recorder scene is important? At first, I was convinced that David was going to kill Walter and take over his place at this point, maybe force the recorder through Walter’s throat, but no: He literally just shows him how to play the recorder. It’s just two Michael Fassbenders, like Ridley Scott finally figured out the facial technology that David Fincher has been using for years and wanted to show it off. Look, Fassbender is one of my favorite actors, and if they want to have scenes of just him talking to himself, that’s fine… but this is just stupid. As with most scenes David is in, there seems to be an attempt at philosophy. As I mentioned, Fassbender is the protagonist, both as David and Walter. They’re two very different models of the same Android, and the underlying logic behind their creation could lead to some interesting discussions. There are hints of that, and other things. David talks (constantly) about creation and perfection and humanity and love, but these proclamations aren’t part of a dialogue. It’s like listening to a college freshman who read “Ozymandias” for the first time and has now figured out the meaning of life and really, really wants to tell you about how cool he is. He says vapid things in vain attempts at profundity, and it’s just sad. It’s theoretically an extension of the ideas raised in Prometheus (particularly with regards to creation), but it’s ultimately nothing at all. And that’s Alien: Covenant as a whole. It’s nothing. By the time this review is published, I will likely have forgotten everything about it, except for the feelings it left me with. I wanted it to be good; I wanted that oh-so badly. I wanted Ridley Scott to prove he still had it. But Covenant proves that he does not. This is Scott giving up on his most famous franchise. This is me giving up on him.
Alien: Covenant Review photo
Fool Me Twice
As reviled as it is (justifiably or not), Prometheus deserves a little pass for being unlike its Alien siblings in large part because of its branding. It may be in the same canon, but it’s not pretending to be an Alien ...

Review: Chuck

May 05 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221422:43548:0[/embed] ChuckDirector: Philippe FalardeauRating: RRelease Date: May 5, 2017 Chuck has an endearing center in its star Liev Schreiber, whose ease and affability keep the film watchable even when it's sluggish or middling. I was reminded how good and versatile Schreiber can be and how underrated he is as an actor. As Chuck Wepner, he's both pathetic and sympathetic, a legitimate hometown hero and a fame-chasing clown. I'm not sure how true to life these contradictions are to the real-life Wepner, but as a character in a film, there's promise there. One minute he's quoting Anthony Quinn from Requiem for a Heavyweight, the next minute he's trying to hump anything with boobs by mentioning Rocky. Many of Schreiber's co-stars also elevate the material. Jim Gaffigan's solid as Wepner's brother, a guy who loves to be a hanger-on so long as there's coke or women involved (and as long as he doesn't have to pay). Schreiber's former real-life partner Naomi Watts appears mid-film as Linda, who would eventually become Wepner's third wife. Watts isn't given much to do but flirt and support the pathetic palooka, but the genuine fondness she and Schreiber shared comes through on screen. Elizabeth Moss is especially good as Wepner's second wife, Phyllis, even though she mostly just has to put up with his BS. Despite that cast, Chuck falters because of its writing, and by extension its production. Writers often use the term "connective tissue" to describe the moments between the big scenes. In Chuck, the connective tissue feels more like biopic filler. The film is stitched together with on-and-off voiceover narration. It's too hand-holdy and on-the-nose. The movie also rushes itself, breezing along with its flutey, wah-wah kinda-disco stock score, which cheapens the overall feel. Some of the scenes may have been written too big for the budget or without much consideration for lighting and texture. Take the opening scene in which Chuck fights a grizzly bear in the ring. That's a godd set up, but it's lit like a coke-fueled disco party later in the film; it may have been shot in the exact same location. It feels small, but in a "Yeah, we couldn't quite afford all this" way rather than a seedy, "My god, what's become of my life" way. The parts of Chuck that work are the scenes in which the movie slows down, builds out a scene, and allows the awkward moments of these characters lives to unfold. When Wepner tries to hassle Sylvester Stallone about Rocky, there's something there. The same goes for a bad audition or a crummy parent teacher conference. These scenes are when Chuck feel less like a movie from "biopic trope land" and more like a movie about flawed people trying to screw up a little less (or a little more). So much of the movie feels like it's just checking off shaggy story beats rather than letting the moments come like they would but given a deliberate shape. Oddly, Chuck might have taken more cues from the original Rocky to be a better film. Rocky is a quiet, quirky, thoughtful love story about discarded people finding hope in each other. There's also boxing, but the connection between two misfits is so strong that it doesn't matter if Rocky wins or loses in the end, just that he endures. In Chuck, the whole arc of someone's rise, fall, and redemption feels like it's missing that human core. There are scenes that have it, but like fame or pseudo-celebrity, they're fleeting.
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This coulda been a contender
Certain movies have the seeds of a much better movie sown through them. Usually these movies are a little bit of a mess, with a jumble of tones and scenes and characters, some working better than others. The stuff that works ...

Review: The Wall

May 03 // Rick Lash
The Wall photo
Anything but simple
The premise is simple, the film anything but. Iraq, 2007. The war is coming to an end, but maybe someone should have told that to the "bad guys." Two American soldiers. Not just any American soldiers, but a sniper team, ...

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 03 // Matthew Razak
[embed]221505:43546:0[/embed] Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2Director: James GunnRating: PG-13Release Date: May 5, 2017 We should just get this out of the way first: even if this movie sucked more than Suicide Squad I'd recommend it just to see baby Groot. Baby Groot is the cutest, adorablest, most bestest thing that has ever happened on a movie screen. His adorableness could reduce a theater of hardened criminals into a gaggle of teenage girls who have just seen 12 puppies playing with 12 kittens with some baby otters splashing in a pool nearby under the watchful eye of 3 baby pandas trying to lick fruit out of an ice cube while a group of babies give those tiny baby smiles that make your heart melt. You cannot even understand the level of Internet-breaking cute baby Groot is.  It's pretty clear director James Gunn understands what he has on his hands as well. The entire opening sequence trains the camera on baby Groot doing a dance number to ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" while the rest of the Guardians battle it out with a giant space creature in the background. It's a fantastically creative opening reestablishing why Guardians feels so different from the rest of the Marvel universe and brings us right back into the team's dynamics while making sure everyone understands baby Groot is the best.  Those team dynamics are at the forefront this time around. After establishing their new family the intrepid group of heroes -- consisting of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel) -- are still bickering among each other as they charge for their services throughout the universe. Rocket lands them in a heap of trouble by stealing some fancy batteries from some gold aliens called the Sovereign. This leads the Sovereign's high priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) to hunt them down, but the group is saved by none other than Star-Lord's father, Ego (Kurt Russel). Turns out Ego is a Celestial, an ancient being, and now a living planet. Basically Star-Lord has some god in him. Meanwhile Ayesha hires Yondu (Michael Rooker) to chase down the Guardians, and Nebula (Karen Gillan) is on her own quest to kill Gamora. Basically, the band's back together. Vol. 2 has a lot to unpack, and it spends a lot of time unpacking it. Its overall themes are about family and friendship, especially fatherhood, thanks to the parenting love triangle that is Star-Lord/Ego/Yondu, but it also needs to get through a ton of exposition because of the mass amount of character background it needs to unpack. That can get a bit cumbersome. While the original film moved effortlessly through its emotional cues and action, Vol. 2 sometimes feels like its pulling you along so we can get to those spots. Exposition dominates a lot of the interaction between Star-Lord and Ego; meaning the emotional punch gets a little lost. Luckily it's made up for in a lot of other areas. The relationship between the crew is still fantastic even when the screenplay gets a bit too on the nose. Gunn and the cast just know how to make this crew work, and they continue to do it all while merging Nebula and Yondu more fully into things. The clunkier segments of dialogue can't keep down the actual spark that these guys have on screen together (even if a chunk of the team is completely digital).  Then there's the action. Gunn was let loose on this one. I can see the Marvel execs giving him carte blanche the second the first film exploded, and he goes wild with it. The opening I described above is just one example of him having an absolute blast with the action. There is a Yondu fight scene that is one of the most clever pieces of action I've seen from Marvel, and the final battle is simply stunning, and, more importantly, coherent. With a plethora of characters doing a plethora of things, Gunn manages to pull together an impressive sequence, which is no easy task. He's also a master at making sure punchlines hit. Even some of the cheesiest lines in the film are timed wonderfully, leading to what is probably the funniest of the Marvel films. Of course letting loose isn't always a good thing. Vol. 2 is a very busy movie with a lot going on almost all the time. The color palette used is massive and sometimes Gunn can get a little carried away with what he's doing. He's a good enough director to keep everything coherent, but a little restraint here or there may have been in order at times. That doesn't mean anything is bad, but things get a little overwhelming at points.  It always helps that your cast is fully into it. Pratt shines again in his leading role, showing why the first film turned him into a superstar. However, the biggest standout is probably Bautista, who is given a lot more dialogue and screen time in Vol. 2. He nails it. While Drax's whole shtick is not emoting, there's a skill to doing that while still emoting and Bautista does it with surprising adeptness. Baby Groot may steal the show, but it's Drax who grounds the film more than anything.  The film still stands on its own in the Marvel universe. In fact, it quite wisely almost entirely ignores the rest of the universe and its ongoing plot. There are mentions of Thanos, but he doesn't show up this time. There are five(!) teasers at the end, but none of them connect to the other Marvel films. Much like its style, humor, and themes, Vol. 2 stands apart from the rest of Marvel for now. That doesn't mean that comic fans won't have a few jaw dropping moments, but this is as far away from an Avengers tie-in as you can get. What it comes down to is that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is just fun. It's funny as hell, full of touching and inspiring moments and despite its screenplay issues keeps its momentum going throughout. While it never quite captures the magic of the first film, it has its own. The first movie was such a surprise and so damn charming, that it's impossible for Vol. 2 to regain that feeling, but it makes its own, and it owns it. Even if it didn't it has baby Groot. -- After reviewing the first Guardians of the Galaxy, I noted it shared a lot of similarities with other films of its ilk while seeming unique enough through the Marvel lens. Vol. 2, however, throws that completely out the window and delivers an experience wholly its own. While Matt is absolutely correct about the sequels frantic nature, and stimulation overload, when the film focuses itself it can go to some truly remarkable depths not seen in many of the other MCU films. Dave Bautista is indeed the standout, once again, and grounds the crazy technicolor world in a way I didn't see coming. Gunn adds a unique flair to the MCU, again putting his stamp on the universe with some light body horror, soundtrack meshing with colorful action, but also doesn't let moments shine. Several emotional beats were undercut by constant jokes. The humor may land, but it's also constant. Taking a breath every so often would've been nice. -- Nick Valdez - 78
Guardians photo
Baby Groot is everything
When the first Guardians of the Galaxy hit I'm not sure any of us we're really prepared for it being as fantastic as it was. We weren't prepared for a team of mostly unknown superheroes being turned into one of Marvel's ...

Review: The Circle

Apr 28 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221468:43538:0[/embed] The CircleDirector: John PonsoldtRating: PG-13Release Date: April 28, 2017 Mae Holland (Emma Watson) lucks into a customer support job at The Circle, a Bay Area tech giant. The company has a sprawling campus full of cush employee amenities, much like the many corporate-capitalist Xanadus that dot the Silicon Valley. They're so flush with cash and a belief in work-as-play that they hire Beck to play a show on campus, which really does make this feel like a technological thriller from 2006. Jeez, guys, was Haim busy or something? ("They also have cooks for their employees, Hubert!" "Yeah, I know. More gravy, Uncle Bill?") Silicon Valley did it better. The company's co-founder, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), is a mix of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and a benevolent dictator. He uses utopian-sounding names to introduce dystopian technological innovations. While the dialogue may be wooden, the screenplay at least has an ear for the grammar of corporate-ese. The new Circle innovation is SeeChange, which basically means putting GoPros on everything. Mae buys into the corporate culture quickly, becomes a model employee, and some other stuff happens that leads to a pseudo Truman Show redux (Truman Show Vista) with live tweets. Black Mirror did it better. The Circle's a bit all over the place, with ludicrous stuff happening just because. For instance, Mae goes kayaking without a life jacket in the middle of the night in San Francisco Bay to... I honestly don't know. To clear her head? Beats me. Most seasoned kayakers would choose a less foggy place to go at night if they wanted to clear their heads. Kayakers would probably just go for a walk, come to think of it. John Boyega's character seems like Mae's love interest. Well, no. He's only got ten lines in the entire movie and doesn't really do anything except offer a bottle of white wine, show Mae some servers, and help obtain some info for the final act. The end. The film seems to set him up as a Circle employee gone rogue, a square peg who doesn't buy into the corporate speak and who stands outside the system possibly to undermine it. The higher ups are smart enough to keep tabs on everyone else in the company except for the guy who doesn't really hang out with everyone else in the company. It's like if The Village from The Prisoner decided to leave Number Six alone. ("Oh, that's a reference I get!" "Yeah, Uncle Bill. I thought you would." "Pass the asparagus.") Director and co-writer James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) feels oddly out of his depth with this film. He can't pin down the tone or build out a sustained mood, with scenes unfolding flatly, one after another as if joined by a series of monotonous and-then's. For a paranoid thriller, the film seems almost chipper about being monitored at all times. Scenes breeze by to convey exposition, carry the plot forward, and nothing more. The Circle feels so weightless and rushed and empty, peopled with vessels for plot and decade-old critiques of the modern world. Ellar Coltrane from Boyhood fumbles through a role as one of Mae's old friends. An unplugged luddite, he's angry that she buys into the Circle culture wholeheartedly. She used to do fun things and real stuff, like, man! He comes back in a pivotal scene later in the film that would be a nightmarish indictment of our loss of privacy if it wasn't also an absurd slapstick pursuit in the Benny Hill mode. ("I love Benny Hill." "I know you do, Uncle Bill.") I can't really blame the cast for this debacle. Not even Hanks can elevate this material. He was affable enough in last year's middling Dave Eggers adaptation A Hologram for the King (aka Eat, Pray, Love, Sell IT Solutions), but that only gets a movie so far. I'm not sure I bought America's Dad as Big Brotherberg. Watson can't carry a film with a flimsy character written like she just fell off the turnip truck; in a lot of ways Karen Gillan's overworked supporting character Annie makes for a more compelling protagonist. ("Turnips! We left your Aunt Sandra's turnip green salad on the kitchen counter!" "Oh, we sure did, Uncle Bill. Gosh. Let me get that in a sec, I'm almost done here.") The Circle is like a bad tech startup. There's talent behind it, a pitch with potential, but there's nothing there except buzzwords and BS. Behold: Cinematic Juicero.
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A mobile-ready platform for Dreck 2.0
The Circle is the paranoid techno-dystopian thriller of 2006 released in 2017 and based on a Dave Eggers novel published in 2013. The film's concerns about technology and social media are so dated and quaint, like the stuff a...

Review: LA 92

Apr 27 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221425:43497:0[/embed] LA 92Directors: Daniel Lindsay and T.J. MartinRating: RRelease Date: April 28, 2019 (NYC, LA); April 30, 2019 (National Geographic Channel)  Lindsay and Martin start not with the LA riots of 1992, but instead the Watts riots of 1965. Another case of police brutality and violence, another instance of outrage and destruction. Riots might be viewed as a type of self-harm. When a community is helpless to redress a wrong, they wound themselves. It makes sense that the specter of Watts lingers through the film, suggesting an inescapable inevitability of violence in the face of cyclical, systemic, and maybe even perpetual racism. These are decades and decades of oppression manifested in a grandiose act of self-mutilation. Tensions ratchet up following the beating of Rodney King. LA 92 notes the death of Latasha Harlins as part of the fomenting rage, which would lead to a lot of Korean businesses getting targeted during the riots themselves. Harlins was allegedly trying to shoplift orange juice at a convenience store. She got into a struggle with store owner Soon Ja Du, who shot Harlins dead at the register. Harlins was just 15 years old. The verdict in the murder case implies a lot of unsavory things about how the minority status of blacks and Asians are so different in the eyes of white America. (This goes beyond the purview of this review, but I couldn't help but think of the myth of the model minority that seems to pit blacks and Asians against one another, as if the American experience for these ethnic groups are commensurate simply by dint of minority status.) The build to the riots themselves on the day of the Rodney King verdict is so ominous. It's played out through a series of escalations; an argument over donuts, shoutdowns in the courthouse parking lot, feet on the ground, gatherings in churches. The anger has been shut in so long, it can't be contained. The cops are evacuated out of fear for their safety. The social order breaks down. Then the riot happens. The riot on screen is an unrelenting cinematic assault for at least an hour. The rage is palpable, as are the confusion and sadness. There's also a lot of sadistic happiness, the type of manic glee that comes with vengeance and feelings of dominance. A man's face gets caved in on camera, and people laugh at him in triumph. One scene I can't get out of my head. A man gets beaten, and his genitals are exposed. His attackers spray paint his face and and his private parts black. He quivers on the ground in the way that people in movies quiver when they're about to die. And then a preacher approaches the man slowly, fire and rubble around him; there's a Bible in one hand and his arms are outstretched like Christ. That's end times imagery; it happened in my own lifetime. Occasionally it feels like the gyre of a score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans will completely overtake the madness on screen. Yet the imagery is so potently organized and the emotions are so raw; the music felt like perfect symphonic accompaniment. There is nothing subtle or subdued about what's happening or what anyone is feeling in those moments. That score also enhances the unfolding chaos of what happened. As businesses in Koreatown are targeted, Korean men with guns fire at passing cars. One guy unloads a whole clip from his handgun with abandon and a psychotic determination on his face. It's no surprise that LA 92 refuses to provide a conciliatory conclusion. Rodney King's "Can we all get along?" was such a punchline of a quote even in 1992, but to see the full press conference is another matter. King's so overwhelmed saying those words. There's nothing to laugh about. It's one of the most earnest expressions of empathy he could offer, tinged by an awareness of how meek and helpless it might sound. So many images and moments of LA 92 will haunt me, but the new context of King's question chills me when I think of it. The answer seems like, "I'm not sure."
Review: LA 92 photo
Chilling, apocalyptic, and timely
It's been 25 years since the LA riots, and there are a number of films coming out that revisit this harrowing moment in the country's history. The most high-profile might be Let It Fall: LA from 1982-1992 from John Ridley, sc...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Gilbert

Apr 26 // Hubert Vigilla
GilbertDirector: Neil BerkeleyRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD The fact that Gilbert Gottfried is happily married, has two great kids, and leads a relatively idyllic domestic life is so bizarre. He admits as much, comparing it to an episode of The Twilight Zone. His wife, Dara, is so supportive; at one point we watch Gottfried pack school lunches for his kids, complete with notes that say "I love you". Several times he appears on camera wearing a white bathrobe. His voice is a much finer grain of sand paper. His eyes, the squint relaxed, are soft and compassionate. He visits his sister in New York City often, and is there for her whenever he can be. So much vulnerability is disarming, especially all in a feature film and particularly when it's Gilbert freakin' Gottfried. And then Dara calls during an interview. He tells her to go fuck herself, gently, caring. He hangs up and laughs that Gilbert Gottfried laugh. Berkeley doesn't linger too long on the particulars Gottfried's life at home. He follows the comedian on the road, which reveals the many eccentricities a stable marriage can't erase. It's a hustle and a slog, and it's a major part of who Gottfried is. The guy in the bathrobe and the cheapskate at the hotel and the filthy joke maestro are all the same person. He also happens to be Iago in Aladdin. Somehow it all fits. Eventually, because it's necessary to understand Gottfried, they talk about his "too soon" 9/11 joke and the Japanese tsunami jokes that led to the loss of his AFLAC duck gig. I mentioned earlier that Gottfried elevates bad taste to an art form, though his brand of bad taste is an acquired one. People in Gilbert mention time and again that offensive jokes can sometimes serve as a defense mechanism. When kindness alone can't alleviate pain or sadness, irreverence might help people get beyond their hurt. A willingness to bomb on stage and to offend and to persevere with perversity--those might be Gottfried's most admirable human qualities.
Review: Gilbert photo
The kindness of dick joke artists
Before sitting down to watch Gilbert, I was afraid the documentary would take away from Gilbert Gottfried's mystique. I always loved his impersonations and appearances on Howard Stern, and his dirty jokes have such craft behi...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Shadowman

Apr 26 // Hubert Vigilla
ShadowmanDirector: Oren JacobyRating: TBDRelease Date:  TBD Hambleton's best known works were his fake murder outlines and his black shadow figures, each preying on fears of violence and urban decay that were endemic during the 1970s and early 1980s. Director Oren Jacoby uses the sinister nature of Hambleton's street art to explore the rough, dangerous art/punk scene of New York City, a creative explosion amid the junk heaps and rubble. Hambleton, seen in old footage, conceals a bucket of paint in his coat as he climbs atop a dumpster and quickly brushes out a shadowy murderer before skulking away. There's a Television guitar riff that comes up a fair amount in the film--it's either "Glory" or a song that sounds a lot like it--which notes the glory days of that particular art/music scene while dismantling some of the romance that surrounds it. Then again, "dismantling" might be the wrong word. The legend and the bent reality can co-exist, much like Hambleton the artist and Hambleton the man. As we see him age and somehow survive through poverty and heroin and a life in freefall, the man is a mix of aesthetic hero and selfish junkie prick. Whether they're art dealers, old girlfriends, or fellow artists, the people interviewed in Shadowman care about Hambleton and his art, though there's a palpable sense of betrayal in their voice. The man can make some exquisite art--the change in his aesthetic at his lowest point is remarkable--but he's just as good at ruining friendships and his own health. At one point in Shadowman, they bring up the importance of death in an artist's life. Death is where the big bucks are, and the same goes for apotheosis. One art dealer says people ask her if Richard Hambleton is still alive, not out of concern but because the price of his art will skyrocket once he kicks the bucket. In a heroic narrative about Richard Hambleton, he'd still be alive just to piss those people off like he's pissed off everyone else in his life. In the real world, though, he's alive only somehow and just because.
Review: Shadowman photo
Portrait of the artist as a total prick
There's a familiar narrative about the self-destructive artist, or maybe it's one that we want to see borne out in real life and in narratives about artists as characters. The brilliant artist is ignored but persists in their...

Tribeca Capsule Review: King of Peking

Apr 26 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221478:43532:0[/embed] King of PekingDirector: Sam VoutasRating: TBDRelease Date:  TBDCountry: China/Australia  Big Wong and Little Wong used to tour the countryside screening movies in small towns. A projection mishap forces them to come up with a new way to make money. Big Wong also needs to come up with child support to hold on to his son despite his abject poverty. Big Wong takes a job at a rundown cinema as a janitor; the whole movie house operation has a bizarre militancy about it. There, in that crumbling theater, Big Wong figures out how to bootleg movies and turn that into a meager subsistence. At its core, King of Peking feels like a mix of buddy movie and father-and-son bonding movie. Here are two people who care for each other and who come closer through their love of movies. Yet we rarely see the movies themselves on screen save for a few clips here and there. Probably a practical clearance rights issue, which just adds to the charm. The score also nods to famous film music, either using well-known classical compositions made famous in the movies or offering knock-off nods to famous cinematic melodies. Like Big Wong and Little Wong's bootleg operation, the film has an endearing handmade, small scale quality about it. The tension in Big Wong and Little Wong's relationship--like the tension in other buddy movies and father/son movies--comes when one person feels ignored or used, or both. Voutas adds some pathos to the feel-good surface of the film in the closing acts. It gives King of Peking a sense of fond nostalgia, like looking back at a time and a place that mattered in someone's life many years ago.
Review: King of Peking photo
Be Kind, Sell Bootleg DVDs
There's something undeniably charming about Sam Voutas' King of Peking. I smiled my way through a lot of the film, and snippets of its feel-good score (AM radio easy listening, in a good way) have been stuck in my head t...

Tribeca Capsule Review: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Apr 25 // Hubert Vigilla
The Death and Life of Marsha P. JohnsonDirector: David FranceRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD  Gay rights have come a long way in 50 years, but trans rights have lagged behind. The film looks back to the Stonewall riots to offer context for the LGBT struggle while also considering how members of the trans community felt excluded from the mainstream part of the struggle. Speaking at a gay rights rally in Washington Square Park during the 1970s, Sylvia Rivera is booed while she delivers an impassioned and derisive rant. She felt excluded from the movement; she had to fight just to get on stage to voice her exclusion. So much about The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is about supporting communities, building communities, and looking out for the marginalized among us. The rejection Rivera faced is just one of many hardships the film deals with in frank terms, and the solution tends to be about forming groups of support that resemble different kinds of families. As the documentary weaves the present with the past to flesh out Marsha, Sylvia, Victoria, and the LGBT culture of New York, the film also considered the future of trans rights via the murder of Islan Nettles. Nettles was a trans woman beaten to death in Harlem in 2013. James Dixon, the man who killed her, became enraged when he learned he had been flirting with a trans woman. While so much of the film is about history and seeking resolution for a 20 year old case, the Dixon trial is a reminder that the struggle for justice and trans rights is far from over. People say that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but it's so gradual most times, and it's never a guarantee of justice in all cases; people tell themselves a lot of things when trying to make sense of an unjust, amoral universe. I wonder if there's another title for the documentary that can more accurately encapsulate its scope and its focus. It seems like a quibble. The scope of what France is doing here--braiding different stories about different women together through NYC history--is built around the death and life of Marsha P. Johnson while going far beyond that. This is a film about the value and worth of all trans lives, and why the fight must go on together.
Marsha P. Johnson photo
A brief history of trans rights
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is an engrossing watch that works on different levels and through different modes. At the outset, it seems like the documentary will take the form of an obsessive detective story/murder...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Mr. Long

Apr 25 // Hubert Vigilla
Mr. Long (Ryu San)Director: SABURating: TBDRelease Date: TBDCountry: Japan  While recovering from his injuries, our hero befriends a boy named Jun (Runyin Bai) and his mother Lily (Yiti Yao) in an abandoned slum. Lily is a former prostitute turned junkie, and her story is where so much of the melodrama stems from. There's an extended flashback that shows her tragic fall. The scene initially seems to be dropped in randomly, but thinking about the whole film in retrospect, Lily's backstory comes after a period of slowness and inertness to increase its emotional impact. It's a mood swing done with purpose. The initial outbursts of violence we see in Long's life are eventually followed by cooking and a series of hesitant gestures toward domesticity. The pendulum can only always overcorrect. I don't think Mr. Long would work as well without these dull, silent stretches, and yet while watching the movie I felt bored in these moments. That's the point. What happens in those boring scenes implies a welcome tranquility in these tumultuous lives. To the outside observer, it's boring, but for the characters, a game or ping pong or a simple day making food or giggling with mom is a reprieve from past misery. For once, the present has some sort of order. The boredom can only last so long--maybe it lasts too long in the early going--before it runs the risk of interruption. There's a lot to discuss about the film's overall cruelty and fatalism, and whether or not SABU has contempt for his characters like a vengeful god, but that would be getting into major spoiler territory. If you're patient with Mr. Long and follow the film on its own terms, the reward is peaceful boredom for lives defined by pain and heartbreak. I'm not sure what to make of that exactly, but I keep thinking about the soporific/histrionic style of Mr. Long and how it deepens my appreciation for both its quiet and brutal moments.
Review: Mr. Long photo
Nihilistic Tampopo/Slapstick Unforgiven
Juzo Itami's Tampopo was a quirky blend of western tropes and epicurean delight. SABU's Mr. Long is sort of like a nihilistic Tampopo. We follow a skilled assassin from Taiwan named Long (a brooding Chen Chang) who gets wayla...

Tribeca Capsule Review: November

Apr 25 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221420:43534:0[/embed] NovemberDirector: Rainer SarnetRating: TBDRelease Date: TBDCountry: Estonia/Poland November is an adaptation of various Estonian folktales which are mashed together yet don't quite cohere. There's a werewolf girl in love with a peasant boy, but the peasant boy is in love with a sleepwalking girl who's part of the gentry. There's the threat of the coming plague, which leads villagers to resort to foolish remedies. The Devil wanders the woods at night, and for a little bit of blood he can give your kratt at soul. Somewhere and somehow these different threads might have braided together, but they instead feel too discrete. Even though I loved how strange these disparate tales were (though some of them didn't have any sense of an ending), strangeness alone isn't always sufficient. I longed for something more to care about than just weirdness--plot, character, a sense of direction, some basic set-ups and payoffs. Admittedly, my disconnect from November may be cultural. There are probably aspects of Polish and Estonian history and the national character that would have informed my viewing of the film. Instead I watched in a kind of baffled awe, wondering where it was going, just going with it, and not knowing what to make of things once I arrived at the end of the film. If anything, November is so exquisitely shot that I wasn't necessarily bored by it. There's always something beautiful or strange to look at. The kratts (which sadly don't play a major part in the story) are works of brilliant tool shed/junk pile puppetry. There's a procession of ghosts in the woods at night that only really comes up once, but it's so hauntingly beautiful, with figures in white moving past torches and trees with an elegiac grace. The sumptuous black and white imagery plays with shadow and fog so well that even when my mind check out of the story by the halfway point, my eyes were transfixed from beginning to end.
Review: November photo
At least it looks really good
I want to describe the opening scene of Rainer Sarnet's November because it's absolutely bonkers. There's a sentient creature comprised of three scythes and a cow skull. It moves in a herky-jerky fashion using its scythe...

Tribeca Capsule Review: The Reagan Show

Apr 25 // Hubert Vigilla
The Reagan ShowDirectors: Pacho Velez and Sierra PettengillRating: TBDRelease Date: June 30, 2017 We're told at the outset that the Reagan administration was expert at video documentation. It was part of their political strategy. I was struck by a few minutes of footage of President Reagan pretending to be a cowboy. Velez and Pettengill show scenes from some of a younger Reagan's westerns, and later show footage of President Reagan on the ranch with his wife Nancy, moseying around and looking rugged. There's the narrative of his persona carried forward into the real world--America didn't elect the real Ronald Reagan but the idea of Ronald Reagan/the hyperreal Ronald Reagan, as if there was any actual continuity between a character someone plays and the office they occupy later in life. While on horseback, Nancy Reagan gives the camera a terrified look, though she composes herself for the usable footage that perpetuates the cowboy myth. Reagan boyishly improvs while he and Nancy are photographed watering a sapling. They're playing cowboy POTUS and cowgirl FLOTUS for the American public. These funny moments are scattered throughout, though much of The Reagan Show focuses on the wind down of the Cold War. Reagan delivers a policy speech on TV to Soviet general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in a measured, statesmanlike cadence. Once the TV feed cuts, he snipes at the Soviet leader with a goofy insult, which makes Reagan giggle--part tough guy, part school boy who saw a tough guy say something like that on TV or a movie once. Again, he's playing a part. I felt myself wanting more of what The Reagan Show did well applied to other aspects of Reagan's presidency. The Iran-Contra scandal is only alluded to once as an aside, and I wondered if any footage existed following the Challenger tragedy or John Hinckley Jr.'s assassination attempt. And then again, Reagan's team was probably smart enough to know when to put the cameras away or to ask the videographers to stop recording. It leaves me wondering just how much more footage there may be and if it's of a similar character to what this doc has to show. In other words, more play and more acting.
Review: The Reagan Show photo
Telegenic and well rehearsed
Given how the Republican Party speaks of Ronald Reagan, he feels more like some cowboy legend than an American president. This speaks to Reagan's image consciousness as a politician, with a carefully cultivated persona that f...

Tribeca Capsule Review: The Departure

Apr 24 // Hubert Vigilla
The DepartureDirector: Lana WilsonRating: TBARelease Date: TBA  These sorts of punk-turned-monk contradictions are on display at the very outset of The Departure. Before we see Nemoto in his robes and with clients, we first encounter him in a dance club bathed in neon and strobe lights. He's lost in the music and the crowd, but Wilson's camera catches a glimmer of beatific happiness on his face. In retrospect, of course this man lost in the present moment in the club is a monk. Later in the film he seems less in control--drunk and belting out karaoke. Here's someone I'd like to talk to about mindfulness before heading out to a karaoke bar. At home he seems like a good but distant husband and father. His wife Yukiko is patient with him, devoted, and kindly reminds him to take things a little easier. But when dealing with the emotional and psychological needs of others, nothing is that easy. There is yet another contradiction in a life that seems so plain. By helping ease the suffering of others, Nemoto is suffering himself; and yet maybe the physical and psychological stress that this strain places on him is what gives his life meaning and makes it worth living. Maybe that last leap is a wholly western projection on my part. The Departure is such a quietly observed film anchored the entire time to the stable (or maybe wobbling) Nemoto as its center. While he comforts a man over lunch about suicidal thoughts or in the same man's apartment as he's struck by a wave of depression, Nemoto offers conciliatory hums of acknowledgement and the occasionally warm smile, remark, and laugh. They talk about the man's children, and Nemoto eventually opens up a bit about himself and mentions his son. It's just one sentence, but it feels so blunt and weighty when he says it. When someone so purposefully reserved shares something so vulnerable, it seems to speak to a larger yearning or anxiety or love within that is kept contained save for little spurts. The volume and quality of this inner life is emphasized by Wilson's ability to isolate such moments as part of a whole. They are beautiful in passing, as brief as they are, though there are many.
The Departure review photo
The long process of letting go
Almost everyone could benefit from a little bit of therapy, especially therapists themselves. I often wonder what sorts of anxieties therapists have to deal with after they've finished dealing with clients for the day. Empath...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Abundant Acreage Available

Apr 24 // Hubert Vigilla
Abundant Acreage AvailableDirector: Angus MacLachlanRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD  Tracy's dilemma--the whole drama of Abundant Acreage Available--is obligation. She feels obligated to these different men in such a way that she feels her own needs have to be set aside. Nevermind that the three interlopers on the land are basically trespassers trying to take the farm away. They could be con men, for all Tracy and Jesse know, but Tracy tolerates their presence on account of her upbringing. She even puts up with her brother's righteous belief that God is sending him signs of what's right to do to make things right. Rather than explode or assert herself, Tracy's dissatisfaction is expressed in small gestures and facial expressions. This is fine for a bit, but Tracy is denied agency throughout the film. She reacts more than she acts, which might not necessarily be bad, but Abundant Acreage Available is so one-note and one-mode as a story, and it always felt like Tracy was too passive in spite of all the duress she's facing. It doesn't help that the visuals are so flat and muted. The competing interests of a woman trying to appease these men doesn't go anywhere with lasting weight, and the film's story unfolds with a sense of passiveness and obviousness. It's as if MacLachlan's screenplay was obligated to go from A to B to C and, like Tracy, simply and begrudgingly assents. At least the performances are strong in a pretty standard, inert story. Kinney is great as an infuriatingly gullible but cocksure brother. Of the three invaders, Gail is the standout, equal parts folksy charm and sinister motives. Ryan's great as always, and it made me wish the material was half as good as her performance. For all its nods to subtle changes and restrained grief, and for all the work the actors do to elevate the material, it felt like there was just not enough in the film to move me like I sensed it wanted to move me.
Abundant Acreage photo
A passive aggressive home invasion
Like so many other underrated actresses, Amy Ryan is always good in whatever she's in. She's also so versatile when she's on screen, able to excel in oddball comedy as well as subtle character dramas. In Angus MacLachlan's Ab...


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