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Review: Before I Fall

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

Review: Get Out

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

Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

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

Alec's Top 15 Movies of 2016

Jan 25 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
Things I didn't see that, based on critical response, could have affected this list: Silence, Everybody Wants Some!!, Jackie, Moana, Weiner, O.J.: Made in America, Certain Women, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 20th Century Women, Age of Shadows, 13th. 0: The Edge of Seventeen In 2016, I found my Desert Island Movie. I have no idea why it took me so long to find a film that I genuinely feel like I could just watch over and over again for the rest of eternity, but there you go. I love The Edge of Seventeen with every fiber of my being. Literally everything about it is amazing. Is it because, deep down, I am a misfit 17-year-old girl? Probably. I connected so much to Hailee Steinfeld's Nadine that I should probably be concerned about it but am distinctly not.  I remember seeing the trailer initially and thinking, "Huh. That looks okay," and then seeing all of the crazy praise that it got, saying it would be this generation's Breakfast Club. But, unfortunately, it took me too long to see it. By the time I had gone to the theater for it for the third time (on my birthday, no less), it was just about to leave for good. I would have seen it at least twice more, to set my personal record for times I've seen a movie in theaters (I've only seen Inception and Mad Max: Fury Road more), but alas. I will undoubtedly be buying the Blu-ray when it comes out next month. 1: Green Room The instant the credits rolled on Green Room, I texted four different people telling them I had just seen the best movie of 2016. When I saw it for the second time, I did the same thing. I was at a party with Jeremy Saulnier a year-and-change ago and didn't find out until afterwards, which was terrible for me but great for him. I loved Blue Ruin, and would have made his night absolutely terrible by constantly telling him how great he was (and how excited I was for Green Room, which I had already heard stellar things about). The difference between his first film, Murder Party, and Blue Ruin was astronomical. The difference between that and Green Room is not so big, but considering how good Blue Ruin is, that it's any kind of improvement is a sign of straight-up genius. I mean, it's Punk Rock Die Hard. What else could you possibly want? And it also ended up being horribly relevant in 2016. Which is not a good thing, necessarily, but makes it all the more deserving of the title of "Best Movie of 2016." Red laces, y'all. Red laces... 2: The Lobster The Lobster is the biting satire that the Tinder generation deserves. The tale of a film where superficial compatibility is not just a major component of a match; it's the only component. Go to a hotel and find love (or something) with another person with similar hair, or the same kind of limp (maybe a similar penchant for nose bleeds). If you can't do that in 45 days, you're turned into an animal. You get to choose the animal, which I guess is cool, but, ya know, you get turned into an animal (and the implication is that the, um, surgical procedure to take you from human to animal is horrific (duh)). The way the characters develop in this absurdist romance is consistently fascinating, and it feels True even when it doesn't feel Real.  Because that's kind of where we are. That hotel is like a bizzaro version of Tinder, where looks are literally everything. Watching it, I thought about all those dating apps on my phone that I already feel uncomfortable about and felt even worse. Here I am, not much different than the people on the screen, except when I don't find my superficial mate, at least I don't get turned into an animal. And for that, The Lobster doesn't just end up on the list of year's best movies: It ends up on the list of films that have most directly impacted me as a person (ever). 3: Swiss Army Man The movie starring Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse. I remember hearing about this, hearing about the crazy divisiveness of its premiere, the walk-outs, etc. And then I remember talking to friends about it (and someone spoiling the ending, presumably without realizing I still hadn't seen it... awk). Then someone said, "I just saw Swiss Army Man, and I need to talk about it with you, so go see Swiss Army Man." So, I did. No lie: I laughed more at this movie than everyone else in the theater combined. That's not an exaggeration. (I know this because I laughed at every single joke, which means I pretty much didn't stop laughing from the word Go (except for the emotional moments, which worked on a whole other level).) It's unfortunate that it can be reduced to "the farting corpse movie," because that makes Swiss Army Man sound like some childish gross-out thing. But that isn't what it is. It's crazy, sure, but it's clever as hell and really gets at some serious issues. If you were turned off by the premise, you should still give it a shot. It's like nothing you've ever seen. 4: Paterson I had put together the other films on this list before seeing Paterson. I had a placeholder spot for it at 7. Based on general reaction, and how I felt about movies 1-6 (and 8-15), it seemed like a good spot for the film. As you can tell, however, it changed things. Part of me feels that it didn't change hard enough, that Paterson actually deserves to be higher on this list, but it hasn't been long enough since watching it for me to really know where it ultimately falls. But let me say this: Paterson is the nicest movie I have seen in years. It's the word I kept coming back to, and it's a word everyone else I've talked to about it has used as well. The movie is just nice. It's pleasant. It's a film about a guy with a pretty decent existence who is just going about existing, with a stellar center performance by Adam Driver. A lot of movies make me think about myself and my life, but rarely do movies make me really question where I am, where I'm going, and what I want. In the long, meditative silences of Paterson, I considered those things. I looked at him and his girlfriend. I looked at their small house with the mailbox that's always tilting to the side (which has one of the most satisfying payoffs in recent memory). And I thought about how I stack up. How I live. Am I doing it right? Am I doing alright? It takes a special film to really get into your brain like that. Paterson is a special film. 5: Moonlight From the gorgeous opening shot of Moonlight, I was hooked. I subtitled my review "Able to bear the weight of its own existence," and I think that's probably the best way to describe what it accomplishes. Here is a film that just had to be good. After the collapse of The Birth of a Nation, something needed to pick up the mantle as the film about not-white-people. And while Moonlight was not the only film to do that, it was absolutely the best.  Each of the three periods in Chiron's life is beautifully realized, both technically and emotionally. The script is great. The cinematography is brilliant. The acting is stellar, from Mahershala Ali (are you fucking kidding me, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association?). Really, just everything is great. It doesn't have many surprises, but it doesn't need them either. Despite what might seem on its face generic, the film feels completely honest. (Perhaps that's the most surprising thing about it.) Some people may shrug it off as "the Black movie" because they thought the #oscarssowhite campaign was reverse racist or something, but those people are A) garbage, and B) missing out on something awesome. 6: Arrival I don't get into multi-thousand word written discussions about films very often, so when I do, it's clearly a big deal. Arrival made me think and think hard. (No other film that I saw last year inspired that level of discussion, nor did (m)any of them really deserve it.) Even before I had seen it, Denis Villeneuve was one of my favorite directors. But that just solidified it. He's on a roll (and have you seen the teaser for the new Blade Runner? My gosh!), and this is by far his greatest work. A quiet, meditative studio film with big name actors about... linguistics? The most interesting alien movie in years, and also a damn fine looking piece of art. I'm keeping this brief because I've already said a whole heckuva lot. If you want more, go read Hubert and my Flixist Discusses piece(s) on it [Part 1 and Part 2]. That rabbit hole goes deep. 7: Hell or High Water I tend to avoid cowboy-type movies, ones set in the South or the West (other than, obviously, California, but that's not really the West; it's just... West). This is some kind of not-great bias on my part, but it's true. I had to see Hell or High Water mostly so people would shut up telling me that I had to go see Hell or Highwater. Several people had told me it was their favorite film of the year, so I finally took the plunge, and... wow. Just, wow. The thing that sold me on the film, more than anything else, is a firefight in which a truck becomes riddled with holes. Not showered with sparks, the way we expect vehicles in films to be affected, full-on swiss cheesed. This was a moment that encapsulated everything about Hell or High Water that made it so good: a commitment to the realism. It has some of the most effective violence of any film in recent memory, and it tells a truly compelling story about people who feel they've been wronged and the lengths they'll go to to see their justice done.  It wasn't the biggest surprise of the year (I'll get to that one in a bit), but it was probably the best. 8: Manchester By the Sea I was very conflicted about seeing Manchester by the Sea. I didn't watch The Birth of a Nation for the same reason I won't watch Woody Allen or Roman Polanski movies: I refuse to separate the art from the artist. I understand, sort of, why people don't, but it's a matter of principle for me.  The stories of Casey Affleck's awful on-set actions left a bad taste in a lot of peoples' mouths, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like that shouldn't stop me. Not because I didn't care about supporting bad behvavior, but because it's not actually his movie. I shouldn't punish Kenneth Lonergan and co. because their lead actor turned out to be a scumbag. And so I didn't. And I wasn't disappointed by the film I got. It's less depressing than I was led to believe, but I mean thatin a very good way. It's about grief and tragedy, but it doesn't necessarily feel tragic.  Sometimes when I watch a movie, I wish that I had made something like it (or, more generally, want to make something like it in the future). Here was something different: I wanted to be in a movie like it. I wanted to be a part of something so raw and emotionally honest. I hope I get that opportunity someday. It really is a powerful piece of work. 9: The Handmaiden I'm glad that Park Chan-Wook went back to Korea rather than making the other Hollywood films he had lined up. Stoker is fine, but The Handmaiden is a proper return to form for one of the best working filmmakers. I didn't know anything about The Handmaiden going into it, other than that it was based off a book and was about lesbians. Much like westerns, I tend to avoid period pieces, but Park's work was obviously always going to be an exception. And what we've got is easily the best Korean period piece I've seen (and I've seen many). It's a technical achievement, to be sure, probably his best looking film, but it's also a narrative one. I was shocked by how long the film was when I arrived at the screening and saw the runtime on the press notes, but the film went by quickly. And with all of that intrigue and violence and sex*, it's got pretty much everything you could possibly want. *I genuinely think the film has a bit too much lesbian sex (something most of my male friends disagree with on principle), but unlike the gratuitous nothing found in Blue is the Warmest Color's infamous sequences, these do serve a purpose. They build character, and they look good cinematically (not just, like, sexually or whatever). For that, it mostly gets a pass on what comes off as mostly just gratuitous. 10: La La Land As I'm writing this, someone is talking to me about how much he hated La La Land. I, politely, disagreed. I know a lot of people who loved it a lot more than I do, and a fair few who like it less. It's kind of interesting how wildly different the opinions have been. For my part, I really, really liked it. Damien Chazelle broke out with Whiplash, and this is a fitting follow-up. The jazz-based music is fun and lighthearted, as is the film in general, at least up until the ending. The characters don't really make a lot of sense, to be sure, and a lot of the cinematic language was used more as a throwback to old films than in a way that necessarily made sense for this one, but I didn't really care. I've said it before, that I'm willing to forgive substance issues for style, and this film has got a lot of style. And at the end of a very bad year, it was nice to just watch pretty people do pretty things. (Ryan Gosling especially. He is pretty much amazing at everything, huh?) 11: Deadpool/Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping Why did I put these together? Because I loved them both, and they both deserved a spot... but they didn't deserve two spots collectively. Deadpool is the best Marvel movie by leaps and bounds, and Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping takes everything that made The Lonely Island great and amps it up. Aside from being comedies, the two movies couldn't really be more different, but they're also some of the few movies that I went to see in theaters again after attending the press screenings, bringing friends because I just wanted to share the experiences with other people. (Green Room is the only other one I can think of, though I saw it alone the second time around.) I don't really have anything else to say other than that they're great (read my reviews if you want more), and I'm looking forward to seeing them again.  12: The Witch In a not-insignificant way, The Witch is actually perfect. Director Robert Eggers put an obscene amount of work into making the film feel like a historical document, and he succeeded to an incredible degree.  The moment I realized this was the moment I thought, "Man, child actors in the 1700s were terrible." I didn't think, "Wow, they hired bad child actors in 2016." No, my brain literally convinced itself that the creative team time travelled back to the time in which the film was set and found people to play the characters and had subpar casting then. Were it not for the fact that time travel is impossible, I would genuinely believe it. The whole thing is just so flawlessly crafted that the acting issues don't detract from it, which is bizarre and impressive in and of itself. Well done, all. Except the child actors. Shame on them. 13: Sing Street One of the last films I saw as I was putting this list together, Sing Street is just a straight-up joy to watch. I played the drums (poorly) growing up, and a part of me wished that I had been in a band. Seeing the kids develop was awesome, and the fact that it literally all happened for a girl is both Ugh and also Amazing. It's such a teenage boy thing to do. And then he rocks the hell out of everything.  The way the band comes together and the music they create is all freaking awesome, and the narratives that underlie it all are excellent. I particularly liked the dynamic between the brothers, because it just felt so... right. It's one of the best sibling-ships I've seen in quite some time. Also, the romance is great, and usually I hate teen romance nonsense. I mean, let's be honest: Just about everything is great. It's on Netflix. Go see it. 14: 10 Cloverfield Lane Biggest surprise of 2016? Absolutely. Unlike Blair Witch, which also came out of nowhere, 10 Cloverfield Lane was exactly what a good mystery can be. I didn't know what I was in for going in, and that made the whole thing so much better. With some truly spectacular performances (particularly John Goodman's terrifying turn), 10 Cloverfield Lane made a very real case for the true horror being humanity. But the film doesn't let it be quite so simple. Though Goodman's character does some truly barbaric things, his motivations are far more complex. Deep down, he's almost a good person. He actually does think he's saving people from certain doom (and he has a very valid reason for thinking so), and the way that story builds and the characters develop is fascinating. If Cloverfield has to become a franchise, this gives me hope that it will be able to turn out unique and interesting tales. Does this need to have the moniker? No. But I don't have a problem with films taking on names of money-makers if it gives them a shot at success, particularly if they're making something different with it. And 10 Cloverfield Lane is different. It's exciting. And I'm very glad that I got to see it while the mystery was still fresh. (Though it's no doubt a great movie regardless.) 15: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story The first thing I said after Rogue One's credits rolled was "Wow. It's crazy how much better that was than Episode VII." The second time I saw it, I thought, "That was not nearly as good the second time. Still pretty sure it's a lot better than Episode VII." I liked Episode VII, but from the moment Rogue One was announced, I was so much more excited. These spin-off stories are so much more interesting to me than the main narrative that has propelled the Star Wars films thus far. This is also the rare prequel that actually makes something really fundamental make sense. Why was it so easy to destroy the Death Star? Well, because one of the men who built it put that flaw right in there. It makes sense. It works. (And the logic for him working on the base is fascinating and relevant as hell (and reminds me of something Tim Cook said about meeting with Donald Trump).) Also: it makes the fact that Starkiller Base was so easy to destroy so much stupider oh my god why. There are movies not on this list that I liked more than Rogue One – American Honey, Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings – but I chose to put this here because it's the best thing to happen to Star Wars on the big screen in decades. I think it's an important film for that reason, and hopefully one that we will look back on in the future as a turning point for this franchise, where it gets truly interesting again. It's got some major flaws for sure, but it deserves a place on this list. (Last place.)
Alec's Top 15 photo
A terrible year with not-terrible movies
So, now that we've gotten those dumb Oscar nominations out of the way, I think it's finally time to let everyone know what the real best films of 2016 were. The hacks at the Academy wouldn't know quality if it slapped them in...


Flixist Discusses: An Analysis of Denis Villeneuve's Arrival [Part 2]

Dec 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221111:43257:0[/embed] Alec: That liberal vs. conservative idea is interesting, and my gut reaction is that it's probably true (assuming we're talking explicitly about alien films)... but I'm sure you could find an exception (to prove the rule). I wonder if there's a similar case to be made re: optimistic or not films. Or, more to the point, I wonder how the political climate will affect the mood of films with both liberal and conservative ideologies going forward. Will liberal films become crushingly sad across the board to reflect their reality or become  happy as they embrace, uh, fantasy and escapism?   I wonder if Arrival would have been different if pre-production began now instead of years ago. I'm thinking yes. I mentioned earlier that one of my colleagues hated the film. His first problem, when I asked why (this was before I had seen it) was that it didn't have a lot of dialogue. (Aside: This is interesting, though not necessarily surprising, for a film that is about language.) He thought it was confusing and that the twist (reveal) didn't work. Etc. I think this may be Villeneuve’s best film, but it's definitely not his most accessible. The “This is thinking person’s sci-fi” reputation is deserved, and if anything I think it was intended to be more opaque than it is. The genuinely bizarre and out-of-nowhere narration from Jeremy Renner felt like a capitulation to the studio over a montage that had been designed for musical accompaniment and nothing else. The decision to leave Banks’ perspective in that moment (especially since it's still about her) is jarring as heck. Genuine question: Are there any scenes in the movie without her that you can recall? I feel like there aren't. And so there's that one weird dark spot coloring an otherwise brilliant experience. And it hardly ruins the film. It's just… why? Everything else is so deliberate. I think it's almost time (ha!) to really get into this thing, but before we do, do you have any other thoughts on the film in general? Even if I didn't think it was so relevant and important, it's just a damn good movie, with gorgeous cinematography and some genuinely great performances. Hubert: Yeah, I agree with you about Jeremy Renner’s narration midway through the film. Everything else in that movie is filtered through Louise’s point of view, and that sudden imposition of Renner’s character just comes out of nowhere. Whereas other scenes seem deliberately ruminative, the learning montage is purely functional. It probably was the “let’s explain this to you if you don’t get it yet” moment in the screenplay, and may have been made more explicit by the studio. That montage and narration would be just fine if they used Louise’s voice and channeled it through her point of view. It wouldn’t be that difficult to make it work that way. It’s her story, after all. Maybe they just needed to give Renner’s character (off the top of my head, I can’t recall his name) something to do. I guess Renner’s character in Arrival is similar to Amy Adams’ Lois Lane in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice--just stand around and look handsome/pretty, and let your significant other be heroic and save the day. We can go in a lot of directions with this conversation about Arrival. I eventually want to get to the idea of free will, determinism, and predestination, but maybe we can save that for the end. I find that discussion determines whether people find the movie hopeful/optimistic or fatalistic/pessimistic. (Just more future stuff in the present. Don’t mind me.) What’s one of the things that struck you most about Arrival while watching it? Alec: That house. I want that house so bad. Actually, though: the design of the aliens. I didn't see the trailer, so I didn't know what they looked like (were they humanoid? were they terrifying?). My gut reaction to their lack of “human”ness was “Oh thank God,” because that would have been a cop out from a design perspective. They aren't from here and they shouldn't look like us. Period. And they didn't, and I was glad about that. But as I consider it, I think about their head-like thing, which we only see in the sequence in the fog. There are those indents, as though they have eyes there. I don't see any practical purpose for those other than to give a face of sorts for the audience to look at in that moment. Humans will see faces in everything (see: trees, the moon, toast), so you don't have to do much to make us subconsciously think about them. And to make them, in that moment, even the slightest bit human allows for another level of connection. In a sequence where we're actually just watching the sort-of-head for a while, we need that. But I think about what a more humanoid design might have done. Diverting back to politics (or, at least, real-world issues) for a moment, much of the fear and hatred in the world right now is aimed at the Other, where that's a race, gender, culture, socioeconomic class. We take people who look like basically us and then box them off. With the Heptapods and their very definitively Other design, you're starting from scratch on empathy. But there's also no prejudice against them. It's an actual blank slate. And how you ultimately feel about them says something about your empathy for other beings but not for your fellow man. A human-like alien race (or one that presented as alien and made a point of being like, “We actually look like something else, but figured you'd appreciate this”) would have added an interesting other level. I'm imagining someone shouting, “IF YOU'RE GONNA BE HERE, JUST LEARN ENGLISH, DAMN IT.” Arrival’s too subtle for that, but I'm calling it right now: We will see a science fiction movie with an equivalent line of dialogue in some equivalent situation in the next four years. (If we haven’t already.) And yeah, I agree that that’s where this conversation is fated (what a great pun) to end up. If you want to go there now, you can have the first word on that. If there’s more you want to say beyond that, though, I’m game. Hubert: I really enjoyed that heptapod design as well. Tentacles and that raw seafood look immediately make people queasy and distrustful. H.P. Lovecraft was onto something about the creeping chaos of the local sushi restaurant. But yeah, the vestigial torso-and-head at the end is so oddly inelegant yet fitting for where the story has gotten at that point. The moment we see that human-like shape is when the heptapod tells Louise that its companion is “in the death process”. What a fascinating construction, that sentence, and what a time for an English translation of heptapod to finally appear on screen. I thought the way the ink emerges from the heptapods like squids to form their language was pretty inspired as well. The look of the language informs the creature’s look and vice versa. So many smart, deliberate choices. I wonder how this movie would have played out with human-like aliens, especially now when audiences sort of expect something alien about the aliens we see. Maybe the alien visitation movie in the post-Trump era will have someone demand that the aliens “Speak American” or “Take off that breathing hood”. Though maybe that would make things too preachy in certain hands. Which reminds me: Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) is set to direct a remake of Alien Nation, which was all about human-like aliens assimilating with the human race like a new immigrant community. The movie was all right, but the TV show and made-for-TV movies were much, much better. Makes me wonder how the remake will address our current political moment. It seems unavoidable to me now, even if they did try to make it a buddy cop movie like the original film. And you know, it’s almost fitting that in 2016 the two movies Nichols put out were Midnight Special (an indie take on 80s science fiction) and Loving (a movie about a mixed-race couple’s love in the face of bigotry). Alien Nation has gone from a curiosity from a filmmaker I like to a potentially important statement about the early 21st century. Which, come to think of it, makes that hypothetical film like Arrival. So about Arrival’s implications about free will and determinism and predestination. The big question: do you think Arrival is melancholy but ultimately hopeful or is it sad and fatalistic? I don’t mean about global peace or anything, but rather the idea that we might not be able to change the future. That certain sorrows in our lives, like certain joys, are unavoidable? I think it’s painfully hopeful since it suggests that even though you may be miserable now, there was still a moment of joy in the past that was just as real. It’s an affirmation of good and bad things as a whole, and that maybe some handfuls of genuine happiness are a justification for a lifetime of general boredom, depression, and unhappiness. (Though my read on this also speaks to the privileges of a middle-class upbringing in the first world.) Alec: Honestly, I think it's neither of those things, because I don’t even think the film is ultimately that melancholy. I read someone somewhere say that this is probably the most hopeful movie they’ve ever seen -- it assumes humans will still be around in 3000 years. But, joking aside, I do genuinely think this an optimistic movie. I left the theater feeling kind of upbeat, and part of that was because it was a great movie and that usually makes me feel good, but there was more to it than after. I realized that it was because of the way Dr. Banks’s decision at the end is played. When she decides to hold onto Jeremy Renner, she does so knowing that they will be together, they will have a young girl, she will tell him that their young girl is going to die, it will break his heart and his relationship with the daughter, the daughter will develop cancer, and the daughter will die. And she does it anyway. You look at that list, and you’re like… damn. That’s genuinely horrible. She’s guaranteeing never-ending sadness for one man and the literal death of her own child. So, she’s a psychopath, right? And that might be the logical conclusion, but I’m going to not think about it way. What’s unclear is whether or not she thinks she has a choice in the matter. Her actions might imply that she doesn’t, but that’s not how I saw that decision. There’s another read, one that I think it’s evidenced by the fact that she smiles in that moment. She knows the happiness that the daughter brings in the time that she’s alive, and that life with her is better than life without. (It’s better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all, as they say.) It might be fatalistic in a literal sense, but I don’t think it’s a function of her resigning herself to or even just accepting her fate; she’s straight-up embracing it. And I see that as a rejection of the sadness that seems inherent with the life she’s going to lead… but we also don’t really see all the good moments. We see a couple, but we are more generally aware of the bad things that happen than the good, which I think colors the perspective (also, knowing that all of those things happen and thinking about them in a list format is different than the reality of them taking place spaced out over more than a decade). She is the one who lived it and is most qualified to make the decision, and she decides that it is the thing she wants and not just the thing she has to do. Hubert: It’s interesting we’re both seeing it as hopeful. I’ve read/heard a few people conclude that Arrival's implications about time and the future are bleak. It is pretty grim to think about not necessarily having any say in your own life. Viewed in those terms, Arrival‘s conclusion could be read as ditching agency for resignation. It’s going to happen anyway, so why try? And yet, we do, continually, on and on, until we die. That’s more than a little sad. That makes me wonder about Louise telling her husband about their daughter’s death, an act that ruins their marriage. Did she tell him as an attempt to change the future, but it went wrong? Did she tell him because they were having an argument and she wanted to say something awful in the heat of the moment that would hurt? Did she tell him because she thought it would help him deal with loss in the future? Did she tell him because he kept asking her about their daughter and she couldn’t handle being the only person who had access to that secret? Or did she tell him because it was, simply, that time when she was supposed to tell him? There are these fascinating gaps in the future-narrative that Louise as a character might know but the audience has to invent on their own. The relative hope or bleakness of Arrival might be there in the lacunae and how we fill in the blanks. But yeah, I think it’s hopeful. Louise’s smile, like you mentioned, is her saying yes to all the joy and misery ahead because it will have been worth it. It’s like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. By the end you know it’s not going to end well for Joel and Clementine, but dammit, that love was worth the pain and vice versa--let’s do this! This aspect of Arrival reminds me of this Friedrich Nietzsche idea of the eternal return of the same (aka eternal recurrence). It’s one of those Existentialism 101 types of ideas, and yet I unavoidably find myself thinking about the shape of my own life in terms of the eternal return. Nietzsche presented a hypothetical situation in which a demon comes to you and says that for the rest of eternity you will have to relive your entire life again, over and over, all of the happiness but also the pain, down to the smallest detail. Nothing new can ever happen in these additional recurrences of life--you are a speck of dust in the great eternal hourglass of existence. If you were confronted with this scenario, would you feel immense anguish and defeat given the futility of it all? Or would you instead welcome this moment, having lived a life worth affirming? Was this worth it? Ask me one day, I might lean one direction. Ask me another day, I lean the opposite direction. When Louise smiles, you know what she thinks about her life to come. Though I wonder, in the vast lacunae of her life off-screen, about the days that Louise feels otherwise. Alec: I can imagine so many scenarios in which Dr. Banks would tell him that their daughter was going to die. All of the ones that you listed there and then others. The hypothetical that I find most compelling is that she told him because he asked. That they were talking about the future, that he wanted to know what she saw for their child and for them and she couldn't lie, because she knew he would find out eventually (of course she knows) and she didn't want to have the fight then. I like that because it has a Pandora’s Box kind of feeling or some other, more appropriate parable that I can't think of: It's his choice to learn the truth, though he is foolish in thinking that he can handle it. In any version of the story, though, it gets at this broader concept froma  very different but equally significant angle: what do you do when you know someone who knows the future? What do you do when you know your daughter is going to die because someone who knows the future has told you, but you can't know it the way they know it? You have to trust it, but at the same time you just can't do that. It's why he can't look at his daughter anymore, because he feels like she's been taken from him because he now knows a horrible truth and, more importantly, he knows he can't stop it. He knows that, no matter how many new treatments there are and how much they put into her recovery, it's going to fail. He feels helpless. (Science will fail him, so it has failed him.) I mean, think of Arrival with the same narrative but from Jeremy Renner’s perspective. I can't imagine a movie much bleaker than that one. I know I’ve got the last word of this particular discussion, but I’m still going to end on a question. If the future is pre-ordained, then neither of them has agency. But in that world, whose situation is better? In more cliched terms: Is knowledge power… or ignorance bliss?  
Arrival Discussion Part 2 photo
The big questions
In the 24 hours since part one of this discussion was posted, I was talking with a friend about something completely unrelated when I realized that the point I was trying to make directly relates to my feelings on Arrival. It...

Flixist Discusses: An Analysis of Denis Villeneuve's Arrival [Part 1]

Dec 08 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]221081:43252:0[/embed] Alec: So, before we get into this, I want to give some context about my own expectations, because I think expectations ultimately matter a lot here (probably more than they should). Denis Villeneuve is one of my favorite working directors. Sicario is one of the best films of 2015, and both Prisoners and Enemy are really good and extremely interesting. (I’m not fully versed on his pre-English work yet, but I’ll get there.) Anyways, his name gets attached to a project and I’m sold on it. It means I don’t need to learn anything about it and that I won’t watch trailers. I didn’t see the trailer for Arrival, though I knew the basic concept: Aliens arrive. How do we communicate with them? I also knew what other people thought. The downside to having a lot of critic friends on Facebook is that you know what people think about things the instant they get screened. Whether it was the festival premiere or when it actually hit theaters, my feed got inundated with various takes. Most of them were glowing, and I saw a lot of “brainy” and “thought-provoking” pull-quotes, but I didn’t read any further. I also knew that one of my day-job colleagues hated it (this person also hated Carol, for what that’s worth) and another thought it was fine, he guesses (this person hates Guardians of the Galaxy, for what that’s worth). I was fairly sure I’d love it, though. The only thing that surprised me was just how much I loved it. Had you read up, Hubert, or did you go in relatively blind as well? Hubert: I went into Arrival knowing the buzz and seeing the blurbs out of the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, but I intentionally avoided reading the full-length reviews. Certain movies I’ll read up on extensively and spoil everything for myself and it won’t dampen the experience of seeing the movie. Some movies you’ve already seen before sitting down to watch them, if that makes sense. I even avoided reading the Ted Chiang short story it’s based on in his book Stories of Your Life. I’m glad I went in relatively blind. Arrival’s all about that act of discovery and revelation, and a couple scenes had me silently geeking out as I began to understand the shape of the narrative, and how little lines or images are clues about the nature of the movie. In a sense, Arrival is a causal loop time travel story. It’s not about time travel in a traditional sense, but rather more about folding a moment in the future back like a piece of paper onto the past--a Möbius strip. Even the look of the heptapod language is a closing circle, like the ouroboros, which made me think about time and cycles of existence. By around the halfway point of the movie, I kind of realized that Louise was seeing flashforwards rather than flashbacks, which was all really set-up in Amy Adams’ opening voice over about beginnings and ends. But even suspecting and discovering that on my own, it didn’t damped my emotional reaction at all. (Given the implications of Arrival, in the world of that film, maybe all movies are movies you’ve seen before you sit down to watch them.) Had I read reviews about the movie, I’m sure some critic somewhere would have mentioned a little too much about one detail or another, and the whole game of Arrival would be given away in my head. Alec: I’ve been wondering that, actually, how much I think knowing the game would have spoiled my experience. I’m glad I went in blind, but I’m not entirely convinced I needed to. The other day, I read an article by Todd VanDerWerff at Vox about twists in the modern TV era. It talks a lot about Mr. Robot, which often telegraphs its big moments pretty heavily, so people aren’t all that surprised when things come. And Sam Esmail says that’s intentional, because then it allows you to think about the thing that just happened and not only be shocked by it. This then led me to another VanDerWerff article, which is ostensibly a review of a movie that you didn‘t like but actually has little to with Goodnight, Mommy at all. It’s about the nature of twists and gets to an interesting question: Is there a difference between a “twist” and a “reveal,” and where does Arrival fall on that line? I actually think the answer changes depending on your interpretation of the events and of Dr. Banks’ fascinating brain. In one of them, Banks knows everything that has happened and will happen simultaneously (the Heptapods experience this). In this, the reveal is fundamentally a Twist, because it’s information that the character knows being hidden from you; in another, she experiences time in a non-linear fashion but she doesn’t fully understand it until she’s been taught to understand it. In this, she learns at the same time we do that her daughter is her future daughter and not her current one and then follow all of that. It’s not until the phone call with Shang that it becomes truly clear, but by the time we got to the “non-zero-sum game” sequence, I had figured out where it was going. And so when it came, my thought was, “Damn, this could have gone bad in so many different ways. Good on you team!” and not “WHHAAAATTT?! NO WAY!” and I think I had the right response. Because, like, oh man, there are so many ways the non-linearity thing could have gone wrong, especially with the way it deals with Banks’s daughter. There was so much potential for it to feel ugly and emotionally manipulative, but no, I think it nails the whole damn thing. Hubert: It’s a definitely a reveal rather than a twist--that’s a good distinction with the language. And yeah, a lot of that has to do with how much of the film is anchored into Louise’s point of view, and how the audience is learning the information as she is through most of the movie. Her brain is rewiring and her perception of time is changing, and the audience is starting the see this narrative in a different way. In the same way that Louise is learning to read heptapod language and learning to interpret time, the movie is teaching the audience how to read the movie. Such a fascinating parallel. With twists, like in Goodnight, Mommy or High Tension, there’s no sense of learning how to read the text of the film, at least not in the way that would suggest the twist. Usually there’s just a quick explanation at the end. On the note of Todd VanDerWerff (let’s make this a trifecta), he wrote a new piece on Vox about the pivotal phone call scene. His big takeaway is that Louise is omniscient when she makes the call and meets with Shang in the future, and that she’s playing a role to get the information she needs. I personally think there’s a much different interpretation of that moment: Shang himself learns hetapod and taps into non-linear time, and that takes place after he gets the phone call but before he meets Louise. When he meets Louise in the future, he realizes that it is contingent upon him to give her his cell phone number and a message that will convince his past self (whose view of time is pre-non-linear) to avoid conflict and make this future moment possible. The past is contingent on the future and vice versa, which creates this smaller causal loop in the bigger narrative. We got sidetracked to the ending (how non-linear of us), so maybe let’s get into the meat of the movie and its ideas of communication. There’s this line by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that if a lion could speak to us, we wouldn’t be able to understand it. The idea is that even if a lion used English, its worldview is so non-human and its use of words/grammar so potentially unfamiliar that we would not necessarily comprehend the meaning of the lion’s sentence. This also means that the interior lives of lions are alien to us. With Arrival, it seems to suggest that seeing the world like a lion might help us understand their language better, and their values. Arrival is a movie about a lot of things, but extrapolating that idea, I think the movie stresses this belief in empathy. Alec: I think that's true. If science fiction is a way to use unreal narratives to comment on very-real societal issues, I don't think there's a more appropriate film for 2016. The entire world is moving rapidly in an isolationist and nationalist direction, so a film about trying to overcome the fundamental barriers of understanding and the need to work together is, to say the least, timely. That lion thought is an interesting one to consider when put up against what I think is one of the most crucial moments in the film: the reveal of the word “weapon.” In our version of English, that has a very specific meaning and it only ever means something to be used for violent purposes. But the heptapods don't have that context. They, as far as anyone can tell, seem to see “tool” and “weapon” as equivalent words. And so we get into a theme of patience. Some have complained about the methods they use and how it seems like they could have used more videos or other aids right at the start to speed up the process, but that misses the point. Underneath the whole experience is a respect for time and taking the time to do a thing. She wants to get it right, and getting it right requires long, boring demonstration. And that minimizes, theoretically, the chance of a miscommunication. (See the film’s discussion of how the Chinese use war games to learn communication and the pitfalls therein.) But when miscommunication comes, we need to be careful and see it as that. Dr. Banks’ pleas to not jump to conclusions, to point out that the heptapods lack true context for “weapon” is oh-so-relatable to right now. Governments all around the world are being forced to deal with an equivalent problem, where they need to know if something that has been said or done is a result of ignorance on the part of our president-elect or actually means a tectonic change in American policy. And they're dealing with someone who may as well be an alien politically AND for the most part speaks a different native language. (You just have to hope that every government has a Dr. Banks to say, “Let's not go to war just yet. Let's make sure we and they all understand each other correctly.) And looking back on what I just wrote, it appears that I'm thinking of the film’s themes about communication in purely political (or perhaps strategic) terms, which I don't think is quite right and is almost definitely me bringing my own baggage into it. Hubert: Right now, political baggage is personal baggage, so I think that political read of the film is warranted. The movie even braids global conflict with Louise’s unavoidable personal tragedy. I’m sure we’ll talk about the implications of time and fate in the film eventually, but on the note of unavoidable things, our president-elect is sorely lacking in patience and language skills. With patience and empathy comes nuance and mutual understanding. And like you said, you need room for there to be nuance, whether it’s to find the context of “weapon” or to understand why a gesture can be taken as an insult or provocation by another culture. That takes more than 140 characters. Meaningful language is generally not found on bumper stickers or baseball caps. What a weird time to be alive. Since science fiction can reflect societal fears, I wonder what other types of science fiction movies we might be seeing in the coming years as the world faces this wave of nationalism, isolationism, bigotry, and uncertainty. I think the appeal of authoritarianism in general is that it ignores nuance and complexity and reduces the world into manichean problems with simple answers and plenty of convenient scapegoats. In some ways, we’ve never really left the world-on-the-brink feeling of Children of Men. We’re just getting closer to the film (well, except babies are still getting made). So much anxiety about potential global conflicts. Maybe we’re going to go through that Cold War/Atomic Age cycle of sci-fi. There’s this old theory about science fiction movies that’s pretty interesting. I can’t remember who first said it or if it’s necessarily true, but it goes like this: If the aliens come to Earth and want to harm us, the film’s politics are conservative; if the aliens come to Earth and they don't want to hurt us, the film’s politics are liberal. Arrival’s firmly in the latter camp, especially if it’s stressing a form of patient diplomacy to fight humanity’s innate tribalism and nativism. I guess there’s a sadness bundled up in all this since so much of the real world wants to shut off communication and take care of its own affairs. That’s a bumper sticker or baseball cap answer to problems. By contrast, Arrival is a type of humane and life-affirming wish fulfillment, a Star Trek-esque utopianism. (As an aside, three movies that Arrival reminded of: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Day of the Dead, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.) [Check back tomorrow for Part 2!]
Arrival Discussion Part 1 photo
Premonitions, Politics, Aliens (Oh my!)
If you haven't seen Arrival yet, you should do so immediately. Not just because this thing right here spoils the hell out of the movie and won't really make any sense if you haven't seen it; see it because it's a genuinely fa...

Review: The Monster

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

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Nov 17 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220497:42908:0[/embed] Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemDirector: David YayesRelease Date: November 18, 2016Rating: PG-13  In 1920s New York City, muggles are called "nomags," a shortening of "no magic." I mentioned this to a friend, who said that sounded more offensive than "muggle." I disagreed. I think we're desensitized to the word muggle, but it sounds pretty mean to me. (Not mudblood level, obviously (that one's awful).)  In 1920s New York City, the President of America's magic society is a woman, which means that this fanciful version of 1920s America is more progressive than actual 2016 America (though this wasn't 2016 New York City's fault). In fact, there are a lot of females in power in 1920s magic world. To some degree, it feels like the least realistic thing about the entire film. But that's neither here nor there. In 1920s New York City, Newt Scamander (a very socially awkward Eddie Redmayne) causes mayhem. He carries with him a suitcase. In the suitcase is a whole host of fantastic beasts. Unfortunately, some of them escape. He has to find them. Ultimately, that isn't what the movie is about. It's simply a way to get him entangled with the other zany characters, primarily two of them: Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a nomag who doesn't get Men In Black mind-zapped and so is forced along on a wild adventure featuring magic and things, and Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), an ex-Auror who brings in Mr. Scamander for causing problems (mostly by not Men In Black mind-zapping Mr. Kowalski). Some others are involved in various forms.  Also, there's Colin Farrell AKA Percival Graves AKA a guy who can do magic with just his hand. Someone told me Voldemort could also do that (I know house elves can), but I don't remember that. I just remember him using his wand. Then again, Graves also uses his wand. And I have some questions. - Why can he magic without a wand, and why does no one seem impressed by that ability?- Why does he use a wand sometimes even though he doesn't need one?- Is it because he's dueling, and he can only deflect magic with a wand? - Someone just shouted "Take away his wand." Why? Would that impact him in any meaningful way? I have come to believe (in large part thanks to Film Crit Hulk) that if you only question something after the fact, then it doesn't ultimately matter. Many great films fall apart under close inspection, but in the moment, you're too caught up to notice or care. And so the movie is successful. On the other hand, if you think about the problems, that mean the film has failed to either keep my interest enough for me to not think about it, hide it well enough behind some sort of pseudo-logic that can keep me going for two hours, or both. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a little bit of both. I was constantly asking questions throughout the film (in my head, I'm not a monster), and precisely none of them were answered. I'm not going to list them all here for you, but many of them boil down to, "Wait, so how does that work?" Nowhere is this more problematic than with the film's actual conflict: An Obscurious (sp?) is wreaking havoc on the city. Who is it? How can they stop it? New Scamander might know the latter but no one knows the former. It's probably related to the creepy anti-witch cult that the film keeps cutting back to, because that's the only reason we would be spending so much time with them. Anyways, once things are revealed and we see the Obscurious at work, the whole thing kind of falls apart. Someone might be able to explain this using overly technical language that will confuse me into thinking maybe it made sense, and others will say that it doesn't matter, this is for children, and I should stop being such a spoilsport... but really, I have so many questions relating to literally everything about it, and none of the answers I come up with are satisfying. The Harry Potter books have issues, but they're satisfying. They scratch an itch and do what you want them to do. Much of the time, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does too. Jacob Kowalski, for example, is a great character, and pretty much every scene with him in it was at least good if not great. I dunno why I liked him so much, but he's probably my favorite character in any Harry Potter story. Maybe it's because he's a Nomag and I liked seeing how a non-magical person really reacts to all of the craziness? I dunno. He's great. The actors in general are quite good. No more weird, wooden performances from children who were chosen before anyone knew if they could actually act. The dialogue, written by J.K. Rowling herself, is also fine. Many of my friends who did read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child complained that the dialogue was clearly not written by Rowling, so I expect they will enjoy this more. The pacing is off, and the movie is about 20 minutes too long, but those 20 minutes of meh are scattered throughout and not in one big, boring chunk. And though some moments may drag, some genuinely excite. There are a couple of thrilling action sequences (even if they're a bit contrived), and there are some genuinely inventive things, like some of the weirder Fantastic Beasts. I liked seeing the expansion of Harry Potter. I'm glad that this isn't another Harry Potter story. I like the idea of a series of spin-offs for the same reason I'm excited about all of the Star Wars Stories that aren't numbered episodes. And for all of my issues with this first installment, there are definitely things to like, and the good outweighs the bad. If you can see past the massive gaps in logic and just say "The wizard did it" and be content with that, you may very well love Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. If you thought Harry Potter was dumb, this sure as hell won't change your mind. But if you're a fan (even a lapsed one), you should most certainly check it out.
Fantastic Beasts Review photo
I have some questions
On my right wrist is a scar given to me by the seventh Harry Potter book. I was abroad at the time, at a language school. The book had just launched, and my Turkish roomate (not my French or Croatian ones) got a copy. I asked...

Review: Moonlight

Oct 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220901:43153:0[/embed] MoonlightDirector: Barry JenkinsRelease Date: October 21st, 2016Rating: R  Moonlight is told in three parts, each spaced a decade or so apart. In part one, Chiron is a child; people call him "Little." In part 2, he's a teenager; one person calls him "Black." In part 3, he's in his late 20s; everyone calls him "Black" now. Each of the three actors is in the poster, which I think is an excellent poster (there are also individual character posters of each actor in the same position, which is less cool). However, the posters all have the same, dumb tagline: "This is the story of a lifetime." That's a terrible tagline. Unlike, say, the Disney film that you might expect to have the tagline, it's more literal. It is, sort of, the story of someone's lifetime. But that's not a very good measuring stick. I look at that poster and think, "That looks really cool." I read that tagline and think, "That sounds really bland." Though that raises an interesting thought (more on that later). All three parts of Moonlight are good, though they are all good for totally different reasons. Part 1 sets Chiron up, but it's less about Chiron than the man who is his mentor: Juan. Part of me wonders if that's intentional, that it's supposed to be about Juan. Certainly he's a critical part of the narrative (and also of Chiron's development as the film progresses), but this is not his story ultimately. And it seems to me that part of the reason it feels so much like his story is because of just how spectacular Mahershala Ali is in the role. Every moment he's on screen belongs to him. If years down the road, Moonlight winds up forgotten (I don't think it will), Ali's performance will not. The conflict of his character — a drug dealer who sells to the mother of the kid he's now begun to take care of, in large part because the kid's mother is a drug addict — is compelling as heck, and the performance makes it all the more so. Juan isn't in Part 2 (and he's not really in Part 3, but he's also totally in Part 3). He's dead, but no one ever says it. That is actually one of my favorite things about the film. There's no, "Sucks that Juan died in that [whatever happened]." In fact, we don't ever find out what happened. We know from the bits and pieces, the "I haven't seen her since the funeral" and the "This is my house." There's nothing expository here; these words are natural and in character. Writer/director Barry Jenkins trusts the audience's intelligence enough to make basic connections. I have always appreciated that in a filmmaker, and Moonlight is no exception. That said, this is where we should double back to my earlier thought: "That sounds really bland." While no part of Moonlight could be justifiably called "bland," a case could be made that it feels oddly "typical." Chiron's story is, really, not a new one. I've long made a point that, if I can see something coming, it was telegraphed from a mile away, because I more often than not will be blindsided by twists that everyone else sees as painfully obvious. And Moonlight is not really a film about twists (the closest thing the story has to one has already been spoiled in this review (sorry)), but it's a film about a sequence of events. The sequence of events in each story can more or less be predicted within the first ten minutes of each time period. This is especially true of the teenage years, which follow an almost painfully conventional structure. Part 3 diverges most drastically, but the way Chiron would ultimately turn out is not unpredictable.  And yet, it didn't matter. In fact, I'd argue that the film is more effective rather than less as a result of this. Because this is something like a story we've seen time and time again, it highlights just how well crafted it is here. In reviews of foreign films, I've discussed how seeing a different culture's take on the Same Old Story can ultimately create something that feels new and fresh. I wasn't really thinking about it within our borders, but that's a matter of my own blindness. The creative minds behind Moonlight have had unique experiences that the white people who usually make decisions just can't grasp. I don't believe for a moment that a white person could not have made Moonlight feel so... vital, because it would have felt like every other story of its ilk. You may know the beats, but they still feel fresh. And it's a combination of everything, because the writing has to be there; the performances have to be there; the technical aspects have to be there. Truly great movies can't succeed on one level. They must succeed on every level. And Moonlight does. (I want to briefly call out the camerawork, which is spectacular. Hell, just that opening shot is a goddamn masterwork.) And so we return to this idea of representation, and the weight that rests on Moonlight's shoulders. People will look to it as the film that can keep the Oscars this year from being so white. If it doesn't get at least four nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography), well... I can't even fathom that possibility, because this is a film that more than deserves the praise that's been heaped upon it. By all accounts (again, I will not be watching it), the cracks in The Birth of a Nation as a work of art started to show as the narrative of Nate Parker's past emerged. And so were it to achieve ultimate success, some may have seen it more as a response to controversy than a justified win in and of itself. (That would be unfortunate, regardless of the film's quality, but I know more than a few people who would think that way.) There are no such concerns here. Any success that Moonlight has will come without reservation and without question. When the lights came up, I turned to the man beside me and asked what he had thought. "Beautiful," he answered. Nothing else needed to be said.
Moonlight Review photo
Able to bear the weight of its existence
I don't want to (and am not going to) make this review about the fact that Moonlight is a film about African Americans. It's not a topic I can avoid, but I want to get as much of that as I can out of the way in this intro. So...

Review: The Accountant

Oct 14 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220965:43147:0[/embed] The AccountantDirector: Gavin O'ConnorRelease Date: October 14th, 2016Rating: R  The Accountant feels like a television pilot, an origin story with a little bit of Case of the Week madness thrown in. Ben Affleck plays the eponymous accountant, constantly creating new identities based on famous people who were interested in math (at the start of this story: Christian Wolff) and then discarding them whenever his situation becomes compromised. And why would it do that? Because he works for some of the most dangerous people in the world: terrorists, thieves, cartels, you know name it and he does their books. Key to his success is his autism, which causes a number of problems but also unlocks an incredible ability to solve puzzles and make connections. He can do the work of a half-dozen neurotypicals in half the time. And he always finishes what he starts. I can only think of one other action movie with an autistic star, which would be Thai film Chocolate, by Prachya Pinkaew. In that film, an autistic girl watches martial arts movies and becomes a master. I bring it up solely because I think you should see it, because The Accountant isn't really like it at all, though Mr. Wolff is a more-than-capable fighter. He was trained by his father, a military man, and the men that his father hired to make sure he could take care of himself. The flashbacks to his younger self, often at his worst, in the midst of meltdowns or other crises, demonstrate the difficulty of having a child with autism while also showing a fascinating sort of respect for what it can do. I'll admit that my experience with autism is fairly limited, but what I saw felt pretty right. On the whole, the film is trying to make a pretty clear point: Autism is not a disorder or an illness; it's just a different way of being. It's not worse or better, just its own thing. And credit where credit is due: That's awesome. How many times have we seen an autistic protagonist who can genuinely take care of themselves in a major motion picture? Have we ever seen that? I'm honestly curious, so someone please tell me if that's a thing. Certainly it wouldn't be something like The Accountant. No, The Accountant is different. I mentioned in the intro that this is a film with a genuinely strange structure, and what I mean by that is that the story itself comes out in bursts that feel sort of haphazardly placed. After big action sequences we'll end up with long stretches of exposition that totally kill whatever intense pacing the film may have been building up. There is a lengthy subplot involving a pair from the Treasury trying to track him down, and as that story develops, we learn a lot about J.K. Simmons' character. None of that really felt necessary, and it kind of bogs down the movie in its second half, but it also felt a little bit like, "Why not?" The characters in general feel like they're being introduced for something grander, and we'll learn more about them in future episodes. J.K. Simmons is set to retire, so this is probably the last we'll be seeing of him. It was his time in the spotlight. Next week, we'll learn more about someone else. And while we're getting a lot of character exposition about Affleck and Simmons, we're getting pretty much nothing about the actual story itself. So, blah blah blah someone is cooking books. Affleck finds out about it. People need to die. Etc. We learn about the motivations of the bad guy, but his actual place in the film is so minor (and ultimately inconsequential) that the film may as well have no story at all. You might think that one of Wolff's obviously dangerous clients is after him, but that isn't it at all. As far as the film is concerned, he has successfully stayed off the grid. No one knows where to find him, so he only has to worry about the people right in front of him.  Which means that we're probably in for a franchise, assuming The Accountant does well at the box office. It doesn't end on a cliffhanger or anything, and it doesn't need a sequel, but the character and his work is structured in such a way that it would be exceedingly easy to make one. You'd think that Affleck's got his hands full with the whole Batman thing, but I imagine the dramatic work involved in The Accountant is a bit more satisfying. It's possible that the action is too, because the movie actually has some pretty great fight scenes, ones that don't need a whole bunch of purdy CGI to be cool. (Think Batman v. Superman's warehouse fight, which is easily the best part of that movie (except it's okay when Batman kills people in this one).) And so I hope this does become a franchise, and I hope we get to see more of Anna Kendrick in fights, because in the one fight where she has a minor role, she's a total badass about it. I heard a guy complaining after the film that she didn't seem Damsel-in-Distress-y enough. And thank gosh; she's way more interesting that. And I have to give the film credit for that, too. It treats pretty much all of its characters with a certain amount of dignity; they are (well, most of them) more complex than I had expected, and that made some of those slow, exposition-heavy moments a lot more bearable than they could have been. There are many things about The Accountant that I genuinely loved and nothing that I really disliked. Sure, some of its issues, particularly around structure and pacing, are irritating. They keep The Accountant from being truly brilliant. But they don't keep it from greatness. Bring on The Accountant Chapter 2. 
The Accountant Review photo
Ben Affleck's John Wick
I remember seeing the first trailer for The Accountant a few months back and thinking, "That's a hilarious premise that looks like it could be terrible, but I bet it's going to be awesome." It seemed like the kind of bizarre ...

Review: American Honey

Oct 05 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220902:43130:0[/embed] American HoneyDirector: Andrea ArnoldRelease Date: October 7, 2016 Rating: NR  In 2013, at the New York Film Festival press screening of Claire Denis’s Bastards, a film critic (I don’t know who it was) asked a painfully stupid question, something to the effect of, “When I am watching the film, I think of the camera like an eye. And I want to know whose eye am I seeing this film through?” Denis also thought this was a stupid question and told the audience so. In that moment, I appreciated her candor. (I appreciated it less when we had a painfully awkward interview just a couple days later, where I opened with “I liked [insert film of hers here],” and she just said “Why?” (It only got worse from there.)) But I bring this up because, while I don’t believe that a camera has to be anyone’s eye, in American Honey, it is rather explicitly. This is a film about Sasha Lane’s (spectacular turn as) Star; it is her Instagram. She leaves an extremely disturbing home life and joins a bunch of societal rejects who drive around the country and sell magazines. It’s a simple narrative, one where nothing happens except for everything. It's told with all the complexity you would hope, everything required to capture a life. And the film works hard to capture Star’s specifically: the camera almost never leaves her side. We witness the events of the film pretty much the same way she does. When she (and by extension we) first sees Shia LaBeouf’s Jake, it’s from a distance. When we see him again, the two closer, but it’s still from Star’s perspective and not the film’s (whatever that means). We don’t cut to a closeup of his antics at the grocery store (set to Rihanna and Calvin Harris’s “We Found Love,” just one of a number of excellent musical cues that seem well outside the budget range for this film but somehow (very happily) make it in). You might expect his face doesn’t fill the frame as he looks at her in that way that only Shia LaBeouf can, to get that little moment to make you swoon. But we don’t get that. We see him as Star does, from where she does. This serves to make a film that is intensely personal, despite being in large part an ensemble piece. American Honey is about Star, but it’s also about the kind of people who Star would align herself to. And this, in part, serves to further develop Star as a character. Her interactions with the outside world say a whole lot about her, but the moments with the ragtag group of misfits in the van say even more. Even sitting in silence, we understand her. It’s a beautiful thing. I have no doubt that there is a cut of American Honey that is at least 11 hours long. It’s just that kind of movie. So much time is spent with the ragtag group of misfits sitting in a van, singing and talking and drinking and just existing. I said that they serve to expand on Star’s character, but let’s be clear: Each member of the group their own little backstory, and even if we don’t get much of it, each character was clearly defined. We may not know much about them, but we get a feeling for who they are on a fundamental level. You don’t always need words to express it, and the film embraces that. Even in their relatively small amounts of screentime, we got a whole bunch of People. Wikipedia tells me that most of the cast was just found around the place, so it’s entirely plausible that most of them aren’t playing characters at all. They’re just being themselves for the camera. And maybe that’s not the case, but it doesn’t matter. Each feels lived-in, and it feels like each could have been the star of (at the very least) their own short. It also feels like the proverbial cutting room floor of the film is probably so littered with character moments that someone could make short films about each and everyone else. If American Honey has a failing, it’s that it has a 2:43 runtime in an era where people claim to not have the attention span for two-thirds that length. I’d fully believe that none of the characters in American Honey would even give American Honey a chance because of its length. (I know that if I hadn’t heard so many great things about it, I probably would have skipped it myself.) But I had a sort of surprising reaction to the length: I checked my watch about an hour in and then never again – usually it’s quite the opposite. It’s not that the first hour is boring, but I was keenly aware of just how long it was going to be during that time. Around the hour mark, I settled into the rhythm of the film. It’s on a very particular wavelength, and if you can’t get into it, then you’re probably going to suffer for those 163 minutes. But if it grabs you, and it certainly grabbed me, then you’ll feel like you’re vicariously living as part of these peoples’ lives. I would never do what Star did or does, nor am I anything like any of the people in that van, but I am pretty damn sure I’d follow each and every one of them on Instagram.
American Honey Review photo
The social network
American Honey is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, where the image is approximately 1.33 times wider than it is tall. Movies looked like that a long time ago; TV looked like that much more recently. Neither looks like that anymore...

Review: The Lovers And The Despot

Sep 22 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220842:43121:0[/embed] The Lovers and the DespotDirectors: Robert Cannan and Ross AdamRelease Date: September 23rd, 2016Rating: NR  It's 1978. Choi Eun-Hee is one of South Korea's top movie stars, often starring in the films of her husband, director Shin Sang-Ok. North Korean Kim Jong-Il kidnaps her in Hong Kong. Then he kidnaps her husband. After years in a prison camp, eventually the two of them are reunited. Kim Jong-Il tells them to make films. They do. They make lots of them (17, in fact) and even travel to foreign festivals to show them. And then, of course, they escape. It all sounds a bit silly, but, of course, it's all true. Oversimplified? More than likely, but ultimately True nonetheless.  The Lovers and the Despot tells this story almost exclusively through interviews, with Choi, her family, people involved with the case, etc. Shin passed away a decade ago, but some of his audio makes it in as well. The video and audio clips are interspersed with footage from Shin's films (including some of the ones made in North Korea) and reenactment shots. I thought the decision to do reenactments was interesting, but their effectiveness is diminished somewhat by the footage from the films. In a couple of cases, rather than using reenactments, they pull directly from his films. Those moments are some of the most compelling, and everything really comes together. The reenactments are fine, but you're hearing them narrated at the time, so they lacks any real oomph. They're just there to keep you from getting bored. They're successful in that regard, but they don't do much more. This stands in contrast with certain audio clips, which are literally just audio clips playing over a generic background. And they're fine, but they're also... ya know, audio clips playing over a generic background. At that point, you're not really watching anything. And maybe you're getting a little bored? Some people certainly might, though I can unequivocally say I did not. I didn't know anything about this story before going into The Lovers and the Despot, and I was enthralled by the story itself from beginning to end. The audio-only parts could have just as easily been an exceedingly compelling podcast or something, but what's important is that now I know this story, and that I have seen some footage from these North Korean films, and that I really, really want to see them now. Choi Eun-Hee says at one point in the film that, if she were to make a screenplay of her life, she would gloss over the bad things. She would focus only on the good. It seems to me that The Lovers and the Despot did as well. There are hints here and there of the horrors that they faced, but nothing is ever explicit and the filmmakers don't seem particularly interested in going down that path. Even though this is a film about the evil of North Korea, it's not about the evils of North Korea. And while that may sound like some obnoxious semantic thing, it's an important distinction. More often than not, Kim Jong-Il comes off as weird, to be sure, but not particularly scary. As citizens of the world, we know that he is, but there are only a handful of moments where that really comes across here, and the most impactful one is a scene that comes right from his mouth: Actual audio captured by the two of them of Kim Jong-Il. (It is genuinely fascinating to hear his voice, by the way; until that point, I was pretty sure he sounded like Trey Parker.) It's him talking to his kidnappees about that whole five years in prison that Shin went through. It basically amounts to an, "Oops. Sorry." That complete disregard for a person's existence — and of a person who was brought in to make him movies! — is kind of shocking. And, of course it's not all that shocking that the leader of North Flipping Korea would behave that way, but in a film that isn't about evils, it stands out as the exception that proves the rule. We're missing huge swaths of this story, and I'm conflicted about that. A very real part of me is glad for that, because it allows for some level of whimsy. This whole thing is so ridiculous, but it actually happened. And if you forget all of the awful things that came with it, it could totally be the plot of some weirdo comedy (possibly made by Matt Stone and Trey Parker). I liked being able to laugh and not have to constantly think about the awful things that weren't being said... But the other part of me thinks about sort-of-humanizing dictators and demagogues, and The Lovers and the Despot does a little bit of that. Is that a bad thing? I don't know. Probably. But I'm not going to damn it for that. It's sanitized a bit so that it can play to the widest possible audience, and that is a good thing, because everyone should see this movie. Everyone should learn more about this story. This story is truly incredible. Like, seriously, it's one of the craziest things I've ever heard, certainly the most interesting one related to cinema. And if glossing over the evils of dictatorship is what it takes to get it in front of people? Well that's alright by me.
The Lovers and The Despot photo
Truth is stranger than...
It can be kind of exhausting getting a dozen (or more) emails a day about movie X, Y, and Z. Do I want to see this? Do I want to learn more about this? And I'm sure I've turned down a lot of great movies because the sales pit...

Review: Snowden

Sep 16 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220888:43108:0[/embed] SnowdenDirector: Oliver StoneRelease Date: September 16, 2016Rating: R  Snowden is a film steeped in dramatic irony. It opens with the first meeting of Snowden, Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto). We don't see (then or ever) how he got in touch with them or how he convinced them to go to Hong Kong to meet him. But we know why he's there and why they're there. Everyone knows his name, and I imagine the people who have forgotten what he did will remember pretty quickly once it's all underway. Much of the film takes place in the past, as we watch Snowden go from a young man kicked out of the army after he's injured during boot camp to a CIA employee to a CIA contractor to an NSA contractor to the most famous whistleblower of the modern era. But at each step, we know who and what he will become, and that colors each and every interaction. I imagine it must have been agonizing, during the scripting process, to not get too hammy. The lines exist here and there — perhaps most blatantly: "You won't regret this" after being hired by the CIA — but I imagine that some of those lines were actually said at the time. I would entirely believe that a man would tell his new boss that they wouldn't regret hiring him, for example. Sometime people say things like that. It's only because we know what ultimately happens that that line is seen as anything other than genuine gratitude. To the audience, it's a joke, though no one actually laughed. I don't know how much of Snowden is true and how much is dramatized. I know for a fact that certain things didn't go down the way they were depicted because I remember reading news reports that explained the actual (far less sexy) events three years ago, but those wouldn't have made for compelling drama. Like Snowden, you know something is going to happen, and it's probably bad. He knows it, because he knows what the people he's up against are capable of; you know it, because this isn't the first time you've seen a movie. Movies are all about information. This movie in particular is about information, but I mean in the broader sense of the word, because drama is about the conveying of information. When, where, and how information is presented to the audience can radically change their perception of, well, everything. Information is the most crucial thing in storytelling, and sometimes that information is simple and something it isn't.  What makes Snowden's story so complicated is that the programs he revealed to the world are so complicated. It's hard enough to condense Xkeyscore and Prism and everything else into an easy-to-understand package without needing to also tell a human story about the guy who unveiled it all. Sure, the movie could just not try, but as much as this is Snowden's story, it also is one that tries to explain Why This Matters. Just presenting Snowden is all well and good, but it's crucial that we understand the gravity of the things that Snowden revealed. We need to know why he would throw away his objectively-pretty-good life because something was gnawing at him and he couldn't get away from it. And I think that the film does a decent job of explaining how it all works. Is it oversimplified? Of course... but it's also basically accurate, and that's what matters. People who didn't really pay attention in 2013 or didn't understand what they were being told can learn at least a little bit about what Snowden leaked. That's a big deal. Because information is also power. It's power in the film, but it's also power beyond. In a Q&A session after the film, Oliver Stone was asked what the message of the film was. He rejected the question out of hand and let the others answer it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt said that he thought The Point was to rekindle the conversation, an interest in the things that are talked about. To get people to dig deeper and draw their own conclusions. (The Edward Snowden depicted in the film says something like that, and the real Edward Snowden, beamed in from Moscow during the Q&A, did as well.) They all understand the importance of information. And I think that anyone who sees Snowden will feel it as well. It's an undeniably political film, and Snowden's shift away from hyper-patriotic, semi-authoritarian conservatism is kind of interesting to watch in the context of our current climate. Having seen the general even-handedness of W., I know that Stone isn't out to just make conversatives look bad, but that doesn't mean the reaction to this film won't fall down party lines. Let's be clear: Oliver Stone thinks that what Snowden did is a very important thing, and he stands firmly on his side (though not in all matters, necessarily). As a result of that, I think reactions to it will be heavily partisan. And if not, then what lines does it fall down? Some people will just think it's a bad movie (it's not) because they don't like it. That's fair enough. But others will have a visceral reaction and reject it out of hand. And I want to know why those people do, because I think it matters. To answer the question I posed at the beginning, yes: I think it should start that conversation and bring the issue back to the forefront. But it's important that we start that conversation based on information rather than opinion. It doesn't matter what you think of what Edward Snowden did, whether you think he deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail or as a free man. What matters is that the conversation about privacy, about security, about all these extremely important topics can happen now in a way that they couldn't before. Snowden can be a jumping-off point. As the Q&A was getting set up, an older woman a few seats from me stood up. "You're a hero, Mr. Stone," she shouted. People clapped, but it was honestly a little awkward. I wondered how many people in the theater agreed with her. I don't, not really. I don't think that Snowden is a heroic film made by a heroic man. But it doesn't have to be. It just has to be good. To start that conversation, it needs to function as a cohesive narrative, tell a story that is compelling and do so in a compelling way. Snowden does all that. It does more than that. It makes you think. It makes you want to talk. It'll likely make you question your own beliefs about the power that a government should have, regardless of how you feel about it going in. Or maybe it won't, and that's interesting too. The point is that there's something to say, something substantive to discuss. And who know, maybe it can make a difference. How cool would that be?
Snowden Review photo
The power of information
I never saw Citizenfour, the documentary Laura Poitras made about Edward Snowden. I thought about it a lot and certainly meant to, but it was never really a priority for me. This was, in large part, because I followed along w...

Review: Don't Breathe

Aug 31 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220826:43073:0[/embed] Don't BreatheDirector: Fede AlvarezRelease Date: August 26th, 2016Rating: R  Let's talk about genre for a minute: Don't Breathe is being sold as a home invasion film, and it is that; but it's also not really. It's not a home invasion film like The Strangers or Funny Games is. This isn't a film about a family whose home is being invaded by evil forces; it's about the invaders themselves. And, more importantly, it's about the invaders trying to escape. In this case, the invaders are three dumb young 20somethings(?) who rob houses because one of them, Alex, has a dad who works for a security company. They follow strict rules: No cash, a take under $10,000, because law enforcement will go easier on them as a result of it. (These are Alex's rules; he is very worried about things going wrong.) The team learns about an old, blind veteran, Norman Nordstrom, who won a lot of money in a settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident. To get out of Detroit, they decide to go after it, breaking their rules in the hopes of never needing to do it again. So they invade a home. It's locked with more than just the security key (odd) but make it in there anyway. And once they're inside, things go from bad to worse. Attempting to knock Norman out only serves to wake him up, and though he can't see anything that's around him, he's still plenty capable of causing serious damage to the people who have come into his home.  There are a lot of things about this premise that are interesting, but the best thing Don't Breathe has going for it is the inherent tension in a scene where one character is silent as Norman walks by them, oblivious to their presence. In these moments, you grip the arm of your chair (or whomever you're sitting next to), terrified that they'll make some kind of noise and end up maimed or dead or worse (and yeah, there's a "worse," which by now you've probably already heard about but I was (un?)fortunate enough to have not had that spoiled). I will admit that the tension is mildly undercut by the fact that sometimes it seems like he's too oblivious. And I don't mean that I think the guy should be Daredevil, but the moments where he notices things seem a bit arbitrary given some of the things he doesn't notice. It didn't really bother me much at the time, though, which I think is a testament to the effectiveness of the filmmaking. I like long takes. I like long takes a lot. And Don't Breathe makes excellent use of them. A few years back, a cabin-in-the-woods film called Honeymoon used a long take to introduce us to the house where much of the film would take place. Don't Breathe does something similar, going through and showing us pretty much everything we need to keep track of for the next hour or so. But as excellently staged as that is, the best uses come later. There are two that stick in my mind, but the one that exemplifies the unique tension this film can create comes in a long take as Alex tries to avoid Norman. You think he's gone, but then he appears again (something he does a Batman number of times over the course of the film (so maybe he should be Daredevil)), and it doesn't break away. It's a beautifully conceived scene and a brilliantly executed one. For that moment alone, this film is worthy of praise. One thing Don't Breathe is not, though, is particularly scary. There are jumpy moments (thankfully not accompanied by the obnoxiously loud sounds that tend to plague modern horror movies), but it's never really fear-inducing. It keeps you on the edge of your seat rather than trying to burrow into it. And it doesn't let up once it begins; many people have described the film as "relentless," and I think that's an excellent word for it. It just keeps going and going; there are probably five (maybe more) moments where you think it's over and then some new wrench gets thrown into the works. Still, though a couple people were shouting "ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!" at the screen by the end of it, it doesn't feel too long. It breaks you down just as it breaks down the characters, demoralizing you as it does them. It's efficient, effective, and ruthless. But, really, what else would you expect? This is the man who made Evil Dead. I like having directors whose work I can trust. I like to have people to follow and projects to hype for sight unseen. With his two films, I think Fede Alvarez has more than proved himself to be worthy of everyone's attention. His work has a unique (and honestly spectacular) style, and I am excited to see where he goes from here. Don't Breathe is great, and those flaws that it has don't spoil the experience. I expect I'll be seeing this one again soon, looking to see what things I missed the first time around and just enjoying a well-crafted and executed film. Bravo, Mr. Alvarez, this is your second Flixist Editor's Choice. I hope I don't have to wait another three years before we can give you another.
Don't Breathe Review photo
A different kind of home invasion
Three years ago, Fede Alvarez proved that he was a talent to watch. Evil Dead is a great film, tense and horrific and, more than anything else, polished (in stark contrast to the original film, which is anything but...

Review: Lake Nowhere

Aug 10 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220740:43043:0[/embed] Lake NowhereDirectors: Christopher Phelps, Maxim Van ScoyRelease Date: August 16 (DVD, Blu-Ray, VOD) Rating: NR  Lake Nowhere is a throwback to slasher movies from the Good Old Days. The Grindhouse days. It’s kinda like Grindhouse, actually, complete with fake trailers that run beforehand. But unlike the three-hour runtime that I’m fairly sure that movie had, Lake Nowhere clocks in at a brisk 51 minutes. (Note: It is not a “short,” though it is definitely short for a feature. More movies should be short, though; Lake Nowhere says everything it has to say and then ends, which is something we, as moviegoers, should celebrate.) The screening I attended was made up, as far as I could tell, pretty much exclusively of people who worked on the film. There might have been some other friends-of-the-cast-and-crew, but I dunno. I didn’t talk to any of them, because fun fact: I’m awkward as heck. I had come from a show played by Governor Bradford, who is the frontman of a band that I would probably listen to occasionally on Spotify if that were a thing I could do. I’m fairly sure I still have some demo tracks somewhere on my computer. I don’t listen to them. Anyways, I was one of, I believe, three people who came to see the show. It was pretty good. I had fun. Governor Bradford is a fascinating musician. I clapped very hard, because that’s what I do. Sometimes I clap like Heath Ledger’s Joker did in that one scene in the prison. I don’t remember if I did that then, but it’s very plausible. Anyways, they were the opening act, and the best one that I was there for. The band that played afterwards made terrible use of harmonizers. It was upsetting for everyone except them; the frontman of that band looked like he was having a grand old time. Anyways, after that and a couple of songs into the next band, we went and got dumplings. There’s a place in Manhattan that has pumpkin dumplings, and they are very good. It was Halloween, and I’m fairly sure that Governor Bradford was dressed as a character from a horror movie, but I hadn’t seen the movie (or whatever property they had based it on). Accompanying the costume was a plastic axe. While Governor Bradford ordered the dumplings, I held onto the plastic axe. Some hipsters (probably drunk) asked me if it was real. I told them no, because I’m bad at lying. Governor Bradford was disappointed. Sorry, bro. At some point, it became clear to me that I was horribly underdressed for the night’s proceedings. I usually start wearing long underwear in early fall, because I have very little body fat (not even the occasional pumpkin dumpling has been able to fix that) and don’t retain heat particularly well. I don’t know why I wasn’t wearing my long underwear that night – maybe I thought we were going to be inside? – but I wasn’t, and so fairly early on I started to shiver. And shiver. And shiver. It was pretty sad, honestly. I don’t even think I was wearing my coat, just a jacket. Or maybe I was wearing my coat when I needed a jacket? Look, this was nearly 10 months ago. I’m probably getting at least 15% of these details wrong without realizing it. I know for a fact that it was hellishly windy. And I can say that, because in Dante’s Inferno, which is at least in part responsible for our vision of Hell, the ninth circle of hell is windy and freezing the traitorous traitors who have died and aren’t the ones who are being constantly eaten by Satan for all eternity. Am I a traitor? I mean, probably. I dunno. The history books will decide that ultimately, I think. (Which isn’t to say I think I’ll be mentioned in the history books, but if I was a legit traitor, maybe I would be. If I’m not mentioned, then I think we can probably assume that I was not.) Point is: I was suffering like one, which was – to say the gosh darn least –  uncomfortable. On the way to the screening, we stopped off at Sam’s (remember him?), because it was hella convenient, and he had a hard drive of mine which contained footage for a movie that I still haven’t finished the final cut of (sorry, Kickstarter backers; it’s coming!) Then we crossed the street (the best) and sat down in the freezing cold to watch the movie. As I said, it’s super enjoyable. You should see it. You can now, if you’re reading this on or after August 16. If it’s before that, then you have to wait until August 16, but you’ve been waiting your whole life for this, so I think you can wait another few days. Of course, these sorts of events never really go the way you expect them to. It was a janky screening, which actually kinda worked on some level, given that it was trying to recapture the grindhouse thing. The city is loud, and it’s bright. The organizers put up tarps in an attempt to block out the latter; there’s not much you can do about the former but crank up the volume and try to drown them out. But, of course, legal sound limits, etc. And it’s not like you want to have your ears bleed while watching a movie just because everything else is so loud. Anyways, the point of this is that the wind literally pulled one of the tarps off of its ropes and it flew over into a neighboring yard. We didn’t get it back, and half the screen was washed out. It made a couple of moments a little difficult to see, but it was okay. It wasn’t really their fault that the elements conspired against them. That’s just a thing that happens. I have it on good authority that the weather made some aspects of the filming itself pretty hardcore, specifically with regards to Lake Nowhere itself, which was apparently even colder than I was while watching the movie. I grabbed onto Governor Bradford for warmth; more like we grabbed onto each other, huddling together because I cannot overstate how flipping cold it was. On a basically unrelated note: I learned from a trailer for a movie that I think has Vince Vaugh in it that you’re supposed to be naked with people for warmth. That was (like, duh) not the case here, for many, many reasons – obvious and not. Afterwards, there was talking amongst the people who knew each other. I awkwardly sat at a table and did not talk to anyone. That wasn’t great, but at least it was inside, so I wasn’t getting hypothermia anymore. I’m not friends with Governor Bradford anymore. The reason for that was, at least in part, the impetus for a horribly pretentious one-man show that I “performed” just a few weeks ago. An early version of said show actually had a version of this story in it, but it was cut for reasons that don’t matter. (If you’re at all curious what the show was like, reread the previous 1400ish words, because it was exactly like this, but 55 minutes long, in second person, and somehow with even less movie review in it). I hadn’t really thought about this night until a week ago, when I got an email asking me if I’d like to review it. The subject line alone – “Possible Flixist Interest? Retro Slasher LAKE NOWHERE to hit DVD/Blu-Ray and VOD on August 16!” – was enough to bring back wave after wave of memories. Looking back on this is weird, but for all of the oddities, there is one thing that isn’t in question, which is that I had a bunch of fun watching Lake Nowhere. You won’t be seeing it in quite the same context that I did, but if you get a group of friends together (definitely watch with friends (if that’s an option)), you’re going to have a blast too. And if you don’t? Well, that says more about you than it does the film. tl;dr: Great movie. Also, I need to gain weight and/or start wearing long underwear earlier in the year.
Lake Nowhere Review photo
(Wherein I do not talk about the movie)
I saw Lake Nowhere last Halloween. I first heard about the film about a month prior, at the press screening for The Last Witch Hunter. A friend of mine brought as his +1 someone who worked on the film, who for the purposes of...

Review: Train to Busan

Aug 04 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220738:43030:0[/embed] Train to Busan (부산행)Director: Yeon Sang-HoRelease Date: July 22, 2016Rating: NR I assumed while watching it that a big part of the reason Seoul Station was animated was the costs that would have been involved with making it for real. It's a sprawling narrative, going all around a city that I expect is very expensive to shoot in. A higher budget would have absolutely allowed the movie to be live-action, but the resources weren't available, so animation was the only way to tell the story. And that's fair enough; you do the best you can with the resources that you have.  Train to Busan solidifies that theory, because it works on a much smaller scale than its predecessor. Much of the film takes place in a train, bringing to mind Bong Joon-Ho's Snowpiercer (which, it should be noted, is another film I liked less than most of my movie-obsessed friends), though it's on an even smaller scale than that. This isn't a future world train. It doesn't have greenhouses or saunas or crazy engine rooms. It's just a train, albeit a pretty nice one. (The KTX looks much nicer than the Amtrak train I took this past weekend, and I'm now extremely jealous of South Korea's infrastructure. But I digress:) The potential benefit of a movie with a small scale is the ability to really connect with its characters. Without crazy set pieces to eat up minutes, there's more time to learn about (and hopefully care about) everyone. And caring is crucial in a film like this, where, let's face it, major characters are going to die. That's a thing in zombie movies, and Train to Busan is no exception. It's also a Yeon Sang-Ho movie, which means a whole heckuva lot of people are going to die. Probably in terribly depressing ways.  Or so I had thought. And, look, characters do die in some horrible and depressing ways, but it didn't feel as consequential as I had expected. Part of me missed that pervasive horror that has defined Yeon Sang-Ho's earlier work, but another part of me was glad that things weren't quite so dark. Things definitely get bad, and there are bad people who do bad things (and make good people do bad things), but it just doesn't feel as horrible as it did in the earlier works. I assume that this has to do with the live-action thing and the fact that a larger budget (I'm guessing) means that someone somewhere said, "Hey, we need people to go to this thing, so cut back just a bit." It's not neutered, necessarily, but it's definitely scaled back. For most people, I think that's a positive, but I'm kind of on the fence. I know I felt more from the deaths in Seoul Station than I did in Train to Busan, even though I was distanced from the action. The characters themselves were just better developed. And perhaps that's because it was less ensemble-y than its sequel. There may only be one protagonist, but Train to Busan is as much about the other people on the train. There are multiple character threads, and while they're easy to keep track of, they all feel like they needed more time to build up. The most interesting character by leaps and bounds is Ma Dong-Seok's Sang-Hwa, whose personality is obvious from the moment you see him in his absolutely fantastic getup. Costuming says a lot, and his costuming is particularly on point. Other characters have pretty good costuming as well, but nothing is so interesting. You know who the other characters are by their clothes, but you don't know who they are deep down. He is the only character who really feels alive. But don't let this sound like it's all negative, because it's not. It's clear that Yeon Sang-Ho has learned a lot from his time directing animated films, and I hope that he goes forward with more live-action films, because it's a very nice looking one. It's very well directed, and I want to see him go further (and with more money). It's also got a different take on zombie mythology. These zombies function solely on vision (and, I guess, sound, but to a different extent). As soon as you're out of sight, you're instantly out of their minds. (Worth noting: I'm fairly sure that was not the case in Seoul Station, which (if true) is problematic, but eh. It's not that big a deal.) It's a change, and it means that hiding is a very effective tactic to stopping a zombie attack. And because of that, the characters are able to do some interesting things. In the cloak of darkness, they can play tricks in order to move the zombies as they like. There are some very clever moments as the characters attempt to get through the infested cars, and there are definitely some very intense moments. Part of what makes it intense is that this is a zombie movie completely devoid of firearms. No guns means no bullets to the head means no dead zombies. They can just keep coming and coming. And while it doesn't quite work out that way (the tension is diminished somewhat by unclear rules regarding the zombies), it's genuinely refreshing to see how characters try to deal with an enemy that they cannot kill. I am fairly sure that I've never seen a zombie film without guns before, and for that alone Train to Busan deserves props. For all the times it feels like Just Another Zombie Movie, it also feels like something unique, and in a genre that's this stale, that means a lot.
Train to Busan Review photo
A bit more than just Zombies On A Train
In my review of Yeon Sang-Ho's Seoul Station from this year's New York Asian Film Festival, I said that I felt it would have been better as a live-action film than it was as an animated one. There was just something...

Review: Jason Bourne

Jul 29 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220732:43028:0[/embed] Jason BourneDirector: Paul GreengrassRelease Date: July 28, 2016Rating: PG-13  Let’s talk about that name: Jason Bourne is an epically lazy name. The first three Bourne movies were named like novels, which makes sense because they were named after novels, though weren’t really based on them. The Bourne Legacy was also a novel. Since then: The Bourne Betrayal, The Bourne Sanction, The Bourne Deception, The Bourne Objective, The Bourne Dominion, The Bourne Imperative, The Bourne Retribution, The Bourne Ascendency, and (very recently) The Bourne Enigma. All of these are, I guess, perfectly accepted names for a new movie. Perhaps it’s because Jason Bourne wasn’t in the last film, and they really, really wanted you to know that Matt Damon was back to kick ass. Or maybe they just got bored taking names from books. I’m not sure which of those names would be most appropriate for Jason Bourne, but a little bit of creativity would have been appreciated. Then again, look at the number of Jason Bourne books there are. The original trilogy was written by one man, Robert Ludlum, over 10 years. Then he put down the mantle, and it was picked up by Eric Van Lustbader two years after the , who’s been pumping them out ever since. I can’t speak to the quality of any of these books, but it says something about franchising more broadly. Here was a trilogy that set out to do a thing, did that thing, and then its creator was done with it. Years later, someone else decides to continue it.  Jason Bourne feels like that. Sure, Paul Greengrass, who directed Supremacy and Ultimatum, helms this one as well, but it feels like a story that haphazardly thrown together just… because. I mean, Cinema Sins is going to have a field day with this movie; there are so many different levels on which the narrative doesn’t really work, but the problem for me was less the incoherence than the ludicrousness of its attempts to sound modern. I don’t really remember the earlier movies well enough to know how much technology was being used to track everything, but I know that technology plays a much more fundamental role in the world today and the film makes attempts to use that. There's a big narrative Point about the question of privacy versus security, centered around a Google/Facebook-analog called Deep Dream (which constantly made me think of Daydream, Google's upcoming Android VR platform), and it comes down pretty firmly on the side of governmental access to privacy. Normally, I might delve into that topic here, but honestly the film doesn't deserve it. It makes some vague platitudes about helping the good guys (i.e. the government), but it doesn't really do anything worthwhile with it, and it doesn't make any real arguments. Normally, I'd probably deconstruct it here... but it's just not worth it. The bigger issue than the film's politics is just how silly the use of tech is. You don't need to know much to know that the things these characters do are completely impossible. (My favorite moment is when a flip phone is remotely hacked into by the CIA and how that action somehow allows for a nearby laptop to have its hard drive wiped (lolwut); the "ENHANCE" moment is pretty good too (and, ya know, good on Alicia Vikander for not laughing while doing it).) In a film that's very, very serious, overtly ridiculous actions like these undermine any sense of drama. This is a fantasy film set in a fantasy world. The fairly realistic intrigue that I'm pretty sure the original trilogy had is nowhere to be found in Jason Bourne. But what we do have are some genuinely fantastic action sequences. Whether they're close-quarters fights or city-spanning car chases, Jason Bourne delivers that visceral intensity that I wanted from the movie. Yeah, the shaky cam is in full effect, making certain moments a bit, well, impossible to follow, but it's still more effectively utilized than 90% of the films that have aped the style since. It's disorienting, but it's just coherent enough that you can tell a whole bunch of awesome stuff has happened and that your brain will be registering it in 3... 2... WHOA THAT WAS COOL. And that's the film. In its narrative moments, it layers on the twists and double crosses and triple crosses seemingly at random, failing to create an ultimately satisfying series of events (though I'll be honest, I did like the ending, because I think it sets up a potentially more interesting (inevitable) sequel than I was expecting based on the previous few scenes). In its action moments, it hits hard and just keeps on hitting. I know some people who found it a bit overwhelming and almost desensitizing, but I didn't think that was the case. The scale keeps expanding, and the sequences themselves are different enough to make each new setpiece feel unique and exciting. You know, sort of, how it's going to end (someone with lines is going to die, but it won't be Jason Bourne), but how it gets there is consistently and thoroughly enjoyable. If you go into Jason Bourne expecting anything other than great action loosely strung together by stupid, stupid character moments, you're going to be sorely disappointed. But if you know what you're getting yourself into, then you can just sit back and enjoy it. Jason Bourne is not as good as the Matt Damon films that preceded it, but it's still a perfectly decent way to spend a couple of hours.
Jason Bourne Review photo
Punch punch crash crash boom
My memory of the first three Bourne films is a bit like Jason Bourne’s memories of, well, everything: It’s fuzzy, jumpy, and full of Matt Damon hitting things. I remember liking the movies, though being disoriente...

Women Texas Film Festival photo
Women Texas Film Festival

The first Women Texas Film Festival is coming (and worth paying attention to)


Also, I'm in it (just sayin')
Jul 29
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
It feels like, at any given moment, there are at least 25 film festivals going on that I'm supposed to be watching out for. There are big ones that everyone knows and small ones that no one will ever know and everything in be...

NYAFF Capsule Review: The Mermaid

Jul 27 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220644:42996:0[/embed] The Mermaid  (美人鱼)Director: Stephen ChowRelease Date: February 8, 2016Rating: NR 
The Mermaid Review photo
I... don't understand
It's always fascinating to me to see blockbusters from other countries. The Mermaid is the highest grossing Chinese film of all time; that's a big flipping deal. Apparently the lead actress was chosen out of literally 100,000...

Review: Lights Out

Jul 25 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220670:42995:0[/embed] Lights OutDirector: David SandbergRelease Date: July 22, 2016Rating: PG-13  You wouldn't know that David Sandberg directed Lights Out if you had just seen the trailer. The only name I remember from it was James Wan, who produced the film. I saw The Conjuring 2 in theaters just a couple of weeks ago, and I can see why the comparisons were made. I will also say that I found Lights Out to be both more and less compelling than Wan's film. (I'm curious how long before we start seeing Sandberg's name on trailers for movies he didn't direct.) Those trailers tell you two things about the film: The mother is unwell, and the monster can only be seen in the darkness. The light turns on, and she (it) disappears. This plays out in the trailer as a red light from outside a character's window brings the shadow thing in and out of being. I remember watching the trailer thinking, "Is this the whole movie?" In the opening scene of Lights Out, the first time the monster appears, the woman who sees it flips a light switch at least six times. The audience started to laugh. The woman tells the father of the children in the trailer (and husband of the not-well mother) that something weird is going on and he should be careful. The only thing I could think was, "I don't remember this dad character from the trailer. He's going to die, isn't he?" (Yup.) A lot of Lights Out plays out the way you would expect it to. It's genuinely scary at times, though this is in large part due to the ease of jump scares when your monster effectively teleports. But it works (mostly). This is true because the monster itself is interesting. The origin story of Diana is sort of convoluted, and part of me wishes that they'd done less with it. There's a lot of detail for something that ultimately doesn't matter very much. You can grasp the fundamentals pretty quickly, without the hyper-expository (though admittedly creepy) flashbacks, but... whatever. It's fine. The more interesting thing is what Diana represents. It's not a spoiler to say that Diana is the specter of an abusive relationship. The way she treats the mother and terrifies her kids; the hold she has on everyone and everything. The way she explodes when anyone tries to get in her way. (And refuses to listen to the only "instruction" she's ever given.) The best monsters are ones that play on real fears, that represent terrible things. Ways for a fantastical version of a real horror as a way for audiences to confront that in a way that feels a bit less visceral but nonetheless meaningful. Diana is that. Lights Out does that. It's not effective all the time, in part because Diana periodically falls into the trap of being Just A Movie Monster on a few occasions (most obviously in a very creepy sequence lit by black light, where her reveal reads too "THIS IS A MOVIE JUMP SCARE" and not enough "THIS IS A REAL THING THAT MAKES SENSE"), but overall she's a fairly unique take on a ghost. I liked what they tried to do, and think they were more successful than not. But, there's a problem, one that has almost nothing to do with Diana. I want to talk about the ending. Spoilers, obviously, to follow: Lights Out ends with a suicide. The suicide of the mother (whose name is Sophie) in order to save her children. Diana only exists as long as Sophie is under her spell. Sophie suffers from severe depression, and Diana feeds off of it. Something terrible happens (the death of her husband, which is never really discussed, and no one seems to question it, despite the particularly horrific circumstances of it). Sophie goes off her meds, and Diana is there to pick up the pieces. She is Sophie's only friend. In order to keep Diana away, Sophie needs help. Therapy, medication, hospitalization, whatever. She clearly needs something, and just when you think she's going to get it, she kills herself. In that moment, it is truly the only way to stop Diana. I get that. I understand that her suicide is the "correct" thing to do. The person I saw it with said, not incorrectly, that Sophie made her bed (with Diana) and was forced to lie in it. She subjected her kids, her husbands, to the horror, and paid the price. But on a purely visceral level, I reject the notion that suicide is the correct answer. I reject the notion that the narrative had to go down that path. Given the path it went down, sure; but I don't see that as the inevitable path. It's only inevitable because of the tension the sequence created. The slow, methodical treatment of the mother from the brink wouldn't have made for a particularly satisfying resolution, but that doesn't mean that the film had to take the road it did. Unfriended should have ended in suicide rather than one last jump scare, because that's what the film was about. It would have brought everything full circle in a horrific (but meaningful) way. In Lights Out, it comes seemingly out of nowhere. It doesn't really build to that moment. It just happens. And then the movie is over just a couple minutes later. Maybe there will be a sequel where the kids have to grapple with what they witnessed (though the return of Diana would undermine rather than highlight the tragedy of Sophie's martyrdom, and would only make me angrier), but that's not what we get here. I have a problem with that. I have a serious problem with that. And it's unfortunate, because I liked so much of what Lights Out does and is. It's a well-crafted film, one that's absolutely worth watching. There is a fascinating divisiveness out there that I don't really understand (and would love to talk to someone who disagrees with me on any or all of this), because I think it's as effective a PG-13 horror movie as I've seen in quite some time. It's more effective than most R-rated ones I've seen recently. But I just can't abide by that ending.
Lights Out photo
What's in an ending?
Last April (man, time flies), I saw a film called Unfriended. I liked it well enough, but as is so often the case, the things I didn't like about it were more interesting than the things I did, so I ended up writing an obscen...

NYAFF Capsule Review: Maverick

Jul 03 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220643:42980:0[/embed] Maverick (菜鳥)Director: Wen-tang ChengRating: NRCountry: Taiwan 
Maverick Review photo
Slow and steady wins the race
When you think of "Asian cop movie about systemic corruption" you likely get a very specific image in your head: fast-paced, action-packed thrill rides that keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. That's not t...

NYAFF Capsule Review: Twisted Justice

Jun 30 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220637:42978:0[/embed] Twisted Justice (日本で一番悪い奴ら)Director: Kazuya ShiraishiRating: NRCountry: Japan 
Twisted Justice Review photo
Missing chapters
It's fascinating to watch a film about the police searching for criminal guns while living in a country where the ubiquity of guns is a constant national conversation. It's something I think about a lot while watching foreign...

NYAFF Capsule Review: Seoul Station

Jun 29 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220639:42977:0[/embed] Seoul Station (서울역)Director: Yeon Sang-hoRating: NRCountry: South Korea 
Seoul Station photo
Hardcore animation is hard
At NYAFF 2012, I saw a movie called The King of Pigs. I wanted to like it, but I couldn't get over the atrociously bad translation. It ruined what should have been a very serious dramatic animated film. Seoul Station is ...

NYAFF 2016 photo
NYAFF 2016

The 2016 New York Asian Film Festival Is Almost Here


June 22 through July 9th
Jun 14
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
Is it really that time again already? Wow. Apparently it is. NYAFF time. For the past five years, we have been covering the latest and greatest Asian films as brought to us by the swell folks at Subway Cinema, and this year i...

Review: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Jun 03 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220607:42964:0[/embed] Popstar: Never Stop Never StoppingDirectors: Jorma Taccone, Akiva SchafferRelease Date: June 3, 2016Rating: R Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is a mockumentary, and a great one at that. Following, primarily, the story of Conner 4 Real, a member of the Style Boyz, who broke off on his own after a fight with whoever Akiva Schaffer played. (Not gonna lie, I don't remember his character's name or Jorma Taccone's; then again, I probably wouldn't remember Conner's if it hadn't been seared into my retina from the repeated viewings of "Finest Girl.") Anyways, he's got a documentary being made about his life to coincide with the release of his second album. People went crazy for the first one, and now he's trying to top it, by hiring a metric fuckton of producers and making something that just... doesn't work. (Except to me, obviously. I thought it was all gold, but I understand why the fictional humans in this mockumentary might not take to it.) This is the first mockumentary I've seen in a while, or at least the first one I remember seeing. It was big for a while and then kinda fell by the wayside. I get that. The joke can get stale pretty quickly, which makes Popstar's brisk, 90-ish minute runtime perfect. There's enough variety to keep you entertained but not so much stuff that it ever feels padded or overlong. The only jokes that go on are the ones where that is, in fact, the joke, and the film only goes to that well a couple times (i.e. not enough to be irritating or gratuitous).  One of the potential issues with the format is that there are only so many places it can go. And, sure enough, from the moment Popstar begins, you can (successfully) guess every single story beat. Nothing about the narrative is even sort of surprising... but so what? For a film from The Lonely Island, that's pretty much exactly what I wanted. I wanted something that felt good and comfortable and also made me laugh while putting some new music into my head to obsess over for a little while. And the film absolutely succeeded on both those counts. The "Finest Girl" song actually plays a big early role in the film, and it was kinda cool for me to see how much different and also the same the "In Concert" version of the song was compared to the music video. And I loved his song about Equal Rights (I'm so excited for when that hits Spotify), being Humble (which is already there), the Mona Lisa (ditto), and everything else. Seriously, the music here is just stellar from start to finish. If this was actually just a concert film, I would still have loved it. [When this was written, the album hadn't hit Spotify yet. It's now up, but the Equal Rights song is not available. Which is hot garbage. - Ed] But there's more to it. It's a damning indictment of our modern pop culture and the way we treat our stars. (Sort of.) Conner gets big, in part, because he connects directly with fans. He records himself brushing his teeth and posts it. Everything is out there for the world to see. As someone who watches at least a couple of Youtubers consistently, it really struck a chord not just because it was funny but because it was real. Everything about the way his persona goes from public idol to public ridicule feels genuine, even if it's turned up to 11. So many moments are exaggerated versions of real headlines. (The music-in-your-appliances dig at Apple and U2? Spot on.) It's a parody of modern music, but it's also a celebration of the same. You can tell that everyone involved is genuinely enjoying what they're doing. This extends to an expectedly large cast of cameos, who really help sell the whole thing. The likes of Usher, Nas, and A$AP Rocky all help to ground the film in a bizarre alternate reality, and every one of them puts in a killer performance. I don't really want to ruin all the cameos, and we're not talking Muppets-level stuff here, but it's a pretty packed group, many (if not most) of whom are playing themselves. Usher is particularly compelling, and when says that it was the Style Boyz who made him want to start dancing, for just a moment, I totally believed him. Because, like, duh. The Donkey Roll is an awesome dance. How could it not inspire Usher to become Usher?  It's been a good Spring for comedies. Between The Boss (which I liked, despite knowing that no one else does), Neighbors 2 (which Nick didn't like but is awesome), and The Nice Guys (which isn't as good as Neighbors 2 and has some issues with the way it handles the "hilarity" of death but is the most genuinely original comedy I've seen in a while), there's been a lot to recommend. And though I recommend all those films, to varying degrees, Popstar stands above. This is The Lonely Island at the top of their, years after leaving SNL and mostly dropping off the map. They're back and as good as (if not better than) ever. If you don't like The Lonely Island, this film won't convince you to. But if you do, you're going to love each and every moment.
Popstar Review photo
Amazing 4 Real
A couple weeks ago was the finale for the forty-first season of Saturday Night Live. At one point, fairly late in the show, a familiar title screen came up: "An SNL Digital Short" For people who loved everything from "Lazy Su...

Review: Cash Only

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

Review: Keanu

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

Review: The Boss

Apr 08 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220481:42895:0[/embed] The BossDirector: Ben FalconeRelease Date: April 8, 2016Rating: R  I don't think you should watch that trailer. You can if you want, but you really shouldn't. It's the film's official Red Band trailer. I watched it just now, and it made me wonder how it's possible that I so enjoyed the movie that this was selling. Because the trailer looks awful. And it looks awful on pretty much every level. Like, I feel bad as a critic to say that I really liked The Boss. But you know what? I'm gonna own it. I really liked The Boss. I loved the scene where T-Pain came out, when Melissa McCarthy raps along to DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win" (which, you should know, I listen to at least once every few days (usually multiple times in a row)) while dancing and showing off how rich and awesome she is. It's probably a stupid scene, but T-Pain comes out to sing the chorus when it plays again, and they're dancing, and it's awesome. I don't care what anyone says about the rest of the movie; that sequence is gold. And it was enough that I was content having seen it. From there, it would have had to go to some really bad places to have lost me completely. But it didn't.  Ugh... it looks so dumb. (But I laughed really hard at this scene.) The premise is stupid. An obscenely rich woman (McCarthy) does some insider trading, and six months later she comes out of jail completely broke. She finds her former assistant (Kristen Bell), and is offered a chance to stay with her for a little while while she finds her feet, despite the fact that McCarthy was terrible to her. At some point, McCarthy decides to create a for-profit rival to a Girl Scouts analog called the Dandelions. Ignoring child labor laws entirely, the girls start selling brownies made at a frankly impossible pace to meet a ridiculous demand (the child labor thing, by the way, is never addressed... though I do think that an interesting case could be made that the girls getting 10% of girl scout cookie sales (with another 10% being put towards college) wouldn't necessarily be such a bad thing (I bought six boxes of Thin Mints this year, and they lasted me about two weeks (unrelated but still kind of relevant)))). Other dumb things get in the way, and then it's dumb how other things don't get in the way. Honestly, if I look at this with even a vaguely objective lens, the narrative is a complete and utter catastrophe. But I so don't care about that, because I didn't care about it while I was watching it. Yes, it certainly occurred to me that X, Y, and Z were ridiculous, but I was too busy laughing to care. A shocking number of the jokes worked for me, including some of the same jokes that I really don't like out of context in the trailer. Yeah, sometimes things fell flat, but more often than not it got me. And it's possible that sometimes I was laughing at the movie and not with it, but I don't really know that that distinction matters. The point of the film, the only point of the film, is to make me (as an analog for the entire audience) laugh. Every sequence (except the one emotional one that you know is coming) is there in service of that goal. And if that goal is achieved, then the film succeeded. It didn't succeed as anything other than a thing that made me laugh, but it did that. And that's really what I care about here. Yeah... I dunno. Whatever. I saw Bridesmaids in theaters. During one particular scene, I literally cried laughing, and in general I found it to be a hysterically funny film. Months (years?) later, I watched it again. I laughed at the scene that made me cry the first time, and I'm sure I giggled here and there outside of that, but the second time around, I was really just hit by a general sense of, "Ehhhhhh." And I wondered why I liked it as much as I did the first time around. Maybe it's something about the big screen, or maybe it's the infectiousness of an audience. Maybe I've just got an objectively terrible sense of humor, and this sort of low-brow stuff is the best I can hope for. Or maybe everyone else is wrong. As I type this, The Boss has an 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. I am, unfortunately, not on there (yet), so this review won't change that number, but clearly everyone else in my field hates it. As I walked out of the theater, I heard someone call it a "horror show." And I know plenty of others who just thought it was awful. If I were to see The Boss again, it's entirely possible that I would hate it and look back on my feelings about it right now as a tragedy and a shame on my record as a critic. But as much as it can try to be representative of the future, a review is a document of right now. You might have noticed that it's sort of a weird document, hedging a whole bunch of bets on the future, but that's because I'm still kind of shocked by how much I liked the film (especially after watching that trailer... because, wow). Yeah, it's stupid as hell, and not always in a good way, but I nonetheless enjoyed the time I spent watching The Boss. And, really, nothing else matters.
The Boss Review photo
Win. Win. Win. (No Matter What)
The first time I saw a trailer for The Boss was just a few weeks ago. I'd kind of generally ignored its existence, because... why wouldn't I have? I mean, honestly, it looked terrible. I saw that trailer and thought, "Yu...

Review: The Invitation

Apr 07 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220474:42893:0[/embed] The InvitationDirector: Karyn KusamaRelease Date: April 8, 2016Rating: R  The title of The Invitation does not, as you might expect early on, refer to the invitation that you see moments in: a party invitation to the house of Eden and David. Eden hasn’t seen her friends in two years, since the tragic death of her son, and Will’s. Will is our protagonist, and to some degree the only character that the audience can truly empathize with. (The reasons for that we’ll discuss in a little bit.) The Invitation actually refers to a group (read: cult) that Eden and David joined while they were in Mexico, where apparently they spent much of those two missing years. We see bits and pieces of the cult, presented mostly through videos featuring the founder. We also get to experience it vicariously through the actions of the couple, David in particular. During one scene in particular, a series of confessions presented as a sort of "game," a stranger to the group, played by John Carroll Lynch (whose presence in the film is rarely a good sign (plot-wise, at least; I think he’s a fine actor), starts talking about about a horrible thing he did. It was during that speech where I felt compelled to tell no one in particular that what I was watching was upsetting. The Invitation is a lot of things, but there is one crucial thing it is not: surprising. It’s probably a spoiler to say you know exactly where this movie is going almost as soon as the film begins, but not really. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that telegraphs its “twist” so overtly from the word Go. As soon as Will and Kira enter the house, Will knows something is wrong, and you, the viewer, know something is wrong. Everything about it is wrong. It’s wrong in exactly the way that these kinds of things are always wrong. And, of course, Will is the only one who notices it. And you wonder why he’s the only one who notices. He wonders (aloud) why he’s the only one who notices, and I couldn’t help but think about the Cinema Sin’s narrator saying, “Will would be excellent at Cinema Sins.” It’s a little hard to swallow that they would all continue just going along with it. Only one person decides to leave, after that same monologue that I mentioned before. But the lack of surprise isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Told well, even the most generic story can still be exciting, and I think that is absolutely the case here. No, you won’t be wondering what’s behind the next door, but you will be excited to get there. The sense of unease is pervasive, and every frame drips with dread. This is a very pretty movie, with spectacular lighting in particular but camerawork in general. A few days ago, I watched a movie shot a while back, on 35mm film. A helicopter shot of Los Angeles showed a dark city, a patchwork of lights but ultimately a very dim place. In the background of The Invitation’s gorgeous location, you see the lights of that same city. But where films of old are dark, modern films are bright. The city shines, and it grounds you in a sort of reality. You know where this is happening, give or take. This isn’t some remote cabin in the woods. This is a house on a hill overlooking one of the most famous cities in the world. The Invitation is being sold as a psychological thriller, and that’s truest if you see the film less as an objective view of the situation and more as Will’s interpretation of it. This is an interesting thought to consider, because it may very well mean that my irritation with the general group’s inability to see just how wrong everything was is less a function of the narrative than of the presentation. Of course, the friends can’t hear the unsettling music or the off-putting camerawork. The movie wants me to know that something’s up, because Will knows that something is up. We’re in his head, and his head is in a very different place than his compatriot’s. Which is what makes it all the more fascinating that he’s ultimately correct. Oftentimes, intensely psychological films will reveal that the protagonist is the crazy one, that you’ve been lulled into this false belief that your character is reliable. Even if you know that there’s something a little off about them, you convince yourself that they’re fundamentally in the right. And then, when the final confrontation comes, you realize that no, that’s not true at all. And thinking about it through that lens, perhaps The Invitation is a little less typical than I initially gave it credit for. But then again, maybe it’s not. The reality is that this question of how it fits into genre canon doesn’t really affect its very fundamental successes. This is a movie that gets its hooks into you right from the get-go, and you’re anxious to see where it goes. You’re anxious because you’re excited, but also because you know that things cannot possibly end well. You’re anxious for the characters, even if you don’t necessarily care about them the way you care about Will. I didn’t feel like the other characters were neglected so much as they didn’t matter. Focusing on them, telling their stories more deeply, wouldn’t have really benefited the story that The Invitation tells, but that doesn’t mean the holes in the characterizations don’t show. You get glimpses of these characters, but there are many more questions than answers. The final moments of the film bears that out, that there’s a whole world of stories out there that we’re not seeing. It’s just like the reminders in the back of shots that LA is out there, seemingly just a stone’s throw away. And though that image itself feels a little bit like it’s sacrificing narrative logic for the sake a really cool shot (and it is a really cool shot), the implication of it is one worth thinking about. Stories don’t happen in isolation, even in the most isolating environments. And as I think back on the film, I want to stop picking it apart, realizing that certain moments didn’t work quite as well as I thought they did at the time. Because whatever negative things I might have to say, The Invitation is an exceedingly well-crafted film, and I enjoyed damn near every minute. 
The Invitation Review photo
Saw that one coming
I watched The Invitation alone in my apartment. I left the lights on, because I expected it to be scary and wasn't too keen on having a heart attack in pitch black. As it turns out, the film wasn’t scary, at least not i...

Review: London Has Fallen

Mar 04 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220381:42847:0[/embed] London Has FallenDirector: Babak NajafiRelease Date: March 4, 2016Rating: R  London Has Fallen seems like a movie made for people who really like Call of Duty. And while that sounds rather negative (because it is), I don’t necessarily mean that people who really like Call of Duty would like London Has Fallen, just that, in the boardroom meeting where this film was designed, at least one person said, “Let’s make this like Call of Duty. Call of Duty players are out target audience.” And everyone else said, “Call of Duty… that’s that thing that makes lots of money, right? We think making lots of money is a great idea. Let’s do it! It'll be cool.” It’s a film grown in a test tube to appeal to “bros” who like to think they crack wise. They’ll sneak in Budweisers to the movie and rowdily laugh every time Gerard Butler says some witty one-liner. They’ll think, “Wow! What a cool guy!” and high five or something. That’s what bros do, right? Clearly I’ve never been one.  More than Call of Duty, though, London Has Fallen reminds me of Youtube. Specifically, it reminds me of the channel formerly known as Freddiew. I don’t really watch Freddie Wong’s stuff anymore, but the short, vfx-heavy action videos that he used to post weekly were things I looked forward to. They weren’t perfect, but they were fun. Short, sweet, and to the point. On some level, so is London Has Fallen, a film that’s only about 90 minutes long, so it doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on unnecessary setup. For the most part, it just gets in and goes. People die. Gerard Butler has to save the day. Cool? Cool.  But the reason I compare it to Youtube is two-fold: 1) It doesn’t look very good. The VFX are shoddy throughout and it’s just a generally visually unappealing movie. I haven’t necessarily seen better on Youtube, but I’ve seen things that were on par. (Before I get into number 2, I really just want to make a point about how much I miss squibs. Yeah, they’ve been long dead, but the impact of real fake blood in a scene is so significant. There have been instances of CGI blood that have been convincing enough, but they certainly aren’t in London Has Fallen. Every death is accompanied by a little sigh, a feeling of missed opportunity. Sure, real fake blood is complicated, but it adds to the production, and this movie needed a higher-level production.)  2) Oh my god it’s vapid. Everything about it is just so… dumb. It feels like there was enough story for a short film (that I might see on Youtube) and then it was stretched out to 90 minutes because that’s how money happens. Dumb fun is dumb fun, but a little bit of effort would have been nice. It feels like absolutely no effort went into any part of this. A lazy script begets a lazy movie. And this movie is lazy.  It’s also cynical. The reason I thought of Freddie Wong in particular is because of a video he did many years ago, a firefight done in a long take. There’s a sequence in London Has Fallen, one that I think was supposed to be “epic” or “impressive,” that I just couldn’t fathom the reason for. Going to take a terrorist stronghold, London Has Fallen does that single-take-action-sequence thing. I love long takes, and I love long takes in action sequences, so I really should have loved the scene, but I just couldn’t do it. As I watched it, I could only think, “This is here because it has to be. No one really wanted to do this shot, because no one really wanted to do any of this.” Freddie Wong did it, so London Has Fallen had to do it too.   What makes the film hard to stomach is the fact that Gerard Butler’s character is a legitimately horrible human being. He is just cruel. He kills a man while his brother listens. Sure, he was a bad dude and may as well be dead, but in that way? Even the movie comments on it: “Did you really have to do that?” asks his companion. “No.” And that’s the movie in a nutshell. The filmmakers may as well as been turning to the audience and winking in that moment, and it just felt gross. Gerard Butler’s character likes knives. He likes stabbing people, and all I can think about is Heath Ledger’s Joker explaining why he prefers knives as well. Watching a movie about a sociopath with a smart mouth isn’t really enjoyable; it’s uncomfortable. And maybe if there was more to the rest of it, I could have blocked that out. I could have looked at the pretty visuals or rooted along with the action, but there was nothing. It was just me and the evil man who the film thought was the good guy. And that’s just not cool.
London Has Fallen Review photo
Not worth the effort to try being clever
A month ago, I signed up for Movie Pass. It’s a service where, for $45 a month, I can see a movie in a participating theater (which is most of them) every 24 hours. It’s a pretty cool deal, especially in New York ...

Review: Deadpool

Feb 11 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220353:42833:0[/embed] Deadpool Director: Tim Miller Release Date: February 12, 2016 Rating: R I think Deadpool will go down in history as the superhero movie that changed everything. It’s all been flipped upside down now. And I can tell you exactly when it happened. During a particularly fantastic montage, time passes through the holidays and a couple’s sexual exploits. It goes and goes and goes, and then suddenly Ryan Reynolds is on all fours. And you think, “No way.” And then, yes way, his girlfriend pegs him. If you don’t know what pegging is, you’re, uh, welcome to look it up. The point is: This is a movie that features that scene. That fascinating, beautiful scene. Of course, I knew right from the outset that this movie was a big deal. Its opening credits are brilliant not just because of what they show, but what accompanies them. It doesn’t some “A Tim Miller Film”; it says “Some douchebag’s film.” Not “Ryan Reynolds” but “God’s Perfect Idiot.” “Produced by Assholes.” Etc. And none of these people get named until the credits roll. Can you imagine that? This big-budget studio movie features an opening credits sequence, but it uses that sequence for an extended gag. No one is above it. Nothing is sacred. Presumably, that’s what you want from a Deadpool movie. I don’t really know, but the elated reaction of those around me certainly implied as much. It’s what I wanted, even though I didn’t necessarily know it at the time. I just knew that I wanted to have a good time and maybe see some fourth walls get broken. Also, ya know, I wanted to see what an R-rated superhero movie would look like. Because no, this is not the first R-rated comic book movie (or even superhero movie), but it is most assuredly the first R-rated superhero movie like this. When I try to think of anything at all like it, I just come up with Kickass. Maybe Wanted? Something inspired by Mark Millar. But those films honestly aren’t anything like Deadpool. They’re small scale, lacking the truly explosive factor of actual superheroes who can actually wreck things with their magical super skills. Deadpool has that, in the form of two members of the X-Men: “An Emo Teen” and “A CGI Character,” per the opening credits. (Of course, you wonder why they only have two, and two that I’d never heard of before. Well, so does Deadpool! Or, rather, he answers it, rhetorically: “It’s like the studio didn’t have enough money for anyone else.” (Or something to that effect.)) But these characters serve as the perfect foil to Deadpool. The emo teen is just that, an emo teen, and Deadpool loves it. He is so absolutely into her attitude problems, and, as such, so was I. The CGI character, whose CG presentation is so-so but effectively justified by him being introduced as “A CGI Character” is even better. He wants to be in a PG-13 X-Men movie so badly, but Deadpool just has to go and do R-rated things. The dynamic there is a joy to watch, and it The first trailer for Batman V. Superman came out around the same time as the first season of the Netflix Daredevil series. At the time, I got into a debate (well, argument) about grittiness in comic book movies. She claimed (and was not alone in thinking) that it was hypocritical of people to praise Daredevil’s grit in the same sentence that they lambasted BvS’s. Of course, that argument is fundamentally flawed, because it’s not about “grit” at all; it’s about staying true to the character. Daredevil’s world is a dark one, a gritty one. Batman’s too, really. Superman has a symbol for hope on his chest, and he’s… what? Man of Steel is a lot of things, but hopeful ain’t one of them. And it doesn’t look like Dawn of Justice is going to do much to change that. Marvel let Daredevil be the character he’s supposed to be, while DC didn’t do the same for a man who blocks bullets with his eyes. Deadpool is Marvel, once again, letting a character be who they should be. I’m oh-so-glad that this was a Fox production and not a Disney one, because I don’t think that would have been true if Disney had handled it. If Deadpool was part of the Cinematic Universe, I think… well, I don’t even think they would have tried to put the character in at all. He simply cannot work within that context. But he can work within his own, and the one in which the X-Men are real. The Fox MCU is all about mutants, and Deadpool both as a title character and a film in general is consistent with that. But Fox took a gamble making an R-rated superhero movie. They could have tried for mass-market appeal (maybe) and neutered the character entirely. But instead, they said, “No. You want Ryan Reynold’s to get pegged? Go for it, dude.” It’s a gutsy move, and it pays off in spades precisely because it feels right, even to someone who knows nothing about Deadpool. I know that this film did the character justice, because there are too many crazy decisions for them to not be. Nothing about this movie is “safe,” and that’s exactly the way it should be. Some people will complain about the fact that we’re getting yet another origin story and that the origin story itself isn’t unique or whatever, but neither of those things bothered me. There are two reasons for that. 1)    I don’t know Deadpool’s origin story. 2)    Being “Original” isn’t even sort of the point. Deadpool’s origin, as told by this film, is fucked up. Honestly, the torture sequences wouldn’t be out of place in some kind of horror movie (something which the film itself notes). The fact that it’s so brutal does make it stand out (thinking back on it, V for Vendetta seems similar, particularly given how the kraken is released), but even if it didn’t, so what? I may be able to expect the beats, but I don’t know them line-for-line like Batman or Spiderman or whoever. As a way to introduce this character to what will hopefully be a flourishing franchise, I really wouldn’t have had it any other way. For the second time in three months, I am imploring you to see this film. Not just because it’s excellent (though it is), but also because it’s a film that deserves success. (Side note: Both this and The Revenant were distributed by Fox. Good on those people. Seriously.) This is a gamble that paid off in spades from an entertainment perspective, and I want it to make a heckuva lot of money. So, make it happen. I know that I’ll be seeing it again. And again. (And again.) ((And again.)) It’s so good, you guys.
Deadpool Review photo
Probably the best superhero movie ever
I have never read a Marvel comic. There. I said it. In fact, I’ve never read any superhero comic that isn’t about a man who dresses like a bat. I think superheroes are all well and good, but I’ve never felt ...

Review: Hail, Caesar!

Feb 05 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220336:42811:0[/embed] Hail, Caesar!Directors: Joel and Ethan CoenRelease Date: February 5th, 2016Rating: PG-13  I feel for whoever it was who had to cut together the trailer for Hail, Caesar! I imagine it was a nightmare scenario, trying to take what is really just a series of occasionally linked comedic sequences and turn it into something that appears to be dramatic and compelling. And so whoever it was built a narrative, one where George Clooney, a big-name actor who sometimes forgets his lines at key moments, is kidnapped by a mysterious organization, and stars like Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson are enlisted to help get him back. Cameo appearances by Tilda Swinton and Jonah Hill and the like just serve to make it all one big star-studded Hollywood mystery. But… no. That’s not what Hail, Caesar! is at all. A couple of those things happen, but the context presented in the trailer is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. In fact, that opening, with George Clooney’s big speech? That takes place less than ten minutes from the end of the film. Yeah. That’s not the introduction to that character. It’s the resolution. In fact, much of the trailer comes from the second half of the film, and it almost feels like it went in reverse chronological order. The “reveal” of the secret society that ends the trailer feels like a big end-of-act reveal. Maybe the end of the first act? And sure enough, that does happen around then. Problem is, all of the imagery the trailer subjected us to up until that point takes place after we already know who they are. Because it’s not even really a secret. I’m not going to tell you, but that’s pretty much entirely because you’ve already had the ending spoiled, so why not give you something?  You don’t watch Hail, Caesar! for the narrative, because there is no narrative. As I said, it’s a series of occasionally linked comedic sequences. That’s honestly the best way to describe it. Characters come in, do their funny thing, and then are never seen from again. Or they come in briefly a handful of times, all teasing some far more interesting existence than the one we’re seeing. It’s all potential. This is a film of unending potential. Each character has a backstory that seems rich enough to justify not necessarily a movie, but certainly an episode of a series. I would watch Hail, Caesar! the series. None of the myriad characters really gets their due, and it’s such a shame. I wanted more of damn near everyone. And arguments could be made that being left wanting is better than the alternative, but I have to wonder: What’s the point of it all? It’s like a cupcake with a nice foil wrapper. You look at it, and it looks good. You take a first bite, and it is good. But then you pull back the foil wrapper, and you realize that there’s nothing more to the cupcake. It’s just air. You liked those couple of bites you got, but you’re so disappointed that that’s all there was. No cream filling? Heck, you would have even accepted just more cake! But you don’t get that. Instead, you just have a well-crafted cupcake top in the guise of something more. Of course, what is there is good. Let’s not pretend otherwise. The Coen Brothers are beloved for a reason: They know how to make good movies. Hail, Caesar! is pretty, funny, fun, and any number of other adjectives, but that’s just baseline. There’s nothing more here to remind you of why the Coen Brothers are a household name. You get some really fun sequences – and I sincerely hope that the musical numbers are practice for a full-blown musical film that they’ve got up their sleeves – but there’s nothing to really bite into. You go from fun thing to fun thing, always expecting more. Always hoping for more. Always feeling that there is more, but the Coen Brothers don’t think you’re cool enough to see it. When I think about the movie, I don’t really have any “complaints,” per se. I have my big fundamental issue, but from moment to moment, there’s not really much negative to say. But there’s also nothing wildly positive to say. This is a movie that is Good and nothing more. It doesn’t even really aspire to be more. It seems content in its Goodness. I don’t have a problem with Good movies – I appreciate any movie that has the audacity to be simply enjoyable – but I wanted this to be great. And it just isn’t. I never thought that word, or felt it, but I wanted to oh so badly. I felt like there were times where I should have thought, “Wow! That was great!” but I just… didn’t. And from the Coen Brothers, that stings. They’ve made so many classics, comedic and otherwise, that something merely Good from them feels lazy. This is a Coen Brothers puff piece, some something they did to fulfill a contract. And a Coen Brothers puff piece is still worth seeing, but it’s certainly not something worth celebrating.
Hail, Caesar! Review photo
Act One?
Joseph Kahn, director of Detention, the best film ever made, is an exceedingly well respected music video director. Most recently, he’s known as the guy who makes all those amazing Taylor Swift music videos. Together, t...

Review: The Forest

Jan 08 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220259:42746:0[/embed] The ForestDirector: Jason Zada Release Date: January 8, 2016Rating: PG-13  I knew I was going to dislike The Forest from the moment I was reminded of its premise. It’s about the Aokigahara Forest, one of two films about that in the works (the other is directed by Gus Van Sant, and by default I expect it will be the best Aokigahara-focused film of 2016). Aokigahara is a forest in Japan, the most popular suicide spot there and one of the most popular in the world. There are demons there, too, at least as far as the film is concerned. But none of that bothers me. I mean, who doesn’t love a good Japanese horror film? Problem is, it’s not a Japanese horror film. It’s a film about a white girl, a blonde white girl named Sarawho doesn’t speak Japanese going to find her not-blonde white girl twin sister, Jess, who may or may not speak Japanese. Jess went into the Suicide Forest (it’s actually called that, by the way), presumably to commit suicide. Sara goes to find her, because her twin sense continued to tingle. If something was really going to go wrong, she’d know because the twin sense would go silent. It’s a thing that twins have. (So they say.) It’s somewhere between familial bonding, quantum entanglement, and supernatural garbage. My instinct is that it falls towards that latter one, because that’s really the best way to explain the film. It makes me legitimately angry that I spent a fair portion of The Forest looking away from the screen. The easiest example to point to takes place… at some point, I don’t even remember when. Sarah is walking down a hallway, and the lights are flickering on and off. As she goes down, ON, flicker, OFF, pause. ON, flicker, OFF, pause. It’s quiet. You know and have known since she got into the hallway that at some point it’s going to flicker on and something is going to jump out at the screen. You know it because that’s how these things work, when they have nothing else to show. And The Forest does it. And I jumped a bit. I was looking just offscreen, but the sound and the sudden movement got me up a bit. And I was infuriated. Years ago, I reviewed a film called Replicas (later retitled In Their Skin). A commenter chastised me for being "defeated by that mediocre film." I stand by my glowing assessment of that film, but that comment has stuck with me ever since. It’s basically how I feel about my reaction to The Forest. In the climactic scenes, the ones where things are supposedly “scary,” I was able to watch the film just fine, because it wasn’t jumpy any more. It was just “atmospheric” or whatever. But, of course, it wasn’t. I stared at it, almost feeling bad for what didn’t even seem like an honest attempt at horror. I have trouble imagining anyone feeling the slightest twinge of fear while watching that final sequence. (The only legitimately unsettling sequence was in a cave with an overly happy Japanese girl. Her performance made me rather tense, though the ultimate place that encounter went didn’t even make sense with the narrative, so that one moment of potential good was ruined.) In those jump moments, I braced myself for the impact. I tensed my body, looked away from the screen, and hated everything about it. Every single scare was so obviously telegraphed literally minutes before it happened. And other people in the theater jumped each time as well. It felt so clinical, so scientific. Like they had focus tested exactly how many times the light should flicker before the elderly woman popped out. They knew how to get a rise out of people, and they knew that there was nothing else to get people into the theater. They could put out a trailer of just people jumping, like they did for Paranormal Activity all those years ago, and maybe a few people would go see it. But it’s a cheat. You take a forest. You take an issue like suicide. You tell people that the forest doesn’t kill you, it makes you kill yourself – which is a fascinating concept, by the way, and I would like to see it play out in a better film. At some point, it threatens to deliver on that concept, but the actual execution is so shoddy that it’s barely worth considering (and, like so much else, it can’t stick the landing). When I got out of the theater, I had these grand visions of writing a multi-thousand word essay on the nature of fear, but as I look back on it, The Forest doesn’t deserve that. It doesn’t really even deserve the thought that I’ve already given it. Don’t see The Forest. If it doesn’t make you angry, then you’ll just be bored, wishing you’d seen The Revenant instead. That’s sort of a horror movie, and it also takes place in the woods. And it’s awesome. Go see The Revenant. Forget The Forest exists. By the time this has posted, I know I will have.
The Forest Review photo
Nope
I’ve written before about how wimpy I am at horror movies. I don’t know that I’m “scared” easily, but I’m exceedingly jumpy. A loud sound, sudden movement, or anything of that sort will lau...

Review: The Revenant

Jan 08 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219682:42494:0[/embed] The RevenantDirector: Alejandro González IñárrituRelease Date: January 9th, 2016Rating: R  At least 30 times during The Revenant's 156 minute runtime, I thought the word "weird." It was the only word to describe what I was watching. "This is really weird... This is weird, right? ... It's weird AF that a studio funded this... This is the weirdest prestige drama in more than a decade, right? ... What kind of weird Oscar bait is this? ... Dude, this is so weird." When the credits rolled, I turned to our own Hubert Vigilla (his thoughts below), who sat beside me, and said, "That was really fucking weird, right?" He nodded. I belabor this point because I want to make it exceedingly clear that The Revenant is a constant surprise. I only saw that first, spoiler-free trailer, so I knew exactly three things going in: - Production was hell- It was shot in natural light on the Alexa 65- Leonardo DiCaprio sleeps in a dead animal carcass Had I waited another day or two, I would have known that some people believe the film features an extended scene where DiCaprio is raped by a bear. That would have made for a weirder film than this one... but perhaps less than you'd think. Instead, we're left with what is inarguably the most horrific animal attack ever put on screen. Five to eight minutes, a single take.  Earlier this year, I saw a film called Backcountry. I never wrote about it, but I was interested in something that the press notes said, paraphrased to "We want Backcountry to do for hiking what Jaws did for swimming." They wanted the bear attack to be so intense, visceral, and real that anyone who saw it would have nightmares about grizzly bears and be simply incapable of hiking again. The film failed in its quest; the scene was a mess of quick cuts and not-amazing effects. At the end of it, the mutilated corpse was rather unsettling, but the journey wasn't so impressive. The Revenant does what Backcountry wanted to do. The scene is horrific, mostly because of how freaking long it is. In one of many long takes in the film, we follow Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) as he goes out into the woods. We see young bears. We see a big bear. The big bear runs towards Glass. At this point, I thought, "No way. This guy's the protagonist, and we're like 40 minutes into this movie. He's not going to get—Oh shit." It's hardly a flawless sequence. The bear doesn't actually look "real" most of the time, and the bites and scratches felt a little off. I don't know what actually happened on set (and director Alejandro Iñárritu refused to explain it in the following Q&A), so I don't know entirely whose fault it is that the seams are there, but you know what? I'm nitpicking. That scene is incredible. It's shocking, possibly even revolting, and absolutely brilliant. It took guts to make that scene look like that. But they committed. It paid off. That's the film in a nutshell. It took guts. They committed. It paid off. It takes guts to make a movie that essentially begins with the biggest battle of the entire film. In fact, it's the only real battle in the film. In the first twenty or so minutes, you see more "action" (bear attack aside) than you'll see in the rest of the movie. To set up expectations like that and then completely ignore them in favor of a film that is actually rather slow is gutsy. Actually, no, it's crazy. This is a film that periodically cuts to beautiful shots of the wilderness or the skies or bugs or whatever, because art. It does it to evoke thoughts and emotions. This is a studio-funded film that actually requires you to think about what it's doing and why. There's only one moment in the entire film that could arguably be considered "hitting you over the head with The Point," and I take some issue with that moment for a few reasons, but ultimately it doesn't detract from the overall feeling that the film wanted me to think about what it was trying to say and not just say it. And again, this is a Hollywood movie that cost $135 million to make. This is the antithesis to the Superhero tentpole movie. You cannot sell this to the ADD generation, because as soon as they realize that this is a slow, gorgeous exploration of a man's suffering and not much more, they'll pull out their phones and start tweeting about how bullshit everything is. That scares me. It scares me that people will go into this movie expecting something totally different, something traditional, and not get it. But rather than appreciating the art, they'll be furious that they weren't given entertainment. They'll say it's the worst movie ever, because movies are supposed to be fast & furious. And then people will be scared off. Though the film is technically inspired by a book inspired by a true story, the only thing that was really taken from the real Hugh Glass's life was the fact that he was attacked by a bear and survived. The journey that follows, and probably the journey that got him there, was the brainchild of Iñárritu and Mark Smith, who co-wrote the film. This is, for all intents and purposes, and original work. I still can't believe it exists. Some years ago, I remember hearing someone talk about how we're no longer in the age of Torture Porn; rather, we're in the age of Suffering Porn. It probably had a different name, and that's why I can't find an actual source, but the point was this: It's not about seeing people get tortured anymore, enjoying the blood and viscera and all of that. It's about the suffering now. The Revenant is suffering porn. Glass is mauled by a bear in an excruciating, extended sequence, and perhaps that's torture porn. But, then he can't move. He can't speak. All he can do is suffer. And then when he finally builds up strength to move, it's belabored. It's pained. Every single movement and every single breath hurts this man, and you can feel it and hear it and see it. DiCaprio gives one hell of a performance, though it won't win him the Oscar. As spectacular as he is, this simply isn't an "Academy" performance.  And the same part of me that says that also thinks this isn't an Academy movie. It will be nominated, I think, because Birdman won Best Picture and Iñárritu won Best Director. These are also, I suspect, the reasons that The Revenant was made. Iñárritu built clout with that last film, and so he was able to go and do something crazy and keep people by his side as it got crazier and crazier. I believe it will be nominated, but I also believe that it has absolutely no chance at winning. It's too different, too weird, too brilliant. Birman won, but as much as I loved Birdman, it also hit the Academy notes. It was a movie about an actor who wants to do something Important. It lashes out at critics and audiences. It says the right things and bashes everyone over the head with its message over and over again. That message resonated with people in the Academy. There's no other way that script won Best Screenplay. There's no other way that film won Best Picture. What's the message of The Revenant? Well... that's a complicated question. And the fact that it's complicated means that this film will not win. But maybe it should. It's not my favorite film of the year, but I want this film to receive prestige because I want films like this to exist again. The Revenant is a ray of light in the black void of superhero movies. If it succeeds, it's evidence that not only can expensive and original ideas gain traction (something Christopher Nolan has proved) but so can expensive movies that make you think (something Christopher Nolan has not proved). If The Revenant fails, that's it. I don't think we'll see another film like it for a decade or more. And I hope beyond hope that that doesn't happen. I hope it becomes a massive success, in America and elsewhere. I hope it proves every single assumption that people (myself included) have about what sells nowadays wrong. I hope it proves that weird movies can succeed again. Please see The Revenant. If not because you want to (though you should, because it's excellent), then because you want it to set a precedent. You want to change things and show the studios that this was not a mistake. After the chaos of the production, I imagine there are at least a couple of people waiting for this film to fail. They'll write it off as a failure and use it as evidence that audiences just can't handle truly interesting big-budget movies. That can't happen.  I have the utmost respect for the people who allowed  The Revenant to be made. And I hope that it makes them all filthy stinking rich.   Hubert Vigilla: The Revenant feels like a strange, singular, director-driven project that could have only been made in the 1970s. After the screening, Alec and I kept asking each other, "How the hell did this thing get made?" The question was half bafflement, half admiration. There is so much to admire about The Revenant given its difficult production history. That it even exists is a kind of accomplishment. It's a visceral art movie, one that might in time be named alongside films such as Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, the Wrath of God for audacity and craft. Seriously, who is the studio person that gave a madman the keys to the car? I need to thank them. The cliché is that they don't make movies like this anymore, and they really don't make them like The Revenant, especially not end-of-the-year prestige pictures distributed by a major studio. The Revenant is full of hardship and grunting; heavy on slobber and scalps and hypermasculinity, light on dialogue and monologues and audience hand-holding. The film is uncompromising when it comes to its depictions of violence and its deeper spiritual concerns. Both are treated with equal measures of importance. Sure, it's self-indulgent, and the film takes itself extremely seriously, but it's this level of risk that makes Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest such a memorable, engrossing picture. Emmanuel Lubezki's imagery and meticulously choreographed long-takes are a wonder to behold. The look and feel is a mash-up of Terrence Malick, Werner Herzog, and even Alejandro Jodorowsky. (I spotted two potential Jodorowsky homages, possibly three.) Both Tom Hardy and Leonardo Di Caprio act their asses off, with Di Caprio turning in his least glamorous performance and maybe most unconventionally award-worthy. When not a raspy Sisyphisean hero driven to avenge a murder, he's Wile E. Coyote waving to the audience before gravity sends him crashing to the canyon floor. It's absurd, it's glorious, and there's no other movie like it this year. 86 - Great
The Revenant Review photo
Hope for the future
I follow twelve people on Instagram. I don't really use it much, but it's something I check every so often. Of those twelve, only one is a person I don't know personally: Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki. And honestly, how could I no...

Review: The Hateful Eight

Dec 24 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219767:42546:0[/embed] The Hateful EightDirector: Quentin TarantinoRelease Date: December 25, 2015 (Limited); January 6, 2015 (Wide)Rating: R  I’m certainly not the first (and will absolutely not be the last) to point out how fascinating it is that The Hateful Eight was shot on Ultra Panavision 70. As I said before, this format is meant for showing vistas. It’s wide, brilliant, epic. The movie, when seen in the road show format, runs more than 3 hours including its 12 minute intermission. There’s an overture, where you listen to Ennio Morricone’s score, which may not be his best but is certainly epic enough to get you pumped up for adventure. You assume that you’re gonna see sights, particularly landscapes, that will boggle your mind. The opening shot has something of an epic feel to it. It’s Jesus (oh hi there, Christmas!) on a cross in the middle of nowhere. The shot is obscenely long, showing you very little as the credits play. You get a vista at the end of it, a pretty cool one too, and it hopes you like that vista, because you ain’t getting many more like it.  It’s a slight exaggeration to say that this is a one-location film. It’s not an exaggeration at all to say it’s a two-location movie. The majority of the film, yes, takes place in a cabin. But the first couple of chapters take place in a carriage. There are run-ins with folk outside the carriage, but everything is based on what’s within, and there are some conversations where you sit and watch two people talk, knowing that those vistas you were expecting are off to the side, but wow can’t you just see every little detail in this carriage? You’re aware of the epic look and sound – movies just aren’t like this anymore – but you’re hyper-aware of it because it just doesn’t seem to fit the material. Here’s an intimate story about a bunch of dudes and one lady in a cabin. The lady, Jennifer Leigh, is the Important character. She’s the head of some gang, and she’s been bounty hunted by Kurt Russell. (They say “Dead or Alive,” but he likes them “Alive.”) He’s convinced people want to take her from him, since she’s worth a whole lot of money and is also the leader of a gang with plenty of people waiting to set her free. Some of the people in the cabin are on Kurt Russell’s side. Some are neutral. Some are not. At least one is indifferent to Kurt Russell but not particularly happy with Samuel L. Jackson. There's plenty of hate to go around, and much of it is played out in Tarantino's signature talk-y style.  Here's the thing: If you don't like Tarantino's writing, you're not going to like The Hateful Eight. You probably could have assumed that much, but it bears repeating, because this movie is absolute, unadulterated Tarantino. And how you feel about Tarantino will radically change how you perceive the effectiveness of the drama. One friend thought it was great and only periodically masturbatory, and another thought it was meh and little more than a one-man circlejerk. (How's that possible? I dunno, but Tarantino could definitely pull it off.) I fell closer to the former than the latter, but it honestly didn't bother me either way. I was swept up in the whole thing. With just two locations, the emphasis shifts to the actors, and Tarantino pulled in an all-star cast. Each person gets their time to shine, and all of them do. Alliances form and break, hidden motivations are revealed in spectacular fashion, and it's just generally full of wonderful intrigue. I can see why there was a reading of this script, because it would be cool as hell even without all of the extra stuff going on. Well, that's true for the first half. After the intermission, the film changes. It begins with voiceover, something you don't see in the first half, and it's bloodsoaked, the way Tarantino's movies often are. But it's also when the Big Reveals all take place, and boy are there some interesting ones. This is a film that begs for repeat viewings, because a whole lot of things happen that you realize in retrospect were telegraphed in fantastic ways. It makes you want to go back and see those things as they happen and then catch all the ones you missed. It's all this big, interconnected jumble of actions, and it's pretty freaking awesome. It's also imperfect, but in ways that ultimately don't matter. If you're a fan of Tarantino, you should see the movie. If you aren't but live in one of the selected cities, consider the Road Show version anyway, because the whole experience is Worth It. If you're not a fan and don't live in one of those cities, though, you shouldn't bother. This will not be the movie to change your mind about him and his work. This is typical Tarantino. I like that. I enjoyed it. And I'm going to see it again. I don't think that anything else needs to be said.
The Hateful Eight photo
Apt description
From the outset, The Hateful Eight has been a Big Deal. Tarantino was gonna do it, but the screenplay leaked, so he wasn’t gonna do it, until there was a reading, so he was doing it again. I paid pretty much zero attent...

Non-Review: The World of Kanako

Dec 04 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
The World of KanakoDirector: Tetsuya NakashimaRelease Date: December 4th, 2015Country: Japan  The first time someone got raped in The World of Kanako, I knew I wasn't going to like the movie. I've written about rape too many goddamn times, and I'm not going to go into another tirade on the subject. I knew when the first rape happened (one committed by the protagonist, no less) that this was not a movie I was going to like. But I kept watching. The second time, the film lost me. I didn't "forgive" the first one, but there's something kind of magnetic about Kanako. I wanted to forgive it because of that magnetism. But the second rape is more horrific than the first, both visually and contextually. It's also one that drives the rest of the narrative forward. In that sense, it's "important" in a way the first rape is not. On some level that makes it "okay." But on every other level? Nope. The third time, that dislike turned to hate. I had been waffling on whether or not I "hated" the film for a while leading up to that moment. I was thinking I probably did, but I didn't feel the passion. Some part of me really wanted to like the film, for reasons I don't fully understand. But the third rape clinched it. The passion was ignited. "Fuck this movie," I thought. But I kept watching. So I could write this review. Or, I guess this non-review. Because there's no score at the end. Only regrets.  I spent a lot of The World of Kanako thinking about other movies and my reactions to those movies. I also thought about other peoples' reactions to those movies. I thought about Lesson of the Evil, a film which Fangoria's Michael Gingold found morally abhorrent. He hated it. I kinda liked it. I understood where he was coming from, though. The content is such that it's an easy movie to hate (in America especially (and now especially especially)). But there was something about Takashi Miike's style that just won me over. I didn't like the fact that I kinda liked a movie about massacring school children, but I couldn't deny just how well-crafted the film was. My technical appreciation overrode my conceptual disgust. The World of Kanako is also very well made. It's fascinating, structurally. I think I would need to watch it at least seven times to truly understand what I saw, because the jumping timelines and differing viewpoints and legitimately schizophrenic protagonist all serve to make a film that is a mindfuck at best, possibly completely opaque. It's pretty, and though the editing is exhausting, I can't deny its style. There's a flair to the whole production that I wanted to love, but here the content . It wasn't just the rape, either, though that certainly factored into it heavily. The characters across the board are terrible, and though that's kinda the point, it doesn't mean I have to like it. I don't have to bring myself down to the film's level to judge it. I can sit on my high horse and simply toss it aside. I thought about Hard Romanticker, a film I also hated. I opened that review by comparing it to a much older film called The Cruel Story of Youth . The final line of the intro to that review: "I hated The Cruel Story of Youth." (I guess things haven't changed much in the past three and a half years.) But the reason I thought about Hard Romanticker wasn't because I hated it; it was because other people really liked it. I couldn't understand why. I still can't. I think it's an objectively bad movie about bad characters doing bad things. It's irredeemable. But people liked it. Maybe they were drawn to its irredeemability. I don't know. Likewise, there will be people who like The World of Kanako. Maybe they'll be drawn into it the way I was with Lesson of the Evil. Maybe they're the same people who like Hard Romanticker. I don't know. I guess I can see the allure, but I can't see how they aren't repulsed. I thought about a lot of movies for a lot of reasons, most of them Japanese. This film is very Japanese, for better and for worse. Oftentimes I like that. Sometimes I love it. And sometimes I hate it. Sometimes the cultural divide is too big, and I can't even be bothered to try to bridge it. This is one of those times. I could go on... but I don't see the point. The things it does well (and it does do some things well) don't matter. It's almost like The World of Kanako wants to be hated. Mission accomplished.
The World of Kanako photo
Cool story, bro.
I haven't hated a movie in a very long time. It's happened (oh it has happened), but it takes a certain special something to bring me over from annoyance or general dislike into sheer, visceral hatred.  The World of Kanako has that special something. It has it in spades. It is a film that cannot really be considered "bad." But it can absolutely be considered The Worst.

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

Nov 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219544:42428:0[/embed] The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2Director: Francis LawrenceRelease Date: November 20, 2015Rating: PG-13 "Whoa. Philip Seymour Hoffman." Not having prepared for the film in any way, I had completely forgotten that Mockingjay marked the actor's final performance. More than a year and a half after he died, he's onscreen again. And it's weird. Really, really weird. When he first showed up, moments into the film, the person I was sitting next to turned: "Is he real?" The answer to the question – "No" – is simple, but the implications of that answer are a little more complicated. It was decided pretty much immediately that there would be no CGI Philip Seymour Hoffman walking around, monologuing in place of the actor. It's a sign of respect, and it's one that I commend the team for doing. I'm sure the pressure to digitize him was fairly high, because his absence is felt rather heavily. Plutarch Heavensbee (ugh) is an important character to the plot, someone always lurking in the shadows and pulling the strings. But not in Mockingjay - Part 2. Here, he simply is a shadow. The film cries out for his presence, and a scene late in the film was switched up in a way that is functional but also fairly awkward. Hoffman's death complicated things, as such things so often do. That's actually a good way to describe Mockingjay - Part 2: complicated. It's complicated because it's the second part of a movie that didn't need to be two parts. These two (good) 2+ hour films could have been turned into one great three hour one. Heck, you could probably go shorter, because fully half of Part 2's runtime is taken up by scenes that aren't "bad" but also don't really do much. There's a lot of sitting around and talking, or walking around and talking, or running around and talking. The pacing is molasses slow, and ultimately a film that is only a bit over two hours (with 10-15 minutes of credits on top) feels nearly double that. This is honestly felt like one of the longest films I have ever seen, because so much time is spent on a series of very different things, but they're presented in such a way that it seems like the movie is just going to go on forever. And it does, sort of. A lot of it builds to a few different things, and though they all ultimately come to pass, it feels like they were glossed over to make way for less interesting things.  Which isn't to say that the film is boring, because it's not. It's just slow. And though it ratchets up tension at various points with interesting and strange (and kinda horrific) setpieces, the momentum doesn't continue to build. After the sequence, it just stops. And so, bizarrely, it actually feels like there are multiple films worth of narrative here that have been stripped down. It's almost episodic, with a "beginning," middle, and end for each of the different plotlines. But a lot of those episodes are just filler, and the ones that aren't could have easily been much shorter. As the second part in a two-part film, discussing specifics seems even less important than usual. You decided whether or not you were going to see this movie as soon as the credits in Mockingjay - Part 1 rolled. If you saw that cliffhanger and needed to know what happens to Katniss, Peeta, Snow, and everyone else, then you're hooked and you'll see this movie no matter what. And if you decided you didn't care? I'm not going to change your mind, because this movie isn't either. There's nothing about the narrative here that is going to appeal to anyone who didn't like the first three movies or didn't want to see what's next. I'm here not really to tell you if the movie is good, because ultimately that doesn't matter. I'm just here to think about what the experience of seeing it's like. And it boils down to this: Exhausting or not, I liked Mockingjay - Part 2. As a fan of the earlier films, I feel relatively satisfied. It's worth it to see where these characters end up and see who they are underneath it all. Some of the characters are given weird motivations that I didn't totally understand and others grew in interesting ways. But at least it all ended. After two years of cliffhangers, it was nice to get see credits set by something other than a close-up of Katniss's stressed-out face. The actual ending made me groan out loud for four solid minutes, but at this point I just wanted to know. And I got my answers. I don't need anything more from The Hunger Games. I can go on and live my life and never think about it again. I can wish that a tighter and more cohesive film ended the franchise, but why? We've got an ending, it did what it had to do, did it competently, and now it's done. Goodbye, Hunger Games. It's been fun.
Mockingjay Part 2 Review photo
The end of time
I didn't read The Hunger Games or its sequels. When the first film came to theaters, I had heard a whole lot of people talking about the books, but I didn't know anything beyond the "It's pretty much Battle Royale" premi...

Review: Shrew's Nest

Nov 04 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220097:42685:0[/embed] Shrew's Nest (Musarañas)Directors: Juan Fernando Andrés and Esteban Roel Rating: NRCountry: Spain  The term "slow burn" gets thrown around a lot. I know I've used it more than once. Sometimes it's a useful term to describe how a film functions; other times it's a way to say something is boring without having to use that language. Sometimes people think things are a slow burn when they're really not. Shrew's Nest isn't a slow burn, though I know of others who say it is. Those people are either accidentally ignorant or willfully ignorant, but either way they're wrong. They're wrong, because the sequence of events that ultimately lead to the narrative boiling over aren't slow at all. They're very deliberate, placed perfectly in order to ratchet up the tension while also revealing the multiple facets of each character. At first, we see characters effectively through their own eyes, how they try to present themselves to the world. Then we see them through the eyes of others, where some of those seams start to show. Ultimately, we see them for who they truly are. And, not unexpectedly, what we find there isn't pretty. Montse is confined to the house. Not by some external force but an internal one. She can make it to the door, but she'll never go past it. Her sister, who she refers to as niña (translated as "the girl"), can go out. The girl goes to work during the day, and Montse stays home. She cooks and cleans and makes sure that her sister stays away from men. Because men are bad people who do bad things. (Note that it's clear almost immediately what happened to Montse, but that doesn't make the ultimate reveal any less painful, nor does it really prepare you for what follows.) One day, a man basically falls into her lap. As Carlos tries to leave his apartment (a floor above the girls'), he falls down the stairs, breaking his leg and hitting his head. After asking for her help, he faints. She brings him inside, binds his leg, and puts him in her bed. What follows, of course, is misery. Also, Misery. From the outset you know that Montse is unhinged, but the question is how far she'll go to keep Carlos there. The answer: Really Fucking Far. But in order to get to that point, we need context. Montse is viscous, something we learn early on, but seeing how her madness manifests itself is crucial to making the violence feel justified. Violence for the sake of violence can be fine, but there's something disquietingly realistic about characters in Shrew's Nest. Montse has had a rough time of it, and her psyche has been shaped accordingly. The girl is a little afraid of her sister, but the relationship is at the point where that's generally fine, until Carlos comes into the picture. Carlos isn't particularly concerned, particularly since Montse is so kind to him, but he doesn't understand the situation. He believes her when she says she had a doctor visit, but we know she's lying. Each time a character makes a decision, even if they make the wrong one, it felt fair. Characters do stupid things, but so do people. And characters don't do certain stupid things that they would be expected to do in a horror movie. Shrew's Nest is not particularly scary, but it is consistently unsettling. It's also claustrophobic, taking place entirely in a single apartment building (two apartments and the stairwell between them). That's good both for both budgetary and narrative reasons. The world never really feels larger than the one building, even as people other than the leads come in and out. That's important, because Shrew's Nest takes place in a place where other people live. Misery was in the middle of nowhere, but Montse doesn't have that sort of luxury, and neither do the filmmakers. This building – and really just the one apartment – needs to feel like the entire world, and it succeeds in that respect.  In fact, it succeeds in pretty much every respect. The minor issues I had ultimately don't matter, and as I think back on it, I barely even remember what they were. Only the good things stick in my brain, and there are a whole lot of good things. It's well crafted, well acted, well concepted, and well executed. There are some moments that are truly grotesque in the absolute best way, and there are images I'm not going to be able to scrub from my mind for quite some time. With a film like this, that's really all you can want. And Shrew's Nest delivers that and a whole lot more. 
Shrew's Nest Review photo
Shrew's Company
When I was in middle school, we'd periodically have a writer, Jon Land, come and talk to us. He'd talk about writing and life and whatever else. (Honestly, I don't really remember what most of those talks were about, but what...

Review: Summer Camp

Nov 03 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220098:42683:0[/embed] Summer CampDirector: Alberto MariniRating: NRCountry: Spain Summer Camp is sadly not a spiritual successor to the Sleepaway Camp films. Rather, it's a twist (sort of) on the zombie narrative. This is ultimately a zombie film, even if it would like you to think that it's not. After being subjected to some kind of substance, people (and animals) develop a nasty habit of bleeding from the mouth and attacking their fellow citizens (but not their fellow infected). The programmer who introduced the film said that it was a rather mean film, and it's hard to disagree. For a lot of reasons, what is ultimately a black comedy comes off as needlessly cruel to its main characters. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's something to be aware of. In the opening moments, we're told that four camp counselors have gone missing and are probably dead. We're then introduced to four camp counselors, and the film consists mostly of the audience waiting for them to die. And I don't mean "Waiting" as in "COME ON, JUST DIE ALREADY" (though I expect some people did feel that way) but the waiting that comes from knowing how something will turn out but not how it turns out that way. One dies almost immediately, which is fine because he's the worst. Then we follow three mildly more interesting characters as we watch them meet their ends. Watching that, though, is a fairly exhausting proposition, because Summer Camp's cinematography is brain-numbing at times. Shaky cam is everywhere, and during the action sequences, camera motion and rapid editing take the place of coherent choreography. What happened during those scenes? Heck if I know. I generally waited until after the scenes were over and then assessed the damages. "Oh, so she got hit with a rock but he was actually etc. etc." It's not awesome, but I can't say it doesn't make the scenes more tense, at least at first. The confusion inherent in that style fits with the confusion in the sequences, but it can only hold that attention so long. After 10-15 seconds, it just becomes tiresome. Eventually, you need to know who's doing what to whom, and Summer Camp doesn't really give that. It does, however, give a fair amount of blood. If that's what you're looking for, Summer Camp's got you covered. (That's a pun, because people get covered in blood. Get it? Hilarious.) There is some inconsistency in the actual damage caused by weaponry, and characters eventually seem to get over most non-fatal attacks, even if they should be crippling. Then they walk (or limp) around covered in blood but not bleeding out or really in danger of death from wounds. They're still in danger from the zombies and the inevitability of their fates, but it's hard to be truly concerned when some duct tape essentially fixes a drill through the foot. The one thing that really makes Summer Camp stand out is that thing I talked about in the introduction: The Resident Evil 4 thing, the Spanish thing. Even though it's a Spanish movie, most of the film takes place in English. It's set at an English-language immersion camp, and as such, the group is made of native English speakers. Even so, I assumed that any Spanish dialogue would be translated, because that just seemed like an appropriate thing to do. But no. The first time someone spoke it, for just a moment I thought it might have been a mistake. Maybe he was mumbling or another character was going to translate it and we were supposed to be in the dark in the meantime... but no. We just don't get to know. The characters' lack of knowledge is actually pretty fundamental to the plot, though. Like me, they recognize specific words or phrases but can't communicate in any meaningful way. And because of that, people die and signals for help get misunderstood. It's actually pretty awesome in a twisted sort of way. And I imagine knowing Spanish would completely undermine its effect. But if, like me, you only speak English, you'll get a harsh but interesting lesson in why multi-culturalism is so important in our increasingly globalized world. So ultimately I'm conflicted about Summer Camp. It does one thing really, really right (for a specific audience), but much of it is just kind of generic. It's got jump scares aplenty, some decent laughs, and plenty of groans, but not really moreso than any other horror black comedy out there. It's kind of generic but with one gimmick, and that gimmick serves to make it stand out just enough to be worthy of your consideration and perhaps even your time.
Summer Camp Review photo
More like bummer camp, am I right?
In Resident Evil 4, Leon S. Kennedy is dropped in a Spanish village. He's an all-American hero (by way of Japan), but his enemies don't speak his language. The characters talk, but they speak Spanish.  To a Spanish speak...

NYKFF 2015 photo
NYKFF 2015

The 2015 New York Korean Film Festival is coming


Runs November 6-11 at the MoMI
Oct 26
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
My favorite New York-based film festival of the year is the New York Asian Film Festival. It has a special place in my heart for a lot of reasons. Among the smaller, more tightly-focused festivals, though, the New York Korean...

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