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Review: LA 92

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

Tribeca Capsule Review: Gilbert

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

Tribeca Capsule Review: Shadowman

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

Tribeca Capsule Review: King of Peking

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


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

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

Tribeca Capsule Review: Mr. Long

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

Tribeca Capsule Review: November

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

Tribeca Capsule Review: The Reagan Show

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

Tribeca Capsule Review: The Departure

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

Tribeca Capsule Review: Abundant Acreage Available

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

Tribeca Capsule Review: Flames

Apr 24 // Hubert Vigilla
FlamesDirectors: Josephine Decker and Zefrey ThrowellRating: TBDRelease Date:  TBD There's a moving 40 minutes scattered throughout this 86-minute film. The best bits for me involved Decker and Throwell talking about why things ended the way they did, and giving themselves time to be vulnerable and self-effacing on screen. Decker comes across better, at least to me, though maybe she's not always so forthcoming about why things ended. Throwell doesn't come across great, especially when he's being honest about what happened. There's a gleeful cruelty even when he's trying to be sweet to Decker, and I'm not sure how much of that was real or staged. Flames is an art doc and an artifice doc. But for that 40 strong minutes, there are plenty of boring moments in Flames that just sort of float there. The couple's doomed trip to Maldives feels like an inert home movie about art scene hipsters in love. And there are stretches of the movie that feel repetitive or too much like navel gazing. And there are also moments that feel a bit too precious, like when Decker and Throwell go to couples therapy. At that point, they're broken up and don't seem to be hanging out, so their time in therapy makes gestures at intimacy but also feels like a performance art piece without stakes beyond adding a scene to the film. That might be Flames as a whole for me--a blend of intimacy and performance art, each side vying for time and control, and I'm not sure what to make of it all since I don't necessarily know or feel connected to these people. Yet part of me wants to like the better-messy-business of Flames because the parts that worked well enough cast some of the film's jetsam in a different light. An act of public strip poker reveals a lot about who Decker and Throwell are as people and as participants in their relationship. And a bit of impromptu acupuncture in a naked puppet show offers some hints of the relationship that unfolds. But like relationships that don't end well and that don't feel like they're worth salvaging, it's best to just move on.
Review: Flames photo
Love burns itself down self-indulgently
Flames offers an intriguing premise. Part documentary and part art movie, co-directors Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell document their relationship as it falls apart. We start with the two of them in the best part of any ...

Tribeca Capsule Review: Rock'n Roll

Apr 24 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221472:43531:0[/embed] Rock'n RollDirector: Guillaume CanetRating: TBDRelease Date: February 15, 2017 (France)Country: France  While making a drama about a pastor and his daughter, Guillaume's younger co-star Camille Rowe mentions he's of an older generation of French actors that her friends no longer find sexy. He becomes extremely self-conscious about his age and how people think of him, and embarks on a journey of self-destructive narcissism in the quest to be younger and more rock n roll. Canet allows himself to be a hapless buffoon as this goes on, and he's completely oblivious to how silly he is. Such is the power of this celebrity vanity. In movies about the elderly acting like younger people, there's a sense of comic nobility. Look at that old man drive like a 25-year-old racecar driver; look at that old man lead a tango with a woman one-third his age. In movies about middle-aged people acting younger, filmmakers often treat their 40-something heroes as clowns. For the first half of Rock'n Roll, Canet sustains an industry satire that consistently bites at Guillaume's ego. He falls further and further into a pathetic spiral of vanity, and can't recognize how pitiful it makes him look to Marion and the French public at large. Rather than learn some life lesson about aging gracefully, Guillaume doesn't learn. Vanity can metastasize. At that point Rock'n Roll shifts from satire to an off-the-rails farce, and I'm not sure it works. Sure, it subverts the explicit and implicit moralizing common in mid-life crises narratives, but are the 40-something clowns that senseless? Or maybe that's the point, and the indictment is about the persistent cycle of oblivious buffoonery that so many stars fall into and never escape. I guess I'm of two minds on Rock'n Roll, and it at least leaves me curious about Canet's other movies he's directed and the tone they strike. I'm also curious about my own desire for moralizing in this movie. Would that have made a difference, or maybe I should I just sit back and try to laugh. But am I laughing with the caricature or at some pitiable analog for so many stars who fell?
Review: Rock'n Roll photo
Vanity in middle age is a bad look
I feel like I might have appreciated Rock'n Roll more if I was familiar with French pop culture and the country's film industry. Writer, director, and star Guillaume Canet packs his comedy with real-life French celebrities pl...

Review: My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

Apr 13 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220922:43512:0[/embed] My Entire High School Sinking Into the SeaDirector: Dash ShawRating: PG-13Release Date: April 14, 2017 The set-up is at least sort of promising. An earthquake sends a high school on a hill by the ocean crashing down into the water. Students have to swim from floor to floor for air and survival, with a stratified class hierarchy--freshmen on the bottom and seniors on top. There's something questlike about it all, structured like a videogame with different kinds of levels--one sequence is even presented like a screen from the original Double Dragon, with characters throwing punches and jumpkicks with the same poses as Billy and Jimmy Lee. But Shaw takes all of these potentially interesting ideas and dials them down to the same level of slacker disinterest. The voice actors deliver their lines in a uniform indifferent monotone, as if they've begrudgingly recorded their dialogue one afternoon and left. The jokes are never distinct from the asides or the exposition. Apart from the heroic Lorraine the Lunch Lady (voiced by Sarandon), everyone sounds interchangeable. Since none of the voices stand out, it makes the all-star indie cast seem like needless stunt casting for the indie cachet. Lots of the dialogue gets lost in the audio mix, with any hint of personality drowned in the repetitive, overbearing, wall-to-wall score. This is a 77-minute movie that just drones on and on. It doesn't help that the protagonist, Dash (Schwartzman), is the least interesting character in the entire film. He's a self-important high school journalist and stand-in for the real life Dash Shaw. Yes, how twee, this fictional story is supposed to be semi-autobiographical. Dash is the type of tepid lead who gets in the way of the more worthy supporting players. His fellow staff members on the newspaper, Assaf (Watts) and Verti (Rudolph), have a warmth to them as well as a burgeoning crush that would have been great to watch unfold front and center. Even Dunham's overachieving all-goodnik Mary could have been the compelling hub of the story--a class president go-getter in survival mode. But no, it's boring old Dash, the "ugh, that guy" sort of hipster dude. There are moments of beauty in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, like the opening animation of Dash in silhouette running to class, or select flashbacks rendered with great care, or parts of the conclusion that have a zen-like quality. Most of it, though, looks like a hodgepodge of watercolor, acrylic, and magic marker, with a wonky, unrefined aesthetic. It simulates the stuff made while screwing around in a high school art class. The choice makes sense, but it's not always interesting to look at in full wobbly motion. It's animation with a sort of haphazard craft--art as marginalia rather than a point of focus, a talented person's creative assignment put together the night before. I was particularly put off by the film's defensiveness. At points, Dash and Assaf brag about being great writers whose genius and talent no one will understand. That metatextual boast always irks me. I rarely feel that a creative work should gird itself against criticism so overtly, and in such an insecure manner. Especially in this case, in which there's so little at stake and so little offered. Why be so precious over an animated shrug?
Entire High School review photo
A shrugworthy mumblecore cartoon
There are so many possibilities in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, the directorial debut of indie comics artist Dash Shaw. There's the image of an entire high school building adrift on the ocean and sinking. Think...

Review: The Void

Apr 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221365:43495:0[/embed] The VoidDirectors: Steven Kostanski and Jeremy GillespieRating: NRRelease Date: March 31, 2017 (UK); April 7, 2017 (US)  Daniel (Aaron Poole), a small town cop, finds a distraught man on an empty road in the middle of the night. This guy's just fled from a mysterious home invasion and murder, but Daniel doesn't know that. Daniel brings the man to the local hospital for treatment. A group of cultists surround the hospital, and strange, cosmic horror-y things begin to happen. The characters are quickly hewn from familiar tropes: the protagonist's estranged wife (Kathleen Munroe), a pregnant woman about to deliver (Grace Munro), a caring town doctor everyone respects (Kenneth Welsh), and two killers with uncertain motives who may or may not be good guys (Daniel Fathers and Mik Byskov). This group has to fend off the evil outside while strange powers turn people into tentacled, tumored, cyst-covered creatures that are a little bit H.P. Lovecraft and a lot of Rob Bottin. It's a modest set up, but there's a lot to do within that framework. Writers/co-directors Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie know their way around genre conventions and the camera. As the film goes wild with creatures and slime, they do an admirable job of making their film feel like an artifact of the VHS era. Even though the characters are usually one-note, there's a genuine sense of tension as they fight for their lives. In the first creature scene I think the effects are shown too obliquely and there's too much flickering light, but Kostanski and Gillespie typically show their horrors in all of their wonderful, lymphy madness. Yet as The Void unfolded, I felt like I was mostly noticing nods to other films rather than getting lost in The Void. When The Void revealed a plot twist, I thought about another movie; when a creature appeared on screen, I thought about another movie; even when The Void ended, I thought about another movie (two, actually). What I'm getting at: The Void is a great stroll through a videostore, but it doesn't go that additional step beyond its influences to become its own thing. I think about cover bands that don't quite twist the original enough, or maybe a tribute band--songs in the style of a downbeat Lucio Fulci zombie movie as done by John Carpenter. It's not like Kostanski and Gillespie lacked their own material. The mythology of their cosmic horror is promising. Sadly, it's left vague--a pretext for plot rather than something fully realized--and they never allow their own mythology's eldritch contours to wrest control from their genre forebears. There was so much unexplored territory they could have covered, but they stuck to the well-worn paths that others had made before them. I couldn't help but feel disappointed even though I liked what I saw. Experiences like this that make me appreciate the originality of those seminal 80s horror and sci-fi films. It's easy and enjoyable to recreate moods and pay homage to scenes, but much harder to go that extra step and create something genre-defining. That said, I want to see what Kostanski and Gillespie do next. There's promise in The Void, and maybe if I were younger or hadn't grown up watching the same movies the filmmakers did, I would find the movie more satisfying. I just hope in their next movie Kostanski and Gillespie get away from the videostore and put more of themselves and their original ideas front and center.
Review: The Void photo
Fulci + Carpenter + Lovecraft
The 80s aesthetic is chic these days in genre films. Just take a look at Beyond the Black Rainbow, It Follows, or The Guest, among others. Homage and pastiche don't guarantee quality, of course, but it's an indicator tha...

Review: Colossal

Apr 05 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221367:43490:0[/embed] ColossalDirector: Nacho VigalondoRating: RRelease Date: April 7, 2017 (limited) Gloria (Anne Hathaway) skulks into her boyfriend's apartment and gets kicked out. She's an alcoholic and self-absorbed, and like any real life fuck-up, Gloria excels at fucking up her attempts at getting un-fucked-up. She moves into her empty childhood home. She sleeps on the floor in an uninflated air mattress; she rolls into it like the filling in a burrito. A childhood friend named Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) helps get her back on her feet with a job at his bar and a little bit of furniture. And for some reason, whenever Gloria does a certain thing in the morning, a giant monster shows up in Seoul, South Korea. And for some reason, Gloria is able to control it. I love absurd conceits like this. The weirdness is the whole allure of the world created, and it serves as a foundation for some larger metaphor. Once the goofiness of the set-up clears (it doesn't entirely), Vigalondo and his cast take it deadly serious, as if all this strangeness has life-or-death consequences. That's weirdness wielded right rather than weirdness for its own sake. All of this is in service to a pomo allegory about (initially) fucking up. Using the kaiju as a guide, I could see Gloria drunkenly careening through her entire life without any regard for the lives she's affected. When you're drunk or depressed or your life is in such haze that you've become oblivious to the world around you, it can be difficult to see that you're hurting others. In Gloria's case, pissing off bosses or boyfriends is nothing, but now she sees news footage of how bad choices lead to the suffering of dozens, even hundreds, of total strangers. The guilt is immense because the scale of moral consequence is magnified to an absurd level. It's an inversion, and I think an intentional one, of the idea that one death is a tragedy while a million deaths are a statistic. For Gloria, those interpersonal, everyday interactions aren't enough to cause a major existential reassessment, but at this scale with so many people at stake, suddenly the implication of a city in peril calls attention to a one-on-one ethical interaction. To put it another way, the cries of a hundred strangers somehow magnify the faces of the people in front of her. Ditto her own face in the mirror. Hathaway has a great way of conveying the moral shock of it all in her eyes and on her face. Sometimes she winces with a "Did I do that?" expression, like spilling a drink. Other times she's doubled over with guilt, bawling, as if watching people in front of her suffer; worse, she feels too helpless to do anything about it. And yet there's more to Colossal than this single metaphor played out to its logical conclusion. The conclusion is not so clear cut. There are different kinds of monsters in Colossal. Without giving anything away, the film focuses just as much on the people we know as it does on the inner demons we're not quite acquainted with. The monster in Seoul gives the audience a projection of Gloria's interior life. As I watched Gloria with her ex-boyfriend and certain people in her hometown, I got a clear, sad, familiar portrait of her interpersonal life filled with "nice guys", toxic masculinity, and different forms of abuse. Most men treat her like a child, like a sexual conquest, like an irredeemable fuck up, like someone beneath and always dependent on them. Maybe Gloria's monster, destroyer of cities, is not just a kaiju made of her many fuck-ups. Maybe it's also a response to the men who put her down, demean her, and try to keep her compliant, weak, insecure, and small. It's self-destruction writ large on the one hand, but maybe it's also a strong and ennobling part of Gloria. Good symbols have different--sometimes even contradictory--facets to them, just like complicated people and lovable stories. From one angle, a dazzling light, from others a murky view of the world, but it's all of a piece. I keep turning Colossal around in my mind, admiring its angles and performances, how it fits together in an asymmetrical way. Mostly, though, I love how seriously it takes Gloria in the face of such gargantuan weirdness.
Review: Colossal photo
The genre mash, it was a kaiju smash
One of my least favorite movie cliches goes something like this: A person who lives in the city has an existential crisis. They reluctantly return to their hometown, where things are much simpler and quieter. The main charact...

Review: Your Name

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

Review: Ghost in the Shell

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

Review: David Lynch: The Art Life

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

Review: Power Rangers

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

Review: Iron Fist (Season 1)

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

Review: Raw

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

Review: Kong: Skull Island

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

Review: My Scientology Movie

Mar 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220428:43450:0[/embed] My Scientology MovieDirector: John DowerRating: NRRelease Date: March 10, 2017 Gibney's documentary--an adaptation of Lawrence Wright's book of the same name--is a top-to-bottom takedown of the entire Church of Scientology, looking at the group's origins via the eccentric L. Ron Hubbard to its current state. Sweeney's Panorama pieces were more upsetting. The first, Scientology and Me, featured Sweeney getting stalked and harassed by high-level members of the Church of Scientology; the follow-up, The Secrets of Scientology, revealed how the Scientology operatives intimidated Sweeney, with the go-ahead coming from Scientology leader David Miscaviage himself. I mention the above works for their clarity of purpose and strong execution. Theroux's movie is far lighter on substance and information to its detriment, and much more impish by comparison just based on circumstance. He'd originally intended to make a documentary on Scientology and sought full cooperation of the cult. The Church of Scientology declined his request. They no longer allow journalists access to the church, perhaps because of Sweeney's damning work, which revealed just how nuts the organization is at its core. Undeterred, Theroux makes his own movie about Scientology featuring dramatic recreations and reinterpretations of events. There's an open casting call for people to play David Miscaviage and Tom Cruise, the former played by an alarmingly talented guy named Andrew Perez. For accuracy and insight into his film (and to bait the Church of Scientology), Theroux also contacts Mark Rathbun to help as a consultant. Rathbun was a former high-ranking member of the Church of Scientology, at times a brutal protector and enforcer for the church. He's now an apostate. My Scientology Movie sort of reminded me of Theorux's 2003 special Louis, Martin & Michael, in which he tried to get an interview with Michael Jackson but instead wound up hanging out with Michael's father and Uri Gellar. By not getting directly to Michael Jackson, Theroux got a great portrait of the strange world that Michael lives in. Similarly, by not working directly with the Church of Scientology, Theroux gets an oblique portrait of Scientology. The film isn't a takedown in the Gibney mode and it's nowhere near as intense as Sweeney's pieces (it's not even as good as Louis, Martin & Michael, to be honest), but Theroux's ability to disarm offers an all right roundabout look at how Scientology affects former members. Long-time Theroux fans like myself might be left wanting. One of the film's recreations centers around a detention center for misbehaving Scientologists. We witness the kind of intimidation and humiliation that church members endured at the hands of their leader. Perez shifts into Miscaviage mode, becoming an abusive, self-righteous demon eager to demean as he is to shove and to strike and to break furniture to make a point. The Church of Scientology sends its team of stalkers to see what Theroux is up to. What might be unnerving is oddly undone thanks to Theroux's unshakable calm. Theroux does what he's always done best in these sorts of situations: he renders scary things absurd. Theroux applies his trademark naivete, though it's on Rathbun rather than a current cult official. Rathbun's the closest that Theroux can get to the church directly, and he tries to ask questions, discern original motives, and get into the mind of a high-level Scientologist. Rathbun is practiced in the art of manipulation and intimidation, however, and a resentment builds between them. Those awkward moments in a Theroux piece are compelling to watch because they are such unguarded moments. Theroux gets a slight glimpse at the innerworkings of Rathbun, a complicated man who is much more of a mystery than whatever's going on in the Church of Scientology.
My Scientology Movie photo
A Theroux perspective, but not thorough
Louis Theroux won me over many years ago with the show Weird Weekends. In each episode, Theroux embedded himself in a subculture and use his extreme mild-mannered niceness to disarm his subjects. He'd hang out with porn stars...

Review: My Life as a Zucchini

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

Review: Before I Fall

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

Review: Ugetsu

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

Review: Logan

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

Review: Get Out

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

Review: A Cure for Wellness

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

Review: Fifty Shades Darker

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


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