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Review: San Andreas

May 29 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219506:42413:0[/embed] San AndreasDirector: Brad PeytonRelease Date: May 29, 2015Rated: PG-13  At some point in the last 20 years or so CGI and ever more impressive special effects have allowed a new genre to crop up. The destruction genre is a subset of action that, as the name suggests, revels in the destruction of a place or the entire world. This destruction is usually caused by some natural disaster, but the end result is always the same: buildings tumble, millions of people die, and one group of people makes it out alive. It's always the same and by now the shine of seeing a city fall apart has worn off. We've seen it 100 times before in 100 different ways so if you're making some destruction porn you better have something more than just stunning visuals of a building falling over. That is all San Andreas has. It is a destruction movie functioning on the belief that we're still impressed by this stuff despite that fact that it is no longer impressive. Does it look good? Sure, but so does every other movie in the genre, and we literally just saw San Francisco destroyed last year in Godzilla. It just isn't exciting anymore without something behind it and there is nothing behind San Andreas. It is, in fact, so boring and vapid that its lack of character ruins its destruction sequences because, damn it, you just want everyone to die. Ray (Dwayne Johnson) is an LAFD helicopter rescue pilot and he and his crack team are the best of the best so when the San Andreas fault starts to cause massive earthquakes stretching from Hoover Dam to San Francisco he hops into action... by ditching his team, hi-jacking a government helicopter and saving his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) in L.A. then flying to San Francisco to rescue his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Meanwhile Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), a scientist at Cal Tech has, figured out a way to predict earthquakes and has warned all of San Francisco that an even worse one is coming. Prolific destruction ensues as millions die and Blake loses layer after layer of clothing in order to show her breasts off.  It's dumb to expect too much depth in a destruction movie, and you really shouldn't, but the lazy nature of San Andreas is particularly insulting. The plot is so paint-by-numbers that I expected the screenplay credits to be attributed to a coloring book. The "estranged couple pulled back together by disaster" trope is so old and so poorly executed that not even Johnson's charm can salvage how ineptly it is handled. Meanwhile you've got Blake falling in love with a guy she just happened to meet ten seconds before the world started shaking and his little brother following them around for comic relief. It is surprising then, considering just how little creativity went into the screenplay, that they could screw it up so badly. You'd think with most of the characters and plot already developed a million times over in tons of other movies they could have pieced together something coherent, but instead the movie can't even hold onto its own basic plot threads. We're introduced to Ray's crack team of rescuers, but they disappear once the destruction starts. The film can't even give it's villain a proper farewell as Emma's new boyfriend, who is routinely made more unbelievably douchey, plot line consists of him being a douche and then (spoilers) dying.  But, you say,who cars about plot when you've got the Golden Gate bridge being crushed by a tsunami (after it miraculously survives a 9.6 earthquake). Suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the ride. It's just hard to enjoy a ride that you've been on 20 times and isn't executed very well in the first place. Brad Peyton brings almost no creativity to the job, content to let his CGI department make some pretty pictures and then piece them together into a "story." Tension barely builds in action sequences thanks to the fact that he can barely hold a scene together. Near the end, when Ray must rescue Blake from drowning at one point, the sequence falls apart about like the building the two are trapped in. Maybe if San Andreas felt even slightly aware of just how cliche and unoriginal it was then it could be fun, but instead it takes itself deadly seriously. At one point Paul Giamatti looks directly into the camera and says, "Pray for the people of San Francisco." It's a line so campy it should have been played up as such. Instead it only highlights the film's inability to capture either the true emotion of massive destruction and death or the awe that these kinds of films use to be able to pull out of us simply from visual splendor. One more note. The timing of this film could not be worse given the situation in Nepal. While Warner Bros. has provided information on how people can contribute to relief efforts in marketing campaigns and agreed to match dollar for dollar every contribution their employees make to Nepal what they didn't do was make a movie that inspires any of the emotions that this tragedy deserves. San Andreas just wants to show destruction and it wants you to revel in it.That's nearly impossible given the timing of the release and the fact that reveling in nothing but glorified destruction got old at least five years ago. 
San Andreas Review photo
A lot of faults
I'm going to preface this by coming out as a lover of big dumb action. I do this because critics get a lot of crap for coming down on "fun" movies where we're supposed to go in with our expectations low and just enjoy the "fu...

Review: Slow West

May 25 // Per Morten Mjolkeraaen
[embed]219486:42403:0[/embed] Slow WestDirector: John MacleanRelease Date: May 15, 2015Rated: R   In its short runtime (just 85 minutes), Slow West introduces us to the odd couple, Jay (Kodi Smith-McPhee) and Silas (Michael Fassbender), who wander through the 19th Century frontier to a reach Jay's lost love, Rose (Caren Pistorius). Jay and Rose were born and raised in Scotland, and where Jay sees a love interest, Rose sees the younger brother she never had. For reasons unknown, Rose and her father (Game of Thrones' Rory McCann) emigrated to the outskirts of Colorado. They live in a small house in the midst of a vast field of corn and grass, like a picturesque postcard of colorful and untouched nature. Their home is an idyllic one, representing calmness and solitude, and where the only disturbance seems to be a friendly native that once in awhile shows up to partake in their freshly made coffee. It represents the destination of Jay and Silas' journey across the treacherous lands, and it is an enviable one. However, danger lies between them in more ways than one, as a small group of bounty hunters are following their tracks, lead by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). This concept of beauty and calmness is recreated and reinforced by the cinematography of Robbie Ryan. He manages to use the New Zealand woodlands to capture a lost age on film, and every frame is composed with care and dedication. His magnum opus is a late action scene, where he singlehandedly strengthens the entire movie with his observant lens. As gunmen appear and disappear in a low cornfield – like a bloody game of Whack-A-Mole – the stationary composition makes for a fantastically hilarious scene, and one would have been dead on arrival in the hands of a lesser cinematographer. As the film rushes by – and it does – our two compadres cross paths with a handful of fun and interesting characters, from a Swedish family to a mysterious, lone researcher and, of course, a run-in or two with the bounty hunters. They are all caricatures of the Western genre. Silas is the archetypical lone wanderer who cares little – and says even less – but may find redemption through an unlikely friendship. Jay is the innocent and pure, who follows his heart and still believes there is love in a world where a single coin could have you killed. The bounty hunters are... bounty hunters, but Ben Mendelsohn almost steals the show as Payne. Although he only makes a few appearances, the man in the comically large fur coat makes plenty of it with a love for absinthe and drunken gibberish.  Although the dialogue is fairly scarce, Slow West seems intent on saying something with it. Mendelsohn's Payne is a fair example (so is Fassbender's Silas), but most intriguing is the lone researcher. I hesitate to quote him, as I always support the idea of seeing a movie as blind as possible, but his short appearance is mysterious in more ways than one. The best way I can describe him is with a parallel to the video game, Red Dead Redemption, where you can meet a man dressed all in black, who appears and disappears as he pleases – always with a thought-provoking word for you. What it all means, if anything at all, is up for you to decide. In any case, this mysterious researcher in Slow West lingers in my mind still.  And thus we've come to the movies biggest draw: its comedy. Slow West is absolutely hilarious at times. It is bleak and black, like something pulled straight from a Coen brothers movie or a less-polished Tarantino gag. At one point, Jay and Silas comes across a skeleton crushed by a tree, with an ax in its hand. They make dispassionate comments about Darwinism and move on. In the final action sequence, the entire crew must have had a field day a work as it may be the funniest explosive climax to a Western movie since Django Unchained. However, the comedy isn't omnipresent and disappears completely in certain scenes, leaving us with a movie lost between two states.This is not to say I dislike cross-genre movies, au contraire, I can really love them, but to attain my love, it has to function as a whole. Whenever a movie can't function like this – caught between two genres – the end result is one which struggles to find its own identity. A movie can be as beautifully shot, directed or acted as it wants to, but without its own identity – its own soul – it will never be remembered for long.  Slow West is without a doubt a fun and, above all, efficient ride. Too many movies overstay their welcome, and there's something to be said for a filmmaker who respects the audience's time. Maclean proves this with Slow West.
Slow West photo
Michael Fassbender is Sad Silas
John Maclean's feature debut, Slow West, is an ambitious one. It is a pastiche of the classic American westerns – a celebration of the genre – and comparisons and parallels to master directors like Quentin Taranti...

Review: The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)

May 25 // Sean Walsh
[embed]219487:42404:0[/embed] Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)Director: Tom SixRelease Date: May 22, 2015Rated: Unrated Dieter Laser returns to the franchise he made famous as Bill Boss, racist, sexist, malevolent warden of a prison in the middle of the desert. Laurence R. Harvey, villainous manbaby star of Human Centipede 2, plays his sidekick/prison accountant Dwight Butler. These two men find themselves with a problem on there hands when Governor Hughes (Eric Roberts for some reason) threatens to fire them if they can't fix their crappy prison. Butler suggests to Boss, "Hey, let's make the prisoners into a giant Human Centipede like those two movies." And then they do. That's the whole plot. Were you expecting Kubrick? I don't have a lot to say about this film, to be honest. It's graphically violent, really racist, really sexist, and has little redeeming quality to it beyond Dieter Laser's super over-the-top performance as Bill Boss. It has a premise, and follows it to the end. It was competently made. But it just doesn't have anything going for it beyond that. So instead, let me give you a list of all the messed up/notable stuff that happens in chronological order to sate your curiosity and save you the 102 minutes you won't ever get back. SPOILERS AHEAD. The film starts with the credits of the first two movies, because meta Lots of general hardcore racism and talk of rape Dieter Laser graphically breaks Tom Lister Jr.'s arm Dieter Laser spends most of the movie eating from a jar of dried clitorises he got from Africa (Bree Olson eats one later, not knowing what they are) A man is waterboarded by Laser with three buckets of boiling water and then the washcloth is peeled off the man's boiled face We get to see Dieter Laser loudly climax from oral sex (performed off-camera by former adult film star Bree Olson, the film's sole female character, Laser's secretary/living sex toy) Dieter Laser graphically castrates Robert LaSardo, rubs the blood from the wound all over his face and then later eats the man's balls for lunch (breaded and everything) In a bizarre fantasy sequence, Robert LaSardo shivs a helpless Laser and has sex with the wound Tom Six shows up and gives them permission to use his idea and explains about how he consulted a real doctor about the medical accuracy of making a human centipede  During a screening of the films, Laser tells the prisoners he's going to make them into a human centipede and they riot, which leads to Bree Olson (again, the single female character) being beaten into a coma by Tom Lister Jr. During the surgery segment, Laser inserts his revolver into a man's stoma and shoots him, shoots a disabled man, and decides to attach a man with chronic diarrhea in front of Robert LaSardo Laser has sex with a comatose Bree Olson When Tom Six sees Laser's "special" project (that involves cutting off arms), he vomits on a glass door and exits the film After the 500-person centipede is unveiled, we are shown that the only female character in the film, who spends the entire film being used for sex before being beaten into a coma and raped in her comatose state, is sewn into the centipede for reasons(?) Laser unveils to Governor Eric Roberts his special project, the Human Caterpillar, made from the limbless torsos of the lifetime and death row inmates After Roberts says that Laser and Harvey are insane and will get the chair, Laser shoots the prison doctor, then Roberts comes back and tells them he changed his mind, leaves again, and Laser shoots Harvey so he can take the credit for himself The film ends with a naked Laser screaming nonsense through a megaphone from a guard tower overlooking his centipede as patriotic music swells To say this film is problematic is to put it lightly. It is virulently racist for reasons unknown, treats the single female character as an object to stick male genitalia in (and, again for reasons unknown, throws her into the centipede because why not?), and generally delights in inflicting pain on both its characters and its audience. But you should know what you're getting into where a film's central theme involves people being sewn ass-to-mouth. Like I say in the image above, Human Centipede 3 is indeed 100% the third Human Centipede film. If you like watching racist, cruel men castrate dudes and have sex with women in comas with the titular centipede happening in the background, then boy this film is for YOU! If you liked the first two films, you'll probably like this one. If you're only lukewarm on them, you can probably skip this one. Bottom line: Human Centipede 3 is competently made schlock. Tom Six is an edgy dude with some weird stuff (and quite possibly issues with women) rattling around in his head, but he can make a good-looking movie. Hopefully his next series has more merit. Happy Memorial Day, everybody.
Review: Human Centipede 3 photo
"100% a film that was made"
I did not care for the first Human Centipede. It was a generic torture porn with a couple gimmicks in the centipede itself and the claim of being 100% medically accurate. As a jaded horror fan, I spent most of it yawning (cri...

Review: Tomorrowland

May 21 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219474:42399:0[/embed] TomorrowlandDirector: Brad BirdRelease Date: May 22, 2015Rated: PG-13  Unlike Bird's other writing/directing efforts Tomorrowland is a blunt hammer that uses almost no subtly or panache to tell a story about the contradictions inherent in human nature and our inability to save ourselves. The screenplay is lump of dialog put together simply to once again inform us that we're destroying the earth and if we don't change it's all going to end. What's at fault for this inevitable calamity? Who knows. Politics, money, video games, movies, reality television; everything is wrong and nothing is right. That is, of course, unless we hold on to our hope and try to make a better... sorry, I just threw up a bit in my mouth. Again and again this movie comes back to our destruction of the world. In this case it's literal as there's a count down to doomsday. The move opens with a painfully done "talking to the camera" narration that only serves to highlight the thud of a screenplay. Frank Walker (George Clooney) and Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) -- yes, naming a lead character Newton is about as subtle as the movie gets -- are telling the story of how they came to be where they are now. It turns out that when Frank was a child he was whisked away to a wondrous city called Tomorrowland by a girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy). We flash forward a few decades and Frank is living in a run down house while Casey finds a magic pin that takes her to Tomorrowland, but all is not right and the three must join together to save the future.  Narratively the film is a mess, with cause and effect having little consequence and tension building at a snails pace as the movie spews one cliche ideal after another. The problem isn't the ideals (I agree with almost all of them), but their execution. Tomorrowland screams about a lot of problems and offers almost no solutions. At times hypocritically complaining about action movies and then rolling right into an action sequence. It feels more like the film is saying what it thinks it should be instead of what it believes in, and Bird doesn't help it along any with his uncharacteristically heavy-handed direction. At times the overwhelmingly obvious cues of environmental friendliness and peace illicit eye rolls instead of agreement. We get it. Wind power is awesome and we shouldn't kill each other, you don't need to remind us with every cut. I will admit that despite being burdensome, Tomorrowland's optimism is a bit refreshing. It is truly always happy and excited for itself. In a landscape of movies that are often dour, even from Disney themselves, this one stands out for always, always, always being upbeat even when it's not. Maybe that's part of it's biggest problem, though. Because the film, and Casey especially, are always looking at the bright side and always exclaiming how amazing everything is then nothing is. Except for one scene involving the Eiffel Tower almost nothing from the film is truly amazing.  That goes especially for the movies special effects, action and acting... which is basically the entire film. There's a massive dependence on digital effects for the movie and they aren't where they need to be, especially after seeing what can be done with practical stunts last week. We're supposed to be awed by Tomorrowland itself, but it never feels original or special. When action does come it is routinely basic and incoherent. Bird seems as sloppy as the screenplay in his direction of anything that moves fast.  Almost every actor could be swapped out for any other actor. Clooney especially feels rough in the role, as if he doesn't care enough to really work with it. The only stand out is Cassidy who offers the film's best line and the only serious depth in any character. Finally, the movie is oddly violent. In another instance of hypocrisy, actual murders occur on screen. There's no blood, but people are vaporized at random and a human-looking robot has its head torn off in a fight sequence that would have given the film an R-rating had the combatants not been robotic. It all feels woefully out of context in a film that is decrying our ever escalating enjoyment of violence in media and more importantly is intended for children.  Tomorrowland is nostalgic for a future that never happened, much like Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is for a past that never happened, but it loses its fun and love in its overbearing effort to send a message. It's flat plotline and dud action mean that nothing ever sparkles despite the actors repeatedly telling you that it does. Does it actually care about its message? It's unclear. If it does it's doing such a terrible job of sending it that it feels disingenuous. Great films have meaning to their message, all Tomorrowland does is shout from the mountain top that we're doing it all wrong. Well, Brad Bird, so are you.
Tomorrowland Review photo
The future is a letdown
If you're like me you were pretty excited for Tomorrowland. Almost everything Brad Bird touches is magic and his obsession with nostalgia made a perfect fit for a film based off a Disneyland park whose future never came to be...

Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

May 14 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219448:42382:0[/embed] Mad Max: Fury RoadDirector: George MillerRelease Date: May 14, 2015Rated: R  If you're not a child of the 80s and you subsequently ignored everyone telling you to watch at least one of the Mad Max films for the past 20 years then it's possible you don't know the premise of the franchise. That really isn't a problem. One of the strangely wonderful things about this series is that continuity is the last thing it cares about. Instead its focus is on its themes and the mythic creation of a man called Max.  There are a few key elements, of course. It's somewhere in the post-apocalyptic future. Water, gas and areas that aren't desert are scarce. Man has fallen into lawlessness and still wears far more leather than you'd expect. The world is dependent on despots who run small fiefdoms where they control the supplies and the cars -- car chases are really popular in the future. Max (Tom Hardy) is a loner haunted by something terrible that happened in his past (possibly the tragic ending of the first film, but it's never made clear).  He's taken prisoner by one of these fiefdoms run by a mutated man named Immortan Joe, who has developed a war like cult around his control of water. On a routine gas run Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) steels the tanker she's carrying so she can rescue five women from being bred by Joe. A chase across the desert ensues in which both Max and one of Joe's half-life warriors, Nux (Nicholas Hoult) join the fray. It may sound like I'm simplifying much of the film with that last sentence, but I'm not. Once Fury Road gets started on its chase premise it holds onto it until the very end, only stopping every so often to deliver exposition of some surprisingly sentient plot points. It is as non-stop as a film can be and it works magically. Characters are developed almost entirely through actions leaving dull blather and burdensome world creations (I'm looking at you, Jupiter Ascending) in the background. At first it may feel like the movie is being horribly unclear because it refuses to hold your hand, but then you realize that by letting the story ride along with the car chases its not holding your hand, but yanking you along with it screaming, "Shut up and enjoy the damn ride!" Miller's blend of actual stunts and limited CGI is a master work in cinematic action. The only person who could even come close to him right now is Gareth Evans of The Raid and The Raid 2 fame, and he owes much of his style to Miller's original trilogy. It's the kind of action that makes you shift your thinking from "this is fun and dumb" to "this is fun and art." The kind of relentlessly, perfectly contstructed set pieces that prove just exactly what's wrong with the likes of lazy action direction we get from Michael Bay types. The difference is just how relentlessly old school Miller is in his direction. It's as if Miller didn't get the memo that over-cranking to speed things up just isn't done anymore or that pushing into an extreme close up at high speed is considered tacky now. No one told him and so he just does it and it works. It works so damn well and feels so original that even the most jaded action connoisseur will be on the edge of their seat during the film's climatic final chase. This all despite the fact that really each sequence is the exact same thing (tanker getting chased by cars). That's not a problem, though, because in reality the movie is just one long, beautiful action sequence. It's the tanker chase from Road Warrior drawn out across an entire film and it's glorious. This isn't to say that there's nothing to bite your mental teeth into. Mad Max isn't really about the nitty gritty of characters, but more a study of archetypes, humanity and the ever present lone wolf hero. Max isn't a character, he's a symbol for survival, rebirth and redemption. That's why the films have almost no continuity between them. It's why Tom Hardy's almost monosyllabic performance is so spot on. It's why the characters around him are the driving force of emotion while he is simply the hammer that triggers change. If anything Theron's Furiousa is the star of this film as she takes the role of the heart -- albeit one that can kick some serious ass. All this is why the movie's use of the rescue of a group of "pure" women trope actually works despite the cliche. Fury Road is delivering an incredibly meta, two-hour action think piece on the genre itself. You may think I'm over analyzing all this, and that's absolutely fine. You can come out of Fury Road thinking everything I just said is idiotic, but you can't come out of it thinking you saw anything but a kick in the ass to action cinema. Mad Max is actually mad, and weird and strange and different. It features a double-guitar-flameflower playing mutant strapped to the top of a car that is basically a massive speaker system. It has people wearing ridiculous clothing and some of the maddest dialog this side of a David Lynch production.  Fury Road may be a "sequel," but it feels entirely original, and that might be the real reason it stands out so well. In an industry that has become so cannibalistic, to the point that it could destroy itself, Fury Road is undeniably unapologetic about being different. If this is what is on the other side of the superhero movie apocalypse then sign me up. 
Mad Max Review photo
Way beyond Thunderdome
You might be wondering just why a franchise (or whatever Mad Max films are) to a trilogy that came out in the 80s and starred Mel Gibson is getting a sequel now. The real reasons probably have something to do with money and c...

Tribeca Review: Maggie

May 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219246:42343:0[/embed] MaggieDirector: Henry HobsonRelease Date: May 8, 2015 (limited)Rating: PG-13 Wade (Schwarzenegger) brings his daughter Maggie home from the city after she's attacked by a zombie. Bite victims slowly turn. Symptoms include necrosis, cataracts, dizzy spells, respiratory problems, and a heightened sense of smell. It's only a matter of time before Maggie will need to be killed or sent to a quarantine center, and the latter may be a worse fate. At certain points of Maggie, I was struck by how Schwarzenegger has aged in an interesting way. The texture of his face is like tree bark from certain angles and in certain light. More than that, the expressiveness of his brow and his eyes has increased. Same goes for his mouth, as if the stoic straight line we're accustomed to from his blockbusters is able to communicate more with age. It's not just a one-liner dispenser, and his scowls seem layered. Patiently holding a shot on Schwarzenegger has the potential to reveal his inner emotional machinery. This unexpected depth in Schwarzengger's performance comes mostly from the film's quiet moments. In one scene, like something out of a Terrence Malick film or an Andrew Wyeth painting, Wade wanders a field introspectively. His silhouette from behind has a heftier grimness in the dimming light. It's impossible to forget he's Arnold Schwarzenegger, and yet maybe the moment works better than it would otherwise because it's Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to negate his own Arnold-Schwarzenegger-ness for the sake of the story. Maggie is at its best when it uses zombie-ism to explore the impending loss of a loved one to a terminal illness. In Maggie's case, it's about coming to terms with the inevitability of death. Had Schwarzenegger not been cast, the film would have been billed as a showcase for Breslin. She carries at least half of the film. (She's the title character, after all.) When not succumbing to fits of dread, Maggie tries to live just like a teenager. There's a normalcy about living with her condition. In a brief sidetrip from the farmhouse, we see Maggie with her friends being carefree before going back to high school in the fall. Infected or not, to them, at least for now, she's still Maggie. The film's handful of missteps have less to do with the performances than the occasional saccharine note in the script. Bits here and there feel a little too much like "father and daughter bonding" beats in a movie. Breslin and Schwarzenegger perform them well, but the actors seem more natural when exchanging small looks and little lines together throughout the film rather than dedicating a full scene to semi-expository bonding. An accretion of affection is almost always preferable to a tenderness dump. For a film that's propelled more by its quiet moments, the wind down of Maggie features an overbearing bombast in the sound design and David Wingo's otherwise low-key score. It undermines some of the control that Hobson maintains for the film, and I wonder how much better a scene or two would play if they were muted. This might be one of the few times that anyone's called for an even quieter and more delicate finale to a movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but in Maggie, the performances are able to do the emotional heavy lifting on their own.
Maggie Review photo
I know now why you cry
Maggie is one of the last things you'd expect out of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Abigail Breslin, who plays the title character? Okay. Joely Richardson, who plays Maggie's stepmother? Sure. But not Arnie. Though Maggie's a post-ap...

Review: Reality

May 05 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219356:42363:0[/embed] RealityDirector: Quentin DupieuxRelease Date: May 1, 2015Rating: NR On some level, this review is the third part in a series on Quentin Dupieux's absurdist rollercoaster. In March of 2013, he blew me away with Wrong, making it the first film I ever broke the nearly-impossible-to-break 95+ barrier for. It changed the way I viewed cinema, the requirement for such a high score. It proved to me that absurdist cinema is a thing that can exist in a way that’s every bit as brilliant as absurdist theatre. It was eye-opening, and I loved it. Later that year, he released Wrong Cops. To put it bluntly, Wrong Cops is garbage. My review of the film features the line, "I wanted to punch a baby." With Wrong, I called Dupieux a modern-day auteur. With Wrong Cops, I wondered if it had just been a fluke. Wrong received a 95, Wrong Cops a 35. (Undoubtedly the most severe drop in scores seen on this site.) But whereas Wrong Cops was built on the premise of the previous film (while learning absolutely none of the lessons from it), Reality was something new. The only image I saw, the one on the poster, looked like the kind of thing I had wanted from Wrong Cops and gotten from Wrong. I was willing to chalk Wrong Cops up as the fluke, not Wrong. So for me, there was a lot riding on Reality, because I really, really wanted to like it.  Reality is at its best when it embraces its absurdist roots. Wrong Cops' fundamental failing was its inability to create a world where everyone accepted that things were weird. There were absurdist characters in a real-ish world. Reality threatens to be that sometimes. Case in point: The film opens with a man killing a wild boar. He brings it home and guts it. In the boar is a blue VHS tape. He simply throws it into the trash along with all the intestines. So far so good. At dinner, the young girl asks why there would be a video tape in a hog. There is a discussion about the fact that that wouldn't make any sense. For a moment, I was worried that we were in Wrong Cops: Round 2. It turns out, though, that the movie we are watching is, probably (and I emphasize probably), a movie within this movie. And suddenly it is acceptable again. People in the movie within the movie can comment on things that don't make sense. And, honestly, questioning the logistics of any given action can work in a grand sense as long as the response is always something to the effect of, "Because duh. That's why." There are plenty of times when characters in Reality question their surroundings, but the answers to their questions never actually answer the questions. In fact, they rarely even acknowledge the question's intent. This world makes sense to them, and if someone else is a little bit confused, it's fine, because they'll get into it before too long. There is no one in the film who is simply incapable of accepting the absurdities of the world, even if they are mildly annoyed by some of the specifics. And so the pendulum swings back. And as the film delves further and further into its own demented logic, all worries fade away. This is absurdism. And though it isn't as universally effective as Wrong, it has its own contributions to the genre. Wrong 2 would be stale. So we need to go somewhere else. In fact, Reality comes off as a response to Wrong's single sorta-failing. Late in the film, a series of events happen, only to be revealed as a dream or hallucination or something to that effect. When I realized what that meant for the narrative, I was originally sorta angry, before realizing that it totally didn’t matter in any way, shape, or form. It simply was, whether it happened or not. Reality is that sequence taken to its logical extreme. You might have expected that, considering it’s called Reality. You never know if something is real, a dream, a movie, a movie within a dream, a dream within a movie, a dream within a dream within a movie, or any number of other options. Any given moment could be any number of these things. It’s probably several at once. You don’t know it at first, of course, because you’re stuck within one version of reality, but as soon as it starts to bend, suddenly the genius of the whole thing becomes clear. Rubber would have been more interesting as a play. Wrong is more interesting as a movie, but it could become a reasonably compelling play without any fundamental changes to its narrative. Reality is a movie, and there is no way it could be translated to the stage. Of course, the fact that it’s about movies and about making movies helps that, but it’s more complicated than that. Take a punchline that comes relatively early on: A film producer is complaining to a director about how he uses too much filmstock because he won’t just say cut. The camera just keeps rolling for no reason. And then we move to a new character driving a jeep. And driving. And driving. And driving. It’s amazing. It’s perfect, even. (Honestly, the entire sequence that follows is flawless and is easily my favorite part of the film.) It’s also uniquely cinematic. And many of the tricks used to obfuscate reality (e.g. blatantly obvious continuity errors) are medium-specific as well. When Reality’s credits rolled, I thought, “Thank god.” Thank god that Wrong Cops was a fluke, because we need someone like Quentin Dupieux. But I also thought that it was still a step back from Wrong. And in many ways, it absolutely is. But though it may be a few steps back, it also takes some important strides forward. Reality makes sense as a follow-up to Wrong. He’s proved that the medium can be home to brilliant, absurdist narratives. And now he’s pushing those boundaries that he created. He may not be as wildly successful on every level, but it would be more disappointing to see something stagnant. Reality is new, and it paves a pathway for the future of the genre. And I’m positively giddy about what that future might hold.
Reality Review photo
Or something like it
I imagine that the script for Reality is caustic. That it antagonizes the reader and makes for something that is even less comprehensible on paper than it is on screen. Rather than following the regular format, it's prob...

Review: The Ladies of the House

May 01 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
The Ladies of the HouseDirector: John WildmanRelease Date: May 1, 2015 (iTunes)Rating: NR  At the end of Rugerro Deodato's infamous Cannibal Holocaust (spoilers for a movie that's older than I am), one of the characters opines to no one in particular, "Who are the real cannibals?" Up until that point, we'd been subjected to the brutality of the cannibals, sure, but so too were we shown the horrors of the Americans who set upon their tribe. They were documenting their own atrocities. "Who are the real cannibals?" it asks. "US!" It's always stuck with me. I was surprised that Cannibal Freaking Holocaust was trying to say something about anything. I'd expected less of it. But silly as it is (and it is silly), I find myself quoting it with probably alarming regularity. "Who are the real cannibals?" Minutes into The Ladies of the House, I nearly shouted at the screen, "THE REAL CANNIBALS ARE MEN!" Instead, I said, "Oh! I get it!" followed immediately by, "Ugh. I don't want to see this..."  To be clear: I wasn't saying I didn't want to watch the rest of the movie (I did), but I could already tell that these soon-to-be victims wouldn't be so, um, victim-y. They would deserve what was coming to them, because they're pigs. They would incite the violence, and when things went badly (as the flash-forwards heavily implied they would), you wouldn't feel bad. Because fuck those guys. In the past year or so, I've realized that I have an active aversion to masculine manly men who treat women like shit. Some films that I've been told were great I just refused to watch because I don't need to see more abuse. The world's depressing enough. And even though I knew there would be vengeance, and it would be sweet (cause they're cannibals, get it?!), I wasn't super excited by the idea of subjecting to myself to more misogyny. Ladies of the House was written by John Wildman and his wife, Justina Walford. I heard about it years ago from some other critics, but last November I attended a Genre movie discussion and Wildman and Walford were on the panel. It was an interesting one, and afterwards I talked with them a little bit. The movie was pitched to me as "Lesbian cannibals in a house." I said, "Cool. When do I get to see it?" (Which is the first thing I say any time anybody tells me they've made anything.) He said, "Next year." And I said, "That sucks." It's one heck of a pitch, though, right? And if you hadn't seen the movie, you might think it sounds like a male fantasy of sorts. I can imagine a bunch of dude bros scrolling by this movie on VOD and stopping. "Sexy lesbian cannibals? Woo! PARTY!"  If I had to guess, those people will be disappointed. They'll like the opening, which takes place in a strip club. They'll like the parts with the lesbians doing their thing. But they probably won't like the rest of it, because it sure as heck doesn't like them. It's important that The Ladies of the House was co-written by a woman, much in the same way it's important that Gone Girl was written by a woman. Misogynistic dialogue is different when it's written by a woman. The words might be the same, but they definitely don't have the same meaning. No one in their right mind could accuse this film of misogyny. It is very obvious what the film is going for and trying to say with its use of over-the-top derogatory language, but at first it isn't so over-the-top. In the strip club, it's disgusting but it's also entirely plausible. There are people who talk and think like that. If you're not paying attention, you might miss the point. At least at first. When it gets into it, you'll know damn well that this is a feminist slasher flick through and through. And you'll say, "A feminist slasher flick? Whoa! Party?" It's definitely a party. A gruesome one, too. Very much so. It takes a while for blood to spill, but once it does, it just goes. It's probably why the film flashes forward early on. In the middle of an uncomfortable moment, suddenly you see this man you're watching being tortured. It's dark and it's quick, but you know what it means. You know his fate. Soon after, you know the second guy's fate. And when you don't see the third, well, you sort of know his as well. But for people who happen on the film and don't know what it is or what it's about, it's important that they see that. They need to know what they're getting themselves into. Not because they should mentally prepare themselves for the horror (though maybe that too), but because there's a whole lot of non-violence that has to happen before it gets to that point. And they need to know there's going to be some payoff. Otherwise, why would they stick around? (Aside from the fact that it's really just a fundamentally compelling narrative, of course.) It's a stylish movie. Sometimes a bit too stylish, perhaps, but I have to give it credit for choosing a look and committing to it. I've never loved the heavy wide-angle/fish-eye effect, but I understand why it's used and how it can be used effectively. It's used here. A lot. A lot a lot. And it works, for the most part, as do all the other little flourishes, but every so often I was paying more attention to the shot composition than what was being composed.  But it doesn't detract (or even really distract) from the narrative that's presented here. In fact, the only thing that really affected my investment in the events was the not-awesome performance by the one guy who could be considered good. He's the voice of reason when his friend and brother are being piggish. He wants his brother to leave the strip club. He doesn't want to go into the lady's house. He doesn't want things to go out of control. But he's soft-spoken and not particularly convincing. It's actually kind of fascinating in context, though, and works in the greater scheme of the narrative. This character "fights" it but doesn't actually put up a fight. He can't put his foot down, and then terrible things happen to him and those around him. Maybe his subpar performance is commenting on weakness of men who don't have the balls to say, "Hey, leave her the fuck alone." Intentional or not, that reading does make his emotionless delivery a bit more bearable. Interestingly enough, the best male performance comes from the worst of the characters. That one who you just can't wait to see die. And you will see it. And keep seeing it. Pretty soon, you'll be uncomfortable with how excited you were to see him punished in the first place. But you'll keep seeing it. Because The Ladies of the House doesn't let you off the hook. Because that "sexy lesbian cannibals" fantasy is just the pitch. It's the thing that gets you in the door. But once you're inside, you realize you're getting a whole lot more than you bargained for. And I mean that in the best way possible.
Ladies of the House photo
Men are kinda the worst, huh?
At one of the various Tribeca press screenings, I was sitting around and talking with a few other NY critics. We were talking about what was coming up the rest of the year, and discussion inevitably turned to the New York Fil...

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Apr 30 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219375:42359:0[/embed] Avengers: Age of UltronDirector: Joss WhedonRelease Date: May 1, 2015Rated: PG-13  Have you been keeping up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe? It doesn't especially matter. Even the world shattering destruction of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: Winter Soldier doesn't seem to have changed much for our rag-tag team of superheroes. They're still a team backed by some sort of funding and they're still chasing after Loki's scepter in order to return it to Thor's people. This task is accomplished early on in the film after a fantastic action sequence (they're all fantastic) and the Avengers return home to have a party. But before that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) decide to use the technology in Loki's scepter to create an A.I. that can protect the world. Of course, as with all well-intentioned A.I., it quickly realizes the best way to protect the world is to destroy humanity or in this case evolve it. Building itself a body after being mysteriously activated, Ultron (James Spader) emerges, promptly kicks everyone's ass and then flies off to recruit the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to his evil plan. Imbued with Stark's sarcasm and programmed to save humanity he decides to create the next evolution of man, a hybrid of machine and bio material, and force everyone else to evolve as well by holding the world hostage or else he'll blow it up. Avengers assemble... again. The biggest issue with Age of Ultron is that it's just the first film with more characters. The plot is almost identical. A big bad guy shows up and the team argues over how to handle it showing fractures. Then, in the end, they come together. It's not a bad plot, and it could have worked again, but the film is incredibly poorly paced. Ultron is rushed out the door thanks to an uncharacteristic lack of foreshadowing for Marvel and then we're carried along from action sequence to action sequence with sparse emotional build. By the time the final showdown occurs you've been on high so long that the big payoff barely pays off. Sadly, Age of Ultron isn't a very good MCU universe builder and it's because it can't do everything it wants. In a perfect world Marvel wouldn't have wasted Iron Man 3 on a side story or at least have hinted at the creation of Ultron thus giving Spader's villain far more time to grow.  Ultron is sadly not given that time. Spader is fantastically evil and arrogant as the crazed robot, but he isn't given enough time to shine, eventually being relegated to bad one-liners as he yells at the Avengers. His opening speech is a fantastic monologue and his concluding dialog is sadly touching, but in between there's far too little of him to develop a truly compelling villain.  The three new additions to the team, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Vision (Paul Bettany), face much the same fate as Ultron. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are hurried into the proceedings, though we did get a hint at them previously, but by the end their story arch is actually far better executed. Again, the pacing of it is off, but the eventual payoff works. Vision on the other hand comes along late in the film, which is too bad because the contradictions between him and Ultron are some of the best themes of the film. There's so much to dig into there, but thanks to how the plot unfolds we get almost none of it. Even more of a let down is that just who and what Vision is is rushed through. A brief explanation of powers would have helped before he started shooting beams of light out of his forehead and shoving his fists through robots.  Ultron does do some of it's characters right. Banner/Hulk is once again front and center, which is fantastic since he's so great, but he also causes some of the pacing problems. The lack of ability for Marvel to have stand-alone Hulk films means they have to cram all his character development in Avengers movies. It's great to watch, but it makes the movie a mess. The Hulk Buster scene everyone has been going crazy over seeing is really great and fantastically executed, but in terms of pacing the entire scene could have been cut for something else if it had appeared in another film. Still, this is the world we live in (or Marvel puts us in) and they do great things with Hulk. Ruffalo once again steals the show as Banner.  Then he gets the show stolen from him by the most unlikely source: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Long accused of being damned near useless, Ultron turns him into a character and it's here where the film shines. When the movie isn't rushing to get its characters where they need to be, it shows us who they need to be. Just as in the best comics this is what makes superheroes shine. Renner's Hawkeye becomes the grounding force of a team of gods. It's a fantastic turn for a character most deemed useless and not only delivers Hawkeye as a great character, but eventually makes the development of the characters around him better. It would be possible to devote entire reviews to each hero in this film. That's the power of having multiple franchises collide. If you compared all these reviews of different characters you'd have wildly different outcomes. Maybe that's just the nature of the game when you've got a big team movie like this, but it's still annoying. Iron Man is sadly never given the hard edge he needs because they want to keep him a good guy (despite what we all know is coming in Civil War), Captain America is shuffled to the side and Thor is almost entirely ignored except to give exposition that helps tie this all into Thanos and the upcoming Infinity Wars. It's a mixed bag, and depending on what you're looking for you're either going to be wonderfully excited or disappointed.  What you won't be disappointed in is any of the action, which is good since it takes up most of the movie. Despite the fact that the film is always on high, those highs are very high. Whedon shows once again that he can masterfully handle complex action sequences, and delivers an incredible panning shot near the end that almost makes up for every flaw in the film. The action is rock solid and brilliantly cohesive. It's not easy weaving together set pieces with a team of this size, but Whedon does it and then does it again and again. It's unfortunate the movie's plotting doesn't build the tension as well as it should or these action sequences would be even more of a pay off.  By the end of the film we're clearly set up to roll into the next phase of Marvel's MCU, but it feels like they forced it to get there. Evidently, Whedon's original cut was 3.5 hours long, and it's easy to see why. There's just too much here to pull off in the time allotted. Whedon does his best, but in the end we're left with a big, fun, sometimes functional mess. It's one you're going to want to see because when it shines, it shines bright, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is just a little worrying that the universe is already buckling under its own weight. 
Ultron Review photo
Avengers disassembled
This review will most likely be overly critical, as I think many reviews of Avengers: Age of Ultron are going to be. It's a good, solid, action-filled comic book movie, and five years ago it may have had me giddy with ex...

Review: Unfriended

Apr 17 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218828:42143:0[/embed] UnfriendedDirector: Levan GabriadzeRelease Date: April 17, 2015Rating: R  Unfriended is about a girl who doesn’t know how to use Cmd+C. Her name is Blaire (get it?), and the film takes place entirely on her computer screen. And I do mean entirely. Throughout, you can see her system bar and her various tabs. There are bits and pieces of a person there, most of which are probably nonsense on close inspection but serve to create a relatively effective illusion of a teenage female. I mean, she has a tumblr. Sadly, you never get to see her tumblr, just stare at the concept of it up in the tab bar while you’re trying to avoid looking at whatever is happening elsewhere onscreen (because you’re me, and you’re very easily startled).  What Unfriended does is complicated. It’s complicated for a lot of reasons, and for that reason alone it’s deserving of praise in a way that, say, Paranormal Activity is not. Paranormal Activity is scarier than Unfriended, but Unfriended is far more technologically compelling. Rather than a couple of people in a house, it’s half a dozen people in as many houses. These people are all linked by a single Skype conversation, one that starts and stops for various reasons. But sometimes it’s going and the audience doesn’t get to see what’s happening, because Blaire is too busy looking at her Facebook. Or at least the Facebook of her dead classmate. I shot a film a few weeks ago. A fair portion of that film takes place in a chatroom or on Google or looking at a narrative-relevant website. I had to make a fake website and doctor Google results. I had to attempt to make these things look like they were real. It was complicated. Now I’m in editing, and I’m running into a different issue: How best to cut between a character and his words? There are a whole lot of different ways to tackle this issue. There’s the recent trend towards chat bubbles showing up onscreen. That’s ostensibly the best of both worlds, but it’s also really silly looking. You can’t have something be dramatic (like my film) or horrific (like Unfriended) and use that effect. So you cut back and forth, but you don’t know how fast your audience is at reading. And you have to hold on the text, but that kills the pacing of the scene, because you want some dead time to look at the face of your character. But you need it to be faster than that, because if people get bored watching some dude in a chatroom, they won’t get to the good parts of the movie. It’s a fine line. You may think that Unfriended doesn’t have to walk it, given that it’s essentially 100% chatroom, but it does. It has to be even more careful, because staring at a Skype chatroom is fine and visually diverse, but an iMessage conversation? For more than a minute? And nothing else? You have to make sure that the pacing of that conversation is flawless, but you also have to make sure that everyone has the time to grasp it. Blaire will go to a website, give the speedreaders in the audience enough time to read something, and then she’ll go over it with her cursor to help along the people who didn’t realize they were supposed to be looking at the ridiculously large text that that forum commenter used on his narratively important response. When she’s having those conversations or looking at those websites, you don’t see Blaire’s face. You have to discern her feelings from her mouse movements and clicks, and the pauses in her typing. You have to assume a lot of things about her and about the way she acts. You need to assume that she’s uncomfortable, and that’s why she paused here, or she was scared and that’s why she rushed. If you can’t accept that, you will have to project your own emotions onto her actions, then you won’t be able to watch this movie for more than ten minutes. She may “be” a “person,” but if you don’t see her in that Skype bubble, she may as well be an avatar in a not-particularly-fun text adventure that you don’t get to control. And hell, even if you do see her in the corner, well, I guess it’s a Let’s Play. A Let’s Play of a really uncomfortable Alternate Reality Game (ARG).  But there’s something fundamentally off-putting about our main character’s inability to use keyboard shortcuts; the act of copying and pasting requires a long and complicated series of mouse clicks. She can’t be like a regular person, Cmd+C, Cmd+V, done. She has to right click… copy… right click… paste. And we have to witness each agonizing moment of this action, over and over again, because she sure does like copying and pasting. (I mean, who doesn’t? It’s super useful. But when your movement is hampered by the fact that your audience might get confused if your character were to use a keyboard shortcut, then you become unrelatable. Here is a high school girl who types and texts like a high school girl, but she’s not a high school girl, because high school girls probably don’t even know that right click to copy/paste is even an option. Why would they? Nobody uses that shit. Except Blaire.) Oh, Blaire. Blaire. Blaire. Blaire. What are we going to do with you? In this group of stereotypes, only Blaire really seemed to like Laura Barns. Laura Barns is the dead classmate I mentioned all the way back when. Exactly one year before this film takes place, Laura Barns committed suicide. Why? Because someone posted a really unpleasant video, starring her extremely drunk  self. The video was called, “Laura Barns Kill Yourself” or something to that effect. People agreed. Then she did. (It’s worth noting that the actual suicide, which you see footage of relatively early on, very easily could have failed to kill her. She held the gun at arm’s length, pointed it towards herself, and eventually pulled the trigger. If the paramedics had gotten there in time, she very possibly could have survived. How traumatic would that have been, huh?)  A year later, she decides to fuck with some people who she may or may not have been friends with. Blaire was one of them, and then the other people in Blaire’s friend group. There’s her boyfriend, Mitch, who is strong (you know that, because his profile picture is of him flexing); Adam, who also looks kind of strong but isn’t Blaire’s boyfriend; Jess, who is blonde; Ken, who is a l33t hacker (you know because he’s fat and smokes weed); and then Val, who is skanky (you know because her name is Val). I just looked at the IMDb cast list and saw other names, so apparently there are other people in the film. Color me surprised, because I can’t remember a single one of them. So anyway: Laura died, right? A year later, she comes back to haunt everyone there. Not because they had anything to do with it, necessarily, but because they’re associated with people who did. Or they didn’t stop her. Or something. I dunno. Point is, she’s out for blood. Yada yada yada. People die. Whatever. But here’s an interesting little tidbit: The film was shot in one take. There were reshoots, of course, and I expect that the vast majority of the things we see onscreen were created in post rather than at the time, because let me tell you, it is difficult to take a webpage and then make a visually identical but slightly functionally different.  When you see a version of Skype that won’t let you end a call, that’s not some quick and simple fix. That took work, whether it was some crazy pre-production development or some graphical finessing in post. It’s. Not. Easy. Nor is doing an 80 minute movie in a single take, but that’s what Unfriended did. They didn’t have to, of course. As we’ve established, many of the characters are offscreen for any number of reasons at any given time. But they did it in one take anyway. A few pickups and inserts aside, this film was done in one go. That’s fascinating, but the fundamental logic behind the decision says a lot about both the actors and their relationship to the source material.  Shelley Hennig, who played Blaire, was having problems with the 10 minute long takes they were doing. She was having trouble keeping the energy up between takes, and to her it seemed easier to just do the whole thing without stopping. Here’s what this says about her: She’s not a film actress. She’s a theatre actress. In an overly long analysis of Birdman, I discussed some of the things that make each unique, and by shooting Unfriended in one take, it actually goes a long way towards making the film a true example of theatre. Or maybe a Let’s Play. (Seriously, this movie is a lot like a Let’s Play.) Here’s what it says about her relationship to the source material: They didn’t connect, not on a fundamental level. She did a perfectly fine job in the film, and I won’t deny her that, but she’s working with subpar material, and she knows that. They all know that. How could they not? It’s a movie about a haunted Skype session. Literally. That’s so stupid! And that stupidity can make it hard to keep up intensity and energy. As theatre, where things can go wrong but you just keep going, there’s a spark of intensity and fire that builds up as time goes on. Film doesn’t have that, because the fundamentals of how a movie is constructed make it impossible to keep building that. You build, cut, rebuild, cut, rebuild. I greatly enjoy film acting, but the things I like about it are in direct opposition of the things I greatly enjoy about theatrical acting. The way that this film was designed meant that they could have their theatrical experience played against some not-so-hot material. They got into character and just went from there. It was a smart move. I imagine that the film, had it been filmed in chunks, would have felt less cohesive as a result. Because if it feels anything, it’s cohesive. This is surprisingly effective worldbuilding. It’s a deadly ARG. I could imagine some elaborately designed websites and forum posts and fabricated Google results that all point to the mistake that all of these characters make: Don’t respond to dead people. If your dead classmate sends you a Facebook message, fucking ignore it. Is it slightly unfair that they only learned that rule after they had responded to the ghost? Yes. But the movie doesn’t happen if everyone’s like, “Lol! I ain’t falling for your shit, ghost!” So we have to have stupid characters who will do stupid things and make stupid decisions. Otherwise there’s no film. You rescind your right to criticize that kind of idiocy when you buy a ticket for a horror movie called Unfriended. But you know what’s interesting about the framing narrative? It’s oddly believable that all of these characters would stay on the computer, that they would, in a sense, keep filming. This is a horror movie where the characters don’t really “split up.” A character goes to check out a scary noise, and he brings his laptop with him. That makes sense. Of course he does! He wants the emotional support of the people closest to him. They try to hang up on the Skype call, but if they open it back up, the ghost didn’t go away. And then if they tried to leave for good? Well, let’s just say they have reason to believe that things might take a turn. If I had been watching Unfriended surrounded by people I knew, it would have been a different experience. I usually refuse to allow conversation while I’m in a theater or even at home watching something on TV. But here’s a different story. I said many, many words ago that I was covering my eyes for much of Unfriended. That’s true. I had one eye closed for nearly the entire runtime. As soon as things got scary, I winced and didn’t unwince until the credits rolled. I spent certain parts of the film staring at the audience. Not their reactions, just the backs of their heads. I knew that what was going on the screen would probably make me scream like a small child, and I really didn’t need anybody to see that. Because Unfriended is effective in the exact same way that Paranormal Activity is effective. There are long periods of time where nothing happens, and then suddenly the loudest goddamn noise you’ve heard in your life blares through the speakers. You jump. It’s not “scary” necessarily, but it makes me jump every single time. I know it’s coming, because absolute silence in movies of this sort is never punctuated with anything but a BANG. But the wait to get to that sound can be agonizing. And when it comes, the results are mixed. Sometimes it's dumb or obscured by weird movement or whatever. And then sometimes it is legitimately fucked up. Nothing in Paranormal Activity actually disgusted me. Several things in Unfriended did. The imagery is just… ugh. (I’m thinking in particular of an image macro posted later in the film. You’ll know the one.) But the imagery comes at key points in the narrative, and perhaps the filmmakers should be applauded for understanding the peaks and valleys required of a narrative like this. When I think about the meticulous sense of pacing that the film sometimes has, I think about this: There's a moment in the film where the ghost sends an image file to everyone in the group. After much discussion (or at least people saying "DON'T CLICK THAT!"), Blaire clicks it. The file takes at least 14 seconds to download. Fourteen agonizing seconds. And you wonder: Is this real time? Are we waiting because they're waiting? Or is this to build up the anticipation of this image, because we might have some idea what it is, but we don't really know. The second image she downloads is done in under a second. The team knew that audiences wouldn't stand for that again. So they didn't make them. They went off to the next trick. They had plenty of tricks available, because there are so many things that can be done with social media and breaking the rules as the characters understand them, but also as we understand them. We can relate to how creepy it would be if suddenly we couldn't drop mysterious figures from Skype calls or if we suddenly couldn't unfriend particularly problematic Facebook friends.  But then again, the film features an extended sequence where Blaire, understandably freaking out, slightly less understandably turns to ChatRoulette to find help. What follows is legitimately bizarre and completely destroys the tension the movie has built up. Throughout, there are moment like that. I wouldn't call the film "self-aware" necessarily, but I would call it "a-typical" in a fascinating way. I mean, as generic as its actual storyline is, its presentation is still unique and executed quite well. It's not the first film to do the whole "Takes place entirely on a screen" thing, but it absolutely is the first film to try it on this scale (the recently released Open Windows is far less complex), and I think everyone deserves props for pulling it off. You could much worse than Unfriended. And that may be the most shocking thing of all.
Unfriended Review photo
Let's Play a game
I went into Unfriended expecting garbage. I told multiple people that I was on my way to the screening, and they asked why. I told them I didn’t know, but I was expecting terrible things. The trailer compared itself to ...

Review: The Reconstruction of William Zero

Apr 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219259:42319:0[/embed] The Reconstruction of William ZeroDirector: Dan BushRelease Date: April 10, 2015Rating: NR The Reconstruction of William Zero should have been called The Reconstruction of William Blakely. I say this for two reasons: 1) It's a more accurate representation of the film's premise, and 2) It's a better name. The thing that turned me away from the film initially was its title, specifically the "Zero." It's too generic, too expository. You know right off the bat that William Zero is something different, probably a clone. And you'd be right. He is a clone. But that's far too simplistic. (And in the context of the film, it's honestly kind of nonsensical.) William Blakely, on the other hand? That's just a name. Not the most interesting name, granted, but the concept of human (re)construction implies cloning without explicitly saying cloning. It hints at a thing. William Zero is transparent; William Blakely is translucent. So who's William Blakely? Well, that's the big question that the film (sort of) tries to answer. He's a man defined by what he's done, not who he is. William Blakely killed his son. He was busy talking on the phone and pulling out of his driveway when his son rode by on a bicycle. Soon after, he separated from his wife. He works at the Next Corp, a genetic research facility where they are working on, among other things, the ability to clone live animals. What they really focus on, though, is rapid aging. They take cells and age them 30 years in just a few months. A clone of a 30something year old man is rebuilt in 15 months. Eventually, William stole some samples and cloned himself for reasons that are both depressing and fascinating. What director Dan Bush tried to do here is extremely difficult, and he should be commended for mostly succeeding most of the time. As might be expected in a film about clones, one actor, in this case Conal Byrne, is required to play multiple roles. Frequently, he is playing multiple roles in the same scene, doing various things with his double. If this were a big budget production, like something David Fincher might do or the excellent Orphan Black, you can use fancy equipment and CG to create a natural feeling. You never even think about them being the same person because you don't look at the screen and see a trick. But what about a low budget? You don't have the ability to stitch together different performances or replace one actor's head with another's. So what do you do? Well, you can either do this by using over-the-shoulder shots and other angles that only put one character on screen at a time, or you can set the camera on a tripod and crop multiple takes together. It's rare that a indie film will so heavily rely on a trick like this, because you start to notice very quickly what is being done to work around the limitations. The few shots that clearly required a more complicated setup aren't enough to make up for the fact that the vast majority of these sequences look like this: But I feel for the director, because it's really fucking hard to do what he's doing. And given limited resources, I think it works about as well as it could. But I harp on this because, for the first twenty minutes or so, I thought that the film was going to be crushed under the weight of its own ambition. That time was interesting, but once I had become acquainted with its style, I was looking for something more. And I was worried that I wasn't going to get it. But those worries were unfounded, because not long after, the clones leave each other. They interact with the outside world, and the camera tricks are gone, allowing for the legitimately gorgeous cinematography to come to the forefront. It becomes something far more compelling (both visually and narratively). And so whenever they were together, I was looking forward to the next time they were apart. Even though these should be some of the most emotionally charged moments of the film, they're really the least.  Which isn't to say they don't function at all, but that the impact is muted. Byrne does a good job of putting on the distinct personalities required by each version of himself, and he's believable all the way through. You can tell almost immediately who's who, and not just by their slightly different hair styles. It's difficult to really imagine how a person might handle their clone, but the inherently unrealistic concept never feels that way. Even if the film itself feels a bit stilted, the situations do not. It seemed entirely plausible that someone in a situation like Blakely's might do something like this, and that this would be how he interacted with his clone. But it's nonetheless more interesting to see how William and William Zero interact with the world around them and the people they are both forced to meet, all of which is in service of learning more about the way these characters view the world and themselves. Because ultimately it is a film about characters trying to understand Why. As the narrative flashed forward and backward, cutting between now and then, memories and implausibly well-shot home video footage, I didn't expect the film to explain itself. I expected a Shane Carruth "Figure it out yourself" attitude. For the first two-thirds, it seems to be going in that direction. It's only in the final act when things become clear(er), sadly through the use of expository monologues. And I'm conflicted here, because without those monologues, the film would be opaque. Motivations wouldn't be clear, and that would cause its own problems. Having the monologues is helpful, because though you don't need the explanation, you want it. At least a little bit. There are hints, here and there, though, and for much of the film those seemed to be enough. But then all of a sudden that changes. You learn something interesting about the way clones work, and then you realize, "Oh shit! That means...!" But because it's such a fundamental part of the narrative, you don't get to feel good about figuring it out on your own; it has to be explained soon after. It almost seems to be reaching for two audiences. There are the ones who want a Shane Carruth film, and then there are the ones who don't. The Reconstruction of William Zero tries to find a happy medium, but I don't know if that's even possible. Which doesn't mean this is a film without an audience, however. It does, and the audience is far broader than anything Carruth has done (or likely will do). But whatever else it is, it is fundamentally a a cerebral indie sci-fi film, and the kind of people who enjoyed Upstream Color and last year's Coherence will find a lot to like here. It's a compelling take on cloning and purpose, about trying to understand what makes you you, and what it might mean to be someone else's proxy. The narrative questions may be answered, but the deeper ethical and philosophical questions remain. And those questions are fascinating, the sort that could spark days-long discussions in coffee shops all around the country. I've been comparing Dan Bush to Shane Carruth as though he's a lesser filmmaker, but that's absolutely not the case. The film may feel familiar, but it doesn't feel like a rip-off or even a deliberate homage or emulation. It feels like another filmmaker coming to the same cinematic conclusions that Carruth has. And that's exciting, because we need more filmmakers like that, and we need more films like The Reconstruction of William Zero.
William Zero Review photo
Quite Carruth
I spent the entire 97 minute runtime of The Reconstruction of William Zero thinking about Shane Carruth. It's not a Carruth film, but it feels like the kind of film he would make. It's discontinuous, scientifically complex wh...

Review: The Gunman

Mar 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218712:42047:0[/embed] The GunmanDirector: Pierre MorelRelease Date: March 20, 2015Rating: R  Sean Penn has both writing and producing credits on The Gunman. There is also a sequence where Sean Penn goes surfing and then running shirtless through a town, clearly-steroid-induced muscles glistening. Coincidence? I think not. But of all the vanity moments to add to a film, a couple minutes of manflesh aren't really all that offensive. And though it's pretty clear that The Gunman was made with Sean Penn in mind at any and all times, I tell this to you so you go in with the proper mindset. This is Sean Penn's movie, everyone else was just playing a part in it. Sean Penn plays Martin Terrier, a former assassin who was sent away after a particularly significant job in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eight years later, he's doing some work for an NGO in the DRC, working to let go of his past, when a group of militants comes looking for "the white man." If this were Taken, that would be the end of the narrative. The rest of the film would be 60 minutes of Sean Penn going around and shooting people until they stop bothering him.  But this isn't Taken, and that's just the start. Liam Neeson was a dramatic actor willing to give up the drama in order to be a badass. Sean Penn does no such thing. His action highs are countered by quieter moments of introspection or conversation. Not every moment ends in death, though many do. There isn't really a switch that goes off, where everything suddenly changes. The film escalates, as these things do, but it follows the peaks and valleys principle far more closely than Taken, which is really just a valley followed by the peakiest of peaks. But part of this is a function of The Gunman's rating. It's rated R. Taken was rated PG-13. If you really think about that film, you realize that that's kinda fucked up. I mean, it's a film that uses sex trafficking as an all-but-throwaway plot device. The implications of Taken's narratives are horrific. But the film glosses over them, because if it didn't, it probably would have gotten an R. The Gunman is actually less conceptually disturbing, but it adds a level of gravitas to everything that happens. The film essentially opens with an assassination, Terrier's last before disappearing. But that assassination isn't just the inciting incident for the film's narrative; it's something that weighs heavily on its protagonist's mind. He has nightmares – probably PTSD – and Post Concussion Syndrome, which means that loud sounds (like explosions and gunfire) can put him off balance and possibly even knock him out. This isn't explored as deeply as it could be, but little things like that add up to make the film a bit less generic than it may seem. Because, let's be real, it seems pretty gosh damn generic on the face of it. You've heard the premise at least infinite times before, and the roided out Sean Penn looks bizarrely like Sylvester Stallone, but sometimes the film does surprise you. Specifically useful is the general lack of Deus Ex Machinas. They happen, because sure, but more often than not it isn't blind luck that gets Terrier out of trouble; it's skill. Bad guys usually shoot on sight, and they're usually pretty smart. They do their best to trap him, but he's just more of a badass. And because of this, the action sequences are all quite good (and the addition of (lots of) blood gives the whole thing an extra kick), even if they do subscribe to the over-cut/confusion camera style of filmmaking. But that's less a problem with The Gunman than American action cinema in general. It's not even a "trend" anymore. It's just the reality. And it's sad. And I hate it. But it is what it is.  There's a running joke on staff that our own Sean Walsh has a tendency to give not particularly good action and horror movies the benefit of the doubt. This is what led to Taken 2's 65 and Taken 3's 70. But with The Gunman I know how he feels. As of the time I write this, the film has a 38 on Metacritic and a 14% on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet, here I am as one of the few who legitimately enjoyed the film. I really did. As a follow-up to Taken, it may be kind of disappointing, but it's a radically different film and a different kind of film. By comparison, pretty much everything will be a disappointment (Taken is amazing). It's trying to be thoughtful and change up the formula, if only a little bit. It doesn't work all the time, perhaps not even most of the time, but it's really a lot more interesting than I think people are giving it credit for. "Interesting" is a great word, but its meaning has changed a bit. People usually say something is "interesting" because they have nothing actually positive to say about it, and "interesting" sounds positive. And honestly, bad things are usually kind of "interesting." But The Gunman is interesting in a positive way. It's interesting in context with Taken and other action films of its sort, it's interesting in the way it takes advantage of its R rating not only to up the gore factor but to try to tell a story that's a bit less ADD, and it's interesting in the way it uses a pretty great dramatic actor like Sean Penn to tell that story. Writing/producing credit or no, this is an interesting (there's that word again) choice for him. And I want to see the film succeed, because I'd like to see him try it again. The Gunman may be a rocky start for Penn's would-be rebirth as an action superstar, but it shows potential for something great. If this was Sean Penn's Taken, I guess it's time to wait for The Grey. 
The Gunman Review photo
Sean Penn's particular set of skills
It's impossible to talk about The Gunman without discussing Taken. Everything director Pierre Morel ever does is going to be compared to it. And by starring Sean Penn, The Gunman invites those comparisons. Take...

Review: The Divergent Series: Insurgent

Mar 19 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218713:42049:0[/embed] The Divergent Series: InsurgentDirector: Robert SchwentkeRelease Date: March 20, 2015Rating: PG-13  To use some teenage lingo, Insurgent is YA AF. The only thing I'd really heard about the Divergent series was that it's about as derivative as one of these things can be, and Insurgent is proof positive that that's so. I don't know how fair it was to compare Divergent to The Hunger Games beyond the broad strokes, but it's sure as hell fair to compare Insurgent to Mockingjay - Part 1. I wouldn't go so far as to say they're the same movie, but they're pretty gosh darn similar. If you know the basic beats of one film, you can pretty much figure out where the other one is going. A young woman with a silly name, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), is caught up as the centerpiece to her dystopian future's brewing civil war. She's different, you see, and that makes her a target for the city's light-haired tyrant. She's also upset about everything, and having nightmares about all of the terrible things she's had to do in order to survive. She's sad and doesn't want to keep going, because she knows doing so will hurt the people she's closest to. Sound familiar? Yeah, it does. The specifics are different, sure: there are Factions instead of Districts and Donald Sutherland's President Snow is replaced by Kate Winslet's Jeanine, who is equally ruthless but far less interesting. Tris isn't the Mockingjay, she's Divergent, which means that she's ostensibly a multi-faceted character. In a world where everyone is shoe-horned into one personality type or another, be that Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity, or Abnegation, Divergent are able to be honest, fearless, intelligent, kind, and selfless (respectively) all at once, or some combination thereof. Tris is particularly Divergent, which is why she's the protagonist. But maybe you already knew that. So let's talk about something else.  A while back, I wrote about how shocking the violence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was. Not necessarily because the violence was so intense in and of itself (though it was), but because it was in a film made for young people. Usually the violence in PG-13 movies is something kind of like "fun," even when it's brutal. The hardcore stuff that makes you cringe is generally left to the R rating. Catching Fire subverted that and was yet more proof that the MPAA's ratings make no goddamn sense. Insurgent doesn't do that. There is a lot of violence in the film, but nearly all of it is implied. There are at least six separate moments where a character points a gun at someone's head, the camera shifts the victim off screen, and then the aggressor pulls the trigger. And if it cuts to a wide shot, there's no blood. In fact, the most horrific image of the entire film is misleading. You might think that dozens (or hundreds) of people have been killed, but they're just asleep. The film's general bloodlessness makes the difference between death and naptime conceptual rather than visceral. There are a lot of reasons why that's probably worse for developing minds, but that's really beyond the scope of this review. I bring it up because it means that the stakes in Insurgent never feel particularly high. Obviously Tris is never going to die, so even when a dozen trained soldiers are all firing automatic weapons in her general direction, every single bullet misses, but even moments with characters who could (and/or do) kick the bucket aren't tense. If something really bad is going to happen, we're not going to see it, and it'll be as palatable as humanly possible. (I expect the book is a bit more hardcore in this respect, though I couldn't say for sure.) But this puts me at an impasse: I don't necessarily want my 15 year old sister subjected to a film that accurately demonstrates the true horrors of war... but I also don't think the horrors of war should be sanitized for the entertainment value of my 15 year old sister. But the reality is that I'm overthinking it. That's a question that matters in the grand scheme of things, but it doesn't really matter in relation to Insurgent, because Insurgent needs to be taken at face value. If you go into Insurgent with great expectations, you'll be disappointed. If you go in expecting something that can stand on a level with the Hunger Games films, you'll be disappointed. But why would you do either of those things? Did you see the trailers? I mean, come on. I saw a short teaser in theaters before Mockingjay, featuring some of the worst CGI I've seen this decade, and I actually thought it was a joke. (The visuals have improved slightly in the final film, but they're still pretty damn bad.) No one should be expecting Insurgent to blow them away, and that's the right attitude to start with. Because Insurgent will not blow you away. But that doesn't mean it's not necessarily worthwhile. It's certainly got some things going for it: It's reasonably entertaining, features generally attractive people, and the ultimate message, generic and predictable as it may be, is a good one. Plus, it feels like a complete narrative. And that's actually what impressed me most. One of the biggest criticisms leveled against Divergent was related to its cliffhanger ending. The whole thing (apparently) felt like setup for this film. But if I didn't know that there was a third book in the Divergent trilogy (or two more movies being released under the Divergent Series tag), I would actually think that this film was the end. It wraps up rather quickly, and perhaps a bit too neatly, but everything that actually matters gets dealt with. As the credit rolled, I felt satisfied by the conclusion, something I cannot say about the past two Hunger Games films. It may end (literally) with a bang, but it's not a cliffhanger, and though I understand how it sets up the next film, it's also put together in such a way that it could be its own ending. I appreciated that. A lot. The film had started to lose me a little bit, but the ending brought me right back on its side. I won't pretend like I loved Insurgent (or that I'm not very excited to see what Cinema Sins has to say about it), but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I didn't dislike it. If you can't stand YA, you're not going to like it. Period. It doesn't transcend its genre in any way, shape, or form. But if you can accept it for what it is and perhaps even embrace its occasional blandness, you could really do a lot worse.
Insurgent Review photo
Why not?
I never saw the original Divergent. I'm not a preteen girl or Flixist News Editor Nick Valdez, which means I have to ration my YA intake. I can only handle so many dystopian fantasies about chosen-ones that spend all the...

Review: It Follows

Mar 12 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218938:42208:0[/embed] It FollowsDirector: David Robert MitchellRelease Date: March 13, 2015Rating: R A black screen. Music builds, slowly at first, but then faster and faster until the film actually begins. And as it builds, there are only two possible options: Something crazy is about to happen. Absolutely nothing is about to happen. Number 2 is a trick, but it's a common one. The build up becomes total silence on a serene moment. It Follows is Number 2, and the music breaks into an image of a quiet suburb. But quiet suburbs don't stay quiet for long. Suddenly, the music swells again, and a teenage girl runs screaming from her house. The camera follows her, refusing to cut as she stops near enough for a neighbor to ask what's up. She brushes it off, and then runs back into the house, and the camera moves down its track with her. Moments later, she bursts out again, this time with keys, jumps in a car, and drives off. Only then does it cut to the girl, now on the beach, lit by her headlights. She pulls out a cell phone and calls her dad. She says she loves him.  Then she is dead. Watching all of this, you begin to make assumptions. Thinking back on all of those slasher movies you've seen, you begin to wonder: Was the camera the monster? Was that spectacular opening shot something POV? When you see that long camera zoom in on the protagonist soon afterwards, that's the killer selecting its prey, right? The camera must be a representation of the titular "It." Nope. You see, It Follows's trick runs much deeper than that. This is a teenage drama that tricks you into thinking it's horror. It is horror, of course, but it's not about horror. (Except in a kind of meta sense.) It's about a teenage girl, Jay, who has sex with a boy she really likes and is punished for it. But not some puritanical torture porn punishment: She's instead possessed by a shapeshifting thing that follows her. After "infecting" her, he explains everything to her, hoping she'll understand. The rules are simple: It follows you. Always. And if it touches you, it will kill you. But it doesn't run. It can't float through walls. It has to break windows and knocks on doors. It's a physical entity, albeit invisible to those who haven't been infected. If you're careful, you'll always know it's coming. But it's always coming, until you pass it on to someone else by having sex with them. But if that person dies, then it comes after you again. You're never truly safe. It only occurred to me when discussing the film with our very own Hubert Vigilla, who reviewed the film for some other, less cool publication, that this sequence is the kind of expository monologues that people (myself included) so often rail against. Expository dialogue is terrible, except when it isn't, and what happens here exemplifies the brilliance that underlies It Follows. It's a monologue given in fear, by a young man pacing the perimeter of a dilapidated building. Jay is tied to a wheelchair. She is also afraid. He doesn't want to hurt her, and he doesn't want her to be hurt, but it's selfish. He's telling her this for his benefit, not hers. It makes the moment real. It Follows is made of real moments like these. For the most part, these characters act like people might in a situation like this. Reactions make sense. Sometimes the characters are stupid, but that stupidity comes from an honest, if unfortunate place. And sometimes the characters have to do terrible things. Jay has to doom someone else in order to save herself, and hope that that person dooms someone else, over and over again. And you can see the toll it takes on her and the people around her.  But even if it's real, it's not always realistic. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell created a dreamscape world, and (like a dream) it doesn't always follow the rules. Both It Follows and Mitchell's first film, Myth of the American Sleepover, are "timeless" films, in the sense that trying to place them in time is nearly impossible, but there's a key different. Myth of the American Sleepover felt more like a period piece. It felt like it was a time, but you couldn't tell which. It Follows has no time. The Characters watch 50s sci-fi B movies on CRT televisions and talk on wired telephones. There are no computers, but one character has a clamshell phone(?) that is primarily used as an e-reader. One character looks at (terrifying) copies of Hustler that probably date back to the 70s or 80s. It's consistently inconsistent, and it makes the world fascinating. That isn't to say this alternate world doesn't have its problems. The monster in particular is deceptively complicated. Not because the rules are, but because it doesn't play out as simply as Jay is led to expect. The best example is actually shown directly in the trailer. Jay looks out a car window and sees It (in the form of a naked man) up on a nearby rooftop, staring down at her. It's a cool shot, right? Yeah, but it makes no goddamn sense. First up: it's not walking. It's just standing. And that's weird in and of itself. But try thinking about the logistics of it: This is a creature that must physically break windows and climb in if a door is locked. It can probably climb, but what it does it does in service of reaching its prey. There are no circumstances under which climbing onto the roof of a house (where your target will never be) makes sense. But it's a cool shot. And you have to accept that the rules don't always make sense, and that the world is similar to but not quite the same as the one we live in, to really click with the film. If you get bogged down in moments like that, the things that don't really make sense, you'll be pulled out of the experience. And that's a shame, because the monster kind of doesn't matter. And that's It Follows's true brilliance. This isn't a really film about a thing that is stalking sexually promiscuous teenagers (though it is also that); it's a film about oridinary people being put in extraordinary situations and learning to cope with it. It's about all sort of big concepts like life and death and love and friendship. But the only thing that's ever in your face is the beautiful, brilliant score by Disasterpeace. The film itself is surprisingly subtle, and it's most effective in the moments when two characters just talk to each other. The dialogue, like the characters, feels real. These sound like real conversations a couple of teenagers might be having, regardless of their situation. And that is what makes It Follows special, its ability to blend tense horror with believable drama in a way that few films have even tried, let alone pulled off. And it makes that obscenely difficult task look easy. Bravo, Mr. Mitchell. Bravo. Per Morten Mjolkeraaen: I too, like Hubert, reviewed It Follows for some other, less cool publication. Living in Norway, I was lucky enough to see the movie at last year's Bergen International Film Festival in September. I liked it so much that I actually saw it twice within a week, where I saw a combined thirty-four movies. That, and the fact that Alec saw it twice pre-review, says it all. Seeing as Alec is way more literate than me, I'll keep this short. The opening scene, which he so marvelously puts into words above, sets the mood immediately. The camera's movements is important in It Follows. It's sophisticated and patient, and always beautiful. Whether it's a close-up of Maika Monroe (whom many discovered in 2014s coolest movie, The Guest), or a long panning shot of the suburban neighborhoods. Every picture and frame is handled with care, but it transcends aesthetics, it becomes an extension of the narrative - a way to cement the inescapability of our characters. Accompanying these images, is the score by Disasterpeace. While Alec says it's the only aspect of the movie that's "in our face", I don't think those words cover it. The music blares from the speakers, and without any hesitation, slams into your eardrums to beat away at your senses. It's cathartic in its pure, unadulterated audaciousness.  Monroe is a millennial Janet Leigh. A bold statement, and one many people may disagree with, but nonetheless very true in my opinion. It Follows is an instant modern classic, and Monroe is fascinating to watch from beginning to end.  It's been roughly six months since I saw It Follows, and I can't stop thinking about it. It's a memory I can't escape. Few movies leave such an impression on me, even fewer when you consider the circumstances of which I saw the movie, so again, It Follows is a instant modern classic. 89 -- Exceptional
It Follows Review photo
Slasher subversion
I saw It Follows sort of on a whim. I went to two press screenings that day, because it was mostly a day off for me, and I'd heard good things. I figured, why the heck not? Worst case scenario: I have nightmares forever ...

Review: Chappie

Mar 06 // Per Morten Mjolkeraaen
[embed]218822:42142:0[/embed] ChappieDirector: Neill BlomkampRelease Date: March 6, 2015Rating: RCountry: South Africa  So, how is it that a man with such a track record is called a visionary? Why did everyone and their mothers lose their minds when he announced that he’d be directing the next movie in the Alien franchise? Well, because the science fiction genre has struggled for years when it comes to high-concept movies. There are of course masterpieces like Primer, Moon, and Sunshine, but all these are fairly limited in scope (except possibly Sunshine). In the science fiction genre, Blomkamp's voice was a breath of fresh air. Plus, he had an incredible eye for detail and a fundamental understanding of both characters and environmental storytelling. In District 9, he created a believable universe to tell his high-concept story. In a fictional dystopian future, an alien race has landed on earth, only to be quarantined in the slums of Johannesburg, where a local newsagent (Sharlto Copley) gets infected with a virus. Without Blomkamp's earnest wish to actually realize a deeply personal and resonant story, the entire project would have fallen on its face as an over-ambitious alien invasion story. Sadly, over-ambitious is exactly what Elysium was. It had potential, but it was neutered by Blomkamp's inability to hold back on the sociopolitical commentary, made worse by heavy studio involvement.  In Chappie, he takes us back to the not so distant future, and yet again we are in a downtrodden Johannesburg – in this case, the first city to use a full blown mechanized police force, created by a bunch of poorly-utilized Hollywood faces: Sigourney Weaver is criminally underutilized as the big boss, and Hugh Jackman plays a sullen asshole with a Mullet haircut, who hates everyone around him because his project - an even bigger and badder robot - doesn't get anywhere. (Maybe because it needs a human mind to function.) Last, but certainly not least, there's Dev Patel, as the enthusiastic, ambitious youngster, who wants to create the first droid that can think and feel for itself. This he does, but sadly, they get taken (I can't use the word "kidnapped" post-Taken) by a trio of criminals - played by Die Antwoord's Ninja and Yolandi Visser as well as the more low-key Jose Pablo Cantillo.   They do this because they need to pull off an impossible heist so a super scary gangsta criminal warlord won't murder them, and what better way to do that, than with a droid at their side? They get Chappie. Metaphorically born before their eyes, he is a child who needs to be taught and cared for. Thus Ninja and Yolandi take on the roles as his surrogate parents, and try to raise him as badass gangsta #1! But of course nerdy Mr. Patel has to get involved and teach Chappie right from wrong. As with Elysium, the narrative has tons of potential, so it's sad to say that it fails very hard, countless times. It's difficult to really understand the motivations of each character, and the movie is littered with crazy and unbelievable moments. Hugh Jackman's character pulling a gun on one of his co-workers IN THE OFFICE is simply glanced over. Big and seemingly important conversations about morality, and life and death, are handled with less care than any other scenes in the movie. It would be understandable, but no less poor, in a student film, where the self-proclaimed cinephile wants a scene or two to sound philosophical and important, so he can feel mature and clever. But in the third outing of a serious sci-fi director? Not a chance. There are countless problems like this, along with poorly written dialogue and scenes that ruin every illusion of realism – and that says a lot in a movie about droids and mechs fighting in the streets of Johannesburg.  Even so, there is a lot to enjoy about Chappie. Mostly, Chappie. I know a lot of people will dislike, maybe even hate, the character - motion captured by Sharlto Copley - but I found him to be a loveable goon, with more heart and soul than many actual human protagonists in recent blockbusters. The fact that Copley was on set in every scene lends a lot to the realism and physical space Chappie inhabits, and goes along way in adding to the environmental storytelling I like so much in Blomkamp's movies. It feels real. The dystopian Johannesburg looks and feels believable, like a place you could actually visit or see on television news. When you talk about production design, it's never as impressive as in Blomkamp's movies. Even Elysium looked and felt incredible. The high rise in the opening scene was so well constructed I had to use Google Image Search for hours upon hours when I got home, and the same goes for the slums in both District 9 and Elysium. They deserve all the recognition in the world, and showcases just how important production design is.   The music, composed by Hans Zimmer, is also on point. It fits the universe they've created beautifully, and mixes very well with the diegetic sounds of Die Antwoord. Because throughout the movie, the characters of Ninja and Yolandi listen a lot to their own music. As a huge Die Antwoord fan, I loved this. It made scenes memorable, and with some metahumor - I mean, Yolandi namedrops Neill Blomkamp in “Cookie Thumper!” saying "Neill Blomkamp's making me a movie star" – it's all in good fun. However, as with their abilities to act, I can't deny the fact that it doesn't really lend itself to the movie as a whole. It feels masturbatory at times, which fans of Die Antwoord will love, while those who are not – or the more cynical critic in me – will find it distracting. I will add, however, that Yolandi managed to find a maternal love in her role that was inarguably beautiful. Sadly, outside of these scenes, there wasn't too much to applaud in terms of acting abilities. Even worse are the Hollywood faces. Sigourney Weaver doesn't get a chance to shine, which is the real crime here – not Die Antwoord counting dope and stealing cash – and Hugh Jackman was laughably uninspired. I hesitate to use the word “bad,” because he is usually a decent actor, but this was a huge, catastrophic misstep. I struggle to describe it, because there are no comparisons to be made in his career. Dev Patel is Dev Patel. Charming and talented, but he very much plays himself - either it's the version we've seen in The Newsroom or on the couch with Graham Norton. Chappie is a difficult one to pin down for me. I found a lot to like about it, but cannot look past the obvious issues it has. The narrative doesn't work very well, and the characters are poorly developed and acted, but when it comes down to brass tacks, I know I'll re-watch this at some point. I loved Chappie's heart, Ninja's hilarity, Yolandi's affectionate maternal role, and the stunning production design, but beyond this, it's difficult to recommend.
Chappie Review photo
Because I'm Chappie!
I really do adore Neill Blomkamp, and his first film, District 9, in particular. Although it doesn’t have as many fans as it did back in 2009, I still hold it up as one of the most spectacular debuts in recent years. Hi...

Review: Seventh Son

Feb 09 // Megan Porch
[embed]218924:42201:0[/embed] Seventh SonDirector: Sergey BrodovRelease Date: February 6, 2015Rating: PG-13  In a world where only men who are the seventh son of seventh sons can learn to fight witches, and witches seem to be all over the place, Seventh Son starts out with a ton of over-dramatic cheese. Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges) and his apprentice, Bradley (Kit Harington), are asked to exorcise a demon out of a young girl. Gregory doesn't seem too interested, but Bradley drags him along to get the work done. It turns out it's not a demon possessing the girl at all; it's a horribly evil witch named Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore). Malkin had been sealed away years ago by Gregory, but thanks to something called a Blood Moon, she's back and is getting stronger than ever. So just when you think the story is about to get going, Gregory lets Bradley die by Malkin's hand, and he's out an apprentice. Enter Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), a character who's also a seventh son of a seventh son. He grew up on a tiny island with his family, and dreams of doing more than just feeding pigs. Gregory shows up at the island, throws some gold at Tom's parents, and the two of them are off on their adventure. This is the moment when the pace of this movie comes to a screeching halt. Yes, there's action, but none of it's all that interesting or engaging. Tom and Gregory have banter that's supposed to be funny and cutting, I guess, but a lot of it just feels like it's written by a fifteen year old running his first Dungeons & Dragons campaign. There's a lot of cutting back and forth between what Tom and Gregory are up to, and what Malkin and her evil lackies are doing, but it never feels like anything is happening because the movie just plods along, taking its time to make any progress. Despite the fact that Tom wants to learn how to fight witches and "things of the dark," he doesn't really seem to listen to anything that Gregory says. When told not to fall in love with a witch, the moment he sees one getting carried off to be burned in a very Monty Python-ish scene, he saves her and immediately falls in love with her. The romance between Tom and the witch, whose name is Alice (Alicia Vikander), is so shoe-horned in it's painful. Tom just doesn't really seem to care about anything that he's doing, regardless of what the consequences might be. But if I delve any more into the story, we'll get into spoiler territory, so instead... let's talk about the actors themselves. First of all, Jeff Bridges has been in a lot of other movies that are generally good. I totally loved him in True Grit, for example. He was funny, but he also knew when to be serious, and his character in that was believable either way. In Seventh Son, however, he doesn't really seem to know how to handle Gregory. The character is written like he's supposed to be this crusty old spook/witch-killer/whatever you want to call him, but then there are other times when he's written to be super serious. So because the personality of the character isn't very clear, Jeff Bridges just kind of... does whatever he wants, which also involves talking like he's got a mouthful of peanut butter. Julianne Moore is another actor who I usually like, but again, she didn't seem to know what to do with Malkin. It was obvious in a lot of scenes that she wanted to get really campy and silly, but the other actors were all so dull that she just decided to be boring, too. The worst one out of the main cast, though, was Ben Barnes. If this movie had been made a year or so after it actually was, I think he and Kit Harington would've had their roles swapped. While I don't think Kit is a great actor, I think he could've made Tom a bit more likeable than Ben Barnes did. Either way, the two of them are pretty much interchangeable in this movie. Also, why was Djimon Honsou in this movie? He can do so much better. At the end of the day, Seventh Son is a nonsensical, plodding adventure. This is better suited to being watched on TV with your friends so you can heckle it than in a movie theater.
Seventh Son Review photo
Jeff Bridges chews his way through a generic adventure
Many moons ago, at San Diego Comic Con 2013, my friend and I were sitting through all the panels in the infamous Hall H waiting to get to the Marvel movie panel. One of the panels we sat through showed some footage and brough...

Review: Jupiter Ascending

Feb 06 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218920:42196:0[/embed] Jupiter AscendingDirectors: The WachowskisRated: PG-13Release Date: February 6, 2015  It's not that Jupiter Ascending is bad in concept, it's that it is truly horrible in execution. The plot is layered, deep and complex, but not in the right ways. The Wachowski's clearly had a world they wanted to create and it has some really cool concepts, but unlike their previous films they're unable to establish this new world at all. There's so much to take in and they do a messy job of establishing the universe.  Here's the general gist of Jupiter Ascending's sci-fi world. Humans didn't start on earth and have been around for ages. They've developed a serum that keeps them young, but it's derived from harvesting other humans so in order to get "livestock" the original humans find inhabital worlds and blend their DNA with local inhabitants. They then let that world mature to full population and harvest it. Earth is one of those worlds and it is owned by a company run by three siblings who inherited it from their mother. Like all great space operas there is drama in the family with head son Balem Abrasax (Eddi Redmayne) leading the pack of three. DNA and gene splicing play a big, awkward role in the film -- one that could have been really interesting if it wasn't so mired in the rest of the movie's desperate attempts to feel like a cohesive whole. That's where Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) comes in. Once in a while a person's DNA is basically fully duplicated. The space humans know this and in their wills will bequeath things to them. Jones, and earthling, happens to be the Abrasax siblings mother's duplicate and so all her belongings go to her and that includes the earth. This makes her a threat so Balem goes after her, but not before Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a fallen Legion member who is now a bounty hunter and is also part wolf, catches her for his younger brother. Cue even more complex plotting, stupid decisions and Mila Kunis cowering in a ball or screaming and you've got yourself the makings of a space opera catastrophe. It's possible you've read the above plot description and asked yourself what the hell is going on. That's pretty much what the screenplay seems to be asking itself. The film implodes upon itself with illogical moment on top of illogical moment, often sacrificing the story in order to deliver a stunning visual. The Wachowski's clearly have so much they wanted to do in this world, but not enough time or skill to do it all. If the film had been a TV show with 20 episodes to unfold it's plot and back story then it actually could have worked really well. It's camp, family drama and feel vividly remind one of classic 90s science fiction. Instead it's crammed into a mess of a movie that makes characters jump from emotional stagnation to stupid decisions in the blink of an eye. It also doesn't help that the Wachowski's seem to want to make the film appeal to every popular trend that exists. Tatum is basically a werewolf, the Abrasax's are both vampires and elves, there's an entire fallen angel bit that gets almost completely ignored, space police come in for a bit of cop show stuff and Tatum flies around on weird hover shoes without a shirt for as much of the film as possible. Let's not forget the trope of a young woman thrust into wealth, adventure and power. It's like a teenage girl's check list of what she wants in a movie actually got vomited up onto the screen -- "Dear Diary, Channing Tatum is soooo cute. I wish he'd play a werewolf and fight vampires and wear eyeliner and no shirt." Visually, which is where you'll probably find most defenses for this movie, the film is both impressive and messy. Much like the over-stuffed plot and back story the costumes, design and look of the film is everywhere. Everything does look really cool, but it's often at the sacrifice of the story and logic of the universe. Stunning visuals are great in science fiction when they help to hold the world that is created together, but when they're just there to look pretty and actually create plot holes within themselves then they start to get really annoying. There's no cohesive whole to the worlds we see. Instead it just feels like a bunch of kids sitting down and just creating whatever they thought would look cool. It is a very pretty mess.  It is in fact so messy that the movie may push itself into camp. We'll leave that as a "time will tell" statement as it's hard to judge where it's going to land, but if Redmayne's ridiculous performance has anything to say about it then it's going to land firmly on the camp side of things. It isn't clear who Redmayne is trying to channel here, but his whispy voice and bat shit crazy performance is either the worst thing we'll see all year or the most brilliant bit of fun. Again, on the small screen, stretched out over a season of television, it would be an absolute blast to watch this character slowly unfold, but in this rushed mess it's just ridiculous. Kunis and Tatum by contrast seem like pieces of wood that the Wachowski's drew faces on and held up in front of a green screen. The truly interesting characters are the siblings, but the film doesn't let us play with them enough since it's so caught up in it's redemption story arcs.  You'd think that despite all of this that the action in the movie would be good, but that might be the most disappointing part of the film. The Wachowskis have shown that they can do fights and they can do speed, but neither of these things show up well here. There's only two major action sequences outside of the conclusion and they're both cutting room messes. One makes absolutely no sense at all and the other could be really cool if they'd manage to pull it off, but they don't. Instead we get far too many scenes of Tatum and Kunis pretending to be in love or Kunis coping with becoming royalty in the universe. It's all incredibly forced and means we get less action, which although mediocre would be far more welcome. Jupiter Ascending should have been a TV show. With a full season to actually put together their thoughts, unfold the characters and deliver on their fifty million different story lines the Wachowski's may have created something fun if not great. Instead we get a true mess on the screen. Overblown in every possible way the movie's only remaining value is that it can be entertaining just to watch it fall apart. There's camp hiding somewhere in here simply because it's very clear that the filmmakers are taking their ridiculousness very seriously. The Wachowski's think they created something amazing and fully commit to it. Sadly, they've only made a joke. At least we can get a laugh out of it.
Jupiter Review photo
A descending pun would not even come close to being harsh enough
I am a Wachowski defender. I have enjoyed if not down right liked every film they've made. Yes, even the second two Matrix films. If you insult Speed Racer I'll flip some tables. That movie was a kinetic and frantic mast...

Review: The Boy Next Door

Jan 23 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218857:42154:0[/embed] The Boy Next DoorDirector: Rob CohenRated: RRelease Date: January 23, 2015  I'll be the first to admit that The Boy Next Door can actually be a bit of fun. It's a classic crazed stalker exploitation film that banks on people's desire to see Jennifer Lopez in very explicit sex scenes and our strange love of obsessed lovers going insane. Claire Peterson (Jennifer Lopez) is a recently separated mother who is struggling to emotionally cope when the hunky Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman) moves in next door with his uncle. Through a series of events she ends up sleeping with him -- a bad move in general made even worse by the fact that she's his teacher. That kicks off the crazy as Noah begins to threaten her and her re-establishing family. While the movie starts out as the thriller you expect it to be things start veering into the horror zone as Noah's action become more psychotic, slasher killer and less obsessed teenager. This is honestly what saves the film from being bad bad and, in an firey conclusion that jumps all sorts of sharks, pushes it into ridiculous camp. There's something enjoyable about just how hard they're trying in this film. The opening flashbacks that establish everything are so awful that it's hard to imagine they didn't just add them in to really establish a tone of ridiculousness. The borderline pornographic sex feels like something out of a 90s thriller and as the plot unwinds there is just something fun about watching it get more ridiculous. That being said, if you pay full price (or any price, really) for this film you are making a terrible mistake. This is a find on TV and enjoy kind of crap. It's not so bad it's good, it's so bad it need to be seen. This isn't the kind of camp that makes a film a cult hit, it's the kind of camp that you can't believe actually happened. How did this redundant and cliche screenplay full of some of the worst dialog I've seen in a cheap thriller get green lit? Was it actually all about having JLo in a thong? That's quite possible, but man, does it make for bad movies. Some credit does have to be given to Guzman who you may remember from being shirtless on Pretty Little Liars or shirtless in Step Up All In or possibly just standing around being shirtless. He over commits to this role like a true camp champ. Everything the perfect over-the-top psychopath performance needs is there from the way-too-crazy eyes to the Shatner levels of over acting. When the film starts he's just another shirtless guy, but once the crazy kicks in Guzman is up there with the most ridiculous of crazy stalker performances. It's not good, but it's damn interesting to watch.  There's not much point in talking about the film's star, Jennifer Lopez, except to wonder if her American Idol paycheck is somehow not coming through. What other reason would she have to be in this movie? It's not the kind of film the rekindles an acting career and she can't be struggling for money. She's perfect for the role of milf, but she's almost too perfect as you wonder why no one else but this psychotic kid realizes just how attractive and well dressed this high school teacher is. Again, another aspect that makes the film just terrible, but also weirdly enjoyable. The Boy Next Door is a very bad movie with a very bad screenplay and performances so absurd they could only be described as, you guessed it, bad. Yet thanks to a sudden genre switch at the end and a feeling that everyone involved kind of knows just how bad things are it can be enjoyable -- not good, but enjoyable. Do not pay for this movie, do not rent this movie, but if, late one night, you find yourself flipping through channels and you see Jennifer Lopez in her underwear getting it on with a walking, talking six-pack stick around and have some fun.  
Boy Next Door Review photo
So close to camp and yet so far
I'm not actually sure who I'm writing this review for. Anyone whose seen the trailers for The Boy Next Door has undoubtedly made their made up about it. It's a trashy stalker film with Jennifer Lopez seducing a teenager ...

Review: R100

Jan 22 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218709:42046:0[/embed] R100 Director: Hitoshi MatsumotoRating: R100Release Date: January 23rd, 2015 (Theatrical and VOD)Country: Japan Takafumi Katayama (Nao Omori) is your average Joe (or whatever the Japanese equivalent to that is). He's a reasonably competent salesman at a large furnishing store. There's exactly nothing remarkable about him. If you saw him on the street, you wouldn't think twice about it. Unless, of course, he was being abused by a woman in leather. And while for many that seems a bit unlikely, for Katayama it's a daily occurance. You see, Katayama likes pain. Sexually. And since his wife went into a coma, he has had a rather involved method of having this particular desire fulfilled. For one reason or another, he ends up at a club called “Bondage.” The literal merry-go-round that follows convinces him to hire a particularly comprehensive S&M care package. As he goes about his life, various leather-clad "Queens" will come to him and make him feel. And it's not always physical abuse; any sort of humiliation will do. Lovely dinner at a sushi bar? Here comes a Queen to smash the food to bits and make him eat it in front of the extremely uncomfortable guests. And he loves it. You can tell, because his face contorts like a baloon, his eyes turn black, and ripples emanate from his head. By now, you should know if R100 is your type of film. If that previous paragraph sounds either titillating or hilarious, you've already figured out the next screening within 50 miles of you and are planning your weekend around it. If you find that conceptually retched, literally nothing about it is going to change your mind. This is a film intended to appall. But it also wants to make you laugh. And in that objective it is overwhelmingly successful. Right from the outset, I was completely and totally hooked. And so was everyone else. When that first Queen roundhouse kicks Katayama's head into a glass window, it was a taste of things to come but it couldn't prepare us. Nothing could. From there it builds and builds into this amorphous, incomprehensible blob of violent sexual comedy. And it's absolutely brilliant. I'm loathe to say more. Not that I'm really worried about spoilers, because R100 truly has to be seen to be believed. A whole bunch of text on the internet won't tell you shit. I could describe the above trailer – which is really just a clip from Katayama's introduction to his new pastime – in excrutiating detail, but until you actually saw it for yourself, you couldn't comprehend what I'm saying. And that's a pretty basic scene, all things considered. Around the 45-minute mark, things get Meta. People begin to react to the film’s content and note its narrative inconsistencies. I laughed as hard as anyone, but it was also the moment that I began to think that perhaps R100 was trying just a bit too hard. Pulling off Meta humor is extremely difficult, and generally it only works when it's a fundamental part of the narrative. That isn't the case here; the film literally pauses for comment a few times and then resumes. That's an issue in part because, as funny as it is, R100 presents itself seriously. Omori and co. aren’t in on the joke, so when someone flat out states that there are massive contradictions and continuity problems, it doesn’t really jive with the narrative as presented. It seems more like an attempt to shield itself from criticism. “Hey, you can’t criticize this story for being ridiculous, because we did it first. Aren’t we zany?” Calling attention to a story’s flaws rarely works. Rather than being cutesy and playing it off, I'd rather they just fix the problem in the first place. It still bothered me in R100, but it’s less of a problem, because the film was going to have those inconsistencies anyway. The film called attention to them because it does whatever it damn well pleases. Without those moments, nothing would have changed. And so they aren’t really flaws in the way these things usually are. They were clear, albeit insane, directorial decisions to drive forward the little bit of narrative that R100 pretends to have. They didn’t have to draw attention to them. But in the grand scheme of things, none of that really matters. Because this is a film where a platinum-blonde giantess screams American profanities while jumping into a pool on a continuity-shattering loop. I mean, come on. That's fucking amazing. And if that couldn’t inspire someone to literally eat their shirt, I have no idea what could.
R100 Review photo
Viewer discretion advised
Thanks to R100, we know the proper recipe for a shirt: 24 hours in a slow-cooker, with red wine sauce, celery and carrots. Not because the film involves shirt eating (not directly at least), but because it forced Twitch found...

Review: Blackhat

Jan 16 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218837:42147:0[/embed] BlackhatDirector: Michael MannRated: R Release Date: January 16, 2015  Blackhat may be timely in its release with all the issues going on with government hacking, but that doesn't mean it's actually all that interesting. Behind the fantastic direction is a plot so thin it makes single ply toilet paper look thick. Someone hacks into a nuclear power plant in China and blows it up. Surprisingly un-phased, the Chinese government sends Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) over to America to work with Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) of the FBI to track down the hacker. Chen also brings along his sister, Lien Chen (Wei Tang), for no other reason than they needed someone for Chris Hemsworth to fall in love with. Hemsworth, by the way, plays an elite hacker guy who Chen roomed with in college. Chen convinces the FBI to release Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth) so the two can track down he bad guys. The story is relentlessly full of people typing in front of computers saying things that don't actually mean anything. That's part of the requirement for a film about hacking and cyber terrorism of course, but Mann has trouble keeping so much exposition clear and with a muddled plot that limps along it's hard to care. It's even worse because when the film does get out from behind the computers and starts tearing through the streets of Hong Kong its a gorgeous feast. Mann's action chops kick back in and things look like they're going to pick up until the next scene in front of a computer. Nichalos and Lien's romance is also painful to get through. The pair spend a day together and suddenly we're supposed to believe they've fallen madly in love. Hemsworth and Tang have almost no chemistry together and the actor often doesn't seem to want to be there. The pacing for their relationship is about as muddled as the film's plot, which routinely asks you to make jumps in logic that make little sense all while attempting to string together a twist ending that renders most of the movie pointless. Once the plot gets to where it thinks it wanted to go the film really has an issue. It's built up this hacker into a demi-god, but he's really just a guy. Tacked on to the end of the movie is a sequence so preposterous and pointless it feels like it might be from a different film. Mann's direction once again saves the conclusion from being unwatchable, but it's still pretty laughable. You get the feeling that the screenwriters forgot they had to end the movie while they were writing it.  Finally, is the down right odd score. Mann loves his synthesized strings and usually uses them well to pull you into his films, but here the score is often at odds with the film. It's overbearing at times and pulls you away from what's going on screen. Other times it works just fine. It's slightly schizophrenic, which may come from the multiple composer credits the film had.  Blackhat features some of the best city filming Mann has done in a long while and Hong Kong, along with the plethora of other cities, are  fantastic locations for him to shoot in. The movie looks great, but it is not a great movie. The plot, story and romance are about as flat as can be. Mann does his best to make what is basically two hours of computer exposition out of the realm of boredom, but there's only so much stunning directorial work can do. Bad plots are bad plots. 
Blackhat review photo
Like a bad thriller trying to be a Michael Mann film
I am a big Michael Mann fan. Collateral might be one of my favorite films. The guy just knows how to direct. You can be guaranteed at least one breath taking, though provoking shot in one of his films. This is espec...

Review: Two Days, One Night

Jan 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218812:42122:0[/embed] Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)Directors: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne Release Date: January 6, 2015Rating: PG-13 Country: Belgium  I like Two Days, One Night's premise: While Sandra (Marion Cotillard) was on medical leave, her bosses put together a voting ballot. People could either vote for Sandra to stay on when she was feeling better, or they could keep their annual bonuses. The company can't (well, won't) afford to do both. Unsurprisingly, more went for the bonuses and suddenly Sandra was unemployed. But Sandra wasn't a part of the process, and she must go to each coworker one by one and ask (beg) them to reconsider. There are 16 people. She needs nine votes. On concept, that sounds like a really interesting way to develop a character. At the start of Two Days, One Night, we know almost nothing about Sandra other than that she's really sad. But a lot of people would be sad in that particular situation, so that barely even counts. We don't know why she left in the first place, what job it is that she's lost, or how she gets along with the others at her workplace. All we know is that Marion Cotillard is a good crier, and why wouldn't she be? She's a great actress. As it turns out, there's not really anything more to Sandra than that. Sandra is boring. It was depression that took her out of work, and while that's a totally valid reason to take some time off (she's medicated now), she is hampered at each and every moment of the film by her depression. She wants to keep her job, but she doesn't want to impose on others. She doesn't want to be told "No, I need my bonus more than I need you to have a job" by people she worked with. I get these things, but these issues manifest themselves as a constant game of Sandra refusing to do anything other than pop pills and her husband saying, "Come on!" until she eventually acquiesces. That's boring. And so is hearing Sandra explain why she has shown up unannounced on a colleague's doorstep over and over again. It's an issue of realism: Sure, most of them would not have heard of her new crusade to get her job back, but we (the audience) have heard her little introductory spiel way too many times, and it doesn't change. Nearly every single interaction starts the same way: - Sandra shows up at their house but the person is not there- She goes to wherever they are (usually pointed out by a spouse or child)- She explains the ballot- "But it's soooo much money!"- "But it's my job!" Over and over and over again. It's maddening, really.  So you'd think I didn't like Two Days, One Night, because it's boring and because its lead character is boring, but that's because what makes the film interesting (and ultimately worth watching) has almost nothing to do with its lead character. While Sandra as a character is never particularly interesting (even if the ultimate result shows something verging on character growth), the other people she interacts with are. There are only two possible responses – "I need the money, but okay" and "I need the money, so no" – but the situations that lead them to go from one answer to the other are occasionally fascinating to watch. The one-on-one interactions are by far the least interesting, because then it's just one person begging and the other person accepting or not. But when a third person (usually a spouse) becomes involved and it turns into a shouting match or some other intense moment, then you see what the money means to these people. Sandra needs a job, but these people have structured their lives around this 1,000 Euro annual bonus. It lets them pay their bills or get their children an education. Maybe it lets them do something cool and new for themselves where all of their other income had gone exclusively to the necessities. All of these are acceptable reasons to say no (even the latter, although it's a bit sketchy), and all of them get used. But seeing the way the co-worker (who usually has empathy) reacts versus the spouse (who has no love for Sandra) reveals a lot about who those people are and the fights that sometimes occur as a result are fascinating (and sometimes terrifying) glimpses into the lives of other characters. If Two Days, One Night succeeds at anything, it's at making these other characters feel like they're real people with actual lives. It feels like Sandra is intruding on them and they're just trying to keep on living. And because of that, I kept watching. Would they stick to their guns? Would they crack under pressure? Those questions propelled the narrative forward far more than the overarching "Would Sandra get to keep her job?" Because the film didn't make me care about Sandra, but it did make me care about everyone else.
Two Days One Night Review photo
Cotillard Cried
Sometimes you watch a movie and you immediately know how you're going to feel about it. There's something about the atmosphere that it creates that just strikes you. You know exactly what the film is trying to do, and you kno...

Review: Inherent Vice

Jan 09 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218407:41869:0[/embed] Inherent ViceDirector: Paul Thomas AndersonRelease Date: December 12th, 2014 (Limited); January 9th, 2015 (Wide)Rating: R  Inherent Vice is odd. As I watched it, I assumed I was missing something. I didn’t really connect with it or what I thought it might be trying to do, but at the same time I did feel like I understood basically what was going on. I actually thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure I understand this more than I think I do,” at least on a superficial level. But perhaps I didn’t. The basic narrative seems pretty simple (down to its bare essentials: a stoner private investigator is trying to find his ex-girlfriend and gets mixed up in some bad things), but beyond that things start to go in all kinds of bizarre directions. And the film doesn’t necessarily hit the points it needed to. Press notes fill in the blanks, and the number of copies of Pynchon’s novel that surrounded me in the theater made me feel like I had missed some vital memo. But then maybe it’s not my fault that I didn’t understand the film, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s. And here we get to the question of adaptation: What is the purpose of taking a thing and bringing it to a new medium? Is it just to delight fans of the original work, or is it to bring that original work to a new audience that can fall in love with it? If it were the former, anecdotal evidence would lead me to believe it’s a success… but if he was going for the latter, it’s a failure. But I don’t know what Paul Thomas Anderson was going for, and I’m not even sure he does. Anderson has compared Inherent Vice to Zucker Brothers comedies (Airplane, Naked Gun, etc.) and I can’t help but wonder if Paul Thomas Anderson has ever seen a Zucker Bros. film, or his own most recent effort. To be sure, Inherent Vice is a comedy, but it’s nothing like what the Zucker Bros. did. Their films featured a gag in nearly every single shot (if not multiple), and at their best there was barely a moment where you weren’t laughing at what they’d done. Inherent Vice made me laugh, and it made most of the other people in the theater laugh, but it’s no laugh riot. Not even close. Long moments of serious intensity and drama may be punctuated by a joke, but I can’t even begin to comprehend what would make him think of that comparison. (Other comedies that it’s compared to, such as The Long Goodbye, I haven’t seen and cannot speak to.) Then again, maybe there was a version of Inherent Vice with more laughs. At the ludicrously large press conference that followed our screening (twelve people), it was pretty clear that a lot of the cast wasn’t entirely sure what they had done. They talked about how much they enjoyed improvising and the “chaos” of the set. (Others disagreed with the fundamental premise of chaos. As is so often the case, the truth likely lies somewhere in between.) They said that they tried a bunch of different things and they trusted that in the editing room everything would be worked out. And that interests me more than anything the film actually did, because it means that if someone else had been given the exact same footage, we could have literally had an entirely different film. The performances are so uniformly strong that little tweaks to delivery and cadence could have made a world of difference in the way it all played out. Many characters are only in a few scenes (some just one), and the plethora of long takes means that it probably wasn’t all that hard to work around different versions of any individual performance. I can’t help but wonder if I would have liked another version of the film more. I certainly like The Naked Gun more than I liked Inherent Vice. (Which in and of itself says a lot about a lot of things.) Everyone has a bunch of lists of different books they need to read, movies they need to see, music they need to hear, and etc. The work of Thomas Pynchon in general has been on that list for some time. Inherent Vice has been described more than once as Pynchon-lite – whatever that means – and thus a good starting point into his work. (Many of those myriad copies around me in the theater were apparently breezed through.) So maybe I’ll read it down the line, and maybe it will retroactively make me appreciate the work that went into adapting a novel from a writer whose books are often deemed “unfilmable.” But I shouldn’t be required to read an adaptation to really grasp what a film is trying to do. An adaptation is not necessarily a replacement of a source material the way a remake might be, but it needs to stand on its own. Inherent Vice doesn’t really do that. But it’s not just that I haven’t read Pynchon. Perhaps my critical mind just doesn’t go deep enough. And perhaps my lack of knowledge of 1971 America exacerbated that issue. It’s something that didn’t occur to me until after the credits had rolled. I asked Hubert Vigilla (of our Gone Girl analysis discussion fame) what he thought of it, and he said something to the effect of “I think I’ll like it more after I’ve thought more about the way it uses teeth to represent the decay of consumerism in the late 1960s.” And the only thing I could say was, “Oh.” And perhaps, “Might you be overthinking it?” “No.” “Oh.” And that inability to respond was the moment when I realized that I really had missed something and that this wasn’t a film that could appeal to a broader audience on anything more than that superficial level. But here’s something true: that superficial level is very well-crafted, and no matter what your level of education or Pynchon literacy, you will almost definitely like Inherent Vice at least a little bit. Paul Thomas Anderson is undoubtedly a supremely talented filmmaker, and the ensemble he’s pulled together for the film is uniformly excellent. If you don’t think about what the film is trying to say or its narrative failings, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a truly fantastic film (if a bit long). But it’s not actually fantastic; it’s just good. And there is nothing wrong with being good. But while I haven’t seen everything Anderson has done, I can also say it’s the least compelling of the films that I’ve seen. And so I’ve met the film halfway. I may not really understand it, and I definitely think it failed in its attempt at bringing Pynchon’s story to a new audience in a way that is inherently compelling, but I know that so many others (who are better-read than I am) have really liked it that lambasting it for my own ignorance seems even more ignorant. But even so, I know that a lot of people who aren’t critics by hobby or trade will be put off by what Anderson has made. When you’re laughing and enjoying the craft, Inherent Vice is an easy film to like, but as soon as it gets into its esoteric meanderings, a lot of people will turn off. This will be a polarizing film, and unfortunately the debate surrounding it will be marred by pretension.  Though perhaps that's fitting.
Inherent Vice Review photo
Something Something Thomas Pynchon
I’m not educated enough to have an intelligent conversation about Inherent Vice. I’m smart enough, but to seriously wrestle with what Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s book is tryin...

Review: Big Eyes

Dec 26 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218765:42091:0[/embed] Big EyeDirector: Tim BurtonRated: PG-13Release Date: December 25, 2014 Rounding out the "based on a true story" fare for Christmas (see: Selma, American Sniper, and Unbroken), Big Eyes tells the tale of "Big Eye" artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams). If you lived through the 50s and 60s you probably know who she is as her art work was everywhere and basically revolutionized how artwork was distributed and made money. There was great debate over whether or not her work, which featured small children with large sad eyes, was actually art or just kitsch. That isn't what the film is about, though. The film is about how Margaret Keane's husband, Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), took credit for her work for nearly two decades. Now you're interested, hug? What is so incredible about this story is just how incredible it gets. Bouncing from one unbelievable twist to the next and all of them entirely true. By the end of the film you're simply stunned by just how great a conman Walter is. The star of this film is actually truth. It would be hard for any director to mess up a story that's just this compelling and ridiculous. Burton, however, does more with it. The story is so fantastical that his slightly otherworldly tilt to the proceedings lends it the perfect air. His characters push close to caricature levels, and yet seem right at home in the ridiculous story of the film. Waltz's Walter Keane is especially ridiculous, yet disturbingly dark. This tempered back Burton is surprisingly adept at minutia and tone.  Burton does lose a little credit by avoiding some of the greater themes that surround the story. The focus is definitely on Margaret and the absurdity of the entire situation, and this leads to an avoidance of just how brilliant Walter Keane was at marketing himself (or his fake self) and the greater debate over what art is. The New York Times art critic who routinely tears down "Big Eyes" is too much of a stereotype to truly develop into a discussion on art. It's too bad as the film could have had a lot to say on the subject as "Big Eyes" art is the perfect example of popular art that isn't high art. The movie even opens with a hint of the discussion forming with a quote from Andy Warhol, "I think what Walter Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it." It's a bold statement that says popularity makes art, but the movie never truly dives into this. Instead it is content to agree with the statement and carry on telling it's story. Luckily it's story is great so the lack of actual debate on the subject of art has a minimal effect, but it is definitely missing.  Big Eyes delivers an incredibly strange true story, with great help from two strong performances from Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. While it may not be the thought provoking picture it could have been, it's still a stellar story to see. Burton dives head first into telling it with a passion that is clear. The story alone is interesting, what Burton does with it takes it to an even better place. 
Big Eyes Review photo
Eyes wide open
Everyone, I'm about to shock you to your core. Big Eyes is a Tim Burton film and it is quite possible that the color black doesn't appear once. Shades of greys and shadows, yes, but the Gothic trendings of the director a...

Review: American Sniper

Dec 24 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218766:42085:0[/embed] American SniperDirector: Clint EastwoodRated: RRelease Date: December 25, 2014 You may have heard of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in the news as he was the most successful sniper in American history. The man is a legend and American Sniper tracks that legend from his first shot to his last. Most of the film is spent in war zones, but it hops back to Kyle's home life every so often to show how his service in the field is tearing him down at home with his wife, Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller) and child. There's also a running story line of an ex-olympic sniper fighting for the bad guys that constantly haunts, kills and scares the soldiers that Chris is protecting. It's the mugguffin (whether he be real or not) that keeps the combat part of the film going. By bouncing Chris back and forth between deployments and home life the movie attempts to show us the effect that killing and constant war has on the sniper. It would be an incredibly interesting approach if the film ever fully committed to it. Instead it is content to focus on the war zone and leave Chris' PTSD and family issues to be background fodder to thrilling war sequences. There's an attempt to create a tension here, but it feels false as the film, much like the soldier, feels far more comfortable and happy when it's taking out enemy combatants. When the movie is doing this it is fantastic. Eastwood's direction is in your face and intense. The kind of war scenes that make your palms sweaty as you watch them. Chris' first shot is a perfect example of this as he is tasked with taking out a mother and child who are moving to destroy a garrison with a grenade. From the moment this scene begins Eastwood pulls you in with a dirty style of direction that is stunning. Every war scene in this film is fantastic. It makes it all the worse when it cuts back home and seems to almost lost interest. Yes, there is tension there, but the movie never cares about it. We get 20 minutes in a battle zone and then two at home until Chris is back again. While that may be an authentic representation of how his time was spent it turns Chris' mental health issues into nothing more than a throw away. The end of the film is a long battle when it should really be focusing on the man. To tell the story of a modern American war hero you can't just tell the story of war. Cooper seems to understand this, imbuing his performance with a certain timidity that you wouldn't expect from a NAVY Seal role. He's great from scene to scene, though nothing that will win him an Oscar. He definitely beefed up for the role though, and it is nice to see him take a departure from the smarmy characters he's been tackling recently. It is a different slant for him and it suits him well.  American Sniper hits on the sniper part of its title, but sadly forgets to talk about the American. This is a complex man who is a hero, but by marginalizing his home life and mental issues we do him and other Veterans a disservice. We should expect more out of our war movies, because our soldiers aren't just heroes, they're men. 
American Sniper Review photo
A missed shot
Clint Eastwood is easily one of the best directors in Hollywood so him tackling the incredible story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is something to get pretty excited about. We already know he has the war movie chops tha...

Review: Unbroken

Dec 24 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218764:42090:0[/embed] UnbrokenDirector: Angelina JolieRated: PG-13Release Date: December 25, 2014 In a surprising twist for Hollywood, it's quite possible you don't know the true story that the film is based on as the legend of Olympian Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) and his POW experience during WWII has faded into history. O'Connell gets shot down while bombing Japan and he, Francis 'Mac' McNamara (Finn Wittrock) and Russell Allen 'Phil' Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) are the only ones to survive in two tiny life crafts. After days at sea they are finally rescued by the Japanese and taken to a POW camp where Louis is tortured and beaten by Mutsushiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara). The film is basically his tail of survival. Sadly, Jolie doesn't quite have the skill to make it seem genuine. While there's plenty of budget and everything looks fine most scenes come off painfully contrived. The feeling is that the film is more concerned with tugging at your heartstrings than telling a truly affecting story. By the film's end you can guess every emotional key stroke the movie is going to make. The emotional impact of true heroism sucked out of the film because it is trying just so hard to be about true heroism. Jolie also makes the mistake of telling instead of showing (unlike the far superior Selma). The movie jumps back and forth in time as we go through the checklist of life moments that make the man into a legend. Instead of getting to know him we get to know a rough sketch of him. Instead of focusing on the character we focus on the life and lose the character because of it. This is especially true when Louis is in the prison camp. Great opportunities are missed to develop his relationship with Mutsushiro (and to develop Mutsushiro into a better character), but the film is so set on telling it's story points it never allows it. It's surprising since the Coen brothers took a crack at the script, but it's true. That's not to say the Jolie is completely incompetent behind the camera. The film looks fantastic, and when it isn't trying to pander it does some very interesting things. While the Louis/Mutshushiro relationship is not as good as it could have been it is still intriguing, and Jolie has shown that she can at least piece together a competent story, even if it doesn't strive to be anything more than what it looks like.  There are some fantastic performances buried in the melodrama and checkbox plotting as well. We're going to be seeing a lot more of Jack O'Connell if this is the kind of performance he's going to deliver. It isn't perfect as he's often played into some particularly cheesy scenes, but he does deliver. And any film with Domhnall Gleeson is going to get better not matter what it is.  Unbroken isn't a train wreck, but it just wants to be so much more than it is. A paint by numbers retelling of a fantastic story that pulls at the heartstrings with cliche rather than true emotion. It isn't a film that's not enjoyable to watch, it's just sad to see it try so hard doing all the wrong things. 
Unbroken Review photo
Can't be fixed
Unbroken is the first film directed by Angelina Jolie. That alone has given it a lot of hype, but it's easy to understand why it would be pushing at Oscars anyway. It's base on the true story of a WWII hero and Oscar jus...

Review: Selma

Dec 24 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218755:42084:0[/embed] SelmaDirector: Ava DuVernayRated: PG-13Release Date: December 25, 2014 There isn't a single moment of Selma that isn't riveting. In 1965 MLK (David Oyelowo) led his activists to Selma, Alabama where he planned a march that would put President Johnson on the spot to pass the civil rights voting act. Accompanied by his wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) he leads three marches as public awareness grows and opposition does as well. This is the story of Selma. And yet the film captures so much more. Flitting around the edges of the march is the man. By focusing on this one act director Ava DuVernay allows the character of King to unfold. His troubled marriage and almost ruthless tactics to push civil rights to the forefront come through as the Selma unfolds. Unlike a bio pic this "moment pic" shows us who MLK was instead of telling us. It's a smart move for a man almost the entire world knows the bullet points about. Instead of dragging us through the highlights that make the myth we instead see one highlight that defines who the man is.  It is impressive and brave how open the film is about MLK and his imperfections. We're not just shown the orator here, but the politician, the husband, the preacher and the human being. It is a look at King that the textbooks don't give us and his stirring speeches avoid. It's also a look at the civil rights movement that doesn't flinch from showing its flaws and its successes. Infighting and differing ideals give a far more human view of how things operated, and make it all the easier to apply the film's story and lessons to modern day. It is an incredibly powerful moment -- thanks much in part to the film's release timing -- when King's work pays off, but it is the lesson in how he gets there that truly makes the film applicable today. All of this would have fallen apart if it weren't for Oyelowo's transformative performance. A depth lies behind his portrayal of King that is rare to find in biography pictures. It doesn't pander or imitate, but instead creates and defines. The best actors turn roles into their own and this is what Oyelowo has done here. It is a breakout performance that should skyrocket him to stardom despite the lack of comic book characters in the movie. Ejogo matches him note for note, though Oyelowo dominates the film's run time, almost making it a one man show. (Sidenote: Does Cuba Good Jr., who plays Fred Gray, have to be in every majority black cast film?) That lack of pandering in Oyelowo's performance resonates throughout the entire film. The fact that the splotches and faults are shown make the message all the more powerful. This isn't a mythic telling of a story and because of that the story never loses any feeling of truth. Is it dramatized? Of course, but it doesn't feel that way. It feels powerful and important. DuVernay's direction creates a stirring sea of momentum that caps off powerfully with Oyelowo delivering a stirring MLK speech. It may be impossible to stand up directly after this film. I had to take multiple minutes just to process what had gone on as John Legend and Common's powerful "Glory" played over the credits. Would it have this effect without the current protests going on? I'm not sure, but that doesn't really matter. What matters is that a film about a protest in 1965 is powerfully relevant to today and should be required viewing for the year. 
Selma Review photo
Right place, right time, great movie
There's something to be said for perfect timing. Would Selma be one of the best movies of the year if it had released in January? Yes. But coming out now makes it a true masterpiece of its time. As we try to wrap our hea...

Review: Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

Dec 19 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218749:42063:0[/embed] Night at the MuseumDirector: Sean LevyRated: PGRelease Date: December 19, 2014  This third film sets out to wrap up the tale of Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), night watchmen New York's Museum of Natural History, where a magic tablet has been making the exhibits come to life every night for decades. This time the tablet's origins come to light as it starts to rust and cause issues for all of the exhibits. In order to solve the problem Larry travels to the UK to awaken Ahkmenrah's (Rami Malek) parents, who evidently the created the thing. Of course the entire gang from the previous two films comes along including the monkey, Teddy Roosevelt (Williams), Octavious (Steve Coogan) Jedediah (Own Wilson), Sacajawea (Mizou Peck) and Laaa (Stiller). Throw in the newcomer, Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens) and you've got yourself a whole new adventure as the British Musueum of Natural history comes to life for the first time. For the most part Secret of the Tomb is harmless. The gags aren't that fresh, the concept isn't new and there's nothing really at the British Museum that we haven't seen come to life in the previous two films. Sure, it's cool to see famous exhibits jump into action, but it all feels a bit like we've been here and done that before. The movie's plot is about as thin as some of the ancient scrolls that show up in it and clearly only thrown together to make another movie warranted.  That isn't to say you won't have some fun. There's gags enough to giggle at and despite monkey's being the literal bottom of the barrel for comedy, it's still a monkey. Stiller once again nails his straight man as the leader of a bunch of misfits, but the lackadaisical comedy never shines and the gleam has worn off the museum coming to life concept. Meanwhile the movie's themes are mushed together and murky as Larry attempts to watch his son turn into a man. The problem is there's not any actual growth in between the humor. It may also be that things feel so flat because they visually look it. The special effects for the film look like they were taken from the original. Whatever budget the film has was definitely not spent on CGI or sets, and except for a few key moments where extra time was clearly spent the concept of things coming to life is pretty much ruined by the poor looks of the film. Tiny Octavious and Jedediah are especially poorly done as the tromp around scenes looking like they were plucked from the green screen of an early 90s film.  It is important to make note that Williams is both fantastic and underutilized. His character of Roosevelt has been a stand out in the films to the point that you wish the guy had gotten an actual bio-pic for him. Sadly, he isn't the focus of the film so he's often shunted to the side, but when he is on screen it's enjoyable. He also gets the final goodbye, mounting a horse and smiling to the camera one last time. I'm sure the scene is more powerful than it ever would have been simply because of his death, but it is nice to think of him sitting there in perpetuity, able to come back to life with the simple use of a magic tablet. Williams may not have gone out on his highest note with Secret of the Tomb, but the film does give him a goodbye that highlights what he did best: had fun. The movie itself is harmless and needless and would have been forgotten by the ages if it weren't for the fact that it gave us one last chance to remember something greater. 
Museum Review photo
Pro tip: just go to an actual museum
I don't think anyone thought we'd be seeing a franchise born when Night at the Museum first hit. The movie was plenty fun and surprisingly creative with a solid message that really didn't need to be revisited. Then it was, an...

Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

Dec 17 // Matthew Razak
[embed]218726:42055:0[/embed] The Hobbit: The Battle of Five ArmiesDirector: Peter JacksonRated: PG-13Release Date: December 17, 2014 The Battle of Five Armies picks up right where the last film left off, but this isn't a sequel picking up the story from a previous film. It is literally as if you hit pause on The Desolation of Smaug then came back a year later and remembered you had been watching it so decide to just hit play again. It makes sense since the film was clearly just meant to be one massive four-hour-long Tolkein wank, but that means if you haven't kept every character up to date in your memory or re-watched last year's film you're going to be rapidly attempting to remember what the hell was going on as Smaug starts to burn down Lake-town. Whose that guy with the bow and arrow? Oh that's right, it's Bard (Luke Evans), the heroic human who wants to protect his family from Smaug and eventually rebuild his now destroyed town with the help of the dwarves. And the dwarves? They've locked themselves in their new kingdom as Thorin (Richard Armitage) gets driven mad by his lust for gold. And what about the elves? Weren't there elves? Well one is Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the other is Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and they're there just to be elves it seems. Of course the good Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) returns as well to hobbit his way around. So now that we're all caught up what's the plot of this one? Get the gold. The real issue is we've played this game before in Middle Earth and on a much grander scale with far more plot to hold it up. Of all the Hobbit films this one feels the most like filler. It woefully steals from its LotR predecessors as if begging us to remember how awesome we felt about those films. The problem is reminding us of them only shows us how lacking this one is. Thorin's "dragon madness" reeks too heavily of the desire for the one ring and thanks to that the film's themes fall flat. What we're left with is what should be a 20 minute action sequence stretched out into two and half hours.  To be fair the movie starts off fantastically since it's basically the conclusion of the previous film, which ended with its own masterful action sequence. Bard's take down of Smaug is stunning and hearing Benedict Cumberbatch back voicing the dragon, however briefly, is fantastic. Then it just starts to unravel until at one point we're treated to some sort of hallucinatory dream Thorin has of being drowned in gold. That's the moment you know that they were out of ideas and just doing whatever the hell popped into Peter Jackson's head.  Jackson's head is an awesome place. This is a spectacular visual feast, even if they gave up on the 48 fps presentation. No one does giant battles and action sequences like Jackson and the special effects, direction and sets are just stunning. The movie is a visual triumph as all of the films have been, but pretty pictures only get you so far, and with five other films full of pretty Middle Earth pictures they garner even less distance here. There's just not enough to keep this one going. Freeman's Bilbo deserves to have been put into a two movies instead of stretched into three he's so enjoyable. Other actors seem a bit tired of the whole thing, though that may just be me applying personal opinion since they filmed this all at once. Ian Mckellan doesn't seem so into it anymore and I'm still not sure why Lilly or Bloom are in the films at all except for a lame attempt at a love triangle between a dwarf and two elves. Just more padding. In the end that's all The Battle of Five Armies is: a lot of padding. It's pretty padding. It looks good and feels like something you've enjoyed sitting on before, but once you sit down it starts to show it has no stuffing inside. The film desperately tries to rekindle the magic of its predecessor's, but it can't because it's run out of what makes the film's special. It isn't grand fantasy, it's personal story. Someone should have cut Jackson off and put the films into two long movies instead of letting him ramble on for three. As it stands I wish the one ring was real so we could make this film disappear. 
Hobbit Review photo
Care to see the Lord of the Rings again?
When Peter Jackson announced that he'd be stretching The Hobbit into three movies I was a bit wary, but excited. While the book itself could have easily been put into one, maybe two, films there's enough lore in the worl...

Review: Rosewater

Nov 13 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218565:41964:0[/embed] RosewaterDirector: Jon StewartRelease Date: November 14, 2014Rating:  R Rosewater is based on a true story. Usually, "Based on a true story" or "Based on This Person's Autobiography" or whatever means that the film was inspired by reality but does not necessarily reflect reality. That isn't the case here. Jon Stewart was invested in this story long before the concept of a film about these events was even conceived. After Bahari's arrest, Stewart covered it on The Daily Show throughout the 118 day confinement, hoping that it might put some pressure on the Iranian leadership to release him from prison. And though he didn't know it at the time, Stewart's show was actually used as evidence against Bahari. In the days leading up to his arrest, Maziar Bahari did an interview with Jason Jones of The Daily Show fame. If you've ever seen The Daily Show, you can probably guess what it was like, but now pretend like the viewer doesn't have a sense of humor. Jason Jones says that he is an American spy, and obviously he's joking... but how is an Iranian interrogator to know that? And so, here is a dangerous man asking why Bernal is talking to an American spy, and Bernal can't really do anything but laugh. Because... what else can you do? Beyond the personal connection, it's that absurdity that drew Stewart to the project. From the outset, he had been talking to Bahari about adapting his novel, Then They Came For Me, and when it all came down to it, the easiest way to make it happen was for Stewart to do it himself. And he did. But what this all boils down to is the fact that Rosewater is an accurate representation of the events in a way that so few "True" movies are. Bahari was consulted during the writing process and was on set throughout the production. He saw multiple rough cuts and was integral in the creative process. And even if things are condensed or skipped over for this reason or that, it comes from a desire to tell this story as it was rather than some romanticized version of it. And that leads to a film that is particularly poignant. This is a film that has things to say, and it wants you to hear them. This isn't just the story of Maziar Bahari, because there are so many others now who are in exactly his position. There are people undergoing the exact same treatment (and worse), and those people don't have the backing of major international news publications behind them calling for their release. Bahari was lucky, in that sense, to be who he was. Perhaps he wouldn't have been in the position at all, but his 118 day confinement could have (likely would have) been far, far longer than it was. But even knowing that Bahari gets out (and that there is something akin to a happy ending) does little to diminish the horrors of his captivity. But it's not horrible in the way you might expect. This isn't National Security, nor even the first ten minutes of Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, the torture itself barely even comes off as torture. But, of course, keeping a man in isolation for 118 days is torture. Bringing him out of solitary confinement only to berate him with the same questions over and over and over again is torture. Threatening his life and his family's is torture. Forcing him to write and sign a false confession and humiliating himself on national television is torture. And it's effective, but it's effective mostly because it's real. There's something inherently meaningful in knowing that the events being depicted actually happened. If Rosewater were an original idea, then the whole thing would fall apart. The narrative structure is somewhat odd, and I was particularly confused/bothered by the periodic conversations between Bahari and an imagined vision of his father. While in solitary confinement, he is frequently "visited" by his father, and they talk about this and that. And although it was clear that Bahari was alone thanks to the wide shots of an empty room, his father's presence felt real enough to be distracting, especially because the character seemed to reveal things that Bahari himself didn't know. Considering his father wasn't actually there, it made the whole thing feel very odd. Odder still was how on-the-nose the discussions were. And that's actually a problem with the dialogue in general. There isn't a whole lot of subtlety in the script, which is fine sometimes but hurts it elsewhere. There's a surprising amount of humor (though perhaps not, considering Stewart was at the helm), which mixes things up in an interesting way, but I wish people had spent a little less time talking about their feelings and a little more time just feeling. Gael Garcia Bernal is a supremely talented actor, and he gives an excellent performance. He doesn't need to state the obvious, and the fact that he so frequently does is unfortunate. But despite these issues and any others I have, everything is still bound by the phrase, "Based on a true story." And because of that, Rosewater hits home, whether or not it deserves to.
Rosewater Review photo
Jon Stewart gets serious
I remember distinctly when Jon Stewart left The Daily Show for three months to head to Jordan to shoot his directorial debut. It was an interesting time both because John Oliver took his spot (and did an excellent job there) ...

Review: The Theory of Everything

Nov 10 // Megan Porch
[embed]218569:41960:0[/embed] The Theory of EverythingDirector: James MarshRelease Date: November 7th, 2014Rating: PG-13 In the long list of biographic films, the one thing that seems to be the most important is the casting. Taking on the roll of someone so important to our culture is a daunting task, but it is one that Eddie Redmayne was clearly more than able to perform. There was not a moment where he did not feel genuine, and it was incredible to see him slip so easily into character. It's not hard to imagine that he'll be up for an Oscar in the next few months. Felicity Jones was in every way Redmayne's equal as Jane Hawking. Though she looked delicate, she brought a lot of dignity and a certain level of toughness to the table. If this film is any indicator of what Jane Hawking is like, she is a truly amazing, strong woman, and Jones' portrayal of her is not one to be missed. Love, of course, is the ultimate theme of this film. Stephen and Jane meet almost as soon as the story starts, and have an awkward courtship involving conversations about Tide and religion. They fall hard and fast for each other, and even when Jane learns of Stephen's diagnosis of ALS, she doesn't shy away from him, even though at first he tries to tell her to leave. Their love starts out as an intense, bright feeling, but as time goes on, it grows quiet. Jane becomes overwhelmed by her responsibility of caring for Stephen and their children, and meets a man named Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox), who begins helping out with the family. When that happened, I was a little concerned that the film was going to try to make Jane into some sort of villain for having feelings for Jonathan, but it didn't. Instead, it only felt natural. As it did when Elaine, Stephen's nurse who would later become his second wife, entered the picture. While the main theme of The Theory of Everything is love, it's about different kinds of love. Maybe Stephen and Jane are soul mates, but even soul mates aren't necessarily always meant to be together in a romantic sense. Story-wise, the thing that got me the most, was the sense of loneliness in these two people at different points in the film. When Stephen first learns that he's sick, he is by himself in the hospital. Knowing that one day, he would be trapped in his own body with no way to communicate, despite having all these brilliant ideas is terrifying, and it's easy to see how he felt through Redmayne's performance and through the shot choices of the director. The other moment is much shorter. Jane walks alone on a bridge and for the first time in the film, we see her cry. After so much time of putting on a brave face for her husband and her children, the only time she can let herself give in to how she feels is when she's alone. This is a very pretty film, full of sprawling shots of Cambridge and pastel colors. The grainy, home-video type sequences that give glimpses into Stephen and Jane's marriage and the beginning of their family are a nice break from the development of Stephen's illness. When it comes down to it, though, even with the incredible actors and pretty scenery, The Theory of Everything isn't really all that different from other biopics. It seems almost like there's a formula for these movies now, where the audience gets glimpses into these people's lives over a specific period of time. So while I enjoyed the film, it doesn't really do anything special or innovative, which honestly, I wasn't expecting it to. Still, while it might not be that unique of a movie, its message is an optimistic one. Stephen Hawking is a man who was given two years to live, and even now, at 72 years old, he defies those odds. Even though he and Jane did not stay together as husband and wife, they remain close, so while their love changed, it never really seemed to dwindle.
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A Brief History of Stephen Hawking
Every year, there is at least one biographic film about someone who accomplished great things in his or her life, whether it's something artistic, scientific, or otherwise. This year's biopic of note is The Theory of Everythi...

Review: Big Hero 6

Nov 07 // Matthew Razak
Never heard of Big Hero 6? That's OK. As far as comic book teams go they're pretty damn obscure. It's even more OK, because while the film is based on the comic it really has very little in common with it. The characters have been re-worked to play into an animated feature and the entire setting has been changed to San Fransokyo, a fantastic, futuristic melding of San Francisco and Tokyo that only reaffirms this film's surprising commitment to diversity.  We meet Hiro (Ryan Potter), a young slacker genius, and his older brother Tadashi. Hiro is a bit aimless, but after his brother takes him to his college lab and introduces him to his friends -- Fred (T.J. Miller), Go Go (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.) and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) -- he decides that school would be pretty awesome. More importantly he meets his brother's robotics project, Baymax (Scott Adsit), a puffy, friendly, adorable medical robot, who becomes Hiro's best friend after a few tragic accidents that bring an evil villain into the picture. That, of course, leads to Hiro forming a team of superheroes that include all his new friends and their amazing scientific discoveries. What's really impressive about Big Hero 6, aside from the truly stunning animation, is that it feels more like a Pixar film than a Marvel one. By that I mean it is far more concerned with the emotional notes for most of its running time than the action pieces. Hiro and Baymax's connection is both touch and heart wrenching at times. While the film does dove tail into your standard hero conclusion with a massive fight that teaches us all about teamwork, it stays strong throughout by emphasizing this underlying relationship between Hiro and his robot. And what a robot. Baymax might be the best new character to come out of animation since Stitch of Lilo and Stitch fame. He's funny, adorable, gorgeously animated and, most importantly, a full fledged character in his own right. Too often the comic relief is just that, but with Baymax there is more leading to a truly touching conclusion for the film. Of course there's plenty of standard comic relief shoved in here, but it finds its place just fine and never overwhelms the story.T Two words of caution for this one. If you have young kids you should know that the film deals with death and loss. It does this incredibly well and in tasteful ways, but could easily be upsetting for smaller children or could bring about conversations you don't want to have yet. While this makes Big Hero 6 an infinitely better film it is something that should be noted. The second is that the 3D is entirely unnecessary. Save a couple bucks if you can and ditch the glasses.  Big Hero 6 is a triumph for Disney Animation. A fantastic children's film that's great for adults and comic book fans alike. By infusing a diverse cast around a fantastic concept they've definitely nailed down a film that should spawn plenty of sequels and kids begging for Baymax toys. And by kids I mean myself. More Baymax, please.
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More Baymax, please
When Disney scooped up Marvel they picked up a ton of comic book history and properties. You had to guess they wouldn't use them all in the same way (i.e. massive blockbusters), and Big Hero 6 is the first Marvel film to...

Review: Why Don't You Play in Hell?

Nov 05 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217995:41667:0[/embed] Why Don't You Play in Hell? (地獄でなぜ悪い Why don’t you play in hell?)Director: Sion SonoRelease Date: November 7, 2014 (Theatrical and VOD)Rating: 18+Country: Japan If you haven't been on an actual set, seeing a movie about making movies can be kind of intimidating. Films about any industry have the potential to alienate viewers unfamiliar with them, but simply by virtue of the medium, films about films are particularly capable of turning people off. Much of Why Don't You Play in Hell? takes place on film sets, and for a while I was worried that that might create a film that would push away audiences who might otherwise be drawn in by the fact that it's so totally and completely insane. But then I realized something crucial: Why Don't You Play in Hell? isn't really about making movies. It's about the desire to make movies. And I think that's something that most people have had at least once in their life. Maybe when they were younger they picked up a camera and made something dumb with their friends; maybe they walked out of a movie and had an amazing idea of their own that goes nowhere. Those people can't necessarily relate to the creation of a movie, but they can relate to that fundamental desire. And everyone can relate to the need to make something great. This isn't about getting a paycheck; it's about art (or something like it). Whether it's writing the next Great American Novel, developing a new type of string cheese, or Kickstarting Citizen Kane 2: Rosebud's Return, every person has felt the drive to create something. Many people may never take it there, but that makes seeing someone beat the odds and truly succeed all the more satisfying. So let's talk about crazy. Yesterday, we posted our review of R100, which began with a discussion of Twitch founder Todd Brown's decision to eat his shirt. It was a bet he made because he saw Why Don't You Play in Hell? and couldn't fathom anything being even half as crazy. He was wrong, obviously, but it points to just how crazy Sion Sono's film is. Earlier I was talking with someone who said that it is one of the few films that truly can't be classified into a genre. And he's right, because it is a little bit of everything. It's like the Babymetal of movies, and I mean on a technical and conceptual level. If you know Babymetal, you'll get what I mean. If you don't, you're welcome. That music video is Why Don't You Play in Hell? in a nutshell. It's ridiculous, exceedingly Japanese, and absolutely perfect. But not perfect in the way Bad Film is perfect. It's something more. You see, the beauty of Bad Film is the fact that it exists. Against all odds, it's a movie that was finished and then released. Yes, it's riddled with problems, but the sheer fact that I sat in a theater and saw it completely blew my mind. But the reality is that it's a film that requires an audience and a theater. Without the pomp and circumstance of that movie-going experience, the sheer brilliance and insanity of it doesn't really register. My recommendation of Why Don't You Play in Hell? comes with no such caveats. While it's undoubtedly a film that could benefit from a crowd, it could be enjoyed in any scenario. On a first date with the girl of your dreams? Why Don't You Play in Hell? Suffering from some horrible disease and looking for a cinematic respite? Why Don't You Play in Hell? Stuck in bumper to bumper traffic and trying not to turn your road rage into a segment on the nightly news? Why Don't you Play in Hell?  There are exactly zero circumstances under which watching Why Don't You Play in Hell? is not the best possible thing you could be doing. So why are you still reading this? Seriously. Close your computer or throw your phone in a river and go see the movie. And if there's no screening within a 300 mile radius of you, you know what you should do? Make your own goddamn movie.
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The Babymetal of movies
Last year, Japan Cuts played Sion Sono's Bad Film, a project filmed back in 1995 but not finished until 2012. In my non-review of the film, I unequivocally called it a masterpiece, and I stand by every word. It is a labo...

Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Oct 16 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218139:41726:0[/embed] Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)Director: Alejandro González IñárrituRelease Date: October 17, 2014 (Limited)Rating: R  Let’s get something out of the way: Birdman is not a gimmick. You may have heard about its technical trick on other sites (I will discuss it as vaguely as possible here but at great length in the Companion) and while I would concede that it is a kind of “trick” (it would be literally impossible to do naturally), I will fight anyone who says it’s not executed to near perfection. In practice, this idea doesn’t feel like something to show off; it’s a logical extension of the narrative. In fact, the narrative as presented couldn’t have been as powerfully presented without it. And that’s important, because Birdman is really like nothing else that’s ever been done before. There are films that do something like it, but not at this scale. Not even close. But being of a larger scale means that there are all the more places for it to have gone wrong. Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (most recently of Gravity fame) worked hard to keep everything grounded even while being fantastical, and it just works. And that is an incredible achievement in and of itself. Nothing I can say about the film can take away from the fact that it succeeds in doing something amazing. And while that something becomes apparent pretty quickly and you never really forget about (and that Lubezki shot this exposes him as something of a hypocrite), none of that adversely affects your enjoyment of the film. If anything, it enhances it. (Even the hypocrisy.) The only thing I’ll explicitly say about the camerawork here is that in any given moment, it’s unexpected. There are dozens of times where I expected it to do one thing and I was absolutely delighted by how wrong I often was. Slight digression: Last year, I saw Claire Denis’s not-very-good film Bastards, and at a press conference following the screening someone in the audience asked about the camerawork specifically saying something to the effect of, “I think of the camera like my eye, and I see it as a character. I was wondering what character I was looking through.” Denis’s response shut that entire premise down immediately, and her apparent disdain for the other people in the theater mirrored my own. (Press conferences are often full of bullshit like that. The press conference following Birdman was as well, though that’s a whole other thing.) But as legitimately stupid as the phrasing of the question was, it does raise a point worth considering, which is the role of the camera in a film. Sometimes the camera is just a camera, but other times it really is another character in the story, even if it’s not an actual, physical entity within the narrative’s world. Lubeski’s camera has a mind of its own, and it follows whatever is most interesting at the time. Oftentimes that’s Michael Keaton’s Thomson, but sometimes it’s Edward Norton or Emma Stone. Other times it goes and looks at other things entirely. (During a particularly interesting moment in the narrative, the camera goes away and sits in an empty hallway for at least ten seconds waiting for something to happen.) But enough about that. Let’s talk about Birdman. Birdman is Batman. Michael Keaton may not be playing “Michael Keaton” (apparently the character is more modeled after Iñárritu himself) but the decision to cast him as Riggan Thomson inextricably links his own exploits to his onscreen persona. (The fact that there are two references that are explicitly Batman references only further cements this fact.) Birdman is a superhero character that Thomson played in the 80s and 90s. He eventually hung up his wings after the 1992 release of Batman Returns Birdman 3 and has been in the shadow of his character ever since. He is known as Birdman, not Thomson, and he wants to change that. Cue Broadway. A lot of Hollywood actors have turned to Broadway recently, and Emma Stone (who plays Thomson’s daughter in the film) will actually be hitting the stage herself very soon, and sometimes it feels like they’re doing it just because they’re famous, and not necessarily because they earned that part. (The ludicrously high ticket prices seem to bear that out, though many performances by film actors on stage have demonstrated otherwise, including the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s spectacular turn as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman). Certainly that is the case with Thomson’s adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Thomson wrote the adaptation, directed it, and took the starring role for himself. It’s his big attempt to prove himself, and if it fails he will be ruined. (Or perhaps be forced to don the Birdman suit once again, assuming anyone would want him back.) But things start to go horribly wrong, as they so often do, and as Thomson is forced to wrestle with making this play a success, he also has to keep his superhero demon at bay. And that internal struggle is where Birdman is most successful. This character is tortured by his past, something that I think pretty much anybody can understand, and it makes watching him writhe all the more heartbreaking. At the press conference following the screening, Edward Norton mentioned that some of the film had been screened the day before at New York Comic Con, and that he considered that to be one of the biggest bait-and-switches ever done. Although its protagonist was once a superhero, Birdman is not a superhero film, nor is it a blockbuster of any kind. It’s as introspective as it is funny (side note: it’s very funny), and it is certainly not the kind of film that would sell to the stereotypical Comic Con audience. (I mean, it’s about a man who never wants to put on a rubber suit again. How does that get sold to the tens of thousands of people proudly donning their rubber suits?) But even if it doesn’t sell to that audience, that audience will appreciate what it does, because it is literally impossible not to. And if someone ever says to me, “Birdman? Meh. Not impressed,” I will never trust a thing they say again, because they are a lying liar who lies. What Birdman accomplishes is truly incredible, both from a technical perspective and a narrative one, and it absolutely deserves to be seen by anyone and everyone. There is nothing in the history of cinema that is quite like it, and I don’t think there ever will be again. 
Birdman Review photo
Standing ovation
You should see Birdman. In fact, you need to see Birdman. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is something truly special, and were it not for the fact that Boyhood finally saw its release, it would u...

Review: Whiplash

Oct 10 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218258:41786:0[/embed] WhiplashDirector: Damien Chazelle Release Date: October 10, 2014 (Limited)Rating: R  This is "Whiplash": [embed]218400:41868:0[/embed] That song is your litmus test for the film. If you do not like that song, you won't like Whiplash. You hear bits and pieces of the song over and over again, and if your delicate ears can't deal with the jazzy brilliance, you 1) Need to seriously reconsider your life decisions, and 2) Should avoid Whiplash like the plague. But let's assume that you're a rational human being with decent taste in music. Pretty great song, right? It's also really, really difficult for a drummer to play correctly. And so it makes sense that "Whiplash" is a go-to track for Studio Band, the most prestigious Jazz group in the most prestigious music conservatory in America. Everyone at the school wants to be in Studio Band, but only a select few can make that leap. And doing so means interacting directly with Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The man is absolutely vicious, his rapid fire insults would have made Kubrick proud, and he serves to make a band feel like a military platoon. Fletcher is an amalgamation of actual people. The film was inspired by director Damien Chazelle's own experiences as a drummer in high school under the tutelage of a particularly cruel instructor. But Fletcher is more than that, taking in the worst qualities of instructors that various consultants on the film had had. Fletcher is all of them. He's the worst of the worst. But he's not as bad as Andrew Neyman. If I were to describe Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) in two words, they would be "Whiny brat." He's an awful person. The worst kind of person, really, because he's really good, knows it, and revels in it. People who think they're really good and aren't are annoying, but they can be dismissed. Neyman is really, really good (more on that later), but he's a total dick about it. And that's a shame, because he isn't just a natural talent who shows up and blows everyone away. He has to work really hard to be the best. He literally moves his mattress into a practice room so he can practice whenever and forever. He plays and plays until his hands are raw and bleeding. Yeah, those are the traits of a crazy person, but so what? That's what it takes to be the best. If he had any likable traits, I'd have totally been on his side. (Especially since I'm a drummer, and I know just how freaking hard that stuff is to pull off.) But alas. Neyman won't allow for anything verging on sympathy. The hard work is admirable (and necessary), but it comes at the expense of his outside interactions and basically anything at all that could humanize him. He wants to become one of The Greats because then people will know His name and worship at the altar of Neyman. Everyone around him just gets in the way. I've met people like Andrew Neyman. I don't like them. And I don't like him. This meant that certain scenes simply didn't work for me on an emotional level. I was rooting for Andrew Neyman to fail, and when things began to fall apart for him I was cheering along. So in a pivotal scene at home where Andrew's family essentially ignores his accomplishments in favor of his brother's Division III football accolades, I was caught between my hatred for him and a feeling of total understanding. Having done primarily artistic things with much of my life (music, theater, writing), I've had plenty of moments where my own accomplishments were belittled by comparison. Not from family, but from others. Andrew Neyman is in the best band at the best music school, and his family doesn't care. That should be extremely depressing, but it's not, and Andrew lashes out in a way that just makes him even less sympathetic. But scenes like that also highlight an undeniable truth: Whiplash feels right. Even though I hated Neyman, he felt like an actual person. Terence Fletcher occasionally threatens to turn into a cartoonish villain (and arguably his final gesture of ill will tips the scales a bit), but he still feels like a person who could exist. Who does exist. All throughout, nothing feels forced or artificial. It's just natural, and it's a testament to both the performers and writer/director Damien Chazelle that my issues with the characters merely tempered my enjoyment of the film rather than outright ruined it. But more than anything else, it's Whiplash's soundtrack that makes the film so fascinating. Not only is the music incredible (if the soundtrack doesn't hit Spotify soon, I may very well be buying a CD for the first time in years) but watching the performances develop over the film's 106 minute runtime is extremely gratifying both as someone who is not particularly good at music and also as someone who appreciates the talent that goes into making it great.
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And all that Jazz
I thought the good folks over at the NYFF were kidding when they described Whiplash as "Full Metal Jacket at Julliard." I've been burned by their film descriptions before, so I couldn't trust something that just sou...

Review: Dracula Untold

Oct 10 // Matthew Razak
Dracula UntoldDirector: Gary ShoreRated: PG-13Release Date: October 18, 2014 In case the horribly uninspired title of the film didn't tip you off, Dracula Untold is the origin story of everyone's favorite vampire, Dracula (Luke Evans). Supposedly this is the untold origin story of how Vlad the Impaler, prince of Transylvania, became Dracula, prince of darkness. How that is an untold story I'll never know, but maybe they're referring to the fact that they've made it into a sort of superhero origin -- how Dracula got his powers. That's is how the film differs as it casts Dracula as a man who sacrifices his soul in order to save his son and people from the evil Turks.  The plot is almost to be laughed at as it truly only involves Dracula getting his powers then kicking butt, struggling with love and then kicking more butt. But man, does he kick some butt. The movie plays with itself just fine, turning the vampire into an action hero who kills an entire army why flitting in and out of a cloud of bats. They're clearly trying to make their own blockbuster hero universe with this as Dracula is far closer to some sort of Batman/Aquaman (control of animals of the night) thing than your classic take on him. If that sounds appalling to you then stay away. There are some seriously great one-liners in this move that are delivered with an earnestness that's actually quite impressive for how stupid the thing is. Somehow the film ends up being fun to watch as Dracula tears through armies of Turks. There's also some horribly cheesy yet fantastic visuals that pop up throughout the film, like a slow motion fall as Dracula, half bats/half man, tries to catch his wife from falling to her death. It is a great ball of melodrama in one shot and it works because how else are you going to do something this ridiculous? What is odd is that director Gary Shore, who has only done one short before this, is terrible at putting together his action sequences. They're choppy and hard to see, which is too bad because Dracula's flying/fighting antics would be incredibly awesome to watch with a more competent director at the helm. It's unclear why the film looks so dark since almost every shot has a digital background and they could have lightened it up easily, but it is a major determent to the stupid fun you should be having. With a better director that had a bit more skill Dracula Untold could have been a camp classic like the Universal monster films that inspired it. Instead it's just a bit of dumb fun. Dumb should really be stressed here. There are plot holes in the film that you can't even begin to think about without wanting to gnaw your arms off in frustration. Almost every aspect of it is designed around whether or not a shot will look cool. At one point Dracula (then Vlad) returns to the gave where he previously found the vampire who will change him. When he and his compatriots arrived there before it seemed like an easy climb. Upon returning he's shown in full armor pulling himself up a cliff to get there, cape billowing behind him. It's all for the sake of style and that style can pay off, but man does it lead to some dumb plotting. Where does that leave us with Dracula Untold? One of the most solid matinee/rental recommendations I've given all year. It is not a good movie or a great one, but there's plenty of entertainment and visual eye candy to enjoy. Expecting something from this film will ruin it for you, going in expecting nothing will mean you have a great time.  
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You probably think this movie sucks
Everyone listen. I'm going to pretty much surprise the crap out of you because by writing the next sentence I'm surprising the crap out of myself. I enjoyed Dracula Untold. I know. You've probably just decided that maybe you ...

Review: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Oct 10 // Matthew Razak
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DayDirector: Miguel ArtetaRated: PGRelease Date: October 10, 2014  I do not remember the book the film is based on, though I know I read it long ago. I do have some sort of fond memories of it, but if you're looking for a review that can speak to how well the movie adapts the classic children's book you have come to the wrong place. Maybe you can figure it out yourself from the plot. Horrible, No follows Alexander (Ed Oxenbould), a perpetually down on his luck kid whose entire family always seems to be doing better than him. As any kid would, he wishes them ill and suddenly the family is stuck in the worst day ever.  It's one of those family movies where life lessons are learned, jokes are mainly slapstick and comedy is derived from just how dumb Steve Carell can act. Yet it works. There's a reason there are so many bad movies that are like and its because its cast doesn't deliver and it tries to hard. Horrible, No does not try. It is so incredibly simple in its optimistic glory that its tired jokes are actually funny and even the biggest curmudgeon just has to crack a smile at the fun its having. You'll notice an image of Steve Carell and kangaroo in this review. Animal humor is often one of the lowest forms of humor and even more often falls horribly flat. It is a perfect example of how well Horrible, No handles its child friendly comedy that a chase with an escaping kangaroo actually turns out funny. Like the rest of the film's slapstick humor it never actually feels cheap. Is it dumb when the kangaroo kicks Carell? Of course, but the charm of the actor and the fact that they don't lay it on too thickly actually makes it funny, and that's how the entire film works. It takes humor that's funny for children and make it actually funny.  The movie can get oppressively chipper at points. While the day is uncommonly bad, it never actually feels too terrible. Once the film really starts to hammer on its themes it gets a bit heavy handed at it. Thankfully these moments are over surprisingly quickly, and it makes for a film family that feels cohesive instead of forced into family moments. While almost every character's entire story is predictable from beginning to end it is this very predictability that gives the film its charm. Somehow Horrible, No avoids its most offensive cliches by running with them. That's not to say that this is a classic in children's cinema. It is far from it. Horrible, No is an inoffensive diversion that manages to pull itself off despite lacking much originality. Where the true charm lies is within its cast. Carell is, of course, is normal funny self, but Jennifer Garner also has a surprisingly layered turn as a mother having troubles with balance work and family life. It's actually quite a honest and focused look at working moms and non-working dads in today's day and age and is another example of the film just doing enough different to pull itself away from where you'd expect it to be. You would really expect this film to be terrible. If I laid it out for you as pieces of a puzzle for making a family film you'd roll your eyes at the pile of crummy looking puzzle pieces you had in front of you. However, as a whole Horrible, No makes a perfectly passable family comedy that will definitely illicit laughs from youngsters while surprising a few parents here and there as well.
Horrible, No Review photo
Matt and the Surprisingly funny, charming, no bad, very good movie
To start this will be the only time I am typing the full name of the movie: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. There, got that over with. From here on out we'll be referring to the film as Horri...

Review: Gone Girl

Oct 03 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217611:41433:0[/embed] Gone GirlDirector: David FincherRelease Date: October 3, 2014Rating: R When Gillian Flynn was approached about adapting her novel, her agreement came with one major caveat: only if she could write it. Having that sort of leverage is a benefit to being the writer of The Big Thing. Suzanne Collins made the same request with The Hunger Games, though she co-wrote it with director Gary Ross. (She did not write the sequels.) This was Flynn's first time writing a screenplay, and she was lucky to be working with Fincher. I only realized recently that David Fincher's recent filmography consists entirely of adaptations. Everything he's done since Zodiac has been based on a book. I never thought much about it, because other than Dragon Tattoo I'd never read the source material before going in. More crucially, I never felt like I was missing something because of that. Each of the films simply seemed like amazing films, inspiration be damned. That's still true with Gone Girl, but his most recent outing feels more like its based on a novel than his previous adaptations. (Slight digression: There's a rant here about the 2010 Academy Awards. David Fincher is the reason The Social Network's screenplay won an Oscar. Period. End of story. The dialogue in Aaron Sorkin's script was excellent, sure, but the screenplay itself is lacking in every other department. It was Fincher's directorial brilliance that took the film beyond just great dialogue and into something truly fascinating. That he was shunned for Best Director that year is a travesty. That he was shunned in favor of Tom "I Tried My Hardest to Ruin Les Mis" Hooper is an insult to the medium.) Gone Girl tells the story of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and her husband Nick (Ben Affleck), who is trying to deal with the media blitz that follows. But a heavy focus on the possibly-deceased Amy's diary entries early on serve to make everything feel more written. The diary serves to flesh out a backstory for the couple, and while that's vital to the narrative (as is the fact that we hear Amy's voice speaking them), they sometimes felt less like a film and more like a book. (There's more to it than that, but explaining exactly why that's true would delve into heavy spoiler territory. In the coming days, we'll have something that gives it .) After the first act, it changes. All the film's mysteries are all solved by one exhaustive monologue. And only then did I realize that Gone Girl isn't a mystery but a thriller. The big question went from "What happened?" to "What's going to happen?" It's a jarring shift, and it makes Gone Girl feel longer than it is. At 150 minutes, it's definitely on the long side, but I never got bored watching it. But the shift felt like a theatrical act break, one to be followed by an intermission and discussion with other patrons. But I didn't get the break, and I became preoccupied by the change. That combined with the fact that I had literally no idea where the narrative was going (which is a good thing, by the way) meant the film seemed never-ending. But at the same time, Gone Girl feels like it could have been longer. The novel is 500 pages long, and Fincher said afterwards that there was enough material there to make three movies. (Though that was probably facetious, I'm glad he didn't go full Peter Jackson.) Even so, it wouldn't have surprised me to hear that there was a four hour cut of the film floating around.  And I'd watch that four hour cut. In two and a half hours, Gone Girl hits so many plot points and touches on so many fascinating stories that I wanted to see more of. There are a lot of places where the narrative could have been expanded. The narrative hits so many twists and turns that there's hardly room to really consider what's going on let alone soak the whole thing in. Though that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Despite feeling long, it's fast paced and feels complete, and aside from something pivotal involving security cameras, it feels logical and cohesive. But it still feels like there are gaps that could have been filled in. (Perhaps that is another reason why it feels like an adaptation.) But any complaints aside, this is still a David Fincher film, and that means it's a great film. Fincher is easily one of the best American directors working today, both in terms of technical ability and in his ability to pull great performances from actors. The standout in Gone Girl is Tyler Perry. When I saw his name on the cast list, I honestly thought it was a joke, but his his turn as Nick's lawyer is simply fantastic. (Everyone else is great as well, though that wasn't so surprising.) Having not read the source material, I can't say how Gone Girl will play to those who have. I do know that the third act was radically changed at Fincher's behest, but beyond that I don't know what plotlines have been altered or cut. I don't know if there's some favorite character out there who didn't make it from the page to the screen or some vital plot point that would clear up the camera thing I mentioned earlier. But it really shouldn't matter, because Gone Girl absolutely stands on its own. It may occasionally feel like a translation, but Gillian Flynn wrote one hell of a narrative, medium be damned.
Gone Girl Review photo
Baby, don't hurt me
Gone Girl is the book of the moment. Much as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was The Big Thing when David Fincher adapted it for US screens, Gillian Flynn's novel seems to be ubiquitous. Everyone is reading it and t...

Review: This is Where I Leave You

Sep 19 // Matthew Razak
This Is Where I Leave YouDirector: Sean LevyRated: RRelease Date: September 19, 2014  [embed]218351:41850:0[/embed] Adapted by the book of the same name This Is Where I Leave You kicks off with Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) finding his wife cheating on him with his boss. Then his father dies. Pulled home to sit shiva thanks to his father's last request he collides with the rest of his family. There's the unhappily married Wendy (Tina Fey), is newly enhanced mother Tina (Jane Fonda), his older brother Paul (Corey Stoll) who is desperately trying to have a child with his wife, and his screw up younger brother Adam (Phillip Altman), who has returned home with an older woman (Connie Britton). The focus of the film is Judd as he rekindles a romance with Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), but the entire family has pretty heft parts. That's the part of the film that works. The comedy and stars actually hit well. It's hard to pull a cast together like this and have chemistry, but everything works really well. Fey and Bateman are especially strong as brother and sister, but the real stand out is Altman, whose younger brother antics are the best point of the film. His character seems the most honest out of all them and while other plot lines falter by crossing the line into cliche and melodrama his stays interesting throughout. His is also the best plot for fully understanding the family dynamics that are probably better represented in the book, but can fall short in the film. In any case it is the charm of the actors that pulls this movie up when it begins to falter, and thanks to them makes the comedy work. Unfortunately the drama side of things doesn't always. While Adam's plot line is intriguing and dynamic many of the rest are not. That's especially true for Bateman's character, which is unfortunate since he's the lead. His story follows too many of the normal trope, and while interesting things are happening all around him they're shoved out of the way for a unfortunately tired love story that even has the line I've always seen you uttered in it. A more balanced family story would have brought far more interesting plot lines into focus like Wendy's faltering marriage and Paul's quest to have a child. These story lines actually feel engaging, but they're never looked into enough to become anything more than background noise. There are laughs to be had here, though. As I said the cast is top notch and they make some really good comedy even better. While site gags like Tina's new breasts freaking out her children are pretty juvenile they still work. Even better is the banter between the family members. That cast chemistry really shines through when they're throwing barbs at each other, and when they screenplay is letting the cast play it actually feels like a family. It's just when the film steps over the emotional line it robs many of the interesting family story lines of their impact. Coming out of This Is Where I Leave You you feel like asking why they left you here. You're somewhere between entertained and ambivalent, and it's just not the best place to be. While the stellar cast and minor plot points save the film from being truly bad there just isn't enough here to make you really feel. A commitment to not pushing outside of the family dramedy box lets the film falter too much to be anything special. If they'd really taken the characters and worked with them it could have been fantastic, but instead we're left behind wondering what could have been. 
Leave You Review photo
When charming meets trite
The dramatic family comedy. A staple in our modern day film scene. Throw is some folky pop music and a few stars and you've got yourself a big giant cliche ready for the theaters. There are ways to do it right, though. If you...

Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

Sep 19 // Matthew Razak
A Walk Among the TombstonesDirector: Scott FrankRated: RRelease Date: September 18, 2014 [embed]218366:41847:0[/embed] A Walk Among the Tombstones is adapted from a novel by the same name, and it shows. Far less the action movie the trailers make it out to be the film is more of a mystery thriller. After Kenny Kristo's (Dan Stevens) wife goes missing he calls in Matt Scudder (Neeson), a less than reputable P.I. to investigate. It turns out that Kenny is a drug trafficker and thus can't really go to the cops when the people who ransomed his wife return her chopped up into tiny bits. Scudder, an ex-alcholic ex-cop, decides to take up the case as he determines that the two guys behind the kidnapping are actually serial rapists and murderers. During his investigation Sudder befriends a young homeless boy, TJ (Astro) who helps him understand computers and cellphones.  You're rolling your eyes already at that, but the film is set in 1999, right before the dawn of the millennium, so a man of Neeson's age not understanding or liking computers is a bit more believable. Aside from that though the plot doesn't hold together all too well. The mystery unfolds pretty unevenly, as Scudder lucks his way into finding the twisted duo who are kidnapping and torturing women. It makes for a first half of the film that feels forced, especially the TJ character who adds an awkward buddy cop element into what is otherwise a very dark film. This film is extremely dark. Torture, rape and murder are all discussed if not shown and the violence almost reaches slasher film levels. It's actually a good thing for the most part. When the film is working on its darker side it actually starts to kick with the movie's ending ratcheting up the tension very well. Neeson helps out a lot here as he gravels through his performance and lifts a limping screenplay along. Director Scott Frank can definitely do dark as his previous film, The Lookout, showed us, but when it comes to the rest of the movie he's flat. Scudder's budding relationship with TJ flounders for most of the movie and Kenny's character is sorely mishandled. That's too bad as Dan Stevens deserves better roles. Here he's simply trying to out gravely-voice Liam Neeson, which is an nearly impossible feat. Meanwhile Astro, who is evidently a child rapper, seemed to be learning how to act throughout the film. His performance varies from unbearable to descent throughout the film. Just one more reason the whole surrogate father thing doesn't play out so well. You know, that and the violence and death visited upon the kid throughout the film. It must be said that the film's direction is pretty creative. Frank weaves emotional issues into action sequences well, if not a bit heavy handedly. For instance at the end of the film the AA's 12 steps are read over Neeson's reawakened quest for justice; the film freeze framing as the dialog adds an extra layer to the action. It doesn't save the film, and it certainly doesn't make it great, but the extra push of drama separates it from other low-budget action fare. There's at least  bit of something interesting going on here. So Neeson has managed to do it again. While taking on a film that seems the same as all his previous, he deviates slightly. Instead of the straight action movie we get a dark thriller full of truly brutal violence. What we don't get is something truly on par with a man of Neeson's skill and ability. I'd like to see the actor actually challenge himself with a role soon because right now A Walk Among the Tombstones is far too much like a walk in the park for him. 
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The darker side of Neeson
Looking back over Liam Neeson's career since Taken turned him into an action hero one could argue that he's basically made the same movie over and over. A vengeful individual in some sort of manly battle involving life a...

Review: The Pirates

Sep 14 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218334:41830:0[/embed] The Pirates (Haejuk: Badaro Gan Sanjuk | 해적: 바다로 간 산적)Director: Lee Suk-HoonRelease Date: September 12, 2014Country: South Korea  Here is a short list of things I thought of while I was watching The Pirates: Moby Dick 300 The Pirates of the Carribean The amusement park ride that The Pirates of the Carribean is based on The Matrix Cards Against Humanity Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon The Discovery Channel Batman Begins Kundo: Age of the Rampart It's not in any particular order, nor is it complete. But I think it says enough about just how many disparate elements The Pirates throws out in its 130 minute runtime. It's not a film content with resting on its laurels and telling a conventional narrative (or really much of a narrative at all), because it's too busy stringing together scenes that are so wildly different in style and tone that I honestly can't figure out how the whole project got the green light. There are essentially four factions in The Pirates: pirates (duh), bandits, soldiers, and whales. The whales don't know they're a faction, and the soldiers/some of the pirates don't know that the bandits are a faction either. And the bandits have never been on the sea before, so they just kind of don't know what they're doing when they decide to go after the whales. A mother whale, you see, has eaten the royal seal for the new country of Joseon. But rather than admit this to the king, the political leaders who lost it decide to pin the blame on pirates. They then hire a disgraced, imprisoned soldier to capture the whale, and he hires some pirates to do it. Some bandits hear about it, and eventually it becomes one big ocean extravaganza. Maybe you can tell by this point that The Pirates is ludicrously stupid, but maybe you can't. Here is the moment where the film totally lost me: a female pirate captain uses an Aqueduct like a water slide in order to catch the men who stole from her. That is not the stupidest thing that happens in that scene (by a long shot), but it serves as sort of a stupidity baseline. It's also kind of amazing. Because seriously. She jumps in a freaking Aqueduct, brings a crossbow with her, and fires arrows at some people running with a pull cart. Doesn't that sound like the best thing ever? And while The Pirates isn't the best thing ever, it really does throw in everything and the kitchen sink. It's like a bunch of Korean children were asked what the name The Pirates meant to them (that's not its Korean name, by the way, but if you can't roll with this hypothetical then you're not going to make it through the film) and then write out a five sentence summary. That summary was then given to a different, probably blind child who put the summaries in a totally random order before handing them off to a screenwriter who said, "Perfect!" and turned it into a screenplay. It's really quite bad on a fundamental level, but it's also really, really funny. It's extremely immature, but it's also amazingly honest.  In fact, I'm not convinced that the whole thing wasn't created entirely by children. Certainly director Lee Suk-Hoon must be a child at heart. But I don't say this to insult the film, because it actually makes for a film that's bizarrely refreshing. I don't know what I expected from a film called The Pirates, but this sure as hell wasn't it. At the start, I thought I was in for something derivative. After a badass intro sequence is a political intro followed by a sword fight in the dark and pouring rain featuring the most heinous use of slow mo since 300. I wasn't impressed, but I was willing to stick with it. Then it turned funny. Then it turned totally insane. It also completely stopped using slow-mo, which I was grateful for but also confused by. Was that first interaction directed by someone else? Did someone show a child some fight scenes from The Matrix and 300 and ask what to do next? That latter one seems both more and less likely, but it conjures up a more enjoyable image. The action in general isn't great, though The Pirates seems to think it's more impressive than it is. When a battle is won, it's like some big epic moment has finished, but it's really just the culmination of a bunch of slow movements (but not slow motion) and rapid cuts. I was often not really sure what was happening, but I knew it wasn't great. And then it's over too quickly and suddenly I'm bored.  But it's hard to be bored for long, because you really never know what's coming next. If I had to compare it to only one thing, I would choose an amusement park ride. This is not a Korean version of Pirates of the Carribean the movie; it is a Korean adaptation of the film's amusement park source material. And whereas Pirates of the Carribean succeeds on merits the of its lead performance, The Pirates succeeds on its commitment to a wild and crazy ride. Also, it has a CGI whale baby breastfeeding. So... that's something.
The Pirates Review photo
A thrilling amusement park ride, created by children
Every so often, a film comes along that completely shatters your expectations. You think you've got it figured out and then it throws a curveball. Then another. Then five more. Soon you realize you can't figure the film out a...







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