Reviews

Review: Magic Mike XXL

Jul 01 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219601:42455:0[/embed] Magic MikeDirector: Gregory JacobsRated: RRelease Date: June 25, 2015  You know how Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) got out of the grind (pun intended) and left to start his own furniture business at the end of the first film? Well, screw that. He's back. When the guys -- Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Ken (Matt Bomer) and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) -- show up in town on their way to a stripper convention Mike drops everything and joins them for one last ride. It seems that Dallas abandoned them so the group is breaking up, but not before one big fun trip to the biggest stripping event in Florida (a state I assume has a lot of stripping events). Plot kind of ensues and along the way the pick up an MC, Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), hook up with Andie McDowell and see Michael Strahan perform a ridiculous strip. Who really cares, though. The point of this movie was clearly to push the mostly naked men and forget about the rest. The screenplay is paper thin and mostly consists of the gang of guys shooting the shit, which, in all fairness, is actually kind of entertaining. They're clearly ad-libbing a bunch and it lends some charm to a story that's non-existent. It also keeps you in on the joke so you don't have to care quite as much. Everyone seems to know why they're there and they're just having fun doing it. Unfortunately director Gregory Jacobs didn't get the fun memo and shoots the film like he's directing an art piece. He's trying to do his best replication of Soderbergh's direction from the original that he can, but it isn't the time or place and he doesn't have the skill. The strip numbers are a mess, sadly destroying a lot of the fantastic dancing pulled off by Tatum and his cohorts. The grand finale of abs, pecs and banana hammocks feels flat thanks to Jacobs' inability to build momentum or hold a scene together. What should be a bunch of fun starts feeling dragged out and sloppy.  Thankfully he can't crush the cast with his directing. Tatum is as Tatum does. The guy just oozes screen appeal and has actually pulled himself into a credible actor. Meanwhile Donald Glover joins the crew and delivers fantastically, though we never get the full abs show for him. The biggest surprise (pun still intended) is Manganiello) who takes a much larger role in the film and delivers wonderfully. Even Kevin Nash gets to talk a bit more this time around, which was nice of the filmmakers to do.  Sadly, the "road trip but with strippers" plot isn't enough to hold up the film from strip scene to strip scene, especially with the lackluster direction for those scenes. The guy's repartee may be fun, but everything else drags. There's attempted plot lines about love and life and moving on from stripping, but nothing ever clicks in any meaningful way. You get the feeling they're just saying this stuff because they had to put some more words into the screenplay. Every scene without men taking their clothes off feels wasted, except for Andie McDowell's cameo, which is fantastically dirty and fun.  That's really what you're going to see Magic Mike XXL for anyway so why care about all the rest? It is the equivalent of a Cinemax movie geared entirely towards showing mostly naked women off and it does that... except with men. If you want abs, strippers, thrusting loins and more dollar bills than you've ever seen before in a movie then Magic Mike XXL delivers. It's just too bad it couldn't deliver the entire package (pun totally intended). 
XXL Review photo
Abs-olutely what you expect
The first Magic Mike was a bit of a surprise. While it was obviously all about very in shape men dancing mostly naked Steven Soderbergh actually brought a little charm to it. The almost ad-libbed feeling the screenp...

NYAFF Review: Meeting Dr. Sun

Jul 01 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219608:42457:0[/embed] Meeting Dr. Sun (Xingdong daihao: Sun Zongshan)Director: Chih-yen Yee Rating: NRCountry: Taiwan  Everyone knows the rule of threes. You can do a joke three times before it becomes grating. If done well, that repetition can make it amazing, but going beyond that just becomes frustrating. I don't know who who it came from, but I've heard it said that the trick to Family Guy's humor is that things become funny again after you've done them for the 27th time. It's funny, funny, funny, not funny, not funny, infuriating... kinda funny, funny, amazing. And that's kind of accurate. I'm sure there's something in our brains, probably a fear response, that tells us that eventually this thing that is making us uncomfortable with its repetition is actually something to be laughed at (again), lest we drive ourselves actually crazy. Whatever it is, it works. Sometimes. Meeting Dr. Sun really wants that to be true. Or at least, its editor does. Because apparently he left the editing bay after he put together his rough cut and someone walked by and shouted, "It's perfect!" Every single scene is too long. Every. Damn. One. You could cut at least 10 seconds from the end of every sequence in the film and it would only benefit the film. Most shots go on too long, and every joke definitely goes on too long, but sometimes they become funny again. Meeting Dr. Sun is a heist movie, of sorts. Some kinds can't afford to pay their class fees, so they decide to steal a statue and sell it for scrap. But they have to steal it. But because they're children (end of middle school/beginning of high school (or the Taiwanese equivalent of that), if I had to guess), everything is inherently very silly. As it's presented, there are no great stakes, and there are no serious dangers. It's not even really clear what it would mean if the kids didn't pay their class fees. (Here my American ignorance is probably at issue, though the film's dialogue makes it seem like it's not a necessity to get through the year.) The whole thing feels appropriately childish, and on some level the humor actually works like that as well.  Some years ago, I was having dinner with a friend and his extended family. His very young cousin wanted to be the center of attention, and so he said to said to his dad, "Hi mommy!" and everyone laughed. And then he went to every single person around the table (nearly a dozen of us) and said, "Hi mommy!" to all the men and "Hi daddy!" to the women. The first couple of times, it was adorable. By the time he got to me? It was infuriating. But the kid thought he was the cat's pajamas, and he kept doing it until his dad (thankfully) stopped him. He would have done another round of the table, I'm sure, because he didn't understand what actually made it funny, just that other people were laughing. And that's what the humor in Meeting Mr. Sun is like. I laughed pretty hard on multiple occasions, and some of the people around me laughed so hard I literally (not figuratively) thought they were going to die, but then once I'd moved on, the young kids onscreen wanted to keep doing the joke. They keep pantomiming or dancing or talking or moving or doing any of those other things that kids do, because... they're kids. What else are they gonna do?  That said, there's a weird, dark undercurrent about issues of socioeconomic class structures throughout the film. And while it's always there, it doesn't come up explicitly until the end, when it hits in a fascinating, mood-wrecking kind of way. And thinking back on the film through that lens, it's actually pretty seriously depressing; a (very) long sequence involving two characters trying to prove that their family is worse off is played for humor, sort of, but it's really very sad. At the time, that was in the back of my mind, but it didn't snap into focus until that moment near the end. But this theme seems so at odds with the comedic intentions of the film. Director Yee wanted us to laugh. But here was this grand theme about poverty and what it forces people to do, even on a small scale. And... we were supposed to laugh at it? I mean, I definitely did. I'm just not sure how I feel about having done so.
Meeting Dr. Sun Review photo
Child's play
In the two hours leading up to the US premiere of Meeting Dr. Sun, I saw director Chih-yen Yee speak twice. First was at a reception hosted by New York Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. The second was just minute...

Review: Terminator - Genisys

Jul 01 // Sean Walsh
[embed]218671:42029:0[/embed] Terminator: GenisysDirector: Alan TaylorRated: PG-13Release Date: July 1, 2015 We all know the story: Savior of humanity John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to prevent a terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from killing his mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) before John is born. However, Kyle finds himself in a very different situation shortly after his arrival in 1984. What follows is a bit of timey-wimey shenanigans that only the Terminator franchise can provide. To say any more than that would really ruin the surprise. Do be warned going forward, however: I will say a little more. Fair warning. First off, you can barely tell that Arnold Schwarzenegger is sixty-seven years old. The man's charisma is absolutely infectious and seeing him in the leather jacket and sunglasses that made him a household name is like coming home again or putting on your favorite, well-worn pair of shoes. He's perfect. He's a finely-aged wine. He's Arnold Goddamn Schwarzenegger. He delivered every one of his lines with a delightfully robotic wit and I could honestly spend the rest of the review just talking about his performance but that's not very fair to the other people involved. While she's no Linda Hamilton (is anyone?), Emilia Clarke does well as the new Sarah Connor. She's a lot more well-adjusted to her situation than the Sarah Connor of yesteryear and is more than capable of protecting herself. Jai Courtney, who has come a long way since being super duper bland in A Good Day to Die Hard, is our Kyle Reese and I'll be honest: I'm for it. He didn't break new ground or completely change my movie-going experience or anything, but he was a sturdy male protagonist and when you're starring opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger, that's all you can ask for. Jason Clarke's John Connor was dark, brooding, and scared (inside and out) after thirty-someodd years of fighting Terminators and he really sold it. These four are joined by Matt Smith in a brief but significant role that was blissfully kept under wraps (unlike many other facets of the film courtesy of the bastardly second trailer) and J. K. Simmons in a more substantial but similarly all-too-brief role as a detective. Finally, and I would be remiss to forget him, Lee Byung-hun of I Saw the Devil and G. I. Joe fame plays the new T-1000. He is menacing and carried that same icy cool Robert Patrick had in T2: Judgment Day. I was really very surprised with the effects in Genisys. I expected them to look good but I'll be damned if they didn't look great. All of the Terminators and other Skynet enemies looking amazing, the liquid metal looked real and, most importantly, the battle between present-day Arnold and circa-1984 Arnold was incredible. To my admittedly untrained eye, there was zero uncanny valley and he looked fantastic. Springboarding off of the effects, the action was almost non-stop. From the final assault on Skynet in 2029 in the beginning of the film, the movie GOES. The aforementioned fight between two Arnolds, a handful of car chases, a pretty excellent battle against the T-1000, and a wonderful final battle; all of it was great. I don't think I rolled my eyes during any of these sequences and after the last two films, I think that's a very good thing.   The score was good but honestly, what else do you need to hear other than DUN-DUN-DUN DUN-DUN, DUN-DUN-DUN DUN-DUN in your Terminator movie? Most important, of course, is the writing. I don't want to say too much because of all the moments where I wish I hadn't seen that stupid second trailer or any TV spots or heard any ads on Spotify or seen half of the films' posters, but what I will say is that it was an awesome movie full of twists and turns and fortunately some surprises, which is impressive considering how hard they tried to ruin it with spoilers. There's some fun time-travel stuff and at one point i was like "Oh, it's like Terminator meets 12 Monkeys," but then I realized that 12 Monkeys utilizes more or less the same time-loop that Terminator does. If you think too hard about the time travel stuff your nose may bleed and you might feel the vein in your head start to pulse uncomfortably but if you take it for what it is, it's a lot of fun. And lest I forget the most important factor: Genisys has a completely logical explanation for its inclusion in the title. There's a lot of callbacks to the first two films, many of which are a little more subtle than you'd expect. I found myself fist-pumping and quietly cheering many times over the course of the 126-minute runtime. The only real complaint I have about the story is there are a small handful of unanswered questions, but as Nick reported last September, we've got two sequels coming our way. Mr. Valdez can rest easy knowing that, in this humble reviewer's opinion, Genisys is absolutely good enough to warrant sequels. Will this film stand the test of time like the first or second films? Maybe, maybe not. Is it better than the third and fourth films? Absolutely. Am I excited for the sequels? You bet your shiny, metal asses I am. As far as summer movies go, this is one of my favorites in a long, long time. If I didn't know any better, it may well be my favorite film of 2015 (so far, mind you). I went in to this film expecting it to be awesomely bad and I left it singing its praises over and over. If nothing else, I would like to publicly apologize for anything negative I said about it in the months leading up to last night (excepting the awesomely horrific EW pictures). tl;dr: Go see Terminator: Genisys. 
Terminator Genisys Review photo
Old. Not obsolete.
Based on the stupid title, initial plot description and Entertainment Weekly photos, I was a little more than skeptical about Terminator: Genisys. Even though the synopsis had many, many things I loved in it (time travel, Emi...


Review: Inside Out

Jun 19 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219580:42445:0[/embed] Inside OutDirectors: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen Rated: PGRelease Date: June 19, 2015 The plot of inside out is easy, and it's been tackled before. The movie is the story of the emotions who reside inside a girl named Riley's (Kaitlyn Dias) head. There's Joy (Amy Poheler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Everything is going pretty swimmingly for Riley and her emotions until one day the family has to move triggering a flood of sadness in what was a perpetually happy girl. Joy, panicking after a particularly sad moment becomes a key memory, gets herself and sadness sucked out of headquarters and into the nether regions of Riley's brain. The two must find their way back with the help of Riley's old imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), as Anger, Fear and Disgust attempt to hold the fort down with disastrous consequences. If there is a limit to Pixar's wonderful imagination they haven't found it yet. Just when you thought the studio was going to sit back and rest on its laurels an entirely original and creative movie like Inside Out gets made. They deliver a film that has the emotional impact of the beginning of Up and yet somehow still make it fun and enjoyable. They've taken universal emotions and turned them into a children's film that somehow delivers a commentary on sadness that's more powerful than most overwrought dramas. The film is a lesson in how to address serious subjects while still having fun. The screenplay is brilliant and honed to a fine point. Inside Out's story could be an overly complex and melodramatic mess, but it's crafted to a fine point. Reigning in the chaos of two separate worlds, a plethora of characters and a bunch of complex ideas the film masterfully weaves its story. The juxtaposition of the comical Anger, Fear and Disgust at the helm of a young girl's brain with the real world reactions to that is powerful. It delivers a film that tackles depression and loss in ways that never get melodramatic or cheesy. Somehow in a children's film we find some true heart. That heart is going to make you cry. I don't care how much of a tough guy you are Pixar is going to worm its way into your heart and then play those strings like a classical guitar. Part of this is because they're just so damn good at it, but another aspect is the fact that Inside Out's themes are so universal. We've all been right where Riley is at some point in our life and Pixar has put that on the big screen in a way that is not only relatable, but enjoyable. Often films involving sadness only involve that, but the entire point of Inside Out is that our emotions are all mixed together. Sadness and happiness aren't competing forces, they lead to each other. For a film directed at children this is some of the most adult dealings with emotion I've seen. The movie may also be Pixar's most stunning visually. It's definitely a departure from their usual style, though not entirely removed. It simply looks brilliant and is constantly getting more and more creative with its visuals throughout. Joy is especially well designed as her body constantly shines with happiness. Meanwhile Sadness somehow seems to drip with the emotion. At one point the characters are reduced to abstract thoughts in a brilliant and clever animation sequence that just highlights what Pixar can do.  My only concern with the film is that it over simplifies things. Depression and emotional issues are immensely complex medical issues. Inside Out by its very nature doesn't delve into that as much as it could and it may leave some who have been through these things shaking their heads. That being said it's still an incredibly accessible doorway to talk about emotions and change. Humanity as a whole is often remiss in discussing what we're feeling and Inside Out gives us a chance to say, "Yea, I've felt like that before." It does this not by being overbearing in its message, but by inviting you in to enjoy it. So there are some words on Inside Out. They're OK. I still don't think I got it right. I guess the only words I really need to write are: see this movie. 
Inside Out Review photo
Pixar's best?
I'm having a lot of trouble writing this review, and it's not because my computer crashed and deleted the almost finished product at one point. No, I'd already been through a few drafts before that and nothing was working. Us...

Review: When Marnie Was There

Jun 12 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219314:42335:0[/embed] When Marnie Was There (思い出のマーニー)Director: Hiromasa YonebayashiRelease Date: May 22, 2015Country: Japan In the wake of Hayao Miyakazi's retirement, Studio Ghibli has "temporarily" shuttered its doors. There may never be another Studio Ghibli film. There are probably people who are mad at Miyazaki for leaving. When Marnie Was There is a response to those people. It's a response to people who hold grudges and hate themselves and take it out on others. It's a a response to the fundamental negativity that drives much of modern society. And it made me cry.  It's easy to forget that cartoons can make you feel real people emotions if you don't watch many of them. And obviously calling a serious animated film like any Ghibli production a "cartoon" is reductive at best and borderline offensive at worst, but the point is that it isn't just the ultra-artistic works like Ghibli films that can get to you. They're probably about the best example, but it's just another toolset for a would-be filmmaker to use. And one that doesn't get nearly enough credit for the things it can do to you. When Marnie Was There starts in a place where the air is bad. It's a city, and Anna is a girl with asthma. She hates herself and keeps herself isolated from everyone around her. She has an asthma attack and the doctor tells her foster mother that she should be sent to the countryside. A countryside where there is nothing but Anna, nature, and whatever creepy, spirit-related things are going on in the town's abandoned buildings. (So far so Ghibli.) Before too long, Anna runs into Marnie, a blonde-haired girl who lives in the Marsh House, an old abandoned mansion at the edge of town. But, of course, Marnie isn't real. You know that. Anna knows that. The film knows it. Marnie's scenes are hyper-stylized, often dream-like, but knowing that she's not real actually makes everything more intriguing. Because the question isn't, "Is Marnie real?" It's, "Who is she?" Or perhaps, "Who was she?"    But what's never a question is what her role in Anna's arc is going to be. From the outset, it's obvious that Marnie is here to bring Anna out of her shell, to allow her to talk to others and stand up for herself and be brave. She's a self-loathing pre-teen. The world has enough of those. Marnie is there to help her come to terms with everything she's gone through. To give her some perspective. And its ability to put things into perspective without being contrived or annoying is When Marnie Was Here's greatest strength. Even in particularly expository moments, everything comes from a place of honesty in a valiant attempt to get at the fundamental beliefs we all have. A conversation between Marnie and Anna about the role of the parent begins a bit stiff, and I was worried that we were heading down the wrong path, but it ultimately turned into something exceedingly compelling. Whether it was critiquing an aspect of society found in both Japan and America, celebrating it, or simply accepting it is probably up for interpretation, but nothing in the film is skin-deep. It's all in service of these moments of revelation that turn both Anna and Marnie into an extremely compelling pair, even if the latter is "imaginary." But imaginary or not, Marnie's impact on Anna is tangible. As the truths behind Marnie's past become clearer, Anna begins to build up the strength to keep her partner safe from the evils of the world. Because there are always evils, no matter who you are or how you live. And even if you can't always fight them yourself, being able to recognize the plights of others and connect with them will make you a stronger person. Perhaps someone who can help others face their own demons as well. And when it all comes down to it, we're all in this together. Films like When Marnie Was There serve as reminders of just how meaningful life can be.
When Marnie Was There photo
All the places you'll go
Every so often, I think about old articles I've written, for Flixist or elsewhere, and wonder how different they would be if I'd written them now. Not from a grammatical or structural perspective. I wonder how my fundamental ...

Review: Jurassic World

Jun 12 // Per Morten Mjolkeraaen
Jurassic WorldDirector: Colin TrevorrowRelease Date: June 12, 2015Rated: PG-13 Jurassic World is set twenty-two years after the events in the first movie, and takes us back to Isla Nublar, now a fully functioning dinosaur theme park. It's been running successfully for years, but now visitor rates are declining because, as Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire puts it, "no one is impressed by dinosaurs anymore." This short, blink-and-you'll-miss-it piece of dialogue sets up the entire movie, from narrative to structure and concept. Because, on a narrative level, no one cares about dinosaurs anymore, a new attraction has to be revealed: a genetically-modified super-dinosaur! But as one can imagine, this super-dinosaur decides to break free and eat a lot of people. On a structural level, the fact that no one cares about dinosaurs anymore, allows director, Colin Trevorrow to make this movie without indulging in the inherent awe-inspiring nature of dinosaurs. Conceptually, as I said above, it speaks volumes about Jurassic World as a genre movie. The film is less related to its predecessors, but more so a close cousin to the modern high-concept monster-disaster movies.   The plot is simple, but I didn't expect - nor want - anything else. Two young boys (Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson) arrive at Isla Nublar to experience the theme park in all its functioning glory, while Chris Pratt loves and respects his Raptors because he's just that chill and awesome and cool, and everyone loves Chris Pratt - even Raptors, which the previous Jurassic movies always said were the most dangerous dinosaurs of all. Even an uptight businesswoman like Claire has a soft spot for Chris Pratt, and she doesn't even want kids, nor does she know how old her nephews are, so you know she's an uptight businesswoman, because... character development.  This was my biggest concern going in, and unsurprisingly, it is my biggest fault with the movie as a whole. The characters are so poorly written and developed, it's almost offensive to the cast. There's no nicer way to put it, sadly. It's a real shame to see talented individuals like Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Jake Johnson go to waste, because they're given nothing to work with here. They're all caricatures, stripped down to the most simplistic and banal. The worst has to be Bryce Dallas Howard, who I actually feel bad for. Dallas Howard is a nuanced and versatile actress, but any and all of her talent is tossed aside by the screenwriters. It's not exclusively lazy character development either, but rather the fact that she's created as she is to contrast and support the free-spirited nature of Chris Pratt's Owen. And of course Owen will change Claire "for the better" throughout the movie, because any business-focused woman who doesn't want children is an inherently bad person, and needs a man to change her. However bad that is, both Chris Pratt and Jake Johnson still managed to charm me from time to time, but that's only because Chris Pratt and Jake Johnson are my charming man-crushes, not because the movie does them any favors.  But let's talk positives: The movie is fun and action packed, and Chris Pratt is charming as hell. As soon as the super-dinosaur escapes and starts eating people, the movie gains a lot of points. I was really cynical about the idea of a genetically-modified dinosaur before seeing the movie, but I'll happily eat my own words of cynicism and criticism if it means a better movie, which is the case here. Having the big baddie be GM allowed for a lot of creative freedom to come up with and construct quite a few fun and original action set pieces. I'm always hesitant to say too much, but the so-called Idominus Rex has a few tricks up his sleeve (Disclaimer: Although the Idominus Rex has longer arms than the T-Rex, it does not have actual sleeves.)   Mr. Idominus Rex takes a stroll across the island, eating anyone who comes in its way. At one point he smashes through a huge aviary, allowing a flock of pterosaurs to fly wild across the island killing people. There is one scene, in this PG-13 movie, that albeit bloodless, is pure torture porn and really shocked me. Sadly, not in a good way. The rest of the pterosaur-attack is fresh and fun however, as the scary winged creatures has been sorely missing from the previous movies - save a few strange minutes in the third movie. As the conclusion comes closer, the humans, dinosaurs, and the super-dinosaur converge at the central plaza of the theme park, and it becomes a full-fledged Godzilla movie. It's grandiose and fun, but it's a formula that's been done to death, and Jurassic World adds nothing new to it. For those who want to see a simple, mindless monster-flick, I think this conclusion will satisfy, but for those wishing for something more, it lacks a lot.  Even with all its problems, there's a lot to like about Jurassic World. The scenes with the Idominus Rex in the wilderness are unique as far as dinosaurs killing things go and fun to watch. It's surprisingly well choreographed, and luckily, the CGI isn't terrible. There was a lot of talk about the CGI and its lack of detail in recent months, but it's clear that they've spent some time trying to fix it. While it still isn't the best, it seems more alive and works much better with its environment than we saw in the trailers - especially the fish-tank-dinosaur. However, as someone who always want CGI to be a last resort - a way for a director to enhance the practical - it is too obvious at times. It doesn't help the movie that we've been spoiled by George Miller and Mad Max: Fury Road recently, but for what it's worth, Jurassic World does well with what it has.  In the end, I think Jurassic World will split the audience. There's no doubt in my mind that tons and tons of people will love it, but I'm equally sure tons of people will dislike it. I fall in the middle. I found its venture into monster-flick-territory somewhat boring, judged by what it is - and not what I wanted it to be - it does its job decently. In a post-Fury Road effects and Godzilla-monster world, however, it doesn't reach those highs. Far from it. 
Jurassic World Review photo
At least it's not Jurassic Worst...
A few weeks ago, Mad Max: Fury Road became the fourth entry in a 30-year old franchise, "continuing" the story set up all those years ago. I don't think it is necessary for me to tell you just how much The Best...

Review: Doomsdays

Jun 05 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219533:42421:0[/embed] DoomsdaysDirector: Eddie MullensRelease Date: June 5, 2015Rating: NR  Doomsdays wears its Wes Anderson influences on its sleeve. The meticulous, often symmetrical compositions and indie score serve as a reminder that there is a filmmaker out there who many people call an auteur. But it's reductive to just think about this film in terms of Wes Anderson. It's Haneke's Wes Anderson, for sure, but who I really kept coming back to was neither of those directors; it was Christian Mungiu, director of one of my favorite films of all time: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. But it didn't remind me of that film so much as his follow-up, Beyond the Hills. What struck me about Beyond the Hills was how real it all felt. The reality came primarily from the use of extreme long takes (Mungiu knows how to do a gosh damn long take) and the moments that would take place within them. There's a particular moment where a bunch of characters build a cross and then tie another character to that cross. The whole thing happens in one shot. And as I watched it, I thought, "They only did this once, right? It's way too freaking complicated. The lumber costs alone would make multiple takes impractical." Turns out they averaged upwards of 40 takes of each shot, because they didn't get enough rehearsal time and so the first few (dozen) takes were his rehearsal. But even so, it was the feeling that this wasn't just a shot that was done over and over and over again that sold it. The moment felt natural, real, and horrific. Every extra action in a long take requires setup. A character takes off their jacket, their tie, their shoes. Each of these things must be put back into place before the take can be redone. It's complicated, and it requires a lot of time. But it's those little moments that make it feel real. Because you're not thinking about that work that went into setting up the scene. You're just thinking about the scene itself. It feels real. Even if they had to do 16 takes to get it right. By contrast, I'm reasonably sure that every single shot in Doomsdays was done precisely once. The opening shot, a car pulls up, two people get out. They go to their door, see that someone has broken in. They go inside. And then a window shatters, and two people come out. One of them runs up to the car, pulls out a knife, and jams it into the tire. It deflates. They run off.  Doomsdays is a low-budget film. They raised just $22,000 on Kickstarter. But in the opening shot, they shatter a window and stab a tire. And that's just the start. This is a film with dozens of locations, and the protagonists damage nearly every single one. And I spent most of the time thinking about how horribly wrong everything could have gone while being consistently impressed with just how much mayhem they committed on what must have been, again, a very low budget. Because it's the kind of film that only gets made on a low budget, because the audience is, by design, rather small.  Dirty Fred and Bruho wander through rural-ish towns and break into homes. They stay there for a day or two, raid the fridge, liquor storage, and medicine cabinet, and then go off to the next place. They have no real home and no destination. They walk everywhere, because Bruho hates cars. (Hence puncturing that tire in the opening shot.) There are character arcs (though much of the actual arcing takes place in back half of the movie and feels occasionally rushed), but there's not much of a narrative arc. They get some more companions and things happen and escalate, but it all feels relatively inconsequential. The ultimate life decisions (one of which feels far more genuine than the other) should be momentous, but they aren't. They're just things that happen.  This isn't a bad thing, to be clear. It's just a reminder that this is a film with a very particular audience. It's a film for people who are okay with occasionally rough performances, because beyond those rough performances are moments of brilliance. In Cannibal Holocaust, there's a moment where one of the characters shoots a pig. He actually did that. And then, just for a second, he breaks character, clearly affected by it. But the shot isn't over. He still has to monologue. But they only had the one pig, so that's the take that ended up in the film. Doomsdays doesn't have anything quite so obvious, but I expect there were moments where director Eddie Mullens thought, "Well... it is what it is." Each shot builds to something. The longer the take, the more likely something destructive is to happen within it. At the end of 45 seconds, someone throws a brick through a window. And you know what? That may well have been some random person's window. The imperfections actually serve to make the whole thing feel more real. Not realistic, per se, but more like a series of events that actually took place. They broke that window (and that other window (and that other one)), they destroyed that car, and they broke all those glasses and vases and whatever else got in their way. I saw them happen with my own eyes, not in real life, but in a real document of those actions. It's a meticulously composed documentary about rebels without a cause. And it's absolutely fascinating.
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It's time to sing The Doom Song now
I get emails pretty much daily asking me if I want to review this film or that. Most of the time, I ignore those emails. Periodically, I glance at them and then ignore them. When you've read thousands of press releases, it be...

Review: Spy

Jun 05 // Matthew Razak
SpyDirector: Paul FeigRated: RRelease Date: June 5, 2016 The amount of ways that Spy could have gone horribly, horribly wrong are pretty high. It's a spy movie parody featuring an overweight woman full of crass humor. If this had come out with a different director we'd be looking at an insulting, pandering piece of comedic trash, but instead Feig makes Spy a clever and resoundingly unique experience capitalizing on McCarthy's comedic skills and charm.  McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who spends her time behind the desk talking into Bradley Fine's (Jude Law) earpiece as he goes on daring and dramatic missions. When Bradley is killed, however, Susan must go out into the field to hunt down Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and take revenge. Throw in a fantastically comical Jason Statham as a rogue CIA agent out for revenge, and you've got an amazing mix of comedic actors hamming it up while still offering a surprising amount of competent (and graphic) action sequences.  What Spy does best is completely invert what it "should" be doing. A cursory glance at the film would make you think it's a bland spy film parody, but Spy isn't a parody as much as it is a comedic spy film. Instead of mocking conventions with bad site gags and an inept spy as most spy parodies do it plays into them and then finds its comedy elsewhere. Instead of offering up tepid action sequences and fights it goes full bore as if it were actually an action movie. There are some sequences here that the steadily worsening Michael Bay could take some lessons from, especially since the film earns a hard R through violence. It's still the comedy that sells, and Spy's comedy just works. There are fat jokes, but they aren't at the expense of McCarthy. The humor isn't driven by her being a fish out of water as a spy, but instead through actual clever comedy. Feig and McCarthy have some of the best timing together and it shows throughout the movie, even in the beginning when things start off a bit slow. Once the obligatory gadget collecting scene rolls in you won't be able to stop laughing. Once Jason Statham starts rattling off his nigh-impossible spy missions you'll be on the floor. Spy also offers a refreshingly female driven narrative for a genre that is obviously male obsessed. This should probably be expected from Feig, but the director once again delivers. In another instance of eschewing the norm Peggy doesn't rely on any man to save her at any time. This doesn't mean that the film ignores sex jokes or inappropriate behavior, but instead celebrates it as comedic. One of the things Feig's comedies do best is tow the line between inappropriate and hilarious, something another film opening this weekend could have learned from.  You probably weren't expecting such a glowing review of the film. McCarthy has felt tired in her last outings and the advertising for this one did nothing to make one think it was something special. Turns out the ads can be wrong and that McCarthy still has plenty of juice in her tank... as long as she's taking on good projects.  
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Like a good spy, you don't see it coming
Over the past few years I've grown increasingly tired of Melissa McCarthy's shtick. I figured this was because I was tired of her, but it turns out she's just been making mediocre movies. Her shtick still works when someone i...

Review: Entourage

Jun 05 // Matthew Razak
[embed]219534:42423:0[/embed] EntourageDirector: Doug EllinRated: RRelease Date: June 3, 2015 Entourage focuses on Vince (Adrian Grenier) and his entourage: Eric (Kevin Connolly), Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) and Turtle (Jerry Ferrara). The show was about Vince's rise to fame after being discovered by agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven). From what I've seen of it it basically was about the four guys driving around acting like assholes, but having everything work out for them. The film is basically the exact same thing, but on a bigger scale. Ari is now the head of a film studio and he wants Vince to make his first movie, but Vince won't do it unless he can direct. Ari acquiesces and we jump forward a few an unspecified amount of time to Vince running out of money and Ari having to go to the films financiers, Travis Mcredel (Haley Joel Osment) and his father (Billy Bob Thorton) to beg for more money. Unfortunately Travis is sent back with Ari to see the movie and starts causing trouble. This doesn't actually effect anyone that much except for Ari, so the rest of the crew spends the film hitting on women, driving a crazy cool Cadillac and having sex. What was always the most confusing thing about Entourage is that it never seemed to have a point, and this film suffers from the same problem unless it's sole point was more Entourage. If that's the case then well done, but I'm guessing it wasn't. The movie is neither satire or straight comedy. It has not true dramatic push and makes no attempt at developing its characters. It's only theme seems to be cramming cameos into every shot and its only message is that celebrities get to have a slot of sex and date Rhonda Rousey. If that's what you're going in for then you'll be pleased, but as someone looking for an actual movie out the experience you're going to be very disappointed. The film's lack of narrative focus and avoidance of any attempt at self awareness is also problematic because it can't quite handle its rampant sexism and racism. The point, it seems, is to send up the ridiculousness that is Hollywood, but the movie is never clever enough or interesting enough to do that. It replaces interesting female characters with cameos and any attempts at constructing a plot that seems to move forward are derailed by subplots that seem entirely pointless. Maybe a fan of the show would be attached to them since they're already attached to the characters, but anyone else will just wonder why we should care. That's not to say that all of Entourage doesn't work. Piven's Ari Gold is easily one of the best characters to come out of television, and the film makers obviously know this. He gets more screen time than anyone else and milks it fantastically. Granier seems almost useless as the rest of the cast plays around him, but only Dillon's character's subplot is actually somewhat interesting with the other two entourage members having needles story lines thrown around, and this despite the fact that one of them involves Rousey.  It's very clear that those who watched the show will get a lot more out of the film than I did, but for those that didn't it's probably best to just stay away or keep it for a rental. There's nothing new or interesting here to latch onto and in the end the film feels more like a reunion special than a movie. That's all well and good for fans, but when someone is shelling out a full ticket price they should expect a bit more.
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Someone should make a TV show about this
Let me just stop you right there, fan of HBO's Entourage. I never watched the show so this review is probably rather pointless from your point of view. Sure, I saw a few episodes here and there, but I really have no attachmen...

Review: The Nightmare

Jun 05 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219463:42422:0[/embed] The NightmareDirector: Rodney AscherRelease Date: June 5, 2015 (limited, VOD)Rating: NR Rather than rely on scientific rigor or consultations with medical professionals, The Nightmare is more about the experience of sleep paralysis and what it means to the people who suffer from it. The focus on individual voices rather than experts makes The Nightmare similar in some ways to Ascher's previous documentary, Room 237, which was about conspiracy theories and off-beat critical interpretations of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Each segment of The Nightmare is generally the same: a subject recounts his or her experience with sleep paralysis, and Ascher recreates the hallucinations with actors, generally culminating in a mini-horror set piece of some kind rife with Dario Argento color schemes and creepy sound design. What distinguishes each experience is the individual interpretations and descriptions of the sleep paralysis sufferer. In one of the most memorable of these horror tableaux, a giant three-dimensional shadow creature hunches over the bed. It's so tall, this shadow, that it has to stoop in order to fit in the room. The only distinguishing feature about it are red eyes and fangs. In the distorted voice of nightmares, the shadow tells the dreamer, who's frozen and staring up into its eyes, "You're going to die." He's told this repeatedly. He can only listen. It's a menacing moment, and there's something about the angles of the room and the vulnerability of the dreamer that makes it an effective horror spectacle. But it's more than mere spectacle, which comes back again to the importance of the individual voices of The Nightmare. Dreams are so personal, and while therapists and sleep specialists can help uncover the neuroses and the neurology that influences them, the visceral experience of dreaming is always something private until someone chooses to share it, and even that can fall short. Think about when friends recount their nightmares, but the terror seems foreign to you because of the difficulty of relaying the physical and intensely psychological experience. The Nightmare recreates the visceral space of bad dreams, and the voices of the subjects add the personal dimension that heightens the terror of being helplessly at the mercy of our minds--it makes a personal experience participatory. Keeping expert analysis out of The Nightmare also helps relate the personal discoveries and struggles that people with sleep paralysis experience, as if they're finding touchstones and footholds in the real world to make sense of their interior lives. Inevitable references are made to horror movies and science fiction movies with similar imagery--A Nightmare on Elm Street, Communion--and there's brief mention of the various manifestations of sleep paralysis hallucinations around the world. All these people, all over the world, throughout history, terrified but not alone in this helplessness. That's almost comforting, at least until the next episode of sleep paralysis. When I interviewed Rodney Ascher about Room 237, he referred to The Shining as a machine for spontaneously creating synchronicities and coincidences, which also seems like a nice way of describing the way we try to make sense of dreams, in this case bad ones. When confronted with something so existentially dreadful that's rooted in the unconscious and subconscious, there's an attempt to make sense of it somehow. The dream might point to some greater psychological or spiritual need (maybe these aren't separate concerns). We get to ask, "Why did I dream about x-thing?" or "Why did y-person do this to me?" or, ultimately, "What does this mean?" If we couldn't ponder meaning or create meaning from this mental matter, that would be absolutely terrifying.
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So much for a good night's sleep
Sleep paralysis is a condition that affects people in a liminal state of consciousness between sleep and wakefulness. When it strikes, a person is unable to speak or move. Several people who discuss their own experiences with...

Review: We Are Still Here

Jun 04 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219488:42405:0[/embed] We Are Still HereDirector: Ted GeogheganRelease Date: June 5, 2015Rating: NR  A lot of people have compared We Are Still Here to the films of Lucio Fulci. Fulci, for those who don't know, was an Italian director known for his gore-heavy horror movies, such as the infamous Zombi 2 (a "sequel" to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, released as Zombi in Italy). For what it's worth, Zombi 2 is the only Fulci film I've seen. I expect that at least a few of the critics who have made that comparison have never seen any of his filmography. Writer/director Ted Gheogegan thinks so as well. But whether that's true or not, the comparisons make sense, because the film is heavily inspired by Fulci's House by the Cemetary. So heavily inspired, in fact, that nearly every character's name in the film comes from HbtC's characters, cast, and crew. (Naming characters is hard, you guys.) It's also, so I've been told, pretty beat-for-beat similar in its structure. I was told this by the writer/director, so I expect it's probably true. But I can't speak from experience. But if it's true, I want to see House by the Cemetery, because it must have a pretty rock-solid foundation. (That's a house joke, by the way. A haunted house joke.) I first met Ted at NYAFF 2012. Some months prior, he had took over duties on the Korean Movie Night series, so he and I had been in contact before. When I heard he was taking over NYAFF PR, I was like, "Oh, sure. That guy." When we actually first met, he was like, "Oh, sure. That guy!" We talked, because that's what you do. I asked him if he was a particular fan of Asian cinema. He said no, that Genre was really his thing. I thought that was sort of odd, considering the circumstances, but you don't have to be in love with something in order to get people to cover it. But that stuck with me, and so I was unsurprised by his first film as director was a horror film. (I find it mildly amusing that he co-wrote a Korean film before directing a horror film, however.)  At the talk where I found out about the existence of We Are Still Here, Ted said something crucial: "I want people to be entertained. I want people to walk out of the theater having had a good time." It's both a significant statement in and of itself (this film embraces the idea of and wants to be entertainment), but also because of how it manifests itself in the film. Anne and Paul Sacchetti have been having a less than stellar year. Their son, Bobby, died. In order to get away from the memory, they moved to a cold, rural New England town. These characters are played straight. They are sad. And unfortunately for them, they moved into a haunted house. The basement is obscenely hot and there's a faint odor of smoke. If I had to guess, I'd probably think that somebody had been burned to death in that house. Perhaps someone who was angry and wanted revenge on the next unsuspecting homeowner? Perhaps. But here's the key thing: the other characters are not played straight. Or rather, they're not characters that are intended to play straight. There's the Harbinger of Doom; there's the stoner hippie; there's the sketchy New England townsfolk. All of these things are funny. But they're not dumb funny. They're just funny. They're entertaining. This is a horror film with a sense of humor.  Last I heard, there has only been one notably negative review of We Are Still Here. I don't know where it came from, but I know that the person who wrote it is dumb. He didn't get it. He was annoyed that the film was funny and that the characters a little silly. He was expecting straight horror and didn't get that. He bashed the film for his own ignorance. He's a terrible critic. A critic's job is not to project their own biases onto a film and judge it based on those assumptions. Not terribly long ago, I got into an argument about Mad Max: Fury Road. Someone was angry at the film because he thought that it had failed as a fundamental critique of violence. Which would be fine, if the film was trying to be a fundamental critique of violence. But it wasn't. And so instead of being profound, he came off like an idiot. He missed the point, and blamed the film for his own inadequacies. The person who called out Ted's movie for being hammed up is much the same. I'm not trying to imply that the film is beyond reproach. It's not. And people are welcome to hate the film's silliness. They are also welcome to hate the fact that the film was trying to be silly. They shouldn't, but if you don't find humor enjoyable, then you're welcome to not like what Ted was going for. But you have to accept that that is the film's intent. You cannot say it fails at being serious because it has over-the-top moments and occasionally stilted performances when that was literally the point. I remember when the earliest reviews came out praising the tone of the film, saying that it struck the right balance between horror and humor. "They got what I was going for!" he exclaimed. When I told him that I liked it, he said much the same thing.  But there are things I didn't like about it. I thought that the cinematography was more "interesting" than it was "good." The camera is often in motion, giving a voyeuristic feel that reminded me a little bit of 2012's Resolution. It feels like you're watching the film from something's perspective. The camera moves like a person does, or a ghost or whatever. It moves. And that's compelling, but the images themselves are often a little drab. It may be an accurate representation of New England winters, but there's a beauty to that kind of life that I never really felt like We Are Still Here captured. It's a perfectly fine looking movie (and the practical effects look great (the computer generated ones less so)), but I wasn't in love with it. Also: the highlights frequently looked blown out, and not in an artistic way so much as a "Whoops, overexposed the shot" kind of way. Even if it was intentional, it didn't look good. But it's not about whether or not it looks good. It just needs to look good enough to tell its story, and it does that. So, about that story. I grew up in a small town in Rhode Island. Many years ago, there was a series of murders in my town. People still talk about it. Small towns have long memories. New England towns in particular. There's something fascinatingly insular about them, but not in the way that something like Winter's Bone is. But then again, maybe that's just because of where I grew up. Maybe someone from the south sees Winter's Bone as the norm and We Are Still Here is the crazy thing.  We Are Still Here is about an undying memory. The house is haunted by sin. A sin that goes unspoken except the man who can't help but tell anyone who will listen about the horrors of the old Dagmar house. And when they're introduced, it's a brilliant moment played brilliantly. Honestly, much of the film is, and the beats of the narrative often surprise (the first person to survive is the exact person you expect to die first). The scares are a bit jumpy at times (and one particular jump scare completely breaks the film's logic in order to have a cool moment (something I called Ted on and he admitted to)), but they also work. There's tension from the start. At first, it's just a picture frame that falls over without provocation. It leads into the film's title, and there is never any question of whether or not the house is haunted. Even if the characters don't necessarily fall in line, you know. And you see them surprisingly early on. We Are Still Here isn't afraid to show the Dagmars.  I'm not sure that was the right move, because as fascinating as they are, there's an odd, CG sheen to them that takes away from the fear factor. They should be terrifying, but they aren't. They look too fake, like a monster in a rubber costume, except instead of rubber it's subpar computer graphics. It doesn't stop them from being involved in some legitimately scary moments, but it does keep them from being the nightmare-inducing horror icons that they could have been. Still, the buildup is excellent, and by the time the shit hits the fan, you're invested. You've laughed and jumped. Maybe you screamed if you're a pansy like me (I didn't scream, but I probably would have if I had been in a theater and not at home with the curtains wide open and the lights on). And the payoff is pretty goddamn great. It's not a film that answers all of its questions, but it also doesn't leave a thousand plot threads open just to preserve a false air of "mystery." You know what you need to know and a little more. It's a film you can talk about with friends, dissecting its moments (especially the ending) and trying to parse what it all meant. Too many films these days (and genre films in general) tell you everything, and it takes away from the horror. We Are Still Here tells you things, but you can't necessarily assume it's telling the truth. The film is an unreliable narrator at times. It's from something's perspective, but that thing isn't necessarily all-knowing. But the fear of the unknown, wondering why the Dagmars do what they do, who they choose to attack and who they simply decide to mess with. It keeps you invested, it keeps you wondering, and it keeps you scared. I'm glad Ted made a good movie. I'm glad I don't have to post this review to Facebook with a note saying, "Sorry man, but you fucked up." It's hardly flawless, but I was absolutely entertained. And if that was truly the intent, then the film is absolutely a success. A silly, scary, and ultimately satisfying bit of genre filmmaking. Ted, if you've made it this far: Well done. I look forward to seeing what you come up with next.
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They certainly are
A few weeks ago, I opened my Ladies of the House review with a caveat: I knew the director, sort of. We're Facebook friends. He was the head publicist at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. But it was only sort of a disc...

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. 
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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.
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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: Pitch Perfect 2

May 15 // Jackson Tyler
[embed]219455:42387:0[/embed] Pitch Perfect 2Director: Elizabeth BanksRelease Date: May 15, 2015Rated: PG-13  As the movie opens, the Bellas (our A Capella heroes) are performing for none other than President Obama himself, inserted into the audience with cheesy stock footage. Every member of the team gets their moment in this welcome back performance, building up to the reveal of fan favourite Fat Amy, hanging from a curtain and belting out a solo. Then, her trousers get ripped, and she ends up exposing herself to the entire audience, who react with abject horror. Ha ha, a fat person has a vagina! How disgusting! Roll titles! It's an opening indicative of what to come. For one thing - it isn't funny. Pitch Perfect 2 is disappointingly light on laugh out loud moments, perhaps the only memorable one coming from an unexpected cameo. The scenes play out with a sense of obligation to them, a been here done that feeling that is oh so familiar to leagues and leagues of comedy sequels, and the jokes are often little more than references to the prior movie. Bumper's back, and he flirts with Fat Amy at a party! Again! *nudge nudge, wink wink* Pitch Perfect 2 is also approximately seven years long, squeezing in about six incongruent and unfocused character arcs in the gaps between the many, many musical setpieces that make up the 115 minute running time. It takes a twenty minute detour to David Cross' house half way through the movie in order to do a reprise of the popular sing-off scene from the first film. It's perhaps one of the movie's better scenes, but it's far too elaborately constructed and belaboured for something that amounts to nothing more than a tangent.  Whilst it's easily the most out of place scene in the film, it's less a problem itself and more a symptom of deeper structural flaws. The scenes don't flow, the story isn't constructed for a thematic or emotional ends, it's a conveyor belt of stuff that has to be there. The music scenes have little to do with the character scenes which have little to do with the comedy scenes. All the required elements are present, but haphazardly thrown onto the screen with no attempt to bind them into a strong narrative. But all of that would be completely forgivable, if the movie's core was solid. After all, Pitch Perfect's aims are important - it positions itself as a story of empowerment, essentially a franchise of coming of age movies about a group of girls being best friends. And if it achieved that, structural flaws and indulgent reference humour would ultimately be only surface level criticism. But that dream dies in the opening scene. The movie's humour often springs out of this crass and nasty place, consistently aiming its sights on anyone who isn't slim, conventionally attractive and white. Fat Amy's confidence isn't played as a response to a harmful culture that consistently shames and dehumanises her, it's a setup to a joke that is always being told, and the punchline is her fatness. In between the movies, the group has picked up a new member from Guatemala, who constantly references her impending deportation. Hana Mae Lee's character isn't just the quiet, timid asian girl from the original, now she's a ninja too!  It's hypocritical for Pitch Perfect 2 to stake its claim at empowerment, when it's filled to bursting with harmful jokes, and its core musical gimmick isn't far removed from Acoustic Covers of Rap Songs. While it's disappointing, it isn't exactly surprising, these problems existed in the first film, and the sequel has only doubled down on the upsetting elements. The movie is a two hour adaptation of Patricia Arquette's Oscar speech, its feminist politics defined by a lack of self awareness and intersectional thinking, as it cuts back and forth between scenes of the Bella sisters bonding to thirty seconds of hilarious racist transphobia. But hey, then they sing a song.
PP2 Review photo
A Capella Wordplay Indicating Failure
Everybody loves a song. It can be the perfect emotional climax to a movie. From The Blues Brothers to School of Rock to Linda Linda Linda to, hell, the original Pitch Perfect, the final performance as cathartic...

Review: Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World

May 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219427:42372:0[/embed] Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World (Dark Star: HR Giger's Welt)Director: Belinda SallinRelease Date: May 15, 2015 (limited)Rating: NRCountry: Germany/Switzerland Dark Star: H. R. Giger's World is a fans-only sort of film. His art is striking, imposing, especially given the sheer size and scope of it. Even Giger's oversized art books like Necronomicon I or Necronomicon II--essential texts for fans of dark fantasy who came of age in the 80s and 90s--can't begin to convey the scale. In one room of the Giger Museum, the walls are covered in an ornate tableau of pale cyborg women worshiping Baphomet; a recurring motif of columns topped with the heads of babies look like rows of necrotic phalluses, and any gap in a wall is a potential mechanoid vagina. The film doesn't give much of a scaffold of appreciation for non-Giger fans, though, or any sense of his position as a figure in the underground and punk/new wave movement, or just how many people have been influenced by his creations. The archival footage that shows Giger creating his artwork is more illuminating than the comments from friends and family. The commentary about his art is the same series of platitudes that have been said about Giger for years: darkness, a technological and organic blend, ugly eroticism, the night of the soul. Even as a fans-only proposition, Dark Star tells Giger fans things they've known for years rather than adding new dimensions or depth. When we see a young Giger work, there's excitement even if the footage is familiar. He allows images to spray out quickly from his subconscious onto paper through an airbrush. He doesn't sketch ahead of time but simply lets the images flow from him, as if any additional intermediary between brain, ink, and surface would occlude the process of rendering his multi-textured dream world. It's a tragic counterpoint to the elderly Giger. Gargle-voiced and hunched over, his demeanor suggests he's been hobbled by a stoke in old age. He struggles to sign his name, and his speech has a labored quality. He wanders his home, which is domestic in some parts and Giger-esque in others. I wish Dark Star had explored the Giger house and its layout in greater detail since it seems like his home is his entire world; it's not Harlan Ellision's eccentric abode (aka The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars), but it does have a train track and a dining room fit for xenomorph royalty. For some artists, the space in which they work is a manifestation of the interior world that makes the work possible. The only art Giger creates for Sallin's camera is a pencil sketch of a familiar form--the delineation of a phallus maybe, the suggestion of a passage possibly, the general enticement of sex. But the sketch is only a wireframe rather than a fully realized idea. Giger may be in pain as he speaks, which is why so much of the talking is done by others for him in the documentary. He smiles, though, and when Giger smiles, there's a genuine warmth to it. It's like watching the last glimmers of light in a darkening room.
H.R. Giger's World Review photo
A fans-only look at H. R. Giger that may disappoint Giger fans
H. R. Giger passed away a year ago this week. His biomechanical art is instantly recognizable--Egyptian and yet otherworldly, simultaneously erotic and repulsive; a combination of flesh, alloy, suppurations, and vertebral for...

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...

Tribeca Review: Jackrabbit

Apr 28 // Hubert Vigilla
JackrabbitDirector: Carleton RanneyRelease Date: n/aRating: n/a In Jackrabbit, an event has left the world in a kind of 80s techno stasis. Cities are sealed away pockets of civilization that people are not allowed to leave. Hacking is alive and well despite pervasive government surveillance, with a lo-fi look to the tech that recalls Darren Aronofsky's Pi. The two leads are Max (Ian Christopher Noel), a paranoid anti-establishment type whose name might be a reference to Pi, and Simon (Josh Caras), a sellout who takes a job with an Apple/Microsoft analog. A mutual hackeer friend killed himself but left behind a mysterious hard drive. And then stuff happens, but the events are so thin and so glacially paced that I lost interest pretty early. Jackrabbit s a thriller without thrills. Even Max and Simon don't seem too engrossed in the mystery, leisurely plodding from place to place and scene to scene. They meet a friend of their dead friend (I think?) named Grace (Joslyn Jensen), and they hang out with her. They listen to a record and drink some whiskey, and Jackrabbit continues its odd stasis, generating a mood rather than using its mood to help propel a story. In my notes I wrote, "At least they look like they're having fun." What's interesting about the VHS impression movies like Jackrabbit and Beyond the Black Rainbow is precisely that disconnect between mood per se and mood in service to or an outgrowth of a story or characters. Jackrabbit is successful at recreating the look and feel of a VHS film, but it exists only as an impression. I remember some images more than I remember the film itself, which might be a testament to the visual sense of the production design and how well shot it is despite its budget limitations. Yet I don't think the film is as successful as Beyond the Black Rainbow (which I didn't even like), which had greater ambition and virtuosity in its images than Jackrabbit. Maybe virtuosity that goes beyond mere impression allows people to mine larger ideas from the succession of images. Jackrabbit feels like a mere impression, though, both in terms of how vaguely I can recall it and in terms of how it recreates the work of the VHS era. It may have been more memorable if its mood were in service to something other than mood itself. Maybe I want more from a movie than the accurate recreation of the kind of movie I'll mostly forget about.
Jackrabbit review photo
An impression of the 80s but not memorable
The vibe of Jackrabbit, a no-budget dystopian cyberpunk thriller, was inspired by trips to the video store. Its whole mood is defined by vaguely remembered VHS box art, and the types of films that fill a person's childhoo...

Review: Boy Meets Girl

Apr 28 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218923:42200:0[/embed] Boy Meets GirlDirector: Eric SchaefferRelease Date: February 6th, 2015 (NYC)Rating: NR  My business card is classy. It's the kind of thing you might see in American Psycho, except on less sumptuous cardstock. It says: Alec Kubas-MeyerWriter | Editor | Critic | Filmmaker That is how I think of myself and how I present myself. Some days I'm more of a filmmaker. Right now I'm more of a critic. Writer/Editor is a bit vaguer but probably more marketable. What matters here, though, is "critic" (and, to a lesser extent, editor). As a critic, I have some sort of duty to critique a film, to write compelling criticism. As Reviews Editor of Flixist, I have a duty to uphold the words codified in the Review Guide that I wrote. But while I watched Boy Meets Girl as a critic, I experienced it as a human, and my experience as a human radically differed from my experience as a critic. The highest score I've given to a film was my ludicrously high 97 given to The Raid 2. But that review was tempered by an acknowledgement that the film's narrative beyond its action was flawed. Having just seen it for a third time, the narrative drags even more than I remembered. But the film deserves that score. It changed the game, raised the bar. But acknowledging the potentially controversial nature of this decision to rate a film that is fundamentally flawed so highly, I made a YouTube video about it. It has over 8,000 views. 138 of the 139 people who decided to take a stance liked it. That one person who didn't like it is a bad person. Boy Meets Girl's main character has a YouTube channel and posts fashion videos weekly. Her channel has 1100 subscribers. I wouldn't watch her videos if I came across them on YouTube. They're underproduced (much like the film they're portrayed in). For a video about fashion, it's a problem that they're really not much to look at. My video's not much better, though I have to admit to liking my background painting. I still have that painting. Maybe I'll make a video about this review. (As if the next several thousand words (buckle in, y'all) aren't more than enough. (They're not.)) "So why am you talking about all of this?!" I'm sure you're thinking that by now. "What the heck does this have to do with Boy Meets Girl? Get to the damn point already!" That's fair enough, but bear with me. This review is going to be weird, because of the thing I discussed two paragraphs ago. I had two radically different reactions to this film, both valid in their own way, and as such this review is not really a criticism so much as a philosophical exploration of what this film is, what it needed to be, and whether or not it matters that it's a cracked mirror and not something pristine. As such, it will (after a few more thoughts) be structured as a kind of discussion with myself, between my critical, logical side that spent the 108 minutes deconstructing each piece of dialogue, edit, camera movement, lighting choice, etc. and my human, emotional side.  Alec the Critic is going to write in bold. Alec the Human will not. Spoiler: The human side ultimately prevails. It is probably worth mentioning here that all critics are put in this same position now and again, and implying that critics are cold and calculating is ludicrous. The chasm between feelings may not often be wide enough to cause some kind of existential crisis, but what makes a critic interesting is the way they play that line between emotional and logical reactions. Purely emotional reactions can fail to examine what makes a film work and purely logical reactions don't give the reader anything to grab onto. There are exceptions of course, but by and large, good criticism falls somewhere in the middle. As I walked out of the theater, someone said, "This film is important." I don't think he liked it. There was an implied "but..." there. He just repeated that sentence and that was it. "This film is important." It is important. Last year, Jared Leto won an Oscar for his performance as a transgender character in Dallas Buyers Club. It was a brilliant performance, but I didn't know that Jared Leto was playing a transgender character. In retrospect, that makes a whole lot of sense, but my vision of his performance was colored by the fact that I'd seen more than a few people refer to him as a transvestite. It was only in retrospect that I realized that what they were saying was ignorant and etc. When people complained that they hadn't cast an actual transgender person in that role, it was a valid point not just because... ya know, duh, but because it would have removed that confusion. Everyone knows who Jared Leto is. Everyone knows Jared Leto is dude. And even if his performance as a transgender woman is spectacular, it's still a performance by a dude when it could have (perhaps should have) not been. Michelle Henley was born a man. In Boy Meets Girl, she plays a character who was also born a man. She makes a hilarious joke (seen in the trailer) about it: Some old women are complaining about their experiences at the local high school. "I was fat." "I had terrible acne." Ricky retorts, "And I was a boy... so that sucked." It's a great moment. The entire audience laughed, myself included. It's the biggest laugh in a film that has a few good ones. I'm sorry I ruined that, but the trailer ruined it first. But what's important isn't that joke. It's the context of that joke. Ricky is at a fancy party at a beautiful estate. The people there are posh, probably all Republicans. Some of them definitely are, which we know because the film shows them talking about Democratic policies bankrupting the country and this/that/the other thing. It's all very stereotypical, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that Ricky makes that joke, and the response isn't revulsion but laughter (and some confusion). For the most part, people accept Ricky for who she is. Even the people who don't like Ricky as a concept do like Ricky as a person and can see past the whole gender thing. Only two people in the entire film really raise any serious objections to it, and one of them is a hypocrite of the highest order. The other one makes a speech that is among the most real and poignant in the entire film. But it's not filled with hate, or even really disgust. It's cutting, but it's oddly tempered. This is the South. If we're going with stereotypes here, where's the hate? (This is important, and I will talk about it at even more length later on.) Boy Meets Girl was shot in a 16:9 aspect ratio, commonly referred to as "Flat" (as opposed to the 2.XX:1 "Scope" format). Many indie movies are shot that way. Documentaries are too. Paul Thomas Anderson shot his last two movies Flat. It happens. But it's rare. When people think Cinematic, one of the things they think of is that ultra widescreen. Boy Meets Girl does not look cinematic. It doesn't "look" like a movie. Here's an experiment you can try: Take a 16:9 image and simply chop off the top and bottom. Make a 1920x1080 image 1920x816 (or even 1920x800). Crop it or just add black bars. Instantly, the image will look more cinematic. It's fascinating, but we really do associate that with the real cinematic look. But of course, Boy Meets Girl doesn't need to "look" like a movie. The visuals exist to push the story forward and do nothing more. In that sense, they are serviceable at best, but they work. Be that as it may, it creates a rift when the characters talk like they're in a movie. Nobody in Boy Meets Girl ever really sounds like a person. They have the perfect, hyperrealistic responses you'd expect from a screenplay that has been given serious thought and revision. It's what you expect... from a movie. But because the characters in Boy Meets Girl talk like they're in a movie that doesn't really look like a movie, there's a level of dissonance. It's harder to suspend the disbelief. I can't argue with myself here, and the weakest thing about Boy Meets Girl is probably its script. A movie that's ostensibly about humans needs to have characters who sound like humans. And on that level, the movie fails. Everyone says exactly what they're thinking when it comes time for them to give their big speeches, and nothing is really left for interpretation. "This is how the world is," they say, but that's only half true. I was disconnected from the dialogue, because the characters seemed disconnected from what they were saying. That crushed me, because I wanted to believe in these characters at all times. There were times when I did, probably more often than not, but even some of the key dramatic moments fall flat because they feel like plot mechanisms rather than honest human revelations. But it's also that these characters are basically perfect. They're not flawed. I don't need Ricky to be an anti-hero, but when the worst thing any given character has done is have sex at boarding school and then pretend to be a virgin... come on, y'all. And then she cheats on her fiance, but even that is "justified" in the dialogue and ultimately doesn't really affect anyone's life. Everything works out in the end. For everyone. That isn't how life works. It's how life should work. It would be amazing if every transgender boy or girl in the South had loving friends and family. If they were able to overcome prejudice and do what they love. But it's hard to believe. So, so hard. But you know what? That's why we have Boys Don't Cry. That's why we have a film where things go horribly wrong, that show a more realistic side to things (though even that film is somewhat idealized from the original story, which is even worse). Boy Meets Girl doesn't owe the audience the reality of prejudice and hatred. The tiny little nuggets, to those who see them as symptomatic of society rather than one-off instances of transphobic characters (one of whom isn't actually transphobic, despite appearances to the contrary... a plot twist that kind of undermines its effectiveness. That hatred that the character initially spews is accurate. I've heard people say those things, seen them write those things on anonymous chat boards. Hell, when I first learned about transgender people (I was in high school), I felt some of those same things. I've grown up since then, at least a little bit. (I hope I have, anyhow.) Plus, the way that character (who looks annoyingly like Zayn from One Direction) fits into the other romantic subplots is too neat and tidy, as is the ultimate result of all of the various romantic threads. True, but shut up. It's my turn now. Fine. That's enough raining on Boy Meets Girl's parade. It's finally time to talk about the metaphorical mirror in the introduction, and the things that affected me. And this is going to require me to admit to something that's really weird and probably says something about me, though I don't have any idea what that might be: I can't watch characters kiss onscreen. Whenever lips lock, I avert my eyes. It's been that way for the better part of a decade. I don't know what started it or where it came from, but it bothers me. I feel uncomfortable watching it. Which made me extremely uncomfortable during Boy Meets Girl, because there is a lot of kissing in that movie. And the things that happen around that kissing are the reasons this film succeeds despite each and every flaw. Because the moments where this film is human and real are in its discussions about sex. How many romance movies have featured two characters kissing and then discussing sexual histories in order to clarify that they've used protection. That's a legitimate concern, and a legitimate conversation. It's something that's necessary... but it's also exactly the sort of thing films gloss over. In the heat of the moment, passion takes over and there's nothing more to it. Kiss. Sex. BOOM. We never see the sex. We do see the moments before (and the moments after). We see the awkward movements and dialogue that are ever-so-crucial. We get Ricky as she asks her partner whether they're okay with what they're doing, whether they understand the implications of going down that road. (Though here, again, this is undermined by the nearly utopian vision where a well-connected conservative leader does not go after a transgender woman (pre-sexual reassignment surgery, I might add) who slept with his daughter (thus, as far as anyone knows, taking her virginity). Bullshit. Absolute fucking malarkey.) But I digress... That Boy Meets Girl is willing to have frank discussions about what defines sex (in conversations outside of sexual contexts) matters. Those are rare. Less rare in indie film, but rare enough that it merits consideration. But the fact is that by sheer virtue of having a female transgender character (really, the pre-op thing is vital, and takes center stage in a climactic moment that reminded me just a little bit too much of the ending of Sleepaway Camp (minus the severed head)) at the center of these conversations, one who is experimenting with her own sexuality throughout the film, it propels itself far beyond its glaring technical problems and becomes something that is truly affecting. It's a sexual coming of age tale that has probably never been told quite like this. There have been dozens (hundreds) of movies about straight couples in these sorts of positions, and even a few about gay ones (the devastating and incredible Blue is the Warmest Color comes to mind), but transgender? Nah. That's something else. But it's something necessary.  Bruce Jenner, of the famous (and infamous) Kardashian household, just came out as transgender. He (not for much longer) is beginning a transition into womanhood. That public spotlight will matter. It will get people talking. It will put issues that are kept quiet out in front of everyone. That's what reality TV does best. It stirs up controversy and gets people talking. This will make people talk and make people think. Boy Meets Girl comes at a perfect time to stay one step ahead of that conversation. It lets people like me (and probably you too) into an experience that it's nearly impossible to imagine. I can't conceive of looking down and thinking, "No. That's not right." It's something I've wrestled with for a long, long time. It really is, and I've done that with varying degrees of sensitivity to the people who do have that experience. I can be rough and abrasive (no shit, right?) and there will probably be more than a few people I met in college who hear that I'm writing about transgender issues and cringe. They'll be right to. I can't say I've exactly turned over a new leaf and I'm going marching in the streets tomorrow, but I think I just understand it better now. There was something missing, some vital piece of the puzzle that I just hadn't locked into place. I saw my own prejudices in the mirror. During some of the more intimate scenes, I felt less comfortable than I think I would have if Michelle Hendley were not biologically male (though I would have been uncomfortable either way). I felt that little bit extra, and I was mad at myself. How dare I judge this on an emotional level? This wasn't something that I could objectively point to and say, "Nope, wrong!" the way people could in response to Blue is the Warmest Color's awkward and unrealistic sex scenes. I wish I could hide behind that. It would make me feel better about my visceral reaction, but I couldn't and can't. I need to own it, understand it, and be better for it. I need to get over myself.  Laverne Cox's excellent performance in Orange is the New Black did a lot to give a powerful voice to a transgender character, but Ricky is in such a different position. Ricky is still a kid. She wants to go to college in New York. That's her dream, and she waits for the letter from the Fashion Institute each and every day. Ricky doesn't have a vagina. Sophia gives an in-depth explanation of how vaginas work (she would know); Ricky has to ask her best friend for advice on getting a girl "wet" and asking how vaginal sex compares to anal, her only point of comparison. That's a different voice, and it's one we need. And even if Michelle Hendley's performance occasionally dips into the melodramatic, it all comes from an honest place that makes her fascinating to watch. In the end, she is the only character who truly feels real. And if Boy Meets Girl had to do anything, it was get that right. It had to make Ricky human, someone who anybody could empathize with.  I can complain all day about this or that, but to what end? What am I trying to prove by focusing on the bad instead of celebrating the good? This film made me think about my own feelings more than any film in recent memory. It showed me my own prejudices, but it didn't judge me for them. At least, not explicitly. And so now I have things to think about, and they're things I'll continue to think about. Everybody should see Boy Meets Girl. It should be required viewing in every high school sex ed class in the country. I urge you to see it. To tell your friends and family and vague social media connections. Get the word out, because even if they don't see Boy Meets Girl, they should know about it. They should know that it exists, because the fact that it exists matters too. It marks a turning point. One can only hope that the future is brighter.
Boy Meets Girl Review photo
Identity crisis
Boy Meets Girl is an antique magic mirror. The kind of thing you'd see in a movie. In an old, cobweb-filled antique shop, the camera slowly pans up an old, cracked and unpolished mirror. It's not really much to look at, ...

Tribeca Review: Monty Python: The Meaning of Live

Apr 26 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219309:42350:0[/embed] Monty Python: The Meaning of LiveDirectors: Roger Graef and James RoganRating: NRCountry: United Kingdom  I'm on the younger side of New York film critics. I'm certainly not the youngest (not anymore), but I know a whole bunch of critics more than twice my age. And that means that many of the people who I saw The Meaning of Live with were alive when Monty Python was big, and a fair number of those were probably old enough to remember them. Those people were laughing at the film for different reasons than I was. Those people were laughing because they were seeing sketches they knew by heart for the hundredth time, though with the added quirk of thirty years. Monty Python is no longer made up of spring chickens. They're older, grayer, and feeling the effects of those first two things. Going between clips from back in the day and the modern iterations, the sketches themselves haven't changed much, but the people definitely have. Seeing John Cleese in a wig as a young man was funny. Seeing him in a wig as an old man is freaking hilarious. The film isn't just about the stage show, though. It's also about the past, about their time in Britain and then going abroad. It's about what led them to split up in the 80s and then return in the 2010s. It's about the entire Python timeline. And it's all fascinating, because they're fascinating people. And they're funny. I mean, of course they're funny, but that doesn't make it any less noteworthy. Watching them talk and interact, seeing how they do this thing and then talk about what they did, it's all enjoyable because they're just enjoyable to watch. Near the end of the trailer, John Cleese is in a hallway and he trips over his own feet. He's on camera, but he's not doing it for the audience. He's doing it for the two workers in the hallway with him. He turns it into a bit, doing it a few times, just to get some laughs out of the people who are doing all of the thankless work to get him up on stage. It's a wonderful moment, and it makes you fall in the love with man yet again. The Meaning of Live feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, even though it's professionally done. The camera people honestly aren't that great at their job, and frequently try to find focus as everyone involved walks around. It looks kind of guerilla, to be honest, and that's unfortunate. Even if the show that's being filmed has some technical hangups, there's no excuse for the film to as well. Moments of brilliance were obscured in a camera operator's inability to find focus. I've filmed things like this before, and I know how difficult it is to do this job, but that doesn't excuse it. They should have been on point. Because everyone else was.  Whether you could recite Monty Python sketches in your sleep or just have vague memories of hearing someone discuss a holy hand grenade, there's something in this movie for you. You don't need to know Monty Python to find their story fascinating. I expect you'll get more out of it if you do, but it's hardly a requirement. Really, the only thing you need to bring is a sense of humor. And that shouldn't be a problem. If Monty Python can't make you laugh, then you're definitely dead inside. 
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Always look on the bright side
Even though Monty Python ended their run in the 1980s, they're still curtural icons. Even for people like me, born after their disbanding, films like Monty Python and the Holy Grain (though less their Flying Circus roots...

Tribeca Review: A Courtship

Apr 24 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219258:42345:0[/embed] A CourtshipDirector: Amy KohnRelease Date: TBDRating: NR If the audience for A Courtship was the people at the Tribeca Film Festival, then it was a film developed with cruel intentions. It was packaged so that those of us on our high horses could point and laugh at the silly people doing the dumb things. And that's a serious problem, because for all of their faults, the people on display in A Courtship are genuine (pronounced jen-you-ine). They're the real deal, people who honestly subscribe to a belief that giving away your first kiss to someone other than your eventual spouse is something "you have to live with."  I don't imagine that many people who saw that film at Tribeca found that concept anything other than ridiculous. I've met some fundamentalists, but I've never met someone who believed that you had to save your first kiss for marriage. But the people behind Before The Kiss Dot Com do. It's a website all about courtship and purity. It's run by the subjects of A Courtship, Ron and Dawn. They've got two young daughters plus a spiritual older daughter. The former have been raised in courtship, and they're excited to grow up and become housewives, while the latter came into it after some less-than-stellar experiences in her life. The film is really about her, Kelly. Kelly is over 30 and lives with a family she has no blood relation to. Her father-figure Ron has taken it upon himself to be her guide. He vets any potential suitors and pulls the strings. He certainly does seem to want what's best for his family. He just has a ridiculous notion of what that means.  Whenever I think about religious fundamentalism, I think about Jesus Camp. I half-joke that it's the scariest movie I've ever seen, far worse than any horror movie. But what's crucial about that film is the fact that the majority of the people portrayed in that film felt good about what it depicted. They thought it was an accurate representation of them and their beliefs. That's important. That's crucial, in fact, because no documentary should be trying to pull a fast one on their subjects. The subjects may not like what they see (though that would obviously be ideal), but they need to believe it's fair. My guess is that Ron and Dawn feel it's pretty fair. Nothing about the film struck me as an attempt to cherry pick the juiciest bits in order to tell the craziest narrative about the crazy people with their crazy ideas. It's just what it is. And it's fascinating. But also kind of sad. It's sad because these people have dedicated their lives to a system that could make them really happy or deprive them of the opportunity to ever be really happy. It's sad because you know that secular dating really isn't that bad, even if being burned or heartbroken feels horrible. It's sad because you want there to be a happy ending, and this isn't a narrative film. It's life, and sometimes life doesn't work out. That's what makes the film sad, because I like Kelly. She seems like a good person. Naive, sure, but pleasant. Happy. Hopeful. And talking about her like that makes me feel awful, because she's a goddamn adult. She's older than I am, and she deserves to be treated with respect. But she also lives in the house of a man who isn't her father, and she has given him total control over her love life. And it's hard to respect that. I don't begrudge her her faith or her decisions. She is allowed to do whatever she pleases. But I want her to be happy, damn it! I want her to find a nice man and they(then) grow old together and I want it to all work out. And what the film ultimately makes clear is that, as long as Kelly follows down this road, she's not going to get that. It didn't have to be that way. She meets a nice boy. He was raised in courtship, and the two of them hit it off. If this was a chaste romantic film, it would end with their kiss at the altar. It would be a beautiful moment. I wouldn't agree with the politics of it, but I would clap anyway, because, in a perfect world, Kelly gets to be happy. She deserves to be happy. But A Courtship isn't a chaste romantic film. It's not a narrative. It's a documentary. And this is real life. And sometimes real life just doesn't do what you want it to. I imagine it was hard for Amy Kohn. She met these characters before it happened, and had things worked out, she would have been there to capture it all. She could have gotten to that kiss on the altar. It could have been a wonderful moment after all of the buildup. But it doesn't happen. It falls apart over what ultimately sounds like a minuscule difference in belief systems. It's a moment that defines just how petty the religious debate can be. And oddly enough, it was the only moment where I really felt I understood the characters. I understood why he couldn't deal with her beliefs, and why she thought she could deal with his. The emotions made perfect sense to me (though clearly not to some of the people around me), and that made the whole thing ring true. It's hard with a film like this to really get it, to grasp what it's going for or get its purpose. When you're looking at a culture that's essentially alien to you, you need something to connect to. For me, it was the reality of ideological differences. For others, it will be the belief in true love. Whatever it is, it will serve as the emotional anchor that will allow you to invest yourself in their story. Heck, maybe you'll even be converted by the idea of courtship. Well, probably not.
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The Lord Micromanages
A Courtship is a film about a thing I do not understand. But more than that, it's about a thing I can't even begin to understand. The concept of Christian courtship, where a woman waits for God to bring her a husban...

Tribeca Review: Thank You for Playing

Apr 22 // Hubert Vigilla
Thank You for PlayingDirectors: David Osit and Malika Zouhali-WorrallRelease Date: TBDRating: TBD Just seeing Joel on screen is heartbreaking. It's the way his eyes cross, which seems troubling, not a routine case of strabismus that lots of kids have. A whole flood of emotions winds up in the content of That Dragon, Cancer. The first-person experiential game allows players to push Joel on a swing, to feed ducks with Joel at sunset, to catch Joel coming down a slide as he giggles--it's his real laugh. There are also visits to the clinic, mournful walks through dark rooms of the house, and even a metaphorical flourish of indoor rain, like something out of a Tarkovsky movie magnified to Biblical proportions. While That Dragon, Cancer offers a space to participate in the life of the Green family, it also conveys a sense of helplessness. There's only one outcome to all of this. Ryan and Amy are people of faith, and it seemed that an underlying pain of their situation is how God could let this happen. I never sensed that their faith was in question--it's something stable--and the game and the documentary convey the frustration of trying to find hope when none seems possible. For instance, in the design of the game, Joel's face lacks features. By not particularizing Joel's face, it opens up the possibility for a more universal experience of the loss. Yet there's also the facelessness of the real Joel. He should be verbal at his age and have more of a personality, but his development has been stunted. Ryan says that he loves his son, but he doesn't really know him and he'll never get to really know him. Directors David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall play a difficult balancing act since their film is both a making-of documentary about That Dragon, Cancer as well as a chronicle of a family's sadness along the lines of Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary. There are times when the making-of aspects of the film feel at odds with the heartache in the Green family, but they're generally all of a piece. Art gets made to address an experience, so the creative process of making That Dragon, Cancer is an essential interpretive component to the movie. There's little division between lived life and creative life. There's a scene in which Ryan records some dialogue for the game. His lines seem like private poetry if you just read them as words on a screen: "Fear is cancer's preservative; cancer's embalming oil. And you, oh Accuser, are Fear's oil salesmen." He reads his lines again, this time with something to wrap his hands around, like he's choking the Devil, or cancer, or his anxieties, or death itself. He reads with so much conviction, and he brings to life all of the ineffable emotional stuff that his words alone can't convey. There's another important function to art that comes across in both That Dragon, Cancer as well as Thank You for Playing: it's to remind others that no matter what, whether in joy or in grief, we are not alone.
Thank You for Playing photo
Love letters, memorials, videogames
There are moments of Thank You for Playing that are so painful because the documentary feels so personal. It's about Joel Green, a boy with terminal brain cancer, and how his parents try to cherish the little joys in life whi...

Tribeca Review: The Birth of Sake

Apr 21 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219229:42341:0[/embed] The Birth of SakeDirector: Erik ShiraiRelease Date: TBD Rating: TBD A second family is essential for the brewers at Yoshida Shuzo. (The brewery has produced Tedorigawa label sake since 1870.) They spend an entire season at the brewery tending to the sake rice, waiting for the precise moment of fermentation, stirring vats or letting them sit still and bubble. They eat meals together, they sleep in on-site quarters, they party together, and they toil. All the while, the camera lovingly considers the winter outside and the activity indoors, making the rice and steam both a counterpoint and a complement to the falling snow. It's not food porn, it's food poetry. The general sentiment from the brewmasters and Shirai is that the brewing process is almost like raising a child. (Hence The Birth of Sake rather than The Making of Sake.) When they're away from their baby, we see the various men in isolation and get to understand the kind of necessary camaraderie that builds through this rearing of sake. At one point, some of the older brewmasters bathe together. In another context, these men ought to be retired, but at Yoshida Shuzo, they're like brothers playing in the tub. There's a generational divide in the sake brewing process, which reflects a change in Japanese drinking habits just as much as the way that most traditions fade generation by generation. The primary seller for Tedorigawa is much younger than the veteran brewers, and he spends his off-season traveling the world to promote the brand. Sake is his life, but he's had to feel his way around the changing market for it. He shares some wine with his fellow brewmasters, and the differences in their palettes are apparent with the first swirl and sniff. The other young brewmasters, when off work, hang out with the other young brewmasters, and they talk about dating women, though maybe "girls" given the teenage tenor of their conversation. The cycle of making sake would get in the way of those plans. It's the difference between a job and a calling, which leaves the future of the craft in question. Shirai captures both the beauty and the melancholy of the sake brewing process, and it's fascinating that The Birth of Sake never feels forced in its various observations. That's probably because the brewmasters have such fondness for what they create, and for the family that's created because of it.
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The brotherhood of brewers
At a certain point in Erik Shirai’s documentary The Birth of Sake, it becomes apparent that the film isn't just about the art of making of sake. This is common in movies that are about making something—food, art, ...

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.
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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 Dead Lands

Apr 17 // John-Charles Holmes
The Dead LandsDirector: Toa FraserRelease Date: April 1st, 2015 (Video On-Demand release)Rating: RNew Zealand The Dead Lands is a tale of revenge and redemption in the forests of New Zealand. The son of a tribal Maori chief, Hongi, goes on a quest to avenge his family when they are slaughtered in the night by a rival tribe, leaving him as the sole male survivor. He travels to meet an old legendary warrior who teaches him the skills to fight like a true warrior while they both confront their own personal demons and history with their ancestral spirits. Once the training is complete, it’s time for all-out war with the murderers of Hongi’s tribe. The movie is pretty ambitious in trying to make a gritty and realistic action film out of the conflicts of the tribes of New Zealand. Unfortunately, The Dead Lands runs into a lot of problems along the way that keeps it from being the exciting film that it wants to be. The film in general is incredibly hard to follow, from the story which rarely gives context for the Maori culture to the erratic nature of the cinematography. The Dead Lands is presented in anamorphic widescreen, but doesn’t seem to make good use of the increased frame space. Shots are often very close to characters faces and other obstructions making it very hard to often see what’s going on or even get a sense of space. Add on top of this that the camera is constantly cutting and changing focus which makes the action scenes peppered throughout the film just as hard to follow as the story. There seems to have been a focus on how intense and brutal these fights can get, with most conflicts ending after one or two hits with a sharp club. Though it can be hard to see the action, the film makes sure we can see the results. Every cut, stab, and laceration is given a languishing focus which certainly does help to drive home the risk of these fights, but admittedly feels kind of gross by the midpoint of the movie. If movie blood makes you squeamish, this might be one you’ll want to skip. It almost feels like these effects are what the filmmakers were most proud of in the production. I suppose it makes sense as this ended up being the memorable part of the movie for me. In general, The Dead Lands struggles to leave a lasting impression, but ends up proving difficult to watch and ultimately somewhat dull. There’s some merit to the idea of showing the journey of both new and old warriors along with their connection to the past and spirituality, but I never really got a good sense of the culture these characters were from, making it hard to understand much about these peoples outside of the tribal warfare. With a stronger story, some tighter editing, and camerawork that exhibits the strengths of both the tribal martial arts and the natural beauty of New Zealand, The Dead Lands could’ve been a strong outing for such a unique premise. As it stands, the end result feels more akin to actors running around in the woods with a camera and a bunch of blood packs.
The Dead Lands Review photo
Smells like warrior spirit
Films about indigenous groups have a strange and sordid history in film. Their appearances are far and few in-between and those that exist are a mixed bag of both quality and subject matter. The Dead Lands seeks to join this ...

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: Furious 7

Apr 03 // Matthew Razak
Furious 7Director: James WanRated: PG-13Release Date: April 3, 2015 [embed]219227:42315:0[/embed] Furious 7 is everything you expect it to be. An over-the-top car chase film jam packed with fist fights, gun battles, insanely awesome set pieces and lots of dialog about family. It is definitely an absolute blast and a good movie, but it misses Lin's flare. The director had a unique skill for building up action sequence to their most implausible conclusions, and then jumping the shark again so that all you could do was sit in your seat and think, "WHAT JUST HAPPENED!?" While Lin shoots for this on many occasions he hits the target far less meaning Furious 7 is awesome, but it is not as good as its predecessor.  In terms of plot it might be the weakest of the entire series, which is saying something. Dom (Vin Diesel) returns with the majority of the gang: Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), Mia (Jordana Brewster), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson). After the last film they all settled down, but now the brother of Fast and Furious 6's villain, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), is out for vengeance. He attacks Hobbs and then goes and kills Han, as we saw at the end of the previous film. This causes Hobbs to call in Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russel) who leads a covert US spy team. Dom and he make a deal that the "family" will rescue a kidnapped hacker in return for using her world monitoring technology to turn the tables on Deckard Shaw and hunt him. It is a truly weak excuse to go from one action sequence to another in exotic locales, but it works enough. And yet at the same time the plot may be one of the bests thanks to its focus on family, loss and the untimely death of Paul Walker. Walker is digitally edited into some scenes, including an incredibly touching conclusion handled with a surprising amount of subtlety for the series, but even the ones that were filmed before his death seem touchingly appropriate. A conversation he has with Mia before going into the last action sequence is heart breaking and the series' continuing themes of family and friendship work the best they ever have.  You came for the action, though. It is the same ridiculousness you've come to expect from the series, and while it lacks that aforementioned touch that Lin brought to it it is still some of the most mind blowing stuff you'll see on screen this year. That building jumping scene we all saw in the trailer? If you think you saw everything, you are so wrong. Every time you think a scene won't top the last one they pull out some new ridiculous stunt that makes your jaw drop. It's also nice to see that Wan prefers to use actual cars when he can whereas Lin often relied on digital escapades. Wan also prefers showing a lot of gyrating female bodies in bikinis to the point that the actual "porn" overshadowed the car  porn.  That obsessions with showing off naked women also goes for burly men (and women). Wan's fist fights might be the best the series has seen, if not the most plentiful. The inclusion of the amazing Tony Jaa and Ronda Rousey helps to no end, and the Statham/Johnson fight is pretty much everything you could have hoped for with a little more thrown in. If Wan lacks the magic to put together action sequences as well as Lin he definitely has it when it comes to fights.  Furious 7 also balances its cheesiness well thanks to the Walker scenes. Previous entries into the franchise often felt heavy handed when Diesel started talking about family or the franchise tried to develop characters, but here it all seems to fit. While you're itching for the next action sequence to start or for Johnson to drop another incredible one-liner (the man flexes out of a cast at one point) at this point we've been with these characters for so long that you actually care. That doesn't mean the camp doesn't reign supreme. Kurt Russels entire point in the film is to say bad lines and put glasses on his face like he's doing his best David Caruso, and once the action does start it's pretty much just one-liners and Tyrese punch lines.  Furious 7 is indeed everything you want and expect from the franchise, and while some of the magic is gone thanks to Lin's departure there's plenty left to keep the franchise awesome. If this entry is any indication, by the time the ninth film roles around we won't have any plot and Diesel will just come on screen after every action sequence and say something about family, but that will be fine with me. What is great about the Fast and Furious series is not that they're a guilty pleasure, but just that they're a pleasure. It's a franchise of ridiculousness that everyone is, for some reason, heavily invested. Keep em' coming and in the case of Furious 7 bring some tissues. 
Furious 7 Review photo
Cars, breasts and family
To begin, I am not Nick Valdez, our resident Fast and Furious reviewer. He is in transit to a new life in the big city and thus cannot, at the moment, partake in the next installment of the series. I hope you will accept...

Review: Get Hard

Mar 27 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219200:42305:0[/embed] Get HardDirector: Etan CohenRelease Date: March 27th, 2015 Rating: R Wall Street millionaire James King (Will Ferrell) was on the top of the world. He just made partner at his company, lives in a huge house, is engaged to a beautiful woman, and was sentenced to ten years in prison for embezzlement. With only 30 days to get his affairs in order, he asks for help from Darnell (Kevin Hart), a guy who owns a struggling car washing business and wants to get his family out of the hood, to "get hard" for prison life.  Usually these plot synopsis paragraphs take a bit more space, but Get Hard has nothing else to work with. This razor thin premise, which would seem more at home on a 22 minute TV sitcom, doesn't really evolve. It does pretty much what you would expect it to, doesn't reinvent the wheel nor break it down, and you can accurately predict what's going to happen if you've ever seen one of these films before. But what Get Hard does get right, however, is the thin premise allows Hart and Ferrell to play to their improvisational strengths. Once you get passed all of the jokes you've heard before, there's some goodness underneath.  I'm usually the last person to defend Kevin Hart, but he definitely earns his paycheck here. A lot of the film's humor stems from his commitment to the bit, and he carries the brunt of the weight here. I don't know if it's due to age, or if he doesn't like where his career has gone, but Will Ferrell just isn't here for this one. Turning out a performance I can only describe as "tired," his lethargic delivery never elevates his hasbeen material. Maybe it's because Ferrell realized too late that he was working with an inadequate script, but he just seemed so tuned out. That's why Kevin Hart, with his always effective energy regardless of whether or not his humor is on point, commands so much attention. Yet, it's very depressing to see him flounder around so much for virtually no gain. It's like fighting for air in a vacuum: lots of struggling that only suffocates faster.  As for the film's offensive premise, it's very ineffective. Refusing to push far in any direction, it relies on stereotypical jokes throughout. I'll give the film credit for noting why street gangs can recruit many disadvantaged kids, but it's buried underneath blackface and rape jokes. Seriously, I couldn't keep track of how many times the word "dick" was used, or how many references to anal sex there were. I'm no prude, nor do I care when a film pushes the envelope, but doing so has to result in a good laugh. Resting on the same cheap gags but adding a vulgar twist is not enough to keep folks invested. I'll admit that Get Hard did get a laugh out of me during Ferrell's creative put downs ("Are you at Costco? Because you're getting this dick in bulk!"), but a few laughs out of the film's hundred or so attempts are horrible odds.  At the end of the day, I don't care how loudly offensive Get Hard is. It's boring, dry, and sets back the comedic landscape a few years. This is the kind of film you would've seen ten or twenty years ago before we knew any better. As Kevin Hart continues to rise in popularity, and Will Ferrell is on his way out, you can gauge the kind of desperate situation that brought these two together to beat a dead horse. The worst part of it all is, T.I. was the best actor in this. F**king T.I. 
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Flaccid
The worst criticism a film can get is "harmless." When a film is just "harmless," it's stale, voiceless, and generally fails to make a lasting impression. A harmless film exists, takes 90-100 minutes of your life, and then yo...

Review: Dead Rising: Watchtower

Mar 26 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219149:42297:0[/embed] Dead Rising: WatchtowerDirector: Zach LipovskyRelease Date: March 27th, 2015 (exclusively on Crackle)Rating: NR  In Watchtower, the zombie virus has spread round the world and the government has issued a super drug, known as Zombrex, in order to cure it. Digital journalist Chase Carter (Jesse Metcalfe) and his partner Jordan (Keegan Connor Tracy) end up getting caught in the latest outbreak when a bad string of Zombrex infects a stadium full of people. As Chase tries to survive, he runs into a woman who's already infected named Crystal (Meghan Ory), and now they must work together to survive the zombies, figure out what's going on with the Zombrex, and most importantly, escape from the group of psychopaths on the loose.  Watchtower had quite a bit of an undertaking on its hands. If you're not aware of the Dead Rising games, just know they're famous for featuring a single guy cheesin' his way through hordes of zombies while he wears crazy outfits, makes anything he can into weapons, and its narrative is one of the worst in zombie fiction. So, having Watchtower not be a complete mess is already a huge plus. It fixes this by creating a narrative all its own rather than try and adapt the current stories available. In fact it relegates Frank West, here in the film awesomely played by Rob Riggle and one of the series' flamboyantly divisive characters, to the sidelines whereas the film could've completely derailed had its tone focused on the wackiness of that character. Instead he's used wonderfully here. Adding a bit of levity in between heavier scenes and getting the laugh like only Rob Riggle can. A line like "I'll smack you with that TV" works because the film allows Riggle to be as slimy and goofy as he can while paying homage to videogames themselves.  With zombie cinema as prevalent as it is, it's hard not to get a sense of "been there, done that" with any zombie film. We've seen everything from the grittiest of grit to the hokiest of cheese, so Watchtower tries its best to find a middle ground between the two. There is a sense of loss as the film struggles to find an adequate tone for a good chunk of the film. It might be a result of the film taking the subject matter at face value. Meaning that any goofiness the series is known for is only implied, and scenes only come off as inherently hokey. While this shouldn't have worked, I really enjoyed the little asides the film gives to its corniness. For example, in an awesome Shaun of the Dead like fashion, one of the first things the characters do when the outbreak breaks is to use whatever they can find as a weapon. Which means at one point, Chase fights a zombie clown holding an axe with a muffler before running it over in such a cool way. It's a nice bit of staging that you don't see much in zombie media. It's always a matter of a survivor fighting with the one weapon they have rather than literally using everything at their disposal. As for its lead, Jesse Metcalfe holds his own well enough but Chase doesn't have enough character for Metcalfe to sink his teeth into. It's just sort of an every man. That's a consequence of having Frank West be a part of the film too. That character is so magnanimous every time he's on screen, that every thing else loses spark unwittingly. That's not to say the film completely lacks personality, however. There's a scene early on that marries the game's quirk with the film's grit and makes for a particularly gripping scene. It's shot well (as it's just a constant, smooth take following Chase through a field of zombies), there's a bit where a weapon wears out and he has to switch, and it was one of the few times there was suspense. Chase just becomes a super zombie killer after that point, and while that's interesting in its own right, it does lose a little pizzazz. Then again, that's also a shout out to the game series so kudos to the film.  Dead Rising: Watchtower isn't perfect as it runs for a bit too long, the psychopaths wear a little thin (as the lead gets a weird speech explaining his motivations), and there's a jarring first person camera trick used too often early on. But don't let that deter you away from watching it for yourself. A fantastic videogame adaptation that absolutely nails why the games sell so well, yet never feels alienating for folks who have no idea where this film stems from.  As one of Sony's Crackle service's big headlining originals, this is indeed a good show of what's to come. If they can keep churning out excellent films like this, I'll definitely stick around to see what's next. 
Dead Rising Review photo
"Zombies, huh? I had a feeling you'd show up..."
Videogames have had a rough time in cinema. Since videogames are such an interactive medium, a film adaptation always misses out on the intimacy of player involvement or the videogame's story struggles to find an identity in ...

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: Ana Maria in Novela Land

Mar 19 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219098:42280:0[/embed] Ana Maria in Novela LandDirectors: Georgina RiedelRelease Date: February 27th, 2015 Ana Maria, in a nutshell, is like a better version of Freaky Friday. The film follows the titular Ana Maria (Edy Ganem), a twenty something who can't hold a job and would rather spend her time live tweeting her favorite novela, Pasión Sin Límites (or Passion Without Limits), than hanging out with her friends. As her favorite character Ariana Tomosa (once again, Edy Ganem) seems to have the best life with an upcoming wedding and a hot guy pining for her, Ana Maria wishes that was her life. After a storm, a tweet, and some shenanigans, Ana Maria becomes a part of her favorite telenovela. Now she must make it home before the series ends or she'll be stuck forever.  Ana Maria gently tows the line between homage and parody without ever falling too deep into one of those pitfalls. It's all part of an effort to make the film a bit more digestible for a wider audience. The film already has a few esoteric barriers to entry (the audience needs some kind of knowledge of novela culture, and the film has a cast of native Spanish speakers, for example), so the choices it makes are understandable but a bit disheartening. For example, while the film is a nice comedy, it never quite goes far enough with its premise. I'm not sure if it's a fear of offending anyone, or a lack of confidence in its Spanish flair, but there's a major sense of holding back. For example, Ana Maria joins the show as a character, rather than switching places with the actress playing that character. So the jokes come from the surface level hokiness already apparent in telenovelas rather than trying to find something deeper. And while most of the film is indeed a fun parody of the tropes, there are a few jokes that are definitely derogatory. Like Luiz Guzman's Licenciado Schmidt popping around the corner every couple of scenes is funny at first, but grows tired as the film relies on it.  That lack of confidence also has an effect on the film's outcome. Since Ana Maria joins this fantastical world, her decision to return home never quite feels real. Thanks to the show's plot giving her a deadline, Ana Maria doesn't come to her conclusions through character work but through ease of plot. It's like she'd rather live her boring life than die, and that's not a great message to go out on. But there's one major aspect I would like to touch on, and it's the one thing that separates this film from most comedies: Ana Maria never loses her agency. It's a refreshing skew of Latino culture.  Latino culture (whether they be Mexican, or from the Central and Southern American regions) follows traditional beats. You know, grow up through church, get married and have kids at a certain age. While the film at first criticizes Ana Maria's choice to be alone (notably, it's her choice), the film's ending, while forced, makes that not seem so bad. Ana Maria's sister may have a traditional marriage, but the film allows Ana Maria the freedom to go through the film's journey in the first place. It's a small, but powerful detail.  Beyond its story, the film's production is quite well done. It took me awhile to realize Ana Maria and Ariana Tomosa were played by the same actress, and I'll give the film credit for managing the feat with just some makeup and hair tricks. And while I wish the film would've sunk further into its telenovela world (we only see one set piece, and it's not used very well), every scene in the show is given a nice glaze. A bit foggy, a bit mystical. It definitely retains its fantastical appeal.  Ana Maria in Novela Land is a nice first step into broadening Latino culture in film. It portrays a facet of that culture rarely seen with analytical eyes, but never quite has a statement one way or the other. It's a nice comedy that pokes fun at the genre, and Edy Ganem is a great lead, but the film lacks bite. 
Ana Maria Review photo
She livin' a life just like a movie star
It's been a tough time for Latino representation in pop culture. While television has made great strides in casting Latino actors in non-traditional roles to show off a greater range of characterization beyond "gang banger" a...

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: Focus

Feb 27 // Jackson Tyler
[embed]219045:42250:0[/embed] FocusDirectors: Glenn Ficarra and John RequaRated: RRelease Date: February 27, 2015 The movie begins with Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) attempting to pull an amateur con on Nicky Spurgeon (Smith), which he sees through instantly. After the requisite amount of flirting, she moves onto step two of Standard Con Movie Plot #3, begging to be let in on the con Nicky's running despite her relative inexperience. The film proceeds along all the expected beats, but whilst most films commit to the formula, Focus cares so little about its plot that about twenty minutes into the movie, it almost gives up on having one entirely. That sounds like a damning criticism, but it's ultimately wise move, as the movie is far more interested in simply letting characters banter back and forth, allowing the actual con part of the movie to drift into the background. Margot Robbie plays her part with aplomb, subtly mixing the fake naivete of a femme fatal she wants to be with the legitimate naivete of the young woman she is. The movie's at its best when she shares the screen with Adrian Martinez - the gross but endearing one of Nicky's crew - in conversations that are frequently laugh out loud hilarious. Surprisingly, the weak link here is Smith. He’s unusually reserved, playing his usual charm as low as he possibly can, attempting to dig into the conflict at the heart of his character, but sometimes seeming like he's the only person on set who isn't having any fun. He isn't bad by any means, keeping up his side of the bargain as it comes to comedy (at one point he needs to convince a crowd he's a disgruntled worker, so he punches a guy and yells "I am such a disgruntled worker!"), but otherwise refusing the audience a way in to caring about his character. It doesn't derail the movie, but you go to Smith because he's one of a few people who can sell a film on charisma alone, and it's more than a little surprising that he lets his foot off the gas, in a con movie of all places. It is that comedic edge that thankfully saves the movie. Smith and Robbie have chemistry, but it's all but impossible to root for their romance as a tragic tale of liars trapped in love and lovers trapped in lies. What is thoroughly possible to root for, is the possibility of another scene of the two bickering, comparing their pick pocketing technique, or just trying to make each other laugh. Focus is, to me, a testament to the cinematic strength of a good conversation. If the camera is pointed at good actors bouncing off one another, then nothing more is needed to have a good time. And luckily, despite the near-irrelevant plot, and despite one of Smith's weaker leading turns, a good time is not hard to be had. Focus is a fun con movie. Nothing less, and nothing more, it is content to be a mid-tier genre movie for adults in a way that is unfortunately going out of style. It's a movie that's confident in its restraint, knowing what it does well, and not overstepping its boundaries. It's never going to set the world on fire and it's not going to convert newcomers to the genre, but for those of us who have been hurting for a good con flick, Focus is here to brighten the day.
Focus Review photo
Die With The Lie
I love a good con movie. From The Sting to Ocean’s Eleven to Catch Me If You Can, the genre is as formulaic as it is entertaining. The secret to its success is a combination of familiar warmth and detached unpredictab...


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