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Review: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Dec 25 // Nick Valdez
[embed]221155:43293:0[/embed] The Autopsy of Jane DoeDirector: André ØvredalRelease Date: December 21, 2016 (limited theaters and VOD) Rating: R The Autopsy of Jane Doe follows father and son pathologists, Tommy (Brian Cox) and Austin (Emile Hirsch) Tilden operating out of their family owned morgue. When the body of an unidentified young woman (Olwen Kelly) is found, the two must figure out the mysterious circumstances behind her death. But as the autopsy rolls on, strange things begin happening and the Tildens find themselves struggling to escape the mortuary with their lives. This simple premise is what makes Autopsy work as well as it does. It's a tightly focused feature never losing sight of its central mystery. I'm going to try my best not to divulge the film's mystery, but honestly, the film isn't even about the reveal. It's all in the build-up. The entire film is built around this idea of confinement, and that's reflected in the film's editing and set design.  From the opening, there's a keen sense of dread permeating throughout the film. The inspired choices like an aged mortuary building (enhanced by a lack of natural light thanks to Autopsy taking place late at night), to the casting of Jane Doe herself, help make the audience uncomfortable. Taking something as inherently disturbing as a medical procedure is made doubly so thanks to quick cuts to Jane's face every time one of the Tilden's makes an incision. Thanks to these close ups, the autopsy becomes more like a creepy surgery that permeates with dramatic irony as the audience becomes more suspicious of Jane than the characters. There's also a refreshing flow to how much of Jane's mystery is revealed at a time. By halfway through, you already know most of what is necessary to move the plot forward without going overboard. Unfortunately, since the film's effort is put into Jane Doe, the Tildens get less development as a result.  There are some hints of tension between Austin and his father, but that's more credited to Hirsch's and Cox's performances than to any character building. Due to the film's tight focus and short time, there isn't much room in the narrative for anything other than the mystery. Even as the Tildens fear for their lives, I found myself lacking the necessary wherewithal to care whether or not they actually survived. Because of this, the film lacks tension once Jane Doe's origins are revealed. Since so much effort is put into its buildup, there sadly isn't enough effort left over for the denouement. In fact, the finale even goes on for a bit longer than it should. There's a particular scene toward the end that would've made for a perfect finale, but seeing Autopsy go beyond it lessened my enjoyment overall. I guess it's more of a sense of disappointment given how well Autopsy had edited itself to that point. But on the other hand, I do appreciate the uniqueness of The Autopsy of Jane Doe. While there are some ideas I would've liked to see the film explore further (especially when it teases metaphysical horror, which is something lacking from most current offerings in the genre), and I would've appreciated a better grasp on character, the film sets out to tell a certain story and competently does it.  The Autopsy of Jane Doe is a focused, chilling thriller that you should check out before you start writing your end of the year lists. 
Jane Doe Review photo
Doe-n't miss this one
Every year I wind up missing a good deal of films as their advertising end up swallowed by the huge hype machines of bigger studio releases. But the true gems make themselves known somehow. Usually it's through word of mouth,...

Review: Hard Sell

May 23 // Rick Lash

I want to say nice things about this film. That's the feeling I'm left with as I'm watching it. I believe I understand where the Writer/Director, Sean Nalaboff, is coming from. Hard Sell is "a coming-of-age tale ... [abo...

Review: Cash Only

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

Review: The Invitation

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

Review: Knock Knock

Oct 23 // Nick Valdez
[embed]220064:42670:0[/embed] Knock KnockDirectors: Eli RothRated: RRelease Date: October 9th, 2015 (in theaters and VOD) Knock Knock stars Keanu Reeves as Evan Webber, a family man with a loving wife and two kids. When his family goes away for the weekend, two girls Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas) suddenly show up in the middle of the night asking for help. After seducing Evan, he ends up sleeping with them. But after he wakes up the next day, Evan realizes the two girls have some sinister motives. And that's pretty much it. The best thrillers can mine even the thinnest premises for good character work or story material, but that all hinges on whether or not the film has a strong written frame to build on. Unfortunately for all of us, Knock Knock is basically written like a film student's first draft hastily put together two hours before the assignment was due.  Don't get me wrong, I can accept bad dialogue in a horror/thriller because it's usually in service of a greater goal. Maybe the film's intentionally bad or its wackier elements help bring levity to the potentially gruesome nature of the genre, but there isn't just bad dialogue here. The entire package is crafted terribly. From how long it takes to actually get the story moving as the girls don't show up until a third into the film (thus making the terribly written and acted family scenes feel much longer and awkward), to the fact that Evan literally has to sleep with the girls to get to the core of the drama, to how many times it resorts to "crazy bitch!" whenever characters are under duress, to the girls' nonsensical motivations (half revenge, half complete banality), to Evan being a former DJ for some reason, and finally for weirdly off putting lines like "Bitch, you're barking up the wrong f**king tree! I'm from Oakland, hoe! I know two ghetto ass hoes when I see them!" Yeah, that's definitely a thing someone says in the movie. That line somehow made it through numerous edits, drafts, and cuts into the final product. I bet whoever wrote this line did one of those fist pumps to celebrate how clever he was.  I could write about how terribly everything was put together all day, but to get to the core of my issues with Knock Knock I need to do something I've never done in one of my reviews before. I have to outright spoil one of the key plot points of the film because it's something I desperately want to tell you about. I'm sorry if you were still somehow interested in the film after reading thus far, but I promise I'll keep the spoilers limited to this chunk of the review. Okay, so you know why the girls are invading houses and having sex with men in order to humiliate them and ruin their lives? Because men are monsters. There's a hint at some child abuse (which also compounds yet another horribly conceived "idea" on top of this garbage heap), but we're just supposed to believe that these two girls are going around messing with dudes as some kind of misappropriation of the "femme fatale" concept. Sex as a weapon can be fine in media, but if the justification for its use is just so that same character can "trap" a man, it's completely backwards thinking and singlehandedly sets back all of the good work women have done in media I would've accepted these extremely thin motivations had there been actual depth with the two girls, but their actions far exceed the range of their revenge. And Knock Knock goes out of its way multiple times to remove any sense of sympathy or even desire to exist from the characters entirely.  When Evan threatens to call the police, the two girls threaten to send him to prison with cries of not just rape, but statutory rape. Thus adding yet another mysogynistic reason this film is really just for older dudes unhappy with their marriages. In fact, Knock Knock's death knell is a speech Reeves gives that somehow sets his own career back a few years. You could hear his soul dying a little bit when he says, I kid you not, "You f**ked me! You came to me! You wanted it, you came on to me!...It was free pizza! Free f**king pizza! What was I supposed to do?!?"  Sure Knock Knock has one or two moments where all of its badness coalesces into a surprisingly humorous bit, as every film gets one regardless of how bad it truly is, but nothing is good enough to warrant wading through the rest of it. Knock Knock isn't just an embarrassment for all involved, but for the first time, Keanu Reeves looked like he was genuinely phoning it in. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but I was almost enamored by how much Reeves was trying to distance himself from the character. He gets bad dialogue and weird movies all the time, but he usually can transcend the material thanks to his effort. And the saddest thing is this is coming after one of his biggest triumphs in the last few years, John Wick, which was also a film caught in this very situation. It was too a film full of cheesy dialogue and clunky writing work, but he made it something special.  Knock Knock is such a worthless heap of garbage, not even Keanu Reeves wanted to try to save it. If Keanu Reeves didn't deem this worthy, why should we? This review is more attention than this film deserves, and I can't wait until this fades from memory. 
Knock Knock Review photo
Who's there? Garbage
Keanu Reeves is a treasure. Thanks to his genuine love of the craft, I'm always willing to see whatever he decides to be a part of. No matter the project he always gives as much effort as possible, sometimes even elevating th...

Review: Cooties

Sep 18 // Nick Valdez
[embed]219880:42604:0[/embed] CootiesDirectors: Jonathan Milott and Cary MurnionRated: RRelease Date: September 18, 2015 At the center of Cooties is Clint, a guy who moved to the bright lights of New York City after graduation to become a big shot writer. But after a few failed attempts has moved back home and is forced to take a substitute teaching gig at his old elementary school. There he meets his old school crush Lucy (Alison Pill), her meathead boyfriend Wade (Rainn Wilson), and a bevy of other weird faculty members like the evolution debunker Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad) and the socially inept bio teacher Doug (Leigh Whannell). When a contaminated shipment of chicken nuggets (as seen through such a grossly awesome intro, you won't eat chicken nuggets again) turns the kids of the school into flesh eating monsters, Clint and the other teachers have to escape the school to survive.  The biggest draw, or warning sign depending on your humor, is the writing duo of Saw's Leigh Whannell and Glee's Ian Brennan. The two have crafted a wonderfully twisted horror premise, but the dialogue is distinctly Brennan's. As someone who religiously followed Glee through its six seasons (including, but not limited to, buying the Glee karaoke games and soundtrack CDs and watching the short lived Glee Project reality show on Oxygen), I can safely attribute the brunt of the film's humor to him. That's probably going to shy folks away, however. Just like Glee, Cooties' idea of parody is to come of with jokes that are a few years too old. A post 9/11 kid who wants to join the army named Patriot? A closeted gay teacher making innuendos? The vice principal (Brennan himself) saying "Stop it, kids!" before getting ripped apart? Yeah, those jokes are as tired as they seem. As the film's humor gets sidetracked with these weird jokes, it never quite takes the premise as far as it could. But the cast's ability to complete gel with what they're saying is fantastic.  In Cooties, it's the cast that makes it work. They're completely game with the film's wacky tone, and their performances elevate the film to awesomely cartoonish levels. Since you can't get too overtly violent with children and still try and be a comedy, the action has to be more humorous than not to succeed. Since directors Milott and Murnion can't seem to handle action scenes (as most of the action involves the teachers moving from one room to the other and staying there for a few scenes), the cast should be commended for their ability to command attention. As the film itself strays and lingers on a few scenes, the cast is delivering the dialogue with the quickness it needs to make it work and helps make the hokey bits a little more digestible. As Elijah Wood has shown in the past with films like The Faculty, he's perfectly capable of leading a horror comedy. He's still charming as ever even when he starts, literally, pooping himself. The scene stealer, however, is Leigh Whannell. His stunted delivery finally works for his awkward bio teacher as he delivers the film's hilarious science.  While the directors may not handle action scenes too well (leading to a ending scene that feels convoluted and tacked on while completely undermining the film's bittersweet climax), the duo have got a good grasp on imagery. Cooties looks fantastic. Insidious reds, taut greens and shading, and you definitely get the most out of zombie kids. The kids are covered in gross puss and blood (instead of becoming too gruesome, it goes for the comedic route) and aren't too horrendously attacked, there's a girl playing jump rope with an intestine, a kid riding a tricycle covered in blood, zombie kids playing blood hopscotch, and so on. It's pretty much the embodiment of the "kids are terrifying" mantra. The film never quite reaches the level of visual you'd hope with a premise like this, but what is here is well crafted. There's definitely an attention to detail in the visuals even if there's a lack of it elsewhere.  Cooties has its share of faults, but none of them are completely damaging to the overall package. There'll be stuff within the film that bothers you here and there, but when watching the cast and the kids enjoy themselves it's hard not to follow in their footsteps. For every hokey joke, there's one that works. For every clunky action scene, there's a hilarious conversation between two characters.  By the time it makes the egregious mistake of going on past its natural ending, you won't even care too much. You'll have a big smile on your face. 
Cooties Review photo
Might not need that cootie shot
Zombies are everywhere. Name an object and add zombie or "of the dead" to it, and I guarantee there's a film out there with that title. Bong of the Dead? Exists. Toilet of the Dead? Surprisingly a thing. Redneck or stripper z...

Review: I Am Chris Farley

Aug 11 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]219746:42540:0[/embed] I Am Chris FarleyDirectors: Derik Murray & Brent HodgeRelease Date: August 11, 2015 (VOD & DVD)Rating: NR  I Am Chris Farley is an interesting mix of interviews and video clips, most of which appear to have been ripped from VHS tapes. They span his time at Second City all the way through his various film appearances. It periodically cuts to an interview with David Letterman which is probably supposed to be representative of his success... but looking at his eyes, I only saw fear. The bulk of the film is made up of interviews. School friends, family, other actors. Big names, small names, no names. There were so many of them that I often forgot who the smaller names were. It seems to be intended for TV (made by Spike), as every so often it decides to reintroduce them with new title cards. Every 20-30 minutes or so, after they're back from the commercial break. I wish they'd done that more, honestly. But at some point, it didn't matter if that was the guy who was with him at Second City or the one who played Rugby. They're not there to serve themselves. They're there to help document Chris Farley. The whole thing is pretty straightforward. It starts with his youth and ends with his death. We're walked through the kind of person he was and the near-inevitability that he would end up a star. He was the entertainer, always looking for the spotlight. Of course he was. He was Chris Freaking Farley. And, as I sort of knew but very clearly learned, he was really flipping funny. But even if you know that, there's a lot of interesting stuff to be gleaned from these interviews. He used to be a jock, for example, super into football and rugby. He was an excellent improvisor but he never wrote any of the sketches he was in. He was the mold that everyone else used to make beautiful sketch sculptures. And oh what a mold he was. [embed]219746:42544:0[/embed] You could argue that I Am Chris Farley is a little on the shallow side. It's not until the last fifteen or so minutes that his death even comes up. Heavy on the happiness and nostalgia and then just a little bit of, "Also, the bad." And it's something I'm sort of conflicted about. By virtue of this fact, I Am Chris Farley is not really an accurate representation of who he was. If he was in and out of rehab, then a couple of mentions towards the end are hardly enough to accurately depict his struggle. This is a whitewashed version of Chris Farley. But I can also appreciate the desire to not dwell on the negative. It makes the film less of a historical document, but I also don't think that makes it somehow less worthwhile. Just go in with your expectations in check. This is how people want to remember him, all of the good times they had together and the laughs that everyone shared. This is about the idyllic version of the man – the myth and the legend. I think that's okay. I honestly do. There's something unfortunate about it, perhaps, but this was a man who just wanted to make people laugh. He wanted to be famous so he could go make sick children at the hospital happy. That's the stuff people want to think about and remember. Everyone has their flaws... but sometimes ignorance is bliss. I think this is one of those times.
I Am Chris Farley Review photo
Some version of him, anyhow
When I went into I Am Chris Farley, I couldn't have honestly said that I was a fan of his work. Not because I didn't like it, but because I didn't know it particularly well. I'd seen some stuff over the years, but I miss...

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.
Doomsdays Review photo
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: 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.
We Are Still Here Review photo
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: Slow West

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

Review: The Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)

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

Review: 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: 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: 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: 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...

Dead Rising Trailer photo
Dead Rising Trailer

Newest Dead Rising: Watchtower trailer is pretty fun, actually

Mar 10
// Nick Valdez
Starring the John Tucker Must Die kid, the AllState guy, and Rob Riggle as the best f**king Frank West possible, Dead Rising: Watchtower looks surprisingly good. With this trailer elaborating on the bits we got from the firs...
Dead Rising Trailer photo
Dead Rising Trailer

First teaser trailer for Dead Rising: Watchtower

Jan 23
// Nick Valdez
For a film based off the cheesy Dead Rising videogames going straight to Sony's Crackle streaming service, this doesn't look that bad. Doesn't have enough Frank West covering wars though. Dead Rising: Watchtower is available March 27th. 
BvR photo

First trailer for DC's direct to video Batman vs. Robin

Jan 20
// Nick Valdez
Ever since the animated Justice League specials committed to the New 52 continuity (after The Flashpoint Paradox), they haven't been very good. I don't know what's to blame for that either. Is it the comics themselves? Is it...
VOD photo

The Interview grossed $31 million on VOD despite piracy

Jan 09
// Nick Valdez
When Sony released The Interview on most video demand services but its own, it was promptly pirated nearly 100 million times. At first it seemed like this news would only deter studios from simultaneous theatrical and VOD rel...
All is lost photo
All is lost

Lost River, Ryan Gosling's directorial debut, not coming to a theater near you

Going straight to VOD
Dec 30
// Alec Kubas-Meyer
Critics didn't particularly like Lost River, Ryan Gosling's directorial debut. It received a critical thrashing when it premiered at Cannes, and that likely played into the newly announced decision to bring the film stra...

Review: The Babadook

Dec 23 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218652:42068:0[/embed] The BabadookDirectors: Jennifer KentRelease Date: November 28th, 2014 (VOD) Rating: PG-13 After the untimely (and gruesome) death of her husband, newly widowed Amelia (Essie Davis) is struggling to raise her aggressively misbehaving son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The more her son misbehaves, the more Amelia pushes the two from society. Her son breaks a child's nose, loudly fits, and Amelia becomes a recluse in order to hide her constant shame of the lack of power she has. Then one day a pop up book, the story of Mr. Babadook, arrives on their doorstep and as the book reveals the sinister contents hidden inside, and her son cries over a monster hiding under his bed, Amelia realizes the storybook monster may be knocking on her door.   The Babadook is psychological thriller with a thin veil of horror. A meticulously crafted tale with darkness bubbling under the surface. It has this perfect way of getting under your skin. Unlike other, more traditional horror films, there are no big set pieces, no major scares, and nary a cheap cut or jump scare in sight. Babadook has a healthy amount of confidence in its concept, and we reap the rewards of that confidence. Thanks to a slow burning narrative done well (thankfully the pace doesn't reflect this), the foreshadowing is never heavy handed and dealt with the proper amount of ominousness. It's never teasing to the point of obnoxiousness. But that's also what brings it down.  Without going too much into detail (because even noting the story beats gives away a bit), nothing really "happens." When broken down to the core, the film's plot has very little progression. While notable story beats help the film's themes evolve, it asks quite a bit from the audience as those story bits are spread far apart (For example, they get the book and read it, several scenes of "living," and then the menacing stuff kicks in). It's like a twisted take on a slice of life film. Your enjoyment of Babadook resides completely with how much you can infer from the events of the film and enjoy the periods of wallowing. But if you do notice what's really happening, it's all wonderfully delivered. When Mr. Babadook himself literally becomes the anxiety barging in on Amelia's life, everything else the film's been working toward clicks (which Matt discussed in essay in greater, thematically spoilery detail). I get that it's a weird criticism to say "the film needs you to work," while simultaneously praising its confidence to exist, but that's just what The Babadook has done to me.  It's a film that made me look at myself more so than any other film this year. An introspective piece that makes me curious as to how I'd react to loss. While I will never know the emotional states of motherhood and child rearing, I feel like I know a little bit more. What if my kid were a big jerk to everyone? What if, like in the film, the only way to deal with that child is through solitary confinement, and he can't develop the proper social skills to survive? Will I ever want to potentially erase that child from my life? Will my child become a reflection of my feelings of incompetence? The Babadook delves into all of that and then some. A slow film about fighting stagnation while never becoming stale itself.  Oh, I didn't even talk about rest of the film. The Babadook is a very technically built thriller. The shots are seeped in the right blends of darkness and light, the camera is always angled in such a way that you never get a good look at Mr. Babadook (but it's never annoyingly so), and the sound design is fantastic with "Baa baaa dook dooooooooook" becoming my favorite horror phrase for years to come.  Guttural, emotionally progressive, and with director Jennifer Kent, we're introduced to whole new levels of horror that a female voice can bring to the genre. The Babadook is a film that reminds you of what a confident film can do to your state of being. If we get more films like this, we won't ever have to worry about the state of thrillers again. 
Babadook Review photo
Reading is the greatest horror
I've been interested in The Babadook ever since our editor supreme, Matthew Razak, wrote a feature detailing how progressive it was. If you've read any of my reviews in the past (or any of my other work here on Flixist), you ...

Joe Dirt 2 photo
Joe Dirt 2

We're getting another Joe Dirt for some reason

"Joe Deer-tay"
Nov 10
// Nick Valdez
You know when you come across some news and suddenly feel like you've stumbled across the worst idea ever? I'm sure I'm supposed to be feeling that right now, but I'm can't shake how stupidly happy I am this exists. Sony's Cr...
Jingle 2 photo
Jingle 2

First teaser for Jingle All the Way 2

Nov 03
// Nick Valdez
You know how Larry the Cable Guy rolls his eyes at the end of the teaser? That's pretty much how I'm feeling right now. Thank Jebus it's only thirty seconds long...and direct to DVD. At least it's easier to avoid that way. P...
Madea Trailer photo
Madea Trailer

First trailer for Madea's Tough Love

Oct 22
// Nick Valdez
Tyler Perry Presents Tyler Perry in Tyler Perry's Madea's Tough Love: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor.  (Madea's Tough Love releases on VOD January 20th next year.)

Review: Drive Hard

Oct 03 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218415:41872:0[/embed] Drive HardDirector: Brian Trenchard-SmithRelease Date: October 3, 2014Rating: NR Drive Hard is about former racing champion Peter Roberts (Thomas Jane). A later aged man (trust me, his age is important) who dreams of his former glory but now has a job as a driving instructor in order to please his wife. One day he gets a new student, Simon Keller (John Cusack), who then robs a bank, threatens Peter into becoming his driver, and the two get caught up in a chase around Australia as all sorts of folks are after them.  As mentioned earlier, Drive Hard is the latest in a long line of films appealing to gentleman of a certain age. Yet Hard seems far more genuine about what it's trying to accomplish. Everything about the film is directly simplistic (from the title, to the dialogue, to the bad guy's motive), and while that'd be a major flaw in other films, it works well here. Its lower budget also leads to a welcome sense of intimacy with the thematic nature of the film. Although the budget leads to some irksome CGI effects, those are few and far inbetween as the film relies on practical effects. I'm sure the CGI is never a problem because Drive Hard only works within its abilities. It's interesting to see a film keep itself from over reaching and becoming something less than. For example, for a film advertised as full of car chases, there are only two of them. The pace during these scenes is slowed down (which results in unintentional goofiness), but all have a nice flow to them.  But those car chases are only in the film to get their audience's attention. As the film rolls on, it turns into a cruising film where two guys just start bonding over life and women trouble. This is where I'm sure it'll *click* the most with its intended audience. While the derogatory views toward women are troublesome, it oddly makes sense here. You see, the reason Peter eventually bonds with Simon is because Peter is mad about giving up his racing career because he got his girlfriend pregnant. It's a terribly insensitive thing for a character to say, but it has a certain resonance with the older men who'll blame their wife for their regrets. It's a weirdly intimate moment that speaks more to its audience than anything else in the film.  I'm sure the tone I've taken with this review might make Drive Hard seem like an awful film, but it's not all bad. Even if you don't associate the film's tone with a mid-life crises like I did (I mean, Simon spends all of his money on classic American Muscle cars), it's a brisk film in an age where conciseness is lacking in almost every film. Thomas Jane and John Cusack also elevate the film's material as they swap their purported roles. While Cusack's normally the lovable every man and Jane the hardened badass, it's pretty fun to watch them swap mannerisms and flesh out their character as much as they can. Cusack is notably fun when he carries a nonchalant attitude during action scenes.  All in all, I'm sure Drive Hard is a film my dad would like. He's 40-50 something, likes cool cars, and you just kind of have to accept his views toward women. It's built for a very, very specific audience (and if you're not a part of that audience, look elsewhere), it has a good pace, and Cusack and Jane seem to be enjoying themselves.   Drive Hard is the kind of film I'd recommend to my dad on Saturday afternoons. He might fall asleep in the middle, but I'm sure he'd relate to the film's distinct viewpoints. And if not, there're cool cars driving slowly and old man jokes. 
Drive Hard Review photo
A mid-life crisis
There's an entire genre of films built around older men in action films. Whether it was bred from a need for some sort of budding power fantasy or a legitimate strive toward capturing the feel of their halcyon days, this genr...

Review: The Scribbler

Sep 19 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218348:41845:0[/embed] The ScribblerDirector: John SuitsRated: RRelease Date: September 19, 2014 (VOD and iTunes) The Scribbler follows Suki (Katie Cassidy), a woman with dissociative identity disorder who is transferred from institution to institution due to everyone's inability to treat her illness. As her personalities take shape (namely the titular "Scribbler" who scrawls notes on her walls) and threaten the world around her. She slowly realizes that what she sees is not all that's cracked up to be. Coincidentally, Detective Silk (Eliza Dushku) is investigating a string of suicides in the institution that began around the same time Suki was admitted.  The Scribbler has all the parts for something great, but they never assemble into anything more than an ill-conceived, incoherent mess. First of all, the film doesn't even understand the symptoms of dissociative personality disorder. Referring to the disease as "multiple personalities," but displaying different aspects of schizophrenia (constant voices, paranoia, horrible "cures") thus showing a disconnect to anything knowledgeable. If the portrayal of the disease wasn't insulting enough, than the actions Suki takes in the name of it sure will be.  Secondly, the film somehow squanders its amazing cast. You've got names like Katie Cassidy, Eliza Dushku, Sasha Grey, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Michael Imperioli and none of them can make the film worthwhile. The film is full of strong willed, talented women and they're all just squashed under the weight of how wrongly put together the rest of the package is. I can't even recommend this film for folks who are huge fans of these women as none of them is particularly enjoyable or even on screen long enough to make a difference. I'll give Cassidy some credit though. As awful of a characterization Suki has, Cassidy tries her best to hold it together and she's the anchor that keeps the rest of The Scribbler from floating into oblivion.  But if I had to point out a particularly egregious flaw, it'd be the script. It's based on a graphic novel, so I can shrug off stylistic choices like the overtly dark landscape, slow motion during the sex scene (!) and fight scene, and costume quirks. But, I can't shrug off how little of it makes sense due to the dialogue. There's no cohesion to the narrative as the interactions between characters devolve into a juvenile definition of philosophy with each line given the kind of weighted delivery you'd see in my seventh grade one-act play. Watching the film, I tried to gauge if the dialogue was set like this in order to bridge the viewer with Suki's blurry thoughts but the conclusion of the film clearly states this isn't the case.  Maybe I missed something here. Maybe there's a greater message at play that I failed to recognize. If there is one, it's buried under lots and lots of bad decisions. A self indulgent experiment that failed to pay off so badly, it now threatens the careers of the talented people within. You just have to wonder why they signed on for this in the first place.  The Scribbler isn't even good enough to be laughably bad. 
The Scribbler Review photo
Scribbledy gook
When I choose to review a film it's because something about it speaks to me. Whether it's the premise, the setting, the look, or the cast involved, I'm willing to take a chance on pretty much anything if some of those things ...

Review: Cam2Cam

Aug 23 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218237:41777:0[/embed] Cam2CamDirector: Joel SoissonRelease Date: August 22, 2014 (Theatrical/VOD)Rating: NR  Here's a bad sign: IMDb does not credit its writer/director with Cam2Cam's script. It only mentions Marie Gautier and Davy Sihali, who were behind the original story it's based on. Only in the actual credits did I see "Screenplay by Joel Soisson." Without bothering to fact-check this, I'm going to guess that Mr. Soisson is at least 90 years old. I say this because it seems to me that there is no way he has ever had a discussion with another human being on the internet. I have a 14 year old sister who types primarily in abbreviations, but the non-English that Cam2Cam's characters use during their chat sessions is a whole other level of stupid. At least 80% of the words are misspelled. That's not an exaggeration. If anything, it's a lowball. For the most part, they're the typical bullshit abbreviations: numbers instead of letters and cutting words down to their most basic phonic requirements. These things are typical, but no less terrible. I've been spending the majority of my time on the internet for the better part of the 21st century, and I've never come across people (outside of maybe YouTube comments) who have such a blatant disregard for basic syntax. But it's not just that. Because I could imagine a 90+ year old man who had seen a Fox News special on the digital degradation of language going too far in an attempt to seem "hip" or something. The issue is when it goes from abbreviation to straight up misspelling (there are multiple, not all of them intentional) or something weirder. The bit of "writing" that turned my anger into righteous indignation was the following:  "4 a nanosecond. now goin 2 bed"  It doesn't matter what this is in response to, but you should immediately understand what is so completely ludicrous about this line. Nanosecond? Seriously? She can't type out "four" or "two," finish "going," or use capitals and consistent punctuation, but she has the gall to type out "nanosecond" instead of "sec"? No one would do that. No one writes like that. I hate this. You may think I'm spending way too much time harping on this, but you'd be wrong, because the entire first twenty minutes of this "horror" film takes place in a chatroom and features one girl being "scared" by some other person who is saying terrifying things like "LOL." The creepy music clashes with the laughable dialogue and makes for a film that completely misses the mark. It's like a cat walked across the writer's keyboard and he just left it as it was. Drama doesn't work when two twenty-somethings are typing like toddlers. And while the spoken dialogue is better, it's still pretty bad. People give long, expository speeches explaining their worldview; everyone just seems to know really fundamental things about each other because it's narratively convenient; and they string together words that don't quite work constantly. Nobody speaks like an actual human being. No one. (And no one really reacts to things like a human being either. Everyone's exceedingly stupid.) Going back to my theory that the writer is very old and watches Fox News, here is the moment that really clinched it for me, even more than the legitimately infuriating "4 a nanosecond. now goin 2 bed." One particularly verbose character is describing the personality of a guy who decapitated at least four women. And his description made me want to throw my TV through a window. He said: "He was like one of those hardcore gamer types. The ones that always have to be on level 10 even when everyone else is playing on level 5. "Do you know what I mean?" No, Mr. Soisson, I don't. And neither does anybody else. Other thoughts: - Cam2Cam, for the most part, is nice to look at, though much of that is because Bangkok is a fascinating location. - I was warned that the first 20 minutes were the film's worst, and I'd agree with that. The whole thing could have started after that first scene and it would have made for a better film. A couple of events may not have made perfect sense, but it's not like they all make sense now. - For example, the twist ending. Totally didn't see it coming, but after four seconds of reflection I realized it made no sense. - There are some things that sorta made sense that did actually surprise me, so that was kinda cool. - There's a closeup of a tiny flaccid penis out of nowhere. So there's your warning. - The main character "unintentionally" places her laptop in such a way that it creates a perfectly symmetrical frame so that she can be watched through her webcam in a cinematically pleasing way. Completely unacceptable. - Cam2Cam's poster was approximately 70% of the reason I wanted to see it. Unfortunately, the image of a badass underwear model wielding an axe of justice is not actually in the film. Shame.
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Righteous indignation
In past reviews, I've written about the problems with poor subtitles on foreign films. Improper use of language serves as a distraction from the comedy or drama and makes the experience worse. I love the English language. It'...

Review: Behaving Badly

Aug 01 // Nick Valdez
[embed]218137:41724:0[/embed] Behaving BadlyDirector: Tim GarrickRated: RRelease Date: August 1, 2014 (Theatrically and VOD) Based on the Ric Browde novel, While I'm Dead....Feed the Dog, Behaving Badly is the story of Rick Stevens (Nat Wolff), a teen who's caught in a chain of precarious situations. His mom's an alcoholic (Mary Louise-Parker), his brother's a meathead, his sister's a genius stripper (Ashley Rickards), his father's a cheater, his best friend is weird, and his best friend's mom (Elizabeth Shue) constantly wants to sleep with him. All the while, Rick just wants to go out with the girl of his dreams, Nina (Selena Gomez), and keep the Lithuanian mafia off his back.  If there's one thing I can't fault Badly for, it's certainly trying its best to accomplish something. It's so packed with ideas and quirks that we'd have some sort of coherent narrative if just one of those quirks were elaborated on. But as it stands, it's like Badly threw one of those 25 cent sticky hands at a wall hoping it'd stick, only to watch it slowly cascade down and gather all sorts of crud on the way. And when it falls, the film just throws the hand back at a different side of the wall hoping it'd stick better without changing hands. It's just the repeated notion of tossing out a poorly thought out idea, watching it fail, and retrying with that same idea and watching it fail again but with different characters in tow.  It's hard to completely critique Behaving Badly because I don't really know where most of the fault lies. Usually when I have problems with a film, I can pinpoint flaws and attribute them to one or two key areas, but it seems Behaving Badly's core wrecks everything else. With a faulty screenplay dampening the characters, I can't fault certain actors for wonky performances when everything is falling apart around them. In fact, I sort of want to praise their tenacity. Elizabeth Shue wonderfully cheeses the screen as this sexual deviant, and because she knows the role is terrible, she doesn't seem to give a damn about how she looks while doing it. It's a wonder to see. It's like watching the captain dance as the boat sinks. You know it's a terrible situation for everyone, but you just want to watch them celebrate doom.  The same goes for Mary Louise-Parker who gives her dual roles her patented trashy vixen finesse. One of the few good ideas Badly has in its repertoire is the "Saint of Teen Angst." It's certainly a neat idea that the main kid would hallucinate someone who'd be able to help him in his terribly depressing life, but it's probably a plot better suited for the novel. In the film, the Saint is a bookend more than anything. It's just a reminder of the poor execution plaguing the rest of the film. Even if you're a bigger fan of raunchy teen comedies than I am, you'll find little of worth here. There's a bit of nostalgia in its twisted delivery, as the main character talks to the audience directly numerous times, but the raunch is debilitating rather than be a clever flip of those old teen film tropes. Once again, it's all in the core execution.  Behaving Badly could've been good. It's got a neat idea (give a kid a depressing life but have him be completely oblivious to it), but is unfortunately smothered by bad choices. There's just so much going on at any particular moment, it's hard to grasp why any of it is necessary. And when you can't grasp any of the importance (or humor, really) of any of scenes, the whole thing melts together into a bubbling flesh pot of semen, bad jokes, Selena Gomez, random boobs, and STDs.  Behaving Badly should've behaved good-ly. 
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"Badly" just about nails it
If you've followed my reviews here on Flixist, you'll realize that I'm particularly drawn to smaller VOD projects in between the big releases for any bevy of reasons. Whether it's because it features pretty ladies, pretty gen...

Review: Particle Fever

Jul 01 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217974:41645:0[/embed] Particle FeverDirector: Mark LevinsonRelease Date: iTunes (July 1, 2014); VOD (July 15, 2014)Rating: NR And now for a digression: In college, I took a course called "Crazy Ideas in Physics." A fundamental part of that class was essentially a live action role play, where the class was broken up into multiple factions. These factions were pitching ideas to a commission (made up of students) that would then dole out (fake) money based on the legitimacy of the pitch, which by powerpoint presentations and a poster session where the pitches were elaborated, as well as appearances on a television program hosted by Hildy Johnson, the journalist, as portrayed by yours truly. (Yes, I did have a better college experience than you.) The commission was set to look for Revolutionary Ideas in science, physics or otherwise. One of the proposed theories involved a proposal to build a large, extremely expensive machine that would allow us to learn the mass of a neutrino. It had important scientific implications, but the question came up again and again from the members of the commission: what good does it do us as a society? Will the mass of a neutrino cure cancer? Will it incite world peace? No? Then why should we care? Watching Particle Fever reminded me a lot of those "meetings." Thousands of people from over 100 countries spent $6 billion on a giant circular tube that smashes together particles in order to find new particles. The big one that everyone was looking for was the Higgs Boson, which is the particle that gives mass to other particles. Modern physics requires the Higgs Boson to exist, and physicists knew it would be found one way or another, but they didn't know how heavy it was. That question matters, but it doesn't matter to the public. Knowing the mass of the Higgs Boson won't cure cancer. In fact, it doesn't really do anything except disprove a number of theories about the universe. It doesn't prove a single one, or even really clearly hint at a true answer. It just confirms the existence of someone everyone knew already existed. To most people, that wouldn't be worth $6 billion. But to those who really want to understand the world around us down to its most fundamental elements, the announcement that the Higgs Boson has a mass of approximately 125MeV matters a whole lot, and the investment was completely worth it. (And now more money is being invested to find out what's next.) Particle Fever follows several physicists through the current life of the Large Hadron Collider. Some of whom were directly involved in its experimentation, and others stayed on the sidelines. It's a film that's been years in the making, and it's one that may deserve a sequel in a few years when the LHC is booted up again for Round 2. But the LHC itself is the least interesting part of Particle Fever, as is the science in general The film tends to gloss over the technical stuff, going so far as to put a musical interlude on top of an important talk because it would have just gone over everyone's heads anyway. Some things are explained, but if you don't have some grasp on the fundamentals of the universe, you're going to be really confused really quickly. Big points, like the fact that the Standard Model of physics upon which basically all modern knowledge is based is fundamentally flawed, are mentioned but not addressed, and that strikes me as an unfortunate oversight. That point is especially important, since it's the entire reason for the LHC's existence, but it's just sort of shrugged off with a "Gravity's really weak," something that won't make any sense to most people. Yeah, a proper explanation would have added to the runtime, but it also would have made everything a little bit clearer. (As an aside, I found it interesting that so much time was spent on SUSY, by the way, considering that the revelations from the LHC has thus far only served to discredit SUSY theories, something the films admits but doesn't really go into... But that's neither here nor there.) Instead, the thing that really got to me was the philosophy of the whole thing. Each of these physicists comes to the Large Hadron Collider, physically or emotionally, for a different reason, but all of them have made physics their livelihoods. The mass of the Higgs Boson affects all of their careers (and thus their lives) in a meaningful way. And especially in the time leading up to the unveiling of the data, the way they viewed the possibilities of the information was fascinating. I may not have learned any new science, but I learned a whole lot about the outlook of these people who obsess day in and day out over these abstract concepts. None of us will be able to ever really "see" the Higgs Boson or whatever it is the LHC (and its potential successors) reveal next, but there are people who devote themselves to it. Seeing and hearing these incredibly intelligent people talk about this thing that may one day help us quite literally understand life, the universe, and everything. That is what makes Particle Fever worth watching.
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More philosophy than science
I like physics. I probably have as good a grasp of the field as any film critic, and I frequently read articles about things like the Large Hadron Collider and the revelation of the mass of the Higgs Boson and how that revela...

Review: Beneath

Jun 27 // Nick Valdez
[embed]217929:41633:0[/embed] BeneathDirector: Ben KetaiRated: RRelease Date: June 27, 2014 (VOD), July 25th (Theatrically) As George Marsh (Jeff Fahey) prepares to retire, his daughter Samantha (Kelly Noonan) decides to accompany him down in the coal mine in order to prove to his gang of drinking buddies that she's tough. After an accident causes the mine to cave in, the small crew must wait 72 hours for rescue. With fading oxygen and tensions rising high, the crew must survive without hurting each other.  When I saw the first trailer for this film, I honestly wasn't too enthralled to review it. It looked interesting enough, but I've sat through far too many generic slasher films to take another serious plunge. Thankfully, Beneath isn't a slasher film and was sort of incorrectly sold as one. In fact, the most refreshing thing about the film is that there's hardly any violence at all. Most of the film's horror is of the psychological variety, and it's quite impressive when it all goes down. But the unfortunate fact of the matter is, to have a successful psychological thriller, you need characters that work.  Beneath is filled with awful people. When you get the conventional horror stereotypes clashing with the depth the narrative is attempting, eventually one is going to collapse under the weight of the other. The tough guy, the sickly old man, the girl, these are fine and dandy, but they're hardly developed into anything worthwhile before the mysterious deaths begin. Unfortunately, the little development they do get is wasted as each person is a little more unbearable. You kind of start rooting for their demise. Even the main character, Sam, feels like she's just getting in the way. In a morbid way, I guess there's an audience for that particular type of horror, but as mentioned before, it feels totally out of place with the film's themes.  But when Beneath works with its themes rather than against them, the film absolutely nails it. It's put together very well. The cave is appropriately shallow, lots of scenes are littered with the sound of breathing (instead of being edited out like in most films), and regardless of how I feel about their personalities, the miners all act rationally and make sound decisions. But as much as I want to compliment the film's focus on paranoia, the physical manifestation of it is confusing. I won't go into detail here so you can discover it for yourself, but when you figure out that the goings on are from a certain point of view, it riddles the film with holes. It's a nice decision leading up to the finale, but it throws the rest into disarray.  Overall, Beneath is a film with an interesting premise that fails to execute it cleanly. Some shining spots manage to break through this dark cave, but they're quickly smothered by weird decisions. Once the film kicks in (and the miners are trapped), the mystery unravels and it's quite enjoyable. You just having to be willing to sit through the rest of it.  Then again, the final shot is well executed, I kind of want folks to see it. At a brisk 90 minutes, Beneath is definitely worth it for the final moments. 
Beneath Review photo
Coal mining is a scarily dangerous profession. Our need for crude energies leads thousands of people to risk their lives every day mining for energy. It's a wonder that with such harsh conditions, it's taken this long for a f...

Review: All Cheerleaders Die

Jun 13 // Nick Valdez
[embed]217827:41592:0[/embed] All Cheerleader's DieDirector: Lucky McKee and Chris SivertsonRated: RRelease Date: June 13, 2014 (Limited Theaterical and VOD) After the death of the head cheerleader, Maddy (Caitlin Stasey),"The Rebel" uses that chance to join the squad in order to get revenge on the dead girl's ex-boyfriend Terry Stankus (Tom Williamson) and the girls of the squad for their stuck up ways. After a violent run in with Terry, Maddy and three other cheerleaders, "The Ditz" Tracy (Brooke Butler), "The Church Girl" Martha (Reanin Johannink), and "The Shy Girl" Hanna (Amanda Grace Cooper), die in a car accident. Thanks to devotion and some "Wicca bullshit," "The Goth" Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee) successful revives them and sends the living dead girls out on a rampage.  As a remake of one of their first films, All Cheerleaders Die, directors McKee and Sivertson use this opportunity to deconstruct the genre. Although the film separates the girls into archetypes, once the girls die, they become far more developed. For example, one of the interesting twists is two of the girls accidentally switch bodies as the film explores the effects of one archetype on another. There's just so much respectable restraint. The girls themselves manage the "Sexy Succubus" look without the film resorting to gratuitous (except in one hilariously inept case) cleavage or body shots. While it's admittedly not completely realized, the women in the film have lots of power. It's a nice change of pace from other films in the genre.  One of my favorite aspects of the film has to be the twist on the "Monster Girl." That's where the film draws most of its strength. Albeit with a few hiccups, when the girls are revived they retain their memories, knowledge, and personalities. Instead of acting in some sexualized haze, each of their decisions as monsters is strong armed by their personalities. It's neat. But even with its deconstruction, Cheerleaders isn't perfect. It may twist a lot of the genre's follies, but it straightforwardly retains a lot of the hokier ones. For example, Maddy joining the cheerleaders in the first place to get revenge makes little sense. I suppose it's one of the things you just accept and move on, but this plot point is used later in the film to disrupt one of the lesbian relationships.  But if you can accept some of the bad dialogue and odd decisions, Cheerleaders is a fun watch once it gets going. When the girls die, it truly opens up and each girl gets a moment or two to shine. The finale of this film especially impressed me as it turns the tables, and becomes a sophisticated dissection of sexualized violence seen against many women in horror. I can't go into much detail in order to avoid spoilers, but I will say the girls' screams provide the more viscerally horrifying moments of the film. It's so shocking how tangible these women's screams are. It brings a change in tone (from goofy to serious) and kind of snaps you out of the moment to really see what's happening. It's rare that a film incites such a reaction from me, and I'm glad to experience it in the most peculiar of places.  You kind of have to think of the poor 13 year old boy who finds this on VOD. He's probably expecting boobs, blood, and blood covered boobs, but all he's going to get is a film that starts a much needed conversation in the horror genre. That's what's so perfect about All Cheerleaders Die, and it's very reflective of its monstrous protagonists.  All Cheerleaders Die may seem like it wants to lure you in with promises of grindhouse style horror, but its real intention is to provide a fresh perspective of sexual violence. 
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It's been brought
With a title like All Cheerleaders Die, I honestly wasn't very excited to see this film. I'm not a huge horror fan, and I don't usually enjoy films full of gratuitous nudity and violence. But because this is what I get paid t...

Review: Lullaby

Jun 09 // Nick Valdez
[embed]217818:41577:0[/embed] LullabyDirector: Andrew LevitasRated: RRelease Date: June 13, 2014 (in theaters and VOD) Lullaby follows Johnathan (Garrett Hedlund), a guy who's estranged father is dying from cancer. As he returns home to visit his father, Robert (Richard Jenkins) one last time, he realizes his father has elected to go through an assisted suicide the next morning because his cancer is hurting him so much. As Johnathan waits through the eight hours before his father dies, he meets Meredith (Jessica Barden), a young girl with multiple myloma, gets closer to his sister (Jessica Brown Findlay), and reunites with an ex-girlfriend, Emily (Amy Adams). At the core of Lullaby is Garrett Hedlund, an actor who's been in lots of films, but I haven't had much experience watching myself. I guess what I want to ask is, where has he been all this time? Although much of Lullaby is clouded with a meandering story, Hedlund makes it bearable. Throughout the film, Johnathan is always referred to as some kind of jerk, but Hedlund does his best to make the character easy to digest. Although I got the feeling I'm supposed to root against the guy (as he continues to make the worst decisions), it's hard not to feel charmed even if some of his scenes are rougher than most. When he's required to deliver something other than a base deadpan emotion, his performance falls apart. But in a weird way, it sort of works as his stunted delivery helps ostracize him from the rest of his family.  Lullaby has an incredibly strong premise (taking place over 8 hours) that somehow stumbles with its character work. With a premise that basically bottles your cast into one area, the best thing to do is have them play off of each other as the audience discovers different things about their personalities and pasts. That's usually how films centered around reunions are done, and even with a modernized take on death to shake things up, maybe it could've used a few more scenes with the family. You see, as Johnathan straggles off on his own, the rest of the characters are left ill developed and that lack of development makes it hard to invest in their emotional struggles. You would think with a two hour run that there'd be plenty of time to explore, but several detours cause Lullaby to stumble.  As mentioned in the introduction, Lullaby intends to dissect the five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) but gets caught up on the first two stages until the final fifteen minutes. Which means we're essentially stuck with a film that's all anger and denial with little indication of evolution. It's a shame too as the cast is filled with great performances. Amy Adams is criminally underutilized, Robert Jenkins is heartbreaking as a sickly father, Anne Archer and Jenkins pair up together so much their chemistry is back in full force, and despite how badly it derails the film (as her arc has little conclusion) Jessica Barden's Meredith is so great, I hope she's in more films in the future. But as mentioned, even if Hedlund manages to make it bearable, focusing so much on Johnathan hurts the entire film. It's especially noticeable in the finale as Lullaby sadly zips through the final three stages, leaving the conclusion wanting.  Watching Lullaby is like swimming through gelatin with a tank low on oxygen. You get breaths of fresh air sparingly (great performances, Meredith is wonderful, the seder), but you're constantly reminded that all of your struggle is getting you absolutely nowhere. Weirdly, that's true to life. When a close relative is knocking on death's door, time sort of stops. Although the world keeps going, for you, everything moves in slow motion.  If that's Lullaby's true purpose, to create a work of art reflecting the self imposed stagnation caused by the impeding death of a loved one, then it's truly magnificent. But I don't think that's what it set out to accomplish. 
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This Lullaby will put you to sleep
Disease dramas are in a subgenre that certainly has more misses than hits. If not done in a certain way, you can turn an emotionally stirring story into a schmaltzy mess. Often films find it incredibly difficult to find a bal...

Review: Frequencies

May 22 // Nick Valdez
[embed]217773:41532:0[/embed] FrequenciesDirector: Darren Paul FisherRelease Date: May 22, 2014 (VOD and iTunes) Rated: NR In Frequencies, the world is governed by the frequencies each human being emits. The higher a person's frequency, the more success they'll have in life. The main focus of the story is on Zak (Daniel Fraser), a boy with an unusually low frequency, and Marie (Eleanor Wyld), a girl with an unusually high one. The two can't stand next each other for more than a minute without the world taking action against Zak (it rains on him, he misses his train and so on). After falling in love with Marie during their school years, Zak dedicates the rest of his life trying to fight his frequency in order to get closer to her.  I'll admit that my summary might make Frequencies seem a bit more schmaltzy than it actually is, but that's the beauty of the film's intelligence. While the romance between the two main characters is definitely at the forefront, it's downplayed to develop the vision of this semi-futuristic world without compromising the integrity of its romance. In fact, just when you think the romance is developing a little too quickly to really mean anything, that's when Frequencies science fiction roots take hold and support the story.  Much like its two main characters, Frequencies is told in many different frequencies. Separated into five different sections, different aspects of its singular story highlight the point of view of a single character (For example, Zak is first, Marie is second, etc.). It's a clever decision as each POV shows enough of each character that the audience is able to develop a relationship with them. But the smartest move the film makes is blending its two genres together in a way that allows the science fiction to inform the romantic side of things. A successful blend of the genres eventually comes to a head in the fourth section and, without giving too much away, it makes some of the later decisions a bit easier to swallow.  Most romantic films are full of contrivances. Girl falls in love with boy because he happens to be the only person in her life that didn't treat her like garbage. At first it seemed like Frequencies was going to follow the same pattern, but it becomes apparent that the film's romance is developed for the specific purpose of spiting those cede contrivances. This romance questions the very nature of fate and predestination, and creating a variable human presence within a world of set rules. When you realize each character's pursuit of romance is really a thinly veiled attempt at becoming a more developed person, rather than acting as a character confined to a role in a story, the resulting relationships that stem forth are worth celebrating.  Frequencies is not completely without its faults, however. The finale derails a bit of the momentum it sets up once it dissolves into generics as it becomes a complete science fiction film. The solution to all of the problems feels hokey rather than sweet. It's almost too saccharine in approach to work. Developments take place at such a rapid speed, it's almost impossible to accept or even care about them. As it lacks the multi-dimensional treatment of the rest of the story, it all falls flat and lacks power. Luckily, it ends on a high by going back to its well built romance.  Look past its finale, Frequencies is entertaining throughout. There are a few lapses in pace here and there, but even those can be explained away by the story's multi-layered sections. When it's all said and done, Frequencies is one of the best romances this year. And maybe more years to come.  I was definitely resonating at Frequencies' frequency. 
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Love hertz
I'll be honest here. When Frequencies was first pitched to me, I didn't know if it could work. It's being billed as a romance with a slight tinge of science fiction, and to be completely honest, those films usually don't turn...

Review: Don Peyote

May 13 // Nick Valdez
[embed]217703:41512:0[/embed] Don PeyoteDirectors: Michael Canzioniero, Dan FoglerRelease Date: May 9, 2014 (VOD)Rating: R Don Peyote follows Warren Allman (Dan Fogler), an out of work man on his way to getting married to his long time fiance. Without direction in life, he's depressed, wallows in self pity and drug use, and distances himself from that fiance. After a run in with a dishelved man carrying a "The End is Near" sign, Warren, inspired by the end of the world, wants to film a documentary about the subject. And this is all before his nervous break down.  Much like its main character, Don Peyote also goes through a sort of breakdown. With Warren narrating the events of his own story in the third person (thus creating a nice "storybook" setup for the character of "Don Peyote"), the film enters a dream like state where, much like Warren's character, there's no real direction. While this attempt to parallel Warren's constant fugue state is indeed enjoyable at first, without at least a hint of a clear path to resolution, the film eventually dissolves into nonsense. Rather than seemingly enjoy the random things Warren sees and does as the film might intend, all that's left is a disconnected list of events that may or may not have happened.  That's one thing I do appreciate about Don Peyote, however. With its unreliable narrator, Don Peyote goes off the rails to some great places. With the film's lower budget, there's a bit of ingenuity at work when it comes to how the film is shot. Before Warren completely loses himself, there's a slight blur to all of the shots. Every time the film cuts to a new scene in this segment, the lens is unfocused. During these scenes it's entirely possible to understand how Warren is coping as you can see reality piercing through. Unfortunately, these fun little techniques don't continue (oddly as Warren is giving up on the documentary in the story). And the rest of the film has a blase tone that really doesn't mesh well with its main character's instability. While there are some dream sequences here and there, they feel more like filler as Warren's characterization falls apart.  And that's something that really bothered me with Don Peyote. The direction of the narrative mirrors Warren's constant inner battle at first, but once he delves into complete insanity, the film does as well. Although you could argue that by breaking down conventional narrative structure Don Peyote intends to reveal a deeper look into its main character's psyche, Warren is never developed enough to warrant such direction. The descent into madness at display in the film is shallow. With no connections to Warren's mental state (we're never given reminders of how his actual self may be feeling as he just drifts from one lucid dream to the next), all we're left with is the initial impression of the character: a self involved, lazy drug user. And with that initial impression, there's no real reason to care why he's on the journey. No involvement, no drive to push forward through the haze.  No matter how great Don Peyote may seem under the surface, by completely losing all sense of structure as the film falls into place haphazardly, there's not enough here to continue watching it. The delusional narrative doesn't seem wacky, quirky, or intellectually invigorating enough to connect its scenes together. It's just disarming. Dan Fogler may have some great acting chops (he wonderfully contorts his face in manic positions), and it's hilarious how big names like Josh Duhamel, Anne Hathaway, and Jay Baruchel are thrown in completely at random, but those bright spots do not shine through most of this confusing mess.  I shouldn't need some peyote to enjoy Don Peyote. 
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A strange, long trip
Whenever someone mentions Dan Fogler, I'm suddenly interested. He's a comedic dynamo who always seems to choose interesting or niche projects. Directing his second film since 2009, Fogler displays acting ability that he reall...

Reviews: Whitewash and Big Bad Wolves

May 06 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]215491:40054:0[/embed] WhitewashDirector: Emanuel Hoss-DesmaraisRelease Date: May 2, 2014 (VOD)Country: Canada Whitewash is a story of solitude. In the middle of a blinding snowstorm, Bruce (Thomas Haden Church) accidentally drives his small snowplow into a man wandering in the road. He covers the body and then drives the plow out into the forest. He wakes up to find that the snowplow is stuck, and he is lost and alone. He has no food, he is on the verge of running out of gas (the plow can't move, but it can provide heat), he has no real supplies, and he is also a killer. It's just him, the forest, and his big yellow snowplow. He comes across people throughout the film, as treks out to find supplies and keep himself alive, but these interactions are brief and uncomfortable. But Whitewash also goes into the immediate past. It turns out that, even if that man's death was accidental (which it seems to have been), the two of them had met before. It would be disingenuous to say they were friends, but they had spent the days leading up the incident together. In fact, Bruce had stopped the dead man from committing suicide (a more beautiful irony I cannot comprehend) and then taken him in. As with any good nonlinear narrative, each new flashback drastically changes how the viewer perceives both Bruce and what he's done. By the end, I probably would have hit the guy with a snowplow myself. Big Bad WolvesDirectors: Navot Papushado and Aharon KeshalesRelease Date: January 17, 2014 (VOD)Country: Israel Big Bad Wolves deals with a much more serious subject matter, but it deals with it much less seriously. A man has been torturing, raping, and killing young girls and though the police believe they have found the man responsible, a video of some of their enhanced interrogation techniques is posted to the internet and they are pressured to let him go. After another girl is found raped and beheaded, the girl's father decides to take matters into his own hands. He kidnaps the suspected killer, ties him up in the basement of a new house purchased for this purpose, and goes to work. He brings with him another man, the police officer whose enhanced interrogation techniques meant the man walked in the first place. What follows is gruesome, unpleasant, and comical. And that last part is where things start to come undone. I have written on multiple occasions about the use of either child rape or child murder as a plot device (and I don't know if that says something about me or about cinema in general), but every time the same question comes into my head: did the film earn the right to use that as a plot device? Death is often treated lightly in film, but child death is something else entirely. Broaching a taboo subject like that is not inherently problematic, but not treating that subject properly turns a film from effective to exploitative. In Whitewash, there is a scene where Bruce, hiding out in a family's cabin in an attempt to get warm, is discovered by a little girl. She is obviously horrified to find a big man with a gravelly voice rivaled only by Batman, and he tries to keep her quiet by grabbing her and covering her mouth. The following scene is played for laughs, as the girl's father confronts him (from a distance), but what Bruce did, motivations be damned, is treated in the way that sort of scene deserves. Big Bad Wolves should be able to offer that same weight, but it doesn't. The scenes involving child abduction and the aftermaths of the violence aren't played for laughs, but so much of the violence and horror surrounding them are that the scenes actually seem worse for that. The line between comedy and drama is so tenuous that things that should be funny come off as horrific and things that should be horrific are funny. I laughed a lot when I was watching the film, and that was by design, but it's a flawed design. Tonal consistency is really important for a film like this, and Big Bad Wolves can't keep its tone. For the most part, it is played as a comedy. Whether it's breaking a man's fingers with a hammer or having an extremely Jewish mother cry about her son refusing to let her visit him while he's "sick," there's a joke in there somewhere, except in those rare moments where it seems like a taboo could go too far. But that actually draws attention to itself, and it makes those scenes feel even more exploitative, like they are from the wrong movie. Whitewash seems like a drama from the outset, but the comedy grows into it organically. Admittedly, I felt a little weird the first time I laughed, because I hadn't noticed the subtleties of the shift, but soon it just made sense. The line between drama and comedy (the film never really goes into the horrific) is occasionally blurry, but it works and the filmmakers clearly understood their subject material. Death and isolation are two extremely difficult topics to deal with. Not quite as difficult as those dealt with in Big Bad Wolves, but difficult nonetheless, and so director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais and co. should be commended for their work.  Had I not seen Big Bad Wolves so soon after Whitewash, it's possible that I would have been slightly kinder to it here, or at the very least have more trouble articulating why it doesn't work. Looking at the two films side-by-side, two films that are different in every way except their broad genre definition, it's possible to pick apart the successes and failings from each in the context of the other. Further discussion about the failings of Big Bad Wolves would delve too heavily into spoiler territory (I could write several hundred words about the final shot alone), but suffice it to say that there are plenty of things that could be discussed. Now, I'm not advocating not seeing the film. I think it has some merit and I know several people who were able to see past these flaws. But it's impossible to overlook those issues, especially when dealing with something so inherently disturbing. And let me also say that Whitewash is not a perfect work either. It's good, and I enjoyed it quite a lot, but it didn't blow me away. In a head-to-head fight with Big Bad Wolves, it comes out the clear victor, but it isn't groundbreaking cinema. But not everything needs to be groundbreaking. Sometimes, movies just need to be good. Whitewash is good, and the score in the big box below reflects the quality of Whitewash. Big Bad Wolves, on the other hand, doesn't deserve that score. Instead, that film gets a 60. It's "Decent." Barely.
Whitewash, Big Bad Wolves photo
The success and failure of comedy in the face of tragedy
I like film festivals for a lot of reasons, but one of the best is the way films are forced into context with a number of other, entirely unrelated films. The act of watching multiple films in a day alone creates all sorts of...

Review: Cheap Thrills

Feb 24 // Sean Walsh
[embed]217292:41239:0[/embed] Cheap ThrillsDirector: E.L. KatzRelease Date: February 21, 2014 (VOD), March 28, 2014 (theatrical)Rating: NR  Craig (Pat Healy) is in a bind. Laid off from his crappy job, with a wife and infant child at home and an eviction notice to deal with, he finds himself at the bar. There, he runs into his old friend Vince (Ethan Embry), a guy in the business of 'collections.' Before long, they make the acquaintance of the super-rich Colin (David Koechner) and his smoking hot wife Violet (Sara Paxton). It's Violet's birthday, and Colin has money to burn, which results in him paying Craig and Vince to perform a series of ridiculous tasks. Before long, they wind up back at Colin's house, and things quickly escalate. Pat Healy makes a perfect everyman loser. Everything ultimately hinges on his need to provide for his wife and child and he takes to the role very well. Ethan Embry plays one of those guys you were friends with for a long time, but eventually grew apart from because he keeps fighting guys for no reason while you're out on the town, and plays that guy well. The really great thing about David Koechner is that every character he plays is essentially a lovable goof. Cheap Thrills adds a certain desensitization to that character that works perfectly for him. It's the Koechner we know and love, but he's so rich that other people are just pawns in his weird game. Sara Paxton spends most of the movie looking pretty and texting on her phone, only getting directly involved to further the game, and she's surprisingly effective. Cheap Thrills is a simple movie, really. Guy needs money, an opportunity presents itself, and that opportunity takes guy to a dark place. There a two main locations, a main cast you can count on one hand, and not much in the way of special effects. It's a very lean movie, but boy did it suck me in. I instantly was sucked into Craig's plight, myself barely existing from paycheck to paycheck, and have often thought of what I would do for easy money, and how much I would do it for. On top of that, I watched this movie with my girlfriend, and she asked me "Would you do X or Y to pay the rent?" She also walked out about two-thirds of the way through due to the subject matter. Any movie that sparks a dialogue and repels the squeamish gets high points in my book. There's really not a lot to say about Cheap Thrills. It has a great cast, a simple plot, and an effective execution. It's gross, it's violent, it's a little sexy, and it gets its point across without belaboring it. If you're in the mood for a dark comedy that will make you ask yourself the same questions posed to the protagonist of the film, Cheap Thrills is the one for you. And you get to watch two dudes race each other to poop on someone's floor. What's not to love?
Cheap Thrills Review photo
Dark, brutal, and David Koechner
Any movie synopsis that includes "black comedy" and "David Koechner" is an instant sell for me. Toss in Empire Records' Ethan Embry and the two leads from Ti West's The Innkeepers and my expectations will be through...

Review: Almost Human

Feb 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
Almost HumanDirector: Joe BegosRelease Date: 2/21/14Rating: R  You can usually tell how long any given movie’s credits are going to roll based on both the length and production values of a film. Big studio films these days usually have about 10 minutes of credits; indie films have much less. Going into Almost Human, I expected a 76-minute movie with about four minutes of credits. Instead, I got a 72-minute movie with nearly 8 minutes of credits. And how? Seriously? I’m not being pedantic here. I’m legitimately confused by that fact, because Almost Human doesn’t look like a movie that enough people to fill 8 minutes of credits worked on. It looks like the kind of thing that a few film students made after pooling their money and calling in some favors. And if everybody involved is actually a professional in their field, then they need to rethink their career paths. There is only one person who can act in Almost Human. Fortunately, it’s the protagonist. Graham Skipper, who played Herbert West in that Re-Animator musical I saw back in the day, does a fine job as the haunted Seth Hampton. Two years prior, Seth’s friend, Mark, had been disappeared by something or other, but he blacked it out or something and something. Something. I dunno. The film showed us what happened and then vaguely explained away the characters it happened to not remembering, so we know what happened and they don’t. But then we don’t really know what happened in the ensuing years. So right off the bat, the audience and characters are at odds with each other, and nobody ever gets on the same page, because each moment of clarity is hit with a moment of, “Wait, that makes no sense.” I’m not even sure why there’s this pretense of a narrative. If the film started about 20 minutes in, when Mark returns to Earth after having been alien-ed or whatever, and just went from there, it would have been better. In part because Mark’s actor, Josh Ethier, is really bad at acting afraid. In fact, his acting is so wooden at the start of the film, that I assumed immediately that he was the “Almost Human” emotionless cyborg thing and Herbert West was about to get killed. Nope. It was just bad acting. Mark gets taken away accompanied by a blue light and one of the most grating sounds in movie history (repeated a horrendous number of times throughout the film). But when he came back as the emotionless alien, it kind of worked. It was weird that there was no change in his intonation at all despite his having become an elevated being, but really, the less said about his opening performance, the better. Once Alien Mark returns and starts killing people, Almost Human finds something resembling a groove. It’s still silly, awkward, and poorly acted, but impressive body counts have been masking those things for decades. And here it definitely helps, because the effects are the best thing about the film. They’re nice and cheap, practical things that look and feel weird because they are weird. The weird tube thing that comes from Mark’s mouth doesn’t look “real,” but that’s fine. We get what’s going on. And the big alien-making corpse-cocoons are inventive, if nothing else. So maybe it’s a throwback to that old style, and that’s why the film is “set” in the 1980s, but that’s not how it comes across. It seems like a cop-out, like the director didn’t want to justify the fact that characters would, ya know, have cell phones and could call each other. It’s the reality of serial killer slasher films now: characters can contact one another. Pushing the film back so the killer can cut the phone line isn’t artistic: It’s easy. (And I understand that getting CRT TVs and old-ish phones and whatnot probably costs something, but when those are the primary signs that we’re in a different time, your prop department needs some work.) Unless given a reason to think otherwise, audiences are going to assume films take place in the present day. To change the time period is to make a statement. Doing it because it’s easier (or even because it’s trying to harken back to an older time) isn’t enough. It can’t just evoke a period for the sake of doing so; it needs to be the period for a reason. Almost Human doesn’t have a reason. Not for that, and not really for anything else.
Almost Human Review photo
Not as good as the TV show
I've realized something important in the past year or two: I don't really like period pieces. I like watching films from other eras and seeing them as they represent their own culture and time, but I don't really like seeing ...

Review: Wrong Cops

Dec 26 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217062:41037:0[/embed] Wrong CopsDirector: Quentin DupieuxRelease Date: December 20, 2013 Rating: NR It starts off right. Duke (Mark Burnham) is sitting on the side of an alleyway when a kid with a bicycle shows up to buy some weed. Burnham played the cop in Dupieux's last film, Wrong, and he reprises that character here. His only real emotion is vague annoyance, and tells the kid to shut up about his excuses for being late and give him the money. Or rather, put the money on the ground... then pick it up and give it to him. Duke takes the money and pulls out a dead rat covered in duct tape and hands it to the kid. So far so good. But then it gets weird: Instead of accepting this at face value, the kid is incredulous, wondering why exactly he was given a dead rat, and even once he is told that the drugs are inside, he still presses. I realized right there that this wasn't going to be a typical Dupieux production. In an absurdist world, nobody asks those kinds of questions. Of course the pot-selling cop packages his product in dead rats. Why wouldn't he? And don't answer that question, or even think about it, for that reason. It doesn't matter. (Think back to that opening monologue from Rubber. I find the explication of the "No reason" idea to be a bit too on-the-nose, but it serves as a decent introduction to the idea for those unfamiliar with the genre.) This wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't for the fact that the cops don't seem to realize they're not in an absurdist film. And one would assume that's the point; it's where the whole "Wrong Cops" idea comes from, but it doesn't work. The clash between rationality and irrationality could work, but it doesn't here, because it can't even keep that up consistently. In fact, the whole problem with the film can be summed up by a single sentence. One of the cops has called a woman to an open lot and pulls a gun on her and tells her to show him her breasts. She doesn't comply (because, umm... what?), and he starts to complain. In his rantings, he says, "This might not be making perfect sense, but it makes sense up in my fucking brain." I wanted to punch a baby. He didn't even say the line correctly, getting flustered on the "be" and slurring it. It seems like a throwaway line, but it's the most important thing that's said in the entire film. Because no truly absurdist character would ever say anything like that. The only one who is really in it for the long haul is Duke. Burnham's performance is consistent, and his ignorance of both the rules of policing and general rules of human conduct at least fit with the way his character is presented. He seems to be playing a continuation of his character from Wrong, which would be all well and good, except for the fact that the character wasn't built to be a protagonist. In Wrong, the cop shows up a couple of times to be weird and snarky and each moment is exciting because it's short and new. The joke quickly wears thin when an entire film is centered around his antics. And when the rest of the tone is so inconsistent, it's just painful to watch. It doesn't help that the film makes periodic allusions to Wrong without actually being related to it. From the name and the main character, it would be totally logical to assume that this is a side story in the same universe. It's not... probably. The cast is full of familiar faces, but they're playing different characters. Considering how frequently directors reuse actors, that's not problematic. What is problematic is the five second cameo by Dolph, the lead from Wrong, and his dog, Paul. That decision does nothing to expand the world or ask any meaningful questions. It's just stupid. Really, really stupid. Because Wrong Cops is worse than Wrong in every single way. Wrong holds the distinction of being the only film I've ever scored a 95 or above. In our review guide, a 95 is extremely rare, and it requires the reviewer to have actually been changed by a film. They need to walk out of that movie with a notable change in the way they view cinema in general, what it is capable of and what they think its purpose can be. Rubber attempted to show that absurdist cinema could work, but it's meandering made me wonder if the genre would only really work on the stage (and a full paragraph of my Wrong review is devoted to the idea of Rubber: The Play, which I still think would be amazing). Wrong, on the other hand, proved it could be done beyond a shadow of a doubt. That movie is a perfect realization of what absurdist cinema could and should be. I will love that movie until the day I die and sing its praises from every rooftop.  Wrong Cops takes all of the lessons clearly learned from Wrong and then throws them out the window. It's not just a regression back to Rubber, because it goes so much farther in the opposite direction. In fact, it's so bad, it makes me wonder if those previous films were flukes. In my review of Wrong, I called Quentin Dupieux a modern-day autuer, basing that on the stylistic similarities between that and Rubber, his previous project. I figured I would always know a Dupieux film when I saw it. Now I think that maybe I spoke too quickly, because Wrong Cops doesn't have the same feeling that those others have, and that starts with just how cheap the whole production looks. I've seen YouTube videos with higher production values... a lot of them, and I don't understand how that happened. Dupieux was director, cinematographer, and editor on all these films, which means that he was satisfied with this 100% subpar product, and I don't understand why. Maybe there's no reason. But if that's what it's come to, where the only interesting statement he can make is some weird meta-commentary on rationality in the process of making a film (if that's even what he's doing), then maybe it's just time to give up. If it's come to that point, then there's nothing else to say, and he should stay silent. But I don't want to believe that. I want to believe that this film, for all of it's many, many flaws, is just a speedbump, and whatever it is that Dupieux puts out next is a return to form. What Wrong Cops really is is proof that he cannot make a film in a regular-ish world. His absurdist ideals find their way in, infecting otherwise logical people, and making the whole thing feel haphazard and poorly thought out. It seems like he wants to be making something he's not and can't reconcile those two ideas. I was ready to quit watching Wrong Cops twenty minutes in, ready to give essentially the same score as you see below, and call it a day. But I wanted to be sure that it really was the trainwreck I knew it to be. It never got better, and while it never really got worse, the novelty that had already worn off at 20 minutes was completely gone by minute 60, and by the time the credits rolled it was truly grating. Don't see Wrong Cops. There are a couple of laughs scattered throughout, but none of them garner more than a couple of "Ha"s. I wanted to laugh, to be pulled in to (or at least intentionally repelled by) this bizzaro world, but it didn't happen. It just made me sad, seeing how far the mighty have fallen.
Wrong Cops Review photo
This is not the Wrong you are looking for
It hurts me that people think that Quentin Dupieux makes surrealists films. It really does. And it's not just a bunch of hipsters trying to sound smarter than they are. Film critics who really ought to know better have lauded...

Review: What's in a Name?

Dec 14 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217002:41004:0[/embed] What's in a Name? (Le Prénom)Directors: Alexandre de La Patellière and Matthieu DelaporteRelease Date: December 13, 2013 (Theatrical and iTunes)Country: France  Although it seems to be billed that way, it's disingenuous to define What's in a Name? as a comedy. Sure, it's funny, especially at the bookends, but the bulk of the film is serious, as the characters reveal aspects of their own and each others' personalities, and rarely in a pleasant context. The ensemble is one big family: Pierre and Babu, a college professor and schoolteacher respectively, are married and host the big dinner party that is the film's setting; Claude is Babu's best friend ever since they were children; Vincent is Babu's brother and Pierre's best friend; Anna is Vincent's wife, the newest addition to the group, and she is pregnant with his child. So it's a weirdly tight-knit group, and there are not a lot of secrets between them. Of course, there are still some, but not for long. At the party, before Anna has arrived, Vincent announces that his child is a boy and lets everyone else guess. Eventually, it comes out: the name will be Adolphe (pronounced Adolf). Of course, this leads to a massive fight, as everyone tells Vincent that he can't doom his son to a life in the footsteps of die Führer, a legitimate point, but Vincent's semi-sarcastic responses only make things worse. Once Anna arrives, things go downhill fast. One misplaced comment after another after another leads a wonderfully tight-knit group down a very dark path. But it's an interesting path to follow. Because the film is essentially a 90 minute conversation with little bits on either side, there is plenty of time for each of the characters to really develop in interesting ways. The character that is developed the least is, as could be expected, Anna, the newest member of the group and the one who has the fewest connections. Pierre, Claude, Vincent, and Babu have decades of history together, and some key moments come bubbling to the service. But they don't come up without context, and each one is explained sufficiently to give it suitable weight. Sometimes it's something small, but in a couple of cases the revelations are huge, and even more than the revelations themselves, the reactions change the way characters come across in an instant. There's something inherently odd to a foreigner about a film that is so... French. I'm not really up on French culture, which made it difficult to follow at times. Allusions were thrown out that I assume the intended audience would get but that went entirely over my head. It wasn't enoguh to be a serious problem, but it definitely made me feel like an ignorant American at times. And speaking of being an ignorant American: almost every single name thrown out during the guessing-game seemed silly to me, but they were said with such earnestness that I was struck with a sense of wonder. Also, one of the characters is named Babu. Babu! It's one letter away from "Baboon" (although not in French). I'm pretty sure it's short for something, but that's just a dumb name. As a term of endearment? Please. But the oddest thing about the film is the inconsistency of its presentation. The frenetic opening, reminiscent of Amélie, is radically unlike the film itself. It starts with rapid introductions of each character, filled with digressions and quick cuts of irrelevant imagery that are interesting and silly, but it sets a false precedent. Following this weirdly omniscient opening (which doesn't really make sense in the context of the film, but whatever), the narrator (Vincent) arrives on the scene and suddenly things become much more static. In fact, almost everything from then on takes place in Pierre and Babu's living room, with a little bit of time spent in the dining room beside it. Aside from a two short series of quick-cuts about three-quarters of the way through film and a return to narration at the end, it's just people in a room talking. And this makes sense, because it's based on a play that likely doesn't leave the house setting, but the existence of this entirely different set of cinematic rules makes it seem like the filmmakers were dissatisfied with their own creation. It's odd, because it's the same pair that wrote the play. Perhaps if that random set of quick-cuts didn't exist it would be more justifiable, and the pre-and post-dinner scenes could have been just been different because this is a movie and I guess it needs to have something more movie-ish about it to justify its adaptation. There are one or two other quick flashbacks, but they don't have the same sort of impact, so it really feels as though they tried it once and then gave up on it... but they tried it near the end, which is just weird. There were so many other moments that could have cut to the past but never did, and there's no reason why not. It just seems arbitrary. But even though it starts and ends the film, it's not hard to ignore these bits of weirdness and just think of the film as a well-written and well-acted character study about these four people who have known each other basically forever and a fifth person who is about to play a major role in that dynamic. The theatrical roots are clear, and I don't mean that in a bad way. Yes, in many ways this really is just a filmed version of a play, and it would probably be a better play than movie, but it's not like I was going to go to France and see a production of a show in a language I don't understand. And it's not like they could really make an English version without some massive conceptual changes, because as I said it is very French. The only way anyone outside or France gets to see this story of these people talking in a living room is through this film, and it's a story I'm glad I got to experience.
What's in a Name? Review photo
Why you shouldn't tell jokes at dinner parties
It's a stereotype that the French are more cultured than Americans, but obviously that's a hard claim to either prove or disprove. There are any number of examples that could be used to show it either way, but here's evidence...

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