November 30, 2014

The Purge: Anarchy

James DeMonaco, 2014
This sequel to the 2013 film, which was also directed by DeMonaco, focuses on a group of people caught outside in Los Angeles at night in the middle of the annual Purge. The man attempting to lead the group to safety (Frank Grillo) is eager to break away from the group to seek revenge on a man who walked free from a prosecution error.

How does a filmmaker expect you to get behind a group of characters that provide virtually no likability? It's surely the biggest pitfall of the film. Because you don't care about them. The annoying couple. The barely developed pair of women with the ambiguously ailing father. Instead of any maturation, the film becomes an elaborate torture-porn piece displaying a highlight reel of violence. It attempts to build upon the premise of the original Purge film by providing more bullets, a bigger backdrop, but it provides less structure. Maybe DeMonaco needs those four walls. It's like a crippled version of Escape from New York, without Snake Plissken or the surprisingly awesome Carpenter score. The annoyances don't cease with the characters themselves. There's that annoying situation where no bullets seem to hit their target, even though it's high capacity assault rifles firing in a specific direction. The film attempts to explore some class warface issues, but from the second you see the traffic cams in the tractor trailer you get a clear sense of what's going on. The original Purge film was running on a plot that was contained and interesting enough to keep you engaged. And oddly enough it felt like it could have been bigger. Anarchy attempts to go bigger but it's clear that DeMonaco is not the man for the job.

Happy Christmas

Joe Swanberg, 2014
Young and not-so-responsible Jenny (Anna Kendrick) moves in with her older brother (played by Swanberg), his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and their two year old son in their small home in Chicago and disrupts their quite peaceful life.

Happy Christmas is a bold effort by mumblecore director Swanberg who once again employs Kendrick in entirely improvised story. Much of the film is set in the Chicago home, ironically decorated in 1950's nostalgia from the kitchen cabinetry to the basement wooden wall paneling. Shot on 16mm, there is a deliberate grittiness to the picture and saturation to the lighting. The constant view of Christmas lights pops, glowing warmly. The film has some very authentic-feeling moments. When Jenny and her friend Carson (Lena Dunham) start pressing Kelly on some of the personal sacrifices she has made as a stay-at-home mom, everything about it feels pure. Blossoming feelings with Kendrick and her new friend in his apartment. The exchanges between her and her brother in the basement, listening to music and smoking pot. The one-too-many drinking nights and the lack of judgement associated with them. Swanberg puts some real faith in Kendrick, and it really pays off. She brings more to her Jenny character than she was able to deliver in her previous collaboration with Swanberg in 2012's Drinking Buddies. Ironically, here she is actually acting out of type. She's usually the goodie-two-shoes innocent type. But here she is an capricious self-serving twenty-something, lacking direction and discipline in her life. She either has found some more comfort with working with Swanberg, or the change in character dynamics gave her more to play off of, or both. Either way, the final result of Swanberg's holiday experiment is small but rich in realness and honesty. It decides to invest much of it's time into real scenarios rather than provide back-story and character development.

November 28, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

James Gunn, 2014
A group of space criminals team up to defeat Ronan the Accusor (Lee Pace) from destroying the galaxy with a small orb that he is in pursuit of.

Guardians provides some star-gazey visuals on a scale not really seen since Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. In fact, the movie itself has some of the workings of a modern day Star Wars (mostly due to the brisk battle scenes and diabolical antagonist), but because of the elementary dialogue - it ultimately becomes a not-as-funny version of Spaceballs starring the Blue Man Group. Much of the jokes fall flat, almost as if the closest punch-up writer was literally in another galaxy. To be fair it's a movie clearly written for 12 year old boys. Chris Pratt continues his 2014 campaign of being the Seth Rogen of 2010, or the Zach Galifianakis of 2012. His success is understandable, he has the sort of every-man charm that puts an audience behind it's hero. But on-screen charisma is not given the right amount of fuel to really take it far, like he did in 2014's great/much-more-compelling The Lego Movie. Instead, Guardians becomes mostly masturbation fodder for boys that have grown sick of seeing Zoe Saldana in Avatar blue and now warmly welcoming the idea to see her in green. But while the dialogue weighs the movie down, the cosmic scenery and incredible visuals are probably enough to justify a single viewing. There is a scene in which the ship is cruising through the remains of an old giant which has turned into a mining capital. David Bowie plays in the background as they glide through the glittering metropolis, and the scene is quite spectacular. The movie explores the tired trope of a bunch of characters in pursuit or defending a single item. We've seen it many times: in Men in Black, The Fifth Element, The Lord of the Rings. Guardians will probably expose a new generation of kids to songs that would be better heard while watching Reservoir Dogs, but they will discover that later on in life. But for the adults of the world who endured the two hour watch, it's disappointing that the massive $170M budget was spent on CGI and music licensing and not on better writing.

November 20, 2014


Alex Winter, 2013
This documentary focuses on the creation, rise and ultimate of music service Napster - which rose to rapid popularity in the days of the dot-com boom in the late 1990's.

Anyone in their early 30's is very familiar with the effect that Napster had on the music world. It came out of nowhere and then spread like wildfire. It disrupted the entire music industry, certainly kept the record executives awake at night. One of the first, surprising elements of Downloaded is you realize how small Napster actually was. At first it was really just a couple of guys, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, who had an idea. It wasn't that they were out to screw over the RIAA. They weren't out to make millions and millions of dollars overnight. They were just a couple of smart kids who had some foresight as to how things were eventually going to go in terms of technology and music. The origin of Napster wasn't in a dark conference room with a group of shifty figures. Instead, Shawn Fanning was an amateur coder/hacker who was in a small office space spending nights on the floor of his work-space in a sleeping bag.

The hero and the villain of the story are not so well-defined. There are a lot of gray areas with Napster in terms of ethics. But you could easily make the argument that Parker and Fanning are the heroes of the story, and that the RIAA is the villain. The RIAA wanted it to be business as usual. They went into panic mode when their revenue streams were threatened. Instead of looking into ways to evolve and work with the disruptors, they ended up going after the very customers who had been supporting them for so many years. They sued the young people who were spending all of their allowance money on $20 CD's so that they could have another addition on their house, or another gold watch on their wrist. The RIAA, Lars Ullrich, Dr. Dre... they all come off as the dinosaurs. Dr. Dre is particularly critical of Napster and in pure hypocritical fashion, years later we see the creation of The Beats streaming service headed by him. Downloaded certainly zeroes in on an interesting but rather short-lived period in American Culture. It's nostalgic, and also surprising to look back after not so many years and really see how radically different things are now in terms of how we get our music delivered to us. Napster was without a doubt the harbinger of such convenience and accessibility.

November 18, 2014


Joon-ho Bong, 2014
The world is has been forced into a modern-day Ice Age after a global warming solution failed. The remaining inhabitants of Earth now live on a transcontinental train that circles the globe once a year. The lower class inhabitants live in the rear carts of the train while the upper class resides in the front, more lavish end of the train.

Korean director Joon-ho Bong's (The Host, dystopian sci-fi piece runs on an inventive concept that mirrors some of the class warfare of the Hunger Games with some of the offbeat humor on a futuristic backdrop of The Fifth Element. The fast moving train is unforgiving. The back end carts are fed gelatin-like bricks of processed protein that resembles out of the can cranberry sauce (except a really disgusting version of it), while the front end dines on lavish meals consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables and meats. The never-ending tension reaches a boiling point early on the film and the lower class passengers decide to rebel under the leadership of Curtis (Chris Evans) and guidance of Gilliam (John Hurt). As they attempt to push forward to the upper section of the train, you see a brilliant progression of the luxuries (probably the best feature of the film, such a pleasant surprise) awarded to the upper end of the Snowpiercer hierarchy. There are moments when the cart doors open to a barrage of defenders and you witness sequences not seen since Tarantino's Kill Bill.

Because it's Bong's English debut, there is likely some things that got a bit mixed in translation. Some of the humor feels misplaced, a bit awkward at times. But it's completely forgivable. There is enough meat on the bones to the rest of the picture. Snowpiercer is visually appealing and built on an innovatory premise with some good performances, and that's enough to make a good sci-fi film.

November 17, 2014


Lenny Abrahamson, 2014
Struggling musician Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) is having difficulty finding inspiration in his songwriting. He suddenly finds himself sitting in on a gig with Soronprfbs, an avant garde band with a lead singer who wears a paper-mache mask on his head named Frank (Michael Fassbender).

Abrahamson's Frank character is based on Frank Sidebottom, a persona of late English comic Chris Sievey. Sievey would channel an eccentric energy through his Sidebottom character on English stages from the 1980's to modern day until Sievey's death from cancer in 2010. Frank certainly draws similarities to some of Andy Kaufman's quirky stage work. 

Fassbender's Frank character is mysterious and complicated. He comes off as somebody more than a band leader, actually someone that is more of a cult leader. He never takes the mask off. He sleeps with it on, he showers with it on. He eats and drinks with it on, as manager Don (Scoot Mcnairy) humorously describes the straw and liquid supplementation process to Jon. While the film is a respective nod to Frank Sidebottom, it ventures too far into the world of weirdness. Very much like the music that they perform, it never manages to materialize into anything memorable. The film comes off as Wes Anderson eating mushrooms and having a bad trip. A contemporary British invasion piece with a bad version of Animal Collective leading the way. While it certainly deserves praise for not traveling down the typical Hollywood story path. But that's disappointing, because the group should have become more than a novelty act emitting Hipster frequencies. The final moments of the film are too little, too late. It becomes nothing more than a meditation on the internet's viral video culture and collective hype. It should have been more of a study on mental illness rather than lightly gliding over it like they did. The scenes in the cabin during the album recording were exhausting attempts to make something stick, and then it became claustrophobic. Some of the most humorous moments of the film were rooted in dark humor (mishandling of human remains, surprise suicide), but they were overshadowed by things like Maggie Gyllenhaal's angry character with her persistent rage toward everyone other than Frank. Frank basks in it's own peculiarity, which ultimately might please a Pitchfork reviewer but isn't enough for the audience. 

November 14, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson, 2014
Wes Anderson has some of the most recognizable features to his body of work: quirky sensibility, recurring actors (Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray are the recurring ones here), well-defined color patterns and arrangements, prominent score. In Budapest he revisits some familiar themes. Love separated by an age gap like in Rushmore. Ed Norton playing a person of authority, here as a police officer, tracking down a target as he did in Moonrise Kingdom as Scout Master Ward. There's the mentor / protege dynamic just like we saw in Rushmore between Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman's Max and Herman characters. And there's the dysfunctional family theme, as seen in The Royal Tenenbaums.

The multiple story threads are all built around a murder-mystery plot. When Madame D. is murdered, Gustave is framed for the murder by certain family members of Madame D who are angry that Gustave was included in her last will and testament. Most of the film is Gustave attempting to clear his name while also guarding the valuable "Boy with Apple" painting that was bequeathed to him. There isn't one bad shot in the film. Everything is perfectly framed. Everything is neatly packed in the distinctive Wes Anderson universe. The set design is most similar to his past work in The Life Aquatic with some obvious stage pieces but also some remarkable use of stop motion (the slalom pursuit down the snowy hill is one of the most memorable sequences in the film). It's some of Anderson's most gory & violent work (you don't expect dismemberment, and also manages to make the tired gunfight sequence artful), but it's also some of his most exciting. Anderson gets great use of Fiennes. It's easily some of Anderson's best work, and the somewhat-complicated story never becomes disorienting. 

November 11, 2014


Richard Linklater, 2014
Filmed over 12 years with the same cast, Boyhood focuses mostly on Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 5 to age 18 as he endures some of the most formative years of his young life in Texas.

Linklater has a really interesting voice when it comes to looking at the world. It's evident in virtually all of his films; a sort of rebellious, looking at the clouds, lost in the music abstractism. When it's channeled through the eyes of a young boy, it continues to be engaging and visceral. Boyhood is his boldest work.  The dedication and ambition to create a movie that spans 12 years is astonishing. The production has to run on the cast's good faith due to the fact that they can't secure contracts for that length of time. All during such a critical and sensitive time in young Ellar Coltrane and Lorelai Linklater's (his real life daughter) life. Time when they are distracted by so many other things. People their age are playing football one moment and in the school band the next. Constantly running on impulses. The 12 year production even involved having a backup plan in the event that Linklater suddenly died; Ethan Hawke would step in and complete the film.

Boyhood is a beautiful, heartfelt masterpiece. It's a complete coming of age tale combined with a turbulent family drama, and the scale of it is much bigger than some of the spotty acting that may be present at times. It plays out like a rock record with some goofs that were baked in to the final pressing. After all, Led Zeppelin's "Since I've Been Loving You" wouldn't be the same without John Bonham's squeaky bass pedal. Not only are you seeing young Coltrane actually age through the story but you are actually seeing the wrinkles on the faces of Hawke and Arquette appear over time, and with them the memories of their comprehensive characters develop. The chapters of their life unfold and you are there on the journey. The ebbs and flows, ups and downs. The more bountiful days, the more desperate ones. It's captivating, exhaustive, and just real. 

November 10, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Matt Reeves, 2014
Dawn picks up some time after the last film ended. A pandemic has wiped out the majority of the human population, the remaining survivors left to start over again. Without power and still heartbroken from losing close family and friends, a group of survivors colonize in the ruins of San Fransisco. When they venture into the forest in an attempt to restore power from a broken hydro-plant, they encounter the apes they blame for the collapse of civilization.

This Matt Reeves (Let me in, Cloverfield) directed sequel to the first and also good Apes film (directed by Rupert Wyatt), is rooted in some compelling story threads between both ape and man. You have leader ape Caesar, now a father and husband. Many years have passed since his days living with the Rodman family, although some of the memories still linger. They have started their own civilization in the Northern California forest. They have assumed all humans have died off, as they have seen no signs of them. But they are surprised to encounter group of humans led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), a compassionate man who they ultimately form an alliance with. Malcolm is accompanied by his young son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell). Colony leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) pushes them to get the power plant up and running in three days before he launches a military strike against the apes.

The tension between the apes and humans is glaring. The humans blame the apes for the world's destruction. The apes consider the humans to be cruel and not trust-worthy, after years of keeping them captive. The film explores family dynamics, diplomacy, perseverance, and the realization that the genetic divide may not be so wide between the two when it comes to behavior (which we all know isn't so vast, but for some reason nobody in the film realizes). Perhaps the greatest feat of this picture is the fact that you become invested in the CGI creations, as invested as their human counterparts. There is some acceptable confusion in terms of rooting for a particular protagonist, but you are able to get behind multiple figures for multiple reasons. Films like this, films like the Life of Pi show a promising future for film. The CGI builds that we are able to create now are so lifelike. They are not only just resolute in image quality, they can be complicated characters. As the technology improves it will become cheaper to produce. It will be interesting in the coming years so see what other filmmakers can do on smaller budgets with computer generated characters. Until then, some of these big budget movies are not bad when they are put into the right hands.

November 7, 2014

Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead

Tommy Wirkola, 2014
Picking up at the end of the first Dead Snow film, Martin (Vegar Hoel) manages to escape the small army of Nazi Zombies. But he soon finds himself in a hospital and subdued. He discovers that obtaining their gold wasn't the only thing that the Nazi's wanted. They also want to fulfill some missed opportunities from World War II.

You always hope that a sequel can take the original premise of it’s predecessor and build upon it. Dead Snow 2 certainly does this. While the simple story-line of the first film worked well, the sequel manages to elaborate on the premise. At times it's completely ridiculous. On paper, the plot is preposterous. But because it's put in the right hands, it works. It works because it never takes itself seriously. It ventures into the Shaun of the Dead zomedy realm, while also riffing on 1999's Idle Hands (possibly the first film to do so). It pokes fun at the American obsession with the zombie genre, and the sci-fi genre for that matter. Not afraid to employ such tropes as the bored cop looking for some action. The protagonist assembling a group of amateurs to take on the big big boss, the David vs. Goliath device. It doesn't hold back on the gore, being completely unforgiving to humans old and young. Wirkola gets quite creative with the carnage: zombie pets, organ extraction, siphoning gasoline through human intestines. It probably won't work on everyone, either. Some people likely expect more of a serious Walking Dead-like approach to the zombie genre. But films like this are great because they aren't afraid to venture out a bit, attempting to shift to something other than cold Dystopian horror. When the zombie movies stretch into the comedy realm its refreshing, serving as a palette cleanser of sorts. In fact, most of them are pretty good (Zombieland, the aforementioned Shaun of the Dead, Fido, My Boyfriend's Back, Warm Bodies to name a few). The general zombie genre is an over-saturated category of film with more bad than good. Dead Snow 2 manages to evolve from the ordinary, taking some risks that could have just as easily placed it in the campy realm but instead puts it right up there almost on the same level with Edgar Wright's 2004 zom-com.

November 4, 2014

Obvious Child

Gillian Robespierre, 2014
Broken hearted from a recent break-up, stand-up Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) finds herself in a vulnerable state when she meets smart grad-student Max (Jake Lacy) after one of her shows. Their drunken night ends with her being pregnant, confused, and trying to figure out how to handle the situation after already having trouble managing her current life.

Some people might remember Jenny Slate from her short-lived Saturday Night Live days in 2009 and 2010. You will probably remember that they weren’t actually all that memorable. She failed to ever really make an impression there. It’s quite apparent now that Saturday Night Live wasn't the appropriate comedic vessel for Slate. She has appeared on various television series since, but has really resurfaced in the quite-good comedy FX series Married. In that particular series she plays Jess, best friend to main character Russ. She is married to an older man, played by Paul Reiser. And she’s really great there. Unrestrained and honest, unfiltered. In Obvious Child, she brings a similar energy to her Donna character but elevates it and ultimately appears to be more comfortable. Perhaps the self-deprecating Jewish 30-something living in New York City is a more accurate version of the real Jenny Slate? Very loose on stage in the small club, quick to make fun of herself. Funny, edgy, interesting. Constantly drinking too much, not really taking much of anything in her life seriously while many people her age are probably taking things too seriously. She’s not even remotely prepared to handle something as extreme as pregnancy, let alone motherhood. She takes her issues to the stage, regardless of how personal they may be. At times it comes off as pure comedy, other times it’s pure performance art. Obvious Child rattles the foundation of the conventional Hollywood rom-com with great writing and performances, challenges some cultural taboos and creates something more realistic and fresh, almost like an Anti-Knocked Up.