December 31, 2015

The Visit

M. Night Shyamalan, 2015
There were probably many people who saw the trailer for The Visit, and when they saw the name "M. Night Shyamalan" on the screen they chuckled. They chuckled, because at this point, after many disappointing attempts to wow audiences like he did with The Sixth Sense - he has failed. Some look at Shyamalan as a punchline in Hollywood. And that's probably not fair. Sure, The Sixth Sense is one of the best horror films ever made. He made a really spectacular early in his career. When you do that, expectations are built. But his next two pictures, Unbreakable and Signs, were not poor offerings at all. That one quick shot in Signs of the kid watching a news broadcast on TV and seeing the alien pass by the alleyway is a frightening image stuck in my mind for eternity. I've also stood up for the film that followed that two - The Village on many occasions and was genuinely surprised with the big twist. But Shyamalan is also guilty of giving us The Happening, Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender and After Earth. That string of films created this crater in his filmography that for some people (not me) is unforgivable.

So the big question on many cinephiles mind is - Is Shyamalan BACK? The answer is, well MAYBE HE IS. The Visit is a good film. In terms of where it's ranked in his filmography, it's probably somewhere below Signs but above The Village for sure. It's not going to be forever cemented in the minds of film-lovers like some of his other work in the genre, but it's a formidable piece of work that even has a signature twist in the latter moments.

Shyamalan experiences with the found footage genre by putting cameras in the hands of the two main characters / siblings Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould). Becca is an aspiring filmmaker, hoping to shoot a documentary that captures spending the week with their grandparents who they had never met before. Tyler is a wannabe rapper, constantly breaking out into annoying rhymes. Tyler's character is interesting in the sense that he will probably annoy lots of viewers. It's sort of that annoying kid trope that has the ability to draw some of the energy from a good film. But his constant rapping isn't enough to pull The Visit off of the tracks.

This is probably because there is so much mystery built up around the grandparents, who continue to act stranger and stranger. When they are told that their grandmother has "Sun-downing", a dementia-based condition that causes the elderly to act unpredictable and energetic at night, the curiosity only grows stronger. But it's when the behavior starts to spill into the daytime, and progressively gets worse and worse along with the diminishing niceness of the grandfather character, that you are on the edge of your seat wondering what's next. You can feel the progression as the days continue on, and you are reminded of what day it is in front of each segment. It adds a small element, making you assume that things are going to get pretty bad leading up to the final day of their trip.

Shymalan is able to successfully use the found footage technique to his advantage. It causes you to have that first person POV, and when you are under a porch and your grandmother starts swiftly crab-walking toward you - that's only going to add to the tension. You just aren't going to be able to have the same effect if the camera is fixed. There are a lot of jumpy moments, a lot of them bound to stick with you. In a genre that is desperately lacking in originality, The Visit provides some fresh story and unique circumstances. Now lets see if the studio will leave it alone and doesn't attempt to create a sequel with new production staff and beat the whole thing to death.


Lenny Abrahamson, 2015
In terms of modern day literary adaptations, Room is certainly pulled from dark subject matter. Told from the perspective of main character / five year old boy Jack (Jacob Tremblay) , in structure it resembles similarly disturbing adaptation “The Lovely Bones” which was adapted to screen by Peter Jackson in 2009. Bones was told by an abducted teenage girl slain by a serial killer. While Bones dives a little deeper into the darkness, Room definitely puts you in an unsettling place. Actually, it immediately puts you in it. The film opens up inside the small shed / tiny prison where mother Ma (Brie Larson) and her little boy are laying in bed. The film doesn't jump into the past, showing you what circumstances led to their captivity. Nope, just right to the shed. It goes on to show you that Ma has created a routine for him, clearly trying to maintain some kind of stability while housed in such a small space under horrific circumstances. Not only does it show her dedication as a parent but it shows her patience as well. When Jack erupts into small tantrums, she has no choice but to stay close to him and take a deep breath and try to let it go. Tough work as any parent realizes. Walking away, leaving the room (or "Room" as they call it) is not an option. An early success in the film is how quickly you become invested in their characters. Larson is no stranger to playing a troubled female lead, as she did remarkably in Short Term 12. Larsen and Tremblay are really the shining performances of the film, easily outshining veterans Joan Allen and William H Macy. Macy's talents don't really feel used properly in the film. He just sort of passes through quickly, and sort of fades away insipidly.

Room is a very different movie from Abrahamson's work last year in Frank. Although he does have a way of blending black comedy elements into a dark drama as he does in both pictures. Room is really a heart-wrenching story, uncomfortably tense at times, about a mother and her son forced to try and endure unimaginable circumstances. It's a provocative & unique drama, certain to make some kind of impression on you. 

December 25, 2015

The Revenant

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, 2015
Watching The Revenant reminds you of how good our modern civilization has it. Not having to scavenge for fur in the wild to sell to get by. Not having to endure unforgiving weather in some rinky-dink shelter, cold wintry wind blowing at the thin walls. Living in the early 1800's involved you trying to avoid frostbite while also trying to avoid arrows piercing your skull from a Native American ambush.

Survival is a constant theme in the film. What it takes to survive. What you are actually living for. Or who are you living for. Do you have anything worth living for. These questions circulate through the Hugh Glass character, played by Leonardo Dicaprio. He had fallen in love with a Native American woman, had a child with her. The Pawnee people were able to give him love, skills, and happiness. He then had to watch so much of it being stripped away from him. As if his lost love wasn't enough hardship for him, he is then brutally mauled by a bear in the woods while trying to guide his fellow men. It's hard to think of a character in a film that has to bear so much misery as Glass, who really spends most of the movie being treated like a rag-doll hanging on by a thread. Dicaprio is really impressive with the Glass character. Instead of being a voiceless crawler through the film, he does a really good job of playing out all of the aches and pains as if you were able to feel some of it yourself. Tom Hardy is just as good as John Fitzgerald, the man who abandons Glass and leaves him to die. It's hard to even see Hardy at first through the thick beard and layers of clothing. Soon after discovering it's him you forget again.

What plays out in The Revenant becomes a duality of survival and revenge, all painted on a cinematic canvas that Inniratu and Co. clearly was trying to perfect - and maybe did. The nature pillow shots. The snow floating across the screen. There's even a scene where Glass is laying on the ground breathing onto the camera lens, and there's a seamless transition to some mountain mist and grey clouds. Credit must be made to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski, who worked with Innaritu on last year's Oscar Winning Birdman but has a career filled with working with skilled directors like Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuaron. It's interesting because from a visual perspective, The Revenant feels a lot like a blend of Children of Men and The Tree of Life (which Lubeski was DP on) in terms of harsh erratic exterior elements mixed with abstract dream-like flair. The rumors were running wild during the production of the film, having you think it was going to be Innaritu's Apocalypse Now. Perhaps it is, as the entire film was shot chronologically over the course of three months, and Innaritu was adamant about only using natural light in the film which gave them only a few hours to shoot every day. Apparently there was production turnover from people who just couldn't handle the conditions. But The Revenant feels like one of those films that is going to be talked about for decades to come. Innaritu is clearly at the peak of his career, and those lucky enough to work alongside him are probably not going to regret enduring the harsh conditions during production.

If anything The Revenant feels a bit lengthy, partly due to the dream sequences and some of the more abstract elements, but nothing in the film feels unnecessary or dragged out. It's a movie that is bound to have more fruit to bear on multiple viewings, and I certainly plan on seeing it again as soon as I am able to. Undoubtedly one of 2015's best.


Denis Villeneuve, 2015
A common theme in Canadian-director Villeneuve's films is uncertainty. Particularly uncertainty about a person, if that person is the person that you think they are. It's certainly a theme in Sicario, Villeneuve's seventh feature film. When it comes to the Mexican cartels, finding someone you can actually trust is a rarity. With the Mexican State Police on the Cartel's payroll, the CIA working covertly underneath the nose of many other government agencies, the list of people you really know is very short. So it isn't unusual for Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) to be suspicious of why she is thrown into the middle of the fray. She is told by her higher ups that she will be helping them "shake things up" and "make noise". She is told that it's a thing that they do to force Cartel members to act impulsively and make mistakes. Kate is definitely the moral force at work in the film, never really comfortable with the circumstances she is put in and the decisions that she is forced to make. Blunt is a proven acting force at this point and holds her own alongside Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin. 

What transpires is skillful filmmaking in line with good storytelling blended with skilled acting, which one comes to expect from Villeneuve at this point. He has yet to make a disappointing picture. While none of this films are as impactful as the very much under-rated Incendies, you see constant improvements in his craft. At times Sicario is reminiscent of the night vision sequences of Zero Dark Thirty. Certainly up there with some of the intensity fueling everything. The story certainly doesn't hide it's comparisons to the Mexican Cartel and the U.S. Government, and whether or not they are actually that different from each other. One interesting consideration is how you notice the Cartel members are family men, or at least have people to go home to. The American characters are more career-focused, married to their jobs.

Sicario certainly blends elements from films like the aforementioned Zero Dark and even some of the southern border bloodshed of Breaking Bad. But it feels like a movie that might be too stable, too uniform. His other work leaves you with images and story-threads that you will never shake. Sicario feels like a solidly made film that won't leave you with the same memories.

December 8, 2015

Tell No One

Guillaume Canet, 2006
Francois Cluzet (The Intouchables, Little White Lies, French Kiss) leads this French murder-mystery thriller as Alexandre Beck, a pediatrician that is desperately searching for answers 8 years after his wife was murdered. On screen, you see two different Alexandre's. The first one is the guy who is in deeply in love with his wife. Spending time in the French countryside, they consume wine and laugh and swim in a local swimming hole. The second Alexandre is the guy who has endured years and years of grief. Constantly seen on screen with a cigarette in his mouth, he is a man that is not willing to give up on his wife. Not really interested in moving on, sort of stuck in this phase of non-existence. Zombie-like, floating through the day to day routine.

Then, suddenly, on the 8th anniversary of her death he is surprised by a mystery email in his box. This email opens a Pandora's box of sorts; between himself, the police, and a group of criminals connected to her murder. What transpires is an intense story, where you spend most of the film alongside Alexandre as he searches for answers.

Tell No One is a complex, suspenseful thriller that has you feeling unsettled for a good portion of the film and provides some solid climactic twists. Along the ride it causes you to become uncertain of everyone involved in some way, especially with the themes of corruption and influence that are involved. Just like every great foreign film, as of Fall 2015 it is getting an American remake that will likely not be as good as the original. Disappointing, but not surprising. Hopefully it won't cause this one to slip away. At the very least, hopefully someone like David Fincher picks it up because it feels like something in his wheelhouse.


Sean Baker, 2015
Somewhere between the grittiness of Larry Clark's 1995 Kids and the unrestrained three-trans-female comedy To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything lies Tangerine - a micro-budget indie picture, produced by the always ambitious Duplass brothers, shot on 3 iPhone 5’s. Visually, it’s a luminous piece that has you immediately forgetting that it was created on something that’s in your own pocket. But it’s a character unraveling piece combined with a revenge drama, all taking place over the course of a single day. Sin-Dee (played by scene-stealer Kiki Rodriguez), is fresh out of jail and eager to unleash her fury on pimp Chester after discovering he had been sleeping with someone else while she was locked up. Aided by companion Alexandra, she promises her “no drama” and goes on to give her nothing but drama as she scours the back-alleys and decaying streets of Los Angeles looking for the guy. You get a sense that nothing very violent will happen when Sin-Dee reunites with Chester, that it’s more about the journey and not the destination.

It’s really a film about the lost souls of L.A. Most of the characters depicted are misfits just trying to find their place in the world. Some of them are not even looking for much either, maybe just some stability and a roof over their head. Sin-Dee, clearly the most short-tempered, is looking for security in a life filled with nothing but turbulence. Alexandra aspires to be on the stage with genuinely engaged faces watching from the crowd. Armenian Taxi Driver Razmik is stuck in a marriage that he is not interested in and looks elsewhere. But because of their jumbled place in society, they end up continuing to live their lonely lives that involve them roaming through the dirty streets. They are people that want to be acknowledged. Acknowledged by someone more than a random traveler willing to throw them a few dollars.

As mentioned before, Rodriguez is the stand-out performance of the movie. But there is much to remember about this film that can be accused of being aimless but is undeniably honest. It’s a well-crafted film that balances comedy with sadness. Focusing on some interesting people that have some real struggles in the world. Where having a dollar for the bus and having another dollar for a donut is a good day. The fact that it was all done on such readily available equipment just shows that anyone can make a film, and hopefully Tangerine inspires a generation of young filmmakers to do just that.

November 29, 2015

On the Job

Erik Matti, 2013
On the Job is a very well made Filipino crime thriller. It's a film that forces you follow two perspectives. On one hand you are following a mentor/protege dynamic involving a veteran assassin trying to teach a young guy the ropes. On the other hand you are following a career-focused clean cop that is trying to do what's right, despite the questionable ties to crime that his in-laws have. But fortunately it's not a simplistic good guys / bad guys film. Both sides are nuanced. It's a fruitful film that leaves you with quite a bit to remember. The production skills are evident within the first twenty minutes. One early big treat is an impressive long take. Daniel (Gerald Anderson) returns from his "outside work" to the grimy prison. The camera pans, capturing all of the various characters inside the prison. Recreational activities, laundry-doing in an outside nook. The attention to detail doesn't stop at the decorated jail. Your eyes will be fixed as the camera moves through the shanty villages of the Philippines. When you enter the claustrophobic abode of partner assassin Mario (Joel Torre), there are images of the tiny little home that are sure to be ingrained in your mind for some time. Makes you kind of wish you could spend more time just exploring the dirty, yet intriguing home.

On the Job is really a blend of a crime thriller with a prison drama. The exterior crime elements certainly take away from the sense of confinement and isolation of pure prison dramas. In a sense it's like a blend of Corsican prison film A Prophet and the Vincent Cassel-led Mesrine films. Everything is executed really well. You spend the duration of the film caught up in both sides of a captivating narrative, all set in a system full of corruption.

The Last Days

David & Alex Pastor, 2013
Just when you think that it's all been done before in the apocalyptic genre, The Last Days proves that you can still make a film with some originality. Set in Barcelona, the story focuses on a global epidemic that causes humans to become agoraphobic, where they cannot go outdoors without seizing up and immediately dying. This of course creates chaos, which turns into a quick collapse of civilization. While everyone is stuck inside, they become confined to the buildings that they are in. Supplies begin to run out, and in some areas there are just no supplies to begin with. What transpires is sort of a Mad Max stuck inside.

It's creative storytelling, the concept of a epidemic hitting the world and instead of attacking innocent humans at random - you actually have some sense of control over your own fate. The story largely focuses on character Marc (Quim Gutierrez), corporate computer programmer who is stuck at his office building and is desperately trying to reunite with girlfriend Julia (Marta Etura).

One impressive feat of the film is it decides to not just focus on the early moments of the virus but instead focuses on Marc's journey months after he has been stuck inside the office. Resources have basically run dry and the inhabitants have been working to mine their way to the subway system in an effort to travel without actually having to go outside. You see some flashbacks that give you some more insight into Marc's character. By the final act of the film, you are fully invested in Marc's mission to find Julia. One of the most extraordinary aspects of The Last Days is it doesn't just stop with a story about a guy trying to find his girl. It really makes some ambitious leaps with the story that make it an even more rewarding piece of work.


Eddie Mullins, 2013
Doomsdays is one of those films that focuses on a couple of characters that you really wouldn't want to spend a lot of time with in real life. These are people that have no regard for personal property. They have no moral barometer, no real sense of remorse for anything they've done or anything they will do. Instead, they drift through the Catskills. Home to home, day to day, drink to drink. They take what they need and they move on. But it doesn't just stop there. If they feel like smashing a window, or breaking what's probably valuable family heirlooms, they do that too.

Bruho (Leo Fitzpatrick) and Dirty Fred (Justin Rice) are just downright despicable human beings. Borderline sociopathic, surely nihilistic. Bruho hides behind an unrealistic earthy ideology and Dirty Fred is just kind of complacent. They make you want to double check that your own doors are locked, just to eliminate the possibility that anyone like them may show up at your door. Even though you are forced to spend the whole 90 minutes with them, there is something alluring about following them. There is an odd curiosity as to what the next house is going to offer them. They aren't just purely sadistic. Because they have some kind of code, it's not pure carnage. Fitzpatrick seems to always get cast as the dirtbag type, from his role as Telly in Kids or as junkie Johnny in The Wire. His Bruho character is surprisingly a little more approachable that former two characters. But still pretty venomous. But just like Reyna (Laura Campbell) and Jaidon (Brian Charles Johnson) become intrigued by the pair, you can't help but be intruiged by them as well.

November 27, 2015


Judd Apatow, 2015
Apatow's last two full feature films, This is 40 and Funny People, did not live up to how good Knocked Up was. This is probably because Apatow wasn't really a present force in Knocked Up, already living the life of a married guy with kids. There was a certain organized simplicity that Knocked Up had going for it. The latter two films felt like there was a lot of forced messages within them. As if Apatow had a lot to say and had to inject it into the meat of those two films. Not that he is not an interesting guy, he undoubtedly is. But maybe his married guy angst is better served on the stage in front of a crowd, and not in front of a screen. Maybe they should be two separate things. Okay, now back to his movie. Judd Apatow set out to prove two things with his latest comedic installment. One - that he is able to finally top his best work in Knocked Up. Two - that Judd has a lot of friends in Hollywood. Particularly a lot of comedian friends. Trainwreck, written by the super talented and super funny Amy Schumer, loads up on comedian cameos (Dave Attell, Jim Florentine, Bobby Kelly, Mike Birbiglia). But it doesn't stop with comedians. Unexpected roles by John Cena and Lebron James add some of biggest laugh out loud moments. The casting process must have been a lot of fun. The editing process was probably also a lot of fun. Shit, the whole movie was probably a blast to make.

Schumer is kind of the perfect woman to put in the role of the very sexually active fun-seeker who likes a few pops and isn't ready to settle down and get serious in life. Bill Hader is kind of the perfect guy to compliment that fun-seeker as the square sports medicine guy who hasn't had much luck in the dating world. Credit is really due to Schumer. She really puts herself out there. Very much like Cameron Diaz did in There's Something About Mary. Moments of self-deprecation. Embarrassing romantic moments.

So much of the film feels identifiable, fresh, fun and original. Solid laughs all around. Definitely one of the most genuinely funny comedies to come out in the past five years. The film has the signature Apatow theme of feeling a tad long; but it's forgivable because there are laughs to be had up until the final moments. Trainwreck has the honesty and edginess to call it this generations Annie Hall, or at least this generations Annie Hall as told by Amy Schumer. It breaks down the conventions of the modern romantic comedy. And just when you think it's going to take a turn down cliche Avenue, it jerks the wheel in the other direction. She's going places, that Amy Schumer.

November 22, 2015

Inside Out

Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, 2015
Pixar Studios has become a trusted source of films that are going to grab the attention of young viewers but also appeal to adult audiences as well. Its no different for Inside Out, a visual feast for the eyes that is clearly an allegory for the growing pains of the tween years. It's a colorful film filled with invention. From the memory balls that roll through the infinite mind of main character Riley, to the personalized islands that are home to Riley's main personality traits. Imagination Land, or the Dream Productions area. The film has the god-like control center of The Truman Show with the kaleidoscopic visual elements of Wreck-it Ralph. You can draw similarities to the Toy Story films in the sense that the story focuses on unseen elements connected to a main character, looking out for them in a sense. Third parties that have a vested interest in a main character's well-being. And the Riley character has some uniqueness herself. Instead of being a chatty tween archetype glued to her cell phone, she is a goofy tom-boy type who is very into hockey. Refreshing character model.

It's interesting because you can easily simplify the plot of the film. You could say it's a movie about a girl who struggles to adapt when her family moves her from Minnesota to San Francisco. But because we are a witness to every thought and action that takes place, it creates a much more detailed story. Every single emotion is a character, a character with some true identity. So many memorable elements to take away from the film. It's a movie with some real heart, and some heartbreak to endure. Ebbs and flows. Another great Pixar film that will prove to be a timeless classic, ripe for multiple viewings.

Goodbye World

Denis Henry Hennelly, 2014
We are living in an age of numerous apocalyptic movies. Nuclear wars, zombie plagues, global pandemics, terrorist attacks. The list goes on. Seems like every year we are served a dozen or so of them and we are forced to weed through them to find one of quality. Goodbye World, is one of the ones of little quality. The film starts off interesting. An ambiguous text starts to circulate saying "Goodbye World", puzzling the recipients. As a group of old friends plan their arrival to friend James' (Adrian Grenier) remote mountain house, order is beginning to break down. The group of friends are reuniting after years of not seeing each other for various reasons. Their reunion just happens to coincide with the collapse of civilization. And coincidentally, James happens to be a doomsday-prepper type who happens to have everything they will need when shit hits the fan. How convenient! The fact that he has all of the supplies, solar power, medicine neutralizes the panic and for most of the film all we really have to indicate that things have really collapsed is some smoke way off in the distance. Oh, and the occasional invader such as a pair of soldiers aggressively trying to claim their place on the compound. 

It's a movie that would have certainly benefited from being much simpler. It could have been an effective limited storytelling piece in an enclosed setting. But the stakes would have needed to be higher. Instead of pure panic and main conflict points were marital troubles, which would seem so trivial in a time like this. There were also just way too many story threads in general. Business conflict between the men. An old couple that still has feelings for each other. A woman still dealing with political fallout from a sex scandal. An ex con lecturer who does college tours.

The movie would have been a great opportunity for Adrian Grenier to do something that he was never able to do during his many years on HBO's Entourage: prove that he is a viable actor. Unfortunately, he fails to do that here. There actually isn't really a memorable performance in the film. Goodbye World is an frustratingly confused film. Probably a movie that was didn't end up materializing the way it was intended to. Instead of keeping things simple, it fell into a web of unnecessary complications. It's a movie that also has some glaring flaws, like kids just standing there when someone is shot to their death or when there is a stranger screaming at a mother. One of the most irritating points in the film is when one of the main characters reveal themselves to be a an absolute computer aficionado. How convenient!

November 18, 2015

The Host

Joon Ho Bong, 2006
The Host, a movie with a very generic name, is one of several of the same title listed on IMDB. There is a short about a patient in a mental asylum. There is a 2013 full feature starring Saoirse Ronan about a mysterious force that steals people’s memories. But this Host is not any of those. This is the 2006 South Korean monster film written and directed by Joon Ho Bong (Memories of Murder, Mother, Snowpiercer). Clearly the Korean title didn't make the best transition to English. This particular monster movie ended up being the highest grossing South Korean film of all time after it was reported that 13 million tickets were sold.

The premise of the film is quite simple. A scientist is bullied into dumping massive amounts of formaldehyde down the laboratory drain, hence contaminating the city’s river-water. Not long after, the toxic chemicals create a mutated river monster that starts targeting city residents. The creature emerges from the water and descends upon a riverside park. After killing many residents it captures a food-truck worker’s daughter and disappears into the water. The man, not willing to give up on his daughter, attempts to rescue her. Of course the main dilemma of the story is the clock is ticking, and are they going to have enough time?

The film is clearly a parable for the cost of environmental destruction. But instead of just unleashing pure CGI destruction. Joon Ho Bong focuses more on the family dynamic. The family has quickly given up hope in their own government, who doesn’t take their claims seriously. They would rather just keep the family on lockdown in one of their quarantine zones. So they take matters into their own hands. It’s interesting visiting this film after already seen Joon Ho Bong’s later work in Snowpiercer. There are certainly similarities; snappy editing, impressive visual elements, clean CGI, government oppression, revolt against authority. There’s even some black comedy elements that were also seen in Snowpiercer. But The Host offers a more intimate look at a single family that is willing to put their differences aside to rescue their brother / son’s daughter. Despite the fact that this bloodthirsty creature can easily kill them, and despite the fact that the government agents are willing to do whatever they can to capture them, they focus on their one objective. Another example of a compelling us vs. the world / man vs. beast story. You care about the family, there is enough development that you really get to know them. You want them to save the daughter. She herself isn't just some crying, innocent little thing. She's resourceful, compassionate. She picks through the pockets of the poor souls who didn't survive the creature's grasp. She aids a fellow child also captured. She offers you enough of her character that you would probably join the family in their attempts to scour the city sewer in search of her.

November 2, 2015

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

David Lowery, 2013
On paper the idea of a southern rom-dram starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara is interesting. The two, both accomplished actors, have been part of some of the best films to come out within the past twenty years. Affleck himself has played the criminal on the run before, in the very much under-rated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He's certainly playing a cousin of his Robert Ford character, an elusive untrustworthy soft-speaking figure that has hints of innocence behind obvious youthful naivete. But there is a vast difference between Ain't them Bodies and Jesse James. Bodies is basically a game of cat and mouse with a ticking clock. Bob Muldoon (Affleck), after many attempts of escaping prison, has finally managed to escape and very predictably is planning reuniting with his love Ruth (Mara). Their early moments spent together on screen were the two of them participating in a very Bonnie & Clyde-like excursion. One that left one of their partners in crime dead and an officer shot. Pregnant Ruth is spared prosecution while Bob takes the fall and gets the book thrown at him. The people around Ruth figure that having the child and being separated from Bob will be a good opportunity for her to have a normal life that doesn't involve criminal acts. Standing in between the pairs fateful reunion is father figure / neighbor Skerritt (Keith Carradine) and local cop Patrick Wheeler (Ben Foster).

It's a story that doesn't feel all that gripping or even original for that matter. It feels like a dull whispery drama that could have been something better. The Bob character doesn't really feel like a character worth getting behind. Their love together never really feels like much more than a lot of young body rubbing that inadvertently created a little daughter. Mara, who probably provides the most compelling performance in the film, is not much more than a woman that is mired in indecision on whether or not to be the reformed mother or continue to like the bad boys. The dim lighting, the cold aluminum siding, the shadow-ridden barn that Bob hides in, are all failed attempts at creating any visual impressions. Bodies is a forgettable picture that doesn't hide it's admiration for Bonnie and Clyde but completely lacks the greatness of it.


Aaron Hann / Mario Miscione, 2015
There a handful of films (Buried, The Man from Earth, 12 Angry Men, Pontypool, Rear Window and a lot of Hitchcock's work for that matter) that take place in a single location. With a limited setting, you need to have a good script powering the narrative. Because you are going to be stuck with these characters for 90 minutes or so, they NEED to be interesting.

Circle takes place in a single room. A bunch of strangers awaken from an mysterious daze and find themselves placed upon red circles like human board game pieces. They realize quite quickly that they are part of an odd social experiment. When one of them steps off of the red circle that they stand on, they die. Not long after they realize that it's not the only way to die in the circle room. Seemingly at random, the ominous eye at the center of the room zaps an innocent victim. But then they determine it's not random. Not only is it not random, they are actually in control of who gets exterminated. What transpires is a dark social experiment where everyone in the room makes a stand for their life, and also has to play executioner to the people standing around them. What starts off as superficial judging turns into moral examinations. The numbers dwindle down and the experiment turns into pure Survivor-esque strategy. It's interesting that you really don't spend a whole lot of time with the poor people in the room. But because of their dilemma, you are forced to learn a lot about them rapidly. Like they are making a stand for their lives, and because of that they reveal themselves much faster than they would over a cup of coffee where they have all of the time in the world. The end result is a really inventive and unique movie, one that feels like an indie hybrid of Saw, the aforementioned 12 Angry Men and the not-often-mentioned Cube.

October 30, 2015

Steve Jobs

Danny Boyle, 2015
Not many people in our modern age will likely see such legendary status so shortly after their death as Steve Jobs, who passed away in 2011 after a battle with cancer. After his passing we were treated to stories of what kind of person he was, good and bad. Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Jobs was a warts and all guide to the complicated person.

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is built upon the material contained in Isaacson’s book. It’s really a bold approach in terms of it’s cinematic treatment, because it doesn’t pull a lot of punches in showcasing some of Job’s faults. It largely focuses on Jobs negative traits. His obsession with control. His bitterness towards those who wronged him. And quite possibly his biggest flaw as a person, his denial of his biological daughter Lisa. The biopic itself was involved in a long game of hot potato in Hollywood. A lot of names were thrown around to play Steve: George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Dicaprio, Christian Bale. All of the big names that seem to come up with any high profile film these days. The choice of Michael Fassbender was an intriguing one. How could a German-Irish who doesn’t possess any of the physical qualities of Steve Jobs actually play him on screen?

Fassbender handles the role quite well. He seemed to have studied Jobs mannerisms through the seemingly endless sources of media available. There are moments where he was able to capture a few sentences where he sounded almost exactly like the real Steve. But Fassbender isn’t really doing a dead-on impersonation of Jobs, it is more of a reinterpretation or a channeling of a person through a series of fictional scenes based on accounts of others.

There is certainly a lack of Danny Boyle’s stylistic personality to the film. The superimposition of the rocket take off on the hallway wall may be one of the only visual elements that feels like Boyle. Because of this, it feels like a film belonging more to Sorkin. Especially with it being so dialogue heavy. Almost as if the script itself was blowing through the alleyways in Hollywood and finally Boyle stepped on it with one foot and decided to pick it up. Sorkin’s script isn’t just normal people talking. It’s people talking to each other in that very intense, very important manner. Everything that comes out of everyone’s mouth is quotable. But with all of that dialogue comes fatigue. By the third Apple event depicted, you are bound to feel winded.

Frankenstein's Army

Richard Raaphorst, 2013
On paper, it’s a film that probably won’t pull a lot of people in. A group of Russian soldiers push into German territory during World War II, only to stumble upon a building filled with undead monsters. It feels like a tired premise, and Nazi zombies have certainly been touched on before with Tommy Wirkola’s 2009 indie-horror Dead Snow. Some of the early moments of the film feel blaringly under-funded, fighting sequences that are lacking in numbers. You need to move past that. You need to move past the idea of Russian and German troops speaking to each other in English. You need to get past the ridiculousness of a World War II-era found footage film. Because if you can past all of this, the building awaits. This building, is filled with some of the most horrifying, provocative creations ever built in the horror genre. Oh you know, things like reanimated soldiers with sawblades for arms. Army certainly has some hints of fellow brutal indie-horror The Human Centipede. Dr. Frankenstein’s creations that he unleashed upon the outsiders are a showcase of great makeup work and artistic ability. A small treasure of a film that’s just begging to be put on during the Halloween season, it’s a movie that knows what it is and is certainly comfortable enough attaining cult status rather than classic status. If you’re a fan of the genre it’s possible to buy into spending a bit of time in an undead carnage-factory led by an insane genius with a magic switch.

October 20, 2015


Ron Scalpello, 2015
Scalpello's deep sea survival piece feels very much like a blend of All is Lost and Gravity in terms of concept. Basically the entire film is set in the tight pod that houses a crew of men who were sent 700 ft below the surface to repair a pipeline. After rough seas force them to abandon their duties and return to their ship, they learn that their base ship has perished in a storm above them. The limited oxygen in the ship creates a figurative life-clock that they constantly monitor. Their distress beacon can be dispatched but may not have a wide enough range to help them. Even the pressure levels at their depth can create big problems for them. The deep ocean elements basically create a situation that very much feels like being lost in space. They can't exit their vessel without enduring the harsh exterior elements. They have little to no connection with the outside world. Perhaps it's a bit more daunting than being stuck in space, because there are literally just a few hundred feet below the surface of the water right here on Earth.

To the film's credit, the struggle between the men is moderately compelling. The look of worry on their faces, and the challenges that are in front of them are enough to draw some sympathy. But there's something lacking in the film that pushes it lower in the ranks of the really good survival pictures. It's because of lack of story. You are forced to spend 90 minutes in panic with the group that you really don't know much about. You don't know anything about their lives above the surface. We aren't ever really given much backstory, other than in the form of abstract flashbacks that are more confusing than revealing. It's certainly a nice looking deep sea movie with impressive set design. But it just scratches the surface of a really good ocean movie, making it feel more Open Water than 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Joss Whedon, 2015
The Avengers sequel aims to fulfill the obligation or hope of every sequel: to build upon the first film and to raise the stakes. The early moments of the film find The Avengers in a more vulnerable state. Questioning their value as the saviors and guardians of Earth's inhabitants. They are aware of some of the collateral damage sustained. They are aware of the fact that maybe their high profile is drawing more attention than they would like. And when Tony Stark inadvertently gives birth to a highly functioning AI form named Ultron, they realize that they have another opposing force that seems to make Loki look like an amateur even with his army of flying worms.

Whedon has proven at this point that he is capable of managing a big budget superhero film and he delivers a satisfying sequel to the rather good first Avengers film. If anything, the film is probably a half hour too long, perhaps some of the fat could have been trimmed. With it's 141 minute running time, there is a such an overstimulation of computer generated action that it becomes almost numbing. It seems as though you can only watch the CGI Hulk destroy a handful of buildings before it becomes a bit redundant.

One other blemish with Ultron is consistent with the Superhero / Marvel movies as a whole; the obvious franchise building that goes on. Marvel is now owned by the Disney Empire. With that comes substantial financing for geeky content but they also have board-members they need to please every quarter when they report earnings. That whole element feels calculating, and it takes some of the romance away from the movies knowing that the studios intention is to hook you in so they can count on your next $9. The Superhero bubble will burst at some point down the road. Until then, there are films like The Avengers films that can appeal to a broad audience and entertain the masses, even if it is just a showcase of special effects.

October 19, 2015

Me Earl and the Dying Girl

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015
With a title like "Me Earl and the Dying Girl", you probably immediately anticipate something snappy, and the title itself almost sounds like a bad television sitcom starring Jason Lee. While the title may get you excited for a potential zombie rom-com like My Boyfriend's Back (deep pull alert), alas, it's a film about a girl with cancer. But hold up. It's more of the anti-film to last year's I dare you not to cry tearjerker A Fault in Our Stars. Fault puts the weight of the world on a relationship of two young kids stricken with cancer. Me Earl is more realistic in terms of showing a relationship between two people without being manipulative with oxygen tubes and Vance Joy songs. It even has hints of Jason Reitman's beloved snappy hipster-film Juno.

The movie focuses largely on high-schooler Greg (Thomas Mann). Greg is admittedly a neutral force in the world. He passes swiftly through the halls of the high school. He feels it's unnecessary to get involved with one particular clique of people, which may upset his balancing act that he has carefully orchestrated over his time there. A side effect of this is he never has to fully engage with another human on a deeply emotional level. So when his parents inform him of classmate Rachel's illness (Rachel being played by the delightful Olivia Cooke), he is concerned, but not DEEPLY concerned. He is pressured to hang out with Rachel, and humorously, they both acknowledge the obligation.

Greg's narration early in the film gives you the heads up that it's not going to be a cheesy love story. Instead the film for the most part runs on a different kind of energy. An energy that tends to be more upbeat, more quirky, more engaging. It ends up being a rather moving small film that has a lot to say about a particular period in life. That really selfish high school phase. That phase where all you can really think about is yourself and your future. And there's nothing wrong with admitting to living with that particular mindset. It's a period of pressure for most people. But this story shows us that while some people are focused on moving on to college, there's an unfortunate percentage of people that may be moving on to the next stage of chemotherapy. And that's just part of life.

October 11, 2015

The Conjuring

James Wan, 2013
Sometimes with horror films, scary movies in general, it's not about the monsters and the creatures jumping out at you from the screen. Sometimes the real consistency of the scares is in the subtle notes. The build-up, the tension, the things you don't see. Sometimes it's something ambiguous, a shadow in the corner of the frame. A resonant sound. Or maybe it's something from your own life experience that you are bringing to the film. Maybe the house looks like yours. Maybe the layout of your bedroom is the same as the one in the scene. The Conjuring plays with a bunch of these concepts. Effective pacing, visual elements, creepy scenery, shadows, sounds. Splat-packer Wan has gotten a lot of movie-blood on his hands in the past, working on films like the original Saw and the first two Insidious films. Both of those films in their early incarnations were original and creative. Saw was certainly a more innovative horror film, Insidious played on a similar theme as the Conjuring with demonic forces at work in a home.

The Conjuring is a period piece set in the 1970's. When you enter the Rhode Island historical home in the early moments of the film, you realize right away that the house itself, even in the absence of anything floating through the hallways, is a damn creepy place to be. The walls are cracking, there are exposed lathe boards in some of the rooms. Aged kitchen, a certain layer of grime to most of the surfaces. Everything creaks and squeaks. But this is because it's an old house bought at an auction on the cheap by their truck-driving father Roger (Ron Livingston). He admits to having spread himself really thin financially, and purchasing the home with an effort to please wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor) who wants her children to grow up in the ambiance of the rural country. Dogs can see ghosts, as anyone who saw the original Poltergeist knows, and when their family pet refuses to enter the house we know right away why. The film is actually not really that ground-breaking or revolutionary in terms of story. It's a blend of a haunted house-possession sub-genres (with nods to the found-footage sub-genre as well), which doesn't feel all that fresh. But it's the execution of it all that works. And in this age of torture films and cheap slashers and CGI-monsters, it's refreshing to watch something that has lingering qualities.

Films like the Conjuring prove that a horror movie doesn't have to be revolutionary to still be effective. If you are a fan of the genre, sometimes you just a want a scare, and you get that here. And as far as memorable elements, whenever someone claps twice you are sure to think of this film.

October 1, 2015

The Guest

Adam Wingard, 2014
Grieving the loss of their soldier son who died in combat, the Peterson family is surprised to find a mysterious visitor at their door named David, a fellow soldier who says he served with their son overseas.

There is a lot to like about The Guest. Gorgeous cinematography (done by Robby Baumgartner), a sometimes menacing sometimes dreamy synth-wave soundtrack, fresh story, and impressive direction by Adam Wingard. When David (Dan Stevens) knocks on the door of the Peterson home, it sets forth a chain of events that is rather engaging. Who is this guy? Is he a robot? Is he under some kind of mind control like in The Manchurian Candidate? Part of it has to do with the fact that David himself is at first glance a rather unassuming person. Charming even. He manages to quickly extract the problems plague each individual Peterson family member. This is because they establish trust in the guy pretty quickly. As the whole peeling of the onion process unfolds with David’s character, the pacing is laid out well. 

The Guest has a good cast, particularly with Maika Monroe as daughter Anna and Leland Orser who plays father Spencer Peterson. Orser seems to be a really good character actor, he displays a layered character within the first few minutes we see him on screen. Dan Stevens is definitely a good fit for the David role. His empty smiles and monotone demeanor creates a level of discomfort that you really need in the story. Often the best performances are the ones that are restrained. 

There is a lot of human elements to the Peterson family. Grief, heartbreak, work stress, high school bullying. All very real problems that the average American family endures on a regular basis. When David knocks on the door he is immediately preying on the weak. The tears are still wet on mother Laura’s face, and she would probably let anyone into their home who had any kind of connection to their deceased son. The stylistic elements of the film are certainly the most memorable. But if Hanna or Drive taught us anything, sometimes that’s all you need.

September 29, 2015

Being Flynn

Paul Weitz, 2012
Being Flynn is a Boston-based drama based on the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. The film gives young Paul Dano another opportunity to work with one of the greatest actors of all time - Robert Deniro. Dano has had some fortunate employment opportunities at this point in his career. Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichart's Meek's Cutoff, Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine. Add Steve McQueen in 12 Years a Slave and Denis Villeneuve in Prisoners, two of the best living directors, and it's pretty obvious that Dano has one of the most colorful resumes in Hollywood. He deserves these opportunities though, because he delivers every time.

The narration starts off a bit confused, with young Nick Flynn (Dano) fighting for control of the story with his father Jonathan Flynn (Deniro). It becomes evident quite quickly in the story that Jonathan is a bit delusional. He is more of a drinker than a writer, but the booze gives him a cloudy arrogance that has him thinking that he is a great writer that simply hasn't released his masterpiece yet. One of the first things we hear from him is "There were three great American writers. Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, and me... John Flynn". After he says this we see him driving out of parking garage in his taxi cab, his real day job. Nick didn't have a relationship with his father at all, raised solely by his mother Jody (Julianne Moore). Moore is sort of the perfect person for the role, the tired woman who is trying desperately to keep it together for her son. Nick describes his early years as being guided by lots of boyfriends. Being Flynn has what could be considered one of the best shots of all time, certainly one of the best of the past 20 years. We see a panning camera where Nick is playing catch with one of Jody's boyfriends, and as the camera pans back and forth each time it's a different boyfriend. Finally it shows his biological father John, but when Nick goes to throw the ball he isn't there on the other side and the ball goes rolling into the street. Powerful. The film is an example of how far Deniro has come as an actor. In 1976 Deniro drove a taxi cab in Scorcese's masterpiece Taxi Driver. His Travis Bickle character was more of a numb sociopath. Here Deniro is able to channel more of a narcissistic, delusional, stubborn alcoholic that is quite different than the role he filled 36 years prior. Still detached, but more conversant.

It's a story of finding your place in the world while trying to avoid the mistakes of your predecessors. A struggle of separating yourself from your parents, trying to see yourself as a unique person. We do see an arch in Nick's character, and after enduring some time in some pretty heavy drama, you really need some form of redemption. One of the frustrating qualities of John's character is his absolute defiance to break down. His thick stubborn personality never breaks, and it almost feels like if it cracked a little it would have added some more substance to the story. Interesting to think about whether this was a deliberate thing, part of the actual Flynn family narrative or whether Deniro's decision to bring that armored performance to his Jonathan role.

September 23, 2015

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead

Kiah Roache-Turner, 2015
Any fan of zombie cinema probably has some degree of fatigue at this point. Oh, another movie about a zombie outbreak where everyone has to fight them off to survive. And it's turned into an inescapable theme. They are everywhere. Zombies have crept out of the cult-category and are now ubiquitous. They aren't underground, they are in the mainstream. The Walking Dead is the highest rated series on cable. World War Z brought Max Brooks zombie novel out of the literary world and into big budget Hollywood. So this means there are books, television series, small budget films, big budget films. Half of the Halloween outfits you see this year will probably be zombie related.

So at this point, for the most part, we aren't likely to see anything revolutionary or groundbreaking in the genre. With an over-saturation present, filmmakers should be more focused on aiming to create something that has some stylistic integrity, something individually artistic.

Wyrmwood, the most pirated Australian film in recent history, does just this. It's a self-aware zombie film with a rather simple premise. A rapidly spreading virus has hit the Outback infecting basically everyone that comes into contact with it unless they have a specific blood-type. Nothing new, right? But it's the execution of this basic premise that makes Wyrmwood a rather engaging zombie film. 

Equipped with a terrific makeup and special effects team, Wyrmwood is able to create a 90 minute zombie picture that doesn't get slowed down with unnecessary character development. It's intention is not to create depth but more sudden shifts and frantic pacing. The disease itself is relentless and unforgiving, spreading to friends and family with unhampered force. Unlikely friendships are forged quickly because the only choice you have is to team up with any living soul in close proximity to you. Not really much time to build trust by feeling someone out. It's another zombie film where life has become cheap very quickly, and the key to survival is not hesitating and being as resourceful as you can in whatever situation you find yourself in. 

September 12, 2015

Top 5 Most Anticipated Fall-Winter Films of 2015

5. Room 
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Release Date: October 16, 2015
The followup to 2014's avant-garde Frank, Abrahamson directs this film based on the book by Emma Donoghue. Starring Brie Larson, Joan Allen and William H. Macy. It's a cold drama about a boy who is locked in a shed with his mother for his entire life.

4. The Hateful Eight
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (Limited)
This one is sort of bending the rules because it doesn't go wide until the beginning of 2016, it felt worth including. This one makes the list simply because it has Tarantino's name on it. As one of the greatest filmmakers of the past 50 years, at this point anything he makes is worth seeing.

3. The Martian
Director: Ridley Scott
Release Date: October 2, 2015
What was a really entertaining book gets the film treatment. It's one of those books that while reading it's easy to imagine it in movie form. Miraculously enough, it also seems to be a film that is perfectly cast not only with Matt Damon in the lead (who seems fit to maintain a sense of humor in the face of terrifying isolation in deep space) but a supporting cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig. When I saw the cast listing it felt surprisingly appropriate to the personalities in the novel.

2. Steve Jobs
Director: Danny Boyle
Release Date: October 16, 2015
What's sort of become a legendary script in Hollywood, surrounded by controversy. It was a big part of the Sony Hack where a lot of big names were thrown around as if everyone was playing a big game of hot potato with the movie. Fincher was originally signed on to direct, but couldn't get on the same page with the studios and walked. Dicaprio was going to play Jobs, but ultimately passed. Boyle then approached Christian Bale who was Fincher's original choice, but Bale passed because he didn't feel like a good fit for the role. Eventually it went to Fassbender, which originally felt like an odd choice. But after watching the trailer it seems like he will manage to balance ego and brilliance together well.

1. Star Wars - The Force Awakens
Director: J.J. Abrams
Release Date: December 18, 2015
How could this one not be number one? Expectations are very high, the franchise seems to be in the right hands with Abrams who did a good job with the Star Trek reboot. He seems to appreciate the narrative, is well aware of the rabid fan-base and will certainly do his best to respect something considered cinematically sacred to millions.

September 11, 2015

Welcome to Me

Shira Piven, 2015
To sum it up, Welcome to Me is the story about a mentally-ill woman who suddenly wins the lottery and decides to invest her winnings into a Oprah-like show starring herself. Creative premise that certainly pokes fun at the self-help gurus with their positive energy talk and "Secret"-like life philosophies. It also very clearly pokes fun at mental illness though, sure to not be everyone's cup of tea. It creates a character in Wiig's Alice character that is basically a caricature of someone with borderline personality disorder. But enough levity to keep it in the comedic realm without becoming just sad. Kristen Wiig gets another acting credit in her filmography where she takes a bold step into a role that forces her to expose herself (literally), and show some real vulnerability as she also did in The Skeleton Twins.

The first act of the film shows her lonely life, consumed by her illness and her battling with her on again off again relationship with her medications. The ridiculousness only builds to her getting her ridiculous talk show, which sad to say, could actually happen in this age of Kardashian-consuming culture. But the whole theme gets a bit tired after we see many episodes of the show run, where there isn't a whole lot of material for her to run with other than destroying set pieces and screaming at actors playing characters of her childhood foes. But it's certainly interesting at times, certainly has a few laughs here and there, and not a big commitment with it's scant 87 minute run time. It's a proper vehicle for Wiig's dead-pan comedy style. Any fans of her will find something here to appreciate.

Funny Games

Michael Haneke, 1997
There is inexplicable evil in the world. We have seen it in the headlines, have to endure stories of home invasions, torture, assault, etc. We try to come up with explanations for people's horrible behavior. Their abusive upbringing, past sexual abuse, lack of a father figure.

Funny Games quickly introduces you to family trio of Anna, Georg and their young son in their car on their way to their vacation home in the country. As they try to guess classical pieces playing on CD's, you see that they are a classy family that enjoy each others company. When they arrive at the home, you see that they want nothing more than to just let loose and spend some time relaxing, once again in each others company. The walls and gate at the end of the driveway almost seem completely unnecessary, as the surrounding inhabitants look they should all belong to a country club. And they probably do.

But when the evil couple works their way into the home, everything about their intentions feels icy cold and calculating. You've already grown to like the family of three, what's not to like? You even like their dog. But what transpires is pure evil. A rigidly tense sequences of events of unforgiving brutality. The scariest people in the world are undoubtedly the ones who have nothing to lose. In a way the sinister duo here are more frightening, because they are seemingly one of the more accurate depictions of pure sociopaths ever put on film. When the fourth wall is broken, it sends chills down your spine. You will spend a portion of the film questioning possible missed opportunities, probably playing out the scenario in your head of what you would do. But we don't really know do we? Until it happens to us, and after watching a film like this you will certainly be locking your doors at night. But is it enough? Is that what's the most horrifying part about this movie? These people, like the pair here, if they weren't able to work their way through the gate... would they have given up? One would assume no. Sometimes you are just the unlucky one that left a light on at the wrong time. Wrong place, wrong time. Wrong week to take a vacation. Sometimes it's not just about someone feeling wronged in some way. Sometimes it's completely impersonal. As mentioned earlier, there is pure evil in the world. There are some people walking the earth who are just downright maniacal. We all like to believe that we live in a world where there is a certain sense of justice. Funny Games is one of the more terrifying films ever made because it challenges the conventions.

September 7, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller, 2015
In this era of too many reboots, forced franchises and unnecessary sequels, Mad Max seems to come out of nowhere and surprise everyone by outdoing itself and it's predecessors. Fury Road takes the franchise out of cult status and gives it a fresh aesthetic while also preserving what made the original films appealing.

Tom Hardy is a good fit for the role of Max; the guy that you are supposed to learn a lot when given little about him. What you do know is he is a man haunted by his past, the lost souls that he wasn't able to save. Now the world that he wanders through is a dystopian wasteland, where the world is run by various warlord-led factions. In the early moments of the film the pacing is set and it doesn't slow down much for the duration. Someone who doesn't typically enjoy the action genre can still get something out of Fury Road, especially stylistically. There is so much visual invention going on, so much attention to detail. It seems to be a movie that probably took a lot of effort to film in the desert, from a logistical perspective but also from a pure engineering perspective. There is a wide array of vehicles assembled by the war dogs in the film. A good portion of the story is the variety of these war-mobiles in pure battle with each other whether it's to protect territory, gather resources, or retain what one feels is rightfully "theirs". It's interesting to think of how many mechanics must have been on set to help with any operational quirks that must have occurred here and there. Fury Road seems like a really good candidate for the dvd / blu-ray extra features of the behind the scenes footage and directors commentary. The grand scale of the films stunts / choreography seems almost unfathomable. While all of this chaos was in front of the cameras, there must have been boom lifts, helicopters and drones shooting frantically.

Miller's world is really a hot rod hellscape. At times it almost feels like a Steampunked Sin City. Filled with deranged and death-inducing drag racing. It's an unforgiving universe that nobody would really want to spend any time in other than in a voyeur role. In fact, one could argue that it's one of the dilemmas with the story. The sense of pointlessness to it. The fact that in this world there aren't really any "good guys". The Mad Max world shows us that our race has failed. Yet, at least for the sake of the Mad Max narrative, there is a level of human resilience. Many of the remaining inhabitants live to serve a leader, live with some kind of religious ideology. The warlords manage to keep a grip on their populations, usually by limited their resources like food or water. But there are still babies being born in this horrifying society. And they won't ever know what the world was like before everything was destroyed.

Complimenting the attention to visual detail, there is a real impressive use of sound. A great synergy of music to action, whether it's transitioning from a death to an ambient heartbeat in the song to the heavy metal guitarist that is riding on a flat bed with dozens of amplifiers raging behind him. Fury Road is chaotic yet managed. Energetic but not to the point of pure lunacy. It's a style over substance movie that manages to go so heavy on style that the imagery will take root in your mind for some time after. Out of all of the 2015 films, it's one that basically lives up to the hype. Now let's just hope that this doesn't start some trend of motor-heads souping up their Dodge Rams and putting all sorts of unnecessary equipment on the exterior to look like some kind of badass. Who knows, maybe Fury Road will inspire countries at war to have their own heavy metal guitarist standing on top of a tank or something to get the soldiers amped up. 

August 31, 2015

Snow On Tha Bluff

Damon Russell, 2011
One of the first thoughts that you will likely have when watching Snow and being introduced to the Curtis Snow character is “this reminds me of The Wire”. You aren’t alone. Even The Wire’s Omar Little himself, Michael Kenneth White, discovered the film and felt so connected to it that he hopped on in an executive producer role.

In a sense it’s a more raw film than the Wire. Perhaps it’s because The Wire had so much structure, with significant character build-up over the course of its five season run. Snow is completely absent of structure, a quality of the found footage genre but also because the movie is built around the premise of a drug dealer stealing a handheld camera from a group of college kids and filming his life. Because of that foundation, the movie has such a realness to it, an honesty to it. Curtis is not really a good guy in any sense. It’s very difficult to extract any real redeeming qualities from him. He’s a absent father, showing up to be a spotty father when he feels fit. When he is forced to spend time with his child, he exposes the toddler to all sorts of drugs, alcohol and firearms that no child should be in close proximity of. Actually, while we are on that, that’s probably the most disturbing element in the entire film. He also takes pride in the street violence that he was a part of. He talks about fallen friends that died in the streets as though they were soldiers that died fighting honorably. To him a short life expectancy is just a given where he comes from. He is vengeful, using guns / force as a first resort. He demonstrates leadership qualities which is why he is able to surround himself with some thugs. Probably because when he does succeed in ripping off a group of dealers, he does share the rewards. It’s another film with a rather despicable central figure that still somehow pulls you in.
The rawness and lack of structure is one of the best attributes because it is able to create a 90 minute docudrama that feels unique stylistically. But it’s also what separates it from pure quality street-crime pictures like the Mesrine films or City of God.

August 30, 2015

A Most Violent Year

JC Chandor, 2014

Chandors follow-up to 2013’s great / under-rated All is Lost is a New York Crime drama starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. The two of them are enough to get any cinephile on board. Isaac stars as Abel Morales, a successful business owner that runs a lucrative fuel-oil delivery business but has fallen victim to a lot hijackings of his vehicles. While the pressure builds for him to make changes to reduce the risk of his delivery-men in the field, he is focusing all of his energy into pooling together the funds to close on a neighboring property that would allow him to expand his operation.

The film could be considered a mild character study in the sense that you find yourself trying to get a read on Abel throughout the film. His actions are perplexing at times. He is very ego-driven, not so consumed with the money so much because he has enough of that. He seems to be another character completely focused on power, making that step to the next level. He is not very willing to let anything get in the way, even if it involves putting his employees and family at risk. His stubbornness becomes very frustrating in the story. You can feel the pressure mounting through the story while he stands back in his brown trench-coat staring at the walls thinking.

For a film to be called “A Most Violent Year” and have it be based on the most crime-filled year in the Big Apple, you would actually expect the film to be more violent. A more fitting name for the film would probably be a “A Most Non-Violent Movie”. Not that you NEED violence to fuel a film, but the rather unhurried rhythm of the film never really picks up and maintains that pace throughout the entire 125 minute running time. There isn’t a lot of chemistry between Isaac and Chastain. At times the script even feels quite weak. To the film’s credit it tries to explore some different avenues in the New York crime category by focusing on an entrepreneur rather than a group of gangsters, but it is ultimately too fruitless. Unfortunately Chandor’s followup to the great All is Lost is A Most Unmemorable film.

August 27, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd

Thomas Vinterberg, 2015
Madding Crowd can be simply described as a love story, but it's a story that doesn't really have simple love. It gets complicated. Based on the Victorian novel written by Thomas Hardy, it's a story that is centered around young heiress Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan). Bathsheba is surprised to find herself the recipient of a large inheritance part of which is a large farm plantation.

Carrie Mulligan is a pretty good fit for the role, possessing that adorable Carey Mulligan-like charm coupled with a confident seriousness that she has shown in Drive and Steve McQueen's under-rated Shame. Bathsheba is a independent character by nature, quick to break tradition as shown early on when she admits that she's resistant to become another man's "property" and eager to get her hands dirty on her farm. While she is on the receiving end of good fortune, the men that surround her are victims of misfortune. Shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) loses his entire flock in heartbreaking fashion early in the story. Neighbor and fellow wealthy person William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) has become lonely to the point of desperation in his life. He's been able to accumulate large wealth while poor in his pursuit of lasting romance. Sergeant Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) is still licking his wounds over a wedding disaster.

Vinterberg is skillful in creating a compelling adaptation of the classic novel. Mulligan is engaging in the lead but still leaves the question hanging of whether or not she is the type of actress really fit for leading roles, or better in more secondary supporting ones. The film gives you a lot of the beautiful English countryside to gaze at. Vinterberg, as he also shows us in the still under-rated and exceptional The Hunt the he loves to shoot scenes in churches. It's interesting, there are subtle similarities in style in Madding and The Hunt, even though they are completely different types of stories. Madding Crowd is a hearty film and builds up to an emotionally tense climax that will certainly leave you reflecting on the events that occurred. 


Justin Benson, 2015
Through skillful camera-work and intelligent storytelling, Spring resembles a love-child of Before Sunrise and Let the Right One In, if there ever was one. A genre-clash, it's a horror/romance film that mainly focuses on the lives of two people. Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci), a grieving drifter who impulsively decides to hop on a plane to Italy. And Louise (Nadia Hilker), a mysterious beauty who tries to capture Evan's heart quickly and doesn't want to wait until the next night for a date. Evan immediately comes off as a sympathetic figure, having to endure the final moments of his mother suffering from cancer and watching her fade off. His misfortunes mount as he gets let go from his bar-tending gig at the local dive which clearly serves as the last straw for him before he decides to get out of dodge.

Evan can probably be called the every-man in the sense that he's just a young guy willing to jump into the unknown looking for adventure. He's confident but self destructive. Aggressive but also vulnerable. The most impressive part of the film is in the sudden twist, when the entire construct of the picture radically shifts into different form. It's something that isn't done enough, and hopefully a film like this can inspire other filmmakers to make the bold jump into genre-bending. It's here when everything changes. It works really well, and if anything the film falls a little to in love with its new form and ends up running about a half hour too long. Other than that, it's a pretty engaging story between two completely different people. 

August 18, 2015

You're Next

Adam Wingard, 2011
In an age of mediocre horror films about the group of people stuck in the house with the attacker outside, You're Next fits right in without standing out a whole lot. It starts off by playing with the oh-so-common dysfunctional family dynamic and instead of doing something artful or unique with it, it just decides to keep it simple. It's guilty of relying on slasher conventions and ultimately comes off as an uninventive, wasteful affluenza story. It's dumbed down, it panders to the popcorn-gobbling horror audiences. It's a shame, because indie-lovers see mumblecore harbinger Swanberg on the screen and hope for something creative. But it's just an odd placement for Swanberg, where he is confined to playing the douchey brother consumed by bitter exchanges with his brother. To be fair, the camera work is actually quite good. The performances are just okay, acceptable and probably above-average for the genre. The story is the real destroyer. It even disappoints in the final moments of the film, where the credits could roll right after a phone pickup, and instead of doing that the story drags on for another ten minutes. Movies like this almost feel like a group of twenty-somethings found a bag of unique masks in a flea market somewhere and decided to make a horror movie. If this movie gives you anything to walk away with, it's a reoccurring song that will be stuck in your head for hours.

These Final Hours

Zak Hilditch, 2015
Having an apocalyptic film set in the land down under feels immediately different. Dealing with the already rough and rugged country that is the continent of Australia, then letting all hell loose adds a different dynamic to the typical sense of sheer panic that we see in the American apocalyptic genre.

Bad guy but deep down good guy James (Nathan Phillips)  rescues young girl Rose (Angourie Rice) from a couple of psychopaths who have taken her prisoner. This is all while guys are running around with axes killing people, while others are looting and others are hiding out in the darkness. Complete insanity. The clock is ticking, where in a short period of time the world will presumably be over. Early on the specifics of the impeding doom are vague, but the inevitable is pieced together for you over the course of the film.

Final Hours is really a story about human morality, what's important in the final hours of your life. Is it about spending the final few hours with the people who want you there? Is it about spending the final hours with the woman you love? Or is it about doing the right thing, what's right in the eyes of universal judgement. Of course all of this depends on what you believe might happen after you die. James doesn't necessarily seem to believe that there is any kind of afterlife, let alone a heaven that is going to open it's doors for him because he has saved a young girl's life. In fact, the world that is about to burn seems like a world quite absent of spiritual divinity. When James arrives at Freddy's countdown party, it's a modern day Sodom and Gommorah showcase of sinful behavior. Sex, drugs, death. Watching that scene triggers an inner philosophical dialogue too. Is what they are doing really that wrong? They are attempting to enjoy the final moments of their lives.

This film gets you thinking, in a moral sense sort of like how Deep Impact made you think. What would you do? How would you react? Nobody really knows. You don't really know until it happens, and you see what your circumstances are. These Final Hours are really a single man's circumstances laid out before him.