July 27, 2015

A Lonely Place to Die

Julian Gilbey, 2011
Lonely starts off with one of the main characters suspended incredibly high on the face of what seems like an endless cliff over the rough Scottish Highlands. On top of the world, but also other-worldly. The conditions are completely treacherous, unforgiving, unpredictable as we see quite early on in the film. It doesn't take long for the film to feel non-American, in a good way. The group of adventurers drinks whiskey, plays cards, and instead of it being all lovey-dovey between them where everyone is friends and all of the couples pair off and make love, there is some real tension. It feels very organic in that sense. Sometimes when you meet people for the first time, get drinking, you find that you might not like a specific person all of that much. It plays with this, and assuming that you have already discovered the plot of the film and putting you in a situation that you aren't exactly sure who to get behind. 

The film takes a turn away from a Vertical Limit-type film to an action thriller / kidnapping / human trafficking film and it's done quite effectively. When you are introduced to the villains, you are introduced to two cold-blooded killers. An emptiness in their eyes that's completely unnerving. The two actors, Sean Harris and Stephen McCole, resemble a murderous version of Vice founder Shane Smith and a psycho Simon Pegg. The story makes sudden turns and morphs into different genre forms. Great camera work, good acting, and good direction keep you engaged through the 99 minute running time. Certainly a story of vulnerable people in the crosshairs of people who are VERY familiar with the terrain. Sort of like Deliverance in that sense. Sort of like Deliverance meets Cliffhanger, something along those lines. Maybe it's the use of lesser known actors. Maybe it's using the intimidating Scottish Highlands as the film's backdrop. But so much of the film feels unique and interesting. The nighttime parade sequence added a creepy element to the already tense finale of the film.

Always a good idea to spend a little time searching through Netflix, especially through some of the foreign titles. Every now and then you will find a lesser known title like this one that is worth the watch. 

Slow West

John Maclean, 2015
The best way to describe Slow West is to call it a simple love story set in the American West. Undoubtedly guilty of being too light on story, you spend a good portion of the film in a tracking shot as Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Silas (Michael Fassbender) stroll across the western landscape (which is really amazingly beautiful New Zealand) on horseback. You are treated to flashbacks of McPhee and his love Rose (Caren Pistorius), who were separated in their native Scotland after a freak death forced them to flee the country to seek refuge in America.

Sometimes, quite often actually, the whole style over substance thing can work. But here it does feel like the film could have used a more colorful script. Especially with the level of acting involved. The story is too undeveloped for the actors. Fassbender, McPhee and Mendelsohn all have a lot more to offer and the empty script doesn't really provide them with the vessel to do so. Because of this, the film is more of a visual showcase. Good example of a film that you could follow with the volume completely down. And once again, sometimes that even says a lot for a film. But here it's more of a disappointing factor.

The flashbacks actually feel kind of forced. There are never any real moments where you look back and are fully invested in the love between Jay and Rose. When they are sitting next to each other, it feels like they were instructed to sit next to each other. Not a whole lot of chemistry. The most compelling part of the film is certainly the climax, with a very traditional Western-style gunfight. Not a lot of big moments leading up to that point. Slow West is a good movie if you are comfortable enough spending 90 minutes on horseback with Fassbender mumbling here and there, and McPhee spending a lot of time talking to the stars because his company isn't so conversational.

July 26, 2015


Lynn Shelton, 2014
Laggies is an interesting film because it takes a completely unrealistic and far-fetched premise and puts it in the hand of a capable director in Lynn Shelton. There are so many reasons that a film like this should not be good. We've seen similar movies before, a lead character going through some form of mid-life crisis and buddies up with a young person to try and relive their youth. Big did it well, conversely. Billy Madison showed us the humor in the immature adult spending lots of time with kids in a more slapstick fashion. Lost in Translation artfully showed an unusual relationship between a senior(ish) male and twenty-something female. In tone Laggies could be compared to Crazy Stupid Love in the sense that it's a somewhat chaotic story with a blend of love and friendship between three people that extends to more than three people.

Adulthood seems to hit Megan (Knightley) all at once. She's thrown into a bachelorette party where her career goals are immediately under examination. Flash to the wedding where she is not only under pressure to perform horribly garish tasks for the bride but she is put under pressure by her boyfriend and then close friends. And of course the pressure on her only piles up from there, giving her no choice but to drive away from it all. Of course you are sympathetic for Megan and don't blame her for running away from a situation that would really never happen in real life. Stresses that you are confronted with over the course of a few years suddenly hit Megan in what seems like twenty minutes! That's basically the way the movie goes. A bunch of situations that wouldn't ever really happen, but you somehow remain engaged. This is probably because Laggies makes better decisions than similarly-themed Young Adult by pumping more emotion into the story. Theron's character in Young Adult was selfish and unapologetic, while Megan is charming and innocent. The film just wouldn't have been able to stay interesting without the performances by Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell. The level of undeniable talent between those three is enough fuel to carry this ridiculous story to the actually-quite-satisfying end.


Patrick Brice, 2015
You realize after watching this film that it's not really scary per se, but just down right creepy. So the title is very suitable. Perhaps what separates the creepiness from pure horror is how realistic the film actually feels. Maybe it's the found footage style that they are working with. Maybe it's the whole responding to an ad on Craigslist story that we constantly read about in the headlines. 

There's something about the lonely guy who doesn't respect boundaries that's almost scarier than an empty eyed cold blooded killer in the woods like Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th. Duplass brings complexity to his character. Even while you are feeling completely uncomfortable in his presence, you feel confusingly sympathetic. Instead of the film falling into predictable twists, it breaks some of the conventions of the found footage style and plays with it. They aren't afraid to experiment with the genre here, and that benefits the film greatly. You are never really sure what depths the film is going to sink to, and you are never really sure what the limits are. It's sure to surprise anyone watching. The Duplass Brothers are out there creating things in film that other people aren't creating. We are living in the peak time for young creative directors to generate stories on small budgets, and they are fortunately taking advantage of their resources. 

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Matthew Vaughn, 2015
Matthew Vaughn returns to the director's chair for the first time since 2011's X-Men: First Class, one of the new generation / reincarnations of the X-Men franchise that focuses on origin stories with a mostly new cast. It was a good film, largely because they were able to imbue the CGI into the fabric of the film and not have it stand out or look gimmicky. The same thing goes for Kingsman, a story about a highly secretive and resourceful spy agency. The film focuses on young applicant Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a rebellious young adult whose father was a Kingsman and sacrificed himself to save his fellow service members.

The film grows in scale, all while maintaining a certain stylistic integrity. You're invested in the characters. It's suspenseful. Kingsman succeeds because it's self aware, never takes itself too seriously. It gives nods to the spy genre, with elements that remind you of the Bond franchise or Mission Impossible while also getting creative with some new concepts. You come away from Kingsman with some memories in your brain. Always a sign of a good film. The action sequences are well choreographed. The use of technology is enough to satisfy the inner geek in you. The blend of music and action is so well crafted that it reminds you of Vaughn's previous impressive work in Kick Ass. The film has a lot to offer, even if you aren't a big fan of the spy genre. At the very least, you'll be a fan of one of them. 

July 13, 2015

It Follows

David Robert Mitchell, 2015

It Follows is one of those films that upon describing it to someone you get a response that sounds something like "that sounds like a stupid idea for a film." "Cant they come up with anything better than that nowadays?". "Sounds like another cheesy horror premise."

In reality, if you were to describe a film that is basically like a ghost STD chasing around the cursed victim, you might spark a lot of interest. Especially with movie snobs. And a film with that premise could easily be a pile of shit in the wrong hands. But fortunately, it's in the right hands here. Mitchell is able to create an interesting film that pays tribute to the genre with a retro late 70's campy feel with fresh touches. High school heartbreak in a crummy horror hipster town. The creepy elements in pursuit of main character Jay Height (Maika Monroe) make an impression. Sort of like in Gregory Hoblit's 1998 film Fallen (that starred Denzel Washington and John Goodman), they can change form. In fact, the film is basically a hybrid creation of Fallen and Romero's Night of the Living Dead. There are a handful of the forms that are bound to be stuck in your brain for a little while. The synthwave score (provided by Disasterpeace) only adds to the tension, and you spend the duration of the film wondering if Jay is going to be able to pass this curse on to another unlucky victim or perish herself.

Mitchell proves that you can still put a creative story on the screen with a limited budget ($2M here) and keep it interesting. The small budget certainly adds to the feel of the movie. A big budget with a ton of CGI would have homogenized the movie to the point it would lose all of it's grittiness. Using the backdrop of the slummy Detroit suburbs only added to the charm of the film. The city itself basically becomes a character here. One of the only complaints is that Mitchell chooses to go in a direction toward the end of the film that seems to pay tribute to Let the Right One In in terms of setting but it doesn't have nearly the same impact. But overall Mitchell manages to make an engaging film with limited resources. Let's just hope the big studios don't get a hold of this and churn out two or three awful sequels.

Ex Machina

Alex Garland, 2015
Anyone familiar with Alex Garland's previous work is aware of the fact that he is a great writer. Responsible for writing the novel The Beach (which eventually would become the not-as-good film adaptation directed by Danny Boyle), the still under-rated 28 Days Later, the almost-amazing space-thriller Sunshine, and the also quite good 2012 stylistic action film Dredd. He's sort of gone all over the place, from one side of the planet to the other and then all way to space.

Ex Machina is a thriller, set mostly inside the elaborate contemporary home of Silicon Valley Elon Musk / Tony Stark / Steve Jobs archetype Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan creates a contest where a random employee of his will get the opportunity to stay with him for a week, basically a mentor retreat type of thing. Coder employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins the competition and the film quickly jumps to him arriving at the estate, which is a seemingly endless island that Nathan owns. Picture someone owning the entire Isla Nublar island from Jurassic Park sans dinosaurs. Caleb soon discovers that Nathan is actually working on an A.I. prototype that he wants to show off. Gleeson is really fit for the Caleb role, serving as sort of a quirky nerdy type that contrasts well with Isaac's eccentric billionaire role. Isaac is able to bring a lot more illustration to his character, and is able to pull off a nice progression going from a friendly beer-drinking health fanatic to a deviously manipulative genius.

The film becomes a blend of elements ranging from Spielberg's AI to Spike Jonze's Her to the genre-spawning Terminator films. It becomes a philosophical experiement, examining what makes us human and challenging the idea of conciousness. The well-paced story builds into a extraordinary climax that will have you playing out scenarios in your head for hours after viewing. The story is unpredictable, the characters are engaging, and the film itself is really nice to look at. The effects are subtle, the electronic score (provided by Portishead's Geoff Barrow and composer Ben Salisbury) is very present. Ex Machina marks his directorial debut, and he certainly proves that he's good controlling the camera as well as creating what's in front of it. It will be interesting to now see what happens with Garland's career, seeing as he is a proven one-stop-shop for great film-making.

July 5, 2015


Christopher Denham, 2015
Denham succeeds with this indie horror/thriller by purposefully not trying to reinvent the wheel. He knows what the film is, and doesn't try to break any new ground. He makes his mark through a very John Carpenter-esque score, and through some really artful camera work. The film is more of an homage to the 80's slasher films with the killer in the woods like Friday the 13th and Evil Dead. The film also largely works because of the acting work by Wrenn Schmidt (Our Idiot Brother), Pablo Schreiber (The Wire, Orange is the New Black) and Aaron Staton (Mad Men).

The first half hour or so of the film is dedicated to introducing the three main characters. Brothers Sean (Schreiber) and Mike (Staton) bring along Mike's wife Wit (Schmidt) on a camping trip. The brothers are clearly veteran campers, with an edge going to Sean because he is a an actual military veteran where he was able to perfect a lot of survival skills. Sean also suffers with PTSD sustained during his tours abroad. Because of this there is an obvious divide between the two brothers, with Mike sort of unsure of Sean's unpredictable actions and mood swings. There's also marital trouble between Mike and Wit. They don't have a really intimate relationship, and Mike is mostly conducting business on his cell-phone. So it's not just three innocent happy-go-lucky people venturing into the woods together. There is tension from the start, some ambiguity as to who the people really are and what we will learn about them when things start heading south. Actually the most pure character from the get-go is probably Sean's loyal and intelligent German Shepherd.

When the film makes it's inevitable shift, things turn from tense to brutal as the three campers are preyed upon by merciless forces. There's something interesting about the true display of who you are as a person when you are put in a situation like this, where you are thrown into the wilderness with nothing but your wits. It's been done before in The Blair Witch Project, where you see humans stripped down to nothing but weepy, desperate shells. Preservation manages to take a stale premise and repackages it with fresh visual elements. That might not be enough to please everyone but it was enough to satisfy me.

Danny Collins

Dan Fogelman, 2015
Danny Collins is a fictional story based one really interesting real life story. In real life a folk singer named Steve Tilston gave an interview to ZigZag magazine where he described his fear of wealth and the effect it can have on your artistry. John Lennon and Yoko Ono responded to the interview with a handwritten letter where they said "Being rich doesn't change your experience in the way you think”. Tilston was never aware of the letter until a collector approached him with it in 2005. Instead of Fogelman basing the entire movie off of this letter, which some filmmakers would certainly attempt to do, he uses it as a platform for the whole Danny Collins story. It's interesting to think of how influential receiving that letter would have been to Steve Tilston. The letter was written in 1971, during the peak time of Lennon's influence. A musician receiving a letter from him back then would have probably been as inspring as being handed a letter from the President. Maybe more inspiring, seeing as there is an actual connection. Lennon read the interview and felt motivated, obligated to provide a response. The culprit guilty of hoarding the letter is fittingly played by comedian Nick Offerman, who comes off as a snarky beat writer with an annoying chuckle.

Al Pacino has unarguably and notoriously reached a point in his career where he is often a working caricature of himself. The whole "hoo hah" Pacino, the guy with the raspy screaming, the unpredictable octave and decibel changes. It's all kind of excusable, being one of the few actors who get a pass because they have long ago cemented their legacy. But Danny Collins is kind of perfect for the modern day Pacino. He is able to channel that caricature Pacino into his Danny character. Danny is a tired man, past his prime, at a reflective point in his career. He realizes that he himself has become a caricature of his former self, almost like Elvis in the latter years. The Danny Collins character is clearly a nod to Neil Diamond with more anguish. Pacino probably won't get much attention Oscar-time, but he is the perfect guy for the Collins role. Slightly overweight, ridiculous attire. It's actually kind of hard to picture anyone else playing him. The Danny Collins character is not necessarily a "good guy". He's a complicated character. He's selfish but self-conscious. Charming but lonely. Prosperous but generous. Inebriated but trying to kick the habits.

There are moments in the film that clutch your heart. The family conflict feels authentic. Bobby Cannavale is really responsible for the weight of all of the family moments, and continues to prove he's one of the more talented working actors out there. Even though he appears to let Danny off the hook a bit easily, his character keeps the story moving forward and continues to be conflicted with his father up until the final moments of the film. Cannavale and Jennifer Garner have chemistry, and the whole dynamic with their hyperactive daughter works really well. The film could definitely be considered a character study but it's also a breakdown story. Danny has been ignoring real life problems for a very long time. He realizes that no matter how much he insulates himself with wealth and material objects, at some point he's going to have to pay the piper.  He is able to gain a moment of clarity and realize how alone he actually is at his age, even with all of the hanger-onners and leaches that surround him. Nothing is more scary than growing elderly and dying alone. And it doesn't matter how much money you have.