Saturday, May 30, 2015

Poltergeist Review

Dread. So much dread. I can barely stand it. I can't stop thinking about it. I am haunted by it.

Dread. Since the moment the Poltergeist remake ended, I have been overwhelmed by it. I keep looking over my shoulder thinking someone is there. When I hear the word horror, I will forever think of this work as the benchmark of the genre. Dread. So much dread,

Nah, I'm just fucking with ya. This movie is terrible.

I'm not one of those people who automatically deem a remake "pointless". There can be immense value in remaking a film just because I will always appreciate a new perspective, a different vision. While so many label the David Fincher version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo "pointless", I think it is a far more fulfilling film than the original. So when I learn of a potential remake in the works, I don't feel the need to scream from the rooftops in anger. I don't make bizarrely exaggerated statements about how the news "ruined my life". I say alright, bring it on. What's the worst case scenario? It's bad? Okay, so it's bad. Just watch the original then. The Spike Lee version of Oldboy is a train wreck, it doesn't take anything away from the masterful original.

What is pointless though is remaking a film and doing absolutely nothing interesting with the material. If you are going to have the balls to use the same title and concept as a classic, do something, ANYTHING bold or adventurous with the opportunity. Take the potential possibilities of expanding on a rich narrative and run with them. 

Poltergeist is bland and pointless. It's a scary film that isn't even remotely scary. You can feel the contrived manipulation all over the place, with the predictable trickery to try and induce jump scares but none of them actually made me jump. And it's boring. I can't stress it enough. Poltergeist is so damn boring. It's roughly 90 minutes long and I was compelled by what was taking place on the screen precisely zero times. 

At least Sam Rockwell is in it. I like him.


Friday, May 29, 2015

The Silence of the Sea Review

I love silence. It can be such a welcome and unusual respite from the chaotic nature of life. It's the reason I stay up late at night, to be able to watch a film in peace and then enjoy a few minutes of absolutely blissful quiet. The kind where you can hear a pin drop if you listen closely enough. 

Silence can also be overwhelming though. The kind where your own thoughts and your own heartbeat can reverberate through your soul and drive you insane. A person can say many different combinations of words to hurt you, but when they remain silent it can sting so much worse. That level of vitriol, when someone you know isn't able to look at you nor speak to you because of their disgust over who you are or what you have become...that is powerful enough to destroy.

The Silence of the Sea (Le Silence de la Mer) is the bold and courageous debut work from legendary filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. The story takes place during 1941, a time when the world was at war and an elderly Frenchman and his niece are forced to give a Nazi soldier named Werner Von Ebrennac shelter against their will. The two refuse to speak to him or even acknowledge his existence, carrying on with their day in silence as Werner talks and talks and talks to himself or anyone willing to listen. He wears his uniform and it is meant to represent a symbol of strength and power, yet something as simple as the lack of approval from two people he hardly knows eats away at him. Their silence is deafening. 

I have seen plenty of war films and even more specifically plenty of work with the backdrop of World War II, but Melville does something here that I almost didn't think was possible: he makes a Nazi soldier sympathetic, and it works. Werner opens up to the man and his niece and it becomes clear that he has doubts about the war and what his side believes in, and there is a fascinating scene in which he brings up the premise of Beauty and the Beast and it is easy to connect it to The Silence of the Sea. Here we have a man who is living with an older man and a younger woman forcefully, and early on the tension and anger is palpable, but over time they see the warmth and compassion of the "monster" they had thought so little of before. Sounds familiar and it is an interesting fairy tale to draw a parallel to.

After doing some reading up on this film after I finished watching, I noticed some material on its extremely limited budget and the fact that so much of it takes place in a single room and it's funny, I honestly didn't even notice either factor. I think this is a testament to Melville, that he did so much with so little and he used space and lighting so effectively that I never felt claustrophobic or trapped by the lack of set pieces. What was achieved here is a remarkable and deeply meaningful debut.

I look forward to later tonight when I can embrace the silence, but I am comforted that it is a rarity to cherish rather than the unavoidable norm. When it is unusual, the lack of sound is peaceful and calming. When it is everything, when you desperately want to hear something but silence is used as a weapon...

Silence can leave you empty. It can leave so many things unsaid. Silence can hurt.


Thursday, May 28, 2015

Upstream Color Review

The Thief watches you and follows your movements, but his motivations are simple and easily explainable. He is, after all, a thief. He wants your money, whatever you have, whatever you can get, all of it. It's the way he goes about it that feels unsettling. After he leaves, you will be something far worse than broke: you will be broken. You will be confused. You will feel violated. Without money you are still human. Without memories, without direction, and without motivation you will cease to exist. The Thief exits your life with a pile of cash but at least he is gone forever. The parasite he leaves behind robs you of so much more.

You aren't alone though. This has happened before. Of course it has. You weren't the first victim of The Thief and you certainly won't be the last. Someone out there knows exactly what you are going through in a sense, but they are just as lost and hurt and empty as you. They can't truly comprehend your plight on a surface level that can be quantified with words, but they know. They just know. There is a connection there, a bond. You see it in their eyes and they see it in yours. You meet and the physical attraction is instant and obvious, but it is far deeper and more meaningful than lust. The pain you share is profound. The love you share is even more so.

The Sampler watches you and follows your movements, but his motivations are far more complex and hard to understand. He may not take something from you in a literal sense, but his ambitions feel far more sinister and bizarre. He means to control you and your mind long after the parasite has been removed. His hypnotic and haunting tones reverberate through your soul, making it impossible to move on from the initial trauma. The Sampler robs you of your free will. The Sampler may not actually be God, but he loves to play one. 

Director Shane Carruth has captured cinematic magic here with Upstream Color, his second work after his debut Primer was released nine years earlier. He has created something confounding and challenging and deep and fascinating, the type of picture that is so aesthetically gorgeous and thematically rich it feels as if you are peeling back new layers of untapped brilliance with each viewing. Trust me, one won't be enough. There is a coherent narrative of sorts here but it is nearly impossible to follow the first time through. Hell, I will be completely honest, this is my third journey through Upstream Color and I still don't have all the answers. I'm not entirely sure I want them all.

I want to keep coming back for more. I want to keep searching. I want to fall in love not with Kris (Amy Seimetz) or with Jeff (Shane Carruth) but with Kris and Jeff. With what they share. With their measured performances and subtle yet strong chemistry on screen.

Upstream Color is an enigmatic, beautiful masterpiece and I want to keep putting the pieces together. I want to keep searching.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Chappie Review

Remember when Neill Blomkamp burst on the scene with his feature length debut District 9? That rich, exciting science fiction slice of awesomeness that earned every bit of its box office success and Best Picture nomination? Remember that?

That was awesome. What the hell happened?

His sophomore effort Elysium was a bit misguided but I still found plenty of stuff to like there, and my overall opinion of it is that it was disappointingly mediocre. I would kill for disappointingly mediocre right now. Chappie is disappointingly bad. Elysium did a poor job of world building and its screenplay missed the mark far too often. Chappie did a poor job of everything building. There is no world to give a shit about. Every human character is not only underdeveloped but just terribly written in general, leaving absolutely no attachment to a single beating heart on the screen at any point.

My favorite part is when tragedy strikes at least one of the people in the film, and they treat it like Willem Dafoe in Platoon. Moving music booming as the person falls to their death in slow motion. See, this only works if we actually give a shit about them. In Chappie, any potential consequence suffered by a living, breathing person should be greeted with a shrug of the shoulders and a check of your watch, wondering how much longer you will have to sit through it.

Some films grow on you a bit during the days after you screen it. Chappie is getting worse the more I ponder the decisions Blomkamp made. Why the hell are these Die Antwoord people in the film at all? My first instinct is to assume it was an attempt at authenticity, but I challenge you to take this entire experience seriously because of their presence in a majority of the movie. Authenticity dies if you uncomfortably laugh whenever people attempt to deliver dialogue in terribly unconvincing fashion, because, well, they can't act. They aren't actors. After searching for them on Google, which I had to do because I had no earthly idea what they were, it turns out they are a "South African rap-rave group", which again points to the authenticity argument because of their country of origin.

Again though, I would argue authenticity is meaningless if by using people who actually resemble the culture being displayed it completely derails the film and any chance of it being remotely decent. So this brings me to my next major issue with Chappie, and that is the fact that real actors with real ass talent were in the movie but completely underutilized and poorly written. Hugh Jackson and Sigourney Weaver not only couldn't save Chappie, they just pissed me off more because I wondered, why am I watching these weird musicians when I could be watching real actors act? Why am I subjected to this mockery of performance art?

Now that I have covered everything wrong with Chappie, and there is plenty so I am sure I missed some stuff, I will say this: I liked Chappie himself, the robot of which the film is named after. Not always, as the writing again was atrocious and it seemed like Blomkamp couldn't quite maintain a focus of character development and consistent progression, but at the very least he managed to make this example of artificial intelligence endearing at times. Like, for brief instances I gave a shit about him and his pain resonated with me, which is far more than I can say about anyone else in the cast.

Earlier today when venting about Chappie, I made a comparison between Blomkamp and M. Night Shyamalan and I stand by it in at least one respect: the fact that they started off with not only critical successes but films that were nominated for the biggest prize in cinema, and then it all went downhill from there. However, as I have thought this over throughout the day, this is extremely unfair to M. Night. His second feature Unbreakable, while not perfect, managed to entertain me a hell of a lot more than Elysium did, and while I have one major qualm with Signs it is like Vertigo or Lawrence of Arabia compared to Chappie.

Neill Blomkamp's next film will be a sequel to Aliens. Yay? Nope. I'm afraid this dude is a turd who got lucky once. He's the Chumbawamba of science fiction filmmakers. I will continue to cherish my Blu-ray copy of District 9 regardless, but I have zero faith Blomkamp will ever be able to even sniff that level of quality again. 


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari Review

A few nights ago I had three separate nightmares over the course of only four hours, and they were all different and equally terrifying. Each time the end result was the same, with my mind racing back to reality as I opened my eyes and stared off into the darkness, overwhelmed with dread. Catch your breath, Scott. Relax. It was only a dream.

The next day at work I was filled with apathy and exhaustion. I had trouble focusing on each task, bothered by the images that danced through my mind hours earlier and craving a full night of uninterrupted sleep. Like a teenager living on Elm Street, just before I closed my eyes that next night I asked no one in particular for a run of peaceful slumber. Enough of these cold sweats induced by my subconscious. Enough of these childish fears of a shadowy corner or a creaking sound coming from the closet. Let my REM be full of smiles and rainbows and unicorns and kittens. Let the next thing I see be the glow of the sun bursting through the shades. A brand new day and a bounce in my step.

So tonight, just before bed, I decide to watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the first time. It's only 77 minutes, I thought to myself. I can watch an entire film and still get plenty of sleep.

Well, shit. That didn't work out so well.

Sure, it's only 77 minutes, but every single one of those 4620 seconds felt like I was watching cinema that would seep into my mind and never leave. The vision of Robert Wiene is in itself a nightmare, littered with truly haunting imagery and horrifying characters that have undoubtedly inspired other filmmakers for the past 95 years. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari felt like it belonged in a textbook as a perfect demonstration on how to terrorize an audience through atmosphere and set design. 

The next time you ask someone the question, "Do you want to watch a scary movie?", don't go out and rent a copy of a Texas Chainsaw remake or Paranormal Activity 12. Instead find a way to witness the outstanding silent horror picture The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, released in 1920 and perhaps even more disturbing now than when it was released. Rather than feel dated, this is a film that is enhanced by its seemingly ancient aesthetic. The absence of dialogue leads to an abundance of chills running down your spine. Just one look into the eyes of the somnambulist and you will have a far more difficult time falling asleep later on.

I'm thrilled I got to enjoy a couple straight nights of normalcy because that is over now. Soon my eyes will get heavy and I will drift off to a land of dreams, but it won't last long. It can't.

Catch your breath, Scott. Relax. It was only a film.


Monday, May 25, 2015

Inglourious Basterds Review

That opening scene. It may get lost in the shuffle for some as so much of the memorable action and comedic Tarantino whimsy arrives later in the film, but no matter how many times I see it I can't get over just how perfectly executed that first chapter is. Just two men sitting at a table talking, a testament to the power of patient storytelling. Could anyone pull off a scene like this besides Quentin Tarantino? It takes such a confident level of cool to even try it let alone succeed, and that word doesn't even do these 20 or so minutes justice. The first chapter of Inglourious Basterds isn't just a success, it's a god damn mini cinematic masterpiece. The way the camera flows through the room as Colonel Hans Landa methodically interrogates the French dairy farmer Pierre LaPadite. The polite way Landa approaches the situation, appearing as a friend rather than a foe even though we can smell the stench of dread immediately and we can feel the heat of machine gun fire before such a weapon is even exposed. 

We hang on every single word exchanged between these two men because we know they are all important, even if some seem to carry little or no significance whatsoever. When you encounter a Tarantino screenplay, you know it is something special. Not a single word will be wasted. Not a single word should be ignored because they all go down so smooth, like you are drinking the finest beer money can buy and you want to remember the flavor on your tongue long after the final drop hits it. 

When he enters the home and meets the entire LaPadite family, he knows. When he asks for a glass of milk, he knows. When he awkwardly asks to switch the spoken dialect in the room from French to English, he knows. As the camera pans down under the floor boards of the room and we see what hides beneath, we finally know exactly what he knows. Hans Landa may only have caught wind of rumors prior to his entering their home, but he is a always a few steps ahead because somehow, he knows. What might be the most powerful moment of all is the look in the eyes of Pierre LaPadite as we slowly move closer and closer to him and we can see the pain swelling up, the realization of the inevitable haunting him. He knows that Hans Landa knows and there is nothing he or we can do about it. We must sit and wait for the fury that will rain done upon those deemed enemies of the state. That innocent family that Pierre LaPadite promised to protect, those he granted shelter and safety to will soon be dead.

Not all of them though. While her family lay there like the vermin Hans Landa sees them as, one girl manages to avoid the carnage. Soaked in the blood of her loves ones and unable to see through tear soaked eyes, she runs. She runs as fast as she can and rather than pursue her to finish the job, Hans Landa watches her go.

"Au revoir, Shosanna!"

As the frame goes black and we move ahead to chapter two, you know instantly this isn't the last we have heard from Shosanna Dreyfus. It's a Tarantino film. This isn't an accurate depiction of facts from World War II. Inglourious Basterds is a revenge fantasy Nazi killin' fairy tale and by building up the first act so much I don't mean to give the idea that it all goes down hill from there. No, this movie is a 150 minute example of masterful, unforgettable cinema. Lt. Aldo Raine, Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz and The Bear Jew. My personal introduction to Michael Fassbender as Lt. Archie Hicox and the moment I learned what the German three was during a sequence in a basement bar that, much like the first act, is something only Quentin could achieve without tripping over his own ambitions. Eating a strudel with the man who took everything you loved from you in an instant. A Nazi premiere hosted by a Shosanna Dreyfus, the face of Jewish vengeance. 

"Who wants to send a message to Germany?"

"I have a message for Germany."

Melanie Laurent in that red dress with the opening notes of David Bowie's "Cat People" playing over the images. Chapter Five: Revenge of the Giant Face. A plan that, if executed correctly, will leave every Nazi of importance dead inside one theater on the same night.

"Marcel...burn it down."

"Oui, Shosanna"

From the opening frame to one of the most satisfying conclusions I could dream of in a film, with everything in between being pretty much perfect. Inglourious Basterds is smart, sublime entertainment.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Shotgun Stories Review

Does name recognition equal success for a filmmaker? Everyone knows who M. Night Shyamalan is and the guy has not made a film worth a flying fart in 13 years, and even that is debatable since I have plenty of issues with the movie about super smart aliens scouting out our planet to take it over only to have the thing that covers 70 percent of it be what kills them. I mean, it falls from the sky on a semi-regular basis. You would think they would abort mission the first time they melted in a downpour. Michael Bay is the fourth highest grossing director in cinema history and he has made three films worth a damn, and even that number isn't said with confidence because that is including the first Transformers which isn't exactly good, but I will admit I enjoy it. 

So here is a name for you, and I want you to write this down: Jeff Nichols.

If you approached 10 people on the street and asked them who Jeff Nichols was, I would be willing to wager that no more than 2 would have even the slightest idea. This needs to change.

In 2011, a film called Take Shelter was released and it is absolutely masterful, a brilliant and important look at mental illness. In 2013 we got to lay eyes on Mud, a passionate and beautiful tale about a man on the run who asks two boys to assist in reuniting him with the love of his life. These two stunning films are in my Blu-ray collection and thus I declared myself a Nichols enthusiast, but it felt incomplete. I had to watch his debut feature from 2007, a little slice of magic called Shotgun Stories and I will be honest, it is the worst of his three so far, although worst isn't a fair word to use. Here, this sounds better: Shotgun Stories is the least amazing of his work to date. 

This is the type of movie that you feel bad ranking last on any list because it is far better than the career bests of many directors. Nichols casts this spell over me that is hard to even put into words, so instead I can just describe what I experience as I witness his craft. When a gust of wind flows through the frame, it cools me down on a warm day. When a character feels emotional anguish or physical pain, I am overwhelmed by it as if it was my own. His handle on storytelling is sublime, as Nichols is able to develop even the simplest of characters and make their plights feel real and honest. Shotgun Stories is about three siblings that go by the names Kid (Barlow Jacobs), Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Son (Michael Shannon). They attend the funeral of their father but not to pay their respects but rather to voice their disgust with who he really was while his other family members sit in tears. He abandoned them and hurt them, and Son literally spits on his grave. This doesn't make their half brothers very happy, as they knew their father to be a very different man. A man they cherished. This sparks a battle between the groups of men that leaves some of them dead and all of their lives shattered. The sins of your father live on long after he is gone.

Nichols and Michael Shannon have developed quite the working relationship as they have collaborated all four times Nichols has stepped behind the camera, including the movie to be released later in 2015 called Midnight Special. It's easy to see why as Shannon is easily one of the finest actors working today, and if you want to see a perfect example of a performance being ignored by the Oscars when it was more than worthy go check out Take Shelter. Not everyone shines in Shotgun Stories, some of the other characters deliver their dialogue in clunky, almost robotic tones that feel unnatural, but Shannon delivers top notch work as always. 

Remember the name Jeff Nichols and seek out all three of his movies before Midnight Special hits theaters later this year. This is a man becoming one of the finest filmmakers working today, a man worthy of far more attention than some of these turds whom can barely piece a coherent story together. Put back your DVD of Armageddon or Pearl Harbor or Signs and seek out something different this time. Find a way to see Shotgun Stories.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tomorrowland Review

Early on in the film, Frank Walker (George Clooney) refers to the future as scary and it's hard to argue this. I love living and experiencing the beauty of this word and I never want this to ride to end, but over the past few years my mental priorities have changed and I worry about myself far less. I look at my daughter and I want to believe in a planet that is thriving rather than falling apart. I want to glimpse into the future and see images of comfort. I want to wrap my arms around a better life for her than I ever could have dreamed of. A better tomorrow.

Tomorrowland is a film made up of huge ideas and grand ambitions and it succeeds more than it fails, but it does get bogged down by its flaws at times. The first half of the picture had me soaking in a warm feeling of nostalgia, as it really felt like a Disney release I would have seen growing up and young me would have been lost in the wonder of it all, and it's not lacking in that department. There is wonder, magic and concepts abound and I was flying high with optimism over the direction this story was taking. I really enjoyed the performances, as Clooney and Britt Robertson as Casey Newton have a solid chemistry together on screen and their characters seem to promise us a memorable and wild adventure, and it mostly delivers. Unfortunately though, the ride gets a bit bumpy during the second half.

I could be completely wrong, but I think I have an idea of what the problem was here and it was essentially the pacing. Perhaps the studio wanted to make sure the entire film fit nicely into a two hours at most package, fearing that the target audience of fun for the whole family would find anything longer daunting and thus stay away. The first hour really brought us into their world and developed the characters well, as it moved at a pace just brisk enough to keep us entertained but it never felt exhausting. The second half, however, seemed to want to rush the entire vision of director Brad Bird and company to a speedy conclusion, which is tough to do when you have so many big ideas to connect together. 

A lesser concept with little to say and this would be more forgivable, as plenty of spectacle first, narrative second films can rush their way through action and a plan to save the world and lose little in the translation from page to screen, but here an important message is being conveyed. The media blasts us with rhetoric and images that mean to fill us with dread and fear of an inevitable demise, and it's challenging to not succumb to an apathy induced by hopelessness. Tomorrowland wants to remind us that it isn't too late. If we refuse to accept that nothing can fix this, that we can push greed and personal selfishness and corporate interests to the side in search of the greater good we can still let our children live in a better tomorrow. We need dreamers, believers, and optimists who will never give up as long as their is a chance to save this world.

We need those who want to live to see Tomorrowland. Had the film let the overall theme breathe a bit more it would have resonated deeper, but overall I will still take an ambitious miss than a safe and lackluster hit.


Friday, May 22, 2015

Adult Beginners Review

It's a comedy!

Yeah, but it isn't funny.

It's a drama!

Yeah, but it isn't dramatic.

So what is it?!

Bad. Really bad.

Which is a shame, because talent it does not lack. Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Joel McHale, Josh Charles, Jane Krakowski, Paula Garces. All people who, when working with the right material, are capable of either putting a smile on my face or making me feel something, anything at all. I felt nothing during Adult Beginners. Nothing. Well, I guess that isn't true. I felt numb, dumb and bored. 

Jake (Nick Kroll) is a young hot shot entrepreneur on the verge of a massive financial windfall when his company crashes and burns the night before it launches. His life is in shambles and he reluctantly heads to the home of his sister Justine (Rose Byrne) and brother-in-law Danny (Bobby Cannavale) in hopes of finding a place to crash. He volunteers to act as their nanny for their 3 year old son Teddy, and then really nothing all that significant happens for the remaining 75 minutes. It's a real hoot.

Adult Beginners is groundbreaking cinema. You're not going to believe this, but when Jake first shows up at their home, he is arrogant and selfish and rude, but over time spent with his nephew he learns the value of family and kindness and love. I know, right?! Who comes up with this stuff?!

Everyone for years, that's who. This film has been done before, and not just once or twice but constantly and it's always bad. This is a movie that demonstrates about as much originality as buying a Whopper from Burger King, putting my own barbecue sauce on it and selling it for 9 dollars out of my garage. It will be cold and weird and soggy and I will call it Scott's Rodeo Burger.

I laughed once and I cared even less. Adult Beginners is a 90 minute waste of time. Adult Beginners is a cold, weird and soggy rodeo burger. 


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Bellflower Review

It starts off as a nice little story of young love, but it never feels quite right. Honestly, I can't be completely sure if it was because of an intended tone being successfully achieved or if it just boils down to the very limited budget Bellflower was made on, but that warmth you feel as you watch it is never because of hugs and kisses and the gentle, passionate lovemaking. It's Medusa and the flamethrower that make you feel a bit queasy, a bit uneasy, as if you always know deep down that the kindness exhibited early on can't possibly be sustained.

Woodrow and Aiden look up to Lord Humongous from The Road Warrior as a symbol of what defines the ideal man. They dream of an escape where the days are spent simply but powerfully, in a world where a woman could never hurt them. A real man controls his woman. In their minds, life is a fantasy where you name your car Medusa and you can light the world on fire with ease, but reality is painted with a different brush. Reality asks you to grow up, to leave behind the imaginary notion that the whimsy of adolescence can last forever. Reality can rip your heart out and stomp on it, it can cheat on you and leave you empty and cold.

Bellflower is far from perfect cinema but when you consider that it was made on a budget of $17,000, it's a revelation. The performances aren't always on point but they also never take you out of the experience, as even when dialogue is delivered without earnest I still could smell the stink of the feverish golden toned aesthetic. The ending is mesmerizing and just enigmatic enough to linger in your mind for some time, making you wonder whether you witnessed reality or the deranged fantasies of a man with a misplaced idea of masculinity.

The face in front of the camera is the same as the one behind it as Evan Glodell stars as Woodrow and also edited, wrote and directed the picture, and what he achieved using so little is incredible. On face value it's easy to be baffled by Bellflower, a film that pulls off a tonal shift that reminds me of Takeshi Miike's Audition, a tale of two halves that initially feels like a story of romance until it is overtaken by mania, violence and vengeance. For me this is a flawed yet shockingly thematically rich movie that is smart enough to know exactly what it is doing and what direction it intends to go in, even if the actions displayed on screen appear to be idiotic. 

I have no idea if or when Glodell intends to direct again but sign me up for it no matter what. His talent is undeniable.


Faults Review

Ansel Roth is one of the top experts in the world on mind control. Claire's mind is in the hands of a mysterious new cult called Faults, a group we know nothing about beyond their name. Claire's parents just want their baby girl back home safe. 

Ansel Roth may be an expert, but his life seems to not follow a path guided by expertise. He stands in front of a lackluster gathering of people who were just curious enough to attend a seminar but not desperate enough to actually buy his book. He is in debt in the worst sort of way, the kind that does not hassle you with notices in the mail but rather with very real and scary threats from the kind of people you don't want threatening you. He is promised one free meal and a single night in a hotel room but he is caught trying to take two of each. 

Ansel Roth is unstable and yet he is approached with the hope that he could bring stability to the lives of others. The offer is lucrative and money is precisely what he needs, but the nature of the work is not only unappealing, it is literally illegal. He is to kidnap their daughter, a beautiful young girl named Claire who left everything behind in order to devote her life to Faults. He is to bring her back to a hotel room and keep her there until normalcy is restored, but there is nothing normal about such an idea. 

What exactly will occur inside that room? How long will it take before a family becomes whole again? What happens if Ansel Roth fails to complete the task?

Faults is the debut feature film from writer/director Riley Stearns, the real life husband of Mary Elizabeth Winstead who expertly plays the role of Claire here, and the craft on display throughout is simple and minimalist but handled with intelligence and confidence. It's creepy. It's dark. It's funny. It's weird, in the type of way I typically embrace. Along with Winstead, Leland Orser absolutely knocks it out of the park as the troubled Ansel. Watching these two perform in the same frame was a treat.

The irony is delicious that Ansel Roth was hired to convince a girl like Claire that her life, her happiness, her normalcy can all be found at home with her family rather than with a cult because Ansel himself would make quite the candidate to be brainwashed by such a group himself. He is a man who is in search of all the things Claire has found since joining Faults. Before long you can see the tide change in the film and you wonder, who is really doing the convincing? Who is doing the manipulating?

Not every moment lands masterfully but Faults will keep you on your toes throughout and it is certain to throw some final act twists at you that you (hopefully) never saw coming. Riley Stearns specifically pointed to filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen brothers as those whose work inspired him. I can't wait to see what else he is capable of going forward.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The French Connection Review

For some films it comes easy, the ability to lay my thoughts out as soon as it ends. The words just come flowing out with passion and not always because I loved the film. Sometimes the easiest movies to write about are the ones I loathe, the experiences that push just the right buttons to make me vent. Where the challenge comes in for me are those very good to great experiences that don't quite elicit the over the moon enthusiasm but they also did pretty much nothing wrong either. Thus sums up my the 24 hours between when I finished my first ever viewing of The French Connection and now when I finally told myself, just start typing whatever comes to mind. So here we are.

I keep fighting how to put this contradiction I had with The French Connection into words exactly because it makes sense to me but others may think, what the hell is this guy talking about? See, I somehow found the film deserves recognition for being fast paced and exciting and yet it felt ponderous at times as well. How is this possible? That's the tricky part. See, for much of the run time I was totally invested in the story of Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Russo (Roy Scheider) as they attempt to shut down the source of heroin finding its way into the U.S. from overseas, yet some of the cat and mouse the cops are always just a step behind the bad guys stuff felt redundant, as if I was watching a couple sequences on repeat hoping for a different result each time.

A part of me wants to credit these very moments I complain about because they did invoke a sense of realism to the picture, that not everything is high speed and adrenaline fueled and all about good guys getting the job done. Sometimes a good guy can be doing good work and still fall short, but I instead of appreciating this during the actual experience, I found myself waiting for The French Connection to kick it into high gear. The good news? It does so during a final act that is not only memorable, it is masterful, with iconic moments with Doyle behind the wheel chasing down a train speeding ahead right above him and the thrilling sensation hanging over ever frame that nothing predictable is going to happen as the final scenes wind down. I had no idea who would get caught, who would get away and who would make it out alive, and I got lost in the excitement. 

I knew before I ever hit play that the film took home the trophy for Best Picture, but I honestly had no idea what other areas were recognized. It didn't take long for me to think, I sure hope Hackman was in the mix for his incredible performance and sure enough he, too, walked away with the prize. His strange blend of being heroic and yet unhinged, a convincing turn as an obsessed cop willing to do anything to collar his man was special to witness. The music beautifully assists the uneasy feeling of watching "Popeye" Doyle because rather than be a series of conventional pieces that would seemingly "fit" a 70's crime thriller, Don Ellis puts together a really odd, uncomfortable score that haunts and and hints at the ominous possibilities moving forward. Even when I felt those moments of disappointment at the lack of forward movement with the investigation, the score built the tension and rattled my nerves.

Another Oscar winner here is director William Friedkin and to say it was well deserved recognition is an understatement. His craft is so meticulous and on point that it actually almost does him a disservice because by creating such a smooth and fluid experience, it almost feels too easy at times. It's the subtleties that won me over, like the way we as an audience tend to stick with one side or the other rather than frenetically shown both parties in the same sequence. As the cops stalk the streets attempting to be inconspicuous, we see the shady activity from the police perspective. The mouths move but we can't hear the words. The movements feel guilty but we aren't let into what is exact transpiring in the moment. We can only guess and make assumptions based on what we know, which is exactly what the police would really be doing as well when facing such circumstances. We are let into the world of these criminals and their drug operation but only behind closed doors, like we are a fly on the wall watching something unfold that we shouldn't be privy to.

The French Connection is a great film that completely changed the idea of what a cop movie is going forward, yet it didn't hit quite as hard as I hoped. Perhaps it boils down to far too elevated expectations, after years of hearing the title and the praise that accompanies it I expected a greatest of all time experience rather than just simply great. Either way, there is very little to criticize and a lot to love here.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Wild Tales Review

The first of six standalone short films sets the tone for the entire experience. We meet various characters on an airplane as they all meet each other, discovering the strange "coincidence" that they all seem to know the same person, a man they have all wronged in one way or another. One of the passengers refers to this seemingly chance small world encounter as "cosmic" but in reality it is anything but. It's an implausible, absurdly calculated opportunity for revenge and only minutes after we are introduced to these people and their stories their tale ends, the screen goes black and we move on to a new chapter. 

If you watch Wild Tales and hope that the people and their plights will all be tied together eventually with a neat little bow, it isn't going to happen. No, the only dots that can be connected here are stylistically and thematically as each short is it's own animal, although the animal is always violent, angry and looking to quench a thirst for revenge. The most important connection here, however, is a very simple one that is sure to be the reason everyone needs to experience Wild Tales: it's so damn funny.

On paper the premise of this anthology feature sounds quite dramatic but it's actually a comedy of the very dark variety, and I was laughing early and often. It's littered with terrific dialogue and wonderful characters and delicious satire, worthy of the Oscar nomination it received earlier this year for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite this 2014 recognition, unfortunately a theatrical run didn't occur in the U.S. until a couple months into this year so spoiler alert: look for Wild Tales when I count down the best work of 2015 down the road. You will absolutely discover that it made the cut when all is said and done.

If I were to nitpick a flaw here it would be that the six separate short films are not created equal, as some of them excel more than others, but at the same time this fact makes the chance of discussion and debate all the more fun. Everyone is sure to have their favorites, their reasons for connecting to some and not all, and for me the best of the bunch were the third short titled El Mas Fuerte (The Strongest), an absolutely brilliant scathing satire on the absurdity of the concept of machismo masculinity, the fourth installment titled Bombita (Little Bomb) about a man who gets fed up with society and the fact that his voice isn't heard and carries no weight until he does what he does best to make a very loud statement, and the final of the six called Hasta que la muerte nos separe (Until Death Do Us Part) that shows us a wedding that starts off as an expensive, over-the-top celebration until the bride discovers a scandalous secret about the man she just married earlier that very day. 

Overall, Wild Tales is a hilarious success, a very clever and unique experience that never truly missed but rather hits with a little less force in some spots but bowls us over in others.


Animals Review

Here we go again. Yet another film about drug addiction and the devastation it leaves in its wake. We have been here before, we have seen that before and when we can revisit pieces of cinema like Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream or Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31st you tend to wonder if it's even necessary to dip your toes into a new body of water that has not only been charted but done so with excellence. 

Despite this, there is a place for the new film Animals by Collin Schiffli. It's narrative isn't inventive nor does it really carry any memorable heft with it, but its performances are worth the price of admission alone. David Dastmalchian (who also wrote the very good screenplay for the film) plays Jude and Kim Shaw plays Bobbie, and they are a young couple madly in love but hiding behind their smiles and warm embraces are the demons that come with the necessity of their next narcotic fix. While we may not literally see them, it's clear that the track marks on their arms are not fresh because this is a game the two of them have obviously played before. Their life is made up of moving from con to con and hit to hit, finding clever but dangerous ways to score some extra cash to support their ugly habit. 

Schiffli and Dastmalchian demonstrate a lot of talent despite the minimalist canvas they paint on here because while the tone of this picture is obviously grim given the subject matter, they still find a way to break up some of the sadness early on with some gentle warmth and laughs shared between these characters that feels honest and comforting. The brief running time of only around 80 minutes combined with the fact that the sense of dread surrounding their fates is never overbearing makes the film flow nicely, but I did feel a disconnect at times with some of the cons they run. The authenticity that was built up by the chemistry between Jude and Bobbie is washed away in a hurry when some of the scams they pull on unsuspecting people feel a little too convenient, like one involving a lost laptop and a security guard seeking a reward.

Initially I felt the symbolism intended by cutting away from our two lovers to various wild animals in captivity was too on the nose, like we were being beat over the head with a flashing sign that read, these people are trapped by their addiction like a tiger in a zoo, but by the end of the film I felt like the significance of the title Animals had more to offer than that. The picture is not tied up with a pretty little bow and no promises are made for the future, and you may still see these addicts as animals as the credits roll, but perhaps when shown some compassion and offered care they can be quite beautiful.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Maggie Review

I have noticed that when the word zombie appears in the plot synopsis of a movie or television series, it can elicit very different expectations from those intrigued. Some immediately are looking for the horror and the gore, excited for the carnage and the more flesh that is ripped apart the better the experience. Some may prefer their Zack Snyder directed version of the wandering deceased, the sprinting dead, the blood thirsty track stars of tomorrow. Me, well I am one of those Romero enthusiasts, a traditionalist I guess you could say. A body count is less important to me than the thematic depth of the film, and a more methodical pace can work wonders rather than an onslaught of action. 

With this in mind, enter the brand new film from director Henry Hobson Maggie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin, a very different take on the zombie sub-genre that is sure to disappoint those looking for Arnold to turn into the series 800 Terminator we all know and love, piling up corpses with his shotgun. No, this is a quiet and extremely morose film, one that suffers a bit because of its inability to escape a very one note tone throughout but it still works a lot more than it doesn't. 

On a performance level Maggie shines as both Schwarzenegger and Breslin bring truly touching, tender work to the table as a father and daughter. Their bond is strong but is being tested by the heartbreaking turmoil caused by Maggie (Breslin) contracting the new virus that slowly but surely turns those afflicted into a zombie. As I said in the beginning, the word zombie brings with it expectations but in reality this story is essentially illustrating the pain a parent goes through when losing their child to a terminal illness. If you come to Maggie looking for a horror film, you are certain to be disappointed and I actually really admired the concept of a zombie transition that takes such a long time because I found it fascinating, that rather than watching it occur within minutes we witness it unfold slowly. Those bitten can live seemingly normal lives, eat meals with their family, hang out with their friends, but the dread of what is inevitable hangs over them during every encounter. The ability to say goodbye and shed tears with someone who is destined to become the walking dead is a haunting idea that is executed well here.

The real, major flaw I find in Maggie is that while it does a whole lot really well, it doesn't really do enough to stand out and be memorable beyond performances. I will admit to initially laughing when I thought about taking Arnold seriously in an emotional role as a father going through such a struggle, but it didn't take long for me to believe in his pain. His turn here is shockingly nuanced and believable. Otherwise though, it's a well crafted and interesting film that lacks a real punch to make it stand out among a crowd.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

"If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die historic on a fury road!"

That quote covers so much about this film in such a small amount of words. The death toll elevates, the action is furious and my goodness the movie feels historic. Now hold on, don't roll your eyes at me. Yes you did, I could see you. I know what you are thinking, here he comes with some of that instant reaction hyperbole bullshit, using a word like historic, so let me be clear: no, Mad Max: Fury Road is not one of the greatest films of all time. 

One of the greatest action films of all time though? Yep, I can and will say that without even a fraction of doubt in my body. This is easily one of my favorite genre films ever made. I was battered, bruised and pummeled into submission by the relentless lunacy on display, all while sitting in a leather recliner and sipping a giant soda. I felt physically exhausted by the end of a two hour cinematic experience, and yet that only represents a fraction of why I loved the picture so much. 

George Miller has created an post apocalyptic punk rock masterpiece that left me in awe on numerous occasions. It isn't merely the general concept of the action being cool or non-stop, it's the way the material was handled. The frenzy is directed with such silky smooth confidence that even when the chaos seems completely out of hand, we are able to follow exactly what is happening as clear as day. The set pieces are extraordinary and as imaginative as I have ever seen. I literally said the single word "Wow" aloud to myself on multiple occasions, all while flashing a giant, shit eatin' grin on my face throughout every damn minute. Seriously, when I buy this on Blu-ray, and that's a when, not an if, I may break the player with how many times I am going to give it a spin. Just the thought of being able to dig into some special features regarding how the hell Miller filmed some of these sequences makes me excited for future me.

Despite the praise I laid out above, had it merely been just an action extravaganza I wouldn't be busting out a word like masterpiece. While the intensity of Mad Max: Fury Road is what people will show up for (and I don't blame them one bit), where this films truly excels are those quiet sequences that give us a breather, showcasing some of the finest character development I have seen based on the very small amount of words actually used to achieve it. Charlize Theron deserves an honorary Oscar for her eyes alone, the type of award that would have been handed out long ago during the silent era of cinema, which is rather ironic considering just how modern and loud this puppy is. Her character is named Furiosa and she is a bad ass force to be reckoned with, but in her eyes we get to know her pain. We get to witness her passion. We get to see her soul.

Actually, I can't write this review without addressing another pile of praise that deserves to be heaped towards Mr. Miller and his expert craft of this film. Bless him for truly making a picture that shows how much ass women can kick. She may be too young now, but someday I would be proud to sit my daughter down and allow her to soak in the carnage on display as females are depicted as not just strong, but capable of killing every last mother fucker that gets in their way. Far too often the action genre depicts a woman as a damsel in distress, needing a man to swoop in and save her as she appears weak and fragile rather than courageous and tough. Mad Max: Fury Road gives us women who make us believe they can drop our asses if we try to stop them, and I applaud the hell out of George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris for penning a screenplay that subverts the traditional misguided tropes. 

If you are like me, you saw the overwhelmingly positive critical response to this film and couldn't believe your eyes. I wondered how an action film could be so universally praised, as usually the genre is deemed derivative. I no longer wonder. It is worthy of the accolades. With a musical score that blasts through your body, a brilliantly subtle screenplay that achieves so much by doing so little and quite possibly the greatest action ever put to celluloid, Mad Max: Fury Road is a roaring, thunderous achievement.