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05 January 2016 @ 10:28 am
Alex of Venice (2014)

[87 minutes. R. Director: Chris Messina]

Chris Messina had a small role in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, so it makes more than a little sense that opening-credits font and a couple camera angles pull from that film. As does the sense of realism (insofar as indie films go, this one is more honest than most). As does a small supporting role for Jennifer Jason Leigh. For his directorial bow, Messina draws parallels to Baumbach in his matter-of-fact style, but the dialog and characters are less acerbic and ring truer, with less stilted quirkiness (and I’m saying this as a big fan of Baumbach). Is the story (scripted by Jessica Goldberg, co-star Katie Nehra, and Justin Shilton) anything new? Not particularly. We’ve seen tales of domestic discord countless times before, executed with varying degrees of sincerity and authenticity. What’s most refreshing about Alex is how plausible it all seems: Alex (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an environmental lawyer who has an antisocial, potentially autistic son (it’s never specified), a father (Don Johnson) who may be dealing with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and a husband (Messina) who, at the beginning of the film, decides he can’t take the stresses of being a stay-at-home-father. While the story covers familiar territory (including the quirky, extroverted sister – played by Nehra – who serves as the yin to Winstead’s yang), the execution is modest and appreciably subtle – overt stylization is kept to a minimum, with Messina preferring to allow his compositions to breathe and gain additional depth through the performances, all of which are uniformly excellent. The consistently surprising Winstead one-ups the promise of her performance in Smashed as a character trying to break free of everyone’s expectations of her; she exudes the suffocation of stress and the wages of career (and romantic) ambition with a rawness that makes both the drama and the scattered moments of humor resonate all the more deeply. Johnson is the film’s wild card – while rescued from obscurity for the action-veined likes of Django Unchained and Jim Mickle’s excellent Cold in July, his performance as a faded TV star grappling with relevance is not only apt, but allows him the opportunity to show vulnerability, fear, and hope in a relatable manner (furthermore, his performance in a local production of a Chekov play is a tense, suspenseful setpiece in Alex’s third act); it’s a wonderful bit of dramatic acting, and showcases his range very well. But what is most refreshing about Alex is its resistance to quirk: Messina’s minimalist directorial style evidences a trust in the performances that pays off well (even if the opening 3-minute tracking shot is a bit of technical brilliance in and of itself); not all of the narrative threads meet with satisfactory resolution, but it ties into the film’s overarching theme of life advancing forward, whether or not people are prepared for it.

8 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2657398297?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_3

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Chasing Amy (1997)

[113 minutes. R. Director: Kevin Smith]

Chasing Amy is a film about people talking (and sometimes screaming) their way through what they’re feeling within the context of complicated relationships. Kevin Smith, who has written some of the wittiest, most authentic dialog of the past two decades, nonetheless finds himself in a quandary with this film (a proud member of the Criterion Collection, no less). Remember in Pulp Fiction, when Samuel L. Jackson stops to explain a “pilot” to John Travolta? How about when Kurt Russell explains to a dim-witted Rose McGowan what a “bar has to offer” in Death Proof? Or, how about when Leonardo DiCaprio breaks the fourth wall in The Wolf of Wall Street to condescend to a captive audience what a “Quaalude” is? There are sequences in Chasing Amy that capture the joy and tension of a relationship with painful accuracy; the complication of the plot – our comic-drawing protagonist, Holden (Ben Affleck, about a decade shy of shedding his smarmy demeanor) falls for the adamantly gay Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) – leads to discussions of sex and love that feel dated by today’s standards (especially with the recent legalization of gay marriage). While Smith’s vision may have been a small revelation in 1997, it has since been co-opted and watered down over the course of the subsequent decades, to the point where the shock-humor descriptions of supposedly outrageous sexual acts seem almost banal by today’s standards (which speaks, in a way, to how much credit Smith should be given for influencing the sexual landscape in popular culture). While there are many funny moments within Amy (the “black rage” scene is an hilarious provocation), the focus is more on the shifting dynamics of relationships, and the actors acquit themselves well – Adams and Affleck are often given several-minute monologues that are delivered with a passion that’s palpable; and Jason Lee (as Holden’s best friend, Banky) continues his appeal as the resident smart-ass who nonetheless imparts his own brand of subjective wisdom at crucial moments. But there are also things that don’t work; Smith’s visual compositions are generally unimaginative and uninteresting (the action of the film is characters talking, but there are better ways to make it exciting – check out Glengarry Glen Ross for a great examples of this), and the film feels distended at nearly two hours (methinks Smith couldn’t bear to part with some of his ten-dollar dialog). Furthermore, some of the emotional transitions seem to come out of nowhere, thanks to the jagged quality of the editing and pace. Chasing Amy is a good film, but it’s also a bookmark for an era that’s come and gone.

6.5 out of 10

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Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EiATQ04pH14
 
 
Clerks (1994) + Clerks II (2006)

[92/97 minutes. R. Director: Kevin Smith]

In its best moments, Clerks has moments of profundity that border on slacker-art-house revelation. While clearly weaned on the Happy Endings of John Hughes and his succession of ‘80s teen rom-coms, writer-director Kevin Smith bucked the more formulaic conventions of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to inject a paradox of cynicism and warmth (but mostly cynicism) into his tale of early-twentysomethings dicking around between a convenience store and a video store over the course of a single stressful New Jersey day (another Smith calling card, just as Chicago was to Hughes). Relationship bonds are tested; wacky customers are par for the course (including a guy who almost starts an insurrection over the adverse health effects of cigarettes); and philosophical discussions on sex, life, and love are had (hey, all in a day’s work, right?). And, in an echo of the indecisive and/or willfully rutted characters that populate both Clerks movies, I am taking a page from the Slacker Bible and amalgamating two reviews into one. The 1994 film struck a chord with the Generation Xers who had lived the lives depicted by Dante (Brian O’Hallorann) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), and the Generation Yers who had yet to develop the capacity to realize they’d be there soon enough. With rough, grainy, black-and-white cinematography, Smith is like Truffaut channeling the nihilism of his frustrated, fed-up characters, and the resulting conversations and actions (including a short-lived rooftop hockey match) ring true. I could’ve done without the seemingly disparate intertitles, but I can’t deny that their pretension was probably an intentional slight toward the art-house darlings Miramax was bankrolling at the time. With Clerks II (and, more than likely, 2016’s Clerks III), the law of diminishing returns applies, but not to an overtly detrimental degree; while it tells the familiar story of a man (O’Halloran’s Dante) torn between his domineering, moneyed fiancée, and the laid-back geek girl (Rosario Dawson) who also happens to be his boss (at a depressing fast-food joint called Mooby’s), the chemistry between the characters shines, and the crackle of Smith’s dialog is evident (even if he falls back on overt pop-culture riffing – the Lord of the Rings trilogy gets an abbreviated deconstruction by Randal – and sex-oriented gross-outs). In an interesting aesthetic touch that suggests aging as much for the characters as it does Smith, most of the film exists in a colorized world (with an exception that, unfortunately, hinges on a spoiler). There is a sense of wheel-spinning despair and desperation that extends beyond the characters and into some of the scenarios (the belittling of a religious, goody-two-shoes co-worker never extends beyond “because he’s there” simplicity), and the bestiality stuff – while still pretty funny – also becomes a literal grab at more shock value. Still, to compare it to another sequel that inspires me to laugh more often than I probably should, Clerks II is comparable to 22 Jump Street - maybe 60% of the jokes connect, but the environment is so comforting that it’s hard to resist.

Clerks: 7 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi3689848345?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_2

Clerks II: 6 out of 10

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLvhJ0m5ask

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Ted 2 (2015)

[115 minutes. R. Director: Seth MacFarlane]

With each subsequent film, the gap between Mark Wahlberg’s Oscar nod for The Departed (back in – holy fuck – 2006, for Christ’s sake) and his tenure as the shirtless member of The Funky Bunch closes. Granted, I found the original Ted amusing in its own crass, ridiculous way; by no means a masterpiece of cinema (or even comedy, for that matter), writer-director Seth MacFarlane hit enough humorous notes to make the notion of a pot-smoking teddy bear come to life seem entertaining (even if the concept was maybe a quarter as creative as most of the programming on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim). A couple years later, and the concept hits the wall of diminishing returns with this sequel, which broaches what Mel Brooks satirically called “the search for more money” in Spaceballs. From the bizarre opening-credits sequence, which eschews laughs in the name of a bombastic Broadway dance number (echoes of MacFarlane’s Family Guy), it becomes clear that this equal-opportunity offender also secretly wishes to be all things to all viewers. The film slathers on the gloppy sentiment (especially in its heavy-handed final minutes), the mouth-breathing marijuana punchlines (when our gang stumbles upon a crop, John Williams’s score to Jurassic Park kicks in, to ineffective effect), and even ups the R-rated ante by smearing jizz all over the place. What’s more problematic about Ted 2 is its attempt to be an “issues” movie, as newlywed Ted (voiced, as ever, by the multi-hyphenate MacFarlane) is determined to be “property” by the state, resulting in a search for identity that would resonate if the six-fisted writing team (MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, and Wellesley Wild) actually cared; instead, we are left with some excruciating courtroom scenes that alternate between squirm-inducing humor (John Slattery’s prosecuting attorney is demonized Just Because) and bald audacity in its dead-serious aligning of Ted’s plight to that of the slaves (helpfully delivered, though, by a sleepwalking Morgan Freeman). For as blue as MacFarlane’s brand of “humor” is, there is nothing particularly transgressive about it – the film delivers what the audience expects, but the Family Guy-style cutaways to the non-sequitur punchlines that are that show’s stock and trade go AWOL here, and the narrative becomes a heavy burden for the embarrassed, paycheck-cashing cast to carry (with most of the humiliation reserved for Amanda Seyfried’s young lawyer, who fast becomes an offensive 1950’s caricature of a woman who can’t think without a big, strong idiot of a man by her side). What’s it saying that, in a film trying to make a point about “property” (and, by association, merchandising) that the final third takes place at New York Comic-Con (a celebration of consumerism and plastic shit), but feels like its own bit of shameless product placement, rather than a satirical send-up of such (even Patrick Warburton wearing a Tick costume feels literal)? Talk about a missed opportunity – and the emptiness stretches on for damn near 2 hours.

4 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1580576281?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_8

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The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)

[86 minutes. R. Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon]

As this crass, cynical, exploitative, and offensive remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown was directed by American Horror Story alumnus Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, its sheer awfulness is enough to make me reconsider my enthusiastic reaction to that series’ earlier seasons. Moreover, it is such an incompetent pile of meta nonsense (which, granted, is AHS’s stock and trade, for better or worse) that it makes Charles B. Pierce’s original 1976 film – marred by some continuity issues and some unnecessary comic relief – seem like a goddamn fucking masterpiece by comparison. Sundown 2014 actually made me realize what a sincere film it was, too. At the very least, whatever could be said about that film’s trivialization of the story’s true crime roots, it was executed with a curiosity and respect for the panic that ensued and the lives lost as a to-this-day unidentified, hooded maniac terrorized Texarkana, Arkansas in 1946. Granted, Pierce’s film took the perspective of law-enforcement muscle portrayed by character-actor royalty like Andrew Prine (The Lords of Salem) and Ben Johnson (The Getaway), and included voice-over narration to add a sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings; for the most part, it worked, with Pierce showing an uncanny skill for nighttime sequences of encroaching dread, and presenting the Phantom with as much fascination and mystery as authentic, real-life horror. As written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (2013’s Carrie remake), everything endearing about the 1976 film has been inverted for little more than its own sake – and, outside of desperation to turn over a buck (and give a TV director his questionable springboard into the crass universe of Michael Bay-styled remakes), there is no real social or cultural relevance to revisiting this material. Aguirre-Sacasa’s script is rife with clichés and lacking in coherence – is it a sequel, a remake, or a send-up? Depending on Gomez-Rejon’s mood, it can be any or all. At its worst, it fancies itself some jumbled amalgamation of true-crime tale and revisionist history, and seems to want to convince an extremely gullible filmgoing public that, oh yeah, a copycat Phantom rose up and ran wild again, 65 years later. This trivialization of the actual tragedy is what makes Sundown 2014 offensive, but its presentation of heterosexual fuckfests and gay-curious boys parking in an abandoned lot (who talk like they’re trying to keep within the constraints of an R rating, for maximum authenticity) also doesn’t help matters. However, the film’s offense is outweighed by its lumbering idiocy, its non-existent character arcs, its jaw-droppingly inept lack of suspense, and an ending that, so help me, cashes in its chips to fancy itself another Scream (it fails miserably at that, too). Not helping matters is the shift away from law enforcement (a bunch of incompetent boobs here, anyway) to a trite love story between two of the mumbliest, most chemistry-deprived leads in recent memory (Addison Timlin and Travis Tope). Every frame is a hollow excuse for Gomez-Rejon to fuck around with style, and the emptiness of it all made me more nauseous than any of the slick, unfeeling carnage on display.

1 out of 10

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Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3561860121?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_3
 
 
Focus (2015)

[105 minutes. R. Directors: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa]

For a good long while, it seems like Focus could turn into the kind of film where Will Smith, never not one to go for the jugular when it comes to giving an audience exactly what they want, could abandon his tongue-in-cheek, slightly smug persona for a lout with a checkered past, and even more checkered personality. As Nicky, a con man who’s spent most of his life in the midst of criminal enterprise, there is a weathered quality to Smith’s physical demeanor, and a guarded restraint to his delivery; he’s a shell of a man who has long been unable to trust anybody, especially not a fellow grifter. So, when pretty young protégé Jess (Margot Robbie) shows ambition beyond the mere accrual of material wealth, Nicky severs ties before things get too serious. Three years later, the duo reunites on opposite sides of the same scam (involving some vague nonsense about a race-car engineer played by Rodrigo Santoro), but the heavily-subtexted question is, outside of the obvious score: can these two estranged lovers ever truly trust one another again? The supporting cast is strong, with standouts Brennan Brown and Adrian Martinez (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) all but stealing the movie from their more high-profile co-stars (which may explain why they get shunted to the periphery); meanwhile, a miscast Gerald McRaney (The A-Team) shows a frustrating lack of menace as Santoro’s henchman/co-conspirator (what, was Jonathan Banks not available?). Co-writers and –directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa apply a glossy Hollywood slickness to the production that is at once appropriate, but also telling of the film’s overall shallowness. Watching Focus unfold, I was reminded of my reaction to David Mamet’s 2001 film Heist, a similar tale of criminal enterprise where it’s hard to tell who’s screwing who (and how) until the very end – it’s hard to find replay value in a film that pivots on the art of lying, because it turns into a guessing game where the climax leaves no room for ambiguity and interpretation. It is what it is, but Focus sputters to a could-care-less confrontation between Smith, Robbie, Santoro, and McRaney that is remarkably void of tension or feeling, and shows Smith settling comfortably back into his leading-man swagger (in this case, that’s not a good thing). There is a strange lack of urgency to the film, and the stakes never feel as high as we’re made to believe – perhaps because we’ve seen this film (and derivations thereof) too many times before. The best sequence involves a protracted Super-Bowl bet between Nicky and Liyuan (BD Wong, acting the hell out of an offensive Asian caricature) that sees the former go deeper and deeper into the hole; it’s genuinely suspenseful, and hinges on a sense of the unexpected that goes missing everywhere else in Focus.

4 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2375331353?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_21

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The Pyramid (2014)

[89 minutes. R. Director: Gregory Levasseur]

The Siamese-twin pairing of Alexandre Aja and Gregory Levasseur has yielded strong genre results over the past decade, but The Pyramid, Levasseur’s directorial bow, is a case of misguided vision. Given the current horror climate of barnstorming home invasions, remakes, and ghost stories, the concept is appealing (even if it does recall 1981’s excrescent Dawn of the Mummy): a documentary film crew is following the progress of a father-daughter archaeological team’s discovery of the three-sided titular structure in Egypt. Opening against the backdrop of riots in Cairo (introduced for the suggestion of limp sociopolitical commentary? Damned if I know), title cards give us the usual “found footage” spiel as we settle into obligatory banter between characters before a $3 million, super-smart NASA rover gets lost inside the pyramid. Similar to the more widely-seen As Above, So Below, claustrophobia is key, but unfortunately presented in a less than effective manner. Hurting The Pyramid is a leaden pace that lumbers from one booby-trapped room to the next, but in a manner that elicits minimal interest. While credit is due for introducing a central villain that isn’t wrapped in bandages, the usage of a mythic figure roaming the corridors is ultimately reduced to shallow, generic monster-movie stuff (right down to the legion of mutant cats with inconsistent loyalties). But weak CGI and inconsistent tension are only a few of The Pyramid’s problems. While the film sets up a found-footage conceit, Levasseur isn’t interested in this as anything more than a gimmick, as omniscient POV camera angles are employed at certain points to make the whole thing more “cinematic” (I guess); additionally, a generic horror score does nothing to heighten the tension. Scenes meant to be frightening (or at least suspenseful) are hindered by inept blocking (the “sand trap” sequence being a prime example). Also propelling a lack of interest is the cast, who are left with little recourse against Levasseur’s inert direction and the indecisive script by Daniel Meersand and Nick Simon; in addition to being generic types (airhead documentary filmmaker Sunni (Christa Nicola); airhead archaeologist Nora (Ashley Hinshaw); pervy NASA-rover controller Zahir (Amir K); panicky/jokey cameraman Fitzie (James Buckley); idiotic genius veteran archaeologist Holden (Denis O’Hare), their reactions are inconsistent throughout (two characters who hate each other during one scene are fine the next; a mood of panic gives way to awkward comic relief), and a potentially interesting subtext of paranoia and mental dissolution turns out to be just another dead end. Why, for instance, does Holden lie about the death of another character, and Nora – who was also there – does nothing to correct him? It’s the type of narrative sloppiness that makes for a frustrating experience, and as a horror film, The Pyramid is too slickly-produced to even favor status as a potential so-bad-it’s-good midnight movie. If anything, it’s an innocuous non-entity that deserves little more than to be entombed and forgotten (no difficult task).

3 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2171317273?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_5

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Welcome to Me (2014)

[87 minutes. R. Director: Shira Piven]

Of all the discomforting themes (mental illness; love gone wrong; the influence of media on our perception) and emotions (sadness; anger; misguided hope) Welcome to Me addresses, none of them are discomforting for the right reasons. When Hollywood tries to address the elephant in the room that is mental illness, we get dishonest, awards-baiting horseshit like Silver Linings Playbook; when indie filmmakers attempt said feat, the result can be an insightful character study, or something far worse than mere awards-baiting horseshit. Welcome to Me is an odd swan of a movie, and sinks into the latter subcategory; its ambitions veer toward the mainstream, and its embarrassingly overqualified (and just plain embarrassed) cast holds an incredible potential that goes unmet early and often. The most humiliating part of this generally humiliating film is - SPOILER ALERT - the scene where Alice (Kristen Wiig, deserving far better), a borderline-personality-diagnosed woman who hits an absurd lottery jackpot, wanders through a casino buck naked, her true “self” laid bare (or so the filmmakers want us to think). Shira Piven offers generic direction that isn’t far-removed from sitcom quality, and it is keeping in step with Eliot Laurence’s ridiculously offensive script, which smacks of an utter lack of believability: after winning $86 million, Alice – an Oprah fan for life – decides to “buy” her own TV show (an uncomfortable, free-association nightmare punctuated by cringe-worthy re-enactments of incidents from her past); the station she approaches has fallen on hard times financially, so they give her the green-light with minimum thought (because the premise wouldn’t work otherwise…actually, it doesn’t work as is). Welcome goes through familiar narrative (Alice will rise, sort of, only to fall; and rise, sort of, again) and character arcs (will Alice mend her relationship with her best friend (Linda Cardellini)? Wait and see!), but any catharsis or warmth is tangled in a dishonest execution. Of course, everybody except the dollar-sign-seeing station manager (James Marsden) thinks Alice’s show is a bad idea, but the subject of potential slander isn’t broached until late in the film, which made me wonder why it wasn’t addressed earlier, which returned me to wondering why the hell anyone would give Alice her own show in the first place (which just frustrated me all over again). And the conclusion relies on the mechanics of convenience to deliver a preordained Happy Ending (which contradicts an earlier scene between Wiig and Cardellini, but who cares?). Similarly, issues of celibacy are swept under the rug to give the movie the conclusion it wants, but doesn’t deserve (really, how does the college kid – played by Thomas Mann – figure into this cat’s-cradle schema? And if Wes Bentley is suffering a mental illness of his own, it goes unaddressed). It should be said that I like Kristen Wiig, a lot, as an actress – she has the right balance of humor and dramatic range (and, frankly, I can’t wait to see what she brings to the new Ghostbusters), and has a very intuitive approach to portraying characters stuck in neutral. What worries me about the likes of Hateship Loveship and especially Welcome to Me is not only that her efforts are being put to waste, but that she’s pigeonholing herself as a character type who isn’t being given her due by the creative team behind the camera. It pains me to say it, but there are ideas and emotions here that are worthy of exploration and, sure, some raw humor…but the end result is like watching a therapy session filtered through a sitcom laugh track, which left me feeling queasy.

2 out of 10

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Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi226471449?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_3
 
 
All Superheroes Must Die (2011)

[78 minutes. Unrated. Director: Jason Trost]

In a multiplex environment that has become a Marvel Studios battering ram, even the most naïve among the film-going public has grown accustomed to the familiar beats of superhero films (the backstories; the villains; the epic climactic battles), including that inevitable point in the last act where one or more of our collective is placed in a situation where they must overcome an adversary sans the use of their superpowers. All Superheroes Must Die is a surprising inverse of something like The Avengers: a quartet of young people, gifted with unique skills (the result of an ill-defined incident), find themselves in an abandoned small town, stripped of their powers. An old arch-nemesis, Rickshaw (James Remar, who juggles hamminess and menace like a pro), has set up a series of “tests” for the debilitated group, and the rules usually hinge on the sacrifice of innocents or peers. Yeah, it’s more than a little like a Saw sequel (albeit not as graphic), and one of the weaknesses of Superheroes is how its low budget seems to inhibit its creative potential. There are other aspects, such as bizarrely integrated black-and-white flashbacks, that hint at themes and characterizations that never feel fully developed. And why is Charge (writer-director Jason Trost), with his unexplained bad eye, the only character not robbed of his super-powers? In the end, it’s best not to bother with such questions. Superheroes has a scant run time, and Trost maintains a respectable pace throughout; while some of the acting is more impassioned (and sometimes more deliberately over-the-top) than others, the relationships are endearing – rife with conflicts and victories that are easily relatable. Even the homemade quality of the heroes’ costumes carries a low-budget charm that sets it apart from the more grandiose designs of its megabucks brethren. And the fact that Superheroes makes no attempt to align itself with a sense of contemporary irony and “cool” automatically makes it better than the likes of some fake-cult classic like Kick-Ass. It is much more in line – but on a different quality scale – with something like the accidental heroes of Josh Trank’s Chronicle.

6.5 out of 10

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjkyiC9GaeE

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The FP (2011)

[82 minutes. R. Director: Trost Brothers]

It doesn’t help that Jason Trost, whose fifty-shades-of-bland persona only allows so much ironic clearance in his portrayal of fifty-shades-of-bland heroes, often comes across as one of the weaker links in his own films. That being said, The FP continues the microbudget promise begun with All Superheroes Must Die: in a trailer-park vision of a post-apocalyptic America, small towns are divided up into Warriors-style factions that have adopted hip-hop and Internet slang (think a more caustic version of Nadsit from A Clockwork Orange). The film is all thrift-store wardrobe, repurposed video games (“Dance Dance Revolution” becomes “Beat Beat Revelation”), and ridiculous situations (there are the requisite training montages, with tongue planted firmly in cheek). While Trost (who co-wrote and directed with his brother, Brandon) begins the film by indulging in stereotypes and general tastelessness, he is smart enough to give his characters more than a single dimension, and surrounding himself with actors capable of indulging in a peculiar – yet specific – brand of asylum-escapee madness (Sean Whalen, who also appeared in Superheroes, is finding his niche in playing John Waters-styled weirdoes). But the film, while taking a bit too long to establish its premise (in a bland, been-there-done-that manner), somehow comes out the other end triumphant – if you are willing to adapt to the strange, Gregg-Araki-circa-1995 energy coursing through its veins, there is a fun, and sometimes extremely funny, time to be had with The FP.

6.5 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3576275225?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_2

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Resolution (2012)

[93 minutes. Unrated. Directors: Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead]

(Potential SPOILERS)

The more I mull over Resolution, the more troubled I am by it. Not in a manner of disturbance brought about by watching a poignant or frightening film, but problems with narrative and plotting and pacing. The places this film winds up going range from compelling to creepy to, ultimately, ridiculous. It’s an uneasy – and unintended – mix of moods that stigmatizes the film more than if it were just flat-out awful. There were times when I found myself wondering at the whole thing: “why did you have to go and do that?” That being said, the first two-thirds of the film hold the promise of unpredictable greatness. Coming from the same writing and directing team that gave us 2014’s superior sleeper Spring, Resolution has an excellent premise: Michael (Peter Cilella) is a well-adjusted family man with a child on the way; for 5 days, he makes it his mission to see that his crack-addicted best friend, Chris (Vinny Curran) agrees to go to rehab. Squatting in a shack located on an Indian Reservation, Michael and Chris’s week grows increasingly unhinged, as encounters with drug addicts, local mental patients, religious zealots, real-estate salesmen(?), and professors in self-exile give the impression that something is amiss. Despite the alternatively histrionic (Curran) and deadpan (Cilella) performances of the two leads, there is a basic primal tension in watching the early stages of the withdrawal process, as their friendship is so well-established and their interactions so convincing. Part of me was hoping the filmmakers would spin something horrific from the real-life factors of such a last-resort scenario (God knows there’s enough literal and metaphorical material to work with). Instead, the run time is padded out with encounters that, at their worst, feel shoehorned into the narrative with little purpose and even less, um…”resolution.” When Michael begins to come across strange recordings of apparent murders, the scavenger hunt has an eerie, menacing feel rooted in potential psychosis; instead of playing up this angle, Benson and Moorhead take a much less interesting approach of some unseen force haunting the sacred land and determining the course of each character’s fate. It smacks of Blair Witch Project imitation, but doesn’t see it through with the same subtlety and atmosphere. The filmmakers almost seem to be populating each frame with weirdness out of a fear that the interplay between its main characters won’t carry the film – when it easily could have. While certain scenes, such as Michael’s encounter with the trailer-dwelling professor (Bill Oberst Jr.) introduce interesting spiritual and existential concepts, most of these scenes turn into thematic and narrative dead-ends, which grows distracting. There are strong aspects to Resolution - enough for me to give it a passable recommendation – but in the end, less would have been so much more.

6 out of 10

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Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2110039833?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_3
 
 
05 January 2016 @ 09:57 am
Lost River (2014)

[95 minutes. R. Director: Ryan Gosling]

It’s hard not to make a comparison between Ryan Gosling’s directorial bow, Lost River, and Johnny Depp’s directorial bow, 1997’s The Brave (a film that has never seen release outside of bootleg versions in the United States). Unfortunately, the comparison has to be made for shallow reasons: at the youthful height of his stardom, and the peak of his status as a Hollywood sex symbol, Depp chose to adapt a difficult, downbeat novel by Gregory McDonald into a film of similar downbeat difficulty. The result was ponderous, sometimes pretentious, sometimes genre-confused (sporadic comedy seemed at odds with the overall funereal tone); while far from a masterpiece, it was not without interest and thematic weight. Currently, Gosling is in a position not altogether different from Depp in 1997 – a rising young actor in the spotlight, using his power to essay a cinematic attempt of deliberate and unexpected idiosyncrasy. Working in his favor is a self-penned screenplay that indulges a surprising variety of genres, from horror (the extravagantly-styled gore of Dario Argento and Herschell Gordon Lewis is on proud display; legendary Euro-horror ingénue Barbara Steele also appears in a dialog-free supporting role), science fiction (some of the imagery echoes Panos Cosmatos’s Beyond the Black Rainbow), punk rock (Matt Smith’s funny-psychotic “Bully” is like a dark exile from Alex Cox’s Repo Man), to surreal backwoods fantasy (the film often plays like a coming-of-age tale not dissimilar from Terry Gilliam’s underrated Tideland). Throughout, the setting, characters, and free-form storytelling bring to mind the maddening efforts of Harmony Korine; but unlike that showy jerk-off, Gosling seems to have a genuine affinity for his desperate and damaged characters and their plight. Billy (Christina Hendricks, who costarred with Gosling in Drive) is the single mother of Bones (Iain De Caestecker) and Franky (Landyn Stewart); the family lives in a forgotten town on the brink of demolition, and Billy resorts to performance art at a bizarre burlesque cabaret, and Bones steals copper pipe in an attempt to make ends meet. As a mysterious business owner, Ben Mendelsohn (Killing Them Softly) hangs out in the margins, delivering sleaze, menace, and unexpected humor. And as a potential love interest for Bones, Saoirse Ronan (Hanna) delivers a deadpan, quietly heartbreaking performance as a girl in similar throes of desperation. While Benoit Debie’s cinematography can tend toward the overstated, and certain scenes crawl on too long, sacrificing context and relevance for “cool” imagery and dialog, the cast adapts well to the strange atmosphere, and the twisting, free-form plot keeps Lost River consistently watchable. It’s flawed, for sure, but also fascinating.

6.5 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3022564889?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_2

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Spring (2014)

[110 minutes. Unrated. Directors: Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead]

The fact that one character uses the word “oxytocin” to describe the brain chemical that causes humans to become romantically affectionate for one another, speaks volumes for Spring’s place in the cinematic canon, and even more for the type of love story it tells. It’s an unsuspecting, genre-bending work that has earned accolades for its ties to horror; however, first and foremost, it is a tale of loss and love. One of the most strangely disarming aspects of Spring is its utterly convincing presentation of a fish-out-of-water romance: Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci - Evil Dead) is an American reeling from the cancer-related death of his mother; on the run from the law after a vicious bar fight, he finds himself in an Italian coastal community, accompanied by two European stoners. In his travels, he meets Louise (Nadia Hilker), a well-read doctor who is obsessed with old artwork and older cultures. As the duo embarks on an unlikely, meet-cute relationship (which is not averse to Hollywood cliché), complications arise as immigration bears down on Evan and Louise’s true nature comes to the surface. Showing a stark aesthetic contrast from their V/H/S: Viral segment, directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (who also scripted) capture the travelogue beauty of Italy (from the coast to the countryside) and infectiously integrate it into the narrative and characters. Both Evan and Louise are mysterious individuals, with limited backstories and sometimes-oblique rationales for why they do the things they do, and their surface-level appeal is given a cold sheen by the ambiguity of knowledge the viewer is privy to. That being said, this ambiguity proves a neat fit for a film that digs at the soft tissue of an individual’s true nature, as well as the limits of what humans can logically comprehend of their world. Late in the film, there is a wonderful scene where Louise, explaining her “self” to Evan, trails after him as he desperately attempts to find a way out of where he is, to no avail (he’s embarked on this expedition, and is therefore bound by its unique set of rules). Jimmy Lavalle’s score is also an exercise in contrasts – from melancholy piano notes to abrasive, noisy soundscapes, the aural aspects of Spring convey a paradoxical sense of the carefree and the unnatural (like its other elements, it synthesizes better than it should). While some of the story elements do not make total sense (Louise’s explanation is a bit of ticker-tape exposition that might have been better if not addressed at all), the lovers possess a naturalistic, semi-improvised rapport that is endearing, especially when the film takes its periodic detours into sci-fi and horror. Despite the traditional story and classic setting, Spring more often than not resembles the Interzone of David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, a place where hallucination and transformation are as commonplace as mutant insects being sold in an open-air marketplace. It’s challenging and effective – one of the most entrancing genre efforts of the past decade.

8 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi2735582745?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_1

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Spy (2015)

[120 minutes. R. Director: Paul Feig]

With great cult status comes great responsibility when it comes to fulfilling the wishes of a constantly bitching Internet constituency of whiners and haters. When it was announced that Paul Feig would be at the helm of a new Ghostbusters with an all-female cast, I was giddy with delight; contrary to the concept Dan Aykroyd was throwing around for the better part of two decades (with the “old” Ghostbusters passing the torch to a group of young proteges), this announcement came with the promise of a fresh start for a franchise that played an integral role in the pop-culture education of many members of Generations X and Y. In my mind, it also helped that Feig – the creator of the beloved cult TV show Freaks and Geeks and director of Bridesmaids and The Heat - hadn’t yet hit a flat note in his filmmaking career. Adding to my confidence for the new Ghostbusters’ success is Spy, a send-up of James Bond-styled shenanigans that shows the writer-director embracing ribald absurdity (there are sight gags that involve bat and rat infestations at CIA headquarters), tricky action scenes (including a private jet in freefall, of course), and a love of his more-than-capable cast (Melissa McCarthy, too often relegated to falling down, shines as an acerbic and assertive presence here). Filling the shoes of 007-styled secret agents are Jude Law (a great and fitting blend of smarm and charm) and Jason Statham (who delivers a wonderfully self-aware parody of his one-note action persona), with Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) showing range as a foul-mouthed femme fatale. The production overall doesn’t approach the tedium and self-indulgence of a Judd Apatow-directed comedy (I shudder to think of the slog Trainwreck is bound to be), but there are some sequences that could have been trimmed in an attempt to bring the film in at a more palatable run time (at two full hours, even the best comedies start to get a little wearisome); while Feig’s comedic instincts are spot-on, a little less improvisation and a little more control would have put Spy in closer company with the likes of Bridesmaids and The Heat. Still, you’re not likely to see a funnier comedy this year, so have at it.

7.5 out of 10

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Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi820751897?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_18
 
 
 
Getting Away with Murder (1996)

[91 minutes. R. Director: Harvey Miller]

For a movie that deals with a hand-wringing liberal college ethics professor (Dan Aykroyd) who, outraged by the recently-outed Nazi war criminal (Jack Lemmon) living next door, decides to kill the old buzzard, Getting Away with Murder lacks any sort of satiric or comedic edge. There’s an off-chance that Mel Brooks – never one to shy away from the Holocaust – could have made something of this story during the taboo-breaking 1970s…but even that seems doubtful. There’s a reason nobody knows who the hell writer-director Harvey Miller is today, and that’s probably because he staged Murder with the vanilla writing and clumsy structure of a prime-time sitcom (instead of using the suburban setting to darken the humor, it serves only to provide a surface-level relatability to the viewer - you live here too, right?). There are some dated cameos from the likes of The McLaughlin Group and now-retired CNN anchors (remember Bernard Shaw?), which come across as another bit of desperation in lending the film a “social commentary” badge it doesn’t earn. Overall, it is a muddle of tone and message – with the suggestion that Lemmon’s Nazi may not have been a Nazi at all – and winds up being about not much of anything. Aykroyd overplays his nebbish-turned-killer role, and Miller damns him to reciting droning, endless voice-over narration that often states the obvious; Lily Tomlin is left with a catalog of steely looks and mannerisms; and Bonnie Hunt, while typecast in the role of Aykroyd’s pure-as-driven-snow love interest, still manages to bring some faint traces of humanity to this corpselike production. That such serious subject matter wasn’t used to provoke a biting, pitch-dark comedy about the nature of media, history, the legal system, and how systems of higher education process it all, is more appalling than anything contained within the pedestrian Getting Away with Murder. Hell, your average episode of Home Improvement had more comedic daring than this.

2 out of 10

Trailer (the sync is off, but who cares?): http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi2930311449?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_1

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Scarface (1983)

[170 minutes. R. Director: Brian De Palma]

Scarface is really long. Why did it have to be so long? Part of me thinks it didn’t have to be so long. It’s not a bad movie, not at all, but its distended narrative – with Oliver Stone’s screenplay aiming for the excesses of social commentary, familial tragedy, peer loyalty, and chainsaw dismemberment – has a fragmented feel that makes me wonder how its intentions could have been achieved without that final hour. Scarface is long, but it’s also never really boring. Tony Montana (Al Pacino at his sleaziest) is a Cuban refugee who comes to America; from the opening scene, in which he is interrogated by immigration, it is clear that he believes in the type of mixed-message wish-fulfillment meted out by the likes of classic gangster flicks featuring James Cagney and the like. Alongside his friend, Manny (Steven Bauer), Tony ingratiates himself into the drug trade, becoming a cocaine kingpin as he systematically eliminates the competition. While Scarface’s place in the fabric of pop culture is all but assured by some classic one-liners, its aforementioned violence, and Pacino’s tour-de-force performance, certain elements have not aged well: Giorgio Moroder’s overbearing synth score hammers down anger and “ironic” celebration in a film that already wears its excesses on its bloodstained sleeve; similarly, Stone’s screenplay bends toward the type of heavy-handed moralizing (and sermonizing) that would inform his later historical biopics, with characters giving speeches on the psychological modus operandi of why they do what they do; as the most prominent female in the supporting cast, a young Michelle Pfeiffer seems to inhabit obligatory space as a mob wife, perpetually dissatisfied with her lot in life (as Tony’s sister, the more complex performance is provided by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio); and, while the recurring visual motif of palm trees against neon sunsets is well-taken as a symbol of “the sun setting” on Tony’s empire, it’s the type of thing more at home in a Miami Vice episode. The influence on the likes of Tarantino and other ‘90s filmmakers is glaringly obvious, and one can’t deny De Palma’s assured handling of this pulp epic; while there are passages that gorge themselves on complex tracking shots and tricky blocking, the style never exists solely for its own sake. Insofar as allegories about greed are concerned, Scarface is far from subtle, but casts its own bad, alluring spell – it captures the paradoxical excitement and dread of taking a wallow in the muck with some very scary characters on their own rollercoaster ride to hell.

7.5 out of 10

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pQQHnqBa2E

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The Scribbler (2014)

[90 minutes. R. Director: John Suits]

The Scribbler is cut from the same sort of crazy cloth as Zack Snyder’s much-maligned Sucker Punch. Both films center around a group of girls confined to an asylum, the sacrifices they make in the name of escape (literal and figurative), and the liberation of their true selves. While Snyder had a $100 million budget and major studio backing, director John Suits has a considerably more challenging task: creating a moody cyberpunk thriller on a shoestring budget that hinges on a protagonist who isn’t always likable. Working from a script by Dan Schaffer (who created the comic on which the film is based), The Scribbler makes a virtue of minimalist sets (the halfway-house high-rise resembles “Peach Trees” from Dredd), an eclectic cast of characters, and some admirable conceptual daring. Our hero, Suki (Katie Cassidy - The Lost) is admitted to said halfway house to contend with her multiple personalities; aided by former lover Hogan (Garret Dillahunt - The Last House on the Left), she becomes obsessed with a machine that supposedly “burns” the excess personalities out of their owner. Suki’s one pervasive personality, known as “the scribbler,” may make her capable of superhuman feats. The film takes an interesting stance – or lack thereof –when it comes to its appraisal of psychiatry and treatment; neither Dr. Sinclair (Billy Campbell) nor “the Siamese Burn” are presented as particularly evil, and, indeed, carry their own moral ambiguities that enrich the film overall. There is an undeniable human element that shines through the prurient thrills of a naked Ashlynn Yennie (The Human Centipede) or a comic-relief talking dog, and Suits handles the action with as much craft as his budget will allow. Granted, there are moments of sketchy CGI, but the overall mantra is one of minimalism, and most of the sci-fi mood is relegated to images of old-school consumer-grade electronics amalgamated into some bizarre mutation, and some ethereal lighting effects. While The Scribbler is most interesting when it flirts around the edges of dissociative disorder, the murder mystery that develops midway through comes across as a not altogether successful attempt to push the film toward traditional narrative storytelling, which seems at odds with the casual, free-form mood Suits establishes so well. In any event, the delirium of The Scribbler is infectious, and the performances are wonderfully diverse, capturing notes of humor and pathos with tricky balance. Through the strong ensemble, an unrecognizable Cassidy shines, full of snarky witticisms and go-fuck-yourself attitude, but not forgetting the humanity beneath – she’s exactly like a Gregg Araki heroine who got waylaid on the wrong side of Blade Runner (and that’s a high goddamn compliment).

7 out of 10

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Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3847466009?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_1
 
 
05 January 2016 @ 09:51 am
The Imitation Game (2014)

[114 minutes. PG-13. Director: Morten Tyldum]

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a genius. He developed a code-cracking machine during World War II. Said code-cracking machine ultimately helped the Allies win the war. This machine also became the template for modern computer technology. Turing was also quirky. And homosexual. If this sounds like a grade-school history report of surface-level traits and themes, that’s because The Imitation Game, while slickly produced and well-executed overall, has no unique spark of depth or originality. One could blame the Weinstein Company for post-production tinkering (as is their wont), but the film is so superficially calibrated for awards-season recognition that it is hard to see its efforts as anything but a plea for Oscar gold. The film deals in several overlapping storylines: Turing hired by the British military to decode intercepted Nazi messages during World War II; Turing as a schoolboy, where he develops romantic feelings for his lone friend; and Turing hauled in by police for indecent conduct years later, wherein he confesses his history to a sympathetic policeman (a trite framing device given no new spin here). While Cumberbatch imbues Turing with as much antisocial genius as possible, his periodic, Spock-like one-liners feel out of place – moments of mandated levity within a Prestige Picture that knows all its predetermined beats. For instance, Turing’s standoffish, loner ways alienate his fellow codebreakers at first, only for a pep-talk from fellow genius Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) to help him turn a corner; unfortunately, even the representation of women during this era lacks depth and insight. The rest of the supporting cast is buffered by familiar faces in familiar roles (Charles Dance as a military commander; Mark Strong as a member of British intelligence; Matthew Goode as the Alpha member of Turing’s team), and the performances overall shine, despite Graham Moore’s treacly screenplay and Morten Tyldum’s overtly sentimental direction. The slick, stylized archival footage of horrors-of-war violence carries a distancing effect, perhaps intended as a reflection on Turing’s own distance from human emotion, but who can say for certain? Metaphors bubble to the surface, but most are muddled (the cold detachment of technology as a parallel to Turing’s seeming emotional detachment; a man’s passion for technology being a corollary for his passion for men?). In the end, the adherence to biopic convention is the real imitation game within The Imitation Game.

5 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi969255961?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_3

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Zombeavers (2014)

[85 minutes. R. Director: Jordan Rubin]

Recently, I made known my disappointment in WolfCop, the retro-flavored werewolf flick that had a decent premise, but lacked innovation in plot and execution. Creature features have always been a dime a dozen among low-budget filmmakers looking to turn over a quick buck, often utilizing subpar effects and ancient clichés (dumb characters; phones that don’t work; a fixation on said dumb characters getting laid at the most inconvenient of times) to make points we’ve witnessed too often, and done better. Enter Zombeavers, a one-note joke that should be nowhere near as good as it is. This is a film that transcends guilty-pleasure gross-out territory of the Troma sort to become a genuinely effective horror-comedy. While watching, I found myself speculating on what makes a film like this succeed, and concluded that, because everyone involved treats the silly premise seriously, a non-forced humor emerges organically from the proceedings. And while the notion of zombified beavers (whose existence is owed to a Cabin Fever-style act of truck-driver incompetence) is indeed as silly as it sounds, director Jordan Rubin (who co-wrote the script with Al and Jon Kaplan) doesn’t let the film succumb to out-and-out cheese. In our postmodern era, where anything that’s come before is fair game for recycling for maximum ironic value, filmmakers lose sight of substance and trap themselves in a “future cult classic” mentality that rarely yields endearing art. That’s right – I just aligned Zombeavers with the loaded qualifiers “endearing” and “art.” At its core, it is the tried-and-true tale of a trio of college girls (bookish, bespectacled Mary (Rachel Melvin); trampy Zoe (Cortney Palm); and recently heartbroken Jenn (Lexi Atkins) looking for a weekend with nature, only for nature to bite back. The dialog is crass, clever, pun-friendly, and frequently hilarious, perfectly complementing the B-movie scenario. What makes the film memorably successful, however, is the attention to character detail – yes, we are dealing with stereotypes, but their motives and personalities are fully formed, and the body count unravels in a refreshingly unpredictable manner. The titular characters are marvels of practical FX, and are presented in such an authentically menacing manner that you laugh from the absurdity – and shock – of it all. While the pace starts to sag at the midpoint, as far as Night of the Living Dead imitators are concerned, Zombeavers is an engaging and quirky treat.

7 out of 10

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Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi838249241?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_2
 
 
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

[141 minutes. PG-13. Director: Joss Whedon]

X-Men: Days of Future Past did it, but The Avengers beat it to the punch: a grand summit of comic-book franchises (er, heroes) gathered within the capacity of one tentpole (upon tentpole) summer blockbuster. The charms of the original Avengers came down to its frenetic yet coherent action, the well-drawn characters (each given their fair share of function and screen time), the dizzying FX, and the quirky crackle of writer-director Joss Whedon’s dialog. Whedon and his supergroup returns for Age of Ultron, a sequel that meets expectations, but is afflicted by some of the same problems found in the original. To dispense with the disappointments: the climactic action hinges on the same absurd levels of city-flattening destruction, and it is here where Whedon seems to lose his grip on the otherwise (mostly, anyway) coherent action sequences. Similarly, said city-flattening destruction seems to stem from a desire to give the moviegoer maximum bang for their buck – but the approach becomes “more as less” as the annihilation of an army of mechanized terminators, by default, doesn’t translate into great variety (though the action is edited in interesting ways). Also, some of the sci-fi and comic-book “science” comes across as muddled, especially in regard to the treatment of artificial intelligence (that’s a quibble, considering this year’s Ex Machina is the serious-minded, minimalist meditation on the subject). And while the film opens in the midst of action so absurdly cut and choreographed that it could very well be the PS4 parody of itself, Whedon actually seems to be in on the joke. I was concerned that the novelty of seeing this Rat Pack of superheroes united once more for another round of do-gooding and cash-grabbing, would have worn off, but the gathering maintains its appeal quite well. By now, there is a lived-in familiarity to the characters that enriches the actual story (Tony Stark’s snarky quips; Bruce Banner’s juxtaposition of the sincere and savage; Steve Rogers’s patriotic anachronism), when the film could just as easily have gone down a more derivative, jaded path. Occupying an abstract concept and a Terminator body, James Spader lends his formidable voice to Ultron, a force with ambitions of leveling humanity to make way for a new era. While the story is mostly sci-fi boilerplate (and not overly removed from previous Marvel outings, save for scale), Whedon and his cast recognize the potential genre pitfalls and embrace creativity amid the clichés. It goes on for too long, but it’s still a lot of fun.

7.5 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1942859545?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_11

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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

[120 minutes. R. Director: George Miller]

Considering the disappointment of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, one could view Mad Max: Fury Road as a decades-in-the-making act of atonement from series creator George Miller. Was Thunderdome a terrible film? Hardly. But it evidenced such a departure and downswing in quality from its predecessors that one couldn’t help but be disappointed by the end result, which skewed toward a more family-friendly demographic in story (shades of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and execution (the once-gritty violence bordered on slapstick). Fury Road is a return to form as vital and energizing as 1981’s The Road Warrior, merging old-fashioned stunts and car chases with contemporary CGI, to surprisingly seamless effect. As ever, the film follows rugged loner Max (Tom Hardy, inhabiting Mel Gibson’s boots exceedingly well), plagued by PTSD from the family he couldn’t save (curiously, his son has been replaced by a little girl), as he falls into the clutches of a blood-harvesting albino cult, led by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne – who, in a nice bit of synchronicity, played Toecutter in the original Mad Max). When Joe’s imperator, Furiosa (Charlize Theron) goes off-route with a fuel rig, the ruler gives chase. Going into detail about this betrayal would give much of the plot away, and besides, so much of Fury Road is best experienced cold that mere description would do it a disservice. I will say this: water has replaced gasoline as the hottest post-apocalyptic commodity; and in this future, the real threat to dictatorial rule is matriarchal rebellion. The backlash from insecure men’s groups regarding the prominent role of women in this new Mad Max is ridiculous: if anything, it shows another bit of atonement – and evolution – on Miller’s part, as the previous films – save for Tina Turner’s empress in Thunderdome - have given the fairer sex short shrift. (How refreshing that Furiosa – who holds her own, and then some, against Max – is so strong a character that one could easily see a series continuation with her as the protagonist.) Above all else, Fury Road continues the tradition of what this series does best: the balletic choreography of off-road chases and extravagant vehicular destruction; while the film has its share of quiet, character-driven (pun intended) interludes, the action is as intricate and rollercoaster-frantic as ever. It may be a REVERSE SPOILER, but that apocalyptic dust storm that figures prominently into the trailer? That happens early in the film, to give an indication of the all-out craziness to follow. Also admirable is the attention to cohesion in the editing – this has always been Miller’s forte in guaranteeing palpable tension during his action scenes, but the fact that there is so little cheating pulls the spotlight further from the incoherent, migraine-inducing action garbage of the Michael Bay school. What’s more, the violence in Fury Road whips by at a fevered pitch, resisting the urge to gratuitously dwell on excess bloodshed (or Zack Snyder-styled slow-mo, for that matter) – every injury, every death, is displayed with purpose and, ultimately, humanity. There are also bits of satire that I enjoyed: a neighboring general (Richard Carter), who wears an ayatollah-style headdress made out of bullets; and the Benz-driving accountant (John Howard) who keeps a running tally of line-item losses; and the suspension-work guitar player (Iota) who leads Joe’s army into battle is an appropriate update of the Civil War marching band.

8 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3174411289?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_8

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Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

[115 minutes. PG-13. Director: Elizabeth Banks]

Rebel Wilson is still a comedy goddess who all but walks away with the movie. Anna Kendrick is still the most adorable rebel you’ll see in a movie of this stripe. And Pitch Perfect 2 is an unnecessary sequel that’s actually much better than expected. Despite my innate disdain for pop music, there was an undeniably infectious energy (hey, not unlike pop music!) to the original Pitch Perfect, as it told the tale of a floundering college female acapella group rejuvenated by Kendrick’s raccoon-eyed, take-charge loner. It was derivative, for sure (a hybrid outcast-underdog-musical), and crawled on for too long, but covered familiar territory well, with spirited performances and interludes that used song as an extension of characters’ emotions and mentalities, not simply pushing product (most of which had already been consumed by its audience). While the sequel reunites the original cast and adds some fresh blood (True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld), the plot is nothing new: the Bellas are approaching graduation, and Kendrick finds herself at the crossroads of being true to the group and striking out on her own as a musician; there is a camping retreat wherein the young ladies try to re-connect; and the film is capped with an apocalyptic, world-championship sing-off. (Like I said, nothing new here.) However, under Elizabeth Banks’s direction, Pitch Perfect 2 is imbued with an energy and sardonic wit that carries the day; unlikely supporting characters are given extra dimension and well-rounded arcs; and the comedy is frequently hysterical. Take, for instance: a queening-it-up David Cross as a billionaire who hosts a gathering of acapella singers, holding a competition for a Dave and Buster’s gift card – the sequence is a definite plot detour, but I didn’t mind because it was so hilarious. The criticisms leveled against the music industry and hipsters are also well taken, if contradictory (any ambitions toward ‘art’ aside, the film exists to fuel CD and iTunes sales); and – in a refreshing change of pace – the Bellas embrace original material for the first time, using it as a metaphor for the end of an era (is the song cheesy? Sure. But I give it credit on principle).

7 out of 10

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Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi4034440729?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_20
 
 
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

[107 minutes. PG-13. Directors: George Miller & George Ogilvie]

For all its faults and head-scratching decisions, one accusation you cannot level against Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is its title. It’s not Mad Max Inside Thunderdome or simply Mad Max: Thunderdome. It’s an odd bait-and-switch, as the inclusion of the mysterious-and-cool-sounding Thunderdome in the title sets up viewer expectation for the inevitable coolness to come. It’s what happens after Thunderdome…and I just wish what happened after Thunderdome was more interesting. While this film depicts co-writer and co-director George Miller at the arguable peak of his cinematic prowess (as of this writing, I haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road), with fluid, flowing action sequences and a grand-scale budget evidenced in every grandiose sequence, there is also a certain defanged feel to the proceedings. One part of this is the downgrade from an R rating to a more mass-appeal PG-13. While this rating has come to symbolize watered-down thrills among hardcore genre fans (similar animosity met the actually-quite-good Live Free or Die Hard upon its release), it is actually appropriate here – whether by coincidence or design, the plot is a gloss on the previous year’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which pushed the parameters of the PG rating. Outside of the opening action in Bartertown (presided over by Tina Turner, and home of Thunderdome), the story doesn’t really center on Max (Mel Gibson, as martyr-like as ever), but a tribe of feral children cleaving to the notion that a pilot by the name of “Captain Walker” will deliver them across the desert and into the Promised Land. That’s right – somewhere after the promising first quarter, rife with deadpan humor and freaky characters (MasterBlaster being one of the best in the whole goddamned series), the film becomes Mad Max of the Flies. Mad Max of Arabia. Mad Max and the Temple of Doom. It bears noting that Gibson, prone to fleeting moments of tenderness in the previous films (his “gift” of the music box to The Kid in The Road Warrior is a perfect example), has been transformed into a more cuddly presence here, to the point where a more honest title (yes, more honest than the one it currently possesses) would be Disgruntled Max Beyond Thunderdome. While Gibson and the rest of the cast have a ball with the material, the film overall suffers from muddled intentions: it feels like 3 separate movies stitched together as one, which is unfortunate, as the initial Bartertown plot could have been easily expanded to feature length. By the time the tricked-out dunebuggies are racing across the Outback in the last act, it’s exciting, sure – but also obligatory and strangely anticlimactic (and the less said about the played-for-slapstick violence, the better). In sum, Thunderdome is an entertaining ride, and actually a decent film; just one that suffers in comparison to its predecessors.

6.5 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi2442592537?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_1

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Poker Night (2014)

[104 minutes. Unrated. Director: Greg Francis]

Poker Night plays with preconceived notions in an impressive way, and is the rare film that actually works beneath the weight of its persistent plot twists. Instead of delivering hollow, implausible thrills that don’t hold up to scrutiny after the credits have rolled (and, granted, it still has its moments of valid disbelief), its story – despite how frantically it’s assembled – is a thing of clean-burning and consistent surprise. It’s not entirely successful – there are some queasy jumps in tone that attempt to play up some dark comedy, to fittingly ill effect; and the killer’s reptilian mask draws unfortunate comparison to that inferior Saw knock-off, The Collector. But there is an admirable intricacy to the storytelling, which uses the titular event as a framing device (the film could have easily gone into call-and-response anthology territory): a group of veteran cops (including Ron Perlman, Giancarlo Esposito, and Titus Welliver, among others) and a hotshot newbie (Beau Mirchoff) gather to play cards and tell war stories, in hope of imparting wisdom to the fresh-faced rookie. Instead of employing younger actors to portray the older men in the storytelling flashbacks, writer-director Greg Francis cleverly places Mirchoff in their shoes, literally gaining wisdom through their recollections. The plot bobs and weaves recklessly between past, present, and future, and the effect is more jarring than in Pulp Fiction (or any number of Tarantino clones), and while the most obvious point of aesthetic and narrative comparison might be the Saw films, Poker Night’s attention to character, story, and theme places it closer (still distant, but closer) to David Fincher’s gritty, downbeat serial-killer classic, Seven. Just when you think the film might be veering into predictability, Francis blindsides you with another – and, in most cases, sensible – twist. The acting is uniformly excellent, with character-actor types like Perlman (Drive) and Esposito (The Usual Suspects) assimilating to their jaded, world-weary characters with effortless ease. While Mirchoff’s voice-over narration might boom over the soundtrack with a bit too much on-the-nose commentary, the confident authority exuded by it does serve an ultimate purpose. Poker Night is a hybrid horror-thriller sleeper that, despite its flaws, shows considerable ingenuity and creativity on a low budget. It also bears noting that Brandon Cox’s cinematography – a juxtaposition of darkness, grit, static shots, and handheld – goes a long way toward creating a sense of dread.

7 out of 10

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Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/hulu/vi2381296153?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_2
 
 
Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

[126 minutes. R. Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson]

E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey signified many things, none of them promising for the future of the arts in Western Civilization: horribly written, it exemplified a new breed of daydream-fulfillment erotica for lonely, unfulfilled housewives all across America. It’s the type of illiterate dreck designed to appeal to people who view reading as a chore, and consider soap operas ‘high art.’ I only read passages of the first book, but found I couldn’t make it far without breaking out in fits of laughter over the sheer ineptitude of the telling. All that being said, I greeted the film adaptation with optimism – literature and movies make for strange bedfellows in the transition from page to screen, and scripter Kelly Marcel has strategically excised the worst (which might be redundant) of James’s prose, and director Sam Taylor-Johnson utilizes a slick, mainstream-elegant gloss that almost makes you forget you’re watching an adaptation of a particularly trashy romance novel. While there are numerous laughable moments (some intentional, some not), Grey is rarely boring – for two hours, we follow the relationship between meek, virginal college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who, by happenstance, draws the creepily leering eye of young billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), whose idea of romance involves spanking and bondage. There are certain narrative flaws that Marcel and Taylor-Johnson can’t conceal: the initial meeting between Anastasia and Christian is the type of meet-cute bullshit that never happens outside of movies; and for the exhaustive amount of screen time Johnson and Dornan share, we never get a feel for their characters outside of their surface attributes (why does Christian fall for Anastasia right out the gate? It’s anyone’s guess), to the point where certain late-occurring plot developments seem bafflingly obtuse (and not by design). Too bad, also, that certain top-billed actors are inexplicably shunted to the periphery throughout. The best aspect of this adaptation is Johnson’s performance as Anastasia – while still naïve, she’s nowhere near as daft as her printed counterpart, largely due to the (wise, wise) excision of her godawful interior monologue. Dornan, meanwhile, is given the unenviable task of providing presence to an ultimately shallow enigma: it is revealed that (SPOILER!) he lost his virginity to an older woman, was born of a crack-whore mother (one of the film’s unintentionally hilarious moments), and “like[s] to fuck – hard.” There are times when the actor appears to be in on the joke, which almost solidifies his status as a descendant of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman (it’s no coincidence that Bret Easton Ellis once expressed interest in adapting Grey). But, needless to say, the film never really gains enough momentum to take flight – the sex scenes, while plentiful and nudity-friendly, are art-directed to the point of sterility and boredom…which probably wasn’t the intent.

4.5 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi3809259289?ref_=ttvi_vi_imdb_10

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[REC] 4: Apocalypse (2014)

[95 minutes. R. Director: Jaume Balaguero]

In the grand scheme of things, [REC] 3: Genesis wasn’t considered misbegotten because it was a terrible film per se; had it gone under a different title, it might have pushed its ultimate reception into a more favorable light. But the fact that it presented itself as a continuation of the mostly-successful Spanish [REC] series – a series that, up to that point, had done a good job of taking its genre standing seriously – and spiraled off into ridiculous, Peter Jackson-styled extremes, made the association less forgivable (even more so in that it abandoned the series’ found-footage conceit after 15 minutes). While the latest installment attempts to restore the series’ quality standard, it is only partially successful. Juame Balaguero returns to the director’s chair, and, if nothing else, [REC] 4 is a film marked by its fast pace and ultra-slick visual palate. Maintaining synchronicity with the previous installments, survivors from each (including the welcome return of Manuela Velasco) find themselves on board a freighter populated by an armed security force and scientists investigating the root cause of the virus. The film establishes a sense of isolation in the early going, something made palpably worse when the virus spreads to the passengers and crew. In this regard, [REC] 4 draws favorable comparisons to George Romero’s Day of the Dead, wherein civilians, military, and scientists clash over a solution to the zombie outbreak. Similarly, Balaguero (and co-writer Manu Diez) approaches the scientific side with admirable interest in the early going, to the point where one wouldn’t be unjustified in expecting a side dish of intelligence to accompany the inevitable onslaught of gore. The acting is top-notch, with most characters developed past a single dimension, leading us to genuinely care about their fates. Unfortunately, what begins with promise takes a downward spiral into the excesses of [REC] 3 (if that film ripped off Evil Dead 2, this one uses From Dusk Till Dawn for its gore template), some Kingdom of the Crystal Skull silliness with infected monkeys, and sour narrative twisting that plays the “guess who’s really playing host?” card. At around the midpoint, when all hell breaks loose proper, the film effectively loses its interest in transcending the previous entry, falling back on the lazy horror standby of shooting your way out of a hopeless situation (and employing a convenient, timer-centric fail-safe to speed up the climactic action). [REC] 4, like all the other [REC]s, is watchable, to be sure, but the greatness in the first half that goes unfulfilled by the second is enough to qualify it as yet another series disappointment.

5 out of 10

Trailer: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi481930777

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The Road Warrior (1981)

[95 minutes. R. Director: George Miller]

Never let it be said that George Miller doesn’t like and respect animals: The Road Warrior features glimpses of chickens, rabbits, and pigs (in a foreshadow of 1995’s timeless Babe, which he co-scripted); and our hero, Max (Mel Gibson, as unflappable as ever), is accompanied by a loyal hound on his nihilistic quest across the post-apocalyptic wasteland of the Australian Outback. If the story calls for the death of an animal, said death is presented with great empathy and respect. Why am I talking about the role of animals in an unabashed action movie, you might be asking? Well, because in the cinema of George Miller, there is something gloriously poetic about the deceptive minimalism of his plots, to the point where – while there is indeed much to dissect and discuss – the primary objective, as a viewer, becomes the aesthetic thrill of practical, stunt-driven spectacle. In other words, I just want to toss out phrases like “kick ass,” “adrenalin rush,” and “frenetic as hell.” Picking up some time after the original Mad Max left off, Max has become a wanderer of few words, marked by a swatch of gray hair and a seeming lack of purpose (outside of keeping his tricked-out car fueled). In his travels, he meets with the oddball Gyro Pilot (Bruce Spence, who provides most of the comic relief), runs afoul of a savage gang led by The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson, sporting a precursor to Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask) and Wez (Vernon Welles), and finds an objective within a commune of benevolent survivors looking to transport a cache of fuel. As with the original film, the characters are colorful, the compositions stunning, and the action a clean-burning model of kinetic efficiency (the chase scenes maintain intensity by being, above all things, coherent). The Road Warrior also serves as a prophetic precursor to a world fixated on the independence that automobile travel brings, and the “juice” needed to maintain that independence. But, really, it’s one of the most thrilling action films ever made (exceeding even its predecessor), which is why you should watch it if you haven’t already.

8 out of 10

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Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gdv5EtZQ6jg