Wednesday, January 24, 2018



Part of the Sundance NEXT programming, Skate Kitchen is the feature debut of writer/director Crystal Moselle. This tale of a suburban Long Island teenager's descent into New York City's gritty street skateboarding culture poses a stronger first half than second half, with some important character arcs left either unresolved or unrealistically fulfilled. Boasting evocative cinematography, a bass-busting soundtrack, and strong performances, Skate Kitchen is something of an oddball. As a piece of visual storytelling, it's great. As a feature-length story, it doesn't quite work.


Riding the coattails of Stranger Things and the recent success of the It remake, directors Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell (collectively known as "Roadkill Superstar") return to Sundance with a horror-comedy that stands out from its ilk by going all-in on the horror in its final moments. Typically seen in more comedic supporting roles, Rich Sommer (Mad Men, The Devil Wears Prada) emerges with a positively bone-chilling performance that culminates in some of the most genuinely terrifying work this reviewer has ever seen from a horror movie villain. I'm squirming just thinking about it! A cranking synth score from French-Canadian electronic duo Le Matos, assured performances from the young cast, and production design that feels more like a lived-in 1980s than a world focused on chitzy, kitchen-sink pastiche all but solidify Summer of  '84's place as a worthy successor to the cult favorites it so obviously admires. Fans of Turbo Kid are in for another treat! Can't wait to see it again.


American Animals is the dramatic feature debut of documentarian Bart Layton (The Imposter). It follows the true story of four college kids (Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson) who plot to steal some rare books from the private collection in the library at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. The strong performances and production values aren't what make this comedy-drama stand out. American Animals is different because of its approach to the storytelling. The bulk of the film is told via the dramatization starring Peters, Keoghan, etc. But Layton leans into his sensibilities as a documentary filmmaker by interviewing the actual perpetrators and using them to punctuate the acted drama. It works surprisingly well. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018



Starring Kristen Stewart (donning a spotty Irish brogue) and Chloe Sevigny in a career-best performance as Lizzie Borden, this psychological horror drama presents the events leading up to the famous 1892 ax murders in Fall River, Massachusetts. While the film leaves little doubt as to who the culprit is, history tells us that Lizzie Borden was never found guilty for her crimes and that a suspect was never brought to justice. Seemingly right up the alley of a horror nut like me, LIZZIE didn't do much for me apart from Sevigny's marvelous performance and a nice, nasty dose of gore in the third act. I found the direction relatively void of passion and the drama to lack any real urgency until the last 30-45 minutes.


This one's a bit hard to describe. Andrea Riseborough gives a career-defining performance in the title role as a woman who often deceives others in order to feel some emotional connection to someone or something. She begins to suspect that she may have been kidnapped as a young child. Following the death of her harsh adoptive mother (Ann Dowd), Nancy reaches out to a grieving couple (Steve Buscemi, J. Smith-Cameron) whose daughter was kidnapped thirty years prior. Drama ensues. 
Gorgeously photographed, and arguably the best acted piece I've seen so far this festival, NANCY is a standout despite its bleak nature. 


Good Lord. Lakeith Stanfield stars as young, hotshot telemarketer Cassius Green. He lives with his artist girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) in an alternate version of Oakland, California. Cassius quickly discovers a key to success which propels him into a deliriously macabre plot orchestrated by a cocaine-snorting, orgy-hosting CEO (Armie Hammer). And that, dear reader, is all you need to know. Ask no questions; just see the shit out of it. 


This horror-comedy tailor-made for the midnight munchies crowd stars Rosemarie DeWitt as Cassie, a real estate agent outside of Phoenix who finds her world crumbling during the housing crisis of the late 2000s. When she witnesses an accidental murder, Cassie faces a series of ensuing events that threaten her life and that of her teenage daughter (Lolli Sorensen). Starring Danny McBride as the increasingly desperate Sonny and Luke Wilson as Cassie's concerned ex-husband, ARIZONA is a frequently hilarious midnight romp with some surprisingly effective shocks. Developed over the course of nearly a decade by McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green, ARIZONA instills a bit of confidence that the upcoming HALLOWEEN flick may in fact be in perfectly capable hands. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

SUNDANCE FILM FEST 2018 - "This Is Home" & "Hearts Beat Loud"


This Is Home: A Refugee Story is an effectively emotional documentary from filmmaker Alexandra Shiva (How to Dance In Ohio). It follows four Syrian refugee families as they struggle to assimilate into their new American life in Baltimore, Maryland. Stakes are high as Shiva presents us with an intimate portrait of normal folks with the same problems as the rest of us that the American media would traditionally have you living in fear of. Not the most entertaining or engaging doc but a gravely important and human one. Worth a look.


Director Brett Haley's stellar musical-dramedy Hearts Beat Loud features stellar lead performances from Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons. This warm, frequently hysterical tale of love, loss, and melancholy is punctuated by some astounding original music from Keegan DeWitt. It's about a father (Offerman) and daughter (Clemons) who form an unlikely musical duo as college and the closure of the family record shop loom. Toni Collette, Sasha Lane, Ted Danson, and Blythe Danner round out the supporting ensemble. My favorite of the festival so far.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

SUNDANCE FILM FEST 2018 - VR Mobile Programs 1 & 4



This short featurette is like no other behind-the-scenes look you've ever seen. In it, the stop-motion characters of director Wes Anderson's next feature Isle of Dogs discuss their individual trials and tribulations of being dogs in an environment overrun with garbage. We see the scenes that the dogs inhabit as they exist within the sound stage that the film was made on. Swivel around in your chair, and you can see time lapse footage of the artists working tirelessly to make sure their scenes are set properly. Very cool. Isle of Dogs is definitely on my list!


One of the coolest short films I've ever seen, Dinner Party presents a unique spin on the true story of Betty and Barney Hill, who reported the first ever UFO abduction case in American history. The VR space is utilized best during the abduction scenes. Some mind-bending animation coupled with strong live-action performances from the lead actors make for a truly singular viewing experience.


This VR film from South Korea was a little tougher to wrap my head around. It's sort of in the horror space, but it's never quite clear what we're seeing. And this film doesn't utilize the VR technology as effectively as others. We see a group of people on a ferry with a shaman in the middle doing some sort of artistic performance before eventually stabbing a man on the boat to death. It's like watching a really odd stage play, and in the VR space, that's a fundamental problem. Not my favorite.


Actress Maria Bello produces and narrates this short documentary about the "Sun Ladies" - a unit of the Iraqi army comprised exclusively of women. This was a harrowing experience that puts you right on the ground in Kurdistan and later Iraq. With action occurring all around the viewer, this was arguably the most effective use of the VR technology in Program 1. 



This experimental film examines the motion and physics of two neighborhood boys playing cricket in their backyard. Fractured/stilted imagery and unique use of motion-capture animation technology draw the viewer in and keep you hooked. The film blends the sensibilities of Stan Brakhage and David Lynch to present an experience that is at once both awe-inspiring and terrifying. 


The first VR music video I've ever seen. Verdict: Pretty cool. Rapper Yung Jake rides around in his Tesla as he performs his song "On My Way" and introduces some interactive elements around the beginning, middle, and end. There is serious potential for lesser known artists to make noise with a music video shot for VR. 


Micro Giants is an animated short film from visual effects group Digital Domain. It shrinks the viewer down to the size of an insect and follows a handful of characters in nature as the food chain ascends. Digital Domain did a lot of really cool things with this one. Love it.


A silly short film that follows Mr. Chang (you, the viewer) in an alternate reality where his guardian "The Thunder God" attempts to help him/you sort out his/your life. A couple of genuinely hilarious moments (including a pair of Shining twin impersonators that are scarier than the actual twins from The Shining) ultimately don't amount to much. It's just okay. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

SUNDANCE FILM FEST 2018 - "Science Fair" and "RBG"


This charming, hilarious documentary from first-time filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster follows nine high school students from around the world as they assemble projects and navigate their way to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles. Costantini & Fosters' decision to highlight a diverse group of kids accentuates the importance of the sciences for our future as global citizens. The kids are all quirky characters - not exactly the quiet, dweeby-looking nerds from your uncle's high school days. Navigating high school and hormones while stressing out about competing makes for some truly hysterical moments, like when the three boys from DuPont Manual in Louisville fly to L.A. for the big competition the day after prom. Surely you can guess the state they're in. The documentary is also well-structured and builds to a climax that is all the more satisfying because it couldn't be staged. Very entertaining and well worth your time.


This documentary produced for CNN by directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West chronicles the life and work of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The film primarily focuses on Ginsburg's unparalleled work for womens' rights but draws engaging parallels to her now somewhat punk-rock reputation as "The Notorious R.B.G." Viewers should learn a lot and come to appreciate the struggles she faced while striving for laws which promote gender equality. The first great superhero film of 2018. If you miss it at Sundance, look for it airing on CNN later this year.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

"A Monster Calls" Review

The writer and his thoughts

The critically-acclaimed fantasy novel A Monster Calls makes the vivid leap from page to screen courtesy of author/screenwriter Patrick Ness and visionary director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, the upcoming Jurassic World sequel). Coming-of-age drama and B-movie homages combine to create a "monster movie" unlike any this reviewer has seen before. 

A Monster Calls tells the story of young Connor (newcomer Lewis MacDougall) who has trouble coping with the deteriorating health of his mother (Felicity Jones). His struggle is amplified by school bullies, an overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), and a father (Toby Kebbell) who has been away for most of the boy's upbringing. Guiding Connor through his grief is a walking, talking yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) that looks an awful lot like some freakish evolved form of Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. The monster ultimately tries to convince Connor that the only way to move on is to "speak the truth" of his feelings. 

It's a bit difficult to tell who this film is trying to tell its story to. It's far too cerebral for families, yet most of its big ideas are communicated through gorgeous, "Disney-fied" animated sequences and characters. It's also not violent enough to satisfy the Comic-Con crowd. Having said that, the film makes several nods to B-movie classics such as King Kong and The Invisible Man. When "the Monster" first appears, the score (beautifully composed by Fernando Velasquez) builds to a crescendo that evokes the reveals of many a fearsome Ray Harryhausen beast. Also, both King Kong and The Invisible Man represent crucial motifs that define Connor's grief. Kong and "the Monster" are both literally larger-than-life "protectors," for lack of a better word, and H.G. Wells' character serves as an allegory for how Connor wishes to be perceived by his classmates. He's fed up with being "invisible" to everyone, even eventually to the school bullies. 

Another beautifully handled motif is that of "time." "The Monster" always arrives when the clock turns over to 12:07. Connor's grandmother has an old clock that she warns him not to touch because it always tells the correct time. Obviously all of this relates to Connor's mum and her worsening condition. Time is rapidly running out for Connor to, as he originally thinks, "save" her.

So, with its heart in seemingly several different places, and its emotions firmly on its sleeve, it would be safe to call this Monster a bit of a mess. But, in the end, that may be the whole point. The story constantly reminds us that life isn't, and shouldn't always be, squeaky clean. "If you feel the need to break things, then, by God, you break them," says Connor's tearful mum some time after the boy makes mincemeat of his grandmother's sitting room. Heck, the whole crux of the film is about overcoming everything we fear most. That's always tricky business. 


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My Day with Film (Wednesday, January 4th, 2017)

Wednesday 1/4/17

Dear Diary,

It's now two days after the fact, and I still haven't watched Happy Birthday to Me. I got caught up in yesterday's Blair Witch hysterics, so I ended up watching my begrudgingly purchased Blu-ray with the director's commentary that I had been looking forward to. I rather enjoyed it! Wingard and Barrett share something of an endearingly edgy mood since the film made no money at the box office and was critically reviled. They revealed a handful of secrets without sacrificing the film's entire mystique, which is actually pretty awesome.

Moreover, I didn't realize that Happy Birthday to Me was responsible for this scene:

I've seen this image before but never knew where it came from. I love it because not only is it a unique kill, but it also plays into everyone's latent fear of swallowing a toothpick. 

Or is that just me..?

Anyways, the big story that got my attention today was that Apple is planning a "Theatre Mode" for iPhones and iPads. I'm rather upset that this was pretty much the second or third headline I read this morning because I haven't been able to quit thinking about what an atrocious idea it is, and in turn, my day hasn't been up to snuff. Cell phone use in movie theaters has always irked me. If you can afford to spend your time at a movie, then there is no text message or godforsaken Twitter update so important that it should tear your attention away from the much larger screen in front of you. If an emergency should arise, it should come in the form of a phone call, at which time it is prudent to walk out of the auditorium before answering. If there truly is a text that's so crucial to you that you must take your phone out and risk ruining the experience for everyone else, likewise, take it out into the lobby. Also, the "Silent" and "Do Not Disturb" buttons are your friends. Learn to use them. Please don't be that person whose ringtone blares in the middle of an important scene. It's extremely embarrassing for you and painfully distracting for everyone else.

If Apple includes this feature, it sets another dangerous precedent for exhibitionists who have a tough time as it is trying to pry people away from their couches. This new feature attempts to normalize aberrant behavior that, by its very nature, devalues the theatrical experience. In all seriousness, why would I continue to drop $10-15 just to watch people with no attention span or respect for art or creativity use their phones for two hours? It truly is that distracting. I pray to the cinema gods that Cincinnati gets an Alamo Drafthouse, where they have a stringent zero-tolerance policy on phone use. Now I hate to be so harsh as to say "Take it outside, shut it off, or don't come at all" because I normally encourage everyone to see as many movies as possible regardless of how good or bad they are. But there is no place for cell phone use inside a movie theater while the film is playing. If you can afford to be there, you can afford to turn your phone off. 

Okay, rant over for now. I've got Happy Birthday to Me on finally. 

Until tomorrow,