Saturday, January 30, 2016

Sundance 2016 - "Green Room" Review

There seems to be a color pattern emerging in writer/director Jeremy Saulnier's body of work. Could the other colors of the rainbow be in each of his next films?

Saulnier follows up his magnificent, modern-day "Hatfields & McCoys" thriller Blue Ruin with Green Room, a white-knuckle siege thriller that will leave you gasping for air.

Green Room chronicles the ordeal of a punk rock band who, after witnessing a murder at a gig, are forced to sit tight in the venue's "green room." Seemingly trapped by the people responsible, the group fights to escape despite being hopelessly outmanned and outgunned.

Patrick Stewart plays Darcy, the owner of the venue and leader of the neo-Nazi group based there. He proves a formidable villain even though some of his dialogue could have been better written. It seems like most of the interactions between the bad guys rely on so much jargon that the motivations of Darcy and his disciples are never entirely clear.

Whatever character development may be lacking through dialogue, Saulnier makes up for in atmosphere. 85 percent of this movie is as tense and nerve-shredding as any of the best horror films from the past 10 years. We know these are nasty guys from the way Darcy sends them in to stalk and murder the trapped teens like a (pardon the simile) Cult of Thorn overlord commands Michael Myers. Even though some of these guys are really no more than disposable goons, Saulnier shoots them all like the horror-movie "big bads" that they are. This way, every scene has a sense of gravity and excitement that you normally don't expect for most movies like this.

Of course the tension boils over into Saulnier's trademark violence. Frequently shocking and unexpected, Saulnier's violence will make you either wince or cheer - sometimes all at once, as the most satisfying violent scenes in all of cinema do. The violence of Green Room also appears medically accurate. Wounds appear realistically based on the weapons used. There's a decent amount of blood, but this isn't Tarantino. I've always found this approach to violence to be the most cinematically visceral. I'm more traumatized by Saulnier's realistic approach than Tarantino's near-comical gore-fests or any movie released as part of the "torture porn" craze of the late 2000s. If the message of Green Room is either "violence begets violence" or "don't mess with desperate people," it lands loud and clear.

Performances are quite impressive from a star-studded cast including Stewart, Anton Yelchin (2009's Star Trek), Imogen Poots (2011's Fright Night), Alia Shawkat (TV's Arrested Development), Mark Webber (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and Macon Blair (Blue Ruin). Yelchin and Poots reunite for the first time since Fright Night, and their chemistry hasn't lost a step.

Green Room should be seen and enjoyed by anyone bored with how mundane most indie dramas really are. That's always been Saulnier's approach. It certainly served as a perfect shot-in-the-arm to end Sundance with. It's as taut as any of the big Hollywood-produced thrillers of the past several years. I can't wait to watch this one over and over.


Friday, January 29, 2016

Sundance 2016 - "Cemetery of Splendor" Review

Writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (let's just call him A.W.) burst onto the Sundance scene in 2010 with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival last may, he returns to Park City to share his latest feature, Cemetery of Splendor, with American audiences for the first time. After seeing this film, it is clear that A.W.'s subtle mastery of the cinematic language affords him the status of being one of the world's most exciting visual storytellers.

The story of Cemetery of Splendor involves a middle-aged housewife, and her wards, tasked with caring for a group of recovering soldiers. These men are nearly all in a coma-like slumber until one of them finally awakes, prompting our heroine on a journey through an Inception-like world where dreams and reality blur in a far more understated fashion.

The film's slow pace and Thai language may be off-putting for less discerning viewers, but rest assured that the deliberate nature with which A.W. approaches this story only reinforces the emotional impact of the images onscreen. This lends us more time to contemplate and accept this vivid "netherworld" which A.W. would have us believe exists within our own. For example, notice how the neon tubes seem to emerge from the ground near each soldier's bedside like glowing grave markers. These men aren't necessarily dead, but A.W. allows us to contemplate all sorts of alternatives without the use of dialogue in sections like this.

In fact, the film's most insightful, poignant moments come at times in which no words are spoken.

Cemetery of Splendor is a film rich with so much texture, both visually and emotionally, that it is impossible to fully digest after only one viewing. I expect it will have a long and healthy shelf life as it is studied, discussed and scrutinized as one of the 21st century's defining cinematic achievements.


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Sundance 2016 - "Antibirth" Review

Six years ago, writer/director Danny Perez brought his experimental music film Oddsac to the Sundance Film Festival. At that time, Perez promised the director of programming for the festival's "Midnight" section that he would eventually return with "the midnight movie to end them all." That's a bit overzealous. The film is too serious to match the giddy goofiness of Yoga Hosers, not gory enough to satisfy bloodlust the way 31 does, and just isn't as gloriously fucked up as The Greasy Strangler. That said, Antibirth may be the most artistically impressive of the midnight movies I've seen so far this week.

The film centers around Lou (Orange is the New Black's Natasha Lyonne), a hard-partying slacker who wakes up one morning with symptoms of a strange illness. All the while, talk of government conspiracies and alien experimentation permeate the background. Concerned that she may be pregnant, Lou attempts to ruin the kid by continuing her bender of bong hits, chain smoking and binge drinking. As we expect, those toxins in Lou's system mess her up pretty bad but what we don't expect is just how bad. And, man, it's pretty horrendous.

Perez showcases Lou's hallucinatory drug trips somewhat differently than what we've seen in film before. Rather than carry on for an entire scene with manipulated lens filters and shudder effects, Lou only hallucinates in "shards of time," as if the bong rips force her to remember, rather than forget, glimpses of how she became "pregnant."

Helping Lou piece together the mystery is her best friend Sadie (Chloe Sevigny). The chemistry between real-life pals Lyonne and Sevigny comes off natural, making it easier to sympathize and engage with the characters.

The cinematography from Rudolk Blahacek is also quite impressive. I love the way the film is lit, especially during the final 10 or so minutes. Blahacek's work also allows the special practical effects to shine for ultimate, slimy, gross-out impact.

If you can picture a less intelligent version of David Lynch's Eraserhead with the body horror of David Cronenberg, you'll have a good idea of what to expect from Antibirth. 


Monday, January 25, 2016

Sundance 2016 - "Certain Women" Review

Kelly Reichardt's new film Certain Women follows the stories of three different women as they struggle to blaze their own trails within their respective worlds.

The film is riddled with understated beauty from the direction to the cinematography to the performances. My favorite storyline follows Laura Dern as a lawyer struggling to get an emotionally unstable client (Jared Harris) the justice he may or may not deserve. Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, and Lily Gladstone all give magnificent performances as well.

I've written about a couple of other Sundance films being a bit too deliberately paced, but Certain Women takes the cake as the slowest of the bunch. Watching that in a pitch-dark room on three hours of sleep... you do the math.

For that reason, I need to see it again before bestowing a final letter grade. What I managed to catch, however, was visually beautiful and emotionally rich. Certain Women could well be Reichardt's masterpiece. See it.

Sundance 2016 - "Yoga Hosers" Review

Kevin Smith follows up Tusk with part two of his "True North" trilogy: Yoga Hosers. The Colleens (Lily-Rose Depp, Harley Quinn Smith) are sophomores in high school who love their smartphones, their band, and practicing yoga. They hate working at the Eh-2-Zed convenient store, Winnipeg's go-to shop for artisanal maple syrups. When their plans to attend a senior party backfire, the girls team up with bumbling "manhunter" Guy LaPointe (Johnny Depp) to destroy the evil lurking beneath the store.

Your tolerance for this kind of film depends on what you think of Canada jokes and late-period Kevin Smith. It's no secret that the guy loves his daughter and wanted to give her a fun vehicle for her first leading role, but the man was high as a kite when he wrote this script. That said, I was grinning ear to ear from start to finish. Maybe it was the margaritas beforehand, but I left wanting to watch the forthcoming part three, Moose Jaws, immediately.

Yoga Hosers is only slightly less messed up than Tusk, which made it easier to devour the nonstop manic hilarity this time. Clever quips, sight gags and cameos pick up the slack by the time we quit laughing at the millionth utterances of the long-O's in "oot," "aboot," and "sorey" (sic "sorry").

Perhaps both the younger Depp and the younger Smith need a project with more meat on it before we all start taking them seriously as rising stars, but they navigate this material like pros. They're perfect fits for the Colleens. The older Depp solidifies LaPointe as my favorite of his post-Captain Jack Sparrow characters. From the shifting moles to his occasionally cross-eyed glare, every nuance is hysterical. 

I don't trust the people who came out of Yoga Hosers thinking poorly about it. The older Smith, in his pot-addled state, miraculously managed to weave subtexts about chastity, feminism, and the flaws of Gen-Y into a colorfully original script. I promise you've never seen these subjects explored the way Yoga Hosers presents them.

Again, your enjoyment depends entirely on your suspension of disbelief and tolerance for Canada jokes. However, one should expect nothing less from this stage in Smith's career. Come prepared for an absurdist blast.


Sundance 2016 - "Brahman Naman" Review

Brahman Naman is an English-language feature from India by a director known only as "Q." The film serves as something of an indictment of the Indian caste system in the guise of a college sex comedy. The jokes don't always land, and for American audiences, the film lacks bite, but it could turn out to be quite controversial when it finally premieres in India.

Brahmans are a very conservative class of people, so to see their true lascivious nature here makes it feel like we're privy to events that we should not be seeing.

The story focuses on Naman (Shashank Arora) and the fruitless sex lives of he and his quiz teammates. As Naman aims his sights on Rita, a sexy upper-class girl, Ash, a fellow Brahman, vies for his affections. Through Naman's encounters with fellow Brahman and higher-class girls, we get a sense of how life in the caste system stifles their actions. Naman remains unsuccessful because he talks a big game, but when the clothes come off, he is too scared to seal the deal. Damn that conservative Brahman culture!

The film isn't always as raunchy or gut-bustingly hilarious as I expected, although I nearly fell out of my chair when Naman attempted to jerk off with a ceiling fan.

Yes, apparently that is a thing.

It's great that the film tries to value its message more than nonstop sex jokes. However, the impact of that message in the end feels somewhat limp (pun intended) despite an atypical "boy gets the girl" ending.

In a way, Brahman Naman is sort of like the Indian Superbad, but I couldn't help feeling unmoved by the time the credits rolled.


"Ctl+Alt+Delete" Review

Ctl+Alt+Delete is a new sci-fi thriller from writer/director James B. Cox which proves definitively that when a film has a strong story, confident direction and a team of passionate individuals working in front of and behind the camera, no budget is too small for big thrills.

The drama centers around Thule, a cyber-security conglomerate that decides to cut its losses by instituting M.A.N.A., an artificial intelligence to manage its data centers. One night, the Thule offices are overrun by a trio of hackers seeking to expose the valuable secrets stored in the data vaults. Sensing an attack, M.A.N.A. fights back and gives the villains (and the heroes, for that matter) more than they bargained for. What ensues is a high-stakes game where the good guys and bad guys join forces to fight a larger, potentially smarter threat.

You don't see that "joining of forces" too often anymore in genre film. What makes this dynamic between the characters even more fascinating is just how intimate it is. The film has a very claustrophobic feel to it which lends urgency and tension to the proceedings. Even if we aren't always aware of the far-reaching consequences of the data breach, the close-knit clash of ideals between the characters keeps things interesting.

The film doesn't take itself too seriously as Cox peppers some nicely-timed comedy throughout his script. The characters Jayhawk (Adam Shapiro) and Rafi (Josh Banday) are the lovable misfits at Thule who end up playing a huge role in the outcome of the story. Rafi is especially fun as a more likable Dennis Nedry-type character whether he's building "failsafe" security software or hitting on interns at the gym.

Lastly I'll mention how amazing the visual effects are for a film with a budget under $500,000. The makeup effects and CGI look very professional and thus chilling at all the right moments.

Ctl+Alt+Delete is a rollicking blend of comedy and tense, sci-fi drama that should play very well with the Comic-Con crowd. With such a high concept and such a low budget, Cox pulls off fresh, fun things with his first feature-length film. Keep it on your radar as the year goes on, and don't pass up a chance to see it.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

SLAMDANCE 2016 - "Neptune" Review

I lied.

I didn't think I'd return to Slamdance to watch anything else, but since I slept through my early morning screening of Captain Fantastic, I thought I'd tag along with my man Cody who was on his way to see Neptune.

Neptune is director Derek Kimball's first feature-length project. It's about Hannah (Jane Ackermann), a young woman who grew up, as an orphan, in a church on an island off the coast of Maine. Obsessed with the disappearance of a friend, Hannah begins working for the boy's father where they trap lobsters together. All the while, Hannah discovers her path in life on her own accord - which is a first since she's been instructed her whole life by her caretaker, Reverend Jerry (Tony Reilly).

"Subtle beauty" is the only way to define this emotional journey akin to Antonioni's L'Avventura. Kimball's direction is assured, and the cinematography (by Jayson Lobozzo and Dean Merrill) is magnificent. The cool color palette reflects the setting quite well and contributes a haunting sense of unease to the drama.

Ackermann is a revelation in her first movie role. She brings urgency and heart to the role of Hannah in a way that I hope lends her recognition. Since Brie Larson is now apparently "the next Jennifer Lawrence," I'm calling it now that this girl has the potential to be the next Brie Larson.

The film also deserves to be commended for its use of local talent from the state of Maine. Kimball, Ackermann, several background players, and many among the production crew hail from "the Pine Tree State." Kudos to the locals for creating such a beautiful film to affectionately showcase their territory.

My only minor gripe is that the pacing is a bit too deliberate. Otherwise, Neptune has restored my faith in Slamdance 2016.


Sundance 2016 - "31" Review

Rob Zombie returns to the horror genre with 31, a project he's kept largely under wraps for the past five or so years. The film itself isn't really good enough or shocking enough to merit the secrecy, but if you're a fan of Zombie's previous films, you'll have a great time.

The story is a period piece that takes place on Halloween night, 1979. A band of travelling carnies (Sheri Moon Zombie, Meg Foster, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Kevin Jackson, Jeff Daniel Phillips) are attacked and taken hostage by goons working for Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell), who places the group into a deadly game called "31." The object of the "game" is to survive 12 hours in an abandoned compound while several maniacs dressed as different clown-like characters attempt to kill them.

The story borrows too heavily from other, better horror films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and House on Haunted Hill. The most fun part of 31 isn't the concept itself, nor is it the gruesome violence (of which there is plenty). It's the villains. If anything can be said about Zombie as a storyteller, it's that he always has a distinctly original eye for characters. Goons such as the Harley Quinn-like "Sex-Head" (E.G. Daily), the Spanish-speaking Nazi midget "Sick-Head" (Pancho Moler), and the Joker-like "Doom-Head" (Richard Brake) steal the show. Brake especially commands the screen each time he's on it. The film's bone-chilling opening scene may be the single best sequence in Zombie's oeuvre. The directing, writing, and Brake's performance in the first 5 minutes are worth the price of admission alone.

Personally, I watch Zombie's films to satisfy my bloodlust. It's a bonus that the characters are almost always fascinating. Now that I'm used to watching the unrated cuts of Halloween and The Devil's Rejects, the violence of 31 feels almost too tame in comparison. There's actually been some controversy surrounding this issue. Zombie submitted the film twice to the MPAA for certification and both times was slapped with an NC-17 rating. Since he wants to get the film into theaters nationwide, edits are necessary to get the film down to a more commercially-friendly R rating. The R-rated cut is what was shown at last night's premiere, much to the dismay of myself and the other midnight movie mongers in attendance. Zombie personally assured all of us, however, that the original NC-17 cut will be available on an "unrated" DVD/Bluray release later this year.

Despite 31's narrative shortcomings, I look forward to revisiting Zombie's true vision on Bluray later this fall ahead of the Halloween holiday. He remains as strong a horror auteur as we have working in the genre today.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sundance 2016 - "Goat" Review

Ben Schnetzer and Nick Jonas turn in excellent performances in Goat, a dramatic exploration of how delicate masculinity can be, especially in organized cultures promoting "brotherhood." As director Andrew Neel made clear in his Q&A, these kinds of issues aren't limited to Greek life. Everything from organized sports to the workplace is affected, in some way, by a power struggle and the need to prove oneself to one's peers.

Allusions to Lord of the Flies abound as young Brad (Schnetzer) decides to attend college and pledge the same fraternity as his brother Brett (Jonas). The hazing that Brad endures does nothing to aid his emotional state following a violent assault after a summer party. This tests his bond with Brett in ways neither expected.

The script by David Gordon Green (Prince Avalance, Pineapple Express) doesn't sanitize anything. This is a coming-of-age story of sorts that never dips into cliché.

It's clear to see Goat has roots in exploitation film. What might be considered smut in the hands of lesser storytellers, Goat's most brutal and graphic material only reinforces the film's message - that no matter if you're the bully or the bullied, masculinity is fragile.

Though some might dismiss the film's brutality the same way they wrote off The Revenant, Goat is an important story told through a unique lens. We don't usually get many college frat "dramas," let alone ones that pack such an emotional punch.

With wide distribution in question, only time will tell if the film successfully opens up a dialogue with university administration about the issues on display.


Sundance 2016 - "The Greasy Strangler" Review

I need to be up-front about this. In the history of cinema, there is no other film like The Greasy Strangler. Whatever qualms or praises anyone imposes on the film will always be trumped by the sheer originality on display here; so I'm not sure exactly what it means when I say that this is the most fucked-up movie I've ever seen.

It's about a father (Michael St. Michaels) and son (Sky Elobar) who lead a "history of Disco" walking tour across Los Angeles. When Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo) takes the tour one day, it ignites a love triangle between father, son and a woman neither of them knows that well. If that wasn't weird enough, this is about the time that a deranged killer, covered in grease, starts terrorizing the neighborhood.

The film is really more of a romantic comedy than it is a horror film. The actual "greasy strangler" turns up at sporadic occasions; not necessarily when the story permits.

If you can picture Napoleon Dynamite with constant graphic nudity and gloriously cheesy horror elements, that's essentially the vibe of this picture.

I would only consider ever watching it again with a midnight crowd as lively as the bunch at last night's premiere. The Greasy Strangler is destined for cult status, possibly with props and quote-shouting like Rocky Horror Picture Show.

"Hootie-tootie disco cutie! Hootie-tootie disco cutie! Hootie-tootie disco cutie!"


Sundance 2016 - "Embrace of the Serpent" Review

Embrace of the Serpent is Colombia's entry for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar. It is playing as part of the "Spotlight" program, which consists of films not submitted for consideration in competition. These are hand-picked by the programming staff to share with Sundance audiences. Other films in this category include Miles Ahead, Green Room, and The Lobster - all of which premiered at other festivals in the past year.

Embrace of the Serpent chronicles the 40-year story of Karamakate, an indigenous shaman who, on two separate occasions, encounters a white man in search of a sacred plant. The man Karamakate aids in his younger days is the sickly traveler Theo (Jan Bijvoet). Theo searches the plant for its healing powers. 40 years later, Karamakate meets Evan (Brionne Davis) who hopes to harvest the plant for its potential destructive capabilities. 

Throughout both journeys, the film explores themes of trust and spirituality (especially the warped kind). This is very much a Heart of Darkness story, and it's interesting to see it told through a lens in which the indigenes play actual characters with depth. The actors who handle the dual role of Karamakate are both incredible. 

The film dissects the nuances of native traditions while also occasionally indicting them, which lends depth not only to the characters or the story itself but to the setting as well. Storywise, everything works in perfect harmony. 

However, what works as a careful examination of humanity for one audience may come off as slow for another. The film unfolds at a very deliberate pace that some may find too slow for an adventure story. 

Additionally, there's one scene later in the film where the elder Karamakate and Evan encounter a religious cult and a leader so insane, he makes Col. Kurtz look like a teddy bear. What unfolds is certainly the most absurd sequence of the film. It feels like something that might be in King Kong or any one of the egregious "cannibalsploitation" films of the late '70s and early '80s. I was interested to learn in the Q&A session that this was the moment in the film that adhered the closest to what was written in the original travel logs on which the film is based. Turns out we were wrong for letting that scene remove us from the experience, however briefly. 

Lastly, I had trouble seeing past one visual hiccup in an otherwise gorgeous film. The black and white cinematography exposes different textures in ways that color can't often capture. There's a very fast helicopter tracking shot over the Amazonian canopy that was too much for my eyes to handle. All that texture moving at that speed nearly made me motion sick. 

In the end, Embrace of the Serpent far outdoes The Danish Girl as the most audacious cinematic challenge of the past year for this reviewer. Heck, Serpent may be one of the most challenging, yet emotionally rewarding, films I've ever seen. It deserves its place among the Oscar nominees. I've yet to see Son of Saul, but the three foreign-language nominees I've seen so far are among some of the very best movies I've seen in years. Give them a chance if films like Serpent, Mustang, Theeb or Son of Saul are playing in your area.


SLAMDANCE 2016 - "Mad" Review

The "Slamdance" Film Festival serves as something of an antithesis to the Sundance festival. It was started by a group of artists who felt that, over the years, Sundance had turned into precisely the corporate, mainstream monster that it was originally created in opposition of. Slamdance is supposed to be something of a "safe haven" for the artists and filmmakers with even more offbeat, experimental projects than Sundance. With a couple of free hours, I decided to dabble and chose to watch Mad, which I had heard was one of the better Slamdance offerings.

If that's the case, I'm not sure I'll be returning.

It's the story of an emotionally unstable mother (Maryann Plunkett), her two grown daughters (Jennifer Lafleur, Eilis Cahill), and the war of nerves that often defines family dysfunction.

In the film, this war is fought on three separate fronts, and it doesn't quite work. It's great that all three women have their own, well-developed character arcs, but the film quickly loses focus switching between their different storylines.

We see Mel (Plunkett) making a recovery in the psych ward where she befriends Jerry (Mark Reeb), a fellow patient.

Connie (Lafleur) faces down criminal accusations at work while also balancing the responsibilities of motherhood and as a daughter to a hospitalized mother.

Casey (Cahill) is the family "fuck-up" and constantly butts heads with her older sister Connie about cleaning up her act.

Balancing the emotional beats of these 3 different arcs is a Herculean task, and writer/director Robert G. Putka doesn't quite get it. Hearing him speak before and after the film made it clear that he's not exactly the brightest or most friendly guy. He seems very full of himself, and that self-righteousness is seen through the cynical interactions between the characters. Much of the dialogue is mean-spirited for the sake of being mean-spirited. Putka essentially admitted this himself. It probably makes him laugh, but the rest of us never feel in on the joke.

Acting performances show no lack of skill, and everyone pulls it off as well as they can with such an asinine script.


Friday, January 22, 2016

Sundance 2016: "OTHER PEOPLE" Review

David, having the shittiest year of his life: "I always thought these kinds of things happened to other people."

Gabe: "Well, to 'other people,' you are 'other people'."

Other People is the debut feature film of writer/director Chris Kelly who, when he's not busy toying with the emotions of Sundance audiences, writes for Saturday Night Live.

In the film, his knack for laughs shines through in spades with this semi-autobiographical story about David, a fledgling comedy writer (Jesse Plemons) who returns home to Sacramento to help his father (Bradley Whitford) and sisters (Maude Apatow, Madisen Beaty) care for their cancer-stricken matriarch (Molly Shannon).

Judging by the reactions of those around me at the screening, Kelly and the cast totally nail the experience of caring for a sick loved one. As far as being its own piece of drama, the performances are honest and emotional. Plemons proves himself as a viable leading man while Shannon plays the deteriorating Joanne with grace and nuance. This is not the Mary Katherine Gallagher we're used to, but it works wonderfully.

In terms of being a "cancer comedy," Other People is one of the funniest and most endearing I've ever seen. The leads are terrific, but it's young J.J. Totah who steals the show as Justin, the little brother of David's only friend in Sacramento, Gabe (John Early). That living-room dance recital had me rolling!

That's not to say the film is all sunshine and daisies. I kind of felt cheated in the end by a running motif involving Train's hit song "Drops of Jupiter." The song is the bane of David's existence since it constantly reminds him of the pain and suffering of home. To avoid spoiling the specifics, in one way, the very end of the movie uses the song so perfectly, I nearly cried. However it also felt like the world's biggest contrivance, and to end an otherwise delicately emotional film that way ruined the payoff for me.

Regardless, the film received a standing ovation from the 9am crowd, which bodes well for its chances in the festival's U.S. dramatic competition. Keep an eye out for some kind of release later this year.


"Dirty Grandpa" Review

Since this movie features a sight gag in which it's meant to look like Zac Efron is getting head from an 8-year old boy on the beach, it's tough to give Dirty Grandpa a fair shake.

I don't know who in either Efron's camp or (especially) Robert DeNiro's thought it would be a smart career move to make this film. It is quite simply one of the worst movies this reviewer has ever seen.

The barely-there story involves the young, uptight Jason (Efron) driving his grandpa (DeNiro) down to Florida the week before Jason is to be married. The road trip quickly escalates into the bachelor party from Hell when Grandpa catches a whiff of a horny college girl (Aubrey Plaza) and decides they need to follow her and her friends to Spring Break in Daytona Beach. One of her friends is an old photography classmate of Jason's. The two reconnect, throwing a potential wrench in the wedding plans.

The shenanigans culminate precisely how you'd expect, but the film takes the most absurd way to get there.

I don't care how hot Zac Efron is. Any girl who would take him back after becoming a homewrecker and nearly dying by his hand in a high-speed freeway chase involving a bus, an ice cream truck and the inept Daytona Beach police force is a complete idiot.

Most of the interactions between the main and supporting characters are just convenient plot devices. Dermot Mulroney plays Jason's dad, a lawyer, who is conveniently present to inform the police that they can't arrest his son, despite causing wanton mayhem on a freeway, because they're out of their jurisdiction. Once they realize this, Jason is free to live happily ever after with no consequences.

I wish I were white enough to get away with a stunt like that.

The last thing I can really say is that the jokes are sophomoric even by Will Ferrell's standards. It's all penis, poop, drug and sex jokes that don't make you think so much as bludgeon you over the head for shock value. It's hard to contain a snicker when the once-nuanced DeNiro spouts lines like "I'd rather let Queen Latifah shit in my mouth from a fucking hot air balloon." It's not particularly funny, but who in their right mind would've ever thought DeNiro would say something like that? Since one last masterpiece seems out of the question at this stage in the man's career, I probably should've cried instead.

Though Dirty Grandpa doesn't quite scrape the bottom of the barrel the way Adam Sandler's recent outings have, there's still no prize for being the next shiniest turd in the Depends. Avoid like the plague. Believe it or not, there are far better sex comedies out there.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Mustang" Review

Mustang follows five Turkish sisters longing to break free from the puritanical customs of their small village. Following an innocent afternoon at the beach with some boys from school, the girls are locked away and punished by their tyrannical uncle and grandmother. Their house steadily becomes a prison as bars are placed on the windows, the walls surrounding the house are raised, and telephone privileges are revoked. As the older sisters are married off, the younger girls plan a daring "prison break," hoping to flee to Istanbul and the promise of a new, happier life.

I couldn't find anything wrong with the movie save for one shot that didn't quite work for me. The poster above is a nice shot of the girls which represents the bond of sisterhood. In the film, this shot also signifies the last time that the girls are all together since two of them were just married off. There's a poignant scene of dialogue to be made from such a shot, but only one girl speaks one line out loud. The "scene" lasts all of 8 seconds. When the film cuts to the next scene, the juxtaposition feels out of place. Beyond that, Mustang is about as perfect a movie as I've seen in some time.

Director Deniz Gamze Erguven uses lots of close-ups to create tension between the girls themselves as well as their familial captors. Despite a lack of violence and "action" by Hollywood standards, the connections between the girls and their authority figures, and their ensuing escape attempts, feel as intense as anything in films like The Great Escape, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or The Shawshank Redemption

The young actresses who play the sisters are all incredible. Despite no prior experience, their performances are all honest and believable. Through each of them, the film is able to explore every possible outcome for their lives - from the happiest to the saddest to just about every emotion in between.

This is why the film works so well, even in the Turkish language. With honest performances, a great script and some keen filmmaking, Mustang captures the essence of frustrated youth, which is something any person from around the world can relate to.

I can see deeper conversations and dissections taking place upon repeat viewings.


Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Reel's Top 10 Films of 2015

1. Youth

Watching this film is like witnessing the second coming of Fellini. Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino follows up his Oscar-winning feature La grande belleza ("The Great Beauty") with a gorgeous film about the mental, emotional and physical effects of aging accentuated by the juxtaposing perspectives of young and old people. I don't think Youth is a perfect film. The writing in the middle act is suspect, but I left the theater convinced I had seen poetry in motion. Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz and Paul Dano are all wonderful. 

2. Spotlight

This one could probably be in the number 1 spot too. Spotlight succeeds for its straightforward, honest approach to the story and the characters. Nothing feels schmaltzy as the ensemble cast (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d'Arcy James) disappear into their roles as the journalists and lawyers struggling to make sense of a scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston. Just a great story told honestly which is too rare for Hollywood these days. 

3. Room

Brie Larson gives the performance of her career and my favorite by a lead actress all year as a young mother acclimating to life back in the real world when she and her son, who was born in captivity, escape from a sealed shelter. Room also has one of the most nuanced child performances in years thanks to young Jacob Tremblay. Through their performances, Larson and Tremblay give us plenty of context for the stakes at hand. Likely the purest display of human emotion I've seen all year.

4. Creed

Who would've ever thought that a seventh Rocky movie would turn out to rival the original as the series' best? Sylvester Stallone gives his best performance in years as he trains Apollo Creed's estranged son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan). Assured direction and a strong story from Ryan Coogler somehow get this boxing movie to transcend cliché. Blockbuster entertainment with an indie heart makes for one of the most wholly satisfying moviegoing experiences of the year. 

5. Inside Out

Pixar's summer hit is the studio's best since Up. It gives names, faces, and personalities to complex pre-teen emotions and uniquely deals with themes typically reserved for the headiest Criterion Collection titles. 

6. Bridge of Spies

Spielberg's latest historical drama is also his best film since Munich. Tense and endlessly watchable thanks to a charismatic turn by Tom Hanks, I found myself even more impressed with Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. He deserves Supporting Actor recognition. 

7. Mad Max: Fury Road

Before Star Wars took over the landscape late in the year, cinematic mastermind George Miller resurrected another 35 year old franchise and brought it roaring back to life in a way that reminded the world you don't need a computer to craft larger-than-life spectacle at the movies. Though the plot and acting may leave a bit to be desired, Fury Road shows what a true creative mind can do when given complete control. This is a visual opera unlike anything you've ever experienced. 

8. Ex Machina

Intense, intimate sci-fi is a rare thing these days, but here comes Alex Garland to give us one of the finest original science fiction films of the past 30 years. This film introduced me to my new celebrity crush, Alicia Vikander, who plays a sentient android named Ava. Oscar Isaac gives a commanding performance as her villainous creator while Domhnall Gleeson is fun to watch as the programmer tasked with evaluating Ava's human characteristics. 

9. Macbeth

Yet another resplendent visual display, director Justin Kurzel vividly realizes Shakespeare's famous tragedy. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard could not have been better cast. 

10. The Danish Girl

Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Miserables) directs this Oscar try-hard flick loosely based on the true-life story of Danish painters Einar and Gerda Wegener in which Einar starts to fancy himself a woman after modeling for one of his wife's paintings. The film offers nothing unique in its form, but for the subject matter, I found it to be the most audacious moviegoing challenge of 2015. It took me out of my comfort zone like no other movie this year, and for that alone, I have to give it a spot in my top 10. Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are terrific as the leads.

Honorable mention: The Big Short, The RevenantGrandmaTangerineCarolChi-Raq, The Martian, Sicario, The Gift, Love & Mercy

Sunday, January 3, 2016

"The Hateful Eight" Review

Quentin Tarantino's eighth feature film could not be a better fit for its title. Literally it's the writer/director's eighth movie, and the characters in it could not be more spiteful towards their circumstances. Seriously, I've never seen a film where the storyteller treats his characters with this much cynicism.

To a certain extent, The Hateful Eight feels like the film that Tarantino has been building to his entire career, even if that means borrowing way too much from his previous work.

The story follows a coterie of cretins holed up in a remote Wyoming cabin as they wait for a blizzard to pass. There's John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a ruthless bounty hunter seeking the reward for Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the unpredictable woman he has in tow. On the way to the cabin, Ruth's stagecoach picks up passengers Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a fellow bounty hunter, and "Sheriff" Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), a traveler who purports to be the new sheriff of Red Rock -- Ruth's ultimate destination. When they take a pit stop at the cabin, they meet caretaker Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), outlaw Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), and former Confederate general Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern).

And these, ladies and gentleman, are your "hateful eight." Or so it would seem until Major Warren begins to suspect that some among their ranks are in cahoots with Daisy.

That's essentially the same exact plot as Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs in which a group of criminals take refuge in an abandoned warehouse after a botched heist and suspect that one among them is a police informant.

Other intertextual Tarantino references include the facts that the film is set in a world very similar to that of Django Unchained and also features the sadistic violence and Looney Tunes-humor of Inglourious Basterds.

In truth, The Hateful Eight doesn't have a single original bone in its body. That, combined with the fact that there are no redeeming qualities to any single character in the film, makes this a missed mark in an otherwise exciting career for Tarantino.

If I had seen the film as it was originally conceived (as a "whodunit" chamber piece for the stage), it would've blown me away. As a movie, I can't help but think I've seen it dozens of times before.

Performances are wonderful all around, with Russell and Goggins standing out. Goggins, one of this generation's best television actors, finally gets a movie role with substance that allows him to show his talent. Fans of Justified wishing for Goggins to find another project that takes advantage of his underrated skill as an actor should be pleased with The Hateful Eight.

As an endnote, I was unable to make it to one of the 70mm "roadshow" screenings. I wish I had, as there is a moment halfway through the film that delineates events that would have taken place during an "intermission." Without the context of having fifteen minutes to get up and use the restroom, that part feels a bit awkward. Aside from that, my untrained eye could discern no difference in the advantage of using 70mm projection over the digital projection which was used for my screening. So fret not if you missed out on the gimmick like I did.