September 8, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Jaeden Lieberher, Finn Wolfhard
Directed by: Andy Muschietti (Mama)
Written by: Chase Palmer (debut), Cary Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”) and Gary Dauberman (“Annabelle: Creation”)

Everyone will go into Andy Muschietti’s “It” with vastly different expectations. Some will be hoping for a solid adaptation of Stephen King’s book, while others may have no knowledge whatsoever of King’s property. There are miles of expectations existing between those two platitudes. I’ve read Stephen King’s lengthy novel; it’s not my favorite of his, but it’s impossible to deny how singular of a work it is. However, this is not the review to read if you’re looking for an examination of faithfulness to the source or comparisons to the 1990 miniseries that isn’t as good as you remember. Those critiques can be found elsewhere on the internet, and many of them are very much worth your time. Warner Bros and New Line seem to be at least partially aware of audiences’ multi-faceted relationship to Pennywise and the Losers Club, as they have put out a movie that is clearly meant to appeal to the masses, with the final product revealing itself to be somewhat of a mixed bag.

Don’t get me wrong. I am beyond giddy that this movie exists. I’ll be happy to see it make money and am wildly intrigued to see the direction in which the inevitable sequel takes its characters. From this movie’s opening moments, Andy Muschietti crafts a vision that is uncompromisingly violent, twisted and bloody. He introduces us to a group of young friends that are genuinely likable and then fucks them up, one by one, repeatedly for nearly two-and-a-half hours. There’s something genuinely scary about children in peril, and recent films like “Annabelle: Creation” have employed this notion effectively, but no mainstream movie in recent memory has been as unrelentingly brutal as “It.”

That violence is an essential theme to the movie, and it never feels excessive or exploitative. Childhood is messy and bloody. Yes, we see how the film’s villainous otherworldly clown harms children, but the script from Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman doesn’t stop there. There is real world violence present in King’s fictional town of Derry, Maine. Child-on-child violence appears in the forms of knife-wielding bullies and concussive rock fights. Abuse from adults rears its heads in both physical and psychological ways. Not even the animals are safe.

At its core, “It” is a coming-of-age tale where a band of misfits overcome their real-world fears while simultaneously destroying a monster that feeds off said fears. It’s a fantastic idea ripe with potential. Muschietti does an exceptional job setting the stage to explore it. His images are striking and individual moments are uniquely scary despite a familiar formula. The cinematography from Chung-hoon Chung (Chan-wook Park’s longtime collaborator) is a hypnotically stunning and eerie. Additionally, Benjamin Wallfisch’s deceptively simple score does a lot of heavy lifting. In fact, all the behind-the-camera elements, by any genre’s standards, are of the highest caliber. This is a great looking, astonishingly directed move. But strip Muschietti’s film of its glossy elements and there’s little left to chew on, especially when the film commits to its by-the-numbers third act.

To be fair, there’s plenty of compelling stuff here. It nails the complicated state of childhood, and the best moments involve the kids hanging out with each other. Jaeden Lieberher is great as Bill, the leader of the gang going through agonizing grief after losing his younger brother. Sophia Lillis gives a star-making performance as Beverly, easily the highlight of the film until she’s reduced to a catatonic rallying device for the final act. I enjoyed all of the kids, their awkward interactions and sophomoric sense of humor. And they’re definitely smarter than what the script has them go through for the end. That ending, by the way, is something lifted straight out of an early “A Nightmare on Elm Street” movie. It’s a storytelling decision that is familiar and doesn’t take any risks. For all its alluring sheer, well-crafted scares and bold choices, “It” ultimately regresses back to its mainstream roots, and the film suffers from that decision.

Annabelle: Creation

August 11, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Lulu Wilson, Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto
Directed by: David F. Sandberg (“Lights Out”)
Written by: Gary Dauberman (“Annabelle”)

As its tagline and advertising has repeatedly stated, David F. Sandberg’s “Annabelle: Creation” is the latest entry in the “Conjuring Universe.” Everything has a cinematic universe now, and it was only a matter of time before a horror franchise joined the bandwagon. With at least two standalone films already announced, one of which is teased here a couple of times, any scoffing at the very notion of a “Conjuring Universe” is outdone by the fact that there really isn’t a better franchise out there from which to pull.

One of the main reasons James Wan’s “Conjuring” films work so well is both films stage truly chilling and technically astute set pieces while also giving us rich characters that we care about and enjoy spending time with. The first “Annabelle” chapter, which was produced by Wan, had neither of these things and was derivative to the point where I’m still not convinced that parts of Gary Dauberman’s script weren’t just copy/pasted from better films. Furthermore, director John R. Leonetti’s 2014 original film also felt strangely restrained and dissonant, only fitting into the Warren lore by name. With Leonetti out and Sandberg at the helm, we are treated to moment after moment of finely crafted horror. Sure, the characters are still lacking, but at least we’re invested this time.

The first act of the film follows Samuel and Esther Mullins as they raise their daughter in a small village out in the desert country. All their happiness comes to a tragic stop when their daughter is killed in an accident. Some years later, a nun and a group of girls from a shut-down orphanage show up at the Mullins residence. Sandberg immediately establishes his location with a fluid tracking shot throughout the house, then creates set piece after set piece where things go bump in the night.

“Annabelle: Creation” takes its sweet time putting all its pieces in place, and that style of pacing creates a vital level of investment and intrigue. As Mr. Mullins, Anthony LaPaglia is the true heart of the film, injecting each of his scenes with a level of palpable emotion despite the fact that in some scenes he doesn’t even have any dialogue. Miranda Otto provides great supporting work as his wife, though she gets saddled with a chunk of exposition later in the film. While there isn’t much done to flesh out the group of girls, all of whom occasionally blend together, Sandberg makes things interesting by hinting at the terrible, isolating things that children can do to each other.

“Annabelle: Creation” works as a great mystery, but it is ultimately a great show of style from its director. There’s a great visual gag early on in the film involving an upside down cross, and there is one bone-crushing moment in particular that genuinely took me by surprise. It’s a concise and effective horror movie, a much-needed course correction and enticing look at things to come.

Atomic Blonde

July 28, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman
Directed by: David Leitch (debut)
Written by: Kurt Johnstad (“300”)

I’m firmly on the record as being on board for everything that “John Wick” maestros David Leitch and Chad Stahelski attach their names to from now until the end of time. Their action scenes are among the best cinema has to offer this side of Gareth Evans, and the worlds they create are so rich they put entire blockbuster franchises to shame.

Leitch’s “Atomic Blonde,” headlined by Charlize Theron, is another explosive showcase of the director’s talent. A lot of press lately has focused on Charlize doing her own stunts, and the movie certainly delivers on heroine ass-kicking. There’s decidedly less action here than in either of the John Wick installments, but Leitch cranks up the mayhem here to unprecedented levels of insanity. One particular sequence featuring a car chase is easily in contention for one of the greatest action sequences ever put to film.

In case you hadn’t already caught on, “Atomic Blonde” has fantastic action sequences. Regretfully, it doesn’t offer anything beyond that. Atomic Blonde has a running time of 115 minutes, and you really feel it. So much time is spent on exposition and backstory, but none of it accomplishes anything beyond turning the film into a dull slog. In adapting the graphic novel series by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (both “300” movies, “Act of Valor”) tries his hardest to make a Cold War thriller, but even the slowest John le Carre moments bubble with more intrigue.

Review etiquette requires me to give some sort of a plot synopsis, but I’m going to have to forgo that formality due to the lamentable fact that the events that play out in the film are so instantly forgettable. Even great supporting talent like John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Sofia Boutella seem bored by having to deliver lifeless dialogue that is simultaneously dense and dull. Theron’s performance has a bit of that lifelessness too, which works for her character, but surrounding her lethal assassin with similar cold beings lessen her performance’s effect.

On the flip side, James McAvoy and Eddie Marsan tear up the screen in such a way you really want to see the crazy movie that they were in. There are lots of cases where Leitch seems to be down to make that movie, too, what with his upbeat (albeit on the nose) 80s soundtrack and his neon-tinged visuals. Ultimately, though, not even the brilliant mind of Leitch can save this movie. There’s a great ballet of carnage on display in “Atomic Blonde,” but the remainder of the film is so painfully out of tune you leave the theater wondering why such greatness had to be showcased alongside something so tepid.

The Beguiled

June 30, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kristen Dunst
Directed by: Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”)
Written by: Sofia Coppola (“Marie Antoinette”)

I’ve never seen Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel, “The Beguiled,” and I imagine that there are plenty of fascinating and inevitable nuggets to be discovered in comparing it with Sofia Coppola’s new adaptation. You won’t find such critical comparisons here, which is for the best since everything should be judged on its own merit. The “is this movie really necessary” argument is already being thrown around, and to those simpletons I retort: is any?

Coppola’s film boasts an epic cast featuring the likes of Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice and many more. The story is simple enough. After finding a wounded Union soldier in the woods, a Confederate all-girl boarding school finds its repetitive, undisturbed routine upended by the presence of a man in the house. True to the title, Farrell plays his character with the perfect mix of charm and rot. Coppola slowly peels back the layers of all her characters, revealing the darkness that resides in some of her characters while shattering the innocence of others. It’s compelling storytelling, though if you’re not a fan of Coppola’s steady pacing you may not find much to enjoy here.

This is a very tense and suspenseful movie, but it is also laugh-out-loud darkly comedic. “The Beguiled” throws us into a world where order, restraint, reverence, and etiquette are just as if not more oppressive than the war that rages on just outside the house’s gate. The opening shot of the film follows a young girl through woods flooded with cannonball smoke as the sounds of war echo. It’s the perfect way to open a film about creeping evil, and Philippe Le Sourd peppers the film with similar images to amplify that mood. The costumes from Stacey Battat, Coppola’s regular collaborator, tell so much about each character, marking this film as a perfect fusion of elements behind and in front of the camera.

That subdued style of storytelling works great as buildup, and while the payoff in the final act is explosive and dark, it could have gone darker. This is an R-rated movie, but the only given reason is sexuality (there’s thrusting; shame!). Coppola doesn’t seem to have any interest in embracing her R-rating. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it may have done “The Beguiled” some good if she had pushed the envelope a bit further.

Still, what remains is incredibly powerful and unforgettable. Part of what makes “The Beguiled” so entertaining is that it constantly changes what character you feel compelled to root for. I don’t really think there’s anything empowering about this movie. It’s a horrifying look into the complex intricacies of human nature. No matter how much of a front one tries to put on, there’s always insidious malevolency lurking beneath.

Baby Driver

June 29, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey
Directed by: Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”)
Written by: Edgar Wright (“Hot Fuzz”)

In a landscape overpopulated with dour and brooding popcorn movies, “Baby Driver” stands out as an optimistic beacon of cinematic bliss. This is moviemaking at its most relentlessly joyful, an intoxicating fusion of music and image guaranteed to make you grin from ear to ear. It’d be easy to say that we need more movies like this, but it’s impossible to duplicate something so special.

Ansel Elgort has always held a strong screen presence, but this will be the movie that makes him a star. He perfectly blends charm and angst, giving us a character that recalls Sinatra, McQueen, Brando, and Kelly, but one that is unarguably entirely his own. Elgort plays Baby, a getaway driver who constantly listens to music to drown out the tinnitus brought about by the car accident that took his parents‘ lives. Increasingly perturbed by the blood-tinged darkness his job attracts, Baby wants nothing more than to leave everything behind him and hit the road with beautiful waitress who works at the local diner.

Writer and director Edgar Wright’s film operates in a well-established genre (a cameo by Walter Hill cements what branch of cinema Edgar Wright is saluting), and he nails all the familiar notes while simultaneously bringing his singular vision to the table. The car chases are thrilling and fresh, taking place during the day to better see the great practical stunt work on display. There’s a warehouse shootout that, like everything else in “Baby Driver,” is choreographed and synced up perfectly in line with a killer soundtrack.

The romance between Baby and Debora (Lily James) has a classic feel to it. The two share a scene in a laundromat that bursts with energy and romance, and little details like talking on a payphone makes their relationship even more intoxicating. There’s a showdown between Baby and a villain at the end of the film, but it doesn’t involve that character you’d expect. In fact, you understand where both parties are coming from and find it hard to root entirely for one character. Even the final moments of the film take an unexpected but completely enthralling turn.

Wright’s script is layered, witty, and hilarious. All of his actors get great material to work with no matter the size of their part. You’ve never seen Jamie Foxx this terrifying, Kevin Spacey this catty, and Jon Hamm so gosh-darned magnetic. Everyone is on their A game here, including people in smaller roles. Mexico City native Eiza Gonzalez is a badass dame. Cast her in stuff, Hollywood. She’s destined for greatness. CJ Jones brings great heart to the table as Baby’s deaf roommate and father figure. There’s even a moment where Brogan Hall steals the show as Kevin Spacey’s son. The masterclass in editing is a crucial character in the film as well. There’s just so much to love and relish here. Before you even know it, “Baby Driver” will have stolen your heart.

47 Meters Down

June 20, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Chris Johnson
Directed by: Johannes Roberts (“The Other Side of the Door”)
Written by: Johannes Roberts (“The Other Side of the Door”) and Ernest Riera (“The Other Side of the Door”)

For a movie originally slated for a direct-to-VOD release, it’s amazing how much “47 Meters Down” accomplishes with so little. Then again, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. So many movies are finding audiences without ever being given a theatrical release. It’s clear that writer/director Johannes Roberts has a few tricks up his sleeve, and hopefully we’ll be able to see more of him now that his latest film has been graced with a wide release.

Mandy Moore and Claire Holt headline the film as sisters Lisa and Kate, who have traveled to Mexico for a fun summer vacation. Lisa is feeling a bit low in light of her breakup, but Kate continues to encourage her to do exciting things to make her ex jealous – like going into a tank and seeing sharks up close, for example.

That previous paragraph is the extent to which this film goes for characterization. Not only is there no journey of self-discovery here, but the movie doesn’t even seem interested in fleshing out any sort of arc for Lisa, who ultimately takes center stage here. Normally this kind of writing would be insulting, but Roberts and cowriter Ernest Riera are clearly more interested in the thrills, which more than make up for the film’s one-dimensionality.

Lisa and Kate’s shark tank journey goes incredibly wrong with the cable holding them up breaks and sends them plummeting down to the depths of the ocean. With limited air, light, and sharks lurking in the depths, Lisa and Kate must find a way to survive before their time runs out.

“47 Meters Down” has a definite sense of location, with Roberts moving his camera around fluidly to create a genuine sense of suspense. The majority of the film is set underwater, with characters talking to each other through headsets. It’s something that could have gone so wrong, but Roberts continuously gives him film jolts of energy, deftly mixing pulp and terror in a way that demands the audience’s investment.

“47 Meters Down” successfully depicts the unsettling creepiness that is endless ocean, creating a feeling not dissimilar to “Gravity.” Again, the comparisons end there, particularly when it comes to fleshing out the film’s characters. There is some slight satisfaction in seeing Lisa start to take control of her situation, but it’s more out of necessity than anything.

The film’s writing does make for a excruciatingly bland first act, but beyond that it’s hard to notice there really isn’t a character arc for anyone when we just want to see how Lisa and Kate avoid their latest problem. The 89-minute movie builds to a twist that you’ll probably be able to see coming, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Speaking of effective, the use of sharks in this movie is executed very successfully through a mix of practical and special effects.

Perhaps I was surprised by this movie because of how low my expectations were, but I found “47 Meters Down” a thrilling summer flick. Given that most of my expectations about anything in today’s world continue to be met or turn out to be too optimistic, it’s nice to be wrong sometimes.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

May 26, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem
Directed by: Joachim Ronning (“Kon-Tiki”) and Espen Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki”)
Written by: Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”)

Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” is unlikely to turn any newcomers into enthusiastic fans of the franchise, but if you’re planning on making the fifth entry in this 14-year-old franchise your starting point, then please do yourself a favor and watch “The Curse of the Black Pearl” before heading to the theater this Memorial Day weekend. Gore Verbinski’s 2003 film remains one of the all-time great adventure films, deftly mixing sharp-witted humor, unsettling creepiness, and exhilarating action. The series has been chasing that magic to varied results ever since, but directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have created an installment that continues to steer the franchise away from the overlong, convoluted mess that was “At World’s End.”

Since its inception, one of the recurring motifs of the Pirates franchise (not to mention countless other series) has been fathers and sons. That notion rears its head again in “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” where a fresh-faced Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is searching for the trident of Poseidon, which can help free his father from his eternal servitude as captain aboard the Flying Dutchman. The way that search unfolds is, in trademark “Pirates” fashion, complicated and devoid of logical motivations, but somehow Ronning and Sandberg fashion a slick and entertaining summer movie.

With a running time of 129 minutes, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” is the shortest entry in the franchise, and the absence of Verbinski’s bombastic approach occasionally makes the film feel small in its scope. To its credit, the film never stalls or drags its feet. In fact, the script from Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio spends a lot of time setting up story and fleshing out characters. It’s not Tennessee Williams levels of character depth, but it creates a level of investment.

That level of investment is heightened by the familiar faces of Captain Jack, Barbossa, and Gibbs. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ll be pleased with great character moments and interactions. Johnny’s Depp’s Jack Sparrow seems a bit dialed down and sometimes even more Mad Hatter than Jack. This is probably due to the fact that the script requires him to be a bit of a bumbling idiot and not the “greatest pirate ever” we know from previous installments. That being said, the moment between him and Paul McCartney’s Uncle Jack is even better than you could have imagined.

The addition of Thwaites Kaya Scodelario, theoretically the future of the franchise, isn’t as devoid of chemistry as the tepid romance we were given in “On Stranger Tides.” The two make a fun bickering couple. Scodelario plays an astrologer who sports both brains and brawn. I’d be interested to see how they flesh her character out in future installments. Golshifteh Farahani steals the movie as a creepy witch, but her character exits the film far too soon, as does David Wenham’s Scarfield. Finally, Javier Bardem’s Salazar makes for a truly memorable and terrifying villain, injecting the dark and violent edge that had been missing from the franchise.

Characters in a “Pirates” movie are nothing without the action scenes they are thrown into, and “Dead Men Tell No Tales” has some really great set pieces. There’s a “heist gone wrong” scene early in the film that reintroduces Captain Jack in a humorous way, an exciting “guillotine execution gone wrong” scene featuring multiple levels of competently filmed and slickly edited chaos, and a chase scene in the film featuring undead sharks is unarguably a franchise highlight.

This is the second time that the “Pirates” franchise has advertised its latest movie as the final adventure. Given the way the story unfolds in “Dead Men Tell no Tales,” particularly an enticing post-credits tease, it’s clear that Disney fully intends to keep their swashbuckling franchise going as long as it keeps selling tickets. It’s a mixed bag, but an entertaining one nonetheless. If you’re a fan of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, you’ll find lots to love here. In a market saturated with superhero franchises (entertaining as they may be), why should we complain about more adventures with Captain Jack Sparrow?

Fantastic Fest Review: Zoology

October 3, 2016 by  
Filed under CineBlog

Ivan I. Tverdovskiy’s “Zoology” is certainly one of the tamer features I’ve ever seen at Fantastic Fest. There isn’t a single drop of blood, no deadly creatures, no body mutilation, no gross-out humor, or anything of the kind onscreen that can often be associated with this Drafthouse-based film festival. But it’s that lack of such content that makes Tverdovskiy’s second feature film such an incredible feat of storytelling. It may not feature the usual characteristics of genre films that play the festival, but it is reaches cathartic depths that other films of its type never even dream of.

“Zoology” tells the story of Natasha, a middle-aged Russian woman of few words still living at home with her mother. Natasha makes her living at the local zoo, where when she isn’t spending time interacting with the animals, she’s working hard at making sure the right kinds and amounts of food are being ordered to keep the animals fed. She loves the animals (they’re arguably the only people that give her the time of day) and needs the money, which is perhaps why she puts up with the abhorrent treatment her coworkers subject her to daily.

Natasha continues through her mundane and repetitive life until one day she wakes up to find that she has grown a tail. What makes “Zoology” such an enthralling and unique experience is how it portrays the tail. Natasha isn’t shocked or scared at all. If she is, she doesn’t let on. She reacts very matter-of-factly to the discovery, keeping its existence to herself and visiting doctors in hopes of uncovering some sort of explanation and solution. The doctors don’t seem shocked either, treating her new appendage as if it was an everyday problem like a splinter or dislocated shoulder. To make matters worse, townsfolk including Natasha’s own mother tell tales of a monstrous beast wandering the streets. How they first discovered this is never really explained, though some textual hints could provide one or two solutions.

Natalya Pavelenkova is a revelation as Natasha, delivering a sympathetic and captivating performance that elevates the entire film to a fascinating character study. Working from his own script, Tverdovskiy takes an observational approach to shooting his story, making the film feel even more real and the deadpan humor land so very well. He doesn’t seem intent on punishing his characters, a facet that combined Pavlenkova’s wonderful performance makes it impossible not to fall in love with this film’s main character.

We watch on with glee as Natasha comes in to her own, shedding her drabby looks for a new haircut and clothing style. Like her, we are cautiously optimistic when a man takes notice of her and begins taking her out on dates. We laugh at the stories that circulate about the tailed beast, and relish in the irony when Natasha adds details of her own. It’s a hard for something so character-driven to remain interesting, but Tverdovskiy conjures up palpable emotions and takes us down so many interesting narrative roads. “Zoology” announces the arrival of a filmmaker with a wholly unique point of view. I’m eager to see where he turns his camera next.

Fantastic Fest Review: Don’t Kill It

October 3, 2016 by  
Filed under CineBlog

Of all the films that open with multiple family massacres, “Don’t Kill It” is the funniest of the bunch. The new film from Mike Mendez (“Big Ass Spider!”) deftly blends humor and action to create a wickedly entertaining ride destined to become a cult classic.

At the of 58, Dolph Lundgren kicks more ass and masterfully delivers zingers better than actors half his age. The Swedish native plays the epically named Jebediah Woodley, a demon hunter who lives in his car and has seen some serious shit in his time. When a string of disturbing and violent killings in a small Mississippi town grab the attention of FBI Agent Evelyn Pierce, Woodley offers his services, claiming he’s dealt with the culprit before.

The premise of “Don’t Kill It” (a demon possesses the body of the person who killed it last, making it impossibly difficult to destroy) allows for some cool and exciting story choices. Mendez stages some deliciously violent sequences, each more insane and bloody than the last. There’s one particular sequence set during a town hall meeting that every movie lover owes it to themselves to experience at least once. It’s reminiscent of the church sequence in Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman” film from last year, except that it actually works because we’re invested the characters, the story, and the universe the two inhabit.

Dolph Lundgren is this movie’s secret weapon and one of the reasons why the movie works as well as it does. Dressed in a one-of-a-kind trench coat, sporting a hat that could rival Indiana Jones’, and armed with an array of weapons designed to subdue instead of kill, Jebediah Woodley is an awesome character, and you can tell how much fun Lundgren (who gets a producing credit here) had playing him. Part of that fun is undoubtedly due to the Tarantino-level amount of dialogue screenwriters Dan Berk and Robert Olsen gave Dolph to work with. In one film, Lundgren delivers a monologue in a way that avoids making the material feel like obligatory backstory, expertly throws out one hilarious zinger after another, and even spouts out an epic lesson on consent to a lowlife in a bar. Even with all that work, he still finds time to kick some serious ass.

For the fun to be had, there are occasions where “Don’t Kill It” starts to show its cracks. Some of the scenes are a bit lacking, and there are some moments where the film’s low budget reveals itself. Some will understandably take issue with the fact that Kristina Klebe’s Agent Pierce is too one-dimensional, but stories of a deleted scene involving her character revealed during the post-screening Q&A suggest there’s still time to remedy that.

Regardless, Mike Mendez has produced an incredibly entertaining film that deserves to be seen with an audience. “Don’t Kill It” hits the ground running and doesn’t stop until literally its final shot. Lundgren has given us a character for the ages, one that I hope will return for more adventures.



Fantastic Fest Days 1 & 2 Recap: Turtles, Creepy Elevators & Everything in Between

September 28, 2016 by  
Filed under CineBlog

A Creepy Elevator and a Korean Masterpiece

After a one-year absence, I finally ventured north was again to Austin for Fantastic Fest. Honestly, those 365 days felt much longer. I missed the people, the sense of community, and the celebration of all things film. I had to bow out of attending 2015’s Fantastic Fest since I was busy planning my wedding. Not that I’m complaining. Not really. Besides, this year I get to bring my favorite movie buddy and new bride with me, and I’m definitely not complaining about that.

My first film this year was Chan-wook Park’s “The Handmaiden,” a period piece set in 1930’s Korea about a scheming conman pretending to be a Japanese count, his niece posing as a handmaiden, the Japanese heiress she serves, and the endless double crossings that go on between the three of them. Park, who has easily solidified himself through films like “Oldboy,” “Stoker,” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” as a master of the medium, has crafted something both visually breathtaking and emotionally heart-stopping.

The production design from Seong-hie Ryu and costumes designed by Sang-gyeong Jo are next level in their design and beauty, doubly effective because they enhance and add to the story. Yeong-wook Jo’s sweeping, achingly beautiful score makes everything on screen exponentially more effective. Diving his film into three chapters, Park draws us into a story brimming with Hitchcockian twists, dark humor, steamy sexuality, and just the right amount of bloody gore. This is a truly wonderful, emotionally resonant film.

After scarfing down some delicious Indian food, catching up with an array of wonderful, wickedly smart and incredibly kind people, I called it an early night to get rested up for my first full day of movies. But not before I made it past the creepiest hotel elevator in history. It was hard to tell which part my wife was the most terrified of: the elevator ride itself or my unbridled enjoyment (complete with cackling) of the whole ride.


The Red Turtle

Male Nudity and Turtles

Fantastic Fest Day 2 began with a failed attempt at bringing the wife breakfast in bed. As devilishly creepy as their elevator was, the Orangewood Suites in North Austin had a frustratingly ridiculous ban on taking any food from the continental breakfast up to the room. Luckily, the damp smell of mold and occasional faint smell of bleach used to attack said had suppressed her desire to eat. This hunger would again return to be quenched by Drafthouse food and store-bought Pringles. Meanwhile, the husband drank beer.

One of the fun things that happens during a festival like Fantastic Fest is that themes and common factors begin to surface in a majority of the films you watch. Most infamously in 2014, dead dogs was a prominent theme, making Fantastic Fest the perfect place for Chad Staheleski and David Leitch to premiere their directorial debut, “John Wick.” Now, the jury is still out for 2016’s grand theme, but the selection of films for our first full day couldn’t help offer the options of male nudity and turtles (separately, for now, though that could very well change in the coming days).

Saturday was a day bookended with turtles, and the first film in that set was Michael Dudok de Wit’s “The Red Turtle,” a gorgeously animated and achingly emotional film. De Wit’s background has been primarily in shorts (he won an Oscar for his 2001 short “Father and Daughter”), but his feature debut here displays an incredible mastery of the medium.

There isn’t a single spoken word for any of the film’s lean 80-minute run time, but “The Red Turtle” packs more of a punch than dialogue-filled films twice that length. The film starts with a man crashing on a deserted island and follows his attempts to escape back to civilization, and ultimately transforms itself through a wildly inventive but successful twist to become an allegory about love, raising a child, and growing old. The metaphor doesn’t always work, but “The Red Turtle” is a powerful experience not to be missed.


American Honey

The second film in the turtle-themed double feature was my most anticipated film of Fantastic Fest: Andrea Arnold’s sprawling epic, “American Honey.” Andrea’s third film has some surface-level parallels with “Fish Tank,” but this is an entirely different film. Newcomer Sasha Lane stars as Star, an 18-year-old dumpster diver eager to break free of her broken home and find a better life for herself. That opportunity comes in the form of a van packed with a group of rambunctious chain-smoking and alcohol-chugging youth. Jake, the leader of the group played by Shia LaBeouf in a career-best performance, offers Star a spot in their business, which consists of going door-to-door across the country selling magazine subscriptions.

“American Honey” charts Star’s series of adventures through places like Kansas City and Oklahoma. We don’t really associate these places with America, but they do exist, and to Star they are incredibly exciting places bursting with excitement and opportunity. There’s no real through line to a film like this, and I imagine many people will respond differently to the film given its daunting 163-minute running time. But there is so much to love here.

The film paints a picture of America where danger and violence lurk in every opportunity, every interaction. If the characters are daunted by said danger, they don’t let on. We the audience wouldn’t want to be caught in these types of situations, but to the group of misfits these are stories that will be recounted fondly at the next bonfire. We may not even agree with how characters handle certain situations, but we understand why they do it.

I did feel like the film may have lost some steam and opportunities to flesh out Sasha’s motivations a tad, but I’m going to chalk that up to this being my first viewing of the film. A recent viewing of “Fish Tank” remedied the same complaint I had offered upon first viewing. Andrea is a master storyteller, and this incredible film is her boldest work yet.

Oh, and a turtle shows up for a few minutes!

Look, I didn’t say that the thematic thing was set in stone. Just that it was a possibility.


Toni Erdmann

What about Male Nudity?

There were plenty of things that had more screen time than the turtle in “American Honey,” chief among them was the penis of the one of Star’s colleagues. At the moment I can’t remember the character’s name, but I do remember his affection for stripping nagging or flashing people every opportunity he had. It was rather amusing to me that I watched two nearly three-hour films back-to-back that featured male nudity, the second (though watched first) of the duo being “Toni Erdmann.”

Where “American Honey” feels like a three-hour film (not a complaint about the film at all), Maren Ades’ running time breezes by. Peter Simonischek stars in the title role as a man who is constantly pretending to be other people for the amusement of himself. Toni Edermann examines loneliness and unrealized dreams, pairing Simonischek’s wonderful performance with Sandra Hüller’s equally fabulous work. The two play an estranged father and daughter, and Ades’ screenplay follows Toni’s attempts to bring happiness back into his daughter’s life.

This is an incredibly strange film with several side-splitting laugh-out-loud moments, including one of the most bizarre birthday parties ever put to film (this is one of the instances where a penis shows up in this film). It is a bit strange that the film follows Huller’s character quite a bit, letting us watch extensive business conversations and such. But for the most part, it works. The film does become a tad bit understated at times as well, but this is truly a singular film that deserves an audience. Both characters and their journeys become interesting, and the attempts to elicit an emotional response succeed by the time the film reaches an end.


24:36: A Movie About Movie Posters

Did I Mention I Watched a Documentary?

Snowfort Pictures has a long tradition of giving exciting new filmmakers a chance to practice their craft, and they continue to be one of my favorite studios working in the business today. You get the sense that everyone there has a passion for the filmmaking process. That passion was clear in 2013’s “Jodorowsky’s Dune” and it is clear again in “24:36: A Movie About Movie Posters.”

Director Kevin Burke has assembled a wonderful oral history about the origins of the movie poster, the potential death of the industry that reared its head, and its ultimate resurgence as an art form. Burke interviews a wide array of experts, each providing fascinating insight on movie posters. Anecdotes, some horrifying, others hilarious, still others illuminating, chart the course for a fascinating look into one of the most exciting things about films.

Fantastic Fest was the perfect place to play this film. I’m so happy there are people like those at Snowfort that can make sure a film like this not only get to see an audience, but is made in the first place.

When we got back to the hotel Friday night, my wife made us take the stairs. There were already two other people waiting for it, and she wasn’t sure the elevator could have handled more than two people. To be honest, neither was I. I would have loved to have found out though.