Friday, June 26, 2015

Movie Review: Inside Out

Inside Out
Directed by: Pete Docter.
Written by: Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen and Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley.
Starring: Amy Poehler (Joy), Phyllis Smith (Sadness), Bill Hader (Fear), Lewis Black (Anger), Mindy Kaling (Disgust), Kaitlyn Dias (Riley), Diane Lane (Mom), Kyle MacLachlan (Dad), Richard Kind (Bing Bong), Paula Poundstone (Forgetter Paula), Bobby Moynihan (Forgetter Bobby), Paula Pell (Dream Director / Mom's Anger), Dave Goelz (Subconscious Guard Frank), Frank Oz (Subconscious Guard Dave), Josh Cooley (Jangles), Flea (Mind Worker Cop Jake), John Ratzenberger (Fritz).

Between 1999’s Toy Story 2 and 2010’s Toy Story 3, Pixar went on one of the greatest runs any mainstream studio had ever gone on in movie history – during that time, I referred to Pixar as the most consistent force in mainstream cinema entertainment. You could pretty much set your watch to Pixar – every summer (once in a while, in November), you would see one of the best films of the year – an animated film that worked on one level for adults, another for children, and was as brilliantly animated as it was wonderfully written. During this 12 year run, Pixar made 9 films, and I would argue only 2006’s Cars wasn’t a great film - merely a good one. But all great things most come to an end, and so it was with Pixar – who have stumbled for the first time in their existence in the past few years. They’ve made three films in the past 4 years – and none are among their best (although Brave looks as great as anything Pixar has ever done, and Monster’s University is a hell of a lot of fun and Cars 2 – well, Cars 2 sucks). But you can only keep a creative force like Pixar down for so long before the rebound – and with Inside Out, Pixar rebounds in a huge way. Not only is it a return to form for Pixar – it rivals the very best films Pixar has ever made. Which of course means one thing – the film completely broke me, leaving me an emotional wreck for days. And I mean that as a good thing.

The film centers inside the head of Riley – an 11-year old girl, whose parents pack her up and move her from Minnesota to San Francisco – leaving her friends, her hockey team, and everything she has ever known behind. This can be a traumatic experience for any kid – and it certainly is for Riley. But Riley isn’t the main character in Inside Out – her emotions are. Five primary emotions live inside her head, and wrestle for the controls for how she is going to feel at any one time. Her “primary” emotion is Joy (Amy Poehler – perfectly cast), who leads the others. She gets along well with Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) – and does her best to keep Sadness (Phyllis Smith) far away from the controls. But as Riley heads off to school, and it starts to sink in that things will never be the same – that becomes harder and harder. Then, through a series of events I’ll leave for you to discover, Joy and Sadness get sucked into Riley’s long-term memory – basically endless rows of shelves – and have to find their way to the control room – heading through Riley’s subconscious, Imagination land and other areas of her mind.

This is a rather daring concept for a kids’ movie – that is much more complex than most others would even attempt to do. I have a feeling that much of the movie will fly over children’s heads – my almost four year old had fun with the movie, which either means she didn’t get it, or is a heartless psychopath, which is the only other explanation I can think of for how someone could watch this movie and not cry. For kids, the movie offers a lot – a colorful environment, chase sequences, jokes that will hit them a lot differently then they will adults (none more so than Anger’s comment about seeing a Bear in San Francisco). In short, kids will see Inside Out as a fun animated adventure – and really, that is what they want to see it as.

 For adults however – especially for parents – be prepared. Pixar has not shied away from strong emotions before – like the “When She Loved Me” number in Toy Story 2, Boo’s joy when she says “Kitty” at the end of Monsters Inc., the climax of Wall-E, the opening of Up or the threat of the toys going into the fire in Toy Story 3 (all of which choke me up just thinking about them) – but I do not think they have ever gone after them quite as much as they do in Inside Out. I don’t want to say too much about it – but if Bing Bong doesn’t sear himself into your memory in a powerful way, and make you cry just thinking about him, then I don’t know what that says about you – but it ain’t good.

What’s amazing about Inside Out though is that it is able to do that, and not feel like it’s being overly manipulative or sentimental. I may have cried at Marley & Me – but I didn’t feel good about myself afterwards, and rather resented the movie as well. That’s not the case with Inside Out – which earns the tears it generates. It does that by being a very intelligent movie – one that doesn’t talk down to the audience – either the children or the adults – and by having a deeper understanding of psychology than just about any movie aimed at adults does. The message of Inside Out isn’t as simplistic as its okay to feel sad – although that is part of it – but more than that, that sadness and joy are necessary, and often co-exist – something sad turning into something happy, and vice versa. Pixar has often faced criticisms – valid ones at that – that all of their protaganists are men, except for Brave, where they made her another Princess. With Inside Out, they have made a movie about a little girl at its core, and she becomes the most complex protagonist Pixar has ever had. Sure, you could argue its cheating, since she is really made up of 5 characters, but it works. And the more I think about Inside Out – the deeper than damn movie gets. There are layers here that I cannot wait to delve back into.

And, of course, the movie is stunningly animated – among the best things Pixar has ever done visually, with the different emotions all distinctive cartoon-like characters, which are perfectly suited to their emotions. I always knew Pixar would rebound after a few off movies – but I still wasn’t prepared for Inside Out – which is the best movie of 2015 so far. Easily.

Movie Review: The Wolfpack

The Wolfpack
Directed by: Crystal Moselle.

I’ve thought a lot about The Wolfpack in the week since I saw the documentary – and still am not quite sure if the film is inspirational, or tragic. The film is a look at the lives of the Angulo brothers – all of six of them, who grew up with their parents, and little sister, all sharing a small apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The brothers were home schooled, and very rarely allowed to leave the apartment at all – and never by themselves. Their father controlled them all – and didn’t want them to have contact with the corrupting forces of the outside world. But there was one thing from the outside he would let his sons see – movies. Lots and lots of movies. And the brothers fell in love with them, and got to see the world outside their tiny apartment through those movies – many of which, they would recreate, using ingenious means, turning everything they could find into material for props and costumes. Director Crystal Moselle met the brothers on one of their first trips outside their apartment on their own – when they were all dressed like Reservoir Dogs, and was eventually invited into their home to make this documentary – although she often lets the brothers take control of the camera, and the film itself.

On one level, The Wolfpack is an inspirational movie – the type that Hollywood loves, because it is about the love of movies, and how they can inspire people to become their best selves. Three recent Oscar winners – The Artist, Argo and Birdman – were about that in various ways, as they represent the good that art in general – and movies specifically- can do. For the Argulo brothers, you can argue that movies have kept them sane – and made them see the world outside of their apartment. They may not have been able to leave physically, but mentally, they could whenever they wanted to. At a certain point, they realized that their lives were not normal, and eventually gained the courage to leave – and start their own lives.

On another level though, The Wolfpack is a very sad movie – about a father who seems like a failed cult leader, who wanted to brainwash and control his family, who kept them under lock and key for years, and although he seems like a quiet man when interviewed in the movie, should perhaps be in jail. It’s to the documentary’s credit that it lets viewers decide how to take the movie. The movie doesn’t really judge its subjects – and Moselle quite clearly cares for the sons, and the mother, in the family – her feelings about the father are ambivalent at best. And while watching the movie, it’s easy to forget the darker aspects of this story. The sons seem happy and well-adjusted – friendly with each other, and Moselle. If their father had power over them – it’s gone now. He comes across as pathetic more than anything – a sad man whose goals are going unfulfilled.

The film is Moselle’s first, and refreshingly, she askews much of the standard issue documentary material than often drag down movies like this. There are no talking heads, no stats or other title cards, no one offering a larger perspective on the brothers. It really is an intimate documentary that allows its subjects to be at its core, and doesn’t look much beyond them. It doesn’t need to. This is a fascinating story all by itself – and Moselle was smart enough to see that, and let it play out in front of her camera.

Movie Review: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Directed by: Roy Andersson.
Written by: Roy Andersson.
Starring: Holger Andersson (Jonathan), Nils Westblom (Sam), Viktor Gyllenberg (Karl XII), Lotti Törnros (Flamenco Teacher), Jonas Gerholm (Lonesome Lieutnant), Ola Stensson (Captain / Barber), Oscar Salomonsson (Dancer), Roger Olsen Likvern (Caretaker), Mats Ryden (Man at the busstop), Göran Holm (Bargäst).

Swedish director Roy Andersson has made a career out of making one, very specific kind of film – the type that critics like to bring out other directors to try and explain – most often, in Andersson’s case, that he’s like “Jacques Tati meets Ingmar Bergman” (some will say Buster Keaton inside of Tati, and others – who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about will say Chaplin – although Bergman usually stays, probably because of the whole Swedish thing). It’s not a bad comparison – as Andersson’s films do call filmmakers like those to mind. The films are often hilarious – in a deadpan way, like Tati or Keaton – but also delve into some very serious subject matter. They are made up of individual scenes – often completely unconnected to the rest of the movie (although, he will come back to certain characters) – and his camera doesn’t move, and each scene is one shot. His films offer little vignettes of life, death, comedy, tragedy, etc. His breakthrough film was Songs from the Second Floor (2000), and it took him seven years to follow that up with You, the Living, and another seven before he made his latest A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Andersson, I think, is rather lucky that it takes so long between films. There is a limited as to what one can do with films like these – and Andersson has reached that limit. But the long gaps in between mean he is greeted with a little more enthusiasm than if, say, he released these three films in three straight years.

There is nothing wrong with A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (that title, by the way, has to be a joke, right – as if Andersson decided to name his film as if he had made the most pretentious art film in history). The film works in its individual scenes – and there are a few near the end when Andersson completely forgoes the comedy to create some of the more disturbing, and haunting, images you will likely see in a theater this year that I’m still trying to wrap my head around (should they be there? Is Andersson saying anything here, or doing it for shock value? I’m honestly not sure).

For the most part, I enjoyed the purely stand alone scenes best – like a trio at the beginning about three unrelated deaths, that are tragic and hilarious in equal measure, or the flashback of an old man to his war days in the same bar which turns into a musical number. Andersson comes back – repeatedly – to a two salesman, trying to sell the sadness novelty joke items imaginable – and it’s probably too often, as he establishes that they are pathetic, and doesn’t do much else with them.
 
But there is, as I said, a limited to how well a film like this can ever work – and personally, I think there is a law of diminishing returns at work here. I remember watching Songs from the Second Floor around the time it came out on DVD – and being amazed by it. I was in college at the time, and had never seen anything quite like it. But with this film, I feel like I have seen it before – and that Andersson is simply repeating himself. The film works – I had fun for the most part, and the film certainly does offer a memorable experience, something that cannot be said about a lot of films. Still, the thrill of seeing something new is gone with Andersson – and one hopes that he tries something different next time out.

Movie Review: Slow West

Slow West
Directed by: John Maclean.
Written by: John Maclean.
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee (Jay Cavendish), Michael Fassbender (Silas Selleck), Ben Mendelsohn (Payne), Caren Pistorius (Rose Ross), Andrew Robertt (Werner), Rory McCann (John Ross), Kalani Queypo (Kotori).

It doesn’t surprise me that Slow West is writer/director John Maclean’s first film. It feels like a first film – albeit, the first film of a talented writer/director who probably has a bright future ahead of him. The film calls to mind filmmakers like the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch among many others – it’s a Western full of violence and comedic moments, but with a quiet tone. Like the Westerns of the Coens and Jarmusch – and many others over the years – Maclean’s want to de-mystify the West – paint it as a violent, confusing place, not the place of heroes and “real men” of the classical Western, but a worse place. That may not be an overly original vision – but it works here, as it has in the past.

The film stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as Jay – a young Scotsman who has come to America in search of Rose (Caren Pistorius), a young woman he’s in love with, who had to flee their native land along with her father because they became wanted criminals, which may or may be Jay’s fault. To Jay, Rose is perfection personified, but the movie never mistakes her for that. It shows us, fairly early, that Rose and her father went from being wanted in Scotland, to being wanted in America as well, and there’s no evidence to suggest she feels remotely like Jay does towards her. He never shuts up about Rose – she never mentions Jay. Jay is spotted early on by Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) – a hardened cowboy, with a violent past, who immediately knows Jay will never make if he doesn’t help him – so he does just that. Not out of the kindness of his heart mind – he charges Jay a lot to act as his guide, and fully plans on collecting the reward on Rose and her daddy when they find them (something he doesn’t tell Jay). Like many a Western hero before him, Silas has a former gang – this one led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), who also want to collect that money, and tag along right behind.

Slow West is an apt title for the movie – it certainly doesn’t move fast. It’s more interested in the journey across the West than the destination as well. The film takes some odd detours – singing Africans make an appearance, an odd German named Werner, violent episodes. The three main performances – by Smit-McPhee, Fassbender and Mendelsohn – pretty much play things straight – they would be at home in a 1950s Delmer Daves –Western, which works for the odd tone of the movie, which Maclean establishes through his dialogue, and serio-comic nature of the film, that gives way to violence. The climax of the movie seems to me like Maclean acknowledging he has no other way to end the film, so he may as well give audiences the type of shootout they expect from a Western – but even still winking at the audience during it (no more so than in moment where someone quite literally gets salt in their wound).

Maclean has learned from the best – and it shows in Slow West. The Coen’s True Grit and Jarmusch’s Dead Man are obvious inspirations – but there are elements of many other directors sprinkled throughout the film. Many first time filmmakers make films that resemble that of their idols, before they find their own, distinct voice. Slow West feels like that type of film – not a great film, but an early film of a great director. Let’s hope I’m right.

Movie Review: Manglehorn

Manglehorn
Directed by: David Gordon Green.
Written by: Paul Logan.
Starring: Al Pacino (A.J. Manglehorn), Holly Hunter (Dawn), Chris Messina (Jacob), Harmony Korine (Gary), Natalie Wilemon (Clara Massey), Skylar Gasper (Kylie).


David Gordon Green’s career has been an odd one. I loved his first four films – George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003), Undertow (2004) and Snow Angels (2007) – which were very small, intimate portraits of real people, that often drew comparisons to the work of Terrence Malick (who produced Undertow). But, nobody really saw those films – no matter how good they were – and so Green moved over into mainstream comedy – finding success in Pineapple Express (2008), and then utter failure in Your Highness and The Sitter (both 2011). He’s now in an odd spot in his career – trying to do something smaller and more personal, but still make it somewhat mainstream. His last two films – Prince Avalanche (2013) with Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as road workers in the middle of nowhere, and Joe (2014) with Nicolas Cage as an ex-con and the bond he forms with a teenage boy were both good (especially Joe), but he hasn’t reached the heights of his early career either. His latest, Manglehorn, tries some interesting things – both visually and with sound – and features two very good performances, by Al Pacino and Holly Hunter, but is so slight that there isn’t enough here to sustain a movie. You could have said the same thing about Green’s earliest films – but those had the rhythm of real life. Manglehorn feels somehow slight and contrived at the same time.

Pacino stars in the title role as AJ Manglehorn, an elderly locksmith who has been pining away from the same woman for decades now – writing her long letters that always come back return to sender, but he writes them anyway. He was married once – not to the woman he is so in love with – and had a son, Jacob (Chris Messina) – who doesn’t much like him, and doesn’t have a reason to – although Manglehorn does get along with his granddaughter. A younger woman at the bank, Dawn (Holly Hunter), does seem to like him though – he’s the friendly old customer who talks about his cat, and asks about her dog. Then there’s Gary – an old classmate of Jacob’s, played by director Harmony Korine – although what the hell he’s doing in the movie is anyone’s guess, no matter how amusing he can be.

The best thing you can say about Manglehorn is that it’s one of Pacino’s best recent performances – and his quietest. Pacino has – throughout his career – gone bombastic as often as not (and why not, when you’re as good at going bombastic as he is) – but it has become a crutch to him in recent years. Here – as in The Humbling from earlier this year – Pacino is trying, and succeeding, in toning that down. This is a quiet performance of a heartbroken, soft spoken man. He’s quiet, socially awkward, more than a little creepy – but he feels somewhat real. It’s perhaps even more of an accomplishment that Hunter makes her attraction to this man even slightly believable – as it makes no logical sense.

Other than that – and a few moments where Green experiments with visuals and sound – there isn’t much to Manglehorn. It’s a rather sad movie of a life wasted – that in the late stages he finally decides to move beyond. It’s a sad little movie – but there just isn’t enough here to make it worthwhile. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Movie Review: Jurassic World

Jurassic World
Directed by: Colin Trevorrow.
Written by: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly based on characters created by Michael Crichton.
Starring: Chris Pratt (Owen), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire), Vincent D'Onofrio  (Hoskins), Ty Simpkins (Gray), Irrfan Khan (Simon Masrani), Nick Robinson (Zach), Jake Johnson (Lowery), Omar Sy (Barry), BD Wong (Dr. Henry Wu), Judy Greer (Karen), Lauren Lapkus (Vivian), Brian Tee (Hamada), Katie McGrath (Zara).

The day before I watched Jurassic World, I went back and re-watched Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Jurassic Park for the first time in about 15 years – and then I went and re-read Roger Ebert’s review of Spielberg’s film. Watching Jurassic Park again, I remain convinced that my opinion on the film all these years is right – it’s nowhere near great Spielberg, but is an all-around solid film, expertly crafted with great special effects. What struck me about after watching the film, and reading Roger Ebert’s review, and then watching Jurassic World, and reading a few pieces about it (including one in Flavorwire about the difference between World and Park), is how similar the comments of contemporary critics of both Park and World saw the films (even if, overall, the reviews for Park were better). Ebert complained about Jurassic Park, that in the 18 years between when Spielberg made Jaws and when he made Jurassic Park, attention spans had gotten shorter – so instead of waiting an hour to reveal the shark, as in Jaws, we are staring at dinosaurs 20 minutes in Jurassic Park – and the difference between Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Jurassic Park was the sense of awe that the former inspired was mostly absent from the later. Reading the Flavorwire piece by Jason Bailey, he’s pretty much arguing the same thing – except saying that Jurassic Park was an example of patience in filmmaking, and Jurassic World was the one rushing. The odd thing is this – I think both Ebert and Bailey are right. If Spielberg “invented” the blockbuster in Jaws 40 years ago, they have continue to evolve (in some good, and many bad) ways in the decades since. Jaws would practically be a slow paced art house film today – if it was made at all. The speed in which blockbusters move changed a lot in the 18 years between Jaws and Jurassic Park – and have changed a lot more in the 22 years since.

Spielberg didn’t directed Jurassic World of course – and to give Colin Trevorrow credit, he knows all of this as well. Jurassic’s World’s narrative – which ignores both the Lost World and Jurassic Park III – is pretty much a commentary on the difficulty of making sequels these days. From characters complaining that showing people dinosaurs is no longer enough – everyone wants things that are bigger, faster louder and more violent – and making jokes about product placement in the park – and how the “original” park was more pure – Trevorrow is playing with the expectations of the genre, mocking the conventions, while, of course, completely giving in to them at the same time. It’s more than a little bit of a cheat – trying to avoid criticisms by making them all themselves first – and isn’t totally successful, but hey, perhaps it’s better than not addressing them at all.

The plot of Jurassic World is about the theme – now more than a decade old, built on the same island that served as the original Park back in 1993 – which is still popular, but needs to be constantly be coming up with something new. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is now in charge of the park, and is getting ready to unveil the park’s most recent attraction – a hybrid dinosaur they have named Indominus Rex – which is part T-Rex, and part a lot of other things as well (exactly what is something the movie milks for all it’s worth, revealing only one at a time, when it’s convenient to the plot). Of course, the Indominus Rex escapes, going on a killing spree – mostly of dinosaurs, but really of anything it comes across. And of course, it concentrates on a couple of kids in danger – in this case, Claire’s two nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins), who are both incredibly smart, and incredibly stupid. And, of course, there is a roguish hero – raptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt), who struts around and saves the day, as well as a complete idiot (Vincent D’Onofrio) who thinks he can take those same raptors, and turn them into weapons. There isn’t an original bone in Jurassic World’s body – as it is made up of bits and pieces of other, mostly better blockbusters, amped up for 2015 audiences.

I could complain about a few other things. The movie is fairly sexist in its depiction of Claire – who the movie wants to be a classic female archetype – the uptight woman who needs to let her guard down and little bit and loosen up – preferably with the help of a roguish leading man. Think Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen for an example – except, of course, that movie was made in 1951, and perhaps Trevorrow and company could have come up with something more original, and less retrograde, for their female lead. I’m also not quite sure what another female character did to deserve the most over-the-top, and surprisingly brutal and extended death in the movie, but it seemed unnecessarily harsh to me.

Still, I have to admit that in many regards, Jurassic World does deliver what it sets out to do. To quote Ebert’s review of Jurassic Park “Because the movie delivers on the bottom line, I'm giving it three stars. You want great dinosaurs, you got great dinosaurs.” That’s true of Jurassic World – which is at its best when it leaves behind the human characters, and concentrates on the dinosaurs themselves – especially when they are fighting each other, which is often (hell, the movie almost goes full kaiju fight at the climax). Pratt tries to be more serious here than in other films - but it's telling that the few moments that humor creep into his character are the most memorable.

Jurassic World is hardly a great movie – but then again, none of the Jurassic Park movies are truly great movies. The original is still the best, and the rest all have flaws, but have moments that are fun. Jurassic World delivers what summer blockbuster audiences in 2015 want – which is both why the film works, and why it seems so utterly familiar.
 
 

Movie Review: Insidious Chapter 3

Insidious Chapter 3
Directed by: Leigh Whannell.
Written by: Leigh Whannell.
Starring: Dermot Mulroney (Sean Brenner), Stefanie Scott (Quinn Brenner), Angus Sampson (Tucker), Leigh Whannell (Specs), Lin Shaye (Elise Rainier), Tate Berney (Alex Brenner), Michael Reid MacKay (The Man Who Can't Breathe), Steve Coulter (Carl), Hayley Kiyoko (Maggie).

There is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to horror sequels mainly because it’s hard to fool audiences with the same story twice –let alone three or more times. The original Insidious was a ridiculous horror movie – full of silly plotting, but is also wonderfully creepy and downright scary – directed with an overload of style by James Wan, with a screenplay by Leigh Whannell, who knew it was ridiculous, and had fun with it anyway. It was a wonderful horror movie – one of the best mainstream ones in the past few years. Insidious Chapter 2 wasn’t as good – it did feel more like a repeat than anything else, although once again, the film was wonderfully directed by Wan. James Wan has left the series, as director anyway, in the third installment – in order to do Furious 7 – by his longtime collaborator, Whannell (who wrote Saw, Dead Silence and the first two Insidious movies for Wan) makes his directorial debut for the third installment. No, Whannell is no Wan behind the camera – I hope Wan doesn’t get lost in blockbusters, and comes back to horror at some point, where he truly excels – but he does a decent enough job copying the style, and giving the audience some solid scares in the movie. The movie never quite takes off however – never drew me enough to make me forget how silly it was. The scares work – but not much else.

Although its entitled Chapter 3, this is actually a prequel to the first two Insidious movies – presumably it takes place sometime in the mid-2000s, judging on the cell phones the teenagers in the film use. It stars Stefanie Scott as Quinn Brenner, a high school senior, still reeling from the death of her mother, and the fact that quiet father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) has trouble expressing his feelings, and expects her to take care of her younger brother. Quinn seeks out Elise (Lin Shaye) – our link to the previous movies – because she wants to contact her mother on the other side. Elise wants to help – but says she cannot – it may kill her to enter the darkness again. But she advises Quinn to stop trying to contact her mother. After all, when you call out to one of the dead – they can all hear you. After a horrific car accident breaks both of her legs, she is stuck in the family apartment – and something is after her.

All of the Insidious movies have been ridiculous in terms of plot – but the first movie worked because its character felt real and the movie was genuinely unsettling and scary. Wan is an expert at horror movie atmosphere – and rarely relies on blood and gore to try and scare, but rather likes to build up the tension gradually. Insidious worked because of this – and Insidious Chapter 2 comes close to working because of the style, and the residual good will we felt towards the cast. Unfortunately, those are two things lacking in Chapter 3. The style isn’t quite as good – while Whannell tries to follow Wan’s lead in building atmosphere, he isn’t quite up to the task. In terms of characters, it’s a pleasure to watch character actress Lin Shaye continue to steal these movies – when the movie concentrates on the other characters, it is nowhere near as good. Mulroney is mistakes blank stares with subtle depth, and Scott isn’t given much to do except look pretty or scared or both throughout the movie.

Perhaps Whannell would have been better served to try a new series for his directorial debut. Stepping into the shoes of Wan was too big for him. He is a decent enough director – he may well direct a fine horror movie, and soon – but he cannot replicate Wan’s style completely. Nor should he want to. Insidious Chapter 3 delivers the scares the fans of the series expect – and not much else. It isn’t a horrible film to be sure, but like many horror sequels, we already know what will happen when we walk in – and the film does nothing really to surprise us.
 

Movie Review: Red Army

Red Army
Directed by: Gabe Polsky.

Growing up in Canada in the early 1980s and 1990s, the biggest rivalry in hockey was always between Canada and the U.S.S.R. – and then later Russia. At every world juniors, or various Canada Cup tournaments, it inevitably came down to Canada vs. the Russians for all the marbles. The rivalry started all the back in 1972 – with the so-called Summit Series, that everyone in Canada assumed we would win – and although we eventually did – it literally came down to the final seconds in the final game to do it. If you loved hockey in Canada – and who doesn’t – you hated the Russians. But at the time, I had no idea of the politics behind the U.S.S.R. – or what the Cold War was (sue me, I was born in 1981), so watching Red Army – Gabe Polsky’s excellent documentary about Soviet hockey from the late 1970s to early 1990s – is enlightening, as well as entertaining. Great hockey movies are few and far between (Slap Shot, Goon, and what else? The Last Gladiators? Miracle? The Rocket? The Mighty Ducks? Youngblood? – you can see the trouble here), so this is a must see for hockey fans.

Polsky’s documentary concentrates mainly on Slava Fetisov – who was the captain of the Soviet team for much of the 1980s, and is considered one of the greatest defensemen in hockey history. As a kid, he worked hard just to make the Red Army program – and then had to work even harder once he made it. His first coach was the beloved Anatoly Tarasov, who was a great mentor, and treated the players with respect. But he upset the government – so he was banished, replaced by a KGB appointee, Viktor Tikhonov, who was brutal in his cruelty and demands he placed on his players. They trained 11 months of the year, had to live together, away from their families – and basically had little say in anything they did. The Red Army team was a huge source of pride for the Soviets – who spared no expense in making them the best team in the world – which, for a long time, they were. Even as the “Evil Empire” started to sputter during the 1980s, the hockey team excelled. 

Fetisov is a great interview subject for Polsky – so it`s no surprise he chooses him to filter the experiences of the whole team through although it`s completely logical when you consider that if you`re making a documentary of the period, you’d have to pick one of the famed five man unit that so dominated during that time, and two of them are no in this movie at all (so, we can assume, said no), one is known for not saying much, and the fifth is the only member who sided with the hated Tikhonov when he and Fetisov clashed after the Calgary Olympics in 1988. It`s also good because Fetisov returned to Russian in the early 2000s, where he became Minister of Sport – and helped to rebuild the hockey program there. He has recently made headlines again – saying he wants to keep Russian hockey players in Russia until they are 28 years old – so they’ll stay in the KHL, instead of leaving for the NHL as teenagers. If that sounds hypocritical – considering Fetisov eventually left for the NHL himself, and only after a protracted battle with the Soviet government (unlike some of his teammates, he refused to give part of his contract to the cash strapped government) – well, that`s because it is. But at the same time, as Fetisov points out in this documentary, he did stay in Russia, and played for the National team for years, and loved it, before he left to make money in the NHL. He simply wants today’s crop of Russian players to do the same. That doesn’t make what he wants right – anyone should be allowed to choose where they want to play if they’re good enough – but does make it somewhat understandable.

I think that ultimately, that is what makes Red Army work so well – how it captures the way that players like Fetisov could both love and hate playing for the Red Army team. He is proud of everything he accomplished, and loved his fellow players like brothers – but hated his coach, and the way he was treated.

The film is also just fascinating as Fetisov shares his memories of travelling to the West for the first time – to play in various exhibitions against Canadian teams, always accompanied by KGB agents, to ensure no one defected. The film could have done a slightly better job at covering the actual hockey however – and how the five man unit worked then, but has been disastrous for the Russians in recent years. The film is also a little harsh in calling the North American game as crude – but that may well be bias on my part. As a film, it is slightly more interesting than most documentaries – using some interesting visuals to break up the monotony of the typical talking head/archival footage that dominates most of the movie.

Red Army is a fascinating documentary – one that paints a picture of player and team, but also places it in a larger political context. It is a great hockey movie – but it’s more than that as well.

Movie Review: McFarland

McFarland
Directed by: Niki Caro.
Written by: Christopher Cleveland & Bettina Gilois & Grant Thompson.
Starring: Kevin Costner (Jim White), Ramiro Rodriguez (Danny Diaz), Carlos Pratts (Thomas Valles), Johnny Ortiz (Jose Cardenas), Rafael Martinez (David Diaz), Hector Duran (Johnny Sameniego), Sergio Avelar (Victor Puentes), Michael Aguero (Damacio Diaz), Diana Maria Riva (Señora Diaz), Omar Leyva (Señor Diaz), Valente Rodriguez (Principal Camillo), Danny Mora (Sammy Rosaldo), Maria Bello (Cheryl White), Morgan Saylor (Julie White), Elsie Fisher (Jamie White).

I have seen my share of inspirational, Disney sports movies based on a true story before – and quite often, I have enjoyed them. Yes, they are all basically the same story – with a white man in need to redemption, who takes on the challenge of coaching a ragtag group of minority kids that no one believes in to do amazing things. The white coach always has an ulterior motive – usually, a better job, and his team will eventually find out and get mad at him for abandoning him – even though, of course, the coach learns what’s truly important by the end. The minorities – and doesn’t matter which minority, these movies treat them all the same – are all archetypes, and never presented with as much depth as the white coach – even while the movie preaches tolerance and understanding. Yes, these movies are mainly extremely cynical attempts to draw some tears from its audience, and yet, although the formula is the stalest imaginable, if done well, I still cannot help but be won over by them.

The latest film in this vein is McFarland – and its story is a checklist of those clichés, as disgraced football coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) takes the only teaching job he can find – in McFarland, a town that is almost all Mexican immigrants, who make their living picking crops. White hates it there – is more than a little condescending to those in his new town – but slowly realizes that some of these Mexican kids can run! If he can make them into a star track team, maybe he can get them back to the life they are supposed to have. You know the rest.

The film is directed by Niki Caro – who has yet to match the promise of her debut film, Whale Rider (2002) – who, to give her credit, I think knows just how clichéd the whole project is, and tries her best to do something different with it. She, and the screenwriters, do try to present the Mexican kids – and their families – as real people, with real problems. And Costner continues his recent run of natural performances – he is so much better now that he is no longer a big movie star, and can now be what he is best at – a character actor.

But the clichés, and other problems, ultimately undoes most of the good intentions of the film itself. For one things, at over two hours, the film could have used a significant cut in the runtime – there is nothing inherently exciting about long distance running –and even less so about training for long distance running. The opening scenes in the film are dreadful – and it takes a while to recover. While parts of the movie seem to be trying to do something new with the familiar formula – most of it simply re-enforces the clichés in the genre.

McFarland is merely an adequate example of something Disney has done before – and far better. In a world where it seems like one of these movies is playing on cable at any hour of the day or night, there really is no reason to see to McFarland. Just wait for the next repeat of Remember the Titans or Miracle. They’ll be on any minute now.

Movie Review: Run All Night

Run All Night
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra.
Written by: Brad Ingelsby.
Starring: Liam Neeson (Jimmy Conlon), Ed Harris (Shawn Maguire), Joel Kinnaman (Mike Conlon), Boyd Holbrook (Danny Maguire), Bruce McGill (Pat Mullen), Genesis Rodriguez (Gabriela Conlon), Vincent D'Onofrio (Detective Harding), Lois Smith (Margaret Conlon), Common (Andrew Price), Beau Knapp (Kenan Boyle), Patricia Kalember (Rose Maguire), Daniel Stewart Sherman (Brendan), James Martinez (Detective Oscar Torres).

Had Run All Night been made in the 1970s – by a director like William Friedkin – it may well have been a great, dark, gritty, violent thriller. It feels like that is what the movie wants to be – and had it been directed like that, it could have been great. The problem is that they hired Jaume Collet-Serra to direct, and Liam Neeson to star in the film, and the pair of them want to treat the film like the flashy, modern thrillers they have collaborated on before – Unknown (2011) and Non-Stop (2014). That’s the wrong tone for the movie, and ruins what could have been a gritty little entertainer.


In the film, Neeson stars as Jimmy Conlon – a onetime mob enforcer, now drowning himself in alcohol and regret. His childhood friend, Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) is a powerful mob boss, who continue to support Jimmy. They both have adult sons – Mike (Joel Kinnaman), is Jimmy’s son, and wants nothing to do with him and his way of life, while Danny (Boyd Holbrook) is following Shawn into the business. A series of coincidences and violence, ends with Danny dead, by Jimmy`s hand, and Shawn sending his minions after both father and son, who are forced to band together, and try to survive one long night.

The film works best when it doesn’t seem to be trying very hard. The whole movie takes place at night, and the visual look mirrors the darkness of the themes of violence passed down from one generation to the next. This is the type of thing that has been done in countless crime movies before this one – but it’s been done that often, because it works. When the film calms down, and simply allows Jimmy and Shawn – and to a lesser extent Mike – just be themselves.

The film missteps though in the action sequences. The action sequences take what is otherwise a dark thriller, and puts a high gloss sheen on them that doesn’t work. Not only that, but Jimmy, who has been setup to be rather pathetic, a shell of his former self, all of a sudden turned into the Neeson of the Taken movies.

Run All Night would have been smart to take its lead from last year`s indie, revenge drama Blue Ruin – Jeremy Saulnier`s brilliant, violent film where the violence comes on suddenly, is bloody, but also clumsy. What they do instead, is stage them like a typical action movie, and it simply doesn’t work.

There have been a lot of jokes about Neeson, the action star, in the last few years – many of them are deserved, as the Taken movies, along with Unknown and Non-Stop are pretty bad. But there have been some gems as well – like Joe Caranhan’s The Grey, about Neeson and wolves, or last years A Walk Among the Tombstones, by Scott Frank. Had one of them directed Run All Night, I have a feeling the film could have been wonderful. In the hands of Collet-Serra, it becomes yet another film where Neeson shows off his very special skills.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Movie Review: Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy
Directed by: Bill Pohlad.
Written by: Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner.
Starring: Paul Dano (Brian Past), John Cusack (Brian Future), Elizabeth Banks (Melinda Ledbetter), Paul Giamatti (Dr. Eugene Landy), Jake Abel (Mike Love), Kenny Wormald (Dennis Wilson), Erin Darke (Marilyn Wilson), Brett Davern (Carl Wilson), Bill Camp (Murry Wilson).

A few weeks ago, I re-watched the 2007 film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which mercilessly rips the musician biopic to shreds – pointing out just how ridiculous they are, with their stream of cameos, and lightning bolts of inspiration, which ties every hit song in an artist’s life with a specific event. I enjoyed the film even more than I did back in 2007 – in part because although those tropes and clichés had been well established when the movie came out; filmmakers still use them every time they make a new biopic of a musical genius. I was thinking about that film when I sat down to watch Love and Mercy – about Brian Wilson, the troubled genius behind The Beach Boys – wondering whether I would see yet another version of the same story, with the details changed. I am happy to report that while Love and Mercy doesn’t wholly get away from those clichés – it mainly does. It doesn’t really try to cover all of Wilson’s life – but rather two specific periods in it. The first, in the mid-1960s, when a young Wilson, brilliantly played by Paul Dano, goes into a studio and ends up creating Pet Sounds – considering one of the greatest albums ever made (which is currently playing as I write this review) – despite the fact his own mental illness is making it harder for him to function, and the fact that so few people seem to share his inspired vision. The second comes some two decades later, when Wilson (now played by John Cusack) has almost completely succumbed to his mental illness – as he’s under the “care” of Dr. Eugene Landy, who controls every aspect of Wilson’s life – which he seems unable to do himself, and how a cars sales lady, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), eventually draws him back to the world of the living.

To be honest, it takes a while for these two storylines, which director Bill Pohlad cuts between, to start to feel like they are the story of the same man. That’s basically because it took a while for me to except Cusack as Wilson – partly because he doesn’t look the least bit like Dano (who looks uncannily like Wilson), and partly because it’s such a different role for Cusack in general. This is the actor who always seems to play the smart, articulate guy – the guy who can talk his way into or out of anything – and here he’s playing a painfully awkward, shy, quiet, introvert tormented by his mental illness internally, and Landy externally. I have no idea why Pohlad cast Cusack in this role – but once I settled into the movie, I have to say he made a good choice – the performance works, even if this segment of the movie isn’t quite as good as the one in the 1960s. Partly, that’s just because it’s more conventional – a love story between two unlikely lovers, who have to overcome those who want to keep them apart. But because Cusack and especially Banks are so good, they sell the story, and make it quietly heartbreaking – before the happy ending. Giamatti doesn’t give much depth to Landy – he’s clearly evil from the start – but it’s still an effective performance.

What makes Love and Mercy special though is the 1960s segments with Dano. Dano has quietly been building an impressive, if somewhat low-key resume, in the past few years – and here he gives one of the best performances of the year so far. Everyone around Wilson can sense there is something not quite right with him – when he withdraws from the latest tour to concentrate on their next album, he’s clearly uncomfortable. He acts somewhat strange in the studio as well – obsessively trying to get studio musicians to recreate the sounds that are stuck in his head. But in a burst of pure creative genius – the type he would never have again – he is able to finally create his masterpiece. Dano plays Wilson as a quiet, awkward guy – uncomfortable in social settings, and really only himself in the studio. In this segment, its Wilson’s father, Murry (Bill Camp), who steps into the Landy role of controlling man who Wilson cannot break free from. He used to manage the Beach Boys, but Wilson fired him – a crime for which he will never be forgiven – and Murry takes every opportunity he has to make Wilson feel horrible – something even some of his bandmates echo.

Love and Mercy cannot quite break free of the clichés of the biopic – having characters say things merely for the sake of the audience, etc. But refreshingly, it doesn’t indulge in the worse of them – there are no scenes where a sudden flash of inspirational because of a personal event makes Wilson write God Only Knows, or Wouldn’t It Be Nice (there is a scene where inspiration does strike to write Good Vibrations, but it’s not quite in the same vein of the past ones). Part of the reason why Love and Mercy works so well is probably do to writer Oren Moverman – who co-wrote the best musician biopic in recent years, I’m Not There about Bob Dylan, which also didn’t try to fully explain the enigmatic singer-songwriter. Love and Mercy is ultimately a very sympathetic movie to Wilson – a person for whom mental illness and musical genius lived side by side. But it doesn’t romanticize that either – the mental illness doesn’t cause the musical genius, but eventually stifles it. In that way, the movie is also quite tragic – just as Wilson was at the height of his genius, his illness stifles it – something that wouldn’t lift from him for years.
 
Love and Mercy will satisfy those looking for a biopic of Wilson, and to simply hear the music of the Beach Boys. But it also attempts to do more – and mainly succeeds. This is the perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster season.

Movie Review: Spy

Spy
Directed by: Paul Feig.
Written by: Paul Feig.
Starring: Melissa McCarthy (Susan Cooper), Rose Byrne (Rayna Boyanov), Jason Statham (Rick Ford), Jude Law (Bradley Fine), Miranda Hart (Nancy B. Artingstall), Allison Janney (Elaine Crocker), Morena Baccarin (Karen Walker), Bobby Cannavale (Sergio De Luca), Michael McDonald (Patrick), Peter Serafinowicz (Aldo), Björn Gustafsson (Anton).

Melissa McCarthy is never not funny. Even when she’s in dreck like Identity Thief, she has a few moments when she breaks free of the material for a few moments and gets some laughs. Spy is not dreck like Identity Thief – in fact, it’s one of McCarthy’s best films to date. Director Paul Feig – making his third film with McCarthy following Bridesmaids and The Heat – gets McCarthy, and knows she works best when he lets her off the leash – and lets her riff. What works best about Spy is that freedom seems to have extended to the supporting cast as well, who follow McCarthy’s lead, and seem more relaxed and free flowing. The price of this freedom is that often the movies lack some focus and structure – and tend to run a little too long. At two hours, Spy is too long – and it begins to run out of steam down the homestretch. But at its best, it is one of the funniest films of the year so far.

In the film, McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper – a CIA agent, who is stuck in a basement at Langley, helping a real spy, Bradley Fine (Jude Law), do his job. But then some bad things happen – Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) gets her hands on a suitcase nuke, and is willing to sell it to the highest bidder. She also knows the identity of all of the CIAs field agents, meaning they need someone completely new to go into the field. So, of course, they call in Susan – who heads off to Paris, and then other exotic locales, to try and stop the sale.

There are a lot of wonderful supporting characters in the field – none better than Rose Byrne, who continues to be the funniest woman in mainstream comedies not named Melissa McCarthy. She has a wall of hair, a ridiculous accent, and is seemingly willing to do anything to get a laugh –and gets a lot of them. Jason Statham is surprisingly good as one of the CIA Agent’s whose cover has been blown, but refuses to stop anyway. Statham plays it straight, which makes every ridiculous thing he says even funnier – especially coming from him, who has done most of the stuff his character claims in other movies. The best surprise in the supporting cast has to be Miranda Hart, as Susan’s best friend, and fellow basement dweller – who steals many of her scenes.

The movie belongs to McCarthy though – who, like in the past, grabs hold of the movie and will not let go. She is great in the early scenes as the meek, shy woman hiding her violent inner self –and perhaps even better later, when she lets that side out. The movie is basically a non-stop stream of jokes for McCarthy – and the average of those that work compared to those that do not is surprisingly high.

The film itself is not as good as McCarthy or Byrne, or the rest of the supporting cast, but its pretty close. Feig doesn’t shy away from violence in the film – it’s surprisingly gruesome at times, which is at odds with the comedic tone, but somehow works for the most part. The violence works best in short bursts however – the finale drabs on a little too long, and gets us away from the comedy, but it’s a small complaint.

Spy comes the closest of any movie to using McCarthy’s talents to their fullest potential – but I still don’t think it matches them. McCarthy is a talented, and versatile actress – just see her work on Gilmore Girls or in the under seen The Nines for proof. Spy lets us see a few different facets of what she can do – but still stays in her comfort zone. It’s clearly the movie her fans want – and it is hilarious. Still though, I would like to see a movie that truly lives up to her talent.

Movie Review: San Andreas

San Andreas
Directed by:  Brad Peyton.
Written by: Carlton Cuse and Andre Fabrizio & Jeremy Passmore.
Starring: Dwayne Johnson (Ray), Carla Gugino (Emma), Alexandra Daddario (Blake), Ioan Gruffudd (Daniel Riddick), Archie Panjabi (Serena), Paul Giamatti (Lawrence), Hugo Johnstone-Burt (Ben), Art Parkinson (Ollie), Will Yun Lee (Dr. Kim Park), Kylie Minogue (Susan Riddick).

No one walking into San Andreas is expecting great art. It is, after all, yet another film about a natural disaster – that follows the formula set out by Irwin Allen films of the 1970s (like The Towering Inferno in 1974 – that was inexplicably an Oscar nominee for Best Picture in one of the best years for American film in history) and brought back by Roland Emmerich in recent years (like in The Day After Tomorrow or 2012). These films are an admitted guilty pleasure for me, and normally I enjoy films like this. And there are a few nice touches in San Andreas that I liked. However, in an era when pretty much every blockbuster destroys entire cities, and bloodlessly kills off would probably be thousands or even millions of people, a movie like San Andreas feels even more warmed over that most films in this genre.

The movie is about a series of massive earthquakes that hit the San Andreas fault line in California, devastating the entire state. The movie mainly focuses on search and rescue helicopter pilot Ray (Dwayne Johnson), who essentially abandons his job to save his ex-wife (Carla Gugino), and then the two of them go searching for their teenage daughter (Alexandra Daddario), who is stuck in San Francisco with a pair of British brothers – a love interest for her, of course, and an adorable younger boy. Between these scenes, we flash to Paul Giamatti, as a Cal Tech scientist, who can now predict earthquakes. There are also scenes of Gugino's new boyfriend (Ioan Gruffudd), who is essentially playing the Richard Chamberlin role from The Towering Inferno, but instead of being sleazy and fun, he’s just a boring asshole.

The reason most people will go see the movie is to see massive devastation done with state of the art special effects – and to be fair, those scenes are pretty impressive, even if it’s the type of thing we seemingly see at the movies every week. But if that’s all you want to see, than the film pretty much delivers what you want. I also appreciated how there is at least a few scenes that reminded me of Spielberg's War of the Worlds – which painted a fairly dark portrait of humanity in times of crisis. Most of this is undone however by the closing scenes, which are laughably patriotic.

I just wish though that the movie gave us something to care about in terms of characters. Unlike, say, last year’s Godzilla – which was about the powerlessness of humanity in the face of environmental disasters – this one paints the opposite picture. If you’re a superman like The Rock, then you can survive. What’s disappointing about The Rock in the movie is he seems to be taking the whole thing seriously. He’s at his best when he allows his goofy charm to shine through. Here, he’s basically monotone from beginning to end. The talented Gugino fares even worse, as the movie gives her nothing to do. Surprisingly, Daddario fares better than either of them as Blake – who at least has some interesting notes to play. Giamatti is the best of the lot – he knows most of what he says is simply there for exposition purposes, and decides to have some fun with it as he cashes his paycheck.
 
San Andreas is hardly a bad movie. It’s the type of forgettable summer movie that kills a couple of hours, and then is forgotten. It has zero ambition beyond that. I wish it did – at least a little bit. As it stands, I would recommend staying at home and watching your favorite environmental disaster movie – its undoubtedly going to better than this.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Movie Review: The Nightmare

The Nightmare
Directed by: Rodney Ascher.

Rodney Ascher’s last film, Room 237, was a brilliant documentary about a number of people obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. That film plunges us into their minds – as the entire film is just them talking over clips from the movie, and contains perspective outside the people who are describing what they believe The Shining is “really” about. Some (including Stephen King, and many associated with Kubrick) seem to have misunderstood the film – as Ascher wasn’t advocating any of the crazy theories on display, but instead was making a movie about the obsession the viewers have with The Shining – and the dangers of overanalyzing something.

His new documentary, The Nightmare, tries something similar. This is a documentary about “sleep paralysis”, a condition where people awake paralyzed in their bed. To make matters worse, they experience visions – surprisingly consistent – of dark, shadowy figures who, according to those interviewed – may just scare them, although one woman says she was raped one of these shadowy figures. Ascher interviews several people who suffer from the illness – shooting them at often odd angles, and then recreating the nightmarish visions they had. Once again, Ascher doesn’t provide any outside narration in the film – no doctors explaining the condition. Just several of sufferers themselves, telling their stories. What you make of them is up to you.

If nothing else, The Nightmare proves that Ascher could direct a great horror movie if he wanted to. The recreations of the nightmarish visions the subjects of the documentary have are its best part – atmospheric and scary. They brought to mind last year’s brilliant The Babadook – which isn’t a bad thing. Even the interviews themselves help to create the atmosphere of the movie. Ascher doesn’t shoot them in standard documentary style – instead using oft-kilter angles and strange camera placement. Ascher isn’t interested in making a typical documentary with The Nightmare – and at its best he succeeds. What Ascher – who has suffered from sleep paralysis himself – really wants to do, is place the audience in the headspace of the people who suffer from this – to make them realize how terrifying it really can be. In that, he succeeds.

Yet, in other areas, The Nightmare doesn’t really work that well at all. For one things, the film is awfully repetitive – as not only do the individual’s visions often repeat themselves, they are very similar to everyone else’s visions as well. For another, pretty much everyone in the documentary dismisses all possibility that the condition is psychological – or at least not purely so – and talk about something larger. Yes, I know that providing some expert narration on what we know about this condition goes against Ascher`s style – but in this, I really think it could have helped. By the end of The Nightmare, I feel I know a lot about what it’s like to suffer from sleep paralysis, but no idea what actually causes it – or really, what it is.

Room 237 was a great doc, and The Nightmare is not – yet it still clearly shows why Ascher is one of the documentary filmmaker working right know to keep an eye on. He is an interesting documentary filmmaker – one of the few who really does think of style as much as content – and he has an interesting strategy, of placing the audience in the headspace of someone they really do not want to be inside. The Nightmare is a passable doc – not much more – but it’s been made in a style that makes up for its shortcomings.

Movie Review: Spring

Spring
Directed by: Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead.
Written by: Justin Benson.
Starring: Lou Taylor Pucci (Evan), Nadia Hilker (Louise), Vanessa Bednar (Gail), Francesco Carnelutti (Angelo).

Spring mixes elements of horror and sci fi with the indie romcom stylings inspired by Richard Linklater. The resulting movie is as tonally inconsistent and messy as that brief description implies, as the elements don’t always fit very well together. But it’s also a fairly original and daring premise, and I admire directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead for attempting something this strange. It also helps that the performances by Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker are quite good – helping to anchor a ridiculous premise in something approaching a believable reality. Spring is such an interesting premise, that I want to forgive its inconsistencies.

The movie stars Pucci as Evan, a young American who has just lost his mother to cancer, a few years after losing his father to a car accident. He gets drunk, does some stupid things, and decides to get away from his life for a while- hoping a plane to Italy. He backpacks around for a while, meets some others doing the same thing, and finally settles for a time in a small town. He gets a job helping on the farm of Angelo (Francesco Carnelutti) – who looks like he’s approximately 90 – and then meets Louise (Hilker), a beautiful, young Italian girl who he is instantly smitten with. The pair have a few of those long walk and talks that come straight from Linklater’s Before films, before they fall into bed together. Everything appears to be perfect – until a shot of the pair in sleepy, post-coital bliss reveals that Louise is hiding a dark secret.

I’m not going to reveal more of the plot than that – as part of the pleasure of the movie is the unexpected twists and turns the plot take – most revolving around Louise’s secret – which is gruesome to be sure, but also somewhat sad and tragic as well. Thematically, the movie is about fear of commitment, and love for that matter. The movie lays this on fairly thickly at times – especially during the third act, which drags and becomes increasingly ridiculous.

The first hour of Spring is where the film is at its best. The opening scenes – of Pucci hanging out with his hipster friends and then taking off for Europe – makes the film feel like a typical Sundance film. Pucci – who has starred in more than a couple of those over the years – makes what could be an annoying, navel-gazing 20-something, into a sympathetic character – reeling from the loss of his parents, as he tries to find himself. At first, Hilker’s Louise looks like she may be a typical Sundance woman – beautiful, exotic and there simply to aid in the growth of the male lead – but where her secret becomes the focus of the movies twists, she becomes more interesting.
 
The film gets rather boldly sentimental in its final act – and to be honest, it doesn’t really work. As the film moves along, its gets sillier and more predictable, as the movie doesn’t really give itself many ways in which it can go. Overall though, I think Spring is a fascinating, original and rather daring little movie. No, it doesn’t quite work, but it’s such an odd film, I cannot dismiss it either.

Movie Review: The DUFF

The DUFF
Directed by: Ari Sandel .
Written by: Josh A. Cagan based on the novel by Kody Keplinger.
Starring: Mae Whitman (Bianca Piper), Robbie Amell (Wesley 'Wes' Rush), Bella Thorne (Madison Morgan), Bianca A. Santos (Casey Cordero), Skyler Samuels  (Jessica 'Jess' Harris), Romany Malco (Principal Buchanan), Nick Eversman (Toby Tucker), Chris Wylde (Mr. Filmore), Ken Jeong (Mr. Arthur), Allison Janney (Dottie).

If there’s any justice in the world, than Mae Whitman will become a movie star. All throughout The DUFF, she is lovable, funny, adorable, smart and engaging – which is a real accomplishment considering the film itself is yet another slightly warmed over teen movie that never even attempts to be the least bit original. The film is forgettable – Whitman is not.

In the film Whitman stars as Bianca, a high school senior who is slightly quirky – which to a movie like this, means she likes horror movies, and dresses in flannel. Her two best friends are gorgeous and popular, and Bianca isn’t either, although everyone seems to like her. Her next door neighbor Wes (Robbie Amell) – who is the captain of the football team, and her former childhood best friend, informs her that she is their DUFF – Designed Ugly Fat Friend – the approachable one in the group that guys feel comfortable around, and use to get to know her hotter friends. She had no idea that is how people see her – and she’s pissed – even though Wes explains that it’s just an expression – you don’t actually need to be fat or ugly to be a DUFF – which is good, since Whitman should be no one’s idea of ugly or fat. She is determined to become popular – she has a crush on another boy – and strikes a deal with Wes – she’ll help him pass science, and keep his football scholarship – and he’ll help her become more than a DUFF.

The movie reminded me of She’s All That – that forgettable ‘90s teen comedy in which Freddie Prinze Jr. turns the utterly gorgeous Rachel Leigh Cook into a prom queen – and realizes, well after everyone in the audience does – that he’s really in love with her. The same thing happens in The DUFF – Bianca and Wes clearly belong together – especially when compared to his bitch of a girlfriend (Bella Thorn) and the lunkhead Bianca likes, but of course, the pair of them do not realize it until the final scenes – at a dance, naturally.

Whitman is really the only reason to see The DUFF. She carries the entire movie, and keeps it from becoming a painful experience. But even Whitman isn’t good enough to save the movie, which hits every note you expect from the outset, and does so in the least interesting way possible. True, the film isn’t as bad as most teen comedies, but it wasn’t long into the movie before all hope of the film becoming the next Mean Girls was fruitless. The film is content to be as bland and inoffensive as possible. It proves Whitman should be a star – which makes it worthwhile – although next time, I hope she gets a movie that is up to her level.