Wednesday, September 30, 2015

[Review] Sleeping with Other People

New romantic comedies have it rough. The bad ones will fall victim to ridicule due to their cheesiness or lack of authenticity, and even the good ones will still get called out for their cliches. But don't all genres have cliches? There seems to be this notion that newer rom-coms need to be subversive in order to be considered "good". But can't a good rom-com just be a good rom-com? This year's Sleeping with Other People is in the same vein as other recent enjoyable explorations of platonic or no-attachment relationships, like last year's Daniel Radcliffe & Zoe Kazan starring What If, as well 2011's Mila Kunis & Justin Timberlake starring Friends With Benefits.

Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis are the couple here. Jake (Sudeikis) and Lainey (Brie) first meet in college dorms and have a one-night-stand. Lainey is presented as a stereotypical "drunk and loud white girl", and Jake is a fast-talking know-it-all and Beatles 'Stan' with Weezer and American Football posters on his walls. 12 years later, the two run into each other at a Sex Addicts meeting (yes, apparently they both turned out to be sex addicts). During the present time, the characters are significantly less obnoxious and way more likable (good call). Anyway, the two decide to start hanging out and attempt a "just friends" relationship, but we all know how that usually goes.

The humor here is nothing gut-busting, but there are plenty of chuckle-worthy lines of dialogue, as well as some funnily timed situations. There's a standout scene where Jake and Lainey go to one of their friends' son's birthday parties--high. Most of the comedy actually comes from Jake and Lainey's respective *advice-giving sidekicks* played by Jason Mantzoukas ("The League") and Natasha Lyonne ("Orange Is the New Black). Adam Scott and Amanda Peet (who was great in HBO's first season of "Togetherness") also have secondary roles.

But there comes a point in the story when it's clearly established that Jake and Lainey love each other (more than platonically), and that they need each other more than they need the other people that they're sleeping with. So it begs the question - Aside from a haphazard pact that they made, what is actually stopping them from just getting together? Nothing. They're mostly just standing in their own way for unfound reasons, so the stakes and conflict almost feel non-existent. And the ending drags more than it should. But even with that said, this film is still a gleefully pleasant experience. We're rooting for these two.

Very much like the aforementioned What If and Friends With Benefits, Sleeping with Other People doesn't necessarily subvert the rom-com cliches, and that's okay. It's just a good rom-com.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

[Review] Grandma

Lily Tomlin gives a great performance in Grandma. You can add this film to the list of pleasant movies that take place over the course of one day, as well as the list of great female-centric comedies of 2015.

The film opens amidst a scene of Elle (Tomlin) breaking up with her much younger girlfriend (played by Judy Greer). We get the impression that Elle is a bit misanthropic (that's an understatement, according to her) and has a disregard for the feelings of others. But we also learn that it's only been a year and a half since her partner (of 30 years) passed away. The very next scene shows Elle crying in the shower, so we know there's some dimension to her aside from being a big meanie.

Shortly after, her somewhat estranged 18-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at Elle's house. She need 630 dollars. For an abortion. But Elle is currently broke, so she begrudgingly takes Sage under her wing and they set out to scrap up some money in various ways. That's literally the plot. But of course, along the way some shenanigans ensue, old wounds open as Elle comes in contact with her past, and there is some major women power commentary throughout. When Elle decides to sell some books, she asks, "You've never heard of The Feminine Mystique?" and Sage says, "The X-Men character?"

Lily Tomlin is wonderful here. Her character becomes the endearing, no-nonsense curmudgeon. Even though she's pretty rude to multiple strangers, she spouts off some hilariously blunt things. And her tough love and protection for her granddaughter is something to behold. At one point, Elle beats Sage's jerky and unsupportive "boyfriend" with a hockey stick, and you might find yourself wanting to clap.

Grandma deals with a touchy subject, but it's a very sweet and genuine story, and a light spin on mother/daughter relationships. But it's so easygoing, and the runtime is only about 75 minutes, so the film might not end up being super memorable as a whole. However, Tomlin's character is one you won't forget.


Monday, September 28, 2015

[Review] Pawn Sacrifice

We've officially entered the Oscar season, so that means a lot of biopics and "Based On A True Story" films are on the way--some will hit the right spot, and others will be sleepy Blahs. Pawn Sacrifice, which stars Tobey Maguire as American chess sensation and complicated character, Bobby Fischer--is mostly a winner.

After opening with a scene of Bobby (Maguire) stressfully tearing apart his hotel room in search of bugs (the hidden microphone kind), we flash back to his childhood and witness his rise as a chess prodigy, as well as his resistance to being raised in a communist household. When he joins the ranks of the best chess players in the world as an adult, he and his lawyer/agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a priest (Peter Sarsgaard) set out on a chess tournament tour around the world. The film follows Fischer's chesscapades, extreme bouts of paranoia, and his rivalry with Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), as well as his personal battle against the Russians in general.

This could've been a brooding and dense (and yes, boring) experience, but thankfully it's way more accessible than anticipated. You don't have to know a lot about chess or Fischer's story to become engaged. There are subtle bits of humor, and the film moves at a fast pace as Fischer establishes his Rock Star status. His antics are emphasized: He shows up late for matches. Sometimes he just disappears all together. He makes odd requests. And he frequently yells at people. The filmmakers don't paint him as particularly likable, but he's interesting, and that's what matters here.

I've never been that high on Tobey Maguire's work, but he's impressively excellent here, and I don't think it would be farfetched to say that this is the best performance of his career. Sarsgaard and Stuhlbarg bring their 'A' games as well, particularly Stuhlbarg who continues his great run (seriously, his filmography is amazingly consistent and his turn on "Boardwalk Empire" is awesome). They're quite the amusing trio to watch. Aside from the solid performances, there's also some stellar dialogue throughout. A couple of choice exchanges: "Bobby has problems. / So did Mozart." and "Bobby's going to break. / He won't break. He'll explode."

Pawn Sacrifice might not have enough oomph to make it stand out from the heap of other Oscar hopefuls, but it's still a solid move.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

[Review] Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Here comes the sequel to The Maze Runner--the film series based on a set of YA novels that seem to occupy a space in The Hunger Games' shadow. The first film failed to establish its own world and suffered from "setup for the sequel" syndrome. Now, The Scorch Trails is bigger, intense-er, and more action-packed, but the whole thing still feels a little flat and can't get past its inherent flaws.

Picking up right where the last one left off, because the last one didn't really have a solid ending, Jonathan (Dylan O'Brien) and his fellow "Gladers" which include Thomas Sangster ("Game of Thrones") and Ki Hong Lee ("Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt") are transferred to a fortress run by a guy named Janson (Aidan Gillen, also "Game of Thrones"). There, they learn some disturbing information about a secretive diabolical organization called WCKD (Illuminati?). When they escape, they find themselves in another menacing maze of obstacles.

It's easy to wonder what the legitimate motivation behind the premises for these contemporary YA things are. They're prickly on metaphorical levels, so instead they come off as "What if?" situations. What if a bunch of young kids were tossed into an arena and forced to fight to the death? What if a bunch of young kids had their memories erased and were tossed into a giant, dangerous maze? It's forced spectacle -- spectacle that's drab and filled with depth-less characters and loads of exposition. And if there is meaning behind The Scorch Trials, I can't help but think it's all an allegory for sadistic hazing methods.

The Scorch Trials is crowded with filler, the action can get a bit tiring, and once again, there's an unsatisfying cliffhanger of an ending, so it never feels like a full-bodied feature. Yes, it does offer some thrills, a handful of the visuals (and creatures) are cool, and some new and intriguing characters are introduced later on (including another person from "Game of Thrones"). It's probably a fine theater experience for the fans of this stuff, but it just never is able to reach the next level. It's standing in its own way.


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

[Review] Cooties

When we were younger, we all were exposed to the rumor of boy and girl germs that went by the name of "cooties." Elijah Wood stars in this campy gorror comedy that takes the concept of cooties and makes it a real threat, while twisting in some zombie genre tropes.

It's Clint's (Wood) first day as a summer school substitute, and the kids are absolute assholes. As if things weren't already bad enough, there's a rampant cooties outbreak about to occur. During break, Clint casually says "One of my students tried to eat another one's face off, how is your day going?" The virus spreads as the kids go around scratching the shit out of each other during recess, turning into rabid and teacher-eating havoc-mongers. An all-out frenzy ensues as Clint and the remaining teachers try to survive and put an end to the nasty virus.

The film's loopy tone and offbeat humor is immediate, and there's some amusing turns from the supporting cast: Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, and Jack McBrayer. Some self-reflexive comedy sets in when the gym teacher yells at Elijah Wood's character, "Why don't you just sneak around like a little Hobbit..." The film is filled with goofy lines of dialogue, sight gags, and b-movie guts galore. There's also a pretty damn cool looking laser-lit funhouse scene during the climactic sequence.

Cooties drags out its thin premise a bit, and the film might not be crowd-pleasing enough to possess the potential cult appeal that it probably wants, but it's an entertaining viewing for this horror season, especially if you're tired of the serious glum of shows like "Fear The Walking Dead".


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

[Review] Everest

Everest is exactly what's advertised. A group of ambitious people set out to scale the cold, snowy, windy and unforgiving terrain of Mount Everest. The film is light on character, but it's a visual marvel of both beauty and peril.

Rob (Jason Clarke) leads the pack of mostly bearded men, others of which include Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, and Jake Gyllenhaal. Did the casting director have a thing for "J's"? Anyway, like many travel/adventure/survivor films, there is a lot of preparation and training that takes place before the departure, and there comes a point when you just want the group to get on that mountain (or tell them to reconsider). Thankfully, in the meantime there are some nice shots of the mountainside towns, as well as some breathtaking bridges that extend above stomach-knotting heights.

You don't need to be aware of the true story the film is based on to know that these peoples' fates are dreadful. Each time one of them calls their family members before they leave, you feel like saying "It's not too late to turn back, man!" Battles of masculinity, pride, and young vs. old fuel a little conflict between the dudes as they scale the mountain. But you can't help but think the smartest and best survivor would be the one that decides to turn back and go into safety.

As mentioned earlier, the characters are pretty shallow--with just basic backstories to their name (one of their wives is newly pregnant, so you know he's in trouble) and not much room to maneuver going forward. Jake Gyllenhaal has had some great lead turns lately, so it's disappointing that his role feels a bit wasted here as he sort of fades into the abyss, and others get lost in the shuffle.

With that said, since Everest is built on surface thrills, the character gripes don't come as a huge detriment. The film delivers some exhilarating scenery, especially toward the back half. And there's a particularly intense and eerie night storm sequence. You might get winded just watching it, but it'll also make you glad that you're in the comfort of a theater seat. Chances are, you won't even want to go near a mountain after this.


Monday, September 21, 2015

[Review] Black Mass

There was a time when Johnny Depp was racking up Oscar nominations (Pirates of the Caribbean, Finding Neverland, Sweeney Todd) within a short span, proving to be an actor that was on top of the world, critically and commercially. But after a few too many films with Tim Burton and some mediocre Mortdecai's, his reputable catalog took some frustrating turns, which is why it's so refreshing to see him take on the role of notorious Whitey Bulger in this gangster biopic.

South Boston in the '70s. When we first meet Bulger, he's in a bar getting irritated by the way some guy is sloppily eating out of the peanut dish. In a subsequent scene, after his young son gets in trouble for punching a bully at school, Bulger lectures him saying "You didn't get in trouble because you punched a sneaky brat in the face. You got in trouble because you punched a sneaky brat in the face in front of people." And that's Bulger in a nutshell. We're introduced to an extensive cast of characters early on, but it manages to not feel overstuffed. There's Whitey's girlfriend (Dakota Johnson), his politician brother (Benedict Cumberbatch), and FBI agent (Joel Edgerton). Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, Peter Sarsgaard, and Corey Stoll also make appearances.

Framed from the perspective of Bulger's former associates (one of which includes Jesse Plemons, whom you might know as Todd from "Breaking Bad"), the film profiles Bulger's life of brutal street crimes and his entangled schemes with the Feds. Regarding the film's relationship with the gangster genre, it draws from the greats like Goodfellas and The Departed, rather than Gangster Squad and other flops. The script is fully competent, and it has such a solid cast to bring it to life.

Johnny Depp is no stranger to playing real-life mobsters, from his turn as Joseph Pistone in Donnie Brasco, to John Dillinger in Public Enemies. While those roles were more driven by Depp's smoothness and charisma, Black Mass essentially un-Depps Johnny Depp, putting on the ugliness both inside and outside--Stained teeth, glazed blue "I'm dead inside" contacts, receding hair slick-back, and a permanent scowl. This look had the potential to be distracting, but Depp disappears right into it. There's an evil psychopath that lurks beneath. And even as cold-blooded as he is, this is the type of magnetic performance that makes you look forward to every moment he's on screen just to see how each conflictual and confrontational scene unfolds.

Black Mass is a well-wrought gangster drama. Sure, it might be in the shadow of other films that have come before it, the accuracies are questionable, and there isn't much substance to the whole thing aside from Bulger catching bodies, as well as the idea that he directly or indirectly ruins the life of damn near every person that comes in contact with him. But would you expect anything else?

* 8.5/10 *

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

[Review] Learning to Drive

Ben Kingsley plays an Indian man again, in this actually very pleasant indie dramedy Learning to Drive.

Darwan (Kingsley) is a calm Taxi driver who teaches students to drive on the side (not literally on the side, but you know what I mean). One night he befriends a woman named Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), who is reeling from a recent divorce. Wendy doesn't have her license, so she decides to take lessons from Darwan so she can drive visit her daughter.

This sounds a bit ho-hum, but the film is more about the blossoming of their friendship. In a sense, they both become each other's guides. And of course, the driving of the car serves as a metaphor for taking control of their lives in a positive and impactful manner, both for themselves and others around them, as well as steering clear of other people that do the opposite. "Not all drivers can be trusted!" Along the path, Darwan has to deal with his own struggles of being frequently discriminated against in a post-9/11 New York City.

As expected, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson both give really charming performances, and the film probably wouldn't thrive that well if they didn't. With light touches of humor and a lot of heart, Learning to Drive is a genuinely sweet story, and its pull is irresistible. It's the good schmaltz.


Monday, September 14, 2015

[Review] The Visit

Everyone is well aware about the mystery of director M. Night Shyamalan and his devolving track record. The topic has been frequently discussed, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time on it. Did he just strike gold and peak early? Is he trolling? Did the real one get abducted by aliens? Anyway, now we have The Visit--his spin on found-footage horror. It isn't a return to form, nor is it a complete disaster. While there are a lot of things wrong with the film, it's a decently satisfying horror entry, and his best effort in a long time.

A young, aspiring filmmaker (this explains why the whole stay is recorded) named Rebecca (Olivia (DeJonge) and her little brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould, who is painfully annoying at first, but that goes away once he stops attempting to rap) go and stay at their Grandma (Deanna Dunagan) and Grandpa's (Peter McRobbie) farmhouse for a few days. The grandparents have bouts with dementia and bowel disorders, and are apparently diagnosed with "sundown syndrome". So basically--they're a little strange during the day, but significantly stranger at night. Rebecca and Tyler contemplate whether it's just "old people being old people", or if something else is going on.

Unfortunately, Shyamalan doesn't fully avoid some of the pitfalls of the found-footage format. The story starts pretty slow, and there is the usual monkeying around with the camera. At least most of the shots are clear, instead of the fuzzy static look, but there is some shaky cam here that is sort of obnoxious. It's difficult not to think that the film probably would've been fine without the found-footage angle, but it isn't a total miscalculation because we do get some ominous POV shots. This makes The Visit a fairly fitting companion piece to this year's Creep.

For a while, the film occupies a space of average, run-of-the-mill horror, alternating between mundane day scenes and eerie night scenes that deliver incremental creeps--like the old people doing really weird things (it must be noted that the two performers playing these roles are absolutely terrific). And of course, it wouldn't be proper without a few jump scares. In an odd choice, the film seems to cut too soon from some of the more intense moments, so it misses out on extra chances for some scare mileage. In turn, you'll probably find yourself getting antsy during the daytime scenes and just anticipate the nighttime scenes.

As expected, there is a twist here. As usual, I won't spoil it. But I will say I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't anything too elaborate to the point of being ridiculous, eye-rolling, or scoff-worthy. In fact, its simplicity might catch you off-guard if you were over-thinking things. So the twist works, and most importantly, it boosts the fright factor as the story launches into a terrifying climactic sequence that captures the dreadful feeling of being trapped and helpless. The script attempts to tack on some sentiment, but it's unnecessary here, especially because it seems phoned in.

Go into The Visit with an open mind. Endure the low points, and see how you come away after the end. If Shyamalan makes you feel a bit jumpy as you walk past an unsuspecting old person after you leave the theater, he's probably done something right.


Friday, September 11, 2015

[Review] Queen of Earth

If you like slow, talky films with dreadfully loathsome characters, then Queen of Earth is for you. Alex Ross Perry's second film within a year (following the much better Listen Up Philip) takes on a completely different tone. It still employs a similar aesthetic with it's grainy cinematography and handheld camera, but it's way more claustrophobic.

When the film opens with Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) bawling her mascara out amidst a breakup with her boyfriend, shortly after her father passed away, we know we're in for some emotional tumult.
She decides to go stay with her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) for support. Things continue to down-spiral for her mentally and physically in this grating psychological drama.

Elisabeth Moss gives a really good performance for what it is, but the character never gains our sympathy (at least not mine). Not only is she generally unlikable (the other characters can't stand her either), but she basically lies in bed the majority of the time and refuses any help or advice from Virginia (isn't that what she went there for in the first place?). She seems to be grieving more over her banal boyfriend (who is shown during flashbacks) than her deceased father. Call me callous, but I gave no fux about whatever her deal was. Maybe that is all part of the intention, but it makes for an excruciating movie experience.

The film boasts an unnerving soundtrack throughout that attempts to drench the film in a creepy and suspenseful atmosphere, but it doesn't really coincide with the actual events on screen, so it feels more melodramatic than anything, like it's just mining for nothing.

Early on, there's a conversation between Virginia and Catherine that goes as:

Virginia: "Please don't talk to me like you're superior to me or any of us."
Catherine: "Why not?"
Virginia: "Because it's dull and uninteresting."

This exchange pretty much encompasses the entire movie itself.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

[Review] Phoenix

Director Christian Petzold brings on this Hitchcockian tale set in post-World War II Germany.

Nelly (Nina Hoss) is a concentration camp survivor, but her face has been disfigured by a bullet wound, so she undergoes reconstructive surgery. During the recovery process, her head is thickly wrapped in bandages, and the imagery and mood is reminiscent of that Twilight Zone episode "The Eye of the Beholder".

After the bandage removal, she unsurprisingly emerges looking significantly different from before, but it's to the point where her former husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) doesn't even recognize her. He reveals himself to be quite a nasty fellow, so Nelly decides to keep her identity a secret as she attempts to find out if Johnny actually was the one that betrayed her to the Nazis.

The film is a little slow-moving early on, but once the mystery takes hold, this turns into an intriguingly complex tale of deception, especially as Nelly infiltrates her husband's schemes. She's hindered by dilemmas and the uncomfortable shock of the situation--her being in the presence of a man she once loved and him attempting to manipulate her without knowing who she is.

It's so excellently acted on all sides, wallowing amidst the dark and depressed streets of a ravaged nation. Nelly's face navigates in and out of the shadows, like a walking illusion--vulnerable and weary, but also with an upper hand. Even though the duration is only about 96 minutes, Phoenix will test some viewers' patience during certain stretches, but the ending is quite the "in your face!" moment.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

[Review] Creep

Ah, we've crept into September, and the Fall season is approaching, which means horror films on big scales and small scales are beginning to make their presence known. Here we have Creep, of the found footage variety. Admittedly, I'm extremely sick of found footage films (on multiple levels), but Creep utilizes the format in a way that is better than most.

A videographer answers a Craigslist ad for filming services. It's a one-day $1,000 job. He drives to the address and meets the host, Josef (Mark Duplass). Josef is a little loopy, and we learn that he has brain cancer and the prognosis isn't good. He's married and his wife is pregnant, but she's nowhere to be seen. Turns out he wants to create a video that documents his personality, so his son will be able to see who his father was. It's actually a touching setup, isn't it? But since this is a horror film, we know that things are ready to get weird... and they do. This is probably a situation where it's best to go in blindly, so I'm going to refrain from explaining further plot details.

The shaky cam still gets a bit nauseating, but at least you can see and hear everything clearly. And the format is actually compatible with the film's premise. In other words, it isn't just found footage for the sake of being found footage. There's a nice incremental build of intrigue as Josef's character unfolds and the little red flags start to pop up. However, the story loses some of its edge toward the end, and it's definitely the epitome of a 'one-and-done' viewing.

Creep more than reiterates the worries, worst fears, and dangers of meeting a stranger through Craigslist (especially if it isn't in a public setting). Mark Duplass delivers a greatly unhinged oddball performance, and the film certainly lives up to its title, to say the least.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

[Review] A Walk in the Woods

If you were to take last year's heavy hike film--the Reese Witherspoon-starring Pacific Coast Highway trek Wild, and combined it with last year's "two old men of a certain age on a journey" film Land Ho!, you basically get this year's A Walk in the Woods. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte are the buddy duo in this, and the film occupies an awkward space--in that it almost feels like an R-rated Hallmark movie.

Bill (Redford) is a successful author. The intro doesn't really indicate much about his actual character, or convey a major catalyst for why he suddenly decides he wants to embark on a 2,000+ mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. Anyway, he needs a partner, and the only bite he gets is from an old friend Stephen (Nolte) that he fell out of touch with. It's safe to say Stephen is in pretty rough shape. The two prepare and mingle for a while, but there comes a point when you just want them to get a move-on already. Once they do, there's a humorous scene where they both get winded about 5 minutes into the walk.

This is a very easygoing excursion (well, especially for us not doing the hiking) with lots of great scenery of sprawling hillsides and diverse terrain. Any bit of conflict that arises is always simply swept away, which in turn makes the film feel a little too light. A couple of introspective moments come with the territory, involving aging and how small we are in the universe. Here, we have two reunited friends that took very different paths in life, and now they're taking a literal one together.

Aside from some questionable dialogue, a rocky tone, a wasted Emma Thompson role, a semi-anticlimactic ending, and the fact that it's essentially about two men walking and talking with a few odd detours, there's no doubt that Redford and Nolte are certainly a fun duo to watch on screen, making this a mostly regret-free experience. A Walk in the Woods is by no means a flawless outing, but a lot of people will find this to be perfectly enjoyable, so don't let my rating prevent you from going. However, I can't help but think that this journey could've been a lot better on multiple fronts.


Monday, September 7, 2015

[Review] Mistress America

Mistress America is indie staple Noah Baumbach's second film of 2015. The first was the intergenerational dramedy While We're Young. Even though that was released in March (it somehow feels like ages ago), it still stands as one of the better films of the year. However, it might have just been one-upped. As While We're Young is tighter thematically, Mistress America is more consistent in its laughs, and it wears its heart on its sleeve.

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is an aspiring writer trying to navigate her freshman year of college in NYC. Her mother is on the verge of getting married to a new guy, who has a daughter named Brooke (Greta Gerwig) that is 12 years older than Tracy. Tracy decides to get in touch with Brooke, because ya' know, they're about to be stepsisters. During their first meeting, Brooke is immediately bubbly and scatterbrained. She has a plethora of various dreams, goals, and methods of employment but isn't very successful in her pursuit of any of them. Brooke is totally a larger-than-life character that will walk a thin line between annoying and endearing. Anyway, the two hit-it-off swiftly.

As expected with Baumbach's style, the film isn't heavy on plot. It's more about the characters sorting out their lives, along with some screwball antics involving a sketchy potential restaurant opening, a short story, relationship jealousy, and stolen cats. At times, it might feel like it isn't going anywhere, but there are definitely significant subtleties at work. And in the spirit of the screwball comedy--it all hits the fan at the same time and results in a lot of people riotously yelling at each other.

The dialogue here is a major bright spot, bringing constant chuckles. The rapid-fire, sporadic back & forths yield both clever and contradictory lines that reflect the insightful yet messily dysfunctional characters. The film is full of failed ambitions and rejection, and it propounds the idea sometimes we're all in the same boat (on some level) when it comes to not getting what we want. But most of all, it's a testament of friendship--as simple as that. There are a couple of emotionally bittersweet moments, and they genuinely add a welcomed boost to an already solid comedy--making it even more memorable.

The Spring/Summer months haven't been packed with many stellar comedies. Spy and Trainwreck brought some hilarity but were disjointed. Then there's Dope and Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, which contain some of the funniest moments of the yearbut they function more as genre hybrids. So, Mistress America low-key comes out as the best straight-up comedy so far, bursting onto the scene in its own way.

* 9/10 *

Friday, September 4, 2015

[Review] Turbo Kid

Straight outta New Zealand, Turbo Kid is one of the those slightly hidden gems of the year with potential cult appeal--a mini-Mad Max, if you will.

The land is drenched in desolate grays, and the world is essentially a gigantic junkyard of rusted metal and human skulls. The narrator concludes the opening with a chuckle-worthy line: "This is the year 1997." The immediate camp sets the tone when we meet The Kid (Munro Chambers) as he searches through rubble and gets attacked by a hairless rat that looks like something out of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. He befriends a chippy humanoid girl named Apple, but she is quickly captured by ravagers and taken to the hoard of a mean one-eyed villain (it's not Fetty Wap) that is hogging the water supply (Fury Road much?). The Kid then stumbles upon a Mega Man like suit that can shoot lasers, and he plans to bust up into the joint.

Turbo Kid is unabashed in its 80s B-movie aesthetic, from the melodra-cheesy acting kitsch, the over-the-top cartoony gore (blood squirts out of people's bodies like fountains of red food-colored water), and especially the lively soundtrack of robotic synths and wailing hair metal guitars. But I'll clarify--just because this contains the B-movie ticket, doesn't mean it's cheaply made or haphazardly rendered. In fact, there's wonderful attention to detail, and the film is very creative in its visual style and cinematography. It's all so enthusiastically and lovingly crafted, and you get the impression that the filmmakers had a blast making it.

So, it's only fitting that there is an immense affection for the film's characters (both protagonists and antagonists), and there is a surprising amount of heart within the story. I don't want to indicate any spoilers, but you know how things go with robots and emotions in movies sometimes. This isn't for everyone, but if it sounds like the sort of thing you'll enjoy, hop on it.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

[Review] Digging for Fire

I've expressed my indifference toward Joe Swanberg's films before. Despite having solid casts of indie regulars, and being observant character-driven takes on interpersonal relationships, the slice-of-life mumblecore aspect has made them fall on the mundane and underwhelming side. His newest boasts his most expansive cast: Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jenny Slate, Mike Birbiglia, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Melanie Lynskey, and Orlando Bloom (!). Digging for Fire is a bit more entertaining than Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas, but it's still stuck in similar territories.

Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) are a married couple with toddler living in a modern home in the Hollywood Hills. One day Tim finds a rusty revolver and a bone out in the dirt, and he's convinced there's a dead body on the property. Lee shrugs it off and wants him to drop it, but Tim is hellbent on digging up the yard. When Lee goes on a trip, it isn't long before Tim busts out the weed and invites a load of friends over for a party, and they all decide it's a good idea to dig up the yard.

It becomes clear that Lee is future-gazing, while Tim isn't ready to take on the responsibilities of a mature adult and father. The film explores their different pages and the rift in their relationship, and there are a few thoughtful convos about marriage, parenthood, getting old, and money & happiness. This isn't really uncovering any new ground, though. The main gripe is that the characters aren't very likable. I don't think Swanberg is completely focused on making the characters likable, but considering that the film itself isn't that compelling, Digging for Fire just isn't very appealing to watch.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

[Review] Z for Zachariah

Post-apocalyptic films come in many forms nowadays. There's the insane excursions like this year's Mad Max: Fury Road, intense zombie or disease outbreaks like World War Z, bleakly wrenching dramas like The Road... Then there's arthouse indies like Z for Zachariah--slow and minimal, thriving off of mood and subtle dilemmas. The film contains a buzzing cast: Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, and the highly anticipated Suicide Squad), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Oscar nominee for 12 Years A Slave), and mainstream occupier Chris Pine.

Cities are desolate, but green vegetation and wildlife still fills the horizons. Ann (Robbie) looks like she's been surviving in the woods for a long time as apparently one of the last people on Earth. One day, she befriends a very confused and paranoid man named John (Ejiofor) who stumbles onto her property. She nurses him back to health, and a beyond-platonic relationship forms. It's all pretty dandy for a while (a plodding while) until another dude (Pine) shows up and disrupts the balance.

I'll be straight up--I expected to get bored during this one, and I did get bored for the most part. Even though it's gorgeously shot and there are slight bits of intrigue, the sparse stretches between each significant turning point are just too long. This is the type of glacial tedium that prevents me from ever wanting to watch this twice, and I'm fairly certain a lot of people will feel the same.

Z for Zachariah is a partially decent study of human jealousy amidst the end of days (and also when the stunning Margot Robbie is in the picture), but it all culminates too late, and there's an inertly ambiguous payoff (or lack of a payoff) after the lengthy wait.