Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

Girls-Against-Boys-2012-Movie-PosterPerhaps it’s tempting to lean on exploitative visuals to tell certain stories or explore particular ideas. For instance, I Spit On Your Grave is now a three film “franchise”, featuring the Meir Zarchi original (1978) and two modern retellings / reimaginings. These films are known for pushing the boundaries of cinematic acceptability over the edge into blatant exploitation. The film-makers justify the exploitative imagery by pointing to the themes of the films: how else could / should the story of a woman’s violation and need for vengeance be told except explicitly? And shouldn’t the cinematic portrayal of the woman’s violation be just as explicit and vile as her cinematic acts of vengeance? Isn’t cathartic cinema valuable? And how dare the audience shy away from merely seeing such a violation when so many women actually experience similar atrocities?

Yeah, I don’t know about all that. All I know is that I’ve seen all three I Spit On Your Grave films, and I walked away from each one feeling that justice and awareness and communication weighed far less than amplified shock value in the filmmaker’s process. I could be wrong, but these films felt more pornographic – in their treatment of both violation and vengeance – than honestly cathartic.

Girls Against Boys, despite its dramatic title and provocative poster, does not rely on exploitation to explore similar issues of violation and vengeance. It’s more akin to films like Teeth and American Mary, working more in visual subtlety, relying more on the strength of the narrative and the precision of good performances, which is a far-cry from simply being “tasteful” in dealing with a delicate situation.

Girls Against Boys tells the story of Shae (Danielle Panabaker) who befriends Lu (Nicole LaLiberte) shortly after a nasty break-up and immediately before falling victim to a new possible love interest. Shae reaches out to family and friends for support, but no one proves available except Lu. And if hell truly hath no fury like a woman scorned, Lu gladly saddles up alongside Shae as fury personified. The girls quickly become a Thelma and Louise pair hell-bent on vengeance, but inevitably the vengeance reaches farther than anticipated.

On the surface (and by mere appearance), Girls Against Boys looks like a simple bad-girl-with-a-gun B-grade sleeper, but there’s some real heart to the telling of Shae’s story. Kudos to writer / director Austin Chick for rising above the possible trenches of genre trappings and avoiding simple exploitation maneuvers. He’s created, instead, a unique character study of a young woman caught a painfully dichotomous mindset. Not to mention, I never imagined the nonchalant enjoyment of Captain Crunch could be so creepy. Girls Against Boys gets a solid 3.5 geisha blades out of 5. Here’s proof again that the viewer’s imagination and sympathies are far more vicious than any camera’s eye.

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The-Call-2013-movie-posterHands,

They put Halle Berry on the poster, but The Call is totally Abigail Breslin’s movie. Little girl’s hardcore! She performed two thirds of the film in the trunk of a car and the last third strapped to a table. Even with all these confines, she made Halle Berry look like a mannequin. I guess without the pressure of being under Billy Bob, Halle Berry ain’t got much to offer. Put the Oscar winner in a trunk, yo!

Also, those first two-thirds are nail-biting awesome-sauce. I got suckered in against my will when I walked in on Abigail Breslin beating the tail-light off the car from inside the trunk. Little girl is bad ace! But it all dissolves to a ridiculously forced female superhero scenario when Halle Berry decides X-Men’s Storm ain’t enough action figure fodder for one career.

Overall, The Call gets 2.5 fully clothed Morris Chestnuts out of 5. You can skip this entirely, unless your spouse brings it home from the RedBox.

– kiki

Boys_love_laneJohn,

I’m addressing this to you because I cannot fathom for a moment that Grave or Dr. Wertnz would be much interested in an indie-flick (by Jonathan Levine, director of 50/50 and Warm Bodies) that collides a John Hughes highschool drama and an early 80s slasher-whodunnit so masterfully that I cheered at the end, spilling a sleeping pug from my lap onto the floor. Oh, and Amber Heard, before she was a lesbian or dating Johnny Depp, leads as Mandy Lane – the Amanda Jones of scream queens if Some Kind of Wonderful had been a slasher. Reasons to watch All The Boys Loved Mandy Lane keep stacking like bodies on a weekend woodland getaway!

There’s some indie-film lore surrounding this film about it making the tiny theater circuit back in 2006, then somehow landing on underground video (online or VHS, I’m not sure), and the rights were greatly debated for a spell until the director Johnathan Levine finally made name enough for himself with Warm Bodies to interest a distributor in releasing this thing to your local RedBox and BestBuy. I probably got all that wrong, having read about it in an Entertainment Weekly during a morning constitutional, the details are fuzzy at this point. What I do know is that the release of this sucker is considered a high-fiveable victory for indie-film, and film-buffs in the know were stoked. I tend to trust film-buffs in the know more than critics, and this time it worked in my favor.

This film looks and feels amazing. The music is creepy perfect, swimming all the way in-between Robert Earl Keen (who makes a cameo at a gas station) Texas country to the Go-Gos to Beethoven and back to something you’ve never heard but that fits the visual tone like a Nintendo PowerGlove that actually works. Levine choreographs a few montage scenes that lift the film above its horror genre trappings, tricking the viewer into believing this is all a sweet, Sundance coming-of-age drama rather than the kind of film where girls are slaughtered by shotguns literally shoved down their throats. The gore is good. The kill scenes are fun. And the acting is above expected par. Amber Heard is always great, even when the film sucks lobotomized brain balls (ie. John Carpenter’s The Ward).

But what makes this movie is Levine’s direction and Jacob Forman’s script. Again, Levine pitches this thing perfectly, allowing tensions to build while flinging red herrings like a Seattle fish market pro. My only complaint with the direction was Levine’s necessity to fill 90 minutes. Time swam around a few supporting characters’ existential crises, which felt laborious. Fortunately, this made the audience cheer for certain deaths all the more, so perhaps it worked afterall. Forman’s script is interesting because his characters are paper thin. However, combining the script and the direction – which shows us the majority of the story from Mandy Lane’s perspective – the viewer begins to wonder if they’re seeing the actual character or Mandy Lane’s impressions of each person. It gets a bit meta (as the kids are want to say these days), unless I’m just reading too much into it. The latter is usually the case when it comes to films like this.

Overall, I gave All The Boys Loved Mandy Lane 4 roof high swimming pool dives out of 5. This film was a pleasant surprise, convincing me all the more that the nerds know more than the critics. And since we’re nerds, that puts us on the winning side.

I heart you, John Barber, more than Keith hearts Watts, but not in a I’m-giving-you-my-future-in-the-form-of-earrings kinda way,

– kiki

1. GRAVITY – we walked into the theater thinking this was a movie about people stuck in space. we were wrong. my wife sobbed most of the film. we went with two friends and we all huddled in the lobby afterwards and declared viewing this film one of the more powerful cinematic experiences we’d ever had. IMAX 3D didn’t hurt. if sandra bullock does not win an oscar for this, i will puke on my own shoes.
2. MUD – loved this for obvious arkansan reasons. local boy. local scenery. the character of neckbone. the return of matthew mcdoucheanay. this film is perfect. PER-FECT. nichols could only improve on this film by putting it twice on one dvd.
3. FRANCES HA – this was the last film we saw on our netflix, and it was a gorgeous punctuation on a slippery chute of slothfulness. God, i loved this movie. and for multiple reasons. but the main two: one, i can’t get enough of greta gerwig. when i saw her in THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL i thought, “oh crap, i might have a new favorite.” and she owned FRANCES HA in incredible, old-school hollywood great actress ways. two, i think noah baumbach – minus his last two films – is the shit. he’s so dedgum pretentious that i can’t help but feel drastically endeared to him. i think my pretentiousness is drawn to his pretentiousness. we would coffee well together. so good. i can’t wait to see it again.
4. 12 YEARS A SLAVE – it lives up to the hype. steve mcqueen is a beast. i’ll watch anything he makes, even as soul-pulverizing as it may be. i’ve seen his other films, but this is the first one i felt comfortable recommending. there are several scenes here that make you want to recoil, record, and applaud eveything on the screen simultaneously. masterpiece.
5. THE CONJURING – yes! this blew my mind! and it’s not just a solidly amazing horror film: it’s a solidly amazing film. everything falls into place here creating a new genre classic that easily transcends the genre. with that being said, THE CONJURING did freak my shit out. i was all over my theater chair, gripping the arm rest, covering my eyes, even squealing a little bit. i love a film that makes me want a cigarette and a nap afterwards.
6. THE WAY WAY BACK – my all-time favorite cinematic genre is the coming-of-age story. and this one is near the top of my list. there’s not a lot of coming-of-age stories where the kid and the parent grow up together. but it happens here. also, i’m cuckoo for cocoa puffs for both toni collette and allison janney. they do no wrong in my book.
7. FRUITVALE STATION – the fact that this no-name filmmaker could make a feature length film, in which the entire audience already knows the ending, completely enthralling from beginning to end is a huge feat of storytelling and artistic confidence. yes, michael b. jordan killed it here. but ryan coogler’s filmmaking is what immortalized oscar grant’s story and created a prophetically day-numbering experience for audiences.
8. THIS IS THE END – it’s no secret that i dearly love seth rogen and bathe in his laughters. he’s my number one hollywood dude crush. and now that i’ve watched the first three seasons of EAST-BOUND AND DOWN, danny mcbride is a close second. with that being said, i walked into this movie with some raging nepotism. still, THIS IS THE END is honestly one of the top ten films of the year. super funny. super dorky. super dirty. and super more theologically sound than any of that LEFT BEHIND bull-shonkish. this is the apocalypse done right: with earth ending before michael cera becomes the next hugh hefner.
9. AMERICAN HUSTLE – best thing christian bale has done since AMERICAN PSYCHO. best thing amy adams has done. period. and best reality show housewife performance in a major picture by that glorious hot mess, jennifer lawrence. this movie was fucking delightful.
10. THE GREAT GATSBY – skip everything in the movie before and after gatsby. nick carroway is not that interesting and neither is baz luhrmann’s ego. but all the stuff with gatsby is golden. and the lana del rey montage of daisy and gatsby swimming and golfing and throwing shirts is reason enough for me to own the DVD. there’s plenty of crap in this picture, but luckily it’s all sandwiched on the outer edges for easy avoidance. but the stuff here that works worked better than the entirety of most films i saw this year.
WORST FILMS OF 2013: i saw a bunch of stinkers this year. but three films had me running to the ticket counter begging for a refund.
1. TRANCE – God bless danny boyle, but not even a fully cherubic rosario dawson could make this film one bit titillating.
2. SPRING BREAKERS – pointless and overly glorifying of the gluttony it hoped to demonize. and, no, i’m not getting old. this movie just sucked.
3. ELYSIUM – shamefully obvious and paper-thin. THE PURGE preached the superior “anti-1% sermon” this year.

ADMISSION – Accepted or Denied?

Posted: August 11, 2013 by barberjo in Film Reviews, John

Admission

Marketing is stupid.  In the alien world of Hollywood, a movie has to fit into a particular niche, or it gets lost. And if it doesn’t fit any of those niches? If it’s a square peg? Well dang it, we’ll shoehorn it into one style or another. And, of course, when that happens, the movie gets lost.

ADMISSION got stuck into the Romantic Comedy black hole, and it was a terrible mistake. Is it romantic? Yes. Is it funny? Yes. But it’s nothing like the stuff that the Hollywood Romantic Comedy machine machine churns out on a regular basis. It’s so, so, so much more than that.

This film centers on Tina Fey’s character Portia, an admissions counselor at Princeton. It’s her job to judge teenagers based on their resume and GPA and to determine if they’re worthy of the coveted “Accepted” check mark. “What’s the secret to getting in?” she asks. “There is no secret.” But that’s not quite true, and as the movie progresses we learn exactly what the secret is – the secret is passion. Being passionate about something is the mark of a successful applicant, and Portia learns that it’s also exactly what’s missing from her life. She’s in a boring long-term relationship with a boring guy. And, worst of all, she’s convinced herself that her life is perfect.

She meets Paul Rudd’s character, John (great name), who is all passion. He’s out of control passionate and she has no idea what to do with him. But for Portia, he’s problematic for another reason. He gives her a piece of information that shakes her the the core. And instantly, that perfect life is gone.

I don’t want to give too much plot information here. because for me, discovering these plot elements was beautiful. Not knowing from the trailers that all of these things were going to happen was great.

But here’s the thing that separates ADMISSION from the typical rom-com kinda film. This movie is about grown-ups that have to make grown-up decisions, some of which blow up in their faces. These characters do dumb things, but they do them for all the right reasons. So often in this kind of movie, characters do stupid things that real people would never do. But in ADMISSION, their cringe-worthy moments feel like things we’ve all done a million times.

I’ve got to say something about the performances as well. Tina Fey is excellent, of course… so much so that it really feels like she’s playing herself. She’s not Liz Lemon here. Her character is not a fish out of water – she’s a fish in completely comfortable water, and that’s the problem. Paul Rudd is so comfortable in this role that I found myself wondering if anyone else could have played it. It couldn’t be more in his wheelhouse. It’s perfect for him, but he’s never on autopilot. Also, Lily Tomlin and Wallace Shawn, two comedy vets, play it fairly dramatic and are great. Special kudos to Nat Wolff, who plays an auto-didactical genius  and holds his own with these giants.

Is ADMISSION perfect? No, not even close. If anything, it could be a little gutsier. It tends to try to straddle the rom-com/indie fence a little too much for me. It seems to be trying to appeal to the DATE NIGHT core audience as well as the AWAY WE GO crowd, and its identity is a little tough to nail down. That being said, I loved it. I found myself respecting the characters, which is a rare thing. At the end, Janna was crying, I was smiling, and we both loved it.

ADMISSION is about character, self-examination, motherhood, sacrifice, and messiness. It’s a film where adults have to confront being adults, and they have to figure out what that means in their own context.

ADMISSION gets four Ugandan orphans out of five. Watch it.

Non-horror hounds often asked what is the “scariest” horror film I’ve ever seen. It’s a fair question, seeing as how most horror directors do intend to scare their audiences, but the question limits the possibilities of truly good and interesting horror. Although I rarely take the time to explore this issue with inquisitors, instead naming a few horror films that freaked my stuff out (Alien, Rosemary’s Baby, High Tension, the original Night of the Living Dead), my list of favorite horror films would include several titles that wouldn’t be considered “scary”. Often, the best horror does not seek to frighten as much as it seeks to recognize and respond to the grotesque – those unpleasant and unsavory forces in nature and society and spirit most folks prefer to avoid.

american-mary-poster

American Mary is such a film. Nothing about American Mary is “scary” per se, but it is twisted and disturbingly sensual. However, far more important than any of these descriptive effects, American Mary is expertly told and masterfully acted, making it the rare horror film that places more emphasis on storytelling than overused genre tenets.

Broke and bored with med school, Mary (Katherine Isabelle, from Ginger Snaps) follows a Craigslist type ad in search of quick cash, a decision that directly rabbit holes Mary into the body modification subculture. The symbiotic relationship between Mary and her clients is almost too perfect – Mary needs money while certain extremely rich women want questionable cosmetic procedures. The women from the body mod community trust Mary because she’s young and attractive, feeling like she might understand their desire to surgically lock their beauty against the strains of time. Mary admittedly does not understand her clients’ impulses until her beauty inspires the source of her pain. At which point, Mary not only exceeds as a celebrity within the community, she also finds vengeful pleasure in practicing her new surgical interests.

I should mention at this point that American Mary‘s directors are sisters, the “Twisted Twins”, Jen and Sylvian Soska. Usually, a director’s gender would hold little to no relevance regarding their film, but, in this case, I found the storyteller’s voice as captivating as the story itself. In no way could anyone suggest that these female filmmakers shied away from the inevitable gore and brutality of Mary’s story, or even from the sensuality of certain characters. Still, I was fascinated by the directors’ visual restraint in a few key scenes, particularly in an early violent scene pitching a male instructor against Mary, favoring instead the emotional impact of Mary’s own personal and internal modifications. The Soska sisters, who make an appearance as twin clients seeking a bizarre form of physical connection, reveal in their direction a keen eye for exploring a character’s inward shifts and motivations. For instance, after her attack and her departure from med school, Mary’s physical beauty and sexuality becomes most evident in her more monstrous moments. The Soska sisters seem to suggest through Mary that misogynist acts have the potential to restructure the core trajectory of a woman’s life as well as her self-image.

Of course I enjoy a horror film with good scares, but what I love most in films – from any genre – are well-told stories with good characters played by strong actors. With this criteria, I give American Mary 3.5 Betty Boop facials out of 5. The Soska sisters are still young, and the film, not surprisingly, feels a bit sophomoric at times. Regardless, at its heart, American Mary is as pure and honest as a grotesque film be.

My thinking towards film recently shifted. Or, perhaps I should say, my approach to selecting films – either to purchase or view – has become less about genres or performers and much more about directors or producers. John Hughes and Judd Apatow are primarily responsible for such focus, as well as Sophia Coppola and Quentin Tarantino. But, to a slightly lesser degree, a few of my favorite horror filmmakers – Lucky McKee, Ti West, Rob Zombie, Alexandre Aja, Craven and Carpenter and Hooper – also piqued my interest in the stories filmmakers tell.

Two filmmakers I hope soon to explore are Nora Ephron and Noah Baumbach. Long ago, before film became more than a way to pass time with friends or to help endure a bad case of strep throat, I somehow managed to watch all of Ephron’s films, but I do not remember them as well as I’d like. And I’ve never seen a single title by Baumbach. As geeky as it sounds, I’d like to systematically work through Ephron and Baumbach’s filmographies this summer, piecing together an overarching narrative from the various stories they each told in film. I do not expect the connecting lines to be neat, but with a careful eye some sort of connection will surely come into focus between titles.

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For instance, today I watched two films by the Farrelly brothers: The Heartbreak Kid (2007) and Hall Pass (2011). I did not intend to commit myself to a double-feature. But one film seemed to so seamlessly bleed into the other that I really had no choice.

If you’re not familiar, the Farrelly brothers’ The Heartbreak Kid is a remake of Elaine May’s 1972 comedy of the same title featuring a young Cybil Shepherd. In the Farrelly remake, a nearly middle aged bachelor named Eddie Cantrow (Ben Stiller) finally takes the marital plunge when he meets the irresistibly beautiful and charming Lila (Malin Akerman). Ironically, Cantrow’s fears of marriage quickly manifest when Lila “flips a switch” almost immediately at their wedding, becoming less than appealing with every new secret revealed. Matters only complicate further when, on his honeymoon, Eddie meets the irresistibly beautiful and charming Miranda (Michelle Monaghan). New sparks fly, hilarity ensures (thanks mostly to Rob Corddry and Danny McBride), and the awkwardness is deliciously unavoidable. The Heartbreak Kid received massively polarized reviews on Netflix, and I fall into the thumbs-up camp on this one. Though not a classic like the Farrelly’s Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary, The Heartbreak Kid was super funny and I greatly preferred Akerman to Diaz – not a tough comparison to make when Akerman’s on screen with Stiller. I give The Heartbreak Kid 3.5 bush rings out of 5.

But the story in The Heartbreak Kid is typically anti-marriage. Love wins in the end, but commitment is the anchor holding back boats from greater adventure. And this is why, immediately after The Heartbreak Kid, I launched into Hall Pass: the former commenting on relationships before and at the beginning of marriage, the latter a decade or more into the wear and tear of marriage.

Hall Pass (2011) tells the highly predictable story of two husbands (Jason Sudekis and Owen Wilson) given a week long hall pass away from the boundaries of marriage by their wives (Christina Applegate and Jenna Fischer). Of course, as we expect, the husbands fall apart, the wives somewhat thrive, but both parties soon realize their truest love for their spouses, at which point – three minutes before final credits – they gleefully and willingly return to routines of children and responsibilities and familiar sex. It’s slightly funny, kinda dirty, but never bodacious enough to push real buttons or convince viewers that either of these marriages are remotely in danger. Still, Stephen Merchant and Richard Jenkins offer supporting roles and make the entire film worth the effort. I give Hall Pass 2 exploding thongs out of 5.

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I would never expect filmmakers to hold or express a congruent view of something as socially arbitrary as marriage over the course of four years, but you gotta wonder what the hell these Farrelly brothers were thinking: The Heartbreak Kid suggests that marriage is the death of adventure and surprise and romance, while Hall Pass claims that men desperately need to find good wives and commit to good marriages in order to save themselves from their own innate immaturity and emptiness. In both films, men are greatly broken creatures. However, in the former film, woman breaks man further while in the latter woman offers man’s salvation. You have to wonder after looking at both films, WT-and-F?

I’m not sure exactly what we as viewers should take away from the marital dichotomy in these two very opposite films, or if we should take anything at all – other than a few good one-liners. But it’s this confused commentary, whether intentional or not, that I find interesting. And it’s these consistencies and inconsistencies that I’m anxious to look for in the films of Baumbach and Ephron. It’s funny when looking at the landscape of just these four filmmakers – the Farrelly brothers, Noah Baumbach, Nora Ephron – they’re all telling something of the same story: mankind both requires and wrestles with love. How that love is portrayed or delivered changes per story and storyteller’s hand, but the stories from these tellers always point back that same theme of requiring and wrestling love. And I’ve reached the place, as a movie lover and film geek, where that line of connection and disconnection now fascinates me even more than the films themselves.